LINGUIST List 8.171

Tue Feb 4 1997

Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Robert Englebretson, Re: 8.133 communication between the blind and the sighted

Message 1: Re: 8.133 communication between the blind and the sighted

Date: Thu, 30 Jan 1997 17:48:00 -0800 (PST)
From: Robert Englebretson <>
Subject: Re: 8.133 communication between the blind and the sighted

Dear Linguist list members,

I am responding to a recent query regarding communication between
blind and sighted people. I have sent my response directly to the
author of the question, but I believe it important that the list at
large read it also. The original query causes me a great deal
of concern, as it seems to contain a number of assumptions which I
feel need to be brought into question, and not simply accepted at face
value. As a linguist, and a blind person, I am concerned that many of
the query's preconceptions will have a very negative effect on attitudes
toward myself and other blind people in society, and thus must not
remain unchallenged. I apologize in advance for the length of this
posting, but feel it crucial that my perspective, as a linguist and a
blind person, be heard. I am certainly looking forward to further
dialogue on this issue.

Robert Englebretson,
Dept. of Linguistics
University of California at Santa Barbara


I am writing to respond to your recent posting on the Linguist list regarding
"communication between the blind and the sighted." I am a Ph.D. candidate in
linguistics at the University of California. My primary research areas are:
spoken language, grammar in discourse (how language use shapes its form), and
Indonesian linguistics--in fact just returned from six months of field work
in Indonesia. Additionally, I have done research on language of "the blind",
and am familiar with the literature. I also happen to be blind myself, and
had served as an officer in the National Alliance of Blind Students (an
affiliate of the American Council of the Blind), where I had a chance to hear
the experiences of, and to interact with, many blind people. So, I
definitely am not impartial to the topic you bring up. 

Like you, I believe there are very interesting--and theoretically important--
issues regarding the language of blind people. However, I believe it is
incumbent upon us as scholars, both on moral as well as scientific grounds,
to approach this question openly, with as few preconceived ideas as possible. 
Rather than assuming, as you do in your posting, that "discourse between the
blind and the sighted is almost always characterised by a constant
transmission failure", and then conducting research, we should first ask the
questions: "Are there in fact communicative difficulties between blind and
sighted people, unique to this group of people, caused by blindness?" If so,
the next question needs to be: "Do these communicative difficulties pose any
real, concrete, quantitative barriers between blind and sighted
interlocutors?" If you do not approach this issue with these questions in
mind, your results will be biased based on your preconceptions. Below, I
will discuss your posting in detail.

First off, I should say that the preconceptions you have brought to this
issue are not just harmless, academic ideas; they have consequences for real
people, both blind and sighted, in real life situations. In the U.S. at
least, it is now the norm for blind people to live, work, and interact in a
predominantly sighted society. Blind people in the U.S. generally attend
public schools from kindergarten all the way through college, work in the
same jobs as sighted people, enjoy the same activities as sighted people, pay
taxes and have the same responsibilities in society as sighted people, and
generally have sighted friends, spouses, and children. However, there still
exists a great deal of prejudice and misunderstanding about blindness. If
people generally assume your unquestioned assertion that "discourse between
the blind and the sighted is almost always characterised by a constant
transmission failure", then: (1.) sighted people will find it extremely
difficult to interact with "the blind", will have reservations of hiring
blind people in jobs which require relating or communicating with the public,
and will exclude blind people from active society. I'm trying to imagine how
my students would relate to me in the classroom if they held this
preconception too. (2.) If blind people hold this preconception about
communication (and unfortunately many that I know seem to), then they
themselves will not be motivated to take an active role in society, and will
relegate themselves to second-class status. So, these preconceptions are not
just a matter of harmless academic debate.

And now, to your posting.

You wrote:
> A lot of data has been gathered around the issue whether visual
> perception is so fundamental to language development that its absence
> would result in certain deviations. What has emerged as commonground
> is that the language of visually impaired children does vary to some
> degree from that of their sighted peers. 

I would be interested in this data--can you send me a list of sources for
this view? I am, or at least thought I was, familiar with the acquisition
literature in this area, and pretty much all of it finds that there is in
fact *not* significant variation in language development in blind and sighted
children. See the following volumes, inter alia:

Mills, Anne E. ed. 1983. Language Acquisition in the Blind Child: Normal and
Deficient. London: Croom Helm; San Diego: College-Hill Press.

Landau, Barbara, and Lila R. Gleitman. 1985. Language and experience :
 evidence from the blind child. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Dunlea, Anne. 1989. Vision and the Emergence of Meaning: Blind and Sighted
 Children's Early Language. Cambridge, England; New York: Cambridge
 University Press.

What all of these, very thoroughly-researched studies, find is that there are
in fact no significant difficulties between the acquisition of language of
blind and sighted. One of the papers in the Mills volume does show that
blind children with other mental or physical disabilities, as well as blind
children in a deprived social environment do have acquisition problems;
however, blind children with no other disabilities, living in a normal social
environment, do not show these deficits. Dunlea's 1989 book does discuss
some semantic differences in the type and order of acquisition, but suggests
that the final product does not reflect differences (i.e. children seem to
use alternative means to arrive at the same goal.) It's been a couple years
since I've read these, so maybe I'm forgetting something? If there does
exist literature to the contrary, I would be very interested in reading it,
and would definitely appreciate additional references that you are aware of.

You wrote:
> My interest though, lies in exploring into the communication gap that 
> undoubtedly exists between blind people and sighted people.

I am bothered, here, by your use of the word "undoubtedly". It seems that
this presupposes the existence of a communication gap. I am not aware of
such a gap--either in the literature, in the interactional data I've studied,
or in my own personal experience and the experiences of other blind people. 
It seems to me, that this presupposition is rooted in societal misconceptions
about "the blind". Maybe it would help to examine your own beliefs and
attitudes about blindness (and blind people), as well as to examine real
interaction between blind and sighted people, before conducting your research
with these preconceptions. 

You Wrote:
> We know that in its functional context language moves beyond the
> level of words to encompass gestures, facial expressions and other
> forms of paralinguistic features most of which are non-existent within
> the linguistic idiolect of the blind. The absence of these fundamental
> elements of language whose occurrence in a communicative context is
> as automatic as a reflex action results in an almost irreparable
> transmission gap. 

We also know that in its functional context, language displays redundancy. 
In fact, this redundancy occurs on just about every linguistic level
(redundancy such as verbal concord, plural marking, anaphora, etc.) Thus,
there are usually a cluster of factors which are all interrelated, pointing
out the same information. So, through the redundancy of the language system
as a whole, when one part is missing, other parts make up for it. Let's take
(in conversational analysis) turn-taking for example. It is true that
researchers have noted that, in many cultures, eye-gaze is often used to
signal turn-taking. However, there are a host of other cues as well: pause,
syntactic completion, intonational completion, topic closure, 'select next',
etc., which also signal that a speaker is ready to yield the floor. In
addition to eye-gaze, speakers who want the floor often accompany their gaze
with an in-breath. So, eye-gaze is not the only feature which signals turn-
taking, but is one of many interrelated ones. Furthermore, many visually-
based "paralinguistic" signals are accessible by other means. For example,
eye-gaze is often recoverable through auditory means by the direction of
orientation of the speaker; facial expression is often available through
voice quality (it's easy to tell when a speaker is smiling or not, simply by
the fact that a smile changes the formant structure of vowels--a fact that's
been noted in acoustics literature for quite some time), as well as by
intonation. Thus, I contend that there are plenty of ways which blind people
pick up on, and interpret, visual "paralinguistic" cues--not just vision. 
(Many of these are things which all of us do unconsciously anyway.) It
would, however, I believe be a worthwhile study to find out if there is in
fact information loss, and if so what kind; but, we should not just assume
that this information is simply unavailable to blind people, before we
address the basic question itself.

By the way, there are plenty of situations, say, talking on the telephone,
where sighted people do not have access to visual information either.

You Wrote:
> Based on that, I claim therefore that a communicative
> discourse between the blind and the sighted is almost always
> characterised by a constant transmission failure exactly as in a
> psychiatric patient whose two sides of the brain cannot communicate
> because of a damaged corpus callosum 

Your analogy to pathology and radical surgical procedures is *not*
appreciated. Blind language is not pathological, and you should dispense
with this hyperbole.

> Just as a piece of anecdotal
> evidence consider for instance, what to all blind people constitutes the
> most embarrassing communicative situation; a sudden outburst of
> laughter from amongst the sighted of which the blind seated in their midst
> does not know the cause.

First off, I am bothered by your use of "all blind people" and "the most
embarrassing." For myself at least, I can assure you that such situations
are not embarrassing in the least. In my many discussions with blind
students at conventions about "embarrassing situations", this one has never
come up. What is embarrassing, however, is when people make public
statements about "all blind people" without examining the facts.

Secondly, I don't see the connection here to language and communication. 
This situation is not a matter of "communication between blind and sighted",
but a matter of a visual event taking place. A blind person can just as well
find out what that event was--by asking for clarification, for example. 

I should note that, of course, there are sometimes miscommunications between
blind and sighted people. But, and this is important, there are
miscommunications between all kinds of people--most of which have nothing to
do with vision. Thus, one should not immediately jump to conclusions, that a
particular miscommunication was due to blindness, gender, age, regional
origin, etc. etc. One of the neat things about language, in my opinion, is
that language also gives us tools for 'fixing' miscommunicaition. 

> I'd be interested to hear from anyone interested in: 1. The of
> paralinguistic features in a communicative context; and 2. how the blind
> relate to the sighted in a communicative set-up.

Okay. From my experience, and observations of interaction, we relate just
fine. However, I am concerned that the assumptions underlying your questions
could potentially set up barriers--where barriers don't actually exist.

Thanks for reading and for considering my perspective. I look forward to
continued discussion on this issue.

Best regards,
Robert Englebretson
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue