Alexander Graham Bell – the man behind the inventor

Of course I’ve heard of Alexander Graham Bell. I know that he is credited with inventing the telephone. I know that there is some controversy surrounding this claim and that some people believe that he stole the idea from another inventor called Elisha Gray. I know that despite this, he was the first to patent the telephone and his patent held up in a court case. I know that the first words he is supposed to have spoken over the telephone were, “Mr Watson, come here. I want to see you.”

What I didn’t know until recently, was that he was known as more than an inventor. On a trip to the Science Museum in London I was curious to see that the display about Alexander Graham Bell was BSL interpreted – the only exhibit in the whole museum that was as far as I had seen. Intrigued, I approached the display and read that Alexander Graham Bell had supposedly said that of all the things he had done, the achievement he was most proud of was his work with deaf people.

As I have an interest in education for deaf people, using my BSL to work as a supply teacher in a school for deaf children, my curiosity was sparked and I decided to find out more about him.

He was born in Edinburgh in 1847 to Eliza and Alexander Bell, and as his father and grandfather were both elocution teachers, it was probably inevitable that he would become involved in communication.

His interest in deafness began at the age of 12 when his mother started to go deaf. He used to sit by her and spell the conversations into her hand so that she didn’t miss out on what was happening around her. He also realised that if he spoke quite closely to her forehead she could hear him. He worked out that she was actually feeling the vibrations of his voice, and this became useful in his later research.

In 1870 he moved to Canada with his family, and the following year they moved again to the USA, where Bell began teaching deaf people to speak, using a system called “visible speech” which his father had invented.

In 1872 he founded the school in Boston where he taught deaf children and also trained Teachers of the Deaf. His most famous pupil was Helen Keller. His interest in speech led to an interest in transmitting speech, and after much experimentation and a neck-and-neck race with Elisha Gray, he was granted a patent for the telephone in 1876.

In 1880 he was awarded the Volta Prize for his invention and he used the money to continue researching communication and ways to teach the deaf. By this time he had also married Mabel Gardiner Hubbard, one of his former pupils, who was profoundly deaf.

With all this work with and for deaf people, at first it seems strange that he isn’t better known for this, and regarded as an important historical figure in the Deaf community. However, attitudes were less enlightened back then. Deafness was seen as something that needed to be cured, and if possible, eradicated. Bell taught deaf people to speak clearly so that they could be understood by hearing people and integrated into the hearing world and he believed that sign language was wrong. Although I have not heard anything that suggests he did as some other teachers did, and tie pupils’ hands behind their backs to prevent them from signing, there is little doubt that he tried to suppress sign language. He had also noticed that there seemed to be a link between deaf parents and deaf children, and even went so far as to suggest that deaf people should not be allowed to marry or to have children, so that deafness could be erased from the population! It is for these reasons that he is understandably not respected by the Deaf community.

It can only be hoped that were he alive today he would have very different views. As it is, perhaps it is for the best that he is only remembered as the inventor of the telephone.

To be PC or not to be PC?

Last year I did a level 2 course about autism. I found it interesting, not least because of the discussions it sparked between me and my tutor. One of these was about “correct” terminology. In several of my answers, I referred to autistic people and was pulled up on this and told I should always refer to “people with autism” and never “autistic people”.

When I mentioned this to my husband, who is autistic himself, he was somewhat less than impressed! When he was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, and after he’d had time to get his head round it, we had a conversation about the language he wanted to use. He’s always been very clear that he is autistic, he doesn’t have autism. He says being autistic is the same as being intelligent and being friendly – it’s all part of his personality, whereas he feels having autism is like having a cold or having measles and makes it sound like an illness and also like something that’s just temporary.

His views on “autistic person” vs “person with autism” are similar. His opinion is that “with autism” makes it sound like something that’s completely separate from him rather than something that contributes to making him who he is. He says people would always talk about a generous person and a friendly person, but never “a person with generosity” or “a person with friendliness”, so by the same token he says he is an autistic person and not a person with autism.

My tutor took these comments on board and passed them on to the people who had written the course, but the response was a very disappointing, “we have no plans to change” – even though the National Autistic Society uses “autistic people” because this is what the majority of the people they represent prefer. The course advocates a person-centred approach throughout but it seems that this does not stretch to asking the autistic community how they prefer to refer to themselves!

As a nation, we are a paradox. On the one hand we are obsessed with not offending people and our language is becoming ever more restricted so as not to offend people. On the other hand, we don’t seem to care enough to ask the people concerned how they feel about it!

Another example of this is the use of “hearing impaired” and “visually impaired”.

Hearing impaired is often seen as the correct, PC, non-offensive way to refer to the Deaf community – despite the fact that most of them find the term hearing impaired offensive. To them, the term “impaired” suggests faulty or substandard – and how can that not that not be offensive?

I asked a friend of mine who is blind what she thought of the term “visually impaired”. She said she didn’t find it offensive, but felt that if people were going to use it, it ought to be applied to everyone who doesn’t have perfect vision – including all those of us who wear glasses or contact lenses, or who screw our eyes up when trying to focus on something close up!

I think above all the most important thing to remember is that everyone is different. There is no one size fits all way to refer to people that everyone will be happy with. We should stop trying to be so politically correct if that means making decisions on behalf of another person about what may or may not offend them without finding out what they really think. If you only take one message away from reading this post I’d like it to be this: just ask! Ask people what they want. Ask people how they prefer to refer to themselves. Ask each individual what he, or she, or they find offensive and make sure that you use a term that the particular individual you are talking to finds acceptable.

“Tell Someone You Care” Day

February 7th is Time to Talk Day and it’s all about talking about mental health and removing the stigma of mental illnesses.

Most people will suffer from a mental health problem at some time in their life – that means when you look around at your friends, many of them have, have had or will have, a mental illness. Some of them are probably already quite open about it; others may not be, and these are the ones I want to talk about.

I have friends who are quite vocal about suffering from depression and will often post statuses on Facebook like “What’s the point?” or “Having a bad day!” They get instant support. Their timeline gets filled with virtual hugs, and a couple of days later they post pictures of the flowers and gifts they’ve received, along with messages of thanks for visits. All this is brilliant and it’s good to see people rallying to support someone who needs it.

But what about the people who don’t post statuses like that? What about the ones who just quietly slip out of circulation? Maybe they are genuinely busy and will be back online in a couple of days or a couple of weeks – but maybe they are struggling and don’t know how to express it. Maybe they could do with a helping hand but they’re struggling so much that they don’t even have the energy to post, “Having a bad time!” on Facebook. Maybe they are not coping but don’t want to feel like a burden, so instead they hide away. Don’t let these friends be a case of out-of-sight out-of-mind and don’t assume that just because they haven’t asked for help it means they don’t need it.

Coincidentally, February 7th is also Send a Card to a Friend Day. Perhaps on this day you could take a few minutes to think about each of your friends and then send a card (or a text or an instant message or even make a phone call) to someone you haven’t heard from for a while. Tell them how much their friendship means to you and check they are ok. If they are suffering from depression or some other mental health issue it will help them to realise they are not alone. Even if they’re feeling fit and well and just decided to take a social media break it will brighten their day to hear from you and that can never be a bad thing.

Please don’t stop supporting the friends who ask for help. They obviously need it. But please also remember that it’s often the people who don’t ask for help who need it the most.