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What happens to the brains of deaf people?


The subculture of people who are deaf
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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So, for me, well, this... I was introduced to a... a culture within our culture. I’d never really thought much about cultural things, but deaf people have a vivid sense of their own history. There is a sort of oral, or if you want, manual culture, in which deaf poets and storytellers would sign their stories or poems. There was a… there have been theatres for the deaf, and when I went to Gallaudet I... I talked about the hearing-impaired, and one of the students there said, 'Why don’t you look at yourself as Sign-impaired?' And it was a very interesting turning of the tables, because there were a thousand students all conversing in Sign, and I was the inarticulate one who could understand nothing and communicate nothing, at least in Sign. I later learnt a little Sign, but I was no good at it, I am no good at languages, unlike an older brother of mine in Australia who was a genius with languages and had 30 of them. But I... I was never much good.

But, it was astonishing to meet people who viewed life in a... in a different way, as later it was astonishing on this little coral atoll on Micronesia, to find a subculture of... of these colour-blind people who… I remember when I first went there, I was at one point…had seven colour-blind people with me, and they indicated that, really, I was the defective one. They said, 'You shouldn’t think of us as colour-blind'. They said, 'Colour is probably of no interest anyhow. Think of yourself as being insufficiently sensitive to texture and surface and boundary and line and depth and movement'. When I first communicated with a... a woman with congenital colour blindness in San Francisco, I said I’d like to meet her. She said, 'I won’t see you if you regard me as a patient, you will have to acknowledge that my vision is different, but not inferior to yours'. And so, similarly, deaf with a capital D means... ethnically different, linguistically different. Deaf people are very insistent, often, on using a capital D; deaf with a small d means medically deaf. So, for me, again, this was an acute expansion of interests so that language and culture from a very different angle became especially interesting to me.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Sign language

Duration: 3 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012