Working with the Deaf

Alexander Graham Bell was a pioneer in the field of deaf education. Both his father and grandfather were elocutionists; both his mother and wife were profoundly deaf.  His relentless advocacy for the deaf was a theme in his life that never wavered.

His father, Melville Bell had devised what he called Visible Speech, a system of symbols to aid people in speaking words in any language even if they had not heard it. By 1864, he had created a chart of symbols that he claimed corresponded to all sounds a human could potentially make. This enabled deaf students to be trained to move their tongues in certain positions and follow the chart to produce sounds. These symbols were arranged in a pattern that flowed like a sentence; students would follow these symbols to produce sounds, even if they were not completely intelligible. “Visible Speech,” was used at a London private school for deaf children run by Susanna E. Hull. When she requested help, Melville sent his son, Alexander, to teach the system he had learned from his father.

“Bell often recollected that his greatest contribution was not the invention of the telephone, but his work in behalf of oral education. He liked to say that he was foremost a teacher of deaf children, as his father was. His enormous influence on deaf education can be traced in the trajectory of oralism and the rise of day schools. By the early twentieth century, oral methods dominated deaf education in the United States. It was a remarkable transformation, since oralism was not seriously considered in the mid-nineteenth century.” — Disability History Museum

In 1870, yet another School for the Deaf in Boston desired the integration of Visible Speech. Once again, Alexander was deployed to assist. In the fall of 1872, Bell returned to Boston and opened his own private school to teach articulation to deaf people. It was here he was to meet his future wife, a young deaf woman named Mabel Hubbard, the daughter of Gardiner Greene Hubbard, a prominent Boston attorney and President of Clarke School.

By this time, Bell had largely abandoned Visible Speech and embarked on his own methods of teaching speech and lip reading to deaf children. Bell believed that these oral skills were essential to deaf Americans’ social integration and to their personal and professional advancement.

Bell ultimately became the first President of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf (AAPTSD).