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

Although most deaf people rejected oralism and other threads of Bell’s argument, they did not control the schools or the institutions imposed upon them, and thus were helpless to the paternalistic advances made upon them.[1] The deaf were taught integration and “social training” with oralism were socially desirable goods that paved the path towards normalization. As Owen Wrigley explains, through this view, not only was society protected from the “contaminant” of deafness, but the deaf were given “the “opportunity” to improve themselves” and render themselves as “normal.”[2] A large portion of the deaf community did not accept such measures passively. Writers furiously opposed Bell in periodicals and newspapers, and some even grossly took Bell’s arguments in Memoir out of context, quoting him as favouring legislation against deaf intermarriage when Bell admitted he raised the point to strike it down. Even the attempts of Edward A. Fay (1869-1952), professor of languages at the National College and editor of the American Annals of the Deaf, were futile in clarifying Bell’s views. Fay provided a running sign language translation of Bell’s arguments and published corrections of various misquotes; yet vestiges of the original misquote on Bell’s stance on marriage legislation persisted. Yet vestiges of the misquotes persisted for years. In 1889, Bell and Fay sought to solidify Bell’s arguments and statistics as laid out in Memoir, by compiling an extensive demographic and statistical study to be undertaken by Fay. With financial support from Bell’s Volta Bureau, Fay’s conclusions in An Inquiry Concerning the Results of Marriage of the Deaf in America (1895) agreed with Bell’s Memoir and supported the notion of hereditary deafness as a threat inflicting America. [3]

In 1891, Bell directly addressed the deaf community to correct misunderstood perceptions of his arguments. Speaking to the Literary Society of the National College of Deaf-Mutes in Washington, D.C., Bell’s response to the charge that he advocated legislative restrictions on deaf intermarriage was thus:  “my friends, it is not true…I want you to distinctly understand that I have no intention of interfering with your liberty or marriage. You can marry whom you choose, and I hope you will be happy. It is not for me to blame you for marrying to suit yourself; for you all know that I myself, the son of a deaf mother, have married a deaf wife.”[4] As in Memoir, Bell explains to his audience that the possibility of legislative interference with deaf intermarriages was raised only as a means for reducing the probabilities of the production of deaf offspring “to a minimum.” However, being a man of principles, Bbell recognized that such prohibitions would interfere with the constitutional right to happiness and would not cease sexual relations among deaf couples, leading only to an increase in illegitimate children. Instead, Bell proposed that in “order to justify the passage of such an act…the results of intermarriage…should be fully investigated than is possible at the present time on account of limited data.”[5] Only further research could shed light into the social consequences of deaf intermarriages.

While many perceived Bell’s arguments as a ruthless attack on deaf-deaf marriages, Greenwald asserts there were others who have interpreted Bell’s polemical document as the recognition of the right of deaf people to marry, for it clearly identifies factors that contributed and caused the growth of deaf culture.[6] I agree with Greenwald’s point, for Bell raises these factors in order to analyze the necessity for isolating the deaf from each other, and thus properly integrate them into society. Bell did not support the outright prohibition of intermarriage among deaf people, or any legislation attempting to reinforce it. Instead, recognizing the importance of education, Bell used his statistical studies in conjunction with Fay’s, to provide evidential proof for their counsel for the deaf against intermarriages; he wanted deaf couples to fully weight the data and recognize the implications of their decisions for society and urged them to consider deaf-hearing marriages as an alternative. What Bell really wanted to show was the option available for the deaf that could not otherwise been apparent from within the self-imposed isolation of the deaf community. Education, counsel and the need for further research were always Bell’s aim and he continuously declared his perspective throughout the Memoir:  “lead to the completion of the statistics;”[7] “publish fuller information;”[8] “segregation for the purposes of education;”[9] “coeducation with hearing children,”[10] and so forth.

Bell was inclined to argue that education was necessary for proper normalization, as it made aware to the resistant deaf community the severe implications of deaf intermarriages. Bell’s 1891 address was his last direct address to the deaf community. Controversy against his views on deaf intermarriage continued to follow him well into the twentieth century despite his insistence that his arguments were misunderstood. In a 1908 letter to J.L. Smith of The Volta Review, the periodical of Bell’s Volta Bureau, Bell writes of his frustration with the accusations against him, maintaining that he has “always deprecated legislative interference with the marriages of the deaf.”[11] Nevertheless, Bell’s work on hereditary deafness and eugenics continued as he examined his statistics through breeding experiments on sheep and white cats. As eugenicists relied on Bell’s Memoir as evidence of the hereditary threats imposing upon society, it is necessary to further examine Bell’s views on eugenics, as well as whether his views during the early twentieth century for implementing eugenics measures upon the deaf differed from those published in the Memoir.



[1] D. Baynton, “‘A Silent Exile on this Earth:’ The Metaphorical Construction of Deafness in the Nineteenth Century,” American Quarterly 44.2 (June 1992): 216-243.

[2] Wrigley, The Politics of Deafness, p.140.

[3] Bell’s Volta Bureau was established with the funds he received from the French Alessandro Volta prize in recognition of his invention of the telephone.  The Volta Bureau served as the base for much of bell’s research on hereditary deafness, oralism, and later, eugenics. While Fay relied on Bell’s generosity for his own demographic study, he Fay was not in agreement with all of Bell’s views. As a hearing individual employed at a deaf institution, Fay supported the right of the deaf to be educated with sign language. J.V. Van Cleve and B.A. Crouch, A Place of their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America (Washington, D.C. Gallaudet University Press, 1989), p.73.

[4] A.G. Bell, “Marriage.” An address delivered to the Literary Society of Kendall Green, Washington D.C., March 6, 1891. Reprinted in Science 17.424 (Mar. 20, 1891): 160.

[5] Bell, Memoir, p.45.

[6] B.H. Greenwald, “The Real ‘Toll’ of A.G. Bell: Lessons about Eugenics,” in Genetics, Disability and Deafness, ed. John Vickery Van Cleve (Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 2004), p.36. Furthermore, Greenwald argues that the misguided belief that Bell advocated the sterilization of deaf people has generated outrange and distracted people from a far more threatening impact to the deaf community, that is, Bell’s staunch support of oralism. For Greenwald, Bell’s oralism was far more dangerous to the deaf community than mere ideas of the possibility of sterilization.

[7] Bell, Memoir, p.4.

[8] Bell, Memoir, p.18.

[9] Bell, Memoir, p.46.

[10] Bell, Memoir, p.46.

[11] Quoted in Lang, Silence of the Spheres, p.83.



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