Disability Studies Quarterly Blog

Book and Media


Review by Tracey Edelist, University of Toronto, Email: tracey.edelist@mail.utoronto.ca

Keywords: biography, memoir, medicine, Deafness, oralism

Katie Booths’ The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness reveals the complexities of Alexander Graham Bell’s personal life and work life and how they so closely intermingled to lead him to pursue teaching deaf children how to speak. Booth shows how Bell’s work was shaped by the time and places he lived, and the familial, social, cultural, economic, and political relationships throughout his life. Set in a time of innovation, Booth summarizes Bell’s race to patent the telephone and the saga of lawsuits that followed. With her interest stemming from the oppressive influence Bell’s oralist and eugenic ideas had on her own deaf family members, Booth draws from institutional archives, deaf newspapers, past and present deaf studies journals, and personal writings (diaries, notes, letters), to provide an insightful account of Bell’s life and work with deaf children. 

Bell understood the oralist approach as a way to both teach deaf children to speak, and to integrate deaf children with hearing children to avoid segregating deaf children into signing deaf schools. Throughout the book, Booth presents a central paradox within Bell’s life: although his personal relationships and work show he recognized the humanity of deaf people at a time when many in society did not, even using sign language to communicate with deaf people (but not the students he taught), his ethic that deaf people should be treated the same as hearing people was effectively a rejection of difference, the very thing that oppresses deaf people by expecting them to be like hearing people, rather than appreciating and respecting human difference. 

Booth situates the historical account of Bell with more current deaf experiences by bookending Bell’s history between her own family history, and how Bell’s legacy influenced her deaf grandparents’ experiences within education and health care. I thought these personal stories were an effective way to discuss how Bell’s legacy continues to affect how deaf people today learn language and experience life. The book is divided into a prologue, three parts, and an afterword. The prologue begins powerfully with fond childhood memories of growing up in a signing environment with deaf grandparents, juxtaposed with her grandmother’s disempowering experiences with discrimination and audism while in the hospital at the end of her life, the event that prompted Booth’s research into Bell’s life.  

Part I introduces readers to Bell and his family, covering much historical ground beginning with the Bell intergenerational family business of elocution (i.e., teaching ‘proper’ articulation of speech sounds) in the United Kingdom, and his mother’s acquired deafness. That his mother lost her hearing after already learning speech and hence her ability to ‘pass’ as hearing seems to have had a great influence on Bell’s chosen career. Since the Bell family business was elocution, Bell grew up learning about how sounds are produced, how to teach people to pronounce them, and how to represent them and read them from a rather complicated universal alphabet (Visible Speech) developed by his father. This ‘visible speech’ was what Bell used to teach deaf children. His first forays into invention as a teen also centred around creating a human-like machine that could simulate speech production. Since Visible Speech was so central to Bell’s teaching, I would have liked an example of the writing system, and diagrams Bell used in his teaching, but Booth describes them well. 

Throughout the seven chapters of Part I, Booth intertwines historical accounts of people, and events important in Bell’s life: his father’s elocution work and Visible Speech; his deaf mother’s life; the deaths of his brothers, prompting a move to Ontario, Canada when Bell, the remaining son, became ill; Bell’s wife Mabel’s childhood story of her acquired deafness; Bell’s move to Boston to teach Visible Speech to teachers of the deaf; Mabel’s father’s partnership with Bell, first as Mabel’s speech teacher, and later in the invention of multiple telegraphy; Bell’s increasing fondness for Mabel; and his inventing partnership with Thomas Watson. To help deaf children learn to speak, Bell sought to build a machine to make speech visible and easier to teach and learn, which would lead to the invention of the telephone upon discovering that sound could travel through wire. 

These personal stories were interwoven with relevant historical information, such as a brief history of Gallaudet and Clerc’s first American signing school for the deaf (1817) and how the gathering of deaf people at the school led to the development of American Sign Language. This history was placed in the context of Mabel’s father wanting her to learn to speak rather than being part of the deaf community. At points throughout, especially in Chapter 2, Booth makes connections between industry, productivity, nationalism and the ideology of normalization in the desire to remove differences, such as deafness. Throughout the book, she also shares arguments in the deaf education debate over time, between manualists (sign language), combinists (both speech and sign), and oralists (only speech).

In Part II, Booth turns to the history of the telephone, the clash over patents with another inventor, Elisha Gray, and the lawsuits that followed. While working on perfecting the telephone, Booth reiterates that Bell would rather have been teaching deaf students Visible Speech. In 1877, Bell and Mabel married, and honeymooned in Scotland, where Bell helped to found an oral deaf school. The Bell Telephone Company was also formed, and the telephone quickly became a household item internationally. 

In Part III, Booth returns to Bell’s pursuit of oralism, when in 1883, Bell opened his own integrated deaf school to show that deaf students could learn to speak, while also delving deeply into deaf genealogy to show why oralism was necessary. This genealogical work led him to eugenics, as he espoused the need to prevent marriage, and hence procreation, amongst deaf people, promoting oralism as a way to reduce opportunities for deaf people to congregate together. Booth explains how Bell’s 1883 eugenic paper, “Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race” made the necessity to reduce deaf procreation a reason for eliminating sign language; his goal became to eliminate discrimination by eliminating deafness. 

In this final section, Booth recounts events that took place at the Milan Conference in 1880, where deaf educators (the vast majority oralist and hearing), decided that pure oral methods were the best way for deaf students to be educated, while in the U.S., the National Association of the Deaf was founded at a national conference that brought together Deaf people and educators, supporting the survival of sign language. Although there was a strong, signing deaf community using and advocating for continued sign language in education at the time, and they condemned Bell’s eugenic oralist ideas, his ideas were taken up within the broader eugenic movement (of which he was part), and deaf people eventually were subjected to legislated sterilization in some states. Booth is careful to note that Bell did not agree with such legislation; there is a sense that he may not have realized the devastating outcomes that would arise from his research and ideas, and his attempts to prevent them did not work.  

After closing his school upon realizing the failure of his oralist methods, he persisted in his oralist agenda, ignoring his own outcomes and the experience and advice of deaf people and their advocates for the need to include sign language in deaf education. Near the end of the 19th century, Bell had a new exceptional student in Helen Keller, whose story Booth tells, and by 1901, oralism began to overpower sign language as a method of instruction.

For anyone who only knows A.G. Bell as the inventor of the telephone, this book reveals his life’s passion and work lay with teaching deaf people to speak, the good he did for deaf people, and the harm he and other oralists caused, both to individual deaf people through language deprivation, internalized audism, and to the wider deaf community during his time, continuing into the present. Through Booth’s descriptions of Bell’s persistent work with his various inventions, I came to understand how Bell, as an inventor, would want to ‘perfect’ his teaching methods: at the expense of the deaf people he was trying to help, he would not stop until his oralist ideas came to fruition. Booth notes how oppression faced by deaf people for generations to come came from Bell’s insistence on achieving his oralist goal despite his own experience with his method’s failures, and despite deaf people telling him otherwise. I think it’s also important to note that he was bolstered by parents of deaf children coming to him for help, the nationalist and capitalist focus of the industrial society in which he lived, and the push for oralism that began before his time (he was not the only one responsible for this movement, but he was a powerful player). Booth shows the relationships between these forces in a few places well, but I was still left with a sense of Bell as an individual being largely responsible for the past and current state of affairs. 

Almost two centuries after Bell helped open the first oralist deaf schools, another technological invention, the cochlear implant, provides access to sound, which combined with speech training, resulted in more deaf children learning to speak. However, there are still deaf children being denied access to language through a focus on listening and speaking while withholding sign language. Hearing people continue to dictate how deaf children should communicate and how they should be educated. While at the same time, the Deaf community continues to advocate for sign language, while being largely ignored by the medical community. As Booth notes in her afterword, this advocacy is now supported by evidence of the harmful effects of language deprivation, which she links to her grandfather’s experience being denied sign language, and which is an ongoing concern for deaf children expected to learn spoken language (and not sign) with hearing technologies.

Missing from the book was how deaf children from poor families or non-white families were affected by Bell’s ideologies and teaching. Since information was taken from available archival sources, this information was likely not so readily available. A future research project could be to uncover the history of Black and immigrant deaf people in North America and how their experiences intersected with Bell’s ideas. 

Since many different topics are covered in this book it appeals to a wide general audience, from those who like to read historical biographies, to anyone with a general interest in 19th century inventions (particularly telegraphy and the telephone); historical patent laws; and deaf education in the 19th century. Although not an academic book, the book provides good general background information for speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and audiologists to understand the politics behind the debate of how to teach deaf children to communicate, and AG Bell’s role in the continued oppression of deaf people. I recommend this book for audiology and SLP students, especially those interested in working with deaf children, as Booth’s research explains the history behind the current AG Bell Academy for Listening and Spoken Language (https://agbellacademy.org), a powerful international organization that provides education and certification for teaching deaf children to hear and speak, history that may be missing from SLP/audiology professional training. In other words, this book may be a way to bring critical perspectives and awareness to health care fields that contribute to the ongoing oppression of deaf people. 

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.


Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.


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