Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Un-Telling “The Eugenist’s Tale”

Early Twentieth-Century Deaf Writers on A. G. Bell and Eugenics

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2021), 15, (2), 151–168.


In Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race (1883), Alexander Graham Bell proposed several preventative eugenic measures to reduce the transmission of deafness, including oralism, or the pedagogical approach for the exclusive teaching of speech and lipreading, and the reduction of deaf-deaf intermarriage. In answer, writers in Deaf community publications made appeals for autonomy embedded within hegemonic social norms related to race, class, gender, and able-bodiedness. Because marriage autonomy was often conflated with labor and class rather than treated as one of several interwoven strategies in Bell’s eugenic argument, it has been argued that Deaf community leaders underestimated the threat they faced from rising nativist beliefs merged with eugenics in the post-bellum era on into early twentieth-century America. However, in their fiction, white/biracial Deaf creative writers of this era, namely Douglas Tilden, Hypatia Boyd, Guie Deliglio, and Howard Terry, complicated, re-inscribed, and countered these ideologies.

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Author details

Harmon, Kristen