Monday Series: “In the Guise of a Friend” II

“My friends, it is not true:” Isolation & Marriage Restrictions

For years Bell served as the recognized leader of those who opposed the use of sign language in teaching. While he acknowledged the aesthetical beauty of sign language, Bell argued it was the easiest means for communication among deaf children and made them too lazy to learn proper English.[1] Not only was sign language unsuited for integration, but it was a “prison intellectually as well as socially…because it was ideographic rather than phonetic, limited in precision, flexibility, subtlety, and power of abstraction.”[2] Bell writes:

The deaf-mutes think in the gesture language, and English is apt to remain a foreign tongue. They can communicate with hearing people by writing, but they often write in broken English, as a foreigner would speak. They think in gestures, and often translate into written English with the idioms of the sign language. The constant practice of the sign language interferes with the mastery of the English language, and it is to be feared that comparatively few of the congenitally deaf are able to read books understandingly unless couched in simple language…This is another element in forcing them into each other’s society.[3]

To teach the deaf the mastery of the English language and thus remove them from segregation, Bell modelled his work upon his father’s success with Visible Speech as a normalizing technique for the deaf.[4] Much of Bell’s educational endeavours at the American Asylum, New York, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois Institutions yielded the conclusion that with Visible Speech, proper assimilation and social development in deaf children would not be accomplished unless they were also isolated from each other to prevent communication by sign language.[5]

The rising emergence of deaf culture and its isolation from society was an accidental result of what Davis calls “ideological apparatuses:” significant changes that propelled the further propagation of deaf culture through institutions, newspapers, language, and associations.[6] Bell argued these ideological apparatuses also propagated the rise of “a deaf variety” of the human race through a continuous selection of intermarriages between the deaf. In isolating themselves within the comfort of their own community, the deaf thus isolated themselves from the rest of society.  In Memoir, Bell gathered statistical data from his work on the United States Census Report of 1880 and his genealogical studies at Martha’s Vineyard to analyze the rate of intermarriages between the deaf in a variety of institutions for the deaf.[7] According to Bell, an examination of these records revealed that the percentage of deaf-deaf marriages rose steadily over the years: deaf-deaf marriages consisted of 56% of total marriages of the deaf in 1810, 81% in 1839, and 92% in 1860.[8] He conceded that“[f]or the last fifty years there has been some selective influence at work which has caused, and is still causing, the continuous selection of the deaf by the deaf in marriage”[9] and “the percentage of deaf-hearing marriages is entirely insignificant now.”[10] To reduce the preference of intermarriage among the deaf and reduce the likelihood of a “deaf variety”, Bell advocated four preventive measures: eliminate residential schools, suppress sign language, prohibit deaf teachers for the deaf, and outlaw deaf intermarriage.

Bell’s conceptualization of the deaf requiring preventive measures was tied to his belief that the public conception of the deaf as “disabled” and as “social ills” required tremendous shifting. These measures provided a faultless solution to integrate the deaf into hearing society and spare them the erroneous fallacies of “ignorant minds.”[11] While Foucauldian notions of disability construct the body as socially driven and propelled by economic and social factors, the perception of the “disabled body” can be seen as a part of larger and more general projects to control and regulate the body.[12] Controlling the body through regulation of the “disability of deafness” proved to be difficult, since deafness is a cultural construction whose meaning changes consistently. As its meaning changes, so does its context for normalization.[13] While the deaf community disparaged the stigma of being born deaf, as well as the construction of deafness as a medical condition requiring “correction,” hearing men of influential positions saw the “helpless nature” of the deaf requiring social intervention. Bell was no exception to this view, as he believed that not only was deaf community’s self-imposed isolation a threat for the human race, but also that the deaf could essentially improve themselves by normalizing themselves. In order to normalize, Bell urge the deaf to forgo the attractiveness of deaf culture and integrate themselves into hearing society; by isolating themselves from each other, Bell assured the deaf their social status would considerably improve.

For Bell, the two forms of isolation justified his advances for normalization, which could equally be achieved through oralism and the propagation of deaf-hearing marriages. Unsurprisingly, Bell’s conclusions antagonized the deaf community by implying they were forerunners of an inferior species and implying that the “deaf variety” was a direct result of the deaf community’s self-imposed isolation. Teachers of the deaf doubted the validity of Bell’s statistics, arguing that they were atrociously exaggerated.[14] Members of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) also fiercely rallied against Bell’s paternalistic conclusions, especially the last of his preventive measures. Bruce claims that Bell doubtless aimed to dramatize “a dangerous trend by projecting it to extremity, but instead came near reducing it to absurdity.”[15] The deaf community saw nothing wrong with being deaf and having deaf children and they also resented Bell’s construction of deafness as a “defect” in an otherwise normal individual. Despite Bell’s well-founded intentions, his conclusions constructed the deaf as second-class citizens.[16]

Continue to Part III 


[1] Bruce, Bell, p.383.

[2] H. Lane, “A Chronology of the Repression of Sign Language in France and the United States,” in Recent Perspectives on American Sign Language, eds. H. Lane and F. Grosjean (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1989), p.149.

[3] Bell, Memoir, p.42.

[4] As outlined in Alexander Melville Bell’s Visible Speech: The Science of Universal Alphabetics (London: Simpkin, Marshall and Co., 1867), Visible Speech is a phonetic system composed of symbols that represent movements of the throat, tongue and lips to produce the natural sounds of the English language. It was eventually popularized in residential deaf institutions and is the evolutionary forbearer of Alexander Graham Bell’s system of oralism which merged Visible Speech and lip-reading to teach the deaf how to speak.

[5] O. Wrigley, The Politics of Deafness (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1996), p.30.

[6] Davis, Enforcing Normalcy, p.81. Davis also diligently observes that Bell’s advice for restricting the influence of these ideological apparatuses “are reminiscent of the measures frequently implemented by colonial powers seeking to dismantle the culture of a nonnational or indigenous people” (p.81).

[7] The Massachusetts State Board of Health employed Bell in 1878 to gather statistics on inherited defects in order to understand the laws of heredity. Bell’s report provided the scientific base for Memoir. W.D. Stansfield, “The Bell Family Legacies,” Journal of Heredity 96.1 (2005): 1.

[8] Bell, Memoir, p.20. Nora Ellen Groce provides a fantastic analysis of Bell’s research and intentions at Martha’s Vineyard in her book, Everyone here spoke sign language: hereditary deafness at Martha’s Vineyard (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985). She argues that Bell’s demographic sample for his statistics was probably skewed, as Bell worked from within the deaf community and had less contact with deaf people in other parts of America who were not part of a recognized deaf community or deaf culture, or who were not confined in (residential) institutions for the deaf. Groce also explains that since the laws of Mendelian heredity had not yet been popularized, Bell was puzzled about the 1-in-4 incidence of deafness in families at Martha’s Vineyard; though Bell could not explain the aberration, he recognized that heredity played some role.

[9] Bell, Memoir, p.4.

[10] Bell, Memoir, p.21.

[11] Bell, Memoir, p.45. Bell also describes the story of a deaf-mute who was shot dead in Alabama in 1857 by a man who was alarmed by his gestures to demonstrate how such fallacies of the deaf need to be seriously revised. He published much of his suggestions for correcting common erroneous perceptions of the deaf in “Fallacies Concerning the Deaf,” American Annals of the Deaf 29 (January 1884): 32-60.

[12] Davis, Enforcing Normalcy, p.3

[13] J. Branson and D. Miller, Damned for their Difference: The Cultural Construction of Deaf People as Disabled (Washington D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2002), p.216.

[14] Haller, Eugenics, p.32.

[15] Bruce, Bell, p.410.

[16] Sue H. Mitchell, “The Haunting Influence of Alexander Graham Bell,” American Annals of the Deaf 116 (June 1971): 356.


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