"The Invention of Miracles," | Reviewed by William Winkler
Mention the name “Alexander Graham Bell” and most people will summon an image of the inventor sitting at his laboratory workbench, speaking the words “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you,” into the mouthpiece of a rudimentary telephone.
While not an inaccurate depiction of the inventor, it represents only a small percentage of his attempts to impact verbal and non-verbal communication. What is less well known about Bell is his work as an educator of the deaf, and how the effect of his beliefs and practices persist to the present day.
Katie Booth, in her book “The Invention of Miracles,” opens a wider perspective on Bell’s life and work. Booth, whose family includes two generations of the congenitally deaf, “grew up with the understanding that deafness and American Sign Language were powerful, vibrant, and enabling.”
She herself is not hearing impaired, but she learned to communicate with her deaf relatives through American Sign Language. But many outside of her family felt that her relatives were disabled, unable to communicate, and therefore excluded from broader interaction with wider society.
Booth’s interest in Bell and his work stems from her knowledge that Alexander Graham Bell vigorously opposed teaching the deaf to communicate through sign language (“manualism”), but rather believed that only by teaching the deaf to speak and to “listen” through lip reading (“oralism”) could they be integrated into society, a belief that persists in some circles today.
Booth’s narrative of Bell’s life and work is drawn from 15 years of archival study at the Library of Congress and other primary sources. It is clear that she disagrees with Bell’s conviction that only the orally trained deaf can expect to fully enter society, but she is evenhanded in her use of the sources, giving full expression to Bell’s rationale for his belief in oralist education to the exclusion of manualist.
“The Invention of Miracles” is more than a biography of Alexander Graham Bell. It is an appeal for greater understanding and acceptance of deaf culture. The book’s prologue and afterword speak powerfully to the negative effect the hearing world’s misunderstanding and isolation of the hearing impaired had on her and her family.