Seeing Voices

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Hailed as one of the great modern clinical writers, Oliver Sacks has written with great compassion in his four previous books about the ways in which neurological difficulties impact on the lives of his patients. In his most recent book, Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf Sacks turns his attention to the history of the deaf and the development of the deaf community toward linguistic self-sufficiency. Sacks, a Professor of Neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, became interested in the problem of how deaf children acquire language after reviewing Harlan Lane’s When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf (1984). Though Sacks does not know sign language, Harlan’s book inspired him to begin studying the fascinating question of how, in the absence of sound, the deaf learn to communicate and what this process may tell us about the nature of language. Seeing Voices comprises three long chapters, dealing with the history of the deaf, a discussion of language and the brain, and an examination of the issues behind the March, 1988, student strike at Gallaudet University.

As a neurologist, Sacks has always been interested in the ways in which humans compensate for the loss of a perceptual ability. Hence, as the title suggests, Seeing Voices is “as much about visual perception and imagination as it is about deafness; [it is] a meditation on what it means by necessity to be intensely visual on every level.” Sacks is quite enthusiastic about the unique communicative potential of American Sign Language (ASL) because of its use of visual space as the expressive medium, but most of all he is interested in what the study of the deaf may reveal about the human capacity for language, and how that language potential is developed when the ordinary means of its acquisition (hearing) is absent.

There may be as many as fifteen million Americans who suffer some degree of deafness, and of those, perhaps 250,000 children are born deaf The plight of the prelingually or congenitally deaf is the most serious, with regard to normal language acquisition, since they never have the opportunity as infants and small children to hear spoken language. The lack of hearing is so serious because, unless the deaf child learns to communicate through some form of sign language, he or she runs the risk of becoming retarded because of deficient language development. And without language, there is no way to acquire human culture. Sacks argues how important it is for every child to be exposed to some form of language at as early an age as possible, and for the congenitally deaf that means sign language. Not introducing the deaf child to signing is to deprive that child of any access to human culture. Language must be introduced and acquired as early as possible, if children are to learn to use language to articulate meaningful propositions. As Sacks observes, ’to be defective in language, for a human being, is one of the most desperate of calamities, for it is only through language that we enter fully into our human estate and culture, communicate freely with our fellows, acquire and share information.” For this reason, the congenitally deaf or the “deaf and dumb,” were considered retarded or incompetent for thousands of years and were denied most forms of normal human contact, including opportunities to marry, inherit property, receive an education or do appropriate work. This situation did not begin to change until more enlightened attitudes emerged in France in the eighteenth century.

The liberation of the deaf began with Charles-Michel, abbe de l’Epee, a contemporary of Rousseau, who learned the indigenous sign language of the deaf poor who roamed the streets of Paris in order to bring the word of God to them. Once the abbe’ acquired their language, he taught the deaf to read, by associating signs with pictures and written words, and made it possible for them to become literate. His system, a combination of deaf Sign and signed French, enabled deaf students to learn to read and write French. In 1755 he founded a school in Paris for the deaf which eventually became the National Institution for Deaf Mutes, in which deaf students learned to write down what was taught to them through a signing interpreter. Laurent Clerc, a teacher at the National Institution, and himself a deaf-mute, was persuaded by the Reverend Thomas Gallaudet to come to America; in 1817, Clerc and Gallaudet founded the American Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut, the first American school for the deaf. The French sign system taught by Clerc hybridized with the indigenous sign languages among deaf communities to form American Sign Language. The education of the deaf proved so successful that, in 1864,...

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