By Grant Jacobs 12/12/2012

Some time ago I tried to gather articles to offer as a carnival on disability in science. I put quite a bit effort into finding material, but got few offers. It was a project I had wanted to do for some time and the lack of response was very disappointing. I had thought it was a topic people would want to front up and share, but perhaps people don’t.

As a slight compensation of sorts I’ve collected a small number of articles related to deafness below. A few further articles of my own are listed at the end of this piece.

Scientific sign language

Earlier this month the New York Times ran an article, Pushing Science’s Limits in Sign Language Lexicon.

Throughout the world there are many different sign languages. These are quite capable for everyday language, but struggle in specialist domains like science. It’s doubly tricky as there is a natural tendency for local sign to develop for particular terms, rather than scientific signs being international, in the way that the print terms and units of measure are.

Finger-spelling and spatially placing a word for later reference is a passable solution in some conversations, but it’s also very limiting.

The New York Times article describes attempts to crowd-source common signs for terms.

Personal experiences and advice/suggestions

Mosaic of Minds has a post suggesting how to better talk to people with hearing loss or auditory processing problems and why do it that way. I’d encourage anyone to read it – I’ve always been of the opinion that some of the advice to better communicate with the hard-of-hearing is just good advice to communicate at all.

The placement of the speaker can make a difference. Back lighting — where there is bright light behind you — makes you hard to lip-read. The listener’s eyes will naturally adapt to the bright light, leaving your face hard to see. Similarly, noise behind the speaker is particularly troublesome. Modern hearing aids usually come with a ‘directional’ mode that favours sound from in front of the listener. While that helps downplay noise to one side and behind the listener, noise behind the speaker is still and issue. Echo also can be nuisance – shiny walls and floors can be clues a place will have echo.

I’ve related some of my own thoughts in an earlier article.[1]

History of medical and educational views of the deaf

One writer who responded instantly with cheerful enthusiasm to my call for articles was Jaipreet Virdi. I asked her directly as I’ve long been a fan of her blog, From The Hands of Quacks. Below are the articles she suggested.

Her first tackles the shifting of the view of the deaf commes les monstres (as monsters) to hommes de la nature (literally, ‘men of nature’). In being able to communicate, through sign language, the deaf are demonstrated not to be ‘incapable of experiencing reason, memory, or judgement and […] no better than savages,’ but a human linguistic atavism.

Her second, Histories of Deaf Histories,briefly outlines one of the agendas of her dissertation, ‘to build a steady bridge between scholarship from the history of medicine and scholarship from Deaf and Disability Studies’, which has proven to focus ‘more on the history of medicine and technologies (especially relating to medical professionalism and quackery) and not so much on Deaf Culture.’ I have to admit her interest in the ‘history of medicine and technologies’ and ‘medical professionalism and quackery’ have always appealed to me. At first blush you wouldn’t think there would be much in the way of quackery in the history of medical and technological aids for the deaf – but try browsing her blog and prove yourself wrong.

Finally, Lives of The Deaf looks at the split between the lives of the deaf amongst the poor and the wealthy in 17th century Europe and, in particular, how the realisation of signed languages broke the that the deaf were dumb not only in the sense of being mute, but dumb as in lacking knowledge. This stems from the philosophical notion that speech and knowledge were intrinsically interwoven. Sign languages, it seems, had a role in separating knowledge itself and communication of that knowledge.


1. Unfortunately the wonderful photos I used to illustrate the story are now gone.

Other articles on Code for life:

World report on disability

Temperature-induced hearing loss

Rubella, not a benign disease if experienced during early pregnancy

Enabling deaf people to text emergency calls to 111

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