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‘She’d seen them with their friends, signing away in ASL (American Sign Language), at ease with each other, outward-looking, confident, eager to learn.’

In reviewing Katie Booth’s biography of Alexander Graham Bell, The Invention of Miracles, David Robinson discovers that scientific breakthroughs can have unintended consequences.

 

The Invention of Miracles: language, power and Alexander Graham Bell’s quest to end deafness
By Katie Booth
Published by Scribe

 

If you ever find yourself in Cape Breton driving south on the Trans-Canada Highway, make sure you turn left at Baddeck. And when you reach the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, take the white glove tour.  It’s a few dollars more, but it’s worth it.

If you do all of that, you’ll soon learn that there’s a lot more to Alexander Graham Bell than inventing the telephone. After he had made his millions from that and moved to his 37-room Nova Scotian mansion in the 1880s, he carried on inventing. An artificial lung. A mine detector. The first powered flight in the British Empire. The world’s fastest (70mph) hydrofoil. He never stopped.

On the white glove tour behind the scenes at the museum, though, you’ll realise that there was even more to him than that. You might be allowed to hold one of the 20 volumes of his diary, his pocket notebooks, or his photo albums. Guides will point out who the other people in the photos were. His deaf wife Mabel, to whom he gave all but ten of his shares in his telephone company. The grandchildren with whom he’d spend hours on end playing and teaching science in a way that allowed them to make discoveries of their own. Here’s one son of Edinburgh who was, you can’t help thinking, a good man, maybe even a great one.

No he wasn’t, says Katie Booth, author of The Invention of Miracles, a revisionist biography of the man she calls a ‘powerful enemy of the deaf community’.

Although she herself isn’t deaf, she draws heavily on the life experiences of family members who were. The book opens with an account of her deaf grandmother’s death in hospital, overlooked by the medical staff, who only dealt with her (hearing) daughter, and ends with a tribute to her deaf carpenter grandfather (‘my best friend’), who was repeatedly denied opportunities in the hearing world.

But although both her grandparents had been routinely marginalised, she had happier memories of them too. She’d seen them with their friends, signing away in ASL (American Sign Language), at ease with each other, outward-looking, confident, eager to learn. Yet thanks largely to the advocacy of Alexander Graham Bell, who as well as inventing the telephone had a keen interest in deaf education, ASL had been almost eradicated from the country’s deaf schools – the reason Booth blames him for a ‘dangerous ethnocide of deaf culture and language’.

Bell’s father had developed a complex phonetic transcription system called Visible Speech and he himself was passionate about using it to teach deaf children: indeed, this was what he felt he’d been put on the earth to do. After all, both his mother and his wife were deaf, and what could be more fulfilling than ensuring that people like them could be completely integrated into the hearing world?

The problem was that although some deaf children could indeed learn to speak by what were called oralist methods, only about one in ten did so with easily understood fluency. Deaf children had always found it easier to speak to each other – and to learn – using sign language (manualism), but to Bell this was a pernicious distraction. In any case, sign language was scorned in polite society: to Bell’s rich father-in-law Gardiner Hubbard (a key investor in his telephone company) ‘it resembles the language of the North American Indian and the Hottentot’.

So when Hubbard set up a school for the deaf in Boston – the very one that one of Katie Booth’s relatives also attended – there was no doubt about the educational principles on which it would be based. No matter how effective ASL would prove to be, no matter how easily it could open up the wider world of science, maths, geography, history and the rest of the curriculum, that was never going to happen – or at least not until pupils had achieved the almost-impossible and mastered the complexities of speaking. In such schools, signing would actually be banned in the classroom.  Hands which attempted to sign would be slapped.

Until the tide began to turn in favour of ASL and manualism in the 1960s and 1970s, oralism blighted the education of generations of deaf children. ‘My grandparents deserved none of what came to them from Bell,’ Booth writes. ‘My grandfather deserved an education; he deserved language. And my grandmother deserved to follow her dreams, go to college, die with dignity. But the damage of oralism, of Bell’s legacy, ensured that they had none of this.’

So who’s right about Alexander Graham Bell – the Baddeck museum guides on the white glove tour, to whom he was a hero, or Katie Booth, to whom he is a well-meaning villain? Is he the man who ‘taught the deaf to speak’, as Helen Keller wrote, dedicating her memoir to him, or the man who never listened to them when they did, and stunted their education by trying to wipe out the language  George Veditz – one of the first to film it – called ‘the noblest gift God has given to deaf people’?

Although this is a well-researched and at times engrossing biography –  the story of Bell’s discovery of the telephone, which happened at the very time he was falling in love with Mabel is particularly well told – I am tempted to give Bell more of the benefit of the doubt than Booth does. Even an incomplete biography should have made room for the Baddeck side of his life and his inventions there, but this is hardly mentioned. And whether or not Booth ever went to Nova Scotia in search of her subject, there is no sign of her having visited his native Edinburgh.

If she had, she’d have known that she was wrong to write that Bell helped to found a school for the deaf in Greenock in 1878 because there was nowhere else in Scotland that would teach them. In fact, there were several other schools for the deaf here, many of them using sign language (like the one in Dundee, which had a deaf headmaster)  and the school Bell briefly taught at in Greenock was only a class of four deaf pupils. At that time in Edinburgh, about 100 deaf children were being taught from the ages of seven to 14 in a Playfair-designed building so magnificent that Queen Victoria, who opened it in 1851, is reputed to have said it outclassed even her own palaces. It became known as Donaldson’s School for the Deaf, and its first pupils were mainly taught through signing. (If I know about its history, it’s mainly because I live just across the road.)

‘Every saviour narrative,’ writes Booth, ‘begins with a compassionate instinct.’ But did Bell really ever think of himself like that?  This is a man who would have said that in his work with the deaf he was just following the science (he even wanted to call his first daughter Darwinia), promoting Visible Speech with filial loyalty, and constantly trying to improve the quality of oralist teaching. He was routinely generous, funding scholarships and fighting society’s ghettoisation of deaf people. ‘We should teach them to forget that they are deaf,’ he said.

And there’s the rub. If you do that, if you don’t listen to what they really want, you become deaf to the deaf themselves. And if that happens – as, Booth insists, it did with Bell – good intentions are never enough.

 

The Invention of Miracles: language, power and Alexander Graham Bell’s quest to end deafness by Katie Booth is published this month by Scribe, price £25.

 

 

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