Wikimedia Commons

The Abbé de l’Épée, who founded a school for the deaf in Paris in 1755 and was the first to recognize that they could be taught with sign language

Several years ago, I noticed difficulty hearing; testing showed diminished perception of high frequencies, a common consequence of aging. Hearing aids were prescribed, which helped to amplify sounds but weren’t a complete remedy. Background noise in restaurants made it difficult to discern the conversation of dinner partners, and I often missed muttered dialogue in movies. Most vexing was what Oliver Sacks termed “mishearing”1—I thought I heard certain words, but they were distortions of what was actually said, and my response corresponded to the distortions. For example, recently a scientific colleague told me he was going to a conference in Milan. I heard “Iran,” and replied that he was sure to be hassled at US Customs given Trump’s travel ban. He looked confused. “Since when is Italy on the list?”

Gerald Shea has confronted such difficulties, but in his case they have been more severe ones and present for most of his life. At the age of six, he developed scarlet fever that caused partial hearing loss. In his captivating memoir Song Without Words (2013), he describes how “most consonants and some vowels…faded to softness,” lowering “an invisible curtain creating a quieter world” that isolated him within it. His great challenge was to learn how to decipher what he terms his “lyricals,” the misheard words. For example, he heard “what’ll happen after Nora leaves” as “water happens after coral reefs.” Such transformations “stir the imagination with nonexistent places and people, like the Doubtful Asphodels not found on any library shelves of Nabokov’s prose.”

Shea devised an inner lexicon to decipher such transformations, and was able to attend Phillips Academy (Andover), Yale College, and Columbia Law School, ultimately carving out a career as an international lawyer in the US and France. It was only when he was in his thirties that his partial deafness was diagnosed. Shea wears hearing aids now, but he still struggles to consistently understand speech. While his lyricals may stir his imagination, he does not romanticize them: “in the commerce of necessity they can be a hellish experience. They make of our lives a constant unscrambling of language, punctuated by masquerades of understanding.”

His impaired hearing and struggle to comprehend speech prompted Shea in his new book, The Language of Light, to explore how those with no hearing from birth, whom he terms “Deaf,” express themselves:

I have no fluent understanding of the languages of the Deaf, but the grace and visual clarity of those who communicate in signed languages, which I call…the language of light, are to me a wonder, and I feel a close affinity to it and to them. Theirs is not an unplanned but a natural, visual poetry, at once both the speech and the music of the Deaf. Though I live in the realm of the hearing, a part of my life, in the form of my search for communicative grace and clarity, is quartered in my understanding of the world of the Deaf, and I feel as if a part of it.

The Language of Light is an eloquent and engaging history of centuries of battle between the “natural, visual poetry” of signing and “oralism,” by which the deaf are coerced to mouth words. As with many sustained conflicts, this one has its roots in economics, religion, and xenophobia. The Justinian Code of the Byzantine era denied rights to those unable to hear and speak. In order to inherit, offspring had to be able to speak, so aristocratic families across Europe with deaf children sought to secure their wealth by finding oralist teachers who could instruct them in lip-reading and articulating words. Shea explains that lip-reading allows the deaf to decipher only the simplest words and makes understanding complex concepts painstaking, if not impossible.

But forcing the deaf to utter words was pursued not only for monetary reasons among the rich, but also out of a perverted interpretation of John 1:1: “In the beginning was the Word…and the Word was made flesh.” Guillaume Durand de Mende, a thirteenth-century bishop, thought the deaf were “refusing” to hear the word of God, and, as mutes, were “unwilling” to speak it. Shea writes:

Christ himself was at the beginning of the creation a Word—who was with God, and was God, and was later made flesh, and dwelt among us…. What then was a man or woman who couldn’t speak, understand, or even perceive the Word—the Bible, the gospels, Christ himself? Who was this individual who lacked the critical human characteristic that distinguished other men and women, made wholly in God’s image, from animals?

There is an explicit biblical imperative to protect the deaf that Shea overlooks in his history. Leviticus 19:14 instructs the faithful not to “insult (tekallel) the deaf or place a stumbling block before the blind.” The Hebrew Bible is acutely aware of the cruel impulses in human character that can lead individuals to denigrate and abuse the disabled.2 There is a shared sensitivity found in Islam, drawing on the hadith—“cursed is he who misleads a blind person away from his path”; it is forbidden to ridicule or maltreat the afflicted.3


Perhaps it was the supersessionist theology, superseding or replacing prior religious doctrine, of the medieval church that led it to ignore Leviticus and overlay a malicious reading of the gospel. Since speech was the expression of the soul and the manifestation of divine thought, a man or a woman who couldn’t speak, understand, or perceive the word of God was cast as not fully human. As Shea writes, “Following Christ’s example, depicted in the prayer book of Saint Hildegarde, the priest must, as Shea writes, ‘open the mouth of the Deaf.’”

Typically, the deaf were subjected to brutal “treatments” to force spoken language. These “amounted to trials by ordeal, yielding considerable suffering, illness, and sometimes death.” Hot coals were forced into the mouths of the deaf to trigger speech “by the force of the burning.” Other tortures, which continued into the eighteenth century, included inserting catheters through the nostrils, twisting them through the nasal cavity and into the Eustachian tubes and injecting burning liquids; drilling holes into the skull so as to allow the deaf to “hear” through the openings (trepanation); flooding ether into the auditory canal; applying blistering agents to the neck, scorching it from nape to the chin with a hot cylinder full of supposedly magical burning leaves; applying adhesive cotton and setting it on fire; using vomitories and purgative agents; and injecting hot needles into or removing the mastoid bones. The premise was that drilling, cutting, fracturing, scorching, or poisoning would “open up” the ear and the brain to sounds.

Yet not everyone in the church was heartless or delusional when it came to the deaf. It was a priest, Charles-Michel de l’Épée, who recognized that spoken and written words had no intrinsic connection to the ideas they represented. To teach the New Testament to twin sisters who were deaf, he had to use their native language of signing. In 1755, l’Épée tested the notion that seeing could be substituted for hearing in learning concepts. His discovery was “as revolutionary as the work of Copernicus,” Shea writes, since signed languages would be the central sun for the Deaf, “illuminating both a path to the written tongue of the hearing and the way of the hearing to the minds of the Deaf.” The school l’Épée founded became known as Saint Jacques for its location in the narrow Parisian rue Saint-Jacques, behind what would become the Pantheon, and it serves as a sort of shrine to what Shea calls “the golden age” of deaf education.

Museo del Prado, Madrid/Bridgeman Images

Hieronymus Bosch: The Cure of Folly, circa 1501–1505

Among the luminaries at Saint Jacques was Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian. Born in Guadeloupe in 1789, Bébian possessed excellent hearing but, as a student in Paris, gravitated to Saint Jacques, where his godfather, the Abbé Sicard, was an administrator. During vacations, Bébian attended classes and workshops with the deaf students and became fluent in French sign language. He ultimately was given a certificate by the school as “an honorary Deaf man.” Bébian is a hero of Shea’s book, the hearing teacher who emancipated the deaf and, according to Bébian’s biographer Fabrice Bertin, sparked “the development of their consciousness of themselves as speakers of a complete language” by changing the paradigm of their learning. In 1826, he wrote:

We know that the deaf have a language one doesn’t teach them, although with art and exercise one can offer it the happiest development. It is in a way the reflection of their sensations, the relief of their impressions. We carry the same timeless and limitless principle within all of us: that of the first language of any human being, which gives immediate expression to his thought and is not a translation of any other language, but expresses his intimate connection with ideas…. The thought, born in the brain, bursts forth like a flame sparkling in crystal.

Bébian elaborated that the education of the deaf should begin with the thought, not the written word. For example, he might point to a picture of a saber in a book and then move his dominant hand across his waist to shoulder height, as if drawing the weapon. His student would mimic the motion. “The sign follows the thought, step by step,” Bébian wrote, “like a shadow assuming all of its shapes.” Next, the student is given the written word “saber” and, Shea affirms, “before long, would understand that this written word and others were a kind of conventional drawing of the idea first expressed in sign language.”


Bébian’s methods spread to the United States in the early nineteenth century. The American School for the Deaf was founded in Hartford in 1817, and by the mid-nineteenth century, twenty-six such schools existed in America, all with signing as the language of instruction. Yet this flourishing of signing proved to be short-lived. Oralists struck back by deliberately suppressing it as a method of teaching. The movements of the hands and body were characterized as “primitive gestures” of “primitive people.” By the latter part of the nineteenth century, most teachers of the deaf were ignorant of signing and thus had a vested financial interest in forcing speech.

As part of the 1878 World’s Fair in Paris, the Ministry of Education organized a congress on “the improvement of the condition of the deaf” and showcased technological advances that required hearing: Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Thomas Edison’s phonograph. A resolution was adopted that sign language was “auxiliary,” and that the first means of communication should be lip-reading and vocalization so as “to restore the deaf more fully to society.” Two years after the Paris World’s Fair, the Congress of Milan was convened, which “would prove to be the seminal traumatic event in the modern history of the Deaf.” A scriptural reminder was given “to the assembled group, many of whom were religious teachers of the Deaf, that brought everyone full circle back to the Middle Ages: the true ‘mission’ of the congress was to fulfill the gospel of Saint John: in principio erat verbum”—in the beginning was the Word.

The Milan gathering entrenched oralism as the sole method of instruction for the deaf on the European continent. (In one school in France, students were forced to follow a diet of stale bread as a punishment if they communicated in sign language in class.) Those pupils who could not learn to articulate or lip-read were classified as “idiots” or “semi-idiots.”

As science and technology advanced in the nineteenth century, a new dogma took hold: eugenics, the belief that society should select those most fit intellectually and physically, and weed out inferiors, particularly those with disabilities. Prominent among its advocates was Alexander Graham Bell. Bell’s relationship to hearing, beyond his inventions, involved his mother, who used an ear trumpet but was able to play and teach piano, and his wife, Mabel, who had diminished hearing but could still hear a church bell.

He wrote an essay about what he called the “deaf variety” of the human race and proposed reducing their numbers by breeding them out of existence. He associated deafness with other “abnormalities” like dwarfism, polydactyly, and sexual deformities. Since sign language caused the deaf to associate with one another and promoted relationships that led to marriage and offspring, Bell vigorously opposed education that “propagat[ed] their physical defect” and supported oralism with segregation of the students. At the dawn of the modern scientific era, the theology of the church was replaced by the catechism of eugenics.

Bell was more than simply a scientist of sound with rigid pedagogical views; he was also an adept marketer who used Helen Keller as a poster child for oralism. He trotted Keller out at various conventions to speak, asserting that if she could reach such a high level of discourse, any deaf person could. When The Story of My Life was published in 1903, Keller dedicated it to “Alexander Graham Bell, Who has taught the deaf to speak.” In fact, Keller’s speech was largely incomprehensible, except to her tutor, Anne Sullivan, and others who knew her well. Shea convincingly shows that some of Keller’s fame was fostered by the self-serving Sullivan, and he questions whether Keller’s celebrated work was her own.

The most damning evidence in The Language of Light dates to November 1891, when Sullivan forwarded a story, “The Frost King,” to a publisher, claiming it was Keller’s. At the time, she was eleven years old and had been blind and deaf since the age of nineteen months. Her acute and vivid descriptions of sound and light defy credulity. Indeed, Shea shows that Sullivan had plagiarized almost 80 percent of the 1,500-word story, virtually verbatim, from a publication that was out of print.

The oralists have largely triumphed. Only a minority of deaf students are educated in American Sign Language, at institutions like Gallaudet University4; the vast majority are “mainstreamed,” educated with the assistance of classroom interpreters who use manually coded systems. This oralist approach is now being justified with a technological advance: the cochlear implant. Currently, about 80 percent of the children born deaf in the West are implanted with the devices. Hearing professionals believe that implanted children cannot be taught orally while learning sign language—that they’re mutually exclusive.

As opposed to hearing aids that amplify sound, the implants send electronic signals directly to the auditory nerve. Assessment of the efficacy of the devices is generally done within a laboratory setting, using a set number and type of test words. Annual sales of cochlear implants exceed $5 billion, and as of 2013, more than 300,000 people worldwide have received them; in the United States, this roughly amounts to 58,000 adults and 38,000 children. It seems the greatest benefit is for those who originally could hear and then lost the ability, rather than people who were born deaf. Proponents of the implants predict that within a generation, they will result in the extinction of an alternative culture of the deaf. Shea writes that the deaf community was caught off guard by the introduction of the implants, and generally has reacted with skepticism and fear.

Since less than 0.25 percent of the American population can communicate with sign language, Shea acknowledges the understandable desire of parents to give their deaf children sufficient hearing to function in the larger world. But he cautions that the benefits of cochlear implants are measured in a laboratory setting and fall far short outside of it. A study in the United Kingdom found that children with the implants were no more educationally advanced than deaf children with hearing aids. Further research at the University of Toronto supported this observation, as daily spoken language was not better comprehended by children with cochlear implants than by comparable children with standard hearing aids. As with hearing aids, background noise in environments like classrooms greatly impairs understanding.

Thus, the real world of daily communication is still a struggle despite the device. In France, only a minority of children with an implant develop intelligible speech. Tellingly, as children with implants age, they often turn to sign language, because it is exhausting to strain to hear with the device, while they can fluently communicate ideas and feelings with their hands and gestures. Without a significant leap in technology, the deaf will continue to seek comprehensibility and fluency in signing.

Shea rightly concludes that to deprive an individual of language is to appropriate his or her identity. As an extension, his culture is diminished and his social relations blunted. It seems fitting that after centuries of denigration by clergy and scientists, the deaf flourish with a language of light. Light: a divine act on the first day of creation, which when diffracted, bends around obstacles to reveal its exquisite inner diversity that we know as colors.