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CBC cancels Alexander Graham Bell for teaching deaf kids how to communicate

A CBC article published Sunday accuses Alexander Graham Bell of trying to "assimilate" deaf kids by teaching oralism, which looks to teach deaf people to communicate with lip-reading and speaking rather than sign language.

Hannah Nightingale Washington DC

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) published an article on Sunday accusing Alexander Graham Bell of trying to "assimilate" deaf kids by teaching oralism, a method which looks to teach deaf people to communicate with lip-reading and speaking rather than sign language.

Author Katie Booth, who grew up in what she calls a "mixed hearing/deaf family" but has normal hearing herself, wrote about the trauma many deaf people still carry today from Bell's teachings in her book The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power and Alexander Graham Bell's Quest to End Deafness.

"I can't even begin to express the deep, deep, deep trauma that so many deaf people still carry from those educations," said Booth.

Critics say that the harmful ripple effect of oralism teachings exist in the deaf community to this day, with not all deaf people possessing the ability to learn spoken language. They argue that some deaf people are being left behind in a hearing society.

Alexander Graham Bell, the famous creator of the telephone, used the earnings from his invention to focus on the education of deaf people, of which he had experience with through his mother who had become deaf later in her life.

"I think Bell saw the way she was able to operate in the world. And just first of all assumed all deaf people should be able to do that. And I think maybe he glamorized it a little," Booth said.

Bell taught at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes a speech method he developed called visible speech, which had its' bases in a phonetic alphabet representation created by his father.

"He would start by just teaching them about their mouths: This is your tongue. This is your soft palate. This is how you say 'puh,'' said Booth. "He basically sought to make all of these invisible sounds visible, or felt in some way."

"The goal was that deaf people could move through the hearing world without anyone knowing they were deaf. And by doing that, ideally, they would be able to have access to all sorts of hearing privilege," Booth continued. "Of course, today we would call that assimilation."

The great-great-grandson of Bell, Jim Grosvenor Watson, who works as an auditory-verbal therapist in the field of deaf education, slammed Booth for "cherry picking" facts from historical documents to back circulating theories on Bell.

"What she's done in this book is she's created a portrait of somebody that's based on all of these opinions that are based on myths that have been propagated by the deaf community that are not true," Watson told CBC Radio.

Watson advocated for the success of those that learned spoken language with the aid of cochlear implants, which are implanted into the inner ear and require extensive training to interpret spoken language.

The group that used the implants and learned spoken language "had not only greater speech recognition and skill with spoken language, but also reading, compared to the group who solely used sign language," he said.

Dan Foley, a fully deaf man who attended one of these oralism schools in Massachusetts as a child spoke on his detrimental experiences there.

"They'd make me sit on my hands. I'd be forced to try to speak. And if I did try to sign, I would be punished — [if I was] just waving like, 'Hello' or something like that, or pointing like, 'Over there' or 'What's that?' or something," he told Ideas.

After transferring to a deaf school, Foley spoke on how those there "hated [Bell]. They thought he was the devil."

Joanne Weber, a researcher at the University of Alberta and Canada Research Chair in deaf education who lost hearing in both of her ears but is able to hear partially in her left ear with the help of a hearing aid, spoke on the population of deaf people that can't learn to speak, despite Bell's teachings.

"But the problem is not everybody has the one ear that I have. And no matter what you do with them, they cannot learn to speak. And so, with this population, there's always been an attitude of, oh well, they're just the unfortunate. They just didn't work hard enough. They didn't have enough intelligence," said Weber. "That's the legacy that A.G. Bell left us with. And it's a terrible legacy."

She added that either/or approach to teaching deaf kids are detrimental, and instead that both spoken and sign language are important in developing deaf children's "cognition, emotional and social development."

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