Katie Booth: History’s complex, right? Today is complex. It’s not easy. We need to look deep at that complexity. It’s real, it’s true.
In April 2021, writer and Pitt alumna Katie Booth published her first book, “The Invention of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to End Deafness.” It was listed as an Editors’ Choice by the New York Times.
Stirred by her relationship with her maternal grandparents, who were deaf, Booth explored the life and fraught legacy of Alexander Graham Bell.
While best known for his invention of the telephone, Bell was also a leader of oralism and helped to establish lip reading and speech, not sign language, as the institutionally preferred mode of deaf communication in the U.S.
Many in the deaf community believe that oralism can be shaming and silencing, making Bell a controversial figure.
Booth sat down with Kenneth De Haan, a Pitt alumnus and professor at Gallaudet University, to talk about the book for Pitt Magazine.
Kenneth De Haan: Throughout the book, I noticed that Alexander Graham Bell really wanted to teach and train oralism and really focused on articulation, making sure the speech sounded correct. He really emphasized that and signing was almost secondary and it was okay to sign off to the side and it could be used in a classroom as an aid or extra support in your private life. And that was interesting. But comparing that time to today and seeing a big shift, I feel, historically speaking, compared to today, we’re seeing a little bit of a divergence. So, what do you think Alexander Graham Bell—did he envision the same thing that they’re thinking of today or are you seeing a difference and a divergence?
Booth: Yeah, Bell could sign, right? He would accept a little sign in his classrooms. But other oralists, they did not want to sign at all. They wanted only speech. I think oralism maybe escaped from Bell’s control. Bell was sort of soft about sign. He used it, but other oralists, they didn’t.
De Haan: How many pages are in the book?
Booth: Like, 400.
De Haan: Yeah, I’d say somewhere around 400. So, 400 pages — you wanted to pack in as much as you could, I’m assuming, but that’s impossible. So, I’m wondering, are there any other thoughts that you think are important that you couldn’t include in the book that you would want the audience, those that are watching this interview, know about?
Booth: I really want the audience to know that the struggle continues, right? It’s not finished, we’re not done. I think sometimes hearing people, they see interpreters, they see baby signs and they think, oh, we’re finished! Finally!
De Haan: Right.
Booth: But they don’t look at it and think, oh, it’s necessary. I feel like we want diversity, but we don’t really want to work for diversity. They’re resisting deaf stories still today. So, I think, yeah, I think the struggle continues. We’re not done.
De Haan: Thank you for sharing your stories.
Booth: Thank you, thank you for interviewing me.
De Haan: I enjoyed it, thank you.