Katie Booth teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared in The Believer, Catapult, and Harper’s Magazine, and has been highlighted on Longreads and Longform; “The Sign for This” was a notable essay in the 2016 edition of Best American Essays. Booth is a former Kluge Fellow and worked on “The Invention of Miracles” during that fellowship.
Andrew Breiner: Could you start out by giving us an introduction to your new book: “The Invention of Miracles: language, power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s quest to end Deafness”?
Katie Booth: Sure! It’s essentially the story of Alexander Graham Bell’s lifelong work in relation to deaf people. He was the son of a deaf woman and husband to another, and was at the forefront of a movement in deaf education called “oralism,” which sought to teach deaf children to speak and lipread while simultaneously withholding and punishing any use of sign language. His promotion of this type of education also led him straight into the very earliest days of the eugenics movement. Early on, he advocated that deaf people shouldn’t marry each other, and later he became involved in the American Breeders’ Association, an early eugenics group, and ultimately chaired the ABA Eugenics Committee’s Subcommittee on Deafness.
AB: To many, Alexander Graham Bell is simply “the inventor of the telephone.” What is the most important way that you hope to add to or complicate that image?
KB: I hope that people will understand that for many people, that’s not who Bell was—he is still, today, seen by many as a major villain in deaf history, and for good reason. It’s important that we understand him as a complicated historical figure because to continue to resist that is to erase the very real, and often traumatic, experiences that many deaf people have lived through because of Bell’s work and legacy.
For hearing people, it is important for us to understand this other part of Bell because in many ways he laid the groundwork for hearing people’s understandings of deafness today—understandings that many of us never question. Learning about Bell and his influence is a productive first step in hearing people coming to terms with the privilege that we carry with us through the world, and the ways that it can do real damage to the deaf people in our midst. We have a lot of reparative work to do and we have barely begun.
AB: What about your work and life led you to focus on Bell?
KB: Well, I grew up in a family with hereditary deafness. On my mother’s side, my grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and great-grandparents were all deaf, and when I was young my grandparents lived just a few houses down from us.
I grew up signing and I grew up with a lot of culturally deaf stories, like the story of Bell. I always knew this side of Bell. When I was nineteen, my grandmother was hospitalized and was put through a pretty horrific experience because the hospital was not prepared to accommodate her deafness and her language. Witnessing this sent me back into this history—I wanted to understand why, after all this time, hearing people were still so ignorant about deafness. How could my grandmother have experienced this atrocity, and why was her story so heartbreakingly common in the deaf community? I suspected a lot of this had to do with Bell’s ideas and the way they took hold.
AB: What was Bell’s relationship to deafness, and to deaf people around him?
KB: I found, in my research, that Bell’s relationship to the deaf people around him was more complex than I suspected. Like I said, his mother and wife were both deaf, and he seems to have had a tremendous amount of respect for them both, though they also both spoke and neither relied on sign language. I also learned that he himself was said to have been a terrific signer—he learned ASL after coming to the US. That said, he was also working very hard to ensure that the next generation of deaf people did not use sign language—he thought it was holding them back. This had catastrophic consequences for many deaf people, both in his time and still today, and led to widespread language deprivation.
AB: In the century since Bell was alive, what do you think has changed about our perceptions of deafness, and differences between people more broadly, and how does that interact with his legacy?
KB: I think the popular image of sign language has changed tremendously—in Bell’s time it was seen as grotesque and today it’s often seen as beautiful. I think on the whole that’s a positive change, though I also think there’s a long way to go. Sign language is sometimes beautiful, sure, but the bigger point is that it is necessary. I still don’t think that’s sunk in.
Deaf people still have to spend a huge amount of time fighting for sign language access—even when faced with global emergencies like Covid-19. A huge amount of critical public health information that was disseminated by the state (in the US and elsewhere) was not interpreted into sign language, including information coming out of the White House. So while hearing people are prepared to say that ASL is beautiful and teach random ASL words to hearing babies and celebrate hearing people signing on Instagram and TikTok, we are still not ensuring ASL access to deaf people in the most critical of situations.
And I think that is part of Bell’s legacy—a legacy that suppressed language access and made it seem unnecessary. We still see ASL as superfluous, or at least that’s how many institutions treat it. The story of how that came to be is one that hearing people need to learn about, and the outcomes of Bell’s efforts to suppress sign language still urgently need to be addressed today. The story of Bell is not one that is simply historical; his legacy is very much alive.