Perception of the Deaf people

Hearing people imagines a life without hearing.

Many hearing people would typically think that they cannot imagine life without hearing. Losing 'hearing' is a huge hole in life.

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

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.

The Hearing Mother and the Deaf Son

A classic illustration of how deaf and hearing perceive something through different avenues is Robert Sirvage's story. On his farmhouse where he grew up, "...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?

Every time a vehicle approached, all the birds lined on the wire flew away at once. He was just six years old and 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

This describes culturally Deaf people's everyday experiences. Their visual-perceptual experience has greater visual and spatial awareness, visual sensitivity, and such.

Common hearing perception anecdotes

Many similiar stories were told about hearing people's perception, including Deaf comedian Angela Stratiy's comedy performance satiring some of hearing world of perception. Deaf people are more visually aware. Here are few examples of experience.

Hearing roommate/sweetheart: "Where is the scissors? 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 story -- a big one. But, save it for the last. First, let's look at how hearing and deaf perceive from a scientific evidence.

Spatial-visual perception

"Visual-spatial perception, memory, and mental transformations are prerequisites to grammatical processing in ASL (Emmorey and Corina, 1990...)".

Keep in mind that speech is not a language but a medium. Language is amodal -- that is, language is independent from modality or medium. Language is processed in the brain.

On the relation of the use of ASL to spatial abilities, 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 unawarely 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

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

Sharp kinesthetic perception

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

The result above shows a remarkable difference between hearing and Deaf children that deaf signers can detect and interpret moving light characters more accurately than hearing non-signers.

"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)

Well, despite these heightened senses, Deaf people are not immune to carelessness or accident. We are human too. We can be sometimes daydreaming or be absorbed in something among a number of other factors.

Enhanced motion perception

In an EEG study on how deaf native signers perceive biological motions, Deaf signers and hearing non-Signers watched both the Biological Motion point-light dispays (PLDs) which depicted everyday human actions and the Scrambled PLDs as control. The researchers computed the time-frequency responses.

The findings were:

1) "Deaf signers reported significantly less effort required for identifying coherent biological motion."

2) "Deaf native ASL signers showed theta, mu, and beta differentiation between scrambled and biological movements."

3) "These differences were seen earlier and more consistently than in hearing non-signers." Ref

The researchers conclude that "native ASL users exhibit experience-dependent neuroplasticity in the domain of biological human motion perception."

In other word, Deaf gain.

The Giant Bug

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 vision-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 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.

Next, a middle-aged woman entered and took one of the carts. 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 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 tell whether the object was soft or hard) and I'd likely checked to see what the hell it was. 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 still stood watching her in amazement (if I were her, I would immediately notice someone staring at me for more than a few seconds), she casually walked through the sliding doors. Ignorance is a blissss. At her dinner tonight, "nothing much new today." Conversely, in my ASL intermediate classes, my students laughed in tears as I told the dramatic story in ASL every year.

Related posts

You may be also interested in: vision of the Deaf people.

How do deaf people hear without ears.

Enter a keyword in the field box below to search or filter the new topic list and click on the link.

New to sign language? "Where do I start?" or "How do I start learning sign language?" This ASL Rookie guide lists some selected links to the tutorials for ASL beginners to get started and keep rolling. It may be a useful review for intermediate-level learners and ASL students as well.

Some tutorial pages are a mix of free and premium versions. Access to premium content and links below are available in the PatronPlus subscription. More links/posts will be added from time to time.

Are you able to carry everyday conversations in ASL? Are you a student in the intermediate levels and beyond, who wishes to boost up your signing skills? You've come to the selected tutorial series. (Some premium content are available to PatronPlus membership.)

Stories, poems, performance arts, etc. in sign language.

This documentation project follows a child's language acquisition, literacy development, and phonological acquisition in sign language, specifically ASL, from newborn to age five in a natural native-ASL environment and visual culture.