I love reading books about hearing loss. Some share tips and tricks for living better with hearing loss. Others detail personal journeys, yet each one provides a new perspective on the incredibly complex and multifaceted experience of living with hearing loss. The Invention of Miracles by Katie Booth, is no exception. The book tells the story of Alexander Graham Bell, best known as the inventor of the telephone, but also a controversial figure in the Deaf community. Booth is highly critical of his work with the Deaf, in particular Bell’s promotion of oralism — the idea that Deaf people should learn to “listen” and speak rather than communicate with sign language.
A product of his time, Bell believed he was helping the deaf avoid what he considered to be the worst of all possible fates — being different. Yet by doing so, he prevented many from developing the language skills that would help them connect with others, express their thoughts and gain knowledge.
Today we know that our differences are what make each of us unique and beautiful. We also understand the critical window of language development that occurs in early childhood. Looking back in time, it is hard not to judge Bell for misunderstanding what we now see as self-evident.
Hearing Loss Technology Changes the Game
My hearing loss began in my mid-20s, well after I acquired language and the ability to speak well. If I don’t mention my hearing loss, I sound hearing — just as Bell had always hoped for his pupils. But the comparison is unfair. Firstly, I benefited from years of language exposure that taught me the nuances of understanding and generating speech. Secondly, I have the miracle of modern hearing technology on my side. My hearing aids augment my residual hearing so I can hear others, as well as my own speech. Nothing even remotely like this existed in Bell’s day. And lastly, I do not hide my hearing loss, like Bell would have had me do. I lean heavily on non-technical communication skills like speechreading and self-advocacy so when I don’t hear well, I let others know so they can help.
Without these advantages, my life would be vastly different, especially if I had lived in Bell’s times. Reading the book had me wondering what I would have wanted if I had lived in the 1870s. There is no way to know for sure, but I imagine I would have sought out any and all methods to communicate and to connect with others, to share stories and to acquire knowledge. Who would dare deny me these rights?
Today’s D/deaf are lucky in comparison. Now we understand the importance of early language acquisition in childhood and enjoy a wide variety of technological solutions to boost residual hearing or even create it from electrical impulses via a cochlear implant. Educators embrace a wider variety of communication strategies. Yet more work remains.
Communication is an Unequivocal Right
The book illuminates the glaring chasm that, even today, separates the life experiences and desires of the Deaf and hearing loss communities. People with hearing loss benefit from captioning and hearing loops, while the culturally Deaf require sign language interpreters. It can sometimes feel as if hearing loss and Deafness are like apples and oranges, which is why the book’s main takeaway is so important for both groups.
The Invention of Miracles reinforces our unequivocal human need for communication and argues that each of us deserves the freedom to determine what that means and how to best achieve it for ourselves. We must hold true to this construct, even when our choices differ.
Readers, what are your favorite books about hearing loss?