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Devoted to the Deaf, Did Alexander Graham Bell Do More Harm Than Good?

Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness
By Katie Booth

Alexander Graham Bell has long been a polarizing figure, admired as the brilliant inventor of the telephone and other extraordinary devices, but also despised as the leading exponent of oralism, the movement that pressured deaf people to learn speech and, more important, not to learn sign language. He had a deaf mother and a deaf wife, but he worked relentlessly to normalize their deafness, hoping that they might become such clever facsimiles of hearing people as to be spared the disadvantages of their manifest disability.

In his later life, Bell was loosely associated with eugenics, perhaps the most misguided of all Victorian ideologies. He never advocated for deaf people to be sterilized; in fact, he opposed such practices. But he did try to persuade deaf people not to marry one another, because he feared that they would pass on their disability and create a “defective variety of the race.” He recruited prominent figures to his side, including Helen Keller, who dedicated her first memoir to him, and who initially understood herself the way he understood her: as an inspirational but broken human being. “I can’t imagine a man wanting to marry me,” she said. “I should think it would seem like marrying a statue.”

Katie Booth’s biography of Bell, “The Invention of Miracles,” has been in the works for 15 years; her meticulous research and rigor are evident on every page. Engagingly written, the book enlivens a life that has often appeared dry in other accounts. Booth’s descriptions of Bell’s passionate courtship of his student Mabel Hubbard, who belonged to a much higher social class, are as stirring as a romance novel, and her narrative of his work on the telephone reads like a thriller. One comes away feeling deeply connected not only to Bell, but also to Mabel and a host of subsidiary characters.

Born in Scotland in 1847, Bell was the son and grandson of elocutionists, and his driving passion was to understand how human beings create the sounds that make up speech. He produced a speaking machine that replicated a range of phonemes when properly aerated, and continued to tinker with ways of bringing forth spoken words where no such words had been heard before; he even tried to teach speech to his dog. His father had designed a universal alphabet to represent the mechanics of articulation, and Alexander Graham Bell lectured widely on its importance, certain that anyone would be able to verbalize any language transliterated into these symbols.

That anyone included deaf people. Bell believed that with the correct methods, they could learn to speak, and be integrated into the larger society. As he tried to understand hearing and sound, he stumbled into inventions. Though the telephone made him rich, he had relatively little emotional attachment to it, seeing it as a distraction from his wish to reform the education of deaf people. (Nevertheless, he devoted years to defending his patents, which some critics believe were granted unfairly; if Bell did invent the telephone, he stood on the shoulders of giants.)

Read entire article at New York Times