Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf

by Oliver Sacks

Hardcover, 1989




University of California Press, (1989)


Provides a history of deaf people in the U.S., looking at the ways in which they have been seen and treated in the past and their ongoing struggle for acceptance; examines Sign, the visual language of the deaf; and discusses the uniquely human gift of language.

User reviews

LibraryThing member mckait
First of all I have to mention the footnotes. They are extensive and take up half the page in some instances. This was very distracting, and I felt almost as if I were reading two books at once.

There were several things here that struck me. I picked up the book as sign language has always interested me, more so after working my last job, where some of the children were not able to hear, and some unable to speak in other ways. This book was interesting and informative and a very quick read.

There was mention early on how one young man, who had lost his hearing after seven years. He would hear the voice of his mother in his head even after his hearing was gone. This made me think of how I and possibly you, do this with books. I hear the voices of well known and loved characters in my head as I read. This was defined by the author as an "illusory" type of hearing.

This book explores the options given to the patents of non hearing children as far as signing and lip reading are concerned. There is mention of how som who live in the deaf community choose to Live without trying any extreme measures to give them at least some hearing. I think this is a perfectly good choice for an adult to make.
For an adult to make it for a child, at least as far as not exposing them to different learning settings and options, is in my opinion a mistake. All of us have ways of learning that suit us better than others, and when it comes to parents of a child who faces difficulty from the outset, the choices must be quite stressful. Finding what works best for your child can be difficult without any added obstacles.

We have all heard the horror stories from the past where of children grew to adulthood having been labeled as "slow" or "feeble minded" or worse, when their only issue was lack of hearing, and thus lack of ability to communicate. I have no reason to believe that things have changed enough over the years to keep this from happening now.

My reason for reading this book is that there was a girl I will call V in the classroom where I worked. She was brought in as a 4 year old who had not had any prior intervention, aside from the implantation of a cochlear implant. There was little training for her after the initial few weeks, as she didn't seem to like having the magnet near her head. I believe that if she had been sent to an appropriate school where profoundly deaf children were top priority and the the staff was trained and equipped for that particular challenge, her chances of acieving some learning would have been much better.

At one point she was taken out of school for three years, with no intervention or teaching at all, and then sent back to the same place. By that time she was an adolescent trapped in a world of silence and low vision. I read this book because of her and because I always believed that she would have been capable of so much more, were she given the chance. What I read affirmed that belief for me.
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LibraryThing member iayork
Fascinating look at deafness and language: I loved this book and could have wished it twice as long. However, a friend to whom I recommended the book didn't think that highly of it. So to be honest, I guess this book isn't for everyone. It is true that particularly in this book, Sacks gets carried away by lots of long footnotes printed at the bottom of the pages. For me, reading them was like exploring every nook and cranny of a great cathedral. Absolutely enthralling. But for others, it may prove to be rather distracting. If you have ever pondered the endlessly fascinating relationship of language to thinking, you will like this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member dahabdabbler
I am fascinated by all of Oliver Sacks' work!!
LibraryThing member wester
Deafness and sign language are used in this book to comment on language, culture and humanity. A very interesting read, even when you're not particularly interested in deafness in itself.
LibraryThing member ashishg
Book is insightful about sign language and languages in general with great information about how brain processes language and information. However, language is very technical so much so that this resembles a research paper (and is written in same style as well) rather than a popular public work. Very difficult to comprehend and heavy to read. I couldn't finish.… (more)
LibraryThing member SomeGuyInVirginia
Nice, generalized primer on the consequences of deafness. I was particularly interest in Sacks' observation that sign (ASL rather than signed English) was very good at spacial descriptions, one of the weaknesses of spoken language.
LibraryThing member ajlewis2
This book was very informative. What impressed me most was how important it is that deaf people not be pushed to vocal communication, but rather use Sign. I was surprised to learn that American Sign is a very rich language and is much more useful than signed English. Oliver Sacks goes into a lot of detail with his wonderful sensitivity shining through.… (more)
LibraryThing member Evalangui
Published June 1989, the year after the Gallaudet University revolution.

Interesting but pretty basic. Good for me since I haven’t read much on the topic at all and it references other material (David Wright’s autobiography, for example) and gives enough of a basic history to give a casual reader a basic understanding. I’m quite sorry to have listened to the audio version since it skips most of the footnotes, which are the most interesting part of the book for me! It’s a short-book in any case (64.000 words) and Sacks is a very readable writer.

The pathos is a bit too obvious, although undoubtedly the situation was (and sometimes is) quite dire for deaf people and it made me all teary eyed anyway. Still, it might well be that old cochlear implants were pretty much useless to make a deaf person into a hearing one, unlike current ones. See my review of Sound and Fury for more on that.

Another criticism to be made is that Sacks, like all Usian writers, is pretty USA-centric. Although there are appropriate comparisons to other countries and some history of the French tradition from which the Usian tradition originated with Clerc and Gallaudet and in the footnotes I did read interesting references to the very advanced organization of education for the deaf in countries like Venezuela and Uruguay (check the quotes) so it is possible that there is more about other countries in the ones I have not read but the bibliography is pretty much all Usian (I’m including it here, too).

I find it a bit confusing how there’s proof that every sign language is a separate language and the level of intelligibility is so high that two random signers of any language will get by with each other and be able to have conversations in a couple weeks.
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LibraryThing member Kaethe
The first two sections are a bit of a slog. Sacks goes into the history of educating deaf people, and he veers off all over the place into footnotes that are neither amusing nor informative. Despite that, he does manage to put the history of Sign and boarding schools for the deaf into both a historical and international context. To summarize, having successfully educated many people with Sign, demonstrating that deaf does not equal dumb in any sense, that hundred years of success was completely dismantled in favor of speech and language-focused education which returned deaf people into a second-class of people who were, truly disabled by the people supposed to be teaching them. Then, in the third section, you get people actually studying Sign, recognizing that they are real languages with real grammar and everything, and a deaf rights activism that results in the student takeover at Gallaudet. That part is interesting, not least because the recognition of a language really seems to lead to recognition of culture in both the ethnic sense (Welch or Gaelic, say) and in the human-rights sense (reclamation of the words "gay" and "black" as part of an ongoing battle to receive the full human status to which all people are entitled.

There is also some interesting stuff on accommodation and mainstreaming which parallels more recent educational efforts demanded by people with autism. I really wish there had been some sort of update, though, because the book was published in 1989. Fortunately, the Internets were able to bring me up-to-date.

Library copy.
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LibraryThing member Knicke
Never met a Sacks I didn't like - this one is no exception, although I really wish the extensive notes had been footnoted and not crammed at the end like an unusually important epilogue. Quite a bit here that I knew about (had a few friends, Deaf and hearing both, who were part of the Deaf community growing up), but much that I didn't. One interesting/heartbreaking bit? How Sign was initially adopted and then abandoned until recently. Best stuff? The examination of the linguistics and neurology of Sign - very cool.… (more)


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