Enabling Technology


Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks

In his book, Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks explores the world of Deaf culture. His investigation uncovers the remarkable journey of Deaf people in society. The book is divided into three parts which address the history of Deaf people in society, the importance of language, and the future of Deaf rights and culture.

Oliver Sack’s wonderful storytelling makes the struggle of those with severe hearing impairments personal to the reader. Slowly the world’s perception of the Deaf changed as it was realized that it was the lack of language that limited intelligence, not because they were “deaf and dumb”. The creation of the visual languages of sign gave Deaf people the tool they needed to express themselves, communicate and truly be human. The first book published by a Deaf person was published by the intelligent Pierre Desloges. Pierre himself was intellectually disabled until he learned sign.

Abbe De L’Epee opened the first public supported school which used a successful methodical approach to signing to educate its pupils. Many who doubted the purpose of sign and the intelligence of the Deaf were converted upon seeing the results of this school. Around 50 years later, America converted as well. Laurent Clerc and Thomas Gallaudet established the American Asylum for the deaf in Hartford. The Gallaudet University opened in 1864 and is still the only liberal arts college for deaf students in the world.

Unfortunately, after Clerc’s death in 1869, people began turning against sign with the idea that signing without speech would restrict Deaf people. However, many schools began eliminating sign completely and focusing only on the difficult process of teaching deaf people to read lips and speak. This slowly-learned communication severely limits the education of the Deaf. Consequently, the controversy of whether or not to allow signing becomes an issue of what is more important, the integration or education of Deaf people. Perhaps both is possible, because according to Oliver Sacks the schools founded by Edward Gallaudet in Europe in the late 1860’s used both sign and speech with “superior results”.

In part II, Sacks asks “What is necessary… for us to become complete human beings?” The answer is language. He compares two schools for the Deaf with drastic differences. In a school called Braefield Sacks describes a depressing situation in which the students are very isolated and average only a 4th grade reading level upon graduation. At the Fremont school he finds very social and active students with academic achievements almost comparable to hearing schools. Fremont differs from Braefield in that it allows sign language and it also has a large number of students with deaf parents. Signing gives these students access to language much sooner and more quickly than the Braefield school can without sign. The result is the children with language can properly develop intellectually.

My favorite part of the book is the description of the strike at Gaulladet in 1988. Although the majority of people around the campus are Deaf and signing to eachother, Sacks depicts the scene as noisy and alive. There is so much animation and passion in the strikers, that even though they are not protesting with their actual voices, their “voice” is loud and dynamic. The strike happened, because for the 124 years Gallaudet had been open, there had never been a deaf president. In this election, with two Deaf candidates and one hearing candidate as finalists, the hearing candidate was selected because as one board member said, “the deaf are not yet ready to function in the hearing world”. The students felt much differently. After a passionate strike complete with crowds, intelligent and comical signs, and a march, Dr. Zinser resigned and a deaf president was elected. The whole event was very beneficial to the Deaf community, especially because of the news coverage; the world’s perception of the Deaf was re-educated. It also created a new confidence and better sense of community among the Deaf.

I enjoyed this book very much. Oliver Sacks was able to portray the beauty of Deaf culture with his talented writing and vivid storytelling. The book was both informative and emotional and an excellent introduction to the Deaf world.