Most of us know Alexander Graham Bell as the Edinburgh-born inventor of the telephone. Fewer know that his driving passion was deaf education; his experiments in transmitting the human voice began because he wanted to help deaf people learn to speak. It will likely come as a surprise to learn that many deaf people today regard Bell and his legacy with rage and resentment.
How a man committed to helping the deaf could end up as their enemy fascinated Katie Booth, who witnessed the fury his name could provoke in her deaf relatives. The book begins with an account of her deaf grandmother dying in hospital while being denied access to an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter, a direct legacy, she says, of Bell, whose obsession for the teaching of speech led to the denigration of the sign language many deaf people preferred.
Bell’s father was an elocutionist (said to be the inspiration for George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion); his mother was deaf. His unique experience of both gave rise to his passion for teaching the deaf to speak which he exercised first in the UK, then in North America, where the family emigrated in 1870. One of his particular successes was Mabel Hubbard, the deaf daughter of a Boston grandee, who would become his wife. At this point, the threads of the story become densely tangled as Bell’s romance interweaves with his attempts to invent the telephone and the legal battles which ensued. His success secured, he returned to deaf education.
Bell’s vision was for deaf people to interact seamlessly in the hearing world through speech and lip-reading. While this is not inherently bad, Booth explains, it is difficult: only a small number of Bell’s students were ever able to converse fluently with strangers. Over-emphasising speech at a crucial stage of development, however, left many deaf people language-deprived – unable to speak, not allowed to sign. Booth’s relatives were among those living with the fallout.
Bell’s work also took a more sinister turn. Moving away from teaching to study genetics, he began to argue that intermarriage between deaf people could lead to “a vigorous but defective variety of the (human) race”. He became involved in the developing field of eugenics, which had limited traction in the US but was eagerly adopted by the Nazis, under whom 40 per cent of deaf people were sterilised.
Despite her anger, Booth is often sympathetic to Bell. He emerges as brilliant, obsessive, well-meaning but blinkered, a patrician Victorian who believed in the transformative possibilities of science to “cure” or “normalise” the differently abled. His biggest mistake was not to ask deaf people themselves what they wanted.
The most interesting parts of the book are those in which Booth (who is not deaf herself) opens up their world, making ASL come alive as a beautiful, subtle, nuanced language which creates, as all languages do, a unique perspective on the world. Access to language is what empowers people and creates community, she argues, not having a voice, as the founding father of telecommunications liked to claim.
The Invention of Miracles, by Katie Booth, 368pp, Scribe, £25
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