Monday, August 24, 2009

James Marsters

James Marsters with a TTY machine and a coupler, the first telephone device for the deaf. (Marsters family archives)

One of my old heroes died late last month, and all the big newspapers -- including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times -- carried extensive obituaries this past weekend.

Jim Marsters, who died at 85 in Oakland, Calif., July 28, was perhaps the most consequential deaf person of his time. He lost all his hearing to scarlet fever as an infant, but he learned to speak and lipread so well that he brushed aside academic objections to his ambitions and earned a dental degree, later becoming a noted orthodontist and inventor.

In 1964 he and Robert Weitbrecht, a deaf physicist and engineer, developed a modem-like coupler to allow old wire-service teletype machines to communicate with one another over the phone lines. This was the first TTY, or Telecommunications Device for the Deaf, as it used to be known. For the first time, deaf people across America could "speak" to each other on the phone without the assistance of hearing folks. This was a genuine breakthrough, an instrument of liberation.

Marsters was also a champion of teaching the deaf to speak and lipread. That method -- not sign language -- had worked very well for him, as it had for me, and sometime in the late 1970s we met at a convention of educators and parents of deaf children.

During the course of our conversation it came out that Jim was a pilot and that he often flew his Piper Tri-Pacer to a small California town to provide free dentistry for the impoverished.

I was thunderstruck. "How can deaf people fly?" I asked. I had grown up thinking that one had to be able to use the radio to become a pilot.

Patiently Jim explained. Less than 10 per cent of American airspace under 18,000 feet requires the use of radio. Small airports do not have control towers.

It would be years before my sons had graduated from college and I had the wherewithal to learn to fly, but Jim had planted a seed that grew and grew.

The Wall Street Journal obit treats all the important events in Jim's life very well, but the Times obit fails to mention his aviation career at all, a curious omission given its importance in his life.

Worse, the Times obit begins this way: "Sign language, lip reading and speech training helped James Marsters get through college and dental school and made it possible for him to succeed as an orthodontist."

Sign language played no part in Jim's life, none at all. It is dispiriting that a newspaper as sophisticated as the Times would make such an error, such a leap into stereotype.

Deaf people are not all the same. We are as diverse as the rest of America. Jim's life proves it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the very interesting information -- and the personal touch!