Book

ASLSeeing Voices is a book about Deaf issues, mostly pertaining to language learning, written from a hearing perspective.   Deaf issues have changed a lot since the 1980’s when this book was written, but one can’t help but wonder if it’s the changes in time or the fact that Sacks has no personal knowledge of deafness that make his issues seem a little off.  In the opening of the book, Sacks admits that he doesn’t know any sign language nor has he ever participated in Deaf Culture.  He also states that he feels this makes him a more impartial observer than others who have come before him.  While this might be true, it also creates a situation where he speaks of Deaf people as though they are their condition and not as though they’re every day people like anyone else.  That being said, Sacks has written a really interesting book.  His discoveries about learning language, his stories of famous historical figures, and his first hand experiences at the Gallaudet University “Deaf President Now” rally are especially great.

Sacks has done a lot of research into other people’s studies on learning language.  From the conclusions of these studies and also his own experiences with Deaf people born that way and people deafened later in life, he holds to the Critical Age Theory.  This theory states that there is a critical age at which people must learn language of some sort (usually before puberty) or they will forever be unable to learn language.  They may be able to say words and things to indicate their basic needs, but they will never be able to use language to express thoughts and feelings.  Sacks shows that by keeping Sign Language away from Deaf children we are not helping them function better in a hearing world, we are only keeping them from being able to think and reason completely.  He tells us that the longer a person is without language, the less their brain will be able to function.  While I think his insistence that sign is fundamentally important for the well being of Deaf adults is compelling and well argued, his implications that Deaf people have somehow been made less smart than hearing people by their prohibition of signing is incorrect and misleading.  I haven’t circulated a lot in the Deaf Culture in my area, but I have met many Deaf people and have felt that, if anything, they are smarter, joyous and more self assured than many hearing people I have met. 

Laurent Clerc plays a large roll in the first part of the book, as do other historical figures such as the wild boy of Avignon, and Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet.  Many of the stories Sacks tells about these famous characters are stories I hadn’t heard before.  Laurent Clerc’s teacher Massoud, rarely mentioned in accounts I have read of Clerc’s life,  is featured in the book as well.  Stories of Massoud’s personality and touring of Europe, and Clerc’s writings and touring of America are extremely interesting.  It was nice to delve a little deeper into the lives of people I hear mentioned, but know very little about.

Sacks was on the campus of Gallaudet University in 1988 to personally witness the “Deaf President Now” rallys.  The picture he paints of the atmosphere on campus and the beautiful fervent signing of the student leaders makes you feel like you’re there.  This was another important moment in Deaf history that I hear a lot about but feel I don’t really know.  The Woodstock atmosphere and the relitively peaceful insistence of the students about their demands is the exact opposite of what I had imagined.  My picture was more of an angry, week-long riot.  I think it speaks volumes that the Deaf community didn’t try to storm the gates and overthrow anyone in violence.  They simply didn’t budge until they got their way.  The third section, where the Gallaudet rally is depicted, is the best of the sections.  Sacks writes about Deaf people as people in this section, instead of  medical conditions.   In this chapter he talks about how intranced he became about Deaf Culture and how he has started to learn Sign Language.

Sacks’ observations about language and language acquisition are profound and important.  The conclusions he reaches about the neccesity of language for humans greatly bolsters the argument for sign language being taught to the Deaf.  With the exception of the last chapter accounting Sacks’ experiences at Gallaudet, this book is more about language learning as it pertains to deafness, and not about Deaf people or Deaf Culture.   I would reccomend the book to people with an interest in language, but there are way better books out there on Deaf Culture, several of which are written by the difinitive experts on the subject, Deaf people themselves.

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