readings> the tale of Helen Keller
"Dull heavy-looking face, vacant wandering eyes and thick hanging lips." This was the Victorian description of the deaf and dumb. For them, a person born deaf did not just lack hearing but lacked a mind.
Unable to speak, the deaf-mute was an empty husk, fit only to be locked away in an institution along with the feeble-minded, the criminal and the mad.
The ancients were even harsher with the deaf. The Spartans were said to have killed their deaf children. The Romans let them live but still felt they were sub-human and so warranted no civil or legal rights.
In modern times, the stigma of being born deaf remains. Parents often say that if they could choose, they would rather have a child born blind. A blind infant may not be able to see, but it will still develop a normal mind; it will think, remember, feel, and have a sense of self. By contrast, a child born deaf - and who fails to learn language - is utterly lost, cut adrift in an ocean of silence.
The neurologist, Oliver Sacks, caught the plight of the deaf-mute in describing a eleven-year-old boy: "[Joseph] had been born deaf but this had not been realised until he was in his fourth year. His failure to talk or understand speech at the normal age was put down to 'retardation', then to 'autism', and these diagnoses had clung to him. When his deafness finally became apparent, he was seen as 'deaf and dumb', dumb not only literally, but metaphorically, and there was never any real attempt to teach him language."
Sacks continued: "It was not only language that was missing: there was not, it was evident, a clear sense of the past, of 'a day ago' as distinct from 'a year ago'. There was a strange lack of historical sense, the feeling of a life that lacked autobiographical and historical dimension, the feeling of a life that only existed in the moment, in the present."
Joseph's mind appeared more animal than human. A mind without normal memory or self-awareness. A mind that seemed more barren than the absence of hearing or speech could explain.
Of course, not all deaf people are like Joseph, mute and showing little more intelligence than an animal. Many deaf people have jobs as engineers or architects. They appear to be as self-aware and fully formed as the next person. Even those who struggle with their schooling and do badly in exams, still have nothing of Joseph's blank incomprehension about them. They grow up to be warm, lively and understanding humans.
There is even the famous story of Helen Keller, a girl who was not just deaf but blind as well. Despite her double handicap, Helen was able to graduate from university, write books and even make a living giving public talks. Why should some deaf people end up apparently deeply retarded while others blossom and live full and rich lives?
We have said enough about the bifold mind to guess that the inner voice plays a key role. But how could a person born stone deaf have an inner voice? A person who has never experienced sound, cannot have any idea of what noises "sound" like. Without auditory imagery to call on, it would seem impossible to hold the silent conversation that we know as the inner voice.
So how is it possible for the deaf to think? And why do some deaf people develop normal minds while others remain trapped, like feral children, in a state of dumb animality? The answers to these questions will tell us more about the bifold mind.
educating the deaf
In ancient times, the lot of the deaf-mute seemed such a hopeless one that little time was wasted in seeking cures. Speech was believed to be a power innate in humans, so it was assumed that a deaf-mute's inability to speak must stem from some deeper damage to the person, such as a brain defect or a childhood blow to the head. Not realising that speech needs to be heard to be learnt, the deaf-mute's lack of hearing seemed almost an irrelevance. For this reason, no effort was made to try to teach the deaf to speak by alternative means.
The Roman poet, Lucretius, summed up this belief in a couplet: "To instruct the deaf, no art could ever reach; no care improve them, and no wisdom teach."
This was an attitude which held until the 16th Century when a Spanish nobleman decided to seek help for his deaf son. Worried that under Spanish law his son was considered less than human and so would not be allowed to inherit the family estate, the nobleman turned to a monk for help.
The monk, Pedro Ponce de Leon, taught the deaf son to speak, showing him how to pronounce words by careful voice control and how to "hear" the speech of others by reading the words off their lips.
Teaching a deaf person to speak like this would not have been an easy task. The lips give very few clues to the sounds that issue from deep in the throat. Much of the time, lip-reading is little more than a frustrating guessing game.
Also, it is not difficult to imagine how hard it is for a deaf person to learn to voice words without ever knowing how the words sound as they come out. However, despite the many problems, Ponce eventually succeeded.
The key to his success appears to have been a system of fingerspelling in which the sound of each letter in the alphabet was associated with a different finger or part of the hand. Having learnt how to shape his mouth to pronounce individual letters, all the youth had to do was string letters together as Ponce spelt out words on his fingers.
Contemporary accounts claimed the learning of language bought about an astounding transformation in the nobleman's son. He was able to speak: "...as distinctly as any man whoever; and [understood] so perfectly what others said, that he would not lose a word in a whole day's conversation."
Even allowing for some exaggeration in such stories, the successful education of the nobleman's son changed the way the deaf were viewed. Speech was still thought to be an innate power in man, but now it was seen as a power that needed to be "awakened" by the stimulus of another's voice.
If, as in deaf people, the slumbering faculty of language could not be reached by the normal route of the ears, then educators had to find a back door, approaching it through the remaining senses of sight and touch. It was assumed that once the power of speech was roused, words immediately would start tumbling through the mind of the deaf-mute. The light of reason would flood in as if a switch had been thrown in a darkened room.
The suddenness of this awakening was caught in the frequently-quoted story told by Helen Keller of the revelation that accompanied the learning of her first word.
Helen was born in Alabama in 1880 and lost her sight and hearing after an illness at the age of two. Suddenly cut off in a world of dark and silence, Helen became quite wild and animal-like. Her parents sought help and at the age of six, Helen was put in the care of a teacher, Annie Sullivan, who taught her language by putting objects in one hand while spelling out their names in finger-alphabet on the other.
As Helen later recalled the momentous event, one day Annie took her into the garden and held her hand under the spout of a water pump:
"As the cool stream gushed over one hand, [Annie] spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten - a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cooling something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!"
Helen claimed that from the moment she knew everything in the world had a name, the effect on her mind was explosive. Within four months, Helen could finger-spell 300 words. By the age of eight, her "awakening" had become so famous that she was meeting President Stephen Cleveland and Dr Alexander Graham Bell.
Being both deaf and blind, the transformation of Helen Keller was seen as a particularly remarkable achievement. But by the late 1800s, the teaching of language to the deaf already had become commonplace.
In the 1770s, a Scottish teacher, Thomas Braidwood, set up a school for the deaf where he used the same system of lip-reading and lessons in pronunciation that worked with the Spanish nobleman's son.
The author, Samuel Johnson, wrote after visiting Braidwood's school: "The improvement of Mr Braidwood's pupils is wonderful. They not only speak, write and understand what is written, but if he that speaks looks towards them, and modifies his organs by distinct and full utterance, they know so well what is spoken that it is an expression scarcely figurative to say, they hear with the eye."
The Braidwood school was a typical product of the Enlightenment in its belief that man's mind was a product of natural forces. Whereas in earlier times the deaf and mentally ill had been abandoned to their fate, the philosophy of the likes of Hobbes, Locke and Condillac suggested there was hope. By treating the mind as an accumulation of sensations and language as an arbitrary code, the Enlightenment made it thinkable that the art of man could compensate for handicaps such as deafness.
However, despite some stunning successes achieved by Braidwood and others though lip-reading and voice-training, this "oral" method worked with only a proportion of the deaf. The suspicion is that those who benefited from the oral method were only partially deaf, or else had gone deaf in late childhood having already more or less learnt to speak. For them, lip-reading and training in word pronunciation were a crutch rather than a substitute for hearing.
The difference between being deafened and being born deaf was made plain by the South African novelist, David Wright. Wright lost his hearing following an illness at the age of seven. For some weeks afterwards, he was trapped in silence. But gradually, sounds began to return.
When he saw the wind ruffling the tree tops, he would "hear" the rustle of leaves. When he saw the lips of a friend moving, he would "hear" the familiar voice. Although his ears no longer worked, his brain had learnt to translate sights into sounds with a hallucinatory vividness.
As Wright wrote: "My father, my cousin, everyone I had known, retained phantasmal voices. That they were imaginary, the projections of habit and memory, did not come home to me until I had left the hospital. One day I was talking with my cousin and he, in a moment of inspiration, covered his mouth with his hand as he spoke. Silence! Once and for all I understood that when I could not see, I could not hear."
In the same way, the partially deaf have a great advantage over the relatively few people who are totally stone deaf. In Braidwood's day, children were trained to stretch what remaining hearing they had so they might have some idea of the sound of words.
Today, with the amplification of modern hearing aids, even children who are so deaf they barely can make out the roar of passing traffic, can have their hearing boosted sufficiently to hear a voice.
The relatively few people who are both stone deaf and born to that condition have neither the benefit of a memory for sound nor even the crudest idea of what voices might sound like. The result is that they find learning language by the oral method near impossible. If they manage it, it usually takes many years and very rarely do they become fluent.
Too often they remain uncomprehending deaf-mutes; the failures tucked out of sight in deaf schools when visitors come to admire more skilled pupils give poetry readings and algebra demonstrations.
At the same time as Thomas Braidwood was setting up deaf school based on the oral method, a French priest, Charles- Michel de L'Epee, was exploring a quite different approach to teaching language to the deaf. Epee had noticed that some of his deaf charges used gestures and facial expressions to express simple ideas, such as feeling hungry or unhappy.
Epee saw that rather than waste time training the deaf to read mumbling lips, he could build a language on the clarity of hand movements. Finger alphabets had already proved an invaluable aid in teaching speech by the oral method. All Epee had to do was build on this foundation and create a full-blown visual language.
Epee's sign language proved so successful that it swept Europe. The deaf picked up signing as easily and naturally as hearing people learn speech. Enthused, the King of France, Louis XVI, helped Epee to set up Paris's Institute of Deaf- Mutes - the very institute which was later to employ Itard and house Victor, the wild boy of Aveyron. Before long, French sign language was being exported around the world, almost completely replacing oral methods such as Braidwood's.
When faced for the first time by a deaf person signing, many hearing people find the experience alarming. It is hard to believe that the darting hands and exaggerated faces could add up to a real language. Indeed, until very recently, even scientists thought that signing was a rather second rate affair: "...a mishmash of pantomime and iconic signals, eked out by fingerspelling," to quote one prejudiced reaction.
However, since being forced to take a closer look at sign language in the 1970s and 1980s, linguists have discovered that sign has its own grammar, its own equivalent of vowels and consonants, and lacks nothing in richness and precision of thought.
One reason for the poor reputation of sign language was that when it was translated word for word, it appeared to lack finer shades of meaning. For example, the spoken sentence: "It is against the law to drive on the right hand side of the road," translates into sign as simply: "Illegal drive right- side". The deaf version appears abrupt and telegraphic compared to the liquid flow of ordinary speech.
However, sign language involves much more than bare handshapes. In signing, tenses, adjectives and all the little "glue" words which make speech fluent are inserted not as extra handshapes but in other ways, such as the use that signers make of the space around them. For example, a gesture made up behind the ear puts a word into the past tense. The same gesture made in varying positions out in front will span a time-line that runs from the present into the future.
Deaf people also use this sign space as if it were a stage on which they enact the story they are telling. For instance, when a signer mentions an object, such as the driver of a car, it is "left behind" in a certain position in this gestural space. To refer back to the driver, even some sentences later, there is no need to repeat the sign driver as merely bringing the hands back to the original spot is enough to remind the listener as to what or whom is being spoken about.
The only real difference between sign and speech is that whereas in spoken language, words have to be strung together in sequence, sign allows whole phrases to be expressed in one go, the various parts being scattered around in sign space. This compression is important because it takes roughly twice as long to move the hands into a sign shape as it does to speak a word. By, in effect, speaking in phrases rather than words, sign overcomes this built-in speed disadvantage and so happily can match the pace of speech. Not only has sign got the speed and grammatical complexity of spoken language, it is also a fully symbolic form of communication.
It is true that in the early days of sign, many of the handshapes were a form of pantomime; actions which were supposed to mimic the objects being referred to. For example, the sign to eat was made by pursing the fingers to the lips and the sign to sleep was made by resting the head against the hand. But with time, as sign vocabulary became polished with use, it lost this element of mimicry.
For instance, the sign for home started out as a two-sign combination in which the handshape for eating was followed swiftly by the handshape for sleeping: home was thus the place of eating-sleeping. Over the years, the paired signs have become abbreviated to a single gesture of pursed fingers twisted at the side of the cheek. In so doing, the word home has lost all of its original pantomime quality.
This shedding of mime and move towards naked symbolism is a crucial step in any language. It can be imagined what a drawback it would be if the words of spoken language had to sound like the things they stood for. Conveying the idea of a duck or a bus by going "quack, quack" or "brmmm, brmmm" might be easy enough, but we would have little hope of painting sound pictures to represent more abstract concepts such as peace or beauty.
The phenomenal impact that language has had on the human race has only been possible because the noises of words are meaningless in themselves and so can be made to stand for absolutely anything. Sign language made this shift to a symbolic plane very quickly: perhaps within a generation of its establishment by Epee. Certainly today, sign is no longer tied to mimicry and new handshapes are created with the same ease and freedom as enjoyed by spoken language.
For example, when streaking became a craze in the 1970s, it took no time at all for the deaf community to fuse the symbols nude and zoom into a new word. The deaf capture abstract concepts with equally poetic marriages. In sign language, the word remember is a combination of the signs for to know and to stay. The word resemble is made up of face and strong.
As the deaf have come together in social clubs and colleges, sign vocabulary has grown by leaps and bounds. Once signers have got a "feel" for the language, they can pun and invent and experiment as freely as users of any spoken language. It is important to stress that sign language is the equal of spoken language if we are to understand how the deaf think.
In our bifold model of the mind, we have said it is the internalisation of speech (and the consequent internalisation of culturally-moulded patterns of thought) that give us the human mind. But a person born deaf has no imagery for sound so cannot form an inner voice with which to control thought.
Obviously, the prediction of the bifold model would be that without an internal "code", the deaf person would remain trapped in a blank animality, armed only with naked modes of thought such as recognition and association. Therefore, those deaf people who develop "normal" minds must be using an alternative code - and sign language seems the perfect candidate.
For a long time, few people bothered to wonder what code the deaf might think in. It tended to be assumed that the deaf thought in pure images, somehow stringing together a series of mental pictures without the need for words. But images escape the warehouse of memory only when jogged by association. The brain has no internal mechanism for stimulating or directing a traffic of images. It is language that is the architect of thought. It is the inner voice - or its deaf equivalent - that summons images into awareness and arranges them into useful patterns, giving the human mind its seven league boots.
One of the first insights into how the deaf think came in a letter written by a 19th Century deaf artist, Theophilus d'Estrella, to the pioneer psychologist, William James. D'Estrella did not learn formal sign language until he was nine, but he described to James how even before he went to deaf school, he had formed his own private version of sign language thinking.
D'Estrella wrote: "I thought in pictures and signs before I came to school. The pictures were not exact in detail but were general. They were momentary and fleeting in my mind's eye."
Some of the private symbols D'Estrella used were an imagined beard representing a man, a breast representing a woman, a hand tolling a church bell symbolising Sunday, and two hands open before the eyes meaning a book.
Despite the teasing clues in d'Estrella's account, many years passed before other scientists asked the deaf the rather obvious question of how they thought. For a long time, the hard-line stance taken by Behaviourism so cowed psychologists that such an introspective line of questioning remained beyond the pale. But in the 1970s, cognitive psychologists began to find scientifically respectable ways of investigating the thought processes of the deaf.
The first point cognitive psychologists noted was that deaf people tend to "sign aloud" in the same sorts of situations where hearing people might think aloud. Young children were seen to sign to themselves when playing with toys or working out problems in kindergarten. The hands of old people "muttered" in their laps in the same way that elderly hearing people often mumble away to themselves. Deaf people were even seen to sign in their sleep, much as hearing people will talk during a restless dream.
When cognitive psychologists then asked the deaf to report what was going on inside their heads, often it was hard to get a clear answer - just as it can be hard to get hearing people to notice the way they use their inner voice when thinking and remembering. But if the deaf could answer, usually they said that they were visualising an imaginary pair of hands making signs, or else they had the feeling of making signs themselves. Where hearing people had an inner voice, the deaf had inner hands!
The most scientifically convincing evidence of the existence of an internal sign code came from testing the sorts of linguistic mistakes and "slips of the tongue" that deaf signers might make. Experimenters gave deaf subjects a standard memory test where subjects were given a list of words to read quickly, then asked to recall as many of the words as they could after an interval of 30 seconds or so.
As we have seen, hearing people find that the easiest way of remembering such lists is to keep repeating as many words as they can "under their breath", using the inner voice (or what cognitive psychologists prefer to call the articulatory loop), to keep the list in the front of their minds. When such an experiment is conducted under pressure, with a long list to remember, it is very easy for people to confuse one of the words being remembered and replace it with another which sounds similar.
For example, tone might be mistakenly remembered as bone‚ and mice as rice. Deaf people make just the same sort of slips - except, in their case, they confuse words with similar hand shapes. For example, the word vote might be recalled as its sign look-alike, tea; jealous might be remembered as candy.
Experimenters also found that they could interfere with a deaf person's memory if they got the person to grip a wooden block during such a test. Clutching a block turned out to be the equivalent of making a hearing person repeat a nonsense phrase like "Jack and Jill, Jack and Jill," in their heads. Gripping the block occupied the "inner hands" of deaf subjects and prevented them from keeping the word list going.
The evidence that deaf people use an internalised version of sign language in their thinking and remembering gives strong support to the bifold model. Without language, the picture of the deaf person is a bleak one: a dull, uncomprehending, almost animal-like creature. But given an appropriate language, the mind blossoms. An inner code allows the deaf to turn recognition into recollection, association into reason, and awareness into self-awareness.
critical learning period
The slowness of psychologists to recognise the role played by the inner voice led to a quite incredible blunder in the education of the deaf late in the 19th Century. Epee's sign language had been a sensation in the early 1800s, almost completely replacing the oral method pioneered by the Braidwoods. Sign was the natural language of the deaf: a deaf child could pick it up as effortlessly as a hearing child learns speech. Yet despite the great success of sign, the hearing world turned against it in the late 1800s.
It was argued by those responsible for the education of the deaf that signing created a deaf ghetto, cutting deaf children off from society by erecting a language barrier. At the International Congress on the Instruction of Deaf-Mutes, held in Milan in 1880, educationalists voted not just to return to the oral method as the primary means of teaching the deaf language but actively to suppress the use of sign in deaf schools. With perverse logic, it was argued that signing was "too easy" and so led the deaf to neglect their speaking skills.
Sign survived this switch in policy, but only by going underground. In the classrooms of deaf schools, children were made to sit on their hands, or even had their hands Sellotaped behind their backs, to stop them signing. Sign language was restricted to snatched conversations in corners of the playground or the darkness of the dormitory. Many deaf children only experienced the full richness of sign after leaving school and joining deaf social clubs.
The effect of the oralist policy soon became apparent in deaf schools. In the 1950s, the teachers of the deaf were asking themselves why the average deaf child left school with the reading age of an eight-year-old, a poorly developed memory, an "infantile" personality, and an unfocused sense of self. Deaf achievements had sunk so low that psychologists were once again harking back to the ancient Greeks and Romans and speculating that deafness must have some organic effect on the mind.
Stuck with the wrong models of how the human mind develops, those responsible for the deaf could not see that the lack of an adequate inner code was at the root of the problem. The damage done to the deaf in the extraordinary campaign to suppress sign language was even worse than educationalists could realise.
In looking at feral children, we asked why they had such trouble learning to speak after being brought back into society. Thirteen-year-old Victor seemed quite incapable of learning language, while five-year-old Kamala only mastered 40 or 50 words.
The reason for this failure to learn became clear in the 1960s. Tying together evidence from many sources, the language researcher, Eric Lenneberg, suggested that there is a critical period between the ages of one and four when a child is able to soak up language like a sponge. But after this, learning language becomes progressively harder until, by puberty, it becomes almost impossible for a child to learn to speak.
The reason for this is that during the first few years of a child's life, the wiring of its brain is still plastic. The brain has not yet undergone the process known as myelinisation; the laying down of an insulating sheath of the fatty protein, myelin, that "fixes" nerve pathways in place.
The brain is too complex a piece of machinery to expect a baby to emerge from the womb with the billions upon billions of nerve connections all perfectly in place. Instead of aiming for such improbable perfection, nature gives the infant brain time to adjust, time to "feel" its way into the world it finds itself in. The sensory filters and neural pathways of the brain mould themselves to the contours of the crucial first experiences of life.
This fine-tuning of the senses has been shown vividly in experiments with kittens brought up in artificial environments. Reared in cages painted with black and white vertical stripes, the kittens' visual pathways become so tuned to seeing only vertical stripes that they are left quite blind to horizontal lines. When later let out into the real world, the kittens will step straight over the side of stairs and tabletops because they cannot "take in" the horizontal edges marking the drop.
This critical period during which fine-tuning takes place lasts some months in cats but continues for several years in humans - and the delay in myelinisation is longest in the brain's left hemisphere speech centres. What this means is that children have several years in which the parts of their brain responsible for generating speech are as plastic and impressionable as soft wax.
During this time, not only do children find it easy to learn new words, they are also sensitive to the very "texture" of language; the patterns of phonology and grammar that rule the production of speech. By hearing adults talk, this patterning is cut into the pathways of the speech centres of one and two-year-old toddlers like the grooves in a record. When myelinisation then takes place, this patterning sets and the child now has a permanent template for producing language etched into its brain.
It should be easy now to see why feral children have such problems in learning to speak. By the time Victor and Kamala had been brought back to society, their speech centres would have hardened up without the stamp of language. Kamala was young enough, and her speech centres plastic enough, to pick up a smattering of language, but even the few words she did learn were poorly formed and her sense of grammar was basic. But aged 13, Victor did not even seem to be able to hear the sound of human speech let alone learn to speak it.
Deaf children face the same problem as feral children. If the critical first years slip by without a deaf child having any experience of language, then its speech centres will be left permanently crippled. Each year's delay adds to the damage, so if a deaf child is not "reached" by the age of six or seven, it will grow up a retarded deaf-mute.
Of course, the deaf child is never in quite the isolated position of a feral child. Normally, the deaf child will be surrounded by a loving family trying desperately hard to get through, so, if nothing else, the deaf child will at least have a strong sense that communication exists. It will learn some of the "ritual" of conversation, such as the taking of turns in "speaking and listening" and the directing of attention through eye gaze and expressive gesture.
The supportive family may work so hard to compensate for the deaf child's lack of hearing that the child will start inventing its own language, like d'Estrella and his imagined beards and breasts, somehow filling in a gap that the family has made it aware that exists.
However, no matter how supportive the society around the deaf child, it still needs to learn a language at as early an age as possible. It does not matter whether the deaf child learns speech or sign language; the key thing is that it is given the chance to absorb some form of language while its brain is still plastic. Only if speech or sign becomes wired into the deaf child's language centre will it be able to speak fluently - and so think fluently through the inner voice - in later life.
The importance of the early learning of language was shown in research which compared the memories of deaf children born to deaf parents with the memories of deaf children born to hearing parents. Because deaf children with deaf parents are exposed to sign language from the moment of birth, there is a special richness and ease about their use of sign. This carries over into their internal use of sign.
In a test of their memories, the children with deaf parents could recall almost every word of a list of test sentences communicated in sign language whereas the children who did not learn sign until the age of five, could remember barely half the words and children who did not sign until they were 13, could remember less than a third.
With hindsight, it can be appreciated what a blunder the oralist policy was. Instead of trying to ban sign language, educationalists should have been getting out and signing to deaf infants while they were still in the crib. The tide of opinion has now turned against the oral first policy. However many deaf people have paid a heavy price for what has turned out to be a very mistaken understanding of the way the mind works.
Helen Keller's story examined
If the deaf provide dramatic evidence of the importance of an inner code to the human mind, what about deaf/blind people like Helen Keller? Without hearing or sight, it would seem such a person could not think in either words or signs. Yet Helen Keller still managed to dazzle the world. People marvelled at the degree she gained at Harvard and flocked to hear her speak on lecture tours.
Helen Keller's story struck a chord with popular imagination precisely because it seemed to match perfectly the romantic conception of the human mind. Helen was seen as a sleeping beauty, locked away in a darkened and sound-proofed cell, awaiting the kiss of that first awakening word.
The shock of understanding w-a-t-e-r spelt out on her hand at the garden pump, sent out ripples that stirred her buried humanity to life. Once awakened, her mind seemed to have a quality which was all the nobler and purer for having to face such crippling handicaps.
This was the public picture of the deaf/blind promoted in magazine articles and popular books with titles such as "Imprisoned Souls". However the truth of Helen Keller's story is quite different. Helen did not lose her sight and hearing until she was two, so for the first couple of years of her life, she lived quite normally. She would even have begun to talk. So when the shutters did come down, Helen carried with her memories of the world and, more importantly, she had the stamp of language on the speech centres of her brain.
If after becoming deaf/blind, Helen had been abandoned to an institution, she probably would have slipped away into a mental limbo through lack of stimulation. However, Helen had a loving family who encouraged her to reach out with her remaining senses of touch and taste.
Clinging to her mother's skirts, Helen was dragged from room to room, so learning her way around the home. She had two constant companions in the family dog and the daughter of the negro cook. Rather than being a helpless bundle, Helen grew up able to dress and look after herself. She even could help with household chores such as feeding the chickens and kneading dough.
While Helen could not speak, her two years of normal childhood did give her a strong feeling for language. She invented a private language of gestures in which shakes of the head meant yes or no, pushes and pulls meant to go and to come. Like d'Estrella, Helen developed 60 or more quite sophisticated signs. To refer to her father, she would mime putting on a pair of glasses; her mother was indicated by tying up her hair; and ice cream became a shiver.
Whether or not Helen could "think" in this kinesthetic imagery - imagining the muscle movements of her private signs in the same way that d'Estrella visualised his own private signs - there is no doubt that language was something ingrained in her speech centres. When Annie Sullivan took charge of a wild six-year-old and started spelling words into her hand, the foundations of speech already were there to be built on.
Helen may have remembered her awakening to language as a sudden revelation at the garden pump, but Annie Sullivan's diary tells that it took many weeks of fingerspelling on Helen's hands before connections started to be made in her mind. Even in Helen Keller's own autobiography, in which the incident is recounted, her editor warns that her stories of her early memories should not be taken too literally. But the famous awakening so fits the romantic model of the mind that these qualifications rarely are mentioned.
While Helen's story has suffered from over-romanticisation, it is true that once she had learnt to converse in fingerspelling, her progress for someone doubly handicapped was stunning. Within a few years, she had learnt to vocalise and could speak well enough to give public talks. Helen learnt a whole variety of reading methods. With her finger- tips, she could read not just braille but chalk letters scrawled on a blackboard and even the lips of other people as they spoke.
Yet despite her many achievements, there was still something bookish and wooden about Helen. She wrote movingly about the great events of the day, about poverty and war, but the more cynical felt that she merely was parroting what she read in newspapers and magazines. Without much direct experience of life herself, it seemed that hers must indeed be: "a world of quotations, ideas and opinions."
The Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, met Helen in 1906 and afterwards wrote: "[She] made an unpleasant, even grim, impression on me. She appeared to be an affected, very temperamental and extremely spoilt girl. She talked about God and how God disapproved of revolution. In general, she reminded me of those blessed and holy nuns and 'pilgrim women' whom I have seen in our villages and convents."
Another telling incident was an embarrassing episode when Helen wrote a fairy tale which so enthused her friends that they had it published in a newspaper. The story (about King Frost painting the autumn leaves in bright colours to console people for the coming of winter) seemed especially touching coming from a woman who could not see. But it turned out that Helen had unwittingly retold an old fairy tale she had heard as a child.
A sympathetic public was eager to see in Helen a noble mind triumphing against the odds. But the reality was that Helen was so cut off from the world that she found it hard to tell the difference between her memories and her imagination. She had learnt to juggle words, but it is questionable how much understanding lay behind the fine sentiments that so pleased her audiences.
Helen Keller's story shows up the bifold model in an almost ironic light. If we speak about the mind as being part hardware, part software, Helen appeared to end up almost top- heavy with the software of culture. Blind and deaf, her brain was starved of the normal traffic of sensations, images and memories. Yet through language, she could furnish these spare surroundings with all the varied richness of human culture. In the end, the combination may have been un- balanced; where most saw a heroic triumph against the odds, others saw too heavy a weight of ideas sitting uncomfortably on an emaciated awareness.
Whichever view is taken, the grip on Western culture that the romantic model of the mind enjoys is clear in the general reaction to Helen Keller's story. However, if we really want to understand the minds of the deaf/blind, we have to look to the unfortunates who are born this way rather that those, like Helen Keller, who become deaf/blind in childhood.
real cases of the deaf/blind
The child born deaf and blind exists in a most pitiful state. Unlike the active Helen Keller, such a child may spend years slumped in one spot; an inert vegetable, unable to feed itself or meet its most basic needs. A child born deaf/blind does not even seem to be able to use its remaining senses of touch and taste. At best, it will rock quietly on its haunches or, occasionally, burst into a frenzied screaming fit. Without eyes and ears, the deaf/blind child seems to have no conception that the outside world exists, let alone an inner code with which to order that conception.
Again, traditional Western beliefs about the mind led many to make the wrong diagnosis of children born deaf and blind, and to offer the wrong treatment. The mistaken belief that fully formed minds lay trapped within the slumped forms of deaf/blind children encouraged crude attempts to "shake" these minds awake.
Nursing staff would give the children rough massages or force them into standing positions. When inevitably these attempts failed, the doctors would nod their heads sagely and conclude - as they did with feral children and deaf-mutes - that the child must not only have damaged senses but be brain-damaged to boot.
In the Soviet Union - where the legacy of Vygotsky provided the springboard for a better understanding of the deaf/blind - methods of treatment have been pioneered by doctors like Ivan Sokolyansky and Alexander Meshcheryakov. Soviet doctors have realised that not only do they need to try and teach the deaf/blind child some sort of internal code such as fingerspelling, but they also have to teach the child that the outside world exists.
Helen Keller at least had two years of experience of the sights and sounds of life. These would have given her the mental backdrop against which word- ordered thought could have some meaning. But a child born deaf and blind exists in an empty limbo, aware only of internal spasms of hunger and the occasional rough touch of hands. To build up an internal image of the outside world, the deaf/blind have to be forced to explore their surroundings through their sense of touch.
Soviet institutions do this by employing simple techniques such as gradually making the deaf/blind child reach further and further for a spoon of food. To start with, a spoon has to be placed in the child's mouth before the reflex to swallow can be triggered. The next step is to touch the spoon to the child's lips, then to its chin, then place the spoon in its hands, making the child grope for the food until a feeling for space grows within its mind.
It is only after an internal world had been constructed that therapy can move on to the learning of language. It may take months and even years of painstaking training, but tremendous improvements in the condition of the deaf/blind can be achieved. The deaf/blind child can be taught to dress, to eat from a plate, to use a toilet, to welcome the warmth of human company. The child will show some awareness of the outside world and will respond to fingerspelt commands.
However, it has to be said there is a limit to how far such a child can progress for there is no intact mind inside the child ready to blossom forth like a seed at the first sprinkle of rain.
The Soviet homes for the deaf/blind do have their star pupils who can not only fingerspell but speak and read braille, who can take up jobs and raise families. But like Helen Keller, all these cases turn out to have gone deaf and blind well after birth - usually at the ages of five or six. The child born deaf and blind can be transformed from a senseless, gurgling and sprawling heap into a dimly-aware and house-trained inmate of an institution. But it is too much to expect that they can develop the independent and self-aware mind of a sighted and hearing person.
The deaf and the deaf/blind tell us that there are two halves to the bifold mind and both are equally important. The deaf show the need for an inner language while the deaf/blind demonstrate the need for a brain fully primed with the experiences of life.
For centuries, philosophers and psychologists have debated whether thought takes place in language or images. Psychologists, such as Hans Furth, have taken the ability of the deaf to think as proof that thought does not need words - entirely missing the point that an internal sign language is serving the same role as the inner voice. Others have taken the "awakening" of Helen Keller by language as proof that words, not images, are the substance of thought.
However, the deaf and the deaf/blind should make it clear that thought is a marriage of words and images. Thought is how we describe what takes place at the boundary of the bifold mind as words and images spark off each other. Sometimes the orderly rhythms of speech take the upper hand, at other times images flash through our heads, driven by animal association. But thought is always a dual process, an interaction between the software and the hardware of the mind.
The deaf also reveal something else about the bifold mind. In a sense, while we have classed it as software, language does in fact become part of the hardware of the brain. While the brain is young, the rhythms of speech are etched on its still plastic surface. As the brain hardens, this patterning is turned into a speech generator, a template with which language can be produced.