How media divides or bridges the Deaf and Hearing communities


Historians usually classify civilisations by their economy: agrarian, feudal, industrial etc. However, another way of dividing them is by how they convey information: verbal vs visual civilisations. Images contain more information per pixel and are universally understood, but English only requires 26 characters to be printed or typed. In the dial-up era, websites were text based because pictures took up more data. As downloads accelerated, the web included more and more pictures and video.

Human learning and language remains primarily verbal and one of the great puzzles is why people mainly speak instead of signing? After all, there are many instances where speech is useless.

Divers, factory workers and Benedictine monks have all devised signs to get around intense noise or vows of silence. Sign can be understood in the dark by grasping other people’s hands. Until recently, most Deaf people with jobs worked in noisy factories. The sign for sugar (fingers brushing the cheek) was invented by Deaf workers in sugar mills who had to continuously brush sugar particles off their faces.

Also, we now know that Sign is 15% more efficient than English at transmitting information (British Deaf News – “Which is more efficent – Talking or Signing?”).

This is because our eyes can process images in parallel and take in information much faster than our ears. Speech uses one dimension, time. Sign uses four: height, width, depth and time.

Medieval Europe was heavily visual. Religious stories were told through stained glass windows and wall paintings. Shops were marked with symbols such as the barber’s red and white pole or the pawnbroker’s three golden balls.

The invention of the printing press in 1453 (the first mass media) led to the Protestant Reformation and a violent shift to a verbal civilisation. Paintings were whitewashed, stained glass was smashed and images were condemned as pagan idols. They were replaced with written words and sermons (the same process happened in pagan Arabia when Islam emerged). For Deaf people living in a preliterate era when nearly all education was controlled by clerics, this replacement of images with sermons must have been catastrophic.

1895-1927 was the era of silent films, a brief period when a mass media was equally accessible to the Hearing and the Deaf. In fact, Deaf people who could lipread had a more enjoyable experience than others because they could see the often rude and nonsensical words the actors were exchanging.

Even after the Jazz singer, the first talkie film in 1927, films remained heavily visual. Captions, long periods of silence and heavy use of exaggerated body language remained common for years afterwards.

We still have visual films and TV shows today where Deaf and Hearing audiences can both follow the plot. Unfortunately, they are nearly always children’s programmes: Pingu, Mr Bean, Wall E etc. There is no objective reason for this. After all, there are plenty of signed plays and films for Deaf adults.

This is part of an anti-visual prejudice leftover from the Abrahamic religions.

Look at how the word ‘dumb’ evolved from meaning unable to speak to meaning unintelligent. While ‘blind’ is hardly flattering it does not have the same derogatory meaning as ‘dumb’.

Look at how reading picture books is looked down on despite the existence of atlases, fine art, blueprints and plenty of non-verbal academic books.

Look at how the Deaf were excluded from inheriting property in preliterate eras because they were unable to understand the Bible. Contrast this with Blind children who were able to learn God’s word and therefore not excluded from society to the same extent.

The Old Testament starts with “In the beginning was the Word”, no mention of pictures or symbols (though the Dogon tribe’s creation myth starts with “In the beginning was the picture”). The very word ‘audience’ reflects the fact that people originally went to ‘hear’ a play rather than ‘see’ a play or we might have used the word ‘vidience’. It was listening to the lines that counted, the sets, make-up and costumes were so primitive and rudimentary as to be superfluous. Our golden age of theatre, like Protestantism, was born out of the printing press and excluded the Deaf community in a way that medieval carnival and mystery plays did not.

Today, our society is far more visual and Deaf-friendly. The invention of cinema, television, subtitles, video games and email have all contributed to this. But while they all make it easier for Deaf people to access media, they haven’t encouraged people to learn Sign.

One gadget that has done this though, is the MP3 player. More and more people spend much of the day listening to music or the radio while travelling. Increasingly, people are using rudimentary signs to attract attention where previously they would have used words.

There was a fear that email and messaging apps would replace Sign. Now, thanks to front facing cameras, Sign can be used in video calls as easily as Speech (provided there is a good broadband connection).

Of all communities, none are more isolated than Deafblind people. Unable to think visually or verbally, they have to learn via sensations and smells.

2012 was the year they were finally liberated. The breakthrough was achieved by BAPSI (Bidirectional Access Promotion Society of India). They invented an app for Deafblind people which allowed them to receive texts by their phones vibrating in Morse code. Before this, they depended on words traced on their palms.

In 2014, Abhilasha Jain devised a ‘Magic Glove’ for converting Sign to Speech using Bluetooth and a machine learning algorithm.

This year Abhishek Singh has invented a web app allowing Deaf people to sign to webcams which can then ‘speak’ to Amazon Echo and types out the response, so even voice-operated technology can be Deaf-friendly.

Speech to text software is widespread. Soon, Deaf people will be making video calls with non-signers whose software will instantly translate signs into words. This will break the final barrier between the Deaf and the Hearing.

Edmund West is an autistic freelance journalist who has been writing articles since 2007. He also works with Autistic adults and has an MA in history. He has written for several magazines: Press Gazette, Wired, Military History Monthly, History Today, etc.