Review: Seeing Voice by Oliver Sacks

Synopsis: Like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, this is a fascinating voyage into a strange and wonderful land, a provocative meditation on communication, biology, adaptation, and culture.  In Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks turns his attention to the subject of deafness, and the result is a deeply felt portrait of a minority struggling for recognition and respect–a minority with its own rich, sometimes astonishing, culture and unique visual language, an extraordinary mode of communication that tells us much about the basis of language in hearing people as well. Seeing Voices is, as Studs Terkel has written, “an exquisite, as well as revelatory, work.”

When it comes to non-fiction, I feel like there is always a balance to hit between being engaging and informative. And I do think that Dr. Sacks does a really good job of this, for the most part. Seeing Voices covers a wide variety of topics, starting with the history of deaf education in America, how Sign Language and American Sign Language (ASL) in particular was created, the mechanisms of deafness, and more current Deaf culture. Like I said, for the most part, I was really interested in the book. As someone who has always wanted to learn ASL, I found the description of it’s development and study really fascinating. So much so that I literally then went on and started an online course to learn it. How’s it going? Ummm… I’m learning at a snails pace, but that’s okay!

There were three parts of the book that really blew me away. One was the discussion of Sign Language as it’s own language, not just a non-verbal form of English. Sign has it’s own grammatical structure, nuances, rules and incorporates things like using your eyebrows to signal questions. It is also very dependent on facial expressions, and how you position the sign in space. There were also stories about how people can dream in Sign, with one story of a granddaughter viewing her grandmother signing in her sleep. So just the general introduction to the language was really cool and really opened my eyes. Another part that shocked me was learning the in Martha’s Vineyard there was such a huge population of deaf people that they created their own version of sign language (Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, MVSL). At one point in time, 1 in 4 people were born deaf in Martha’s Vineyard, and therefore deafness wasn’t seen as a disability, it was just another way of living. Everybody therefore knew MVSL, and it was common for people to switch between Sign and speaking. Even when the last deaf person passed away, people still learned MVSL because it became such an ingrained part of the culture. It was so nice to read about a place where the society had transcended the medical model of disability, and in a way gives me a little bit of hope that our society at large can become more accepting of people with ‘disabilities’.

One of the things that I loved the most however was Sacks’ account of his experience at the Gallaudet Strike for the Deaf in 1988, where students, faculty, and members of the Deaf community gathered at the university to protest the hiring of a hearing president. Gallaudet is the only University in the world that is designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard-of-hearing students. Sacks was present for the entirety of the strike, and recounts the amazing organizing of students, the show of support from the Deaf community, with people driving down from Canada to the University, and how finally the university agreed to the demands of the students and made the president a man who was both deaf and part of the Gallaudet community already. The depiction of activism was really inspiring, and it feels really relevant to the protests surrounding Black Lives Matter currently.

  • Sidenote! When you see Deaf (capital D) that is referring to Deaf culture, whereas deaf (lowercase d) refers to the condition.

There were some parts of the book that I found kind of dry, where Sacks was discussing the causes of deafness and more linguistics aspects of Sign, but for the most part I really enjoyed the book. Sacks’ does a great job of bringing attention to a very interesting and important topic, and uplifting the voices of those in the Deaf community who are doing important work. I’d give this book a 4/5, and would definitely recommend it to those interested in learning more about Deafness, Sign, and their histories.

That’s all for now ducks, I’ll see you again soon!
~ Mon

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