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The Roundtable

"The Invention Of Miracles" By Katie Booth

Book cover for "The Invention of Miracles"
Simon & Schuster
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Joe Donahue: The "Invention of Miracles" is a biography of Alexander Graham Bell, a revisionist biography, if you will. While best known for inventing the telephone, Bell's central work was in Deaf Education. In fact, he considered his true life's mission to be teaching the deaf to speak. However, by the end of his life, he had become the American Deaf community's most powerful enemy, as he positioned himself at the forefront of the oralist movement. They oralist movement's aim was to teach the deaf to speak and extinguish the use of American Sign Language in the face of growing evidence that focusing on speaking orally often came at the additional expense of all other education, causing serious harm to brain development. Katie Booth is the author of the new book, "The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell's Quest to End Deafness." She teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh, and we welcome her to The Roundtable this morning. Katie, thank you very much for being with us.

Katie Booth: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Joe Donahue: As the the subtitle says: "language, power, and Alexander Graham Bell's quest to end deafness," what brought you to that?

Katie Booth: Well, I was raised in a mixed hearing deaf family, my my grandparents and great aunts and uncles and great grandparents were all deaf. And so, in the deaf world, Bell is widely known for his work in deaf education. So I sort of grew up knowing about Bell, and really very angry with him for his impact on that -- on deaf people.

Joe Donahue : Where does the anger come from? And give us a sense of, of where it began, in our history in our society and culture?

Katie Booth: Sure, yeah. So Alexander Graham Bell, in the mid 19th century, the mid 1800s, he promoted this method of Deaf Education called oralism. Before he came on the scene, deaf education was delivered through sign language, which was a language that all deaf children, for the most part, are in the right environment, it was an accessible language. And when Bell came o n the scene, he started promoting a competing form of education, which taught deaf children to speak and lip read. And ultimately, not just discouraged, but punished and shamed the use of sign language. So my grandparents my whole family was, they all communicated by sign, although they also all, almost all of them came up through the oralist education. And as you can imagine, that being told that your language is shameful and being punished for using it while at the same time. being forced to engage with an inaccessible language was really traumatizing. But also a lot of deaf kids didn't have access to sign language. And when they went to these oralist schools, where they were not allowed access to sign language, they often struggled so much to pick up English to learn to speak and lip read, that they went through their education with no language at all, which was incredibly damaging as you can imagine.

Joe Donahue: It is almost unimaginable because one of the things that this book brought to me which I had no idea about was was how hard that that movement and Bell was working to extinguish the use of American Sign Language, even though science and the education that had come said, this is really causing this oralist movement is causing issues. But the the work that they were doing against American Sign Language is really staggering.

Katie Booth: Yeah, yeah. I mean, it was it he doubled down so hard on on discouraging the use of sign language in Deaf Education. It is astonishing. It's especially astonishing because the evidence was before him, not at the beginning. But, you know, within his lifetime within his efforts, he was confronted over and over and over again, with the experiences of deaf people with observations of deaf children. And then in his own school, where he had total control over methods. He was again seeing his methods fail, but he, he just didn't back down.

Joe Donahue: We are talking to Katie Booth. The name of the new book is "The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power and Alexander Graham Bell's Quest to End Deafness." Let's talk about Alexander Graham Bell, of course, he's known as the telephone guy. So how did that fit into this and to that, yes, the quest to end deafness.

Katie Booth: He came into deaf education through both his mother and his father, who was an elocutionist - which is kind of like a speech pathologist, sort of. He sort of helped people speak better. And he, Bell, ended up sort of taking the influence of his mother, who was a deaf woman who sort of lived in the hearing world, and his father, who was promoting speech and started teaching deaf kids to speak. And the invention of the telephone actually came out of those efforts, it started by him, sort of trying to find a device that would make speech visible. Well, that would essentially take the vibrations of speech and turn them into something that a deaf child could potentially read. He was looking at things like the manometric capsule, and other inventions that you would speak into kind of like, they kind of had a receiver where you would speak and it would be attached to a diaphragm that would vibrate very subtly in reaction to speech, and would either through change the appearance of a flame, or would sort of be connected to a needle, which would crawl on smoked glass, so that you've got something almost that looked like a sound wave. And, and through those devices, he started thinking about the telegraph and then the telephone.

Joe Donahue: And in no defense of the man whatsoever, but but he did think he was helping the deaf, right.

Katie Booth: Yeah, yeah, he really did. And I, you know, he had the best intentions, I suppose. And early on, he was sort of - he was in more in communication with deaf people, and really trying to do what what he thought was best for the deaf child. However, as his work went on, he turned away from the deaf community more and more and more, he stopped listening to what they were observing and what their experiences were, and started to really, really cut them off. And that's where that's where he really that was his fatal flaw, I think.

Joe Donahue: So, with that comes his views on immigration, deaf education, which we talked about and eugenics which all overlap and intertwine, as you write.

Katie Booth: Yeah, Bell was right at -- he got into eugenics ... the same year as the word eugenics was coined - he started promoting eugenic ideas. His specific idea was that -- and it was tied to oralism -- it was the idea that deaf people shouldn't marry each other. Because if they married each other, he feared a quote unquote: deaf race of people. He thought that deaf people who married each other, especially deaf people, with other deaf people in their family, or even hearing people with deaf people in their family, that they would have deaf babies, and they would sort of continue a lineage of deafness, which he believed to be undesirable, even though within his time, there were people who were pushing back against that idea, very vocally in the deaf community. But then also, even outside of that community, I mean, eugenics is sometimes framed as just an idea of its time, but that is to erase many, many voices that spoke up against it.

Joe Donahue: Probably should have mentioned this earlier, but I'm curious because his work - his work, also was in concert with the work of his father too, right. I mean, he picked up a mantle in some way.

Katie Booth: Yeah, his grandfather and his father and uncles, his two. They were all elocutionists. They were all focused on teaching people how to speak very well. They worked with actors and politicians, immigrants of means -- and they were famous for it. In fact, in the in the play and movie, "My Fair Lady." The character of Henry Higgins is based on the Bell, the character who teaches Eliza Doolittle to speak.

Joe Donahue: That is, so they took this horrible thing and it became a musical? That's. I mean, not that that's uncommon, like that happened, but...

Katie Booth: Basically! Yeah.

Joe Donahue: Uh huh. ... To me the the other part major part of the story, though, is how the deaf community works against oralism - and overthrows it to adopt American Sign Language, which is also a fascinating element of the story.

Katie Booth: Yeah, I mean, I don't want to overstate the victory, there's still a real struggle to get sign language access to deaf children today. And the effort was, so I mean, the access to power and privilege and money was so imbalanced in that fight. But yeah, deaf people organized, they had a conflict, they created a sort of national organization that became the National Association of the Deaf. Ultimately, there was even a task force of sorts that was tasked with talking to Bell, like there was a whole committee just to like, deal with this man. Try to talk some sense into him. That's how big of a threat he was. And, yeah, they I mean, the the fight goes on it extended through the 20th century. You had the Deaf President Now protests. And then, but even today, even today that this fight continues to ensure sign language access, or just accessible language to deaf children.

Joe Donahue: So that access is it's a fight, but it's a different fight than then the then oralism. And, and that being a another way of communicating and learning.

Katie Booth: I mean, the fight I think this kind of gets muddled a lot. But the fight is not again, for the most part. I mean, there's many, many people in the deaf community, a whole range of views. I'm a hearing person, I'm speaking from my perspective. But the fight for a lot of people is not about like saying that deaf people shouldn't speak. Or the deaf people shouldn't learn English. I mean, even in sign language dominated schools, kids were learning English, they were just learning written English. The fight is to have language access available to these deaf children and that the most, the easiest way to assure that is to make sure they have access to sign language. If kids don't have language access, at a very young age, they become language deprived, it has neurological effects that we almost never see in the hearing world, but which abound in the deaf world. Just today on Twitter, I saw a woman who was posting about having seen two deaf children over the course of the week who were arriving at elementary school with no language at all. And it continues today, it is an epidemic in the deaf community and the best way to ensure that deaf kids pick up on language at an early age that they have that language foundation in their minds, is to just provide them access to sign language.

Joe Donahue: So you you talk about this to have the representation that we see of the Deaf, even a mainstream representation and television and film, which is not good. We also see it that the we look at the echoes of this legacy. And it as you say, it's playing out in the classroom, but it's also playing out in our media representation as well.

Katie Booth: Yeah, well, definitely. Yes. Yeah. I mean, you often have hearing people or playing deaf roles on film. You have hearing scientists working on language. Well, they're working on studies related to hearing, which often carry a lot of hearing biases. And I, myself am a hearing person who wrote a book on deafness. I'm trying to examine my own role, and my own in between role because I inherited a lot of deaf cultural stories from my family. But I am also living in the hearing world I have, I have to confront my own hearing this, which is also something that I try to do in this book.

Joe Donahue: Where do you think this, this idea of the invention of miracles do you think? Is that possible?

Katie Booth: Well, I mean, the way, the title of the book, I, what I've tried to essentially do is to sort of break the idea of the miracle. Deaf children, who learn to speak has been seen as miraculous, since the very first record of teaching a deaf child to speak in America. It's framed as a miracle. Even you see this in the story about Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller titled "The Miracle Worker," you see it in the framing of cochlear implant activation videos, which are often talked about as being miraculous, even though that's those videos are really problematic. I think what I well what I wanted to do was sort of challenge that idea of the miracle, and show that a miracle, the things we frame as miracles are often framed that way, because the labor involved to get in getting to that point has been erased. The deaf child who can speak has done years and years and years and years of labor to make that happen. And to call it a miracle is to erase all of that. And to frame it in a way that is deceptive. And so I wanted to take that word, miracle and question and talk that sort of help people think of it as something that is created something that is made quite deliberately, something that is essentially invented.

Joe Donahue: Katie Booth's book is "The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power in Alexander Graham Bell's Quest to End Deafness" it is published by Simon and Schuster.

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