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Mysteries of the Deaf’: An Exchange

The following is in response to Oliver Sacks’s review of When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf by Harlan Lane, The Deaf Experience: Classics in Language and Education edited by Harlan Lane, and Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard by Nora Ellen Groce, in the March 27 issue.

To the Editors:

I want to thank you and Oliver Sacks for publicizing the true history and awful plight of the profoundly deaf. Reading Sacks’s essay was like reading a biography of my daughter. She was born profoundly deaf, a rubella victim, in 1964. It would be fair to say that at the time, at least in New Jersey, nobody knew how to diagnose deafness. We toted Suzannah from doctor to doctor and audiologist to audiologist for two years before someone finally had the knowledge to refer us to Dr. Isabelle Rapin at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Thus, diagnosed correctly only at age three, Suzannah had already missed much of the “prime time” for language acquisition.

Once diagnosed, however, she could at least start attending a school for the deaf, no? No. The New Jersey school for the deaf, the state school in Trenton, would not accept my daughter because her hearing loss was too severe. Incredible? The school was oral. A paradox of oralism is that oralists only wanted to teach those deaf who were not too deaf. For it is only the not-too-deaf who can “mainstream.”

Eventually—losing, each day, more of the precious time during which she could acquire language—we were able to find a solitary deaf class for Suzannah at Newark State College. The woman who taught it did so unofficially, as an overload, with little institutional support. Her charges were all severely to profoundly deaf; finding that oralism did not work with them, she had the courage and compassion to begin to teach them Sign. Indeed, she had to learn it herself as she went. This occurred in 1969, yet it sounds like Sacks’s account of the “discovery” of Sign by the Abbé de l’Epée in the 1750s.

I wish I could say that Suzannah’s story has a happy ending, however belated. It does not, just because she was belated. She has acquired language, at the second-grade level (a little below the usual level for the profoundly deaf). She has great difficulty dealing with the working world, even at its most menial, for the working world, even now, does not sign. Yet I don’t believe her situation is significantly worse than that of many (most?) of her peers. Their greatest affliction is not deafness itself; it is having to be sequestered, because only in “sheltered” environments can they meet others who share their language. As social arrangements now stand, this means that, instead of Martha’s Vineyard; the deaf have only the “institution,” the “home,” the “development center” (i.e., workshop for brain-damaged people), with all their attendant uncertainties of state support. The condition of the deaf today is better than it was 250 years ago, I suppose. But not much.

William McCarthy

Ames, Iowa

To the Editors:

Dr. Sacks’s wonderful article about the Culture of the Deaf, in America and elsewhere, was much talked (signed) about by the people who came to the Library of Congress’s program of Sign Language culture, “To Hear a Hand” March 20, 1986. I hope that it will be reprinted in some anthologies devoted to deaf culture.

However, I wish to take issue with one small item. Dr. Sacks praises American Sign Language (ASL) for its beauty and “purity” and criticizes “Signed Exact English” as a compromise and an “absurdity.” As someone who has worked with the deaf and has been studying Sign Language for the past year, I am no expert, but I think that Dr. Sacks has overstated the case. The ASL he praises has changed over the years and is not standardized throughout the United States. Because, from 1880 to about 1975, nearly every US school for the deaf tried to forbid the use of Sign, Sign Language was passed on to new students by older students secretly, and many deaf learned it and developed their habits in it without having seen an adult Signer nor understanding their teachers’ language; the result is that they grew up using a Sign Language whose structure was geared to the grammar of illiterate elementary schoolchildren (ASL does not, for example, have a passive form), and whose structure may have differed from that passed along in other schools. My deaf friends have been polite enough to let me expound this notion and some have agreed with me. Very few books are available to teach ASL grammar, even assuming that there is one standard of grammar for ASL. Certainly the Martha’s Vineyard Sign, which Dr. Sacks also thinks is beautiful is not ASL but something different that may resemble the Signing used in Kent, England, in the seventeenth century!

Now that Sign is a recently accepted mode of communication in most of the schools for the deaf, an effort has been made to use it to teach English grammar to children who have never heard it, as well as to encourage the use of Sign by the hearing who are already accustomed to English. In order to enable English to become these children’s first language, and to facilitate the use of Sign by teachers (who are supposed to talk and Sign simultaneously), various Englished forms of Sign were devised, which use ASL signs and recognizable variants of ASL signs in English language order. The simple forms of this (just ASL signs in English order) are called Pidgin Sign English or “Siglish,” but “school” versions have been devised which add special signs to provide the many English parts of speech that represent tenses, conjugations, etc.; these forms of “Manually Coded English” (MCE) include Signed English (devised and used at the Gallaudet campus), Seeing Essential English (SEE I), Signing Exact English (SEE II), and Linguistics of Visual English (LOVE). But these are intended for the classroom and possibly for hearing-deaf conversations where some grammatical precision is required. It appears that deaf children raised in Signed English homes and classrooms will slip into Pidgin Sign English with their friends. While it is possible to speak and sign in MCE, the refinements do make the signing a bit slower than Pidgin or ASL.

Frankly, it appears that “pure” ASL is used by a minority of the Signing Deaf, mostly those deaf from the cradle, while those who are partially hearing or were raised with some success in an oral environment or became deaf after hearing some English, use some form of Pidgin. Most ASL signers will shift into some sort of Pidgin when confronted with a non-ASL signer.

So the use of some Englished form of Sign is not quite an absurdity or the linguistic equivalent of Munich. Rather it is an excellent tool for enabling the hearing to learn to communicate with the Deaf, and for Deaf children to become literate. As such it expands the horizons rather than darkens them.

Bernard J. Sussman

Washington, D.C.

To the Editors:

At the end of his review article “Mysteries of the Deaf,” Oliver Sacks packs up his tape recorder (audio), drives to Martha’s Vineyard (where no deaf person has lived since 1952), and interviews a ninety-year-old hearing woman.

The review deals entirely with historical deafness. The books by Harlan Lane concern nineteenth-century figures, and the sign language community on Martha’s Vineyard is a thing of the past. But the deaf have not become extinct. Nor have they descended into the depths which Sacks finds the only logical outcome of their history. On the contrary, they have prevailed against oral education in serious ways. Moreover, the oral/manual controversy that diverted intellectuals for several centuries was essentially concluded within the last three decades.

From the beginning, oralism in America was honored in theory more than in practice. Throughout the entire period, though few children learned speech, virtually all learned American Sign Language (ASL). It is the fourth most commonly used language in the United States (some estimates place it third), after English, Spanish, and Italian, with a signing population of more than 500,000. This figure corresponds precisely with the number of profoundly and prelingually deaf in America cited by Sacks. They are the same population. All of them attended oral schools. ASL signers are not “pitifully handicapped” as Sacks describes the prelingually deaf child Vanessa, nor are they “defective in their language,” as he says all profoundly and prelingually deaf children must be. There is nothing the matter with their language—they are all fluent in ASL.

Sacks misleads the reader when he assumes that deaf people who are orally educated are thereafter cut off from society, illiterate, and their lives “qualitatively different.” Yes, reading is certainly a difficult skill for those among us who cannot hear; alphabetic writing is a sound-based system. The oral schools failed, as all the data show. Yet the most casual inquiry reveals that reading and writing play an indispensable role in contemporary deaf life. The deaf use TTYs (telephones that transmit typed messages), captioned television, captioned films. Before captioned movies became available in the 1960s, deaf people went to foreign films with subtitles. The traditional craft pursued by deaf men in this century is printing. English was learned along with typesetting in the print shops of residential schools that were usually staffed by deaf teachers.

The rise of oralism was greatly influenced by demography, and so was its demise. Oralism no longer exists in its nineteenth century form. If the system worked at all, it worked for the adventitious (postlingual) deaf who accounted for 60% of all deaf children at the turn of the century. The elite oral schools (the Clarke School, for example), were highly selective, preferred postlingually deaf children, and only admitted those who seemed certain to succeed. Reverence for speech was not the only issue. At the core of oralist conviction was an imperfectly disguised horror of the defective gene—a horror expressed for them by A.G. Bell in his Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race. Not merely an historical artifact, the book is still in print, still discussed, and still recommended to teachers and parents of deaf children.

Since World War II, and the development of antibiotics, postlingually deafened children have become rare. Today, most children who are deaf were born profoundly deaf. In the 1960s and 1970s, because of a series of rubella epidemics, the school-aged population soared. All existing facilities expanded, and in expanding were evaluated. Oralism, already under criticism, was further discredited. Meanwhile, research into sign language had produced important findings. In 1960 and 1965, William Stokoe of Gallaudet College (not Klima and Bellugi, as Sacks believes), published linguistic analyses of ASL that established it as a true language with a complex grammar and a well regulated syntax. ASL research continues today in several academic settings.

In the mid-1970s, the second era of sign language began in the schools as part of a new method called total communication. By the end of the decade the majority of schools were using signs—not ASL, but the speaking-and-signing combination that Sacks correctly deplores. Nevertheless, it proved to be quite a bit better than no signing at all, and reading scores began to rise. Total communication did not eliminate any of the oral trappings already in place; signs were merely added to the daily routine in the classrooms and the children’s own signing was no longer interfered with or discouraged.

Sacks admires the deaf intellectuals of the last century and laments the disappearances of deaf writers and thinkers in this one. He need not lament. There are plenty of deaf intellectuals out there. Most deaf people, of course, like most hearing people, work hard for a living: they are clerks, carpenters, computer programmers, fishermen, and bakers; they work in factories. But many are in the professions and the arts—especially the visual arts, film, drama, and graphics. Our only federal theater is the National Theatre of the Deaf—famous throughout the world. There are writers, too. The National Association of the Deaf is in the publishing business. Personal narratives by contemporary deaf people are not widely read in the hearing community, but I wonder if the works under review in The Deaf Experience were widely read in earlier centuries. (Helen Keller’s books are perhaps the most widely read of any written by a deaf person.) The deaf are not writing much in English at present, because right now they are not as interested in English as they are in ASL. Deaf people take (and give) courses in ASL, in Art Sign, and poetry the way hearing people take advanced courses in English lit.

Now that oralism is gone, all the teachers agree that it never worked and that sign language is a Good Thing. The overriding enthusiasm of the moment is technology and the transmission of sound: amplification devices turned to top volume. The deaf may no longer live in a world of silence but in a roar of noise. Contrary to opinion (Sacks’ too, apparently), a little hearing is not necessarily more useful than none at all. Many profoundly deaf people are already able to hear environmental sounds. Tragically, it is the speech range that is especially vulnerable, and deafness by definition is the inability to perceive speech. Nevertheless, educators and audiologists are talking about improved amplification as the future cure for deafness. The latest, the ultimate hearing aid is the cochlea implant, a surgical procedure. The operation has been performed for ten years but no one claims that patients are able to hear speech afterwards. A more elaborate operation has been announced recently, that costs $25,000 (per ear, presumably), with a success rate for speech comprehension of one in three.

Amplification and implantation are both accompanied by intensive training in “listening.” Therapists who teach listening cover their faces—everything below the eyes (who is that masked man?)—to make lipreading impossible and to discourage any tendency on the part of the trainee to look for meaning in facial expressions. Deaf education continues to be a caricature. The oralists didn’t want deaf children to use their hands; the acousticians don’t want them to use their eyes.

No living creature organizes its behavior around something it doesn’t have. Sign languages are based on the positive use of the eyes, not the negative function of the ears. American Sign Language completely exploits the possibilities of the visual mode for language, and completely utilizes the precision of the human hand for articulation and expression. Sign language is not just a thing of beauty and value, it is a triumph of human adaptation; a language perfectly suited to the needs and lives of a population whose principal perceptual contact with the environment is visual.

Very slowly,” says Sacks, “we are reversing the militant oralism of the past century.” One might have said that twenty years ago. Today, oralism exists only in a small number of schools. What remains is resistance, misunderstanding, and a lot of self-interest. From the technology to the quality of sign language in use, deaf education seems designed for the convenience of the hearing teachers and administrators who run it. Sign language is a political issue—not only in Orwell’s sense: to control language is to control behavior; but in Marx’s: to control this language is to control money, jobs, policy, and institutions. The oral/manual controversy was very cosy indeed. While working on my own book,* I found that it was the only controversy discussed in public. The controversy and the history of the controversy. The deaf were kept busy for a century trying to win the argument, and trying to justify their use of ASL. At Gallaudet everybody would much rather talk about insensitive oralists of the past than talk about the college’s 60 million dollar annual budget. They don’t care for public discussions about cochlea implants. They certainly don’t like to be asked: when is Gallaudet going to get a deaf president? Before everybody starts debating oral vs. manual again, responsible educators ought to look at deaf life and deaf language and instead of working with all the things the deaf don’t have, begin with the considerable talents they’ve got.

Arden Neisser

Atlanta, Georgia

Oliver Sacks replies:

In addition to the three letters printed above, selected from a considerable number received by the editors, I have myself received upward of a hundred letters—so clearly the issues raised are relevant and alive, and not merely of historical interest as Arden Neisser implies.

Mr. McCarthy’s moving letter is typical of many received from parents of the deaf, and illustrates at least two points which can bear further emphasis. The first problem is the diagnosis of deafness, the necessity for an extremely early diagnosis. Dr. Isabelle Rapin made the diagnosis here by physiological methods—measuring “evoked potentials,” so-called, in the auditory parts of the brain. Such methods, which were only being pioneered twenty years ago, are now readily and widely available, and essential for making a diagnosis when it needs to be made—in the first months of life. But diagnosis is not enough—once diagnosed, Suzannah was denied appropriate schooling, the secondary problem. Suzannah’s biography, all too commonly, is the biography of many deaf, even now, in 1986.

Bernard Sussman and Arden Neisser both raise the matter of American Sign Language (ASL), but in almost contradictory ways: Neisser portrays it as flourishing and well, fluently used by a half million deaf; Sussman sees it as feeble, fragmented, no longer the grand thing it once was. The two views are extreme, and opposing, yet there is a truth which presses for analysis in both. If ASL usage has indeed declined, it is a consequence of the Milan decision of 1880, the breakdown of the standardization that the Hartford Asylum achieved, the loss of deaf teachers, the stigmatization of Sign. Let ASL be legitimized once again; let it be taught and used widely in schools; allow the deaf the earliest possible access to fluent signers (that is, in the first three years of life)—and ASL will regain its original richness and power. It is, alas, not true that all the deaf are fluent in ASL, as Neisser affirms. On the contrary, it tends, all too often, to be learned too late, and so to lack the force and richness of a primary language. There is nothing the matter with ASL as a language; however, there is a great deal the matter with its acquisition.

In regard to Bernard Sussman’s remark about signed English (“Siglish”), this seemed to promise a great deal when it was introduced about 1970. In reality it has been of rather limited value. The congenitally deaf need to acquire, as early as possible, a complete and coherent language—one not demanding understanding or transliteration of a spoken tongue: this has to be a sign language, like ASL. Their first language must be Sign, then the deaf can learn English or “Siglish.” For, as Cardan perceived 450 years ago, the purpose of Sign is to convey meaning, not transliterate speech.

Neisser is wrong when he proclaims that oralism is now gone. It has not gone, it will never go, so long as parents strive (at any cost) for their children to learn speech, and see Sign as stigmatizing; and as long as the teaching of the deaf is predominantly in the hands of the hearing. But, as Neisser says, it has changed its form—oralists now come dressed as acousticians, offering the deaf an unselective amplification, or painfully crude prostheses, which may indeed turn an inoffensive silence into an enormous roar of noise. It should be added, perhaps, there has recently been delineated a rare variant of profound deafness in which, although there is severe loss of hearing in the usual speech range, there may be preservation of hearing in the whistle and squeak range—above 10,000 Hz. Such patients can perhaps be greatly helped by special, highly sophisticated hearing aids.

I should have indicated, as Neisser has, that it was William Stockoe of Gallaudet College who made the first linguistic analyses of ASL; but it is to Klima and Bellugi that we owe the encyclopedic analyses that followed, and were stimulated by, Stockoe’s pioneer work. With regard to the achievements of the deaf in our time, there are, indeed, many deaf who have “made it” in the arts and professions, but their numbers, their proportions, are still far too low. The happy exceptions highlight the unhappy rule—that the deaf, in general, cannot achieve or fulfil their potentials. Art Sign, Sign Poetry, and the National Theatre of the Deaf, arouse wonder and delight in all who see them—but show only what the deaf, and Sign, in their highest development, can do. Far from representing any norm, they emphasize the contrast between what can be done—and what is usually done.

Defeat and frustration, relative to their potentials, still face most deaf people, and that defeat is abetted by the cruel, tragic “sequestration” of which McCarthy speaks. This was not the case in Martha’s Vineyard: is it necessarily the case, in the “real” world, now? The deaf can approach us if they learn speech—but we too can approach them, if we learn Sign. Is this impossible, out of the question, unrealistic? There may be a lesson to be learned, which is going on, before us, under our eyes, even now: not in some remote place like Martha’s Vineyard, but in the bustling, technological city of Rochester. For here, at the Rochester Institute of Technology, a large proportion, a thousand, of the students are deaf. There is little mixing between the hearing and deaf students—but, apparently stimulated by contrasts with the deaf at the Institute of Technology, the children of Rochester are learning Sign, not just at school (where optional classes in ASL are extremely popular), but in the streets, the public places, the shops…the children are signing with the deaf and even with one another, breaking through the taboos, the sequestration, the wall. We see here, in miniature, a fascinating, and wholly spontaneous, social movement in our midst; and its leaders turn out to be children—innocent, inquisitive, affectionate, playful, uninhibited by the fears and mores of the rest of us. Rochester, it may be said, is a special situation but the general lesson is very clear. All of us can learn a little Sign—even if only a few expressions and phrases—as we might do when visiting a foreign land. When we do this, we may reach across the barrier and some of the long isolation may be diminished.

  1. *

    Arden Neisser, The Other Side of Silence: Sign Language and the Deaf Community in America (Knopf, 1983).

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