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Seeing Voices, by Oliver Sacks

Posted Aug 03 2010 7:57am
This review was originally published on my Goodreads profile here (hence the references to this blog). I decided to publish it here as an overview of what I think of the book. Further blog posts on certain subjects in the book are forthcoming.

Seeing Voices was originally published in 1989. That was a big in-between year for the deaf. In 1988 Gallaudet students successfully pushed for a deaf president of the university. And in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act would be signed into law.

As for me, in 1989 I was three years old. I had not yet been diagnosed with my own hearing loss. I had no idea who Oliver Sacks was, what "deafness" means, where Gallaudet is, or what American Sign Language is. Two years lat ...more
Seeing Voices was originally published in 1989. That was a big in-between year for the deaf. In 1988 Gallaudet students successfully pushed for a deaf president of the university. And in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act would be signed into law.

As for me, in 1989 I was three years old. I had not yet been diagnosed with my own hearing loss. I had no idea who Oliver Sacks was, what "deafness" means, where Gallaudet is, or what American Sign Language is. Two years later my worried parents and grandparents would hear that I have a progressive sensorineural hearing loss, which began as a mild loss and has since progressed to a severe loss in one ear and a profound loss in the other.

Since I was "mainstreamed" as a child - educated without special education classes in a typical public school environment - I essentially knew nothing of other deaf people except Helen Keller. It was only when I began to take American Sign Language courses from the local community college (to avoid having to take two years of a spoken foreign language, which just confused me) that I learned of a Deaf culture, a Deaf identity, and the struggle that Deaf people have faced over hundreds of years. In that class I watched videos and read books and learned about the culture from my Deaf professor. And I learned about American Sign Language.

ASL is an interesting language. Although it is functionally very beautiful, with flowing hands and a rhythm all its own, it can be off-putting to people not used to it. The gestures can be forceful (depending on the meaning behind the sign). Facial expressions are exaggerated along with the signing. Deaf people can be pushy: putting themselves directly in your line of sight, smacking you on the arm to get your attention, waving their hands all up in the air. So it was kind of uncomfortable at first. But there is something about sign language that draws you in. It feels right when you sign, even if you are hearing. It feels like you are just learning another skill, not another language.

I picked up this book because I've read Oliver Sacks' books before and never realized he'd published one about Deafness and Sign. And because I have a blog and wanted to write about this book for it, so that people know if they ought to pick it up. I think I will publish both this review and some more in-depth blog posts about the subjects touched upon by the author there.

Sacks splits his book up into three parts, which were all written at different times.

Part 1 is a cohesive and very readable history of deaf people as well as information about deafness (both medical and cultural) and Sacks' own introduction to the world of the deaf. We learn in school about history from the point of view of American colonists (if we are American) and slaves, basically. Reading about decades passing from the viewpoint of the deaf introduces not only a third viewpoint but the idea that there are many other viewpoints from which history could be told. In this chapter, Sacks draws a line between prelingually and postlingually deaf. The postlingually deaf are relatively often the most successful deaf people, because they have the memory of spoken language, grammar, sentence structure. Prelingually deaf people face challenges distinct to them, and forcing spoken language on them can lead to unforeseen consequences.

Sacks' position on oral vs. signed education for the deaf is subtly introduced in this part. He isn't forceful or annoying with his position; he simply lays out the way Sign is beneficial for the deaf, particularly prelingually deafened individuals. He closes with a visit to Martha's Vineyard, where nearly one in every family on the island was affected by deafness and every single individual knew Sign, deaf or not. (The knowledge of Sign drifted away as Martha's Vineyard became focused on tourism.)

Part 2 is a systematic view of American Sign Language itself and the way people naturally create grammar and syntax from essentially nothing. This is the longest chapter, and unfortunately suffers from an excess of footnotes and a rather dry tone. As usual, Sacks shines when writing about individuals, and the case studies he recounts in this chapter are very interesting. He quite easily demonstrates that American Sign Language is a full-fledged language in its own right, and demonstrates how languages are developed.

Part 3 was the most interesting chapter for me. Sacks details the 1989 student revolt at Gallaudet for a deaf president. He was there, and his writing about the sense of community at the college and the fervor the students felt is very interesting. The protest culminated in the appointment of King Jordan, whose resignation in 2005 would lead to further controversy when the board tried to appoint someone who was not fluent in ASL - only this time the protests also occurred online.

Overall, although parts of Sacks' books are now quite dated, it's still a very interesting read. Sacks does a good job of bringing together a lot of viewpoints, a lot of individuals, and a lot of ideas, and making them all fit together.
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