Perception of the Deaf people

Many hearing people with no knowledge of sign language and Deaf culture typically think that they cannot imagine life without hearing. Losing 'hearing' is a huge hole in life.

Hearing people imagines a life without hearing.

On the other hand, Deaf people experience life the same without losing anything. There is always something replaced. Manually speaking instead of vocally speaking. Vibration instead of sound. It's just a different way of life.

Not a big deal
Deaf people sees "hearing loss" as "Deaf gain".

The stories below describe culturally Deaf people's everyday experiences which illustrate their perceptual experience in association with greater visual and spatial awareness, visual sensitivity, and such.

Deaf getting ahead of the "hearing"

An exemplary illustration of how deaf and hearing perceive something through different avenues is Deaf American Robert Sirvage's story. Ref

On his farmhouse where he grew up, he told "... the view from my dinner table. Looking out my window, I could see my father at work all around the farm. There was a driveway from the behind with the wooded on the left side that I couldn't see. Though there was a telephone line that peeked just above the trees. From time to time, my hearing mom would tell me that we had got a visitor coming down the road. Looking out the window, I saw none for a few seconds before the vehicle was appearing. One day, I looked through the window and informed my mother that someone was coming. But, mom couldn't hear anything and said no. Moments later, sure enough, she heard the visitor's vehicle coming."

How did he know? Her mom scratched her head. How did he know?! He was just six years old at the time.

How? As he further explained, every time a vehicle approached, all the birds lined on the telephone line flew away at once. At age six, he had a natural observation of the world that he connected the bird flight with the coming vehicle, just as the mother connected the sound with the coming vehicle. Ref

Common hearing perception anecdotes

Many similar stories were told about hearing people's perception, including Deaf comedian Angela Stratiy's comedy performance satirizing some of hearing world of perception. Here are few examples of experience.

Hearing roommate/sweetheart: "Where is the [object]? I couldn't find it."
Deaf: (tells where it is.)

Another example:

Hearing on the phone: (speaking).
Deaf: "Hey, I'm going to [where]. I'll be back." (checking for the response).
Hearing: (making eye contact and/or sometimes nodding).
Deaf: Ok.
Hearing off the phone: (thinking "where did she/he go?").
Deaf (back).
Hearing: (relieved) "Why didn't you tell me when you left?"
Deaf: "I did. I already told you."

On that note, hearing people are dangerous when they are on the phone while driving. Hence, the laws. :)

Another example is the secret garage door light-dots. My hearing partner and I bought a house with its detached garage in 2010. He put some fabrics that covered the windows of the garage. I took the fabric off one particular window where I could look through from the kitchen window. He put it back. I took it down. He later asked why. Because, it's my sound. It's the window that I could "hear" whether he's home. Whether he's in the garage. Whether he's out. I had a secret 'visual sound'. There was a tiny double glowing orange dot linked to the garage door that I could see in the complete dark at night. If I couldn't see it, his truck covered it. He's home. If I could see the tiny light, he's out.

Another story -- a big one. But, save it for the last. First, let's look at how hearing and deaf perceive from scientific evidence.

Spatial-visual perception

It's not just a different way of perceiving the world. There is more to than that. It's something hard-wired in the brain! These highlights are already mentioned in my other post, but let's go through them quickly in summary to gain insights into Deaf way of seeing.

The illustration shows in a study that "deaf signing children can discriminate faces under different conditions of spatial orientation and lighting better than hearing children."

Deaf children dicriminating faces

Think in real life applications: Deaf native-signers also use faces as one of the articulators to convey linguistic information, such as topicalization, adverbial forms, conditionals, relative clauses, sentence types, intonation, and so on. They are sensitive to subtle facial differences.

Many hearing signers and even interpreters can unwittingly miss some grammatical or semantic inflections and subtleties (movement, location, palm orientation, handshape, and non-manual signals) that native Deaf signers naturally grasp.

Mental rotation in deaf signers
Source: Visual imagery and visual-spatial language, p 169.

Another study tests deaf and hearing subjects on the mental rotation tasks.

Mental rotation in deaf signers
Source: Visual imagery and visual-spatial language, p 172.

The result in a study shows that "Deaf signers did not mentally rotate imaged patterns better than non-signers; rather than finding differences in the speed of rotation per se, our results suggest that signing subjects were better able to evaluate mirror reversals." Ref

In real life, Deaf native signers have easier comprehending ASL that involves transformation or reversal, such as describing an object, a room, or another.

In another experiment, children were asked to write a Chinese pseudo-character each time they observed a lightpoint motion of the written Chinese pseudo-character in the air.

Deaf children recognizing characters

"In this experiment, ... Deaf signers (both Chinese and American) were significantly better than their hearing counterparts at perceiving the underlying segments of these pseudo-characters. Figure 2b [above] shows the contrast between first-grade Chinese hearing and deaf children on this task." (Neville, 1988)." (p 141)

In an EEG study on how deaf native signers perceive biological motions, the researchers conclude that "native ASL users exhibit experience-dependent neuroplasticity in the domain of biological human motion perception." Ref

Deaf people are good at reading body language.

Both personal observations and studies show that Deaf people's eyesight is sharper and has larger peripheral vision.

It's not uncommon that Deaf people listened to other ASL speakers out of peripheral vision. For example, a hearing signer was talking in ASL while I was listening out of peripheral vision while I was busy attending to my toddler. He was annoyed and told me to listen. I told him I listened! He hardly believed. He's hearing after all.

Moreover, my highly-visual hearing daughter, who was born to Deaf families and who has acquired native ASL (American Sign Language) as a first language since birth, demonstrated her well-developed peripheral vision as early as age one (even 6 months old based on the eye contact games in the mirrors). She responded without looking at me or her grandparents signing from time to time.

Another thing is the sharp alertness and responsiveness. Not only Deaf people may have sharper eyesight but also are more alert and responsive. Deaf people are not only visual but also tactile.

Standing on the top of the blocks, we (back then novice swimmers) awaited the sound of a start pistol. A few preteen teammates used to mock me being for the slowest starter. Couldn't help it that I had to watch the other swimmers and followed them.

Over a few years, I climbed to the higher competition levels, I was thrilled to learn that they had a light strobe that flashed whenever the pistol fired. Then, we all were equal in competition.

At the sound of the pistol, the light strobe flashed. I jumped off the block. To everyone's surprise including myself, I responded to the cue the fastest.

Another observation was that I was hired to be part of the research team as an intern during my graduate program at an art school. They set up a new eye tracking machine that studied artists' eye movement when drawing.

Before they study the actual subjects, we all tested on each of us. During the drawing task, the eye device recorded the artist/researcher's eye movements. After the task, we all watched the recorded video where we observed the eye tracks moving in all directions. They forgot my turn and I kept asking a few times before I sat down for the task. After that, we observed the recorded video. We all were shocked to see that, unlike all other hearing subjects, my eye movements darted from one to another in an incredibly lightning motion. From there, I knew very well that they should have some Deaf artists in their study.

How about driving? Deaf drivers are known for safer drivers.

newspaper column on eyesight of deaf people

Deaf people have known it ever since.

"We already know that, but pah, a science admits it. :)" -- Kevin Gamache (FB).

Note that "pah" is a gloss for the ASL sign for "finally".

A study of the University of Sheffield shows that the retina of deaf-born adults develops differently compared to hearing adults' retinas. In addition to visual cortex, the retinas change to more advantages. Ref

The Giant Bug

Here is the last story I saved. This (yes, true) story illustrates an overall perception that is differnet between deaf and hearing people in everyday life.

Holding my three or four-year-old coda's hand, we strided into a large grocery store's entrance area where the rows of shopping carts parked. My visual-oriented little girl, whose native language is ASL, suddenly stopped. Sensing the movement, I looked at her gaze and followed the direction of the gaze all in a split second. Gosh, I had never seen anything like in my life. Literally about 3 inches or palm-sized huge black bug helplessly struggled to move. Inside the store, I waved several times over several minutes trying to get the hearing worker's attention, no luck. If I were in her position, I'd notice right away out of my farthest peripheral vision within seconds.

Next, a middle-aged woman entered from the other side and took one of the carts nearby. As I made eye contact with her, I pointed to the buggy creature along with a gesture more than a few times. She looked through me as if I didn't exist. As I made attempts to make eye contact and some gestural communication with her, she appeared to see me or looked at me but made no acknowledgement. If she were a Deaf person, this cannot happen.

With all cosmic humor, we gasped as her cart roller precisely crossed over the peach-sized bug (no less than the roller width) and the cart tilted momentarily. No response. Unbelievably, the next moment, her shoe exactly stepped and crushed all the way on the poor creepy-crawly wiggling in pain. Double red bull targets! Again, no response. Incredible...

I mean, if it were me, I would have noticed immediately the moment my cart tilted (even I would be able to tell whether the object was soft or hard) and I'd likely checked to see what the hell it was -- I most likely would immediately scream just out of my peripheral vision without even fully looking at it. Or, I'd freak out the moment my foot stepped only 1/4 way down. In this split moment, I'd probably anticipate or even pray that it might be a fresh soft peach under my sole. I couldn't imagine what my reaction might be the moment I checked it -- the giant creepy-willy... Who knows what decibels my scream might be measured. But, for sure, it would get the worker's immediate attention, finally.

As I with my kid still stood watching her in amazement (if I were her, I would immediately notice someone staring at me for more than a few seconds long minutes ago), she casually walked through the sliding doors. Ignorance is a blissssss. At her dinner tonight, "nothing much new today." Conversely, in my ASL intermediate classes, my students laughed in tears as I told this dramatic story in my ASL storytelling year after year.

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