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In thinking about senses, disability and communication

September 20, 2011

Over the summer, while studying German, I had the privilege (though I probably did not appreciate as much at that time) to take some undergraduate classes in areas I probably would not have had the chance to explore as a graduate student. One of the classes was about minority rights in languages and cultures, and of all these, the rights of the deaf to their own forms of ‘language’ and  methods of communication got me intrigue, especially as someone who also studies aspects of a visual culture.

Increasingly, visuals as a manner of intellectual communication is taken seriously, especially for those who now understand its importance even in serious research work particularly in the sciences, no longer relegated to the realm of pop-culture for ‘less-educated’ masses who need pictures to help them understand a narrative. Or the especial hobbies of adolescence and hobbyists.  At the same time, visuals are used to demonstrate a more inclusive picture of different worldviews by those who may not be competent in painting in words yet have an expressive way of addressing their audiences. I got reminded of this in reading an article about Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night Time, which communicates perspective through the use of iconography and even mathematical tables. People who wrote mathematical fiction (a rather niche area of fiction) have been known to do that in the past, though they have also attempt to use words to describe almost ontologically unimaginable situations even for those of us with all our ‘senses’ intact. In the case of the protagonist of Mark Haddon’s book, a boy who is autistic, mere words cannot enable his desire to express his thoughts succinctly. In the same manner, a person deaf from birth may not appreciate being coerced into the dominant discourse of the hearing and their desire and need to communicate through sound.

At the same time, for those bereft of sight, sound is the tool for carrying sensations (besides that of touch). We have the case of Helen Keller who was both deaf and blind, who sole source of communication is through touch and the written word (though she also learnt to speak and lip-read through touch, as signing is beyond her). In the case of the autistic person who is also blind, when too much sound can become a world of frightening noise, how would he/she therefore express the intellect that needs to be communicated? I have been thinking quite a bit about the notion of ‘disability’ and how its theorizing can help in the theorizing of the reading of non-intuitive ‘texts’ and extra-textual materials, or in learning how to read again in ways less natural to us (such as a person with a stroke trying to learn to speak again). It is probably time to revisit literature on how sensory ‘disabled’ people navigate their world and the existing technologies to deal with them, and extrapolate that to think about less conventional forms of reading.

Thinking about language for the blind, the deaf, the deaf and blind, or the autistic (and blind-autistic), we probably have to throw out the Chomskian model and look at other possible models of cognition and communication, and also rethink the existing theories of reading.

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