bell actually did quite a lot for the deaf and hearing-impaired. his own mother was deaf, and taught him the standard finger alphabet. his father went a step further and taught him something called visible speech. this was actually meant to show bell how to enunciate words properly, but later on bell used this technique to teach speaking at the boston school for deaf mutes, as well as the clarke school, where his future wife was a student.

bell invented the audiometer, a device to test hearing using different levels in sound intensity, in 1879. today those differences are known as "decibels."

he helped found the american association for the promotion of teaching of speech to the deaf in 1890; after his death this became the alexander graham bell association for the deaf.

bell's influence in the world of the hearing-impaired is made most obvious when one considers that the number of deaf children taught to speak rose from 40% to 80% during his life.

gleaned from "person-to-person," a brochure out of the chazy & westport telephone company office
Bell is a controversial figure in the history of deaf education. ansate's writeup above mentions that "the number of deaf children taught to speak rose from 40% to 80% during his life." It fails to mention that many people, particularly Deaf people, feel this is not a laudable achievement, but rather evidence of the oppressive attitude common amongst hearing people at that time.

Many deaf people hold a major grudge against Bell. Although his mother was deaf, as was his wife, he was convinced that learning to speak and lip-read was the only way for deaf people to succeed in society. He felt that sign language was an impediment to learning those "proper" communication methods. He supported a law (which was never passed) that would prevent deaf people from marrying each other, in hopes of preventing future cases of congenital deafness.

Because of these beliefs -- which were, quite frankly, rather common at the time -- Bell is often an object of scorn in the d/Deaf community. A dormitory at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology was once named after Bell, but in 2009 students successfully petitioned to have his name removed from the building -- this, after the Alexander Graham Bell Association criticized a Coca-Cola Super Bowl ad for portraying use of American Sign Language as normal. The AG Bell Association to this day supports teaching deaf students to speak and read lips (although I believe that they are not hostile to sign language).

While Bell's attitudes seem oppressive today, and they are by our standards, his involvement in deaf issues gave them a much higher profile than they'd have had without his influence. Some people feel that Bell's commitment to helping deaf people would lead him to more tolerant and flexible views were he alive today. With the new information available to us now (such as the fact that American Sign Language is a full and complete language), and new technologies that allow deaf people to interact more readily with hearing people, Bell very well might have been one of the d/Deaf community's staunchest advocates.

Updated August 2011

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