MS. REBECCA SHEIR
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
Hello, is someone there?
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.
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
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.
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?).
(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.
As it might be to you, as well. Because if we think of vision as how well a person can see...
MR. TOM ALLEN
There really are no differences between deaf people and hearing people.
Where there are differences, says VL2 director, Tom Allen, is with 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?
And in the case of people who are deaf, that visual attention is heightened in a particular way.
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.
Because, think about it, if you're a hearing person, you have 360 degrees of perception.
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.
But if you're deaf...
You lose 180 degrees of that perception.
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.
You know, if someone's trying to gain a visual attention of a deaf person, we're more aware of that.
But that heightened awareness can actually have a downside. Like, say, 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.
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.
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.
As is the seating arrangement. As Tom Allen points out, you'll often see hearing classrooms with the desks in rows, right?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And yet she says, in spite of this difference, she's constantly reminded of a specific way we’re all alike.
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.
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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