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Gallaudet Finds Deaf People Don't See Better, They See Differently

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Gallaudet University's classrooms are arranged in semi-circles, not rows, to help maintain students' visual attention.
Gallaudet University
Gallaudet University's classrooms are arranged in semi-circles, not rows, to help maintain students' visual attention.

As the Community Engagement Coordinator at Gallaudet's Visual Language and Visual Learning Center, or VL2, Melissa Malzkuhn often gives presentations to first-year students.

"I ask them if they think that deaf people see better. And oftentimes the students say, 'Yes,'" Malzkuhn, who is deaf, says through an interpreter. "And so I tell them that science actually says that we don’t see better. We just see differently. Which is an eye-opening experience to them."

VL2 director Tom Allen says if we think of vision as how well a person can see, "there really are no differences between deaf people and hearing people."

But there are differences, Allen says, when it comes to something called "visual attention."

"[Visual attention is] the ability to attend appropriately to things through the visual modality. In other words, where are you directing your attention?" he says.

And for people who are deaf, it's been discovered that visual attention is heightened in their peripheral vision. A hearing person has 360 degrees of perception, since your brain can locate objects based on sounds. But those who are deaf, Allen says, lose 180 degrees of that perception.

It's this intuitive sense that I've always had, that I thought or knew that something was different.

So researchers think the deprived auditory areas of the brain reorganize to better process visual information. As a result, people are more sensitive to moving stimuli in their periphery, like a car speeding toward them in the street.

But that heightened awareness can actually have a downside, like in the classroom.

"In a classroom with students who can hear, there's noise pollution issues; you have to be concerned about intruding noises. But in a classroom with deaf students, you have to be concerned about visual pollution," Malzkuhn says.

Because the better people can detect things in their periphery, the harder they must work not to be distracted by it; it's called "selective attention." That's why deaf students tend to perform better in smaller classes, where distractions are more predictable. And never underestimate the importance of good lighting.

"If there's bad lighting, that can be very annoying and very distracting. You have to make sure that you have windows with natural, bright lighting in the classroom. That's a very important part of the set-up," Malzkuhn says.

The seating arrangement is also critical. As Allen points out, you'll often see hearing classrooms with the desks in rows.

"But at Gallaudet classrooms are circular, so you have visual information coming in from all directions, and every student in the class can see every other student in the class," he says.

But this "selective attention" we're talking about isn't just applicable to speeding cars or focusing in class. It's also key in reading.

"Reading involves looking at a word in your central field of vision and processing the word, and then regulating your field of vision as it moves along the page. And if you have a broader field of view, there may be less of your attention or resources allocated to the center," Allen says.

That's why some experts recommend a "windowed" reading technique for deaf students, where they see words in smaller chunks, not complete sentences.

Malzkuhn is an avid reader and says she's been aware of her heightened visual attention for a long time.

"It's this intuitive sense that I've always had, that I thought or knew that something was different," she says.

In spite of this "difference" she's constantly reminded of how everyone, hearing and deaf, are the same.

"It's really the essence of humanity. We all have that innate desire to communicate with others," Malzkuhn says.

In short, people have the need to reach out and touch someone, regardless of how visually or auditorily inclined, they may be.

Visual Attention and Deafness
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