Most Americans know Alexander Graham Bell as an inventor of the telephone. But few know that the central interest of his life was education for deaf children or that he was one of the strongest proponents of oralism in the United States. Bell and his father before him studied the physiology of speech. His mother was hard of hearing, and while she had enough hearing to use an ear tube for one-on-one conversations, Bell often used the British, two-handed manual alphabet to communicate with her. He also knew the sign language used in the United States. Through articles, papers, speeches, and teaching, Bell's support of oral education profoundly changed the way deaf children were taught.

". . . to ask the value of speech is like asking the value of life."

~ Alexander Graham Bell

Alexander Graham Bell and deaf children sit together on the stairs.

Bell was a pragmatist who was willing to use sign language or other means to communicate with deaf adults. With children, however, he advocated a strictly oral education, without any signing.

CLARKE School for the Deaf/
Center for Oral Education

Deaf and blind woman sits left, man sits right, and the woman stands together. Deaf and blind woman's hand touches on woman's mouth and her hand touches man's hand.

Bell was helpful in finding a teacher for Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind. Here, Keller and Bell talk with assistance from Annie Sullivan, Keller's teacher and mentor.

Library of Congress, Prints and
Photographs Division.