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Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf.

SEEING VOICES: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf.

For those who are fascinated by explorations into outer space and the possibility of encountering other civilizations, here is a journey that is closer to home and replete with unexpected revelations -- the world of the deaf.

The author has learned to see the deaf more as an ethnic group than as people with "a condition, a deficit that had to be treated ..." He begins his journey into the world of the deaf by exploring the marvels of sign language.

Sign, as users of the language refer to it, has been recognized fully only during the past ten years. Most people do not realize that it is linguistically complete, rich and expressive, and matches any spoken language with beauty and clarity.

The existence of this unique alternative language, Sacks informs us, has wide-ranging implications for those in the hearing world. "It shows us," he says, "that much of what's distinctly human in us -- our capacity for language, for thought, for communication, and culture -- does not develop automatically in us. They're not just biological functions, but equally social and historical in origin. They are a gift -- the most wonderful of gifts -- from one generation to another."

That a visual language can exist and prosper, such as Sign has done, demonstrates that the brain is rich in potentials beyond our imagination, Dr. Sacks notes. "It shows us the almost unlimited resources of the human organism when it is faced with new situations and must adapt."

Sign is not only a language. It has become the center of deaf culture. It is the pivoting point from which the deaf have launched their demands for equal rights and gained for themselves social stature. With Sign at their fingertips, they do not think of themselves as impaired.

One of the great impediments to Sign's being accepted was that when civilized nations began to recognize the rights of the deaf they attempted to educate them as if they were hearing people. Only with a language that is integral to the world of the deaf can multilevel communication be achieved.

"To be defective in language, for a human being, is one of the most desperate of human calamities, for it is only through language that we fully enter our human estate and culture, communicate freely with our fellows and acquire and share information," writes Dr. Sacks.

The congenitally deaf, or "deaf and dumb," were considered "dumb" or "stupid" for thousands of years. They were legally regarded as incompetent to inherit property, to marry, to receive education, and to be permitted to do challenging work.

The liberation of the deaf began in France, when in the 18th century Abbe de l'Epee learned sign language of the poor deaf who roamed the streets of Paris. By using Sign, he taught them to read and, in one swoop, opened to them the world's learning and culture.

An important point that Sacks makes is the need for teaching deaf children Sign language early in life. "One is born with senses; these are `natural'. One can develop motor skills naturally, by oneself. But one cannot acquire language by oneself," Sacks insists. "The mother or father, or teacher, or indeed anyone who talks with the child, leads the infant step by step to higher levels of language. Creative dialogue, a rich communicative interchange in childhood, awakens the imagination and the mind."
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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1990
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