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A Phone of Our Own: The Deaf Insurrection Against Ma Bell
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While pausing near the top to take in the view, Weitbrecht and Laitinen met Edwin McKeown, a lawyer, and his eleven-year-old deaf son, Laddie. McKeown had heard Weitbrecht speaking to Laitinen and recognized the distinct voice quality of a person born deaf. He introduced himself and Laddie to the physicist, explaining that his wife, Patsy, was also deaf. McKeown told Weitbrecht that Laddie was in a public school. The boy was doing all right, but he was challenged by his deafness.

This reminded Weitbrecht of his own childhood. Born deaf in 1920 in Orange, California, Weitbrecht was brought up with his younger brother George by their mother. His father, a farmer, lost the family farm during the Depression and died when Weitbrecht was young. After being tutored at home for a while, Bob entered a public school. He performed at the same level as his hearing classmates but was often teased and treated cruelly because of his hearing loss. The experience left him somewhat bitter and to his last day, he struggled with self-confidence. He hoped Laddie would not experience similar treatment. After talking a little longer with the McKeowns, Weitbrecht and Laitinen went on their way.

In February of 1964, Weitbrecht heard from McKeown again, this time in Piedmont, California. McKeown invited him to a dinner party with some deaf friends. Weitbrecht had not associated much with other deaf people. When he was four years old, a retired teacher had tutored him and another profoundly deaf child. Later, while studying astronomy in college, he had befriended a deaf student, who taught him sign language. But he never had much opportunity to use it, because he preferred to read lips. This had made him rather uncomfortable about attending the McKeown dinner. At the party, however, Weitbrecht learned that the McKeowns’ deaf friends were all established professionals who, like himself, could read lips well. They enjoyed his fascinating accounts of working with electronics instrumentation design. There were few deaf scientists in the workforce at this time and that made his accomplishments all the more remarkable to them.


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