By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current senior Contributor
For most hearing people, Alexander Graham Bell is the guy who invented the telephone.
But in Deaf culture, he is the man infamous for his promotion of the inhumane practice of trying to force Deaf children hear and read lips, while denying them use of the language that was right there, quite literally at their fingertips. Sign language was already the language of the Deaf and that language and culture was under attack by Bell and other oralist advocates.
“He is just a name in the hearing world. In the Deaf world, you can’t say that name without a reaction,” Pittsburgh writer Katie Booth told the Current.
The result of many years of research and work is Booth’s first book, ‘The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness,’ which will be released this week by Simon & Schuster.
According to Booth, oralism as prescribed by Bell and many others was the predominant form of education and it’s practice stretched into the 1970’s. Put simply, oralism was education through oral language which employed lip reading and mimicking the mouth shapes and breathing patterns of speech. The Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, Massachusetts was the first school to start teaching in this manner, but it wasn’t the only one.
Booth grew up with Deaf grandparents and aunts and uncles, although she herself is hearing. She was told stories from her elder relatives, some about attending the Clarke School where oralism was king.
“When my aunt was going through her oralist education, she actually had a class in hearing. She had to listen to these musical records and try to say which song was being played. But she was profoundly Deaf. She could not know. The best headphones in the world were not going to help her know. So she would use visual cues to try to figure it out, and she was always wrong, and she would get punished,” explained Booth.
When Booth set about her research of this painful history, she first looked into the Clarke School, but it was inevitable her investigation would lead directly to Bell. His adherence to oralism, and the irrational fear of differences that undergirds it, is all the more shocking given that both his beloved mother and his wife were Deaf. If there was a hearing person who had every reason to be an ally, rather than adversary, it was Alexander Graham Bell. Yet, he came to view Deafness as a danger and a problem to be solved or fixed. The damage done to generations of Deaf children as a result these views is immense.
“His wife wrote to him that Deaf kids had become just cases to him — they had lost their humanity. If my dear Deaf wife said that to me, I would have stopped for a good long time and thought about what I was doing,” Booth said of the letters between Mabel and Alexander.
Notwithstanding his wife’s feelings, in 1884, Bell published a paper titled, ‘Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, in which he warned of a growing ‘deaf race.’ He decried the use of sign language as, “a language as different from English as French or German or Russian.” His solution was to eliminate sign language and remove Deaf teachers; instead, he promoted schools for the Deaf staffed entirely by hearing teachers who would enforce a ban on sign.
If this attempt to eradicate Deaf culture sounds a lot like eugenics, that’s because it is. Booth pointed to the incredible work done by Brian Greenwald, PhD, at Gallaudet who has done exhaustive work on Bell’s ties to and belief in eugenics.
The Deaf community fought, noting that an exclusively oral education would be disastrous for Deaf students. At the time, we did not have the term ‘language deprivation.’ Scientists didn’t know about neural plasticity and how the brain is formed as we learn language. But the Deaf community knew.
“[T]hey knew empirically that this was not working. Something was going on with these students’ minds — something was happening and it was not okay,” Booth said of the battle that the Deaf were fighting for their very lives. “Hearing people and hearing scientists were reluctant to take that seriously. It’s a matter of systematically silencing this group that was trying desperately to communicate that this was very much not working.”
The emphasis in oral schools was on oralism, rather than a regular curriculum of math, english, science, history and so on. It’s not a very good education by any standard. Worse yet, oralism deprives Deaf children of the ability to exercise their language muscles — it deprives them of language.
Booth said that the work done by Deaf scientist Sanjay Gulati is essential to understanding the effects of language deprivation. He states plainly that it causes damage which cannot be reversed and that depriving a child of language changes the way their mind works. It’s hard to even conceive of such a loss.
“In the Deaf world, you can’t escape it. It is everywhere. These people are everywhere — people who have been permanently changed by a method of education that was supposed to save them. It’s a tragedy. There are so many Deaf people out there with no language at all — still. That just doesn’t happen in the hearing world — it shouldn’t happen in the Deaf world.”
In addition to telling the story of Bell, Booth shares some of her family history. She opens the book writing about her grandmother, a woman with a large personality and mischievous sense of humor, who was a towering force in Booth’s childhood. She writes:
“She lived among the culturally Deaf, signified by a capital D and defined by the use of ASL and observation of Deaf cultural norms. In those spaces, my grandmother had more access to information than I did. With friends she communicated in quick, fluent Sign, and even when I could catch the gist of the individual words I could also tell that there were layers and layers of meaning that were escaping me.”
Booth understands the space she occupies as a hearing person. She knows that other hearing people tend to listen to her before they listen to Deaf people. Still, she hopes her work can point toward the Deaf community. There is hope that her writing will inspire curiosity which will lead more hearing people to seek out the work of Deaf thinkers, Deaf artists and Deaf historians.
“The short view is that I want hearing people to know that they’re hearing. Most people don’t know that they’re hearing. So for hearing people to understand that they’re hearing and their perspectives are hearing and that those perspectives are often incredibly biased and harmful,” she said.
“That’s the thing I learned from Bell — it’s not enough to just be from a Deaf family. That doesn’t save you from doing harm. It’s work I have to do myself.”