Katie Booth claimed in a recent NPR interview that Bell tried to kill sign language by promoting Oralism and that, “Before [Bell] came on the scene, deaf education was delivered through sign language.” But there is a large number of sources on the history of the deaf that contradicts this claim, with much of it available online at the Library of Congress or Google Books.
The Oral method originated in Germany in the 1820s in Berlin, Saxony, Westphalia, and Prussia, and spread around the world and the U.S. long before Bell’s involvement – even before he was born.
“The eye of the deaf-mute takes the place of the ear,” wrote a leading theorist, Dr. Johann Baptist Graser of Bavaria, in 1821. “You simply have to speak to him slowly and distinctly; he will learn to understand the motion of the lips, and will reproduce the sounds by imitating the movements made by the lips and other vocal organs of the teacher. Thus, without any difficulty, he learns to talk and to understand others, and can pursue his education in the common schools.”
By 1881, a survey found that the nearly 100 schools in Germany with 6,000 deaf students were employing the Oral method. None used sign language. That year, leading deaf educators from around the world gathered at Milan to discuss various methods of teaching the deaf, and voted 160 to 4 to recommend that teachers use the oral method. Bell did not even attend the Milan conference.
The preference for Oralism at the time was nearly universal, and that had little to do with Bell.
Only a few schools in the U.S. (Hartford and Rochester primarily) taught a rudimentary version of the De L’Epee sign language which that later became ASL, while about 60 schools used the Oral method. This reflected the consensus of teachers at the time, based on experience, not a philosophy dictated by Bell.