LINGUIST List 8.253

Fri Feb 21 1997

Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Martin Pauly, Re: 8.234, Disc: Communication between blind & sighted
  2. David Powers, Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

Message 1: Re: 8.234, Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

Date: Wed, 19 Feb 97 12:37:25 JST
From: Martin Pauly <>
Subject: Re: 8.234, Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

>What has impressed me OUTSTANDINGLY in this discussion is that I am at a
>loss to explain the EXCELLENT quality of our blind colleagues' written
>English. No spelling errors, no grammar errors ... could I have a
>description of the mechanics of the process - since I assume you all
>cannot SEE the computer screen, how do you READ the text? and what kind
>of keyboards do you have?
>I have worked with the deaf, a little, and it seems to me that the
>problems others assume exist with people who are sense-impaired (is that
>the right term?) say more about the people positing the problems than
>the people who are supposed to have said problems.
>Cheers, Kela
>PS - on the "mechanics", please reply off-list if you think others are
>not interested. I can see, and I make terrible errors in spelling all
>the time, not just because you cannot go back and correct email with my
>type of software editor. Our blind colleagues put me to shame.
>Deborah D. Kela Ruuskanen \ You cannot teach a Man anything,
>Leankuja 1, FIN-01420 Vantaa \ you can only help him find it
> \ within himself. Galileo
>LINGUIST List: Vol-8-234
I am also very interested in this subject, especially in the "mechanics,"
and would hope that you would reply on-list.
Thank you.
Martin Pauly
Tsukuba College of Technology
Division for the Visually Impaired
Kasuga 4-12-7
Ibaraki-ken 305
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Message 2: Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

Date: Wed, 19 Feb 97 14:01:05 +0100
From: David Powers <>
Subject: Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

While I am on leave overseas I am keeping only a faint eye on Linguist
so have only belatedly been reading the discussion in reverse.

Having read the responses before the original query, I feel that
people are being a little hard on Welcome Sekuati, who has clearly
raised a very interesting question and a rich area for research.

I agree with Robert Englebretson that we could do without the
hyperbole relating to the corpus callosum, and that the generalization
of an anecdote to 'all blind people' may indeed not be warranted.

However, on this latter question, I am surprised that blind people
(Robert and _all_ his acquaintances) are NOT disconcerted by
unexplained laughter and that Robert feels it is _always_ possible to
ask what it is about. Perhaps blind conversationalists are more
inured to this problem than the seeing. But I personally find it
embarrassing to have to ask what was so funny, and mostly would feel
it inappropriate to ask. Such situations arise frequently as I travel
in and learn languages monolingually in situ - it takes quite a while
to catch the nuances of humour and then there is a tendency for people
to slip into accents or dialects when telling jokes. Or what about
when I am teaching a class, and there is a group of students looking
at me and giggling - I can ask what is so funny, or even ask them to
leave, without embarrassment, but I am unlikely to get a satisfactory
answer. A blind person must come across this unexplained laughter
from time to time - there are always funny visual situations, people
pulling faces or shrugging or putting on antics. Surely the blind
member of the group is not _always_ so inured that asking is easy and
has no feeling of distracting the group and requiring their help to
understand. In a group of friends, someone might volunteer their
assistance and thus avoid embarrassment - that's nice, considerate,
but itself illustrates the point that there is embarrassment to be

I am not satisfied on this point. But let's go on to another related
point: language is not purely acoustic. From visual cues and overt
gestures to the actual articulatory gestures and deictic content,
there is a loss of information, which Robert in one breath accepts (in
the sense that there are gestures that are not observed) and rejects
(in the sense that _no_ information is conveyed). Now who is using
hyperbole, or in fact mixing technical and non-technical usage of the
same words: information loss. Robert says there is _no_ loss of
information - that is a technical claim or an idiomatic claim as you
choose to read it. If and only if the visual appreciation of the
gestures is totally redundant can this be technically true, but it may
be that it is "no loss" in an idiomatic sense. There is considerable
evidence, moreover, that visual appreciation of the gestures captures
additional useful information (e.g. the McGurk effect).

Welcome claims that the language of sighted and unsighted *children*
does vary "to _some_ degree" - before claiming that a communication
gap _undoubtedly_ exists. There is clearly some doubt being shed on
this which will be useful for Welcome's future research. As far as
"constant transmission failures" goes, that can be interpreted as
total breakdown at one extreme - or failures of transmission of
individual bits of information at the other extreme (taken technically
or not).

I agree with Robert, that there is damage to be done by making
assumptions about severe communication failure, but he has made his
own assumptions. Looking at it from the blind person's perspective
and noting that what is missed is of little import he neglects the
communication problems in the other direction. Andrea Gupta talks
about a process of negotiation and the comfortableness of the sighted
partner. This is very important. Another little point may have
slipped by unnoticed too: although a blind adult's personal verbal
(e.g. written or telephone) idiolect may not give away their
disability, there are other aspects of their idolect that will, and
there are gestures that tend not to be included in their full
communicative idiolect: e.g. nods, shrugs and smiles, the eye contact
and movements which can have pragmatic or deictic significance, the
overt pointing gestures, etc. In addition, the fact that the seeing
partners have to adapt, or even just *feel* they have to make an
effort, also contributes to discomfort, loss of _naturalness_, and
loss of information _bandwidth_.

This adaption is not easy. It is well known that (many) people
continue to use gestures with blind people or when using the phone -
in fact young children have quite a learning process to go through in
learning to use the phone, tending to hold the phone and listen and
just nod. There is certainly scope for research into the blind-seeing
interaction as a whole - with or without presuppositions, hypotheses
and presumptions. Science _always_ has deliberate hypotheses and
hidden assumptions, and the trick is to recognize the latter and turn
them into the former, so that they can be examined, possibly verified,
or more probably discredited. Robert and the other contributors to
this discussion have helped us to see what some of these hidden
assumptions might be.

Finally, let's return to the classroom situation, already mentioned by
me above, and by Sheri Wells. The OHP is domininant in many areas
today, diagrams and formulae are important in linguistics and indeed
all the sciences. Being responsible for a large topic with hundreds
of students and quite a few with disabilities requires considerable
thought and innovation. Having to try to have notes ready and
brailled in advance is extremely difficult, and having to read out
outlines that I would normally just talk to, or formulae/equations, or
needing to explain figures in words when pointing is so much easier,
is very difficult. But our disabled students do very well - with a
combination of extra attention (and listening to their ideas and their
own expressions of their needs and difficulties) and their own extra
commitment to succeed (and I have received a citation for my approach
and an invitation to address a conference on students with
disabilities to talk about to my approach - I want to emphasize that I
am positive towards such students, while remaining realistic to the
nature of the difficulties and the nature of the subject matter). But
catering for these students can tend to disadvantage the majority of
the class in terms of slowing down the presentation (not always a
disadvantage!) and in terms of deliberate deviation or enforced
distraction from the logical or 'optimal' teaching strategy based on
my understanding of the subject and the capabilities of the class.
The teacher has a very difficult problem in trying to deal with a
mixed class. (N.B. for students that get left behind, for whatever
reasons, we have introduced special remedial tutorials in groups of
three, for a few weeks at a time, relating to the particular concept
those students failed to grasp - these invariably include more
students who have not been identified as having diabilities as who

There are transmission failures, and hence a need to adapt and reencode the
information to be transmitted in order to properly communicate with people
with any handicap (whether medical, social or linguistic), and the
communication problem must be viewed from both sides - there is in general
a problem in both directions. It may not be politic to say so, but the
truth is that people with disabilities do impose a considerable burden on
society and their friends, family and peers. It is however a burden which
society is cheerfully and increasingly bearing, not regarding it as an
imposition but as an opportunity. But the extent of the impact of the
disability varies from individual to individual as well as from disability
to disability.

I'm sure that others will respond in relation to Kela Ruuskanen's
"mechanics" query, but I will mention briefly the way in which a blind
student uses a computer and is integrated into our computer science. The
student is equipped with a laptop with speech synthesis capabilities (and a
standard keyboard) and can ask for the screen to be read out, or a line or
other segment to be read out, or in cases of difficulty (or formulae,
non-words or words not in the dictionary, etc.) spelled. Once the
appropriate drivers are loaded, there is little limitation about what
software can be used - it is just a matter of how well designed the
software is, compatability and availability of shortcuts, etc. Each of our
labs (and a private office provided for student use) is equipped with
ethernet connections so that the student can plug in and be part of a
normal laboratory class. The students tend to make use of the standard
spell checking and even grammar checking tools (with style features turned
off). Written exams are brailled and available on line, with extra time
allowed, and are typically written on the computer, with an invigilator
with a copy of the exam there to read or explain anything which is not
clear - especially in relation to figures, formulae etc. Appropriate tools
are available for dealing with questions that involve producing or
modifying diagrams (allowing the student to feel the diagram they are
drawing). The students are also paired with one or more volunteer
(sighted) helpers doing the same course of study.

I would also note that the responses Kela has been so properly
impressed with have been from sighted linguists undertaking
doctorates, and so are not necessarily representative of the general
blind population. A lot of the controversy relates to our propensity
to generalize on the basis of inadequate data/sample, and it is for
this reason that I have tended to highlight the use or implication of
_all_ in my comments and my representation of the other views which
have been put forward.

David Powers

David Powers, Visiting Professor, Langages et Systemes Informatique
Permanent Email: OR

ACM SIGART (SIG on Artificial Intelligence): Editor, SIGART Bulletin
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