The Best Of Our Knowledge
The Best Of Our Knowledge
#1601: Alexander Graham Bell & The Deaf World | The Best Of Our Knowledge

This week, Any grade school student can tell you that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. But that’s not how Bell would have described his career. He saw himself as a teacher, specifically a teacher of deaf children. However, even though he was raised by a deaf mother and married a deaf woman, many deaf people to this day see Bell as an enemy. He was an oralist, meaning he thought the only way to teach deaf children to succeed in society was to teach them how to speak, and the keep them from learning sign language. This is the story Katie Booth tells in her new book “The Invention of Miracles – Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness.” Booth is a freelance author and part time writing instructor at the University of Pittsburgh. She was also raised in a mixed hearing/deaf family.

I asked Katie why she took on Alexander Graham Bell.

My interest initially was not about Bell specifically, but about the method of education that he spearheaded in America. Which was also the way my family had been educated, my deaf family members. And I knew it was really traumatizing to them. And I also knew that it was part of the reason that sign language as a language had to struggle so much to be taken seriously, and for deaf people to have access to this language. And so, I was interested in all of that but that’s not a story, right? That’s a topic.

I really resisted Bell because having grown up with deaf family members I grew up with a hatred of Bell. The cultural story that had been passed down to me was one in which he was the enemy. But the more I looked at his story the more I realized that it was really complex, and that it sort of contained all of the complexities of this method of education that I was curious about.

And of course, the one thing you have in common with Bell is he also grew up in a deaf family with deaf family members.

Yeah, his mother was deaf and his wife was also deaf. Although, the way that we are quite different is that both his mother and his wife lost their hearing post lingually, which means they already knew language, they already had English language, they already had some form of speech by the time they went deaf. Whereas my family was pre lingually deaf, they were deaf pretty much from birth.

And I guess the conflict is; Bell believed in teaching the deaf to speak, whereas the deaf, it seemed, wanted to stick with sign language. Is that the basics?

Yeah, that’s a simplified version. I mean, there were certainly deaf people historically who were interested in speech. I also think it’s not quite as much of a dichotomy as that. I think that people who were advocating for sign language based education, both then and now, are not in opposition to speech. They’re not in opposition to technology that can help with hearing. But rather, they just think that sign is an important support, and that at times a critical way to expose deaf children to language.

In Bell’s time, how long had sign language – American Sign Language – been in use?

Well, that’s a complicated question. Because like any language, American Sign Language grew and evolved from other forms of sign language. I think the language that we see now had its roots in the early 19th century with the opening of the American School for the Deaf. But, when that opened, it was using French sign language. As people from around, especially the Northeast, came to that school they brought their own regional sign language to the school. And those regional sign languages had been around long before that. So a long time.

When Bell came on the scene, so to speak, what did the education of deaf children look like at that time?

So at that time, most deaf children who were educated [not all deaf children and also not all hearing children received education at that time] but, if they were educated they usually went to a residential deaf school, often later in life. I mean, not that much later, they were still children, but sometimes as late as 10 years old, because they didn’t have many years for that schooling. So the idea was that they should get it when they were a little older. They went to these residential schools where usually the language of instruction and the language of life was American Sign Language.

They lived in community, not only with other deaf children, but also with deaf teachers and deaf employees of the schools. And what that meant was that there were deaf role models in those schools. And they were constantly being exposed to deaf leadership, deaf adults, deaf teachers, and deaf people to look up to, which was really important.

How was sign language seen by society at the time? In the book, you write that it was almost seen as primitive?

Yeah, I mean, the evolution of the way it was seen is pretty interesting. Essentially, there was a time when it was seen as quite beautiful and expressive and holy, almost. And then as American culture began to really cling to the idea of normalcy being a value, people wanted to be, quote, unquote, normal. As that happened, sign began to really be seen as a problem because it made people stand out. And then, Darwin came out with the Origin of Species around then. Under that sort of paradigm that’s where sort of the sense of it being primitive came in. So, there was there was a real shift somewhere in the early to mid-19th century, I think, was when things really started to shift.

It shifted so much to the point that in the early 20th century, you write that some states had laws mandating that speech be taught rather than sign language?

Yeah, the idea of oralism [deaf people had to learn to speak] and in order to do that they could not be exposed to sign, that idea really took hold. It dominated for a long time. In many ways I would say it still dominates.

Is that part of Bell’s legacy?

Yes. I mean, Bell, thought of his life’s work as being a teacher of deaf people. That was what he thought of as his sort of primary work. It’s not the way his story is usually told. And that was true even in his life, which was something he saw as kind of tragic towards the end of his life, or at least sad. But he really believed in this idea of speech, that sign was unnecessary a1nd that speech was better. And that sign would sort of hold children back from speaking. You know, when he first started advocating this idea he was powerful, but he hadn’t invented the telephone yet. But after he invented the telephone, he had a lot of celebrity to sort of put behind this movement and he did.

There was an awful lot about other things Bell has done in his life, of course, you know, burying the lede not talking about the telephone. But he actually played a part in the assassination of President James Garfield, at least after the attempt. Tell us that story a bit.

Yeah, well, I want to be careful. He didn’t play a part in assassinating. He did play a part in trying to save President Garfield’s life. There’s a book called “Destiny of the Republic,” which goes into this in great detail. But yeah, he was trying to invent a device that essentially could locate the bullet inside of President Garfield’s body. That bullet wasn’t located until after his death. But the idea was that if they could locate the bullet they could remove it and save his life. The actual truth of the matter is that if they had just stopped prodding their unwashed fingers into the bullet wounds that would have done a lot more for his health than finding the bullet and removing it. The bullet was sort of lodged peacefully in there and was not actually causing damage by itself, I don’t believe. But yeah, Bell traveled down to Washington, DC, worked with other scientists and worked to try to save the president’s life, though he didn’t succeed.

One of the places where he demonstrated the telephone was the centennial celebration, the world’s fair that went on in 1876. It appears he had a miserable time during that, didn’t he?

Yeah, I mean, that was funny. In some ways he was a really good performer, and that was what so much of his success was based on. You know, holding these performances in which he either display deaf students or the telephone, whatever. Those two things not being equal of course. But at the centennial, he really didn’t want to be involved. His benefactor sort of slipped him in into the education exhibit, even though his device was electrical in nature. He resisted so strongly. Everyone around him, his fiancé really wanted him to go. His fiancé’s father, who was one of his benefactors wanted him to go, and it came down to, he wouldn’t go. And what happened was his fiancé, Mabel Hubbard, packed a bag for him and then took him on a carriage ride. He did not see the bag apparently and [when she] brought him to the train station and handed him his bag, they got into a little fight. She kept turning away, she was herself deaf, and she kept turning away from him. So as much as he pleaded and argued she was essentially putting her hands over her ears is what the hearing equivalent would be right? She just wouldn’t look at him and therefore was just blocking him from any argument. And he did get onto the train and traveled down and caught the attention of some very powerful people. It was a major, major step to getting the telephone out into the world. Kind of the best publicity he could imagine.

Still to come our conversation with Katie booth continues with one of Bell’s most controversial statements about the deaf. Plus, I find out just how little I know about the lives of deaf children. That’s next on The Best Of Our Knowledge. Got any questions or comments about The Best Of Our Knowledge, send them in our email address is [email protected]. And if you’d like to listen to this or any past programs again, you can find them online at our flagship stations website, just go to and click on the program’s link. And while you’re there, subscribe to The Best Of Our knowledge’s podcast or download the WAMC radio app to listen on demand anytime, anyplace.

This is The Best Of Our Knowledge. I’m Bob Barrett. And our guest today is Katie Booth, author of the new book called “The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness.” In the book Booth notes that one of Bell’s most infamous statements about the deaf is, and I’m quoting here, we should try ourselves to forget they are deaf. We should try to teach them to forget that they are deaf. I asked Booth if this is seen well in the deaf community.

Not by most people that I’ve heard from. It’s a quote that gets used again and again as evidence of his lack of understanding, his lack of respect for deafness, his desire to do away with deafness if not physical deafness then certainly cultural deafness, though he took steps to try to minimize physical deafness as well.

There is certainly no stigma to sign language now. It’s almost ubiquitous in any public appearance. How did that change? When did the deaf start to reclaim ASL?

You know, I actually, I would have to push back against that idea. There’s actually still a huge stigma against sign language when it comes to teaching deaf children. A startlingly small percentage of deaf children learn sign language. It’s less than 10% use it in their homes and less than 10% use it in their schools. And I’m forgetting the exact, one is 6% and one is 8%. But there’s tremendous amounts of research on this by deaf researchers, deaf scholars, deaf scientists. Sign language is seen as beautiful in the hearing world by many, many people. It is still not seen as necessary for deaf children. For that reason, most deaf children are still raised without access to it, which has really sobering consequences. What I think is interesting, and this is not at all my idea, it’s very much an idea that deaf people have been pointing out for gosh, my whole life probably, I think it was in the late 80s or early 90s when we started to see baby signs become popularized, which like many forms of sign language in popular culture, it was not deaf led. It was not sign language. It was a sort of simplified version of I don’t know exactly what it was. But there was all of this enthusiasm all of a sudden for hearing babies to learn sign language and that continues to this day. But at the same time most parents of deaf children, the pattern seems to be that, they are instructed or advised not to let their children use sign language.

So I think that you’re right that in the sort of popular imagination there’s a glorification of sign language. But, I think it’s really important to understand that deaf people are too often left out of that and actual deaf concerns are often left out of that. Not always, I mean having an interpreter in the White House is a huge deal, and definitely something that deaf people and organizations were pushing for. But a lot of the representations of sign language are led by hearing people and profited off of by hearing people to this day. And, it’s still kept from deaf children.

So was I just a perfect demonstration of how little the hearing world knows about the deaf world?

Yeah, I mean, no, I shouldn’t…

I mean, I’m happy to help.

Thank you. Yes, that’s good. I think it’s true. And I am also a hearing person. I am not a perfect. I am sort of a conduit for these stories where I try to honor the research that I’ve seen, that has come out of the deaf community and the stories that have been told to me and the stories that I have found in my research. But the most powerful stories you will encounter about deafness are those that are told by deaf people, and those are still not, for the most part, being embraced by hearing people, by hearing media, the control is still with hearing people.

So what needs to happen? Is there a perfect world where oralists and sign language can come to an agreement and that both are valuable?

I mean, I think oralism as a rule excludes sign language. So long as that is the case I don’t think so. Sign language education often incorporates forms of, you know, classes on speaking. But the broader idea that sign language has no place in our world, I don’t think that’s a compromise. That’s exclusion. That’s oppression. And so I think that there are a lot of initiatives today that are trying to educate hearing people and also to take political action. The LEAD-K movement comes to mind. I don’t know a huge, huge amount about it, but from what I see it seems to be doing good work. You know, one of the outcomes is something called language deprivation. And there’s a lot of deaf researchers, and scientists, sociologists, who are looking at what’s going on there. There’s a lot of effort being put into understanding language deprivation. And I think if we’re going to have a way forward, I don’t think the way forward can exclude sign language. I don’t think that that is okay. And I also think that there has to be a real reckoning with language deprivation and what’s happening to deaf children.

So, Bell might be the enemy then in the end.

I mean, he did a lot of things that were not very good. That’s for sure. He also was a complicated person. You know, I started out really hating him. And in the end, I don’t know that I still hate him. I don’t think that that’s true. I think that once you really encounter a person’s humanity, what ends up happening is that you learn from them in some way. I mean, part of the reason I wanted to write this story or that I thought it was important to look at Bell is because I am a hearing person. And this is our history. This is the history of hearing people. This is the history of what we have done and what we have to come to terms with. And so, I think just dismissing him as the enemy really lets us all off the hook. I think we need to reckon with the world that he helped create and to work to dismantle some of it.

Again, the name of Katie Booth’s new book is “The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness.” It’s published by Simon and Schuster.

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Photo courtesy of Simon & Schuster.