5 Ways Alexander Graham Bell Impacted the Deaf Community

Deaf Community Alexander Graham Bell

Bell is best known for inventing the telephone, but how much do you know about Alexander Graham Bell’s positive impact on the deaf community? 

When most people think of Alexander Graham Bell, they think of the telephone. But many people don’t know about Alexander Graham Bell’s powerful dedication to the deaf community. In fact, he was one of the earliest pioneers of deaf inclusion and education. 

You may be wondering – was Alexander Graham Bell deaf? After all, he invested so much time and energy into the deaf community. While Bell didn’t suffer from hearing loss, both his mother and his wife were deaf for most of their lives. 

Bell devoted his entire life to empowering deaf adults and children with the gift of education. Of the many ways Alexander Graham Bell influenced the deaf community during his life, here are five of our favorites. 

1. Bell Taught Sign Language & Visible Speech to the Deaf Community

Alexander Graham Bell’s father developed an early phonetic alphabet called visible speech. He was a highly-regarded teacher of speech and elocution. He aimed to supplement existing communication styles with a system of symbols that represent sounds that humans are capable of making. 

The pair gave demonstrations at schools and universities, and their results were impressive. 

Alexander expanded upon his father’s work by developing his own system of visible speech. He used a device called a “spectrogram,” which showed users a visual representation of frequency, intensity, and cadence. In this way, Alexander Graham Bell offered his students in the deaf community a way to recreate speech more accurately. 

While some people mistakenly believe that Bell did not support the use of sign language, the reality is that he was a proponent of all means of communication that benefited the deaf and hard of hearing. In fact, it was not until the mid-20th Century that there was any type of standardized sign language in the United States like today’s American Sign Language (ASL). 

2. Bell Was a Talented Teacher of Deaf Children 

His exceptional understanding of human physiology and experience working with the deaf community made Alexander Graham Bell both technically skilled and powerfully compassionate. In addition, his talent gained him a reputation as an innovative and gifted teacher of deaf children. 

Alexander Graham Bell taught sign language, lip-reading, speaking skills, and speech therapy without discrimination. He used visible speech and his extensive knowledge of how humans produce sound to teach students oral skills. 

One important distinction to note is that signing in Bell’s day and age looked quite different from the way we picture sign language today. For Bell, signing meant time-consuming finger spelling rather than the more fluid singing seen in today’s ASL. 

In his own words, Bell explains, “In my preference, oral methods come first; the manual alphabet method second; and the sign-language method last; but my heart is with the teachers of the deaf whatever their method may be.”

Long before he began his work as an inventor, he worked as a teacher of the deaf. He believed that teaching oral skills to those with hearing loss would empower them to achieve independence and social integration. 

Driven by genuine commitment, Alexander Graham Bell even taught deaf adult men free of charge in the evenings. 

3. Bell Invented the Phonautograph to Assist the Deaf Community

In addition to his pursuit of broadening educational opportunities for the deaf, Alexander Graham Bell was interested in developing technology to assist the deaf community. 

One of his inventions was called the “the ear phonautograph.” It was an innovative device that allowed the deaf to “see” different aspects of spoken language. For example, a person could speak into the machine, and a pen attached to a membrane would react by tracing a line. 

Bell’s idea was that he could speak into it, and when his pupil mimicked him, they could compare the lines and help the deaf improve their pronunciation. In addition, visible speech symbols helped students see the formation of words, and the ear phonautograph helped them learn to adjust tone, pitch, and intonation.

4. Bell Founded an Advocacy Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Alexander Graham Bell created the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf (AAPTSD) in 1890. The mission of the AAPTSD had initially been to promote inclusivity in deaf education. 

Over time, the organization shifted to a broader focus. It changed its name to the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, or AG Bell. Today, AG Bell offers education and funding and supports public policy that empowers the deaf and hard of hearing community. 

5. Bell Was a Lifelong Advocate of the Deaf Community 

Alexander Graham Bell’s legacy is usually associated with the telephone, but it’s his passionate advocacy for the deaf community that defines his legacy best. 

As an inventor, much of his work focused on technology to help advance equitable education of the deaf. When he became a household name, Alexander Graham Bell used his platform to continue his pursuit as a teacher and advocate of the deaf community.

Much has changed in the century since Alexander Graham Bell became one of the most influential inventors of our time. Progress in education, technology, and accommodations for the deaf have advanced the causes that Alexander Graham Bell championed in the nineteenth century. 

It’s impossible to think of the telephone without thinking of Alexander Graham Bell. Similarly, one can’t think of Alexander Graham Bell without considering his contributions as an advocate for the deaf community. 

To learn more about the life of Alexander Graham Bell, check out more articles here.