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A new biography confronts the inventor’s complicated relationship with the Deaf community

The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell's Quest to End Deafness

Katie Booth
Simon and Schuster
2021
416 pp.
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Alexander Graham Bell is well known as the inventor of the telephone. He is lesser known for his role in promoting audism, or prejudice against deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) people. Yet both endeavors have had lasting impacts on humanity. In The Invention of Miracles, Katie Booth revisits Bell’s legacy, exploring his creative genius and his misguided efforts to eradicate Deaf culture (1).

Bell, known to his family as Aleck, was born into a family immersed in the communication strategies of the deaf. His mother, Eliza Grace Bell (née Symonds), an accomplished pianist who was deafened after she acquired language and speech, taught Aleck British Sign Language. His father, Alexander Melville Bell, created a phonetic alphabet called Visible Speech, designed to aid the deaf by illustrating the proper position of the lips, tongue, and throat in various language sounds. Following the family’s lead, as teenagers, Aleck and his brother Melville built an automaton that could simulate human speech.

As the Bell family began promoting Visible Speech to potential investors, Alexander encouraged Aleck, approaching adulthood, to pursue elocution over invention. An educator named Susanna Hull became aware of the system and wondered whether it could be used to teach DHH children to speak. Working with Hull’s DHH students, in 1868, Aleck succeeded in teaching the children to speak using the system. Oral schools for the deaf and well-off families began to seek out Aleck’s expertise, fueling his passion for teaching. He would eventually become a professor of vocal physiology and elocution.

Meanwhile, Bell’s interest in creating a machine that would faithfully transmit sound and speech endured. Yet even as the invention that would ultimately become the telephone progressed, he viewed the technology as a mere means to an end. “The telegraph, the telephone—they were fulfilling,” writes Booth, “but Aleck’s idea was for them to serve his larger goal, to give him time to devote to reforming deaf education.”

During this period, Bell married Mabel Hubbard, a former student who lost her hearing as a child, and together they started a family. But defending his various patents frequently took him away from his family and from his work with the deaf.

In 1883, Bell established a school for the deaf in Washington, DC. Even as many in the Deaf community began to advocate signed language over oralism, Bell and the school remained committed to teaching DHH students to speak aloud and to read lips. Soon, however, he began to realize that oralism privileged learning how to speak over learning other sorts of information. He closed his school and began to rethink his beliefs about the DHH population.

The isolation of the deaf meant that DHH individuals were more likely to marry one another. Having observed that unions in which both partners were deaf had a higher likelihood of producing deaf offspring and fearing that the deaf would eventually outnumber the hearing, Bell began to encourage DHH people not to intermarry. His new stance was embraced by eugenicists, who eventually succeeded in passing a law in the United States that made it illegal for DHH people to marry one other. Bell did not support the law, and he attempted to align himself with other leaders in deaf education who opposed it, but he would nonetheless come to be perceived as the movement’s leader.

In the waning years of his life, Bell distanced himself from deaf education. However, his curriculum would go on to become the predominant method for educating DHH children for many years to come. Today, many DHH people who work diligently to preserve the Deaf community’s language, culture, and institutions blame Bell for the generation of DHH children whose education emphasized speaking over true learning.

At the end of the book, Booth discloses that Bell, a staunch oralist, died signing into his wife’s hand. She reminds readers that Bell—who feared the intergenerational perpetuation of deafness—married a DHH woman and had children with her. Booth summarizes this central tension that defined Bell’s life using Mabel’s words: “You are tender and gentle to deaf children,” she once wrote to him, “but their interest to you lies in their being deaf, not in their humanity.”

References and Notes:
1. Deaf with a capital D is used to denote deaf and hard of hearing people who are culturally deaf. Deaf with a lowercase d is used to denote people who have a hearing loss but do not consider themselves part of the Deaf culture.

About the author

The reviewer is at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY 14623, USA.