THE VISITORS AND DEAF-BLINDNESS
By Rebecca Mascull
I was waiting at a bus-stop in 1996, when I saw one of my students, a deaf lad called James. We ‘talked’ on the bus. I wrote questions for him on a pad and he wrote his answers. I wanted to know what it was like to be deaf. He explained that he went to clubs and stood near the speakers, could feel the vibrations and use them to dance, (just like any other teenager, really). He taught me a few signs and I was charmed by the visual beauty of some of them: in particular, how ‘remember’ was a gesture where the hand catches something beside the head, whilst ‘forget’ used a similar gesture yet let it go: a thought caught, a thought lost.
That year, I was training to be a secondary school teacher in Bristol. My main subject was English, yet I had the chance to take an option in special educational needs and one of my postings was a deaf support department at an FE college. I observed and tried to help out with an English class whose students were all deaf. I learnt that every deaf teenager in that room had different needs, different ways of communicating, different ways of accessing education. Some used alternative forms of sign language, some were able to lip-read, others had a little hearing, some could speak and others could not. All of them had significant difficulties with writing English and it was then I realised for the first time that, if you are deaf and raised by English-speaking parents, English is not necessarily your first language.
British Sign Language (or BSL) has little in common with spoken and written English. It happens to have developed in the same country, but that’s about it. Sign Language is, of course, visual and yet it is also spatial: it works in more dimensions than spoken language. The relationship between the hand gestures, the spacing of the hands in relation to the body and the huge variety of facial expressions and body language involved creates a language as complex as any other. Some of these students had been brought up reading lips, some learning a version of English called Signed English, and a few had been taught British Sign Language early on. But not all of them. So these few deaf teenagers represented a cross-section of how deaf children make sense of the world and their experiences were certainly not universal. I had to throw out the myth I had imagined that all deaf people used the same sign language. I learnt that there are different sign languages all over the world, with similarities, yet like spoken language, each presents its own challenges when travelling and struggling to be understood.
I chose to write an essay about this new and fascinating subject. One of the books I read was ‘Seeing Voices’ by Oliver Sacks. It was a magnificent book, one which opened my eyes wide to the beauties and complexities of sign language, the history of deaf education, the continuing and often vociferous debate about whether the deaf should be taught to speak and lip-read rather than use sign language (otherwise known as ‘oracy’), the intricacies of deaf culture and the possibility that the deaf brain was fundamentally and even biologically different from the hearing brain.
I wrote my essay, got my teaching qualification and went off into the rest of my life. But I never forgot my fascination with deafness. When I was a child, I had watched a TV movie one day about Helen Keller, the deaf-blind girl who learnt to communicate from her teacher Annie Sullivan. It wasn’t the famous film The Miracle Worker with Anne Bancroft as Annie, but a TV version with Mare Winningham who I knew from St. Elmo’s Fire (yes, I was a child of the 80s). The moment when Annie ran water over Helen’s hand and she learnt the word ‘water’ from finger spelling into the hand, haunted me for years. What would it be like, to not see, to not hear? To be in darkness and silence all your life? Before Helen learnt to finger-spell, what did she think about? What can you think about, without language, without words? All these questions marinated in my head for years. Meeting James and his fellow students raised them again briefly, then life got in the way and I had to earn my living as a teacher.
Then came my novel The Visitors. I knew for years that I had wanted to do something with my fascination for deafness and deaf-blindness. I wanted to explore the mind of someone who cannot see and cannot hear. I wanted to answer those questions I asked myself when watching Mare Winningham all those years ago. I researched Helen Keller and read her wonderful autobiographies. She was the most famous deaf-blind person in history, travelled the world and lectured extensively. But she was too famous for my devices; I did not want to write her story, but my own fictional character who happened to be deaf and blind.
I researched further and found someone called Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind child to be educated in America. She was around earlier than Keller; they met once when Keller was a young girl and Laura was grown-up. Laura was famous in her own lifetime, particularly in her childhood, when she was pretty and fitted perfectly the Victorian ideal of the demure young girl. Even Charles Dickens went to visit her at the Perkins Institute where she lived and where she was taught to finger-spell, read and write. Yet as she grew older and less cute, charming and child-like, as she became more feisty and opinionated and downright stubborn about what she wanted for herself and her life, she became less popular and less easy to publicise. She turned to religion and lived out the rest of her life in quiet obscurity. I liked her, I liked the fact that she wasn’t the pretty angel Helen Keller had been sold as to the millions who read her books, heard her speak and watched her films. I liked the fact that Laura Bridgman argued and fought and often wouldn’t smile for the camera. I found a marvellously obscure book written by one of Laura’s teachers, who kept an almost daily record of her teaching. It was gold for a novelist and helped me enormously in my representation of my own character’s education. I learnt much from Keller’s lovely prose too, about what life was like before she met Annie Sullivan, before she had learnt to finger-spell, before language opened up her mind.
And so Adeliza Golding began to speak. Her voice came to me early on. It was well-spoken, well-educated by her devoted teacher Lottie (a local Kentish lass, whose dialect slips into Liza’s own at times), yet had some quirks from the nature of her learning which gave her language a flavour of its own. You might see some words in her account which look like a spelling mistake or even a neologism. But no, these are Liza’s expression. Laura Bridgman too had this odd turn-of-phrase, as if she had learnt English as a second language, which in a way, she had. I knew from Keller’s books that her written language was exemplary, better than most English-speakers you’d meet nowadays. Yet her education was extraordinary, as was Laura’s intensive one-to-one coaching at Perkins. Most deaf-blind children of the Victorian period were not afforded such luxury, and many were assumed to be idiots, loved and tolerated at best, locked up and even abused at worst. I met with some hard-working women from the charity for the deaf-blind, Sense, and discovered that even today, the education of the deaf-blind in this country is not ideal, that many deaf-blind children and adults struggle to communicate and live independent lives, and that Sense needs as much help and funding as it can get: please see the contact details at the end of this article and make a donation, if you can.
The rest of Adeliza’s tale – the hop and oyster farming, the eye doctor, her love story, the Boer War, the Visitors themselves, even her name – had their own influences which would take a few more articles to detail. Yet, these are some of the ideas behind her deaf-blindness. As with Keller and Bridgman, her deafness and her blindness did not define her or ultimately even restrict her: for all these three it was language that they needed and language which set them free.
A typical image of Laura Bridgman, stubbornly refusing to smile.
Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, their hands joined in ‘speech’.
If you would like to make a contribution to the vital work Sense carries out, please choose from the following avenues:
• through the Sense website: http://www.sense.org.uk/content/make-donation
• by phone to their Supporter Services Helpline: 0845 127 0067
• by post to:
101 Pentonville Road
Donations made payable to: Sense
When making your donation, please quote reference CBK12.
The Visitors by Rebecca Mascull is available now in hardback.