In New Book, Pittsburgh Author Katie Booth examines Alexander Graham Bell’s Cruel War on Deafness

By March 30, 2021 2 Comments

Alexander Graham Bell with student from the Clarke school (Photo: Library of Congress)

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. 

Katie Booth

“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.” 


  • John Linko says:

    Your assertion that oral education of the deaf and hard of hearing is an “inhumane practice” misinforms the reader without the additional context of what Deaf culture actually is, which is to say that the deaf / HOH and Deaf communities remain engaged in a quiet culture war that began with Bell and oralism, but has escalated with the introduction of enabling technology such as ubiquitous captioning and the cochlear implant. Oral education continues today, at Clarke School and right here in Pittsburgh at the DePaul School in Shadyside.

    My late first wife was born severely hard of hearing. Her adoptive parents, both hearing, enrolled her at Clarke, where she attended until she was mainstreamed into the public schools at age 11. College-educated, she led a vibrant, fulfilling life, while at the same time maintaining friendships with many oral deaf / HOH adults. As ASL was for her a second language, she struggled at times to reach out to the culturally Deaf. As I was by her side as many of these interactions took place, I bristle at the notion that her life, and those of her friends, were somehow diminished by choices made by caring parents doing the best they knew how.

    I sympathize with those embracing Deaf culture who may feel that gains in technology and losses in tradition pose a threat. If anything, these advances should serve as a bridge to understanding. Applying adjectives such as “cruel” and “inhumane” and nouns like “tragedy” minimizes the lives led, a good portion of my life indirectly, and the lives of those continuing to struggle and thrive. If Ms. Booth’s intent is to “inspire curiosity” in Deaf culture, the approach you took to bring it to light may not do her any favors.

  • MB Whitcomb says:

    Bell helped make it clear that HOH and Deaf people were smart and had a lot to contribute. This author makes her bias clear in chapter one that she holds Bell as responsible for the psychosocial negative effects her beloved grandparents suffered. She judges him from the present and tries to pick apart a marriage that was legendary in its success and the deep loving relationship. How does this help anyone? Isn’t it great that Deafness is so accepted now, and that there are many ways to teach different deaf learners? Does one side really have to stomp the other? It is fine if some don’t with to communicate with the hearing world other than on their own terms, but is it fair to condemn those who promote that option? This woman is extremely angry at someone who died in 1922. A lot of the biography is wonderful and interesting…until the snark and the analogies to Hitler…in chapter one. Too bad, because a lot of work went into this, I think. I checked and no one at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, or the Brantford Melville Bell Homestead Historic site had ever had any contact with her.

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