Excerpts from

The Deaf Mute Howls

By Albert Ballin

[Used by Permission from Gallaudet University Press © 1998]

[Note:  "Albert Ballin was born in 1867, attended a residential school for the deaf...worked as a fine artist, lithographer, and actor in silent era films.  He died in 1933... The Deaf Mute Howls was originally published in 1930"].


Why He Howls
(pg. 1)

"Long loud and cantankerous is the howl raised by the deaf mute.  It has to be if he wishes to be heard and listened to.  He ought to keep it up incessantly until the wrongs inflicted on him will have been righted and done away with forever."


Pure Oralism
(pgs. 26-31)

The pure oralists are those so-called experts who claim that all the deaf children can be taught to articulate correctly and speak good English, without the aid of the sign language. It s their pet theory that sign language is a handicap to the deaf child while at school. They point the finger of scorn at examples such as I have presented in earlier chapters and offer them as proof that the sign language makes the child think only in signs and is responsible for his neglect of English. But they forget to state that the graduates of the oral schools are, as a rule, even more deficient in English. They affect to ignore the fact that the deaf-mute child, because of his affliction, thinks from the cradle up only in pictures and ideas which, by instinct, are his most natural substitute for speech.

To you who have read closely it should now be obvious that is is not the sign language that is responsible for the poor English of the deaf-mute. His use of signs is no more to blame than is the pencil in your hand when you write.

Oralists in their efforts to suppress the use of signs practically bind the arms of the child, thereby gagging it, so it may not express itself naturally. But even these methods can not abolish the use of the sign language. The attempts to suppress it hinder graceful, upright growth and development, and are worse than no schooling at all. The enlightened deaf people ascribe to the methods of the oralists the uncouth, grotesque, slovenly antics and grimaces made by children reared in their schools. These children always invent their own signs in spite of all efforts at suppression. They are the sort that shock and prejudice the prudes against the proper and correct use of the sign language.

To be fair and just I must concede a high motive and perfect honestly of purpose to some of the oralists. But insofar as the results are concerned one may as well concede the same to Tomas Torquemada of the infamous inquisition, or to the witch hunters, and the burners of heretics. So deep rooted is prejudice against the sign language among some classes that it approaches a form of persecution.

Until his death, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, headed the oralists. Because of his great fame, wealth, and his having been a teacher of the deaf in his youth, he was able to exert a powerful influence in spreading the propaganda of the oral method. As a matter of fact had Mr. Bell not invented the telephone and won fame and wealth, his views on the subject would have had no more force and weight that a goose feather in a tornado, for among eminent experienced educators of the deaf he was considered a mere tyro in this field of education.

It was Li Hung Chang, I believe, who said, "It is not what is said, but who said it that counts." This truism explains why we have so many misfits sitting in judgment and clothed with power to rule over the destinies of others.

In time the oralists, headed by the great Dr. Bell, drove the Combined System adherents to the wall. They were encouraged by the misguided parents who were crazy to hear their children prattle a few words more than just "papa" and "mama." For results, the semi-mute decoys were put on exhibition, where they posed as orally taught deaf and dumb pupils. At this point I must make it plain that these decoys were not aware of the use to which they were being put. They did not learn of it until long after they had left school. Then it was that they raged and fumed.

Let me proceed to explain how they teach articulation by telling a little of my own experience as an orally taught pupil, for I became one at another school in another state.

The first steps were to make me shape my mouth so, place my tongue such and such a way, and then make a sound by studying the movements of my teacher's mouth and by passing my hands over his throat or nose. If the letter "F" was to be pronounced I was made to place my upper teeth on my lower lip, and then to blow at a scrap of paper lying on the back of my hand. If the letter were a "V," I had to add a sound. The letters "M," "B," and "P" looked so much alike when formed by the lips that I was confused in knowing which of the three letters my teacher was asking me to articulate. The "R," "Ng," "X," etc. were so modestly concealed within the throat that I thought I should dive into my teacher's mouth to locate them. This entire process or method was both tedious and discouraging. I might also add that it was a bit disgusting when the teacher had partaken of onions.

You would the better appreciate the difficulties of lipreading if you were to try talking with a friend without uttering a sound; or have your friend speak aloud behind a glad partition that excludes the sound of his voice. Under these conditions try to understand his message to you by watching the play of his lips. Even with the background experience acquired by having had the use of ears and tongue in gaining an understanding of correct pronunciation and in building a vocabulary---advantages that a deaf-mute lacks---you will soon perceive the utter nonsense of educating a deaf-mute by such a method.

Some deaf-mutes do remarkably well in reading the lips. But these are the few who have devoted years and years of constant persevering study and practice. But even they cannot understand every word spoken, unless the subject is commonplace and they are able to catch the key words and then guess the rest. To accomplish all of this the individual must be prepared to neglect other branches of learning, such a History, Literature, Languages, Science, etc. Furthermore, he must come of a family who have the mans to support him throughout the years. But what about the others who have to go to work for a living? Certainly the institutions supported by the state are not for the small number of prodigies who have the mans to devote their life to study.

While taking my lessons in articulation, I learned that very few words in English are pronounced as they are spelt. I found that ph must be pronounced like f---laugh, laff; enough, enuff; league, leeg; and so on without number. To succeed under this condition I would have to carry a pronouncing dictionary under my arm and break off in my conversation to hunt the word and find out how it should be enunciated.

The best lip-reader requires certain well-defined conditions to read even tolerably well. The speaker must face him in a good light, at a distance of not more than fifteen feet, and move his lips broadly, slowly, and deliberately. Let the speaker turn his head sideways, talk a little too fast, or mumble carelessly, and it is good-night so far as the listener is concerned. If a speaker attempts to address an assembly of lip-readers, he may as well harangue to a blank wall. If he reads aloud out of a book it will be equally futile.

...I met several soldiers who had been deafened by explosions. They carried pads and pencils with which to carry on conversation. They preferred this method to learning lipreading. Does this need any explanation.

If there exists any deaf-mute who has been taugh orally and who can pass as a hearing person, I must say that I have never seen or read of him. If you have heard of such, I can safely bet that the odds are a thousand to one that the person is a semi-mute.

I remember how ambitious I was to learn to articulate, and my teachers thought pretty well of my abilities. My voice, I believe, was no worse than that of the average deaf-mute (at least it was not harsh enough to make a trolley car jump its tracks), but I could never learn to pronounce correctly, to modulate my voice or to make it sound natural. I cannot, even now, make my "B" sound different from "P," and my "D" differ from "T," and my "R" is always missing. Because of these deficiencies I often make queer blunders that either amuse or disgust my hearers...

...I tried vocally to deliver my holiday greetings: "I wish you a Merry Christmas." In spite of my efforts, the sentence sounded like: "Eye wisch yeo-u a-ah Mary kiss my -----."

My mistakes, deplorable though they were, were mild and innocuous compared to those made by others---some of which are downright obscene, though not so intended by the speaker..After such experiences no amount of entreaty, persuastion or threats can persuade them to again open their mouths to utter another word in public this side of eternity. All their long years of toil in school, all their sacrifices of subjects more worth while than oral speech and lipreading, are for nothing.

I could go on interminably citing other examples of the disastrous results of the present system of "education"; but I will bring this chapter to a close with one more tale---one that is almost unthinkable.

For the moment I shall stuff your ears with wax so you cannot hear a sound, and I shall ask you to imagine yourself a deaf-mute, my pupil, whom I am teaching by the oral method. I must also ask that you imagine you have never heard music before. Now I take you into a room where for the first time you see a Paderewski seated before a piano, playing one of the classics. I command you to watch sharply. Next I urge you to lay your hands on the piano to feel the vibrations. You obey me because I am your master, ready to reward or punish you. I insist that your eyes must become your ears. My deepest regret is that I cannot help you to smell the music. You watch the pianist move his hands gracefully across they keyboard and watch his nimble fingers as they strike the keys. He brings his hands down with a thundering crash. Then his fingers and hands barely move as he comes to an andante passage. His body seems to swing and sway rhythmically. After this performance I make you sit before the piano and order you to reproduce the same composition as accurately, and with the same musical taste as he rendered it. You will fail at first. But you must not become discouraged. Brace up, and try it again. You will win out at the end of fifteen, twenty-five, or maybe a thousand years. It will be your own fault if you fail!

This you say is ridiculous. Oh, no! No more ridiculous than the extravagant claims made by some of the oralists as to their ability to teach the deaf children any and all things, and so well that they will be fully restored to the society of the hearing.


Alexander Graham Bell
(pgs. 41-2)

"Though a confirmed pure oralist, Dr. Bell was a fluent talker on his fingers---as good as any deaf-mute - and could use his fingers and arms with bewitching grace and ease.  His wife was charming, beautiful, and intelligent.  Though a deaf-mute in the sense I have defined, she was a comparatively fine lip-reader.  But it is with regret that I cannot say one word in praise of her articulation.  Even today I find it difficult to convince others that she could not spell on her fingers or makes signs.  I never saw her do either.  In conversing with her, I moved my mouth without making any sound, and she always answered in writing, an anomaly of social intercourse between two deaf-mutes.  She understood every word I spoke, if I moved my mouth broadly, deliberately and if the topics were commonplace.  One evening I begged Dr. Bell to spell orally one word to see if she could catch it.  I selected Fujiyama (the holy mountain of Japan).  He rebelled explaining the word was foreign.  But finally he yielded to my entreaty.  He took her on his lap, and pronounced each letter slowly and repeatedly, "F, ef, not ve, just fu, fu-eye, ah ah ---ma."  It took him some minutes, but she later succeeded in spelling the whole word correctly in writing.

He turned around to me with a triumphant light in his eyes and smiled as though to say, "Now you see!"

I shrugged and spelt on my fingers, "Why waste minutes, when spelling the word on the fingers will take but seconds?" 


Coming to California
(pg. 71)

"With high hopes and ambition, I packed what little I possessed in worldly goods into my grip and boarded the good ship Finland to sail for California, the home of our beloved Cinema Child.

Some deaf friends came to wave me God-speed on my hazardous adventure.  Here I must mention a feature that is often seen, but whose significance is seldom considered.  As the ship was unmoored and started on her long voyage, her passengers and their friends on the dock were yelling their parting farewells, using their hands as megaphones; but all their vocal exchanges were drowned by the steam sirens, clanging bells, stentorian orders of the ship officers, shouts of the seamen and general bedlam.  My deaf friends and I were never harassed by this ear-splitting clamor.  For us it did not exist.  We went on conversing, using our fingers and arms, missing not one word.  I believe the last message I flashed off on my fingers was: 'You can see that our deafness is a blessing in disguise.  Now we have the laugh on the hearing and can pity their helplessness?  What?'

Came the answer:  'Right you are, old man!  Bon voyage and good luck to you!'"


The Sign Language
(pg. 61)

"Let me repeat once more that the Sign Language cannot be, and never will be abolished. Let me also repeat that the sign language is not responsible for any lack in the education of the deaf-mute-the pure oralists to the contrary not withstanding.  Their efforts coving a century have been thoroughly tested and have been proved a failure.  In fact they have helped to make me bitter, for I have been one of the victims."