Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies

Deaf People’s “Subtile Art”

Mabel Bell, Textual Deduction, and Cultural Representations of Lipreading

Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies (2021), 15, (2), 133–150.


Mabel Bell, the deaf wife of Alexander Graham Bell, was known for being a highly skilled “speechreader,” a narrative that played into the spread of oralist education philosophies at the turn of the twentieth century through characterizing deaf people as readerly figures who tapped into the perceptual skill and American cultural values associated with literacy and literariness. The article considers Mabel Bell’s “subtle art” of deep textual deduction and its influence on other instructors of lipreading, particularly Edward B. Nitchie of the Nitchie School of Lip-Reading, and examines how reading and literature became represented as essential tools in a deaf person’s communicative arsenal. Late nineteenth and early twentieth-century accounts of lipreading conceptualize nonsigning deaf people as perceptive and profoundly literate figures who use their “intimate” knowledge of written linguistic meaning to achieve their own variety of silent, efficient, and productive reading. By aligning deaf people’s visual skill with the act of reading, rather than with the physical conspicuousness of sign language, Mabel Bell and her contemporaries framed reading language “by eye” as the culturally trained, literate, individual, acceptably American, and invisible solution for deafness.

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Author details

Kolb, Rachel