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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell
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Born in 1917, Saks was deafened by a mastoid infection when he was 8 months old. The grandson of Andrew Saks, founder of the New York City Saks Fifth Avenue department store, he attended Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and then studied electrical engineering at the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1941, while a student, Saks authored an essay titled “Deaf Difficulties,” in which he wrote about the problem of not being able to use the radio or the telephone. During World War II, he held various positions for North American Aviation, the Electrical Products Division of Western Electric Company, and the Douglas Aircraft Company. After the war, he conducted research in blood physiology for eight years at Stanford University as part of the nation’s space program. Later, he managed his own investment business.

Like Marsters, Saks had tinkered with visual communication devices that would assist deaf people. He had worked on relay coils and flashing light signalers to let him and his friends know that the telephone was ringing or that someone was at the door. He also had worked on an early version of a signaler that would allow deaf parents to know a baby was crying. His drawers and closets were filled with various gadgets, and his wife, Jean, was never sure what he would bring home next. He was also experienced in the business world, which would be helpful to his new partners.

Saks, Weitbrecht, and Marsters shared an interest in mechanical devices and much more. All three were deaf professionals at a time when such accomplishment was comparatively rare, in part because of the limitations imposed by telephone inaccessibility. They also were independent and believed that deaf people could and should help themselves instead of relying on hearing people. Each was, to some extent, frustrated by the lack of easy phone access. Each man would play an important role in ending this frustration for hundreds of thousands of other deaf people.

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