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Oliver W. Sacks discusses the history of ASL and deaf community

BROADCAST: Sep. 21, 1989 | DURATION: 00:51:40


Dr. Oliver W. Sacks talks about the treatment of deaf people throughout history and the development of ASL as written in his book "Seeing Voices".


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Oliver Sacks We're remarkably ignorant about deafness which Dr. Johnson called one of the most desperate of human calamities. Much more ignorant than an educated man would have been in 1886 was 1786. Ignorant and indifferent. During the last few months, I've raised the subject with countless people and nearly always met with responses like "Deafness? Don't know any deaf people. Never thought much about it. There's nothing interesting about deafness, is there?" This would have been my own response a few months ago.

Studs Terkel That's the voice of Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks the eminent neurologist who writes like a poet. You know he's been a guest on this program several times before and I assume you heard of the work of Dr. Sacks by now. His last collection of, histories, case histories, called "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat". Another work, "Awakenings". Another work on

Oliver Sacks One, "A Leg to Stand On".

Studs Terkel "A Leg to Stand On" and "Migrane." And it is his explorations and observations and all around genius, I believe. He's called the best clinical writer of our century by a number of respected journals. Now he reading the passage from his new work, and this is a departure for Dr. Sacks. It's his work among the deaf. It's called "Seeing Voices". The title itself is a giveaway. "Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf," published by the University of California Press. And I was thinking, deafness, immediately, we think of someone with quote unquote, a handicap, immediately and you go onto explore this and our as you say our ignorance of the world of the deaf.

Oliver Sacks Yeah, well, it- as I said in that opening passage, it was, it was really completely new for me. And when I when I did get into the subject I first thought very much in terms of handicap and then I got converted later on when I, when I found that deaf people created a language of their own and a community and a culture.

Studs Terkel You say a community, culture, their own language, their own. This is the first adventure of yours outside hospitals and clinics?

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel Where you work at the Einstein Hospital in New York. You worked with people with Tourette's. So we'll talk about that, your next adventure and the discovery thanks to you to great extent by others by the lay world of Tourette's, what it means. And, and the patients removed from reality are those even hyper realistic in all your works that by the way are highly theatrical. We'll come to that. But the world of the deaf, "Seeing Voices" you say the language of their own. We now see more and more, when on TV or at gatherings, there is someone signing. The word is signing, isn't it? Now we have several languages involved here, don't we? Signing.

Studs Terkel The well, where ever there, any number of deaf people in every major city they, they develop their own language. There, there's no universal sign language. The hundreds of different sign languages, American Sign Language so-called is actually a sort of hybrid and contains a strong influence of French Sign Language which was brought to the states and in 1817 and along with indigenous dialects of its own. The-and the sign language which is created by the deaf is an entirely visual language with the, with the it's a language in space and it's completely other mode of language

Studs Terkel That's called ASL?

Oliver Sacks ASL.

Studs Terkel American Sign Language. The obj-, the question is, can ASL work for a deaf person say in Italy or in Russia among deaf people there?

Oliver Sacks The, well although there is a Italian and Russian sign language which is different. Deaf people have a, have a sort of genius for communicating with each other probably first by gesture and mime and then by establishing a pigeon language with, with a not much grammar but then they rapidly getting into each other's languages and and developing a so-called international sign language. But one sees in Europe that deaf people can be great travellers most of them than the hearing sometimes and they go to other countries they may migrate they may marry much more than the hearing. And there was an amazing festival in Washington when 10,000 deaf people came from all over the world and there were 80 different sign languages. And yet it wasn't a babel.

Studs Terkel Yeah!

Oliver Sacks It would have been a complete babel, a little babel with speech but they were able to communicate.

Studs Terkel You saw that scene?

Oliver Sacks Oh, it was-

Studs Terkel Of all the signings going on in different languages. [laughter]

Oliver Sacks No there was, I, there was this immense hotel lobby, there were 500 people and 20 different sign

Studs Terkel But there was a pattern. I mean there was a design, des-, despite the variety of languages. If these were voice, if these were hearing people, it would be a babel. A babel, it would be.

Oliver Sacks Well they're all languages and space they've all got spatial grammar. They they all have something reminiscent of gesture.

Studs Terkel You've used the word spatial language, space. Now, when you and I are talking right now, space, the air around us is not involved. You and I are talking now. This is oral. You and I.

Oliver Sacks Yes.

Studs Terkel But when there are people are signing, space. Would you mind expanding on that?

Oliver Sacks Well the, the space in front of the body is, is used in all sorts of ways. In some sign languages say it's a convention that references to the past, go over the shoulder to the future go forward but there's some sign languages and which references to the future are up, or to the past, down. And but the if, if there's a reference to several different people they are put in imaginary locations when one, when one signs.

Studs Terkel So there is more dimension. You say there are several dimensions to sign language more than there is to oral.

Oliver Sacks Well, well, in a way speech is as one dimensional if you want it in time whereas of course sign has the three dimensions of space as well as that, so if you want to it's a four dimensional language and one which may be, may have something of a cinematic quality as well as an out.

Studs Terkel You know, I was thinking we take, we go to a high school or college way, what language French, German, Spanish, Italian. How about sign being taught? I mean taught in hearing schools.

Oliver Sacks Well it's becoming very very popular now especially, especially in the states where it's often offered as an elective.

Studs Terkel It is?

Oliver Sacks And, and children love it. Children are marvelous at picking it up. And there there's been a school in a number of schools in Maryland now where sign is introduced in kindergarten and one finds with these children that it improves their powers of visual recognition. It accelerates their reading.

Studs Terkel You mean these schools are hearing schools?

Oliver Sacks They- normal hearing schools.

Studs Terkel [Normal?] hearing schools and sign is used. It does what, you say it improves their?

Oliver Sacks Well it seems to improve the powers of visual recognition and analysis and that it, it improves reading.

Studs Terkel Well, your, your book. This is a remarkable work as well all of what do you say about Oliver Sacks has no one quite like him around and about anywhere as a writer of what? Of, of people removed from reality yet further reality than though-called normal people are. His books whether they be "Awakenings," or the ley-. the last one, the case histories of his patients, people he's met and worked with. As very soon Robin Williams will be doing you, till, Rob to De Niro's patient and from "Awakenings" because your stuff, people, there's a theatricality is there not, in almost every one of your patients?

Oliver Sacks Patients come and give one their, their stories, their lives. And yes there's, there's drama everywhere. One, one doesn't need any melodrama. There's just enough human

Studs Terkel In this book, "Seeing Voices: Journey in the World of the Deaf," Oliver Sacks, there's three parts. There's the early history beginnings of it and thens of course, with that remarkably event the revolution at Gallaudet, the Unive- the College of the Deaf. We know of that but you write of that more in detail and the middle is your overall reflections and observations and readings on, on the world and the history of the deaf. Beginning you, you were speaking about the handicap that Dr. Johnson spoke about - that to be deaf is may be the most devastating of all calamities. I know it is silly to talk about which is a worse burden to carry blindness or deafness but perhaps you could expand on that a bit.

Oliver Sacks Well it's, it's very easy in a way to empathize with blindness. You can cover your eyes and think of darkness. [But?] if one is born deaf there's a real danger that one one may not be introduced to language in the proper way. If one is born deaf of hearing parents, how can one communicate with them as a start? How come or how does one go to communicate with, with anyone else? And I think when when Johnson talked of deafness as a calamity what he was really referring to was the lack of communication the isolation and the the effect of languageless of poor language sometimes on deaf people. One has always had these derisory terms like deaf and dumb and until the middle of the 18th century the deaf was scarcely regarded as as as human and they were denied elemental human rights. They couldn't marry. They couldn't own property. They were given the most menial of jobs and they had no education. They were regarded as ineducable and then a great priest, an extraordinary man of the 1750's really sort of- the feeling for the souls.

Studs Terkel Abbé Sicard?

Oliver Sacks This was the Abbé

Studs Terkel Oh, de l'Épée.

Oliver Sacks Yes, yes. Who was before him. He, he listened to the deaf. Looked at the deaf for the first time. He learned their language in Paris and then using this, he established schools. Within within twenty years of this one, one had a deaf author publishing a book in the 1770's. This would have been completely unimaginable sort of twenty years before that and there was this wonderful liberation of the deaf. The emergence of literate and educated deaf people with who are often highly regarded in France in the 18th century and then in, in America when one of these French teachers came, came to Connecticut in 1817.

Studs Terkel And that was Clerc?

Oliver Sacks That was, that was Clerc.

Studs Terkel Laurent Clerc.

Oliver Sacks Laurent Clerc.

Studs Terkel Who, is, in a sense one of the founders of Gallaudet, close to it.

Oliver Sacks Well he came along with Thomas Gallaudet. And he and Thomas Gallaudet founded the American Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford and then many other asylums were established by the 1850's higher education

Studs Terkel Let's go back to that very exhilarating moment of discovery and the work of Abbé de l'Épée.

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel Until he came along. We're talking what? Eighteen what now?

Oliver Sacks 1750.

Studs Terkel 1750. The deaf were outside. Even beyond retardation never retarded but they were no rights and shame. Put in a corner. He comes in and what does he discover? What was the language of sign used there?

Oliver Sacks Yes, he, he perceives that the deaf do have a language of their own and he and he learns it. He is really the first hearing man to enter their world and enter their language and then, bring, bring his own world to them.

Studs Terkel Yeah, it was his disciple Abbé Sicard?

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel And he asked why is the uneducated deaf person isolated in nature unable to communicate. Why? Why is the big thing. Is it reduced to the state of imbecility? Does his biologic, oh sounds like Shylock talking about Jews. Does he not have, does his biological constitution differ from ours? Does he not have everything he needs? Sensations. Inquiring ideas. And it goes on. So suddenly ask the question. Wait a minute. So it's not the deafness it's the inability to communicate which is a recurring theme of your work, I notice Oliver.

Oliver Sacks Yeah. No, there's a wonderful passage from Sicard. That why. Why. Why. And, and the answer he decides lies in symbols that the, that one must have symbols to communicate. One must have symbols to think and the - Now it had always been imagined that symbols to be verbal. Had to be spoken. And Aristotle says this and the Old Testament always speaks of the voices. Something to be heard. And the idea that one could have something other than speech. And language other than speech was, was very difficult to-

Studs Terkel You know we get [it-] This is an adventure just working with you for this hour and forthcoming more as we learn about the children and the certain children especially Charlotte but others through history and as well as these these figures have come along and liberate even an actor named, what was his -[unintelligible]. Because I remember when I was a kid sign was looked down upon. It was oral. People were emphasizing the lip reading and oral continuously, we'll ask you about that and you have a remarkable sequence on that. Talking to Oliver Sacks and his most recent work work is called "Seeing Voices" and this is "A Journey into the World of the Deaf", University of California Press. And as you can guess from knowing the other works of Oliver Sacks, it's, it's a humdinger. I wish I could say that in sign language. When I say Great. Can you speak a little sign?

Oliver Sacks A little bit.

Studs Terkel Yeah, unfortunately you can't use it here. This is one dimentional.

Oliver Sacks But, but That's "wow".

Studs Terkel Wow. You just did "wow". I wish I could describe this "wow".

Oliver Sacks [laughter]

Studs Terkel Oliver Sacks. Fingers raised mouth open and that's a great, "Wow". [pause in recording]

Studs Terkel "Seeing Voices" of course the title itself almost explains everything doesn't it? Because they see, that's the hearing quote unquote of the deaf person in the sign, in the language. So we come. I raise the point about there was a time. So sign came into being in one form or another through Abbé l'Épée and those who followed and those who came here. And then something happened during the Victorian period.

Oliver Sacks Well a sign is probably always, always existed wherever there are deaf people but the, the Abbé de l'Épée was the first to, to respect it and use it and this sort of opened really what the deaf often regard as a golden period of liberation and and respect and education which sort of came to a an end and a fearful end largely because of a conference in 1880 at which no deaf teachers were represented but only hearing people who felt they knew what was best for the deaf and it was decided at this conference in Milan that sign should be forbidden in education and deaf teachers dismissed. It took a few years too to implement this but this. But this, this decision really I think had dire effects on deaf people all around the world. And it caused them great distress because sign language-

Studs Terkel They-

Oliver Sacks seemed so natural to them.

Studs Terkel They, the hearing educators, "We know what's best," and of course we know what happened in 1988 at Gallaudet University here. There, too, some of the hearing people [unintelligible] said, "We know" and of course they found out something different would come to that cause you were an observer of that remarkable and exhilarating development on the deaf students and faculty took over and reliberation it was. But before we come to that-

Oliver Sacks Well there was then a sort of dark period, if you want, from about 1880 to 1960 in which sign was forbidden, was very depreciated. Of course deaf people always continued using it among themselves but it didn't have any formal use. Sometimes it was so drastic and forbidden, people would have their hands tied.

Studs Terkel Had their hands tied. To what? To learn, to lip read? Is that it?

Oliver Sacks To, to, to force them to use

Studs Terkel Because we the hearing people are the normal ones and we know what's best for you.

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel And so by the way one of the figures, Alexander Graham Bell, the associate with the invention of the phone figures very, very prominently in this, doesn't he?

Oliver Sacks Well he's a very, very complica-, great and complex and contradictory man, who, who, in a way was sort of obsessed with all this. His father and his grandfather had been elocutionists, teachers of speech. And he himself thought strongly of speech as a unique gift of God. Speech had to be used.

Studs Terkel Wasn't his mother deaf?

Oliver Sacks But his mother was deaf and his wife was deaf.

Studs Terkel Oh!

Oliver Sacks But they were deaf people who, who in a way refused to acknowledge this, who refused to sign, who perhaps themselves hadn't been allowed to sign and who insisted on trying to speak and lip read, and Bell himself. He's a man full, full of paradox. He was a genius. Amongst other things he was a very expert signer himself and had many deaf friends that occasionally acknowledged how important sign was and yet formally and publicly, he turned all the weight of his authority which was enormous,

Studs Terkel [what

Oliver Sacks against signing. And he was probably the crucial figure again who-

Studs Terkel Wow!

Oliver Sacks turned the scales

Studs Terkel We think of him, the phone but also the VOICE of the human VOICE or sacred first was the word and he sees the word as something. I guess he was called an oralist. Is that right?

Oliver Sacks Right, right.

Studs Terkel Pro-oralism. In contrast to sign advocates.

Oliver Sacks Something we might talk about later but Bell also visited Martha's Vineyard, this place where there was such a high number of deaf people and he became afraid that deaf people would take over the world and he wrote a strange [unintelligible] volume, "A Memoir Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race". And he felt the deaf should be, should be sterilized and not, not allowed to breed.

Studs Terkel You got to. And we'll continue with this, [unintelligible] with you and that Martha's Vineyard village. But before that he felt, he was afraid the deaf were menaces. They may, might take over the world. So he had a certain demonology involved here.

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel The deaf. Even though his mother and wife but they would not acknowledge it because the word, the spoken word-

Oliver Sacks Very, very-

Studs Terkel Sacred.

Oliver Sacks the sort of extraordinary tortured contradictory mind.

Studs Terkel One of the people considered one of the fathers of American education, schools, Horace Mann was anti sign, too, wasn't

Oliver Sacks Very much, very intensely. Perhaps there were other things as well. At this late Victorian feeling against minorities against, small countries. It was Wales and Welsh were. No, if it had been possible to suppress them they would have been suppressed and the atmosphere then seemed to be

Studs Terkel What's so marvelous about you, Oliver Sacks, in your writings, how you connect. You said Welsh moment ago. We know that certain pride in indigenous cultures. Among the Welsh very strong. When all was suppressed for a long time by the British Empire people. So the time of the Victorian was conformity in almost every aspect of our lives even speech and sign. That, that was part of it, too.

Oliver Sacks And the things started to change. Partly probably in the late 50's and 1960 and partly because an outsider came along a linguist and medievalist called William Stokoe. He'd, he was appointed a professor at Gallaudet College. This unique college for the deaf is the only one in the world and he, he had come there to teach the deaf Chaucer. But instead he started to pay attention to them as Abbé de l'Épée had done 200 years before and he realized he was in the middle of, of an incredible linguistic community. And he listened to sign. He started to make notes and he wrote a paper on it in 1960 which was really the first scientific legitimation of sign language in which he said these are not just gestures they have elements like words. They have morphemes. They have phonemes. This has a grammar and it was the first time anyone from the outside had taken sign language seriously.

Studs Terkel Now Stokoe, a hearing man, a scholar teaching Chaucer at Gallaudet, also encountered opposition among some deaf people, too.

Oliver Sacks [unintlligible]

Studs Terkel They had accepted their inferior status. He says, "No". Isn't that true?

Oliver Sacks Why, [unintlligible] no, its, this is all full of paradoxes. No the, the common feelings. I mean an early edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica calls sign language a species of picture writing in the air. What had been seen as pantomime was broken English on the hands and the deaf themselves sometimes thought this. Though at other times I think they just felt as maybe all native speakers, perhaps they felt the language was so spontaneous they couldn't imagine it could be analyzed. So Stokoe, you know, also thought analysis might be dangerous but that analysis was, was marvelous and analysis said this has all the apparatus of a full language. It has an incredible grammar. It's, it can

Studs Terkel You know so many things to ask you of your book. Questions your book creates and the excitement. I want you to come to this place in Martha's Vineyard, the Tisbury, this village is traumatic and fantastic. But before that, when people speak sign, Marcel Marceau, the great mime said it's very difficult to lie in mime. You can lie with the spoken word but mime, it is difficult to lie. Is this so of sign?

Oliver Sacks No. I think one, I mean there's, there's indeed a sign for lying.

Studs Terkel There is.

Oliver Sacks That, that's dirty and that's a lie and that a dirty lie. One can have, one can lie in sign. It's not, it's not gesture. Although I think that since I, it involves the whole body and it and its expressions and the whole person more than speech one can have disembodied speech you can't have disembodied sign. It's difficult to lie with a whole body.

Studs Terkel AH! So the body language, if you sign the additional, the appurtenance of that. Body language along with sign tells, especially a deaf person, that guy is not telling the truth. Look at the way his, his arm his fingers or something that would not be the case. What he's speaking disembodied oral words.

Oliver Sacks I think it's, one CAN lie and sign but I think it's, I think it's somewhat more difficult

Studs Terkel but

Oliver Sacks the language is, is more transparent. [unintelligible] notions.

Studs Terkel But there's a, you say there's an extra. We'll come to the little girl Charlotte, this of course, a remarkable little girl. We'll save her for later. But you mentioned the town and now a couple of villages but there's one in Martha's Vineyard. Describe that.

Oliver Sacks Well in, in Martha's Vineyard, a, a deaf sea captain and some others arrived in the 1690's bearing with them the seeds of a hereditary deafness and through isolation and intermarriage, this increased in incidence until there were some villagers, Chilmark West Tisbury in which one in four people were born deaf by 1850. The response to this, in that part of Martha's Vineyard, up Highland, was that everybody learn sign. Sign became a, a native language for the hearing as well as the, the deaf. Now when transport became easier and there was less intermarriage the deaf people died out. The last deaf person died there in the 1950's but the oldest people there, still are native signers as well as native speakers and the fascinating book was written about this by Nora Groce, called, "Everybody Here Spoke Sign Language," and I was so excited by the book that I jumped straight into the car and drove up there and one of the things I saw for myself, it was my first sight was a four old people chatting on a, on a veranda in West Tisbury and then suddenly they all, they all fell into sign. They all fell from speech into sign

Studs Terkel These were hearing

Oliver Sacks Hearing people, for about a minute-

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Oliver Sacks and then they went back into speech and I'd never, never seen sign used by hearing people so naturally and obviously they would move from one to the other quite, quite easily.

Studs Terkel Now when did they move to sign? This is a, this is a great sequence, you got us. First, this little, this little old woman in her 90's who even seems to be knitting. But she's thinking. She's reflecting and she can reflect better and sign than she can orally.

Oliver Sacks Well sign language has certain advantages over speech and spoken language certain advantages over sign and people who have both tend to alternate from one to the other. But the elderly people on Martha's Vineyard still use sign language, even though they're hearing and not for you know, not for signaling between both it's not because they have to but because they want to, sometimes. And there was this old woman I saw, who fell or fell musing and fell asleep and it looked as if she was knitting. But her daughter who also signed, told me no she wasn't knitting. She was thinking in sign. And later- Thinking

Studs Terkel Thinking in sign.

Oliver Sacks Thinking in sign and when she fell asleep, that she would sometimes dream and sign.

Studs Terkel Dream and

Oliver Sacks And then this was the first thing which convinced me that if sign has been introduced at the start it really becomes a, a basic language of the brain and a, a complete alternative to speech.

Studs Terkel You, just I'm curious to know when these hearing people were talking orally and then fell under signs. What was the subject? Was there something intimate?

Oliver Sacks I, I suspect it was but. But I, I don't know and I was too shy to, to ask them. It was extraordinarily difficult to sometimes to ask them about the deaf people. One would say Ebenezer. They would remember Ebenezer as a good friend, good fisherman, scholar, prankster. And he would say. "Yes, but was he deaf?" Come to think of it they say, no, he was deaf.

Studs Terkel OH! They didn't think of him as deaf.

Oliver Sacks No-

Studs Terkel You had to ask him that.

Oliver Sacks Right they say but we didn't think of it. He was just the same as everybody else. So, I mean the integration was so complete that deafness wasn't even perceived as [unintelligible].

Studs Terkel You just used the word integration. You see there. This is the beauty of this kind of integration of the hearing and the sign. Now the big question is before, I'm talking to Oliver Sacks and his book "Seeing Voices", the younger people these are older people as they're dying off are the younger people retaining sign or is it being abandoned?

Oliver Sacks No, there, it's dying out.

Studs Terkel It is.

Oliver Sacks Seems to be.

Studs Terkel Isn't that ironic? Just as we're discovering the hearing world is discovering the beauty of the power of signs, especially we see now on TV or gather someone on the side is doing in sign what the speaker is saying orally and since the film of course, "Children of a Lesser God" and and a few other aspects. It's dying out there. We're going to ask more. We have to come to some of the tales of what I call breaking through. You have some of the students and some of the people, in and especially the children discovery something with Oliver Sacks The book is "Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf," University of California Press. [pause in recording] There is a considerable difference between someone who was born deaf, prelingual deaf, someone who becomes deaf at the age of seven or eight or nine, who already spoken words. Now there is a very key difference there, isn't

Oliver Sacks Right. Well if if you're, if you lose your hearing after you've acquired language, speech then, then into- internally and perhaps externally as well, you have spoken language with you for the rest of your life and you're not thrown into the not necessarily thrown into the extraordinary position of someone who was born deaf and who doesn't have speech and doesn't have language available. The, the numbers of the prelingual and the postlingual are probably about equal but here I only talk about prelingual because my subjects in a way is what's the relation of language to thought to development. What faces someone who was born deaf? The, the frightening experience for me was encountering a boy whom I called Joseph, an 11 year old boy who had been born on a farm in Mexico. Had never been to school. Had never met another deaf person and who had reached the age of 11 and had NO language, not sign language, not speech not anything, and he was obviously a, an intelligent boy and bright had very good visual intelligence. But he was cut off from communication. He could gesture and he could point and and he could draw but he couldn't do anything else. And and it was something so pathetic and poignant about this intelligent boy who hadn't as well been given the human birthright of language. It obviously affected his thought in some ways it was difficult for him to think historically to think of the past, a week, a year. It was difficult for him to think conjecturally. He seemed to be in a way and a rather a small world of of here and now and. Now when I saw him, I thought of Johnson's comment. I thought this is a calamity. It's not the deafness, it's the lack of communication and the constriction of mind. Now Joseph was in fact, beginning to learn sign at the school and he loved it and he didn't want to go home because he couldn't communicate with his parents or his neighbours or anyone else. And this, this was sort of the downside and showed me what happened if someone wasn't given access to a visual language early and no- I often get sort of inspired sometimes by very negative examples and by very positive ones. The very positive one for me was a delightful little girl, Charlotte.

Studs Terkel Charlotte

Oliver Sacks and her mother had written to

Studs Terkel Charlotte was about six? seven?

Oliver Sacks And she was she was six when I saw her. I drove up to Albany when Charlotte was diagnosed deaf. She was about nine or 10 months old. Her parents were thrown into a turmoil. Very naturally, they were bewildered. They were frightened. They didn't know what to do. They looked for advice. They finally decided that THEY should learn sign language. Which know would all parents of the deaf sort of make such a decision? They learned- grandparents learned it. God parents, neighbors and although these were all hearing people they all did their best, to, to help Charlotte communicate and the Charlotte herself then was able to learn sign language and to communicate. Paradoxically, the only deaf children who may not run into trouble are sometimes deaf children of deaf parents.

Studs Terkel So they have an advantage. This is ironic.

Oliver Sacks Well,

Studs Terkel The deaf, [unintelligible] there's a give and take. Immediately.

Oliver Sacks Straight away. And I mean, it's been known for a, a long while, that these are the sometimes the only deaf children who may not run into great problems but in a way, Charlotte's parents although they were hearing sort of almost behaving as if they

Studs Terkel Now they learn from her. By the way, you point out they were learning from

Oliver Sacks Well, levity went both ways. I mean one of the interesting things is that even if the parents use poor sign language, a child will develop perfect sign language. Chomsky would love this because it suggests something about the innate power of a child's nervous system, to

Studs Terkel You mentioned Chomsky. Noam Chomsky, several times in your work. This great linguist. Great many respects, I feel, but aside from language, but in language he speaks the child having the innate sense of structure. And he would like [this] Charlotte would entrall him.

Oliver Sacks Right. I, I I I think so because she, she got better sign language than her parents and others had given her and in turn sort of started to teach them. And when I went to see her she was six. This was she wasn't isolated as so many deaf children are. This was a completely integrated family. And Charlotte was already a third grade reader at six, full of intellectual curiosity a very developed mind where some deaf people and not even third grade readers as adults.

Studs Terkel But by the way, weren't there tests certain kinds of examinations, where the deaf children did better than the hearing

Oliver Sacks Yes, well the. Charlotte's parents sort of they talk about her visual thought patterns and how well she can describe a room or a scene. But one sees that as a, as a visual language has acquired, all sorts of other visual powers can become enhanced. There's a much greater ability to recognize faces, to analyze patterns and to see movement, visual imagery is increased. And I think deaf people can acquire a sort of visual genius.

Studs Terkel You write this about Charlotte. This very thing. I was struck by the graphic quality the fullness of her descriptions. Her parents spoke, too, of this fullness. All the characters, her mother said, or creatures or objects Charlotte talks of, are placed. Here's spatial. Spatial reference essential to ASL, American Sign Language. And when Charlotte signs, speaks that language. I said, "Speaks that language," cause that's your point, "Hearing Voices". The whole scene is set up. You see everything. So here comes the totality, doesn't it? This is total if I could use the phrase "total voice" here.

Oliver Sacks Right. Well and, and this this way in which now it can also be, be cinema. Lessing wrote a famous article contrasting literature and painting. One was seen as linear and in time in and the painting as spatial but I think sign language can have qualities of both.

Studs Terkel And there's also, look, the law of compensation also may work here, too, does it not? If someone seems to lack something like the sound, oral stuff in the sign something more is made up, you know, Micheál Mac Liammóir, the Irish director [unintelligible] spoke of the Irish, he says, "Their ear is fantastic!" The word, the sound, their eye isn't very good. What was the scene like in the play? Oh, The language was wonderful in this [oksee?]. When he. What was it like? "Oh it just a scene!" I don't know. Did he? And he says like blind basket weavers. The are fingers are extraordinary nimble. So this aspect of, maybe is too simplistic in approach - the law of compensation?

Oliver Sacks Well, the, yeah the you know it's always been suspected that the, the deaf sort of see or perceive things very well but there's very beautiful evidence now that this is the case and also very interesting neurological evidence that all sorts of visual mechanisms in the brain are, are strengthened. And, and, the, you know that this, this visual intelligence goes partly with being deaf but also partly with acquiring sign language. And for that matter can of course be partly acquired by hearing people who use sign language.

Studs Terkel Before, before I ask Oliver Sacks, he said for the last part of the book, what happened at Gallaudet University. That's in Washington, College of the Deaf. By the way, I had some, this is going to be strange to say, some deaf people in this program. They weren't. Louis Fant.

Oliver Sacks Oh yes!

Studs Terkel The actor.

Oliver Sacks Wonderful man.

Studs Terkel [Was here,]the Theatre of the Deaf. They did- I forgot how they did it. We had both but before I ask about that, the excitement of your book is the discoveries on the part of some. Abbé Sicard, who is a disciple of de l'Épée had a student named Massieu who was deaf. But does he discovered something as Adam discovered Eden. And what was it? There was a name. Do you you mind explaining how something became conceptual, [unintelligible] conceptual?

Oliver Sacks Well, well, Massieu had had not, did not acquire any formal language until he was 14 or so although he was obviously an amazingly intelligent man. And when he came to power, from farm where he was born, Sicard sort of taught him language or at least between them they acquired language and Sicard wrote a whole book about this and I think it's the most beautiful description of how language can enter a human mind and transform it and in particular raise it from a purely sort of concrete and perceptual level to, to all sorts of abstract thought. The Abbé Sicard being, being an Abbé thought was somewhat of abstraction of course is the idea of God.

Studs Terkel But I was thinking, something happened to Massieu, his deaf student. Suddenly, his eyes light up! His mind lights up and names in sign, I suppose, names. Suddenly we visited and you're describing a scene as Abbé Sicard. We, Massieu and I visit an orchard to name all the fruits. We went into the woods to distinguish the oak from the elm, the willow from of the poplar and he didn't have enough tablets and pencils for all the name which I filled his diction[ary]. His soul seemed to expand and grow with these innumerable denominations. It's like a landowner seeing his rich domain for the first time.

Oliver Sacks Wonderful, isn't it?

Studs Terkel Isn't it? Terrific. He'd become Adam, you write and Adam, this is a, this is a, this newcomer to earth was a stranger, his own estates, which are being restored to him as he learned their names. This is moving!

Oliver Sacks Well, this, this, this, this is like a description of Genesis. It's like a the description of Adam. And-

Studs Terkel And there's someone from Mexico. There was a Mexico-

Oliver Sacks Ildefonso

Studs Terkel Ildefonso, and he discovered with his teacher, numbers. And numbers, or the concept of numbers, liberated him.

Oliver Sacks Yes, and, and numbers seems to be for him, the, the path to names. Numbers.

Studs Terkel Yeah! So what are we? We're talking about liberation, aren't we? Liberation on the part of the deaf, and I suppose REVELATION on the part of the hearing.

Oliver Sacks I mean all the sorts of things which would normally occur in the third year of life and automatically in which we take for granted these, but they may not occur. That-[unintelligible]

Studs Terkel We're talking to Oliver Sacks and the book is "Seeing Voices." It's a journey and what a journey into the world of the deaf. [pause in recording]

Studs Terkel This all leads up to, the event last year, at the University of the Deaf in Washington, D.C., Gallaudet and that's a 100 years old or so?

Oliver Sacks 124.

Studs Terkel And what happened?

Oliver Sacks Well, I, I knew there was unrest there but what happened, happened very suddenly and I, I opened the New York Times and I saw that there was a revolution in progress. And so I rushed down to Gallaudet to sort of see for myself. Although Gallaudet as a college or university of the deaf and for the deaf, it never had a deaf person. It never had a, it never had one of their own as a, as a president. And. There had been a sort of caretaker president for a couple of years. But then a new president had been appointed who was not only not deaf but who had, had never really met deaf people, had no special interest in deaf education, who didn't sign. And one wondered who, they felt she might not

Studs Terkel There were three candidates for president, two were deaf and of course the student body were delighted with the fact that they were nominated. But they chose the one hearing.

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel And the chairman of the board was quite, well, the word is, arrogant. She turned to be something else later on but arro-. "Of course, we know what's best for you".

Oliver Sacks And you people can't function and you can't choose for yourselves. Trust us.

Studs Terkel So what happened?

Oliver Sacks So well, the I mean with a sort of an assertion which had never before occurred because deaf people have often been felt powerless, more the passive felt they had to take it from hearing people. They stood up and they said, "No. We want one of our own. We're not children and we, we are autonomous," and they said this with great force, with great passion, with great energy, with great efficiency. And, and, the-

Studs Terkel With great humor

Oliver Sacks And with great humor.

Studs Terkel OH! The signs were fantastic!

Oliver Sacks Right. [laughter] And, I mean it was it was probably the best human revolution there's ever

Studs Terkel Yeah. Humor and delight, and a dog's saying, "his- he speaks sign better than Mrs. Zinser."

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel But they won. They use the equipment, all the technological equipment. Best public relations was fantastic.

Oliver Sacks Right, right

Studs Terkel They were not children. You point this out. And Bob Johnson who is a colleague of yours, Who, is Bob deaf?

Oliver Sacks No, no, no. He's married to a deaf

Studs Terkel He's married to a deaf woman. Well, Bob said, there's something they recognize, the power. That they were clients but without them, there is no university, and is almost universal. And the president who has chosen had to resign with a great deal of grace, by the way. She, she learned something.

Oliver Sacks Yes, finally,

Studs Terkel And the chairman the board resigned and so was a deaf president chosen King Jordan member of the faculty, a deaf chairman of the board. They triumphed and you speak of their largeness of spirit. The signs must have been fantastic!

Oliver Sacks And then there was again a sort of a feeling of Genesis again when the signs went round afterwards saying the world had been created in seven days and we have changed that in seven

Studs Terkel Oh, we changed. It was a seven day thing. And by the way, six, seven-year old Charlotte, elsewhere. Where's Charolotte again?

Oliver Sacks Oh she, she's up in Albany.

Studs Terkel Up in Albany. Is now wearing a t-shirt that says, "Deaf Power."

Oliver Sacks Right, and she has the deaf power salute.

Studs Terkel Deaf pride.

Oliver Sacks Right.

Studs Terkel So there was deaf pride. So this is wholly connected with the human rights, civil rights movement, is it not?

Oliver Sacks Yes I think very much so and some of the Gallaudet was like Selma though it seemed to me very much about about identity. And let us be ourselves. Let us use our own language, live our own culture and have one of our own. I think it was less about equality than about identity.

Studs Terkel Yeah. You know this is, this is a beautiful adventure of yours. You're on to, for another one now. We'll come to that next time. Tourette's syndrome. And it's you traveling once again. Oliver Sacks, see things that no one sees quite as you do and as eloquently. And movingly, "Seeing Voices" is Oliver Sacks' book, "A Journey into the World of the Deaf", and University of California Press. Maybe, you open by reading. Want to read the last paragraph? And because it's a learning it's a learning on our part. They are part of the hearing as well, of course.

Oliver Sacks But has all been changed? Will there be a lasting transformation of consciousness? Will deaf people at Gallaudet and the deaf community at large find the opportunities they seek? Will we, the hearing allow them these opportunities? Allow them to be themselves - the unique culture in our midst yet admit them as co-equals to every sphere of activity. One hopes the events at Gallaudet will be about the beginning.

Studs Terkel Oliver Sacks, thank you very much.

Oliver Sacks Thank you, Studs.