Monday, July 01, 2013

Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks

Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks.  New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group/ Vintage Books (Random House), 2013/ 1989.
e-book, 207 pps.  extensive Notes begin on page 109.

I remember when Signing Exact English (S.E.E.) was all the rage.  The educators were screaming that deaf kids had no sense of syntax when writing because in Ameslan, the word order is different from English.  What those same educators did not say was that although most deaf kids can catch on to S.E.E., the deaf community as a whole rejected it because communicating in S.E.E. was tiring to many deaf adults.  Before Signing Exact English was the rage, oralism-- forcing deaf kids to communicate by voice and using speech reading only-- was the educational order of the day.  At some point, teachers [who were mostly not deaf, sigh, because deaf teachers were shut out routinely from advocating for the deaf kids] combined S.E.E. with oralism.

Fortunately, the deaf community began to have a real voice.  When the college students at Gallaudet protested, demanding a deaf president to replace one that had resigned, the selection committee was forced to listen.  The students had organized, and shut down the campus for seven days.  Ameslan has been recognized as its' own language instead of some kind of inferior communication crutch.  Deaf teachers and professors began to get into the mix of education jobs which involved running classrooms for deaf kids.  There are two deaf acting troupes that I know of.  

I've had contact with deaf high school students at a state-run residential school.  They boarded there during the week and went home on weekends.  At the time, I thought that forcing kids to go to a boarding school was awful and wrong.  Oliver Sacks in his book Seeing Voices enlightened me on that subject.  Many deaf kids are fairly isolated in their home communities.  Exposure to other signing kids in the dorms becomes a wonderful thing.

Oliver Sacks related quite a bit of history of deaf culture and of educating the deaf.  Tying in neurology with his subject, Sacks illustrated how syntax arises naturally out of the brain.  The kids forced to learn S.E.E. were able to learn syntax.  Older deaf kids and deaf adults exposed to S.E.E. later in life have problems with it.  Deaf aphasics had different problems with Ameslan and placement of signs than non-aphasics.  Those who learn sign as a secondary language, rather than as a primary one, never quite achieve the fluency and the nuances available to the deaf kids who began learning signs as young babies.  Sacks himself came to studying deafness late in his career but I am glad that he did.

sapphoq reviews saysSeeing Voices is an excellent, albeit too short, read.  I enjoyed this book and I think anyone with a deaf relative or friend should read it along with the classics in deaf studies.  Highly recommended.  

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