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

Conclusions: A Debt to Alexander the Aggressor?

The deaf community was never at ease with Bell’s eugenics attempts for normalization. When the ABA’s Committee on Eugenics drafted a bill limiting marriage between “undesirables,” the deaf fought back. At his presidential address to the National Association of the Deaf, George Veditz declared that “[i]t is evident that the one person upon whom we must cast the odium of having hated the deaf into this category is Dr. Bell, whom his wealth has rendered the most powerful, and his hobby-ridding propensity the most subtle, because he comes in the guise of a friend.”[1] Yet as John Tabak points out, it is important to acknowledge that the history of the deaf relationship with eugenics is extremely complicated. While many writers describe the deaf as staunch opponents to the eugenics movement, Tabak argues that deaf organizations, especially the NAD, did not oppose eugenics in principle. The NAD was often supportive of arguments for restricting the reproductive rights of the “degenerates,” but their “objections to eugenics arose when [they] found the Deaf included with those same classes. The Deaf, [they] argued, were different.”[2] What the NAD did object to was the paternalistic inclinations from hearing men in influential positions.

Even Bell recognized the differences. He assumed by educating the deaf of the consequences of deaf intermarriages and promoting scientific validation for oralism, he could aggressively protect the deaf community from the same fate that befell other social groups targeted by eugenicists. Eugenics gave Bell a powerful tool for persuading the deaf towards normalization. The deaf were different because they could normalize, and thus, they should normalize. While Bell underestimated the deaf community’s devotion to their own culture, he also failed to grasp that the deaf would intermarry whether or not they used sign language or spoke English. Additionally, as Harlan Lane points out, eugenics measures such as sterilization, social diffusion, or even legislation on marriages would be ineffective, since due to the unpredictable nature of hereditary deafness, the number of deaf children would not seriously decline.[3]

Bell’s work on eugenics and oralism demonstrates how important it is to understand the complex relationship between scientific research and social policy. The potent forces of an ideologically-driven science are powerful enough to drastically influence social attitudes towards a social group, especially a marginalized one. Whether historians of deaf history or historians of eugenics view Bell’s role in the eugenics movement as an active or passive one, Bell nevertheless played a significant role in shaping both the social perception of deafness and the need for normalization within the deaf community. Yet Bell’s arguments on deaf intermarriage was shaped largely in response to the construction of deaf people, and his views adeptly transformed as from his nineteenth century fears about a “deaf variety,” to his twentieth century scientific inclination for normalizing the deaf through oralism and integration. Bell may have neverthless shielded the deaf from the extreme measures of negative eugenics, but he did so in a way that urged for the dissemination of the deaf community; for this, he was vilified.

[1] Veditz, quoted in Lane, “A Chronology of the Repression of Sign Language,” p.150.

[2] J. Tabak, Significant Gestures: A History of American Sign Language, (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006), p.84.

[3] Lane, “Do Deaf People have a Disability?” p.287.


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