This story is read aloud at: https://youtu.be/UtdA48gBvlc

Synopsis: American Sign Language is discussed in a letter to Alexander Graham Bell.

Historical relevance

July 1, 1885

‌San Angelo, Texas

Dear Dr. Alexander Graham Bell,

I am writing to you because you have influence over the deaf community—seeing as both your mother and wife are deaf, and you teach linguistics to the deaf. I recently had new shoes fitted by a young deaf boy, and his story is one that I think you should know.

Drake was born with normal hearing to a struggling couple here in West Texas. He survived scarlet fever, but lost his hearing when he was five. Now he is a robust orphan working at the Kindle Shoe Shop on Main Street here in San Angelo.

This letter is about more than one deaf person, actually. Deaf Rudy is also involved in this correspondence. He became friends with Drake during a shared adventure. Rudy comes from wealth and also lives in San Angelo.

The following is their story.

When Drake and Rudy were about twelve years old, they met in an unusual situation. Rudy was being taken by stage to Austin, Texas, where he would attend classes at the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. He was being escorted there by his father, who continually tried to teach his son to read lips and vocalize his words.

Rudy was a handsome youth, dressed fashionably and with a suitcase filled with everything necessary for a semester away from home. No one on the stagecoach gave him any thought, as being deaf isn’t as noticeable as other differences. Little did the passengers know that Rudy wasn’t the only deaf minority on the stage.

You see, Drake was riding atop the stage with the driver. No one paid much attention to Drake either, because he was dressed shabbily and was probably just hired help. Drake had the sympathy of the stage driver, though. Drake didn’t know where he was going to end up, but he was taking a pleasure ride to whatever the world threw at him. He was tired of being homeless—shifting from place to place and asking for handouts in San Angelo. He thought he might work for the stage line or maybe the railroad.

All was well with the trip, until they got to Brady. Twenty miles southeast of Brady, a group of bandits held up the stage. In the process, Rudy’s dad was injured so badly that he could no longer travel. So he was brought to a nearby homestead, and Rudy was to go on to boarding school without him. This was not Rudy’s first time to travel to the academy. He’d been there before for a few semesters.

At one of the stage stops, Rudy and Drake eyed each other and innately knew they had a commonality. Drake was much better at verbalizing, since he’d been able to hear for the first five years of his life. Drake did not know the proper motions for American Sign Language (ASL), though he had made up his own sign language with his parents.

Rudy had picked up some ASL in the dorms of the Deaf and Dumb Asylum, much to his father’s dismay. The asylum and his family were adamant about not using hand motion sign language—they depended wholly on oralism.

The two boys tried to communicate with each other and found it a bit difficult, since Drake had never been with anyone who knew true ASL. Drake had never even been to school, though he’d learned to read and write from his mother before she died.

Rudy, on the other hand, was born deaf.  But his parents had had the means to have him educated by the best. His family had been relocated to San Angelo from Austin, as a result of his dad being involved in real estate. Rudy had spent a few semesters at the asylum and could read lips well.

To speed things up, the boys got paper and pencils—they conversed that way. Eventually, it became apparent that Rudy wanted to bring Drake to the asylum to covertly learn ASL.

I’m telling you this story because, from what I understand, you are very much against the use of ASL and would like all deaf persons to only learn to read lips. I wonder why they can’t just learn both!

Rudy successfully got Drake enrolled in the school because of his father’s influence. Besides learning lip reading and vocalization, Rudy was learning the trade of printing and Drake was learning to make shoes. For several months during their free time in the dorm, Rudy and the other boys taught Drake ASL. And Drake taught what he could, how to vocalize. Reading lips was something they all did whenever necessary, though there were difficulties.

As you know, you still have to grab the attention of the deaf in order for them to look at your lips, while you are speaking. And many men do not trim their mustaches properly—which makes looking at the lips nearly impossible. Some of the students need spectacles for they are near-sighted. How can they read lips if the relatively small lips are a blur?

Oh, the beauty of sign language is that it is big to look at. At first it is like learning French or Spanish. No doubt, it is another language all its own. I have begun learning it from Drake now that I have shoes being made by him.

Oh, forgive me. I got distracted from their adventure. Let me return to Rudy’s and Drake’s story.

When the semester was over, both boys took the stage back to San Angelo where Rudy’s father was mending well. Rudy’s father (Theo) took pity on the fate of Drake and let him stay with them until the asylum’s next semester was to begin. Drake was beginning to feel very confident about making shoes. He asked if he could cleanup and do grunt work at the shoe shop and was granted something of an apprenticeship. Rudy stayed jobless but liked hanging out at the shoe shop. Theo didn’t want Rudy to do any lower class work but was proud that Drake was taking his destiny into his own hands.

If Rudy could master lip-reading and vocalizing, he would be sent to fine schools to become an architect or engineer, Theo thought. Rudy wasn’t certain of what he wanted to be, but he knew that he enjoyed being in the company of other deaf persons who knew and practiced ASL.

As time went on, they went back to Austin for another term at the asylum. It was Theo’s plan that the semester would be the last for Rudy and Drake. The boys were tall and nearly ready for the real world.

I now fast forward to a picnic in San Angelo. Coincidentally the boys and I were present at the same function, though we didn’t know each other at the time. Miles Grove on the North Concho River is a pleasant area of pecan trees. Many a picnic has been held there. The shade is remarkable. Anyway most families had brought their basket of fried chicken and biscuits. I had a pleasant lunch with my wife and small daughter. There was a big commotion across the way, and I saw that my wife turned to see what was going on. I then also turned to see.

A man named John was choking on what turned out to be a chicken bone. Apparently, Drake was acutely aware of the distress from twenty yards away and ran to him. You see, Drake was able to read John’s distressed lips saying, “Help, I’m choking.”

How Drake knew how to dislodge the bone with his big squeeze is beyond me. Others had been patting John on the back to no avail.

Since John is a county commissioner, held in high esteem, everyone at the party was jubilant when the bone was dislodged. Drake became a hero. Theo and Rudy were so proud of him, I’m sure. The town had a new outlook on what a deaf and dumb person could do to be useful. I know that I was proud of him even though it was the first time I’d ever seen him.

Later at the same picnic I was complaining to my wife that my feet hurt. I had gained weight and my feet had gotten fatter as well. Do you know that Rudy (from afar) must have been eavesdropping on my conversation. Because he came over and verbalized and signed, that Drake could make some new shoes for me. I began to realize that reading lips from afar could have some advantages in the political arena. You see, I am a member of the Eighteenth Texas Legislature. I would love to know what my adversaries are cooking up across the room from me.

I will learn to read lips.

I am convinced that lip reading is a necessary skill for the deaf. But it doesn’t hurt to know how to do it by those who can hear, too. But unlike you, I don’t think that lip-reading and vocalization should be the only things taught to the deaf. My mother and father know German, French and English. They are fluent in three languages. I would like to be fluent in American Sign Language as well as English. I’ve given up on learning German and French. But I have reasons to learn sign language.

I decided to get the new shoes. When I got fitted for my them, I formally met Drake and Rudy. We conversed crudely about their adventure on the robbed stagecoach and their subsequent friendship. When I couldn’t understand their verbalization, they instinctively tried to sign their thoughts to me. I was impressed. I marveled at their skills.

Upon getting my finished shoes the next week I asked if they could help me learn to lip read and sign.

You see, Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, my small daughter is deaf now from having the mumps this spring. If I send her to the asylum when she is older, I would not like for her to have to “sneak around” in the dorms to learn ASL. I would want for her to openly learn it from her teachers.

But according to the Darwinist Perspective and the Milan Conference of Deaf Educators of 1880, we are to avoid the language of sign. They don’t even want deaf to marry each other risking more deaf people being brought into the world.

I will hire Drake and Rudy to help teach me, my wife and my daughter sign language. I don’t want my daughter to be invisible to the general public. I don’t want her to be ashamed of knowing how to communicate in the quite visible language of sign.

I don’t understand how the son and husband of deaf women could have the idea that gesturing is an instrument of imprisonment.  And that the people like Drake, Rudy and my daughter are not true Americans if they use ASL. You may have invented the telephone for the benefit of an admiring humanity, but your constrained views on the non-hearing persons, sicken me.

Lip reading is a convenience for those who can hear. It is not designed to be handy for the deaf. And knowing more than one language is admirable. Diversity is good!

Once again, I say, “Can’t Drake, Rudy and my daughter learn oralism and manualism at the same time?”

My daughter will—even if I somehow have to teach her myself!

Do not suppress the use of sign language among the deaf.

Awaken, Dr. Bell. Awaken!

Sincerely. Mr. Franklin Foster

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  1. I volunteer at Sonrisas Therapeutic Riding (http://www.sonrisasriding.org/ ) where we have a client who is both deaf and blind. He is amazing. I originally wanted to write a story about someone who lying about being deaf. But after I read about the politics going on in the 1880’s regarding American Sign Language, I thought I could write a story to educate persons of the conflicting ideas.