Sunday 21 June 2020

Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks

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Sacks’ interesting book on language use by deaf people was published in 1989, and although some of the realities have shifted since its publication, many of the misconceptions around sign language remain. The book is comprised of three articles edited into a book, meaning that there is some overlap between sections. It does nonetheless help to build your knowledge throughout so you always feel equipped for each section. The first section gives a brief history of the treatment of deaf people and the way attitudes have changed (and sometimes regressed) over time. The second is the most scientific, discussing the neurological changes that occur in native sign language speakers, and the importance of language acquisition at a young age. The final section is the easiest to get into for the general reader, discussing the protests at Gallaudet College to get a deaf president in post. It is the section where deaf culture is discussed the most and the discussion becomes less about science and more about people.

There have been debates throughout the past few centuries about the best way for deaf people to communicate. Prior to the eighteenth century deaf people we dismissed as ‘deaf and dumb’ and remained isolated. Abbé Sicard began to question why this was and Abbé de l’Epée became fascinated by the sign language used on the streets of Paris. He began to understand that there was more to it than mere pantomime, and this change in attitude paved the way for better understanding and opportunities. It came to be seen that using sign language rather than enforcing speech allowed for greater success and integration. Unfortunately, a lot of this progress was lost at the Milan Convention of 1880 when oralism was voted in as the best method. This meant deaf pupils were prohibited from using sign language, which hampered the development of students who had been born deaf especially. Since then it’s been a long and slow process to have the importance and validity of sign language acknowledged.

Research by the likes of William Stockoe, Ursula Bellugi, and Helen Neville have demonstrated that sign language meets all the criteria of language as well as being processed as such by the brain. Recognition of sign as a language helps in arguments against oralism and for the teaching of it in schools. Sacks also discusses the unique visual skills associated with those fluent in sign language and the naturalness of it to a developing child.

Gallaudet College is mentioned early in the book as a haven for deaf students to flourish. It comes as a surprise therefore to read of the less than ideal governance and exclusion of deaf people from the role of president. In 1988 there were week-long rallies against the appointment of a new, hearing, president. Sacks witnessed these rallies first hand and reports the peacefulness of the experience. He also discusses his own sense of otherness as everybody around him conversed in sign language, of which he knew none. His experiences that week made him appreciate the beauty and fluidity of sign language and inspired him to learn some himself.

This is an interesting read, but focuses more heavily on language acquisition than deaf culture. Despite some parts now being outdated, it is nonetheless a useful reminder of the struggles deaf people have been through to have their languages recognized and to be allowed to use them. It is shocking how recently some of these breakthroughs came. Sacks admits that he enjoys going off on tangents and has included these as endnotes – they are numerous and lengthy, which can distract from the main narrative. I found it easier to go back at the end and read them in isolation as there’s much to be gained. I would recommend this book but perhaps also to combine it with something focused more on deaf culture and some supplementary reading for a more up-to-date position.

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