Did Bell Discourage the Use of Sign Language?

No. Long before Bell was an inventor, he was a noted teacher of the deaf.

Bell taught sign language as a young teacher of the deaf, and sometimes signed with his mother and later with his wife Mabel, who were both deaf. However, in Bell’s lifetime signing was not the sophisticated and complete language that American Sign Language is today. In Bell’s era most people signed using time-consuming “fingerspelling” with an alphabet glove, spelling out words one letter at a time.

Throughout his lifetime, Bell worked to ensure that the deaf and those with hearing impairments were fully integrated into society. To achieve complete assimilation in society, Bell encouraged speech therapy and lip reading over signing as much as possible
In an 1898 paper titled The Question of Sign-Language and The Utility of Signs in the Instruction of the Deaf, Bell said: “I believe in the use of natural actions and natural gestures, as hearing people employ them, not in any other way. I believe it to be a mistake to employ gestures in place of words; and natural pantomime, or sign-language of any sort, should not, I think, be used as a means of communication. I do not object to manual alphabets of any kind in the earlier stages of instruction.”

“I prefer the pure oral method to any other, but I would rather have a deaf child taught through De l’Epee signs than not educated at al
l,” he said, referring to an early form of sign language developed in France.

Bell goes on to say that “I do not approve of continuing the manual alphabet method throughout the whole school life of the pupil, but look upon it only as a means to an end. The oral method should, I think, be used in the higher grades; and speech-reading be substituted for the manual alphabet after familiarity with the English language, and a good vocabulary, have been gained. 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.”

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