Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, wasn’t always a great listener. Especially when it came to the deaf people whose education he considered his life’s work.
That’s a key conclusion of “The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness” (Simon & Schuster), a new biography by Pittsburgh-based author Katie Booth. Booth’s first book aims to recast Bell not simply as an heroic inventor, but something much more complicated, and often troubling.
Booth’s deeply researched book is informed by her own experience as a member of a deaf/hearing family – one whose own beloved grandparents she considers latter-day victims of Bell’s dual mission to teach the deaf to speak and to eradicate sign language.
“That’s a big part of the tragedy of Bell, is that he really thought he was doing the right thing,” said Booth, who teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. “He saw the prejudice against the deaf. He saw it very closely and it – it horrified him. … He believed that essentially, if deaf people could live in the hearing world, like hearing people did, if they could sort of pass as hearing, then they wouldn’t face the prejudice that they were facing.”
Bell, born in Scotland, in 1847, came by his obsessions honestly. He was the son of a famed elocutionist whose work likely inspired the Henry Higgins character in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion”; in his youth, one of Bell’s long-running project was to create an anthropomorphic machine, complete with lips and tongue, that could produce human speech. Bell’s own mother was deaf, and after embarking on a career teaching deaf children in the U.S., in the early 1870s, he married a deaf woman, Mabel Hubbard.
Booth shows how even the telephone grew from Bell’s efforts to aid the deaf: He wanted to create a lip-reading machine that would turn the vibrations of speech into something visible, like a line on smoked glass that people could decode.
The telephone ultimately went in a different direction, and Booth gives a detailed account of Bell and Thomas Watson’s struggles to make this signal invention a reality. (There’s also plenty of detail about patent law and competing claims to the invention.) But though its invention made him rich and famous, Bell viewed the telephone, and the accompanying business demands, as a huge distraction from his avocation. In many ways, he was quite progressive in his views about the deaf and their abilities. But he was also an ardent promoter of “oralism,” the idea that the deaf could be taught to speak, just as his own wife and mother could. And thought he was a talented educator, and fluent in American Sign Language, Booth writes, he shared to some degree in the Victorian disdain for signing as unseemly, and an inappropriate way for humans to communicate.
“Oralism, it didn’t matter whether or not you were succeeding with [speech],” said Booth. “You had to do it and you were given no other language access. So it was a much stricter thing and a much more damaging thing.”
The trouble was, only a fraction of deaf people are capable of learning to speak fluently, and then only at great expense of time and effort. And those who don’t take to speech, and also aren’t taught to sign, end up effectively language-less during their formative year. Along with being a considerable social hindrance, Booth describes this language deprivation as a form of irreversible brain injury.
By the late 19th century, there was a thriving deaf community advocating for its own interests. Many deaf people favored the teaching of sign language, known as “manualism,” or else “combinism,” a hybrid approach that taught sign language but also provided speech lessons for those able benefit from it. Booth documents copious contemporaneous evidence that strict oralism was harmful. But Bell seemed to have been oblivious, and intent on strong-arming the deaf into integrating into hearing society, even though many seemed to prefer the company of their community.
Worse, later in life, Bell became increasingly convinced that hereditary deafness was a risk to civilization. His book “Memoir on the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race” was published in 1883 – the same year the word “eugenics” was coined, Booth noted. In an era when many advocated for the sterilization of people with congenital disabilities, Bell did not go so far as to back legislation prohibiting marriage between the deaf. But he did work to convince the deaf not to intermarry, and his ideas bolstered existing stigmas against them.
Booth said that even today, after decades of advocacy by and for the deaf, Bell’s ideas continue to influence deaf education. And they certainly held sway when her grandparents were growing up, in the mid-20th century.
“Almost all of that generation grew up in oralist schools,” she said. “My grandfather grew up in a hearing family, a very loving hearing family, but one without access to resources or correct information. And so they sent him to an oral school and he didn’t have any language before he went to school. And because he had no access to sign language and struggled with oralism, as most deaf children did, he ended up graduating without any language as well. He didn’t learn language until he was in his 20s, which causes permanent brain changes and suffering and trauma.”
Her grandmother, by contrast, grew up with deaf parents and siblings. “She was surrounded by deafness and they all communicated in sign language,” said Booth. But “she went to school and the only language she knew was taken away from her. She was punished. She was shamed, and she was forced to learn to speak and be ashamed of the language and culture she grew up with, and that she shared with her family.”
Bell knew as much about speaking and elocution as anyone of his time, and was as intimately connected with deaf people as any hearing person could be. Yet in Booth’s telling, for all the good he did, his legacy is badly stained.
“He really, really turned away from deaf knowledge, from deaf observations, from deaf people, from their words, from the evidence that his education wasn’t working,” she said. “More and more and more. He turned away from deaf people and he stopped listening.”
A transcript of the complete interview, edited for length and clarity, follows:
O’DRISCOLL: So Alexander Graham Bell is known obviously as the inventor of the telephone, but he didn’t really view himself that way primarily, right?
BOOTH: He thought of himself as primarily a teacher of the deaf. And his work with the deaf is also what deaf people tend to remember him by. He’s very well known for that work in the deaf community.
O’DRISCOLL: And so he’s viewed also very differently by the deaf culture than he is by the public at large?
BOOTH: Yes. Especially the signing deaf really tend to have a lot of animosity towards Bell, because he fought really hard for education that eliminated sign language from the classroom.
O’DRISCOLL: And you come to this from personal experience. You’re from a family that has both hearing and deaf folks in it, right?
BOOTH: I have two generations of deafness in my family. My great-grandparents and my grandparents and great aunts and uncles were all deaf. And my grandparents lived right down the street from me. So I spent my days there as a child and learned sign language as my first language, and was really raised with a lot of deaf cultural values as well as, you know, just the hearing world as well.
O’DRISCOLL: What do you mean by “deaf cultural values”?
BOOTH: I mean deaf culture has its own set of values and knowledge and stories. And, you know, that’s part of how I learned about Bell. Bell is a major cultural story that’s handed down in the deaf world.
O’DRISCOLL: I’ve told a couple people about reading this book and about Bell’s avocation for working with deaf people. And they said “I had no idea. I’d never heard of that before.” Why do you think that is that it’s not better remembered?
BOOTH: Well, I think there has been a lot of work to silence this story. Honestly, I think that there’s a long history of deaf stories and deaf experiences not being valued in the hearing world. And I think that that trickles down and it leads to sort of widespread ignorance about this work.
O’DRISCOLL: And Bell, both his mother and his wife were deaf too? How did that seem to influence his outlook?
BOOTH: Well, it was interesting. His mother and wife both lost their hearing post-lingually, which meant they already had language and speech by the time they went deaf. So he saw that his mother was able to sort of somewhat function in the hearing world. And he began to think that that would be true for any deaf person, or that it could be true. And his wife, who was really the poster child of this type of education, oralism, she only confirmed that. She learned to speak through private tutors, including him, and was able to speak and to a certain extent kind of pass as hearing.
O’DRISCOLL: And in your book you talk about Alexander Graham Bell, his invention of the telephone, but how that actually started as kind of a lip-reading machine he wanted to create.
BOOTH: It was a machine that was going to sort of translate the vibrations of speech into something visual that deaf people could see so that as they were learning speech, they could sort of check the sounds they were making against some sort of visual element, either a little line traced on smoked glass or a flame. And so he was working to sort of perfect one of those machines to help deaf people learn how to speak.
O’DRISCOLL: And it’s kind of funny in the book that he after the telephone was invented, it was a thing that eventually made him quite rich. But it was also this continuing distraction from what he viewed as his real life’s work — educating the deaf, all the legal battles over the telephone, other business issues involved with it, right?
BOOTH: It really pulled him away from that work. And his family really wanted him to be focusing on his work on the telephone, whereas he really wanted to be focusing more on his work in deaf education. But, yeah, it was it was a constant distraction. And yet it also gave him just an incredible amount of cultural and financial power with which to promote ideas about deaf education.
O’DRISCOLL: And sort of the main debate in this point in the 19th century was about oralism — the idea that the deaf should be taught to speak and could be taught to speak, which Bell promoted — and manualism, which is the use of sign language. Can you tell how that sort of played out during his lifetime and how he affected it?
BOOTH: So oralism is more than just teaching how to speak. It was also suppressing sign language, right? And punishing sign language and shaming sign language was all wrapped up in oralism. Before that, deaf students were taught through American Sign Language. Oralism actually started before people came to America. But he really kept it going and he became its figurehead in a way, and using a lot of his power that he gained from, you know, his telephone fame, he was able to promote oralism and really work to suppress sign language. Manualism largely became something called combinism, in which you also taught children to speak if it seemed to be helpful to them, if they seem to be succeeding with it. But oralism, it didn’t matter whether or not you were succeeding with it. You had to do it and you were given no other language access. So it was a much stricter thing and a much more damaging thing.
O’DRISCOLL: Bell, although he himself was a fluent signer, as you point out, was wrapped up in kind of Victorian attitudes about speech. Can you talk about that a little bit?
BOOTH: Yeah, well, Bell was kind of interesting. He both was and was not a man of his times. In the broader hearing world, there was a real sense of wanting to be prim and proper and have bodily control and not move around too much, which sort of flew in the face of sign language, which a lot of Victorians would see and sort of think that it was, I don’t know, flamboyant or unseemly, and [Bell] never had that particular prejudice against sign, but that prejudice was tapped into, you know, even if he himself didn’t have it. He was offering a solution to it. And so it still worked in his favor.
O’DRISCOLL: And oral speech, as you was sort of seen as being an essential, if not the essential component of being human to some people.
BOOTH: Yeah, especially in the early 19th century and earlier, there was a strong connection between the spoken word and humanity, being perceived as human.
O’DRISCOLL: It seemed like Bell believed getting the deaf to lip-read and speak was a way to help the, right? How did he think that would help them?
BOOTH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, that’s a big part of the tragedy of Bell, is that he really thought he was doing the right thing. He saw the prejudice against the deaf. He saw very closely and it — it horrified him. … He believed that essentially, if deaf people could live in the hearing world, like hearing people did, if they could sort of pass as hearing, then they wouldn’t face the prejudice that they were facing. They wouldn’t face the injustices that he saw everywhere, that hearing people would be more willing to accept them if they could speak.
O’DRISCOLL: And — it might not be obvious to folks — what is the problem with trying to teach deaf people to speak?
BOOTH: Well, there’s not inherently a problem with that. The problem comes when speech is placed above all else, which is what oralism did. Um, under the earliest paradigm, there was no place for sign language. And without sign language, deaf children didn’t and usually don’t have unfettered access to language at all. And so if you’re growing up without access to language, without easy access to language, it causes permanent changes to your brain that affect all aspects of your life, not just, you know, book smarts and ability to, you know, work well with language, but math, social skills, sense of responsibility, the relationship between ideas. All of these things are tied to having a strong language base.
O’DRISCOLL: You talk later in the book about how Bell’s mindset kind of gradually shifted over to sort of a eugenics-type mindset. Can you talk about that?
BOOTH: Yeah. Ultimately, Bell became a figure in the eugenics movement, and not an uncomplicated one. The very the same year as the word “eugenics” was coined, he published a memoir called “Memoir on the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race.” And it advocated that deaf people should not marry each other because he thought they were having more deaf children and that essentially there was going to be a whole variety of the human race that was deaf, and that that was a catastrophe. He didn’t want legislation, but he did want deaf people to choose not to marry each other.
O’DRISCOLL: Another sort of a countervailing force in the book is the kind of thriving deaf culture that existed in the late 19th century, which, again, was news to me. Wondered if you could talk about that, how that came to be and also what kind of influence that culture had?
BOOTH: There has been deaf culture in this country as long as there have been small communities of deaf people. They existed before any deaf school. But with the founding of — at the time it was called the American Asylum for the Deaf. And that was in the early 19th century. And with the founding of that first deaf school, American Sign Language began to really become standardized, and deaf people started to come together at this school. And then they left the school and started new schools. And through education, deaf culture began to really thrive. And language, too. I mean, it brought American Sign Language all across the country. By the time by the time Bell got here, there was already a thriving deaf culture. [Editor’s note: Bell was born in Scotland and moved to the U.S. in 1871.] And as they started communicating more and more about him and about oralism, they were also able to organize and resist.
O’DRISCOLL: You depict movingly in the book how these prejudices against deaf people affected folks like your grandparents. Can you talk about that for a moment?
BOOTH: Both of my grandparents well, almost all of my all of that generation grew up in oralist schools, including both of my grandparents. My grandfather grew up in a hearing family, a very loving hearing family, but one without access to resources or correct information. And so they sent him to an oral school and he didn’t have any language before he went to school. And because he had no access to sign language and struggled with oralism, as most deaf children did, he ended up graduating without any language as well. He didn’t learn language until he was in his 20s, which causes permanent brain changes and suffering and trauma.
My grandmother grew up in a deaf family. She had deaf parents, deaf brothers and sisters. She was surrounded by deafness and they all communicated in sign language. So what happened to her was, she went to school and the only language she knew was taken away from her. She was punished. She was shamed, and she was forced to learn to speak and be ashamed of the language and culture she grew up with, and that she shared with her family.
O’DRISCOLL: [The book is] a biography of Alexander Graham Bell, but the idea is that the ideas he played a large role in promulgating led to these sort of traumas that your grandparents suffered.
BOOTH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, people in the deaf community know about Bell. He his legacy is still strong. His work is still affecting deaf education today.
O’DRISCOLL: And I think the point of the book, which you emphasize more and more as it goes on, is that he didn’t listen, which is a funny thing to say about the inventor of the telephone, right? He didn’t really want to hear what deaf people themselves wanted, or thought would benefit the most.
BOOTH: Yeah. He really, really turned away from deaf knowledge, from deaf observations, from deaf people, from their words, from the evidence that his education wasn’t working. More and more and more. He turned away from deaf people and he stopped listening.
O’DRISCOLL: And it’s funny because you paint actually, you know, a very sympathetic portrait of him in a lot of ways. He seems like he was in some ways sort of a humble person, you know, kind in all these other [ways]. What made him sort of ignore these other points of view?
BOOTH: You know, I don’t know! [Laughs.] I mean, I think it was standard not to value deaf input, but I think it’s still standard not to value deaf input. He lived in a society that supported him in ignoring the experiences of deaf people. But he also was so progressive in so many ways that it’s still somewhat shocking that he couldn’t see what was happening or he kept turning away from it.
O’DRISCOLL: Alot of the book has to do with the larger culture’s attitudes toward deaf folks. Why express that in a biography of Bell, rather than an exploration of, you know, oralism and manualism?
BOOTH: [The book] started out as an investigation of oralism. And that’s what it was for the first, I don’t know, five, ten years of the project. It’s been a long project. But I’m a storyteller. I wanted to tell a story that held these complicated truths inside of it. And whenever I talked about this project to hearing people back when it was just about oralism, people didn’t seem as interested. But when I mentioned that that Bell was a part of it, people really woke up. And so I thought I would harness that. I really wanted this to be a book that could capture the attention of hearing people who I think most need to be educated about this history.