Thursday, September 26, 2013

National Geographic Response: Evolving???

National Geographic's Response to AFA's letter about BELL! play (to see our letter go to this link or scroll down

Dear Karen Christie, Ruthie Jordan and Patti Durr:

Thank you for contacting the National Geographic Society regarding last week’s performance of Jim Lehrer’s “Bell.”

National Geographic is fully aware of the fact that many members of the Deaf community do not hold Bell in high regard.  Instead of avoiding this issue, we chose to address it in the play, and also during a post-performance panel. Dr. Brian Greenwald of Gallaudet University, an expert on deaf culture and history, who is also completing a biography about Bell and the deaf community was a member of the panel.  He mentioned Bell's evolving views on this issue. Whatever Alexander Graham Bell's early views on deafness, please know that National Geographic fully appreciates a supports a culturally diverse world. 

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Sincerely yours,
Julie Crain
National Geographic Society
AFA's original letter to the National Geographic Society

18 September 2013 

John M. Fahey, Jr.,
President/ CEO
National Geographic Society
1145 17th Street N.W.
Washington DC 20036-4688

Dear Mr. Fahey,
This letter serves to express serious concerns related to how your organization “reflects the world” through the National Geographic Live: BELL! play. 

The world of the play BELL! ignores the grave injustices that Alexander Graham Bell has fostered upon Deaf people.  It ignores his systematic attempts to deny Deaf children sign language and efforts to “teach” Deaf people “to forget they are Deaf.”  It is acknowledged that AG Bell was the Chief architect and advocate of the oral/aural only method of educating Deaf students in the United States, and
-worked to ban the use of ASL in the classroom
-worked to deny Deaf people the right to be educators
-worked to stop Deaf people from socializing with
and marrying other Deaf people
-worked to abolish Deaf publications, organizations, schools and conventions

Today, we know that pure oralism--the denial of a fully accessible visual language—leads to language and cognitive deprivation as well as lags in social-emotional and identity development.  In practice, many oral/aural only programs have resorted to physical and emotional abuse to stop Deaf children from using sign language or gestures.

In his ‘love for the Deaf,” AG Bell consistently refused to work with our organizations when they reached out to him.  As ex-President of the National Association of the Deaf, George Veditz wrote in AG Bell’s obituary (1922):
 It was not so much the education of the deaf, per se that Dr. Bell was interested in as the oral method…The deaf as a class have had little cause to love him because of the nature of his interference in their affairs… Dr. Bell’s influence upon the American deaf has been negative. They would have welcomed him with open arms and gloried in his interest in them had this interest been expressed in a manner they could approve. He did not choose this last.‘Tis true, ’tis pity; Pity ’tis, ’tis true.”

As a grassroots Deaf social justice network, Audism Free America (AFA) works to challenge the ideological foundations of audism in America---foundations that were put into place by Alexander Graham Bell.   Audism is attitudes and practices based on the assumption that behaving in the ways of those who speak and hear is desired and best. It produces a system of privilege, thus resulting in stigma, bias, discrimination, and prejudice—in overt or covert ways—against Deaf culture, American Sign Language, and Deaf people of all walks of life.   Sadly, one of the legacies of AG Bell, which still “shapes the world we live in today,” is audism.

Furthermore, it is appalling to learn the Deaf people today are still expected to passively accept the sanitized version of “AG Bell the genius inventor” (and what of the plagiarism and forgery charges?) celebrated by the play, BELL!  The efforts on the part of your organization to promote the play to Gallaudet University students is a shameless attempt to eradicate the true history of AG Bell and to minimize the detrimental role he has played in the education of Deaf people.  Are the students to forget that in 1891 during a congressional committee hearing concerning appropriation for the college, AG Bell criticized the training Deaf teachers as “detrimental?”  Are they to forget he said when addressing Gallaudet students in the past, “…I am sure there is no one among the deaf who desires to have his affliction handed down to his children?”

Your organization professes to “promote the conservation of the world's cultural, historical, and natural resources” and to “care about the planet.”  Does the National Geographic Society today, unlike its second president, care about and appreciate the natural human biodiversity represented by Deaf individuals globally?  We call on you to celebrate your 125 years by making a public statement to Gallaudet students as well as Deaf people worldwide that the National Geographic Society acknowledges the harmful history of AG Bell and today embraces the human, linguistic, economic and civil rights of all peoples—including Deaf people.

Let freedom roll!

Karen Christie, Ruthie Jordan and Patti Durr for Audism Free America

Gary E. Knell, next President/CEO
Meg Calnan
Mary Jeanne Jacobsen