Tony McCarthy

The Deaf Brain

We aren’t wired the same - Deaf brain vs hearing brain

Written by Tony McCarthy

I’m a bit angry right now, I’m aware that that’s not the best way to start an article, but I really am quite angry. I work as an interpreter, and now that I’ve said that you are all thinking, ‘what language?’ then I guess you’re thinking French, German, Spanish or even a bit harder to master, Chinese?

It’s Sign Language (British Sign Language, actually, BSL) and most people think of that last and that’s one reason I’m angry. I have worked in the Deaf community for 25 years first as a care worker then as a communication support worker and now as an interpreter, and during that time, thinking about Deaf people’s access rights to BSL, hasn’t moved forward enough, another reason I’m angry!

The other day, I was interpreting for a Deaf client, at a meeting for a company who are supposed to be ‘forward thinking’ and ‘providing examples of service accessible to all’, and this happened:

Deaf person: “Is there a BSL element to the app?”
Company Man: “Well, we did talk about it, but our client didn’t think it was a priority right now”
Deaf person: “I’m not a priority, right now?”
Company Man: “Well not you, but the BSL element”
Deaf person: “but the BSL element is ME!”

As the interpreter I had to remain impartial and professional, but I was angry.

I suppose it would help if I explained what made me angry, you see it’s not only that the company man said ‘BSL isn’t a priority’ but the fact he is on the side of disabled people, and his job is to tell others that don’t understand the requirements of the disabled communities he ‘represents’, what should be a priority.

‘What’s all the fuss about?’

The reason that this is important is that Deaf people understand and process information differently to hearing people, it’s known in the Deaf community as the ‘Deaf brain’. The Deaf brain is wired differently to the hearing brain mainly due to the fact that Deaf people process information in a purely visual way. It’s understood scientifically that the brain processes visual stimuli and auditory stimuli in very different ways.

Having worked in the Deaf community for a number of years it’s obvious to me that for me to interpret information to the Deaf person I need to think about the message that is being conveyed by the hearing person and what information they want the Deaf person to take from their interaction. The words aren’t important, the message is. So, I need to give the Deaf person a visual representation of the message.

Deaf people’s ability to take away information is rooted in their understanding of the world around them. This concept is hard for hearing people to understand because hearing people take in information ‘passively’ by hearing it.

To explain this, imagine that you have never been told that the terrorist attack in America on 9/11 happened, so the phrase 9/11 means nothing to you. Now imagine that during a speech about politics the speaker refers to 9/11, you have no reference point to connect the information. Now consider that during another conversation a person says ‘my friend died on 9/11’, you still don’t have a reference point to 9/11, but you do know that people die. The message here is that 9/11 is an event that happened and you need to know that, before thinking about the information relating to how people died in this event.

Hearing people have ‘passively’ taken information in throughout their lives, listening to a conversation with family when they were a small child as well as listening to the TV news simultaneously. So, the hearing child could have taken in the conversation with family about school tomorrow and the news that a terrible event had taken place in America. The event is referred to as ‘9/11’ and the hearing child would retain that and recall later in life when the phrase ‘9/11’ is used.

Deaf children don’t have the luxury of ‘passive hearing’ so EVERYTHING needs to be learnt through visual ways, and because this method of learning requires Deaf people to see the thing (event, topic or subject) in a visual way the young Deaf brain starts to build information by recalling visual cues and clues.

Learning to read is a very difficult thing for a Deaf person to accomplish. Because they cannot hear how the word sounds, they have to look at how every combination of letters works. Hearing people learn to read through spoken and written methods enabling them to put together visual and audio versions of words that enable them to know that ‘writing and written’ sound different and are used in different ways. 

Deaf people need to see how the subtle letter changes in these two words mean different things. They have to see that one is present tense and the other is past tense, by seeing the sign that ‘writing’ is a present tense action and that ‘written’ is a completed past tense action.

So, seeing things written down in subtitles or in a document are not clear to a Deaf person until they can visualise the ‘action’ that is occurring or has occurred. Expecting that, because a Deaf person was raised in an English speaking/writing household means that they understand English is similar to saying that because you heard music playing you know how to play the violin!

Now back to why I’m angry! Hearing people keep on saying that BSL isn’t important because they don’t process information visually, they process through reading and translating the message in the writing. Deaf people see visual information and translate the visual action into information.

It’s 2021 and saying that BSL for a Deaf person isn’t a priority, is like saying Deaf people aren’t a priority for hearing people. When will BSL become a priority for hearing people?

Here’s a reason I’m happy! At Inclusive Fruit, they have taken the idea that access for all, actually can mean all… They produce video content for websites, news articles and medical support services (CardMedic) and each video they create has BSL, audio description and subtitles. 

This means everyone can have access.

Thank you,

Tony McCarthy

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