Sound & Vision: Why Deaf People See Differently (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Sound & Vision: Why Deaf People See Differently

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:36:36
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we're getting the message, bringing you stories and interviews all about the art of communicating. Now, obviously, we communicate in all sorts of ways. There's verbal communication, like talking.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER

13:36:51
Hello, is someone there?

SHEIR

13:36:53
Shouting.

SHEIR

13:36:56
Maybe singing?

SHEIR

13:37:01
Et cetera. Then there's non-verbal communication, a tap perhaps, a look or a sign. As in sign language. American Sign Language or ASL is the dominant sign language of the deaf community in the United States. And Washington D.C. is home to the only university in the world where all programs and services are specifically designed for deaf and hard of hearing students.

SHEIR

13:37:24
I'm talking, of course, about Gallaudet University where a new discovery challenges a widespread notion about people who don't hear.

MS. MELISSA MALZKUHN

13:37:32
Part of my job responsibilities are to give some presentations to the freshmen students here, the first year students at Gallaudet. And always, you know, I ask them if they think that deaf people see better and often times, the students say, yes.

SHEIR

13:37:45
Melissa Malzkuhn works at Gallaudet's Visual Language and Visual Learning Center or VL2. She's deaf so she's speaking through interpreter, Caitlin Smith (sp?).

MALZKUHN

13:37:52
(through interpreter) And so I tell them that the science actually says, that we don’t see better, we just see differently, which is an eye opening experience to them.

SHEIR

13:38:00
As it might be to you, as well. Because if we think of vision as how well a person can see...

MR. TOM ALLEN

13:38:06
There really are no differences between deaf people and hearing people.

SHEIR

13:38:10
Where there are differences, says VL2 director, Tom Allen, is with something called visual attention.

ALLEN

13:38:16
Visual attention is the ability to attend appropriately to things through the visual modality. In other words, where are you directing your attention?

SHEIR

13:38:25
And in the case of people who are deaf, that visual attention is heightened in a particular way.

ALLEN

13:38:30
It's been discovered that deaf people have an enhanced ability to see and detect and understand things that are occurring in their peripheral vision.

SHEIR

13:38:38
Because, think about it, if you're a hearing person, you have 360 degrees of perception.

ALLEN

13:38:43
Your brain, when it hears a sound, knows where it is. You have the ability to locate objects in space depending upon how they sound and where they are.

SHEIR

13:38:52
But if you're deaf...

ALLEN

13:38:53
You lose 180 degrees of that perception.

SHEIR

13:38:56
So researchers think the deprived auditory areas of your brain reorganized to better process visual information. As a result, you're more sensitive to moving stimuli in your peripheral vision, like a car speeding toward you in the street or, says Melissa Malzkuhn, a person hoping to catch your eye.

MALZKUHN

13:39:14
You know, if someone's trying to gain a visual attention of a deaf person, we're more aware of that.

SHEIR

13:39:19
But that heightened awareness can actually have a downside. Like, say, in the classroom.

MALZKUHN

13:39:24
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.

SHEIR

13:39:35
Because the better you can detect stuff in your periphery, the harder you have to work not to be distracted by it. It's called selective attention. And that's why deaf students tend to perform better in smaller classes where distractions are more predictable. Oh, and never underestimate the importance of good lighting.

MALZKUHN

13:39:51
If there's bad lighting, that can be very annoying and very distracting. You have to make sure that you have very clear lighting. You have to make sure that there's a lot of windows with natural bright lighting in the classroom. That's a very important part of the setup.

SHEIR

13:40:03
As is the seating arrangement. As Tom Allen points out, you'll often see hearing classrooms with the desks in rows, right?

ALLEN

13:40:09
But if you look at the classrooms at Gallaudet, you'll never see a row of desks facing a teacher in the front. Classrooms are circular so that you have visual information coming in from all directions and every student in the class can see every other student in the class.

SHEIR

13:40:22
But the selective attention we're talking about isn't just applicable to speeding cars or focusing in class, it's also key in reading.

ALLEN

13:40:30
Reading involves looking at a word in your central field of vision and processing the word and then regulating your vision as it moves along the page. And if you have a broader field of view, there may be less of your attention resources allocated to the center.

SHEIR

13:40:42
Which may make learning to read more difficult. That's why Allen says, some experts recommend deaf students use a windowed reading technique where they see words in smaller chunks, rather than in complete sentences. Melissa Malzkuhn is an avid reader herself. And though she doesn't recall having particular trouble when she started with books, she does say she's been aware of her heightened visual attention for a long time.

MALZKUHN

13:41:05
It's this intuitive sense that I've always had that I thought or knew that something was different. I couldn't put it into words, but I knew it was there.

SHEIR

13:41:13
And yet she says, in spite of this difference, she's constantly reminded of a specific way we’re all alike.

MALZKUHN

13:41:19
It's really the essence of humanity. All humans desire communication and interaction, whether you hear or don't hear, whether you're a visual person or not. We all have that innate desire to communicate with others.

SHEIR

13:41:31
To reach out and more or less touch someone through the spoken word, a special look or, yes, a sign. For more on visual attention and deafness, the new study from Gallaudet's Visual Language and Visual Learning Science Center, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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