LINGUIST List 8.290

Thu Feb 27 1997

Disc: Communication between blind and sighted

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Sheri B Wells, Re: 8.253, Disc: Communication between blind & sighted
  2. Robert Englebretson, Re: 8.253, Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

Message 1: Re: 8.253, Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

Date: Sat, 22 Feb 1997 02:26:41 -0500 (EST)
From: Sheri B Wells <>
Subject: Re: 8.253, Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

Permit me to respond briefly to a few points ... 

In response to the queries about the 'mechanics' by which blind people
communicate on-line: 

Every blind person I know touch-types, so we use standard keyboards; we
are responsible for spelling and proper syntax just as are our sighted
peers. Many of us prefer using braille display devices rather than voice

In response to points raised by David Powers: 

> ... on this latter question, I am surprised that blind people
> (Robert and _all_ his acquaintances) are NOT disconcerted by
> unexplained laughter ...
> I am not satisfied on this point. 

A personal response seems appropriate here. There is no way to objectify
subjective experience, as evidenced by the previous discussion on this
point, which has consisted of subjective evaluations of 'embarrassing'
situations. As David Powers has aptly said, unexplained bursts of
laughter occur for *many* reasons. There is no reason to suppose that
this situation is more embarrassing for a blind person when it does occur. 
Contrary to Welcome Sekwati and David Powers' assumptions, I, personally,
don't find this situation all that frequent. 

> ... visual appreciation of the gestures captures
> additional useful information (e.g. the McGurk effect).

Robert Engelbretson's point bears repeating: language is redundant. I may
occasionally miss a nuance, but rarely find myself totally at sea during
an interaction. I have difficulty constructing a context in which failure
to be taken in by the McGurk Effect would be a disadvantage. 

> Having to try to have notes ready and
> brailled in advance is extremely difficult ...

I always prepare my teaching notes in braille before class. Thanks to
modern computer technology, it is no more difficult to send your file to a
braille printer than to an ink printer. 

> 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. 

Incorrect. Those of us who have represented ourselves as blind, *are*
blind; we are also doctoral candidates in linguistics. One might at least
grant that we are more representative of the blind population than our
sighted colleagues who have contributed to this discussion. I think we
all agree that this remains a potentially interesting area for future

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Message 2: Re: 8.253, Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

Date: Sun, 23 Feb 1997 13:58:35 -0800 (PST)
From: Robert Englebretson <>
Subject: Re: 8.253, Disc: Communication between blind & sighted

Dear Linguist listers,

I would like to respond briefly to a few points raised by David Powers in his
recent Linguist post.

Powers wrote:
> 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. 

This is simply factually incorrect. I am most definitely not "sighted"; I
made it very clear in my original posting that I am in fact blind. 

Secondly, I feel that my original post was not accurately represented by the
> 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 ...

I never said there was "_no_ loss of information." I also never said that in
visual paralinguistic cues "_no_ information is conveyed." What I in fact
did explicitly write in my posting, using the specific C.A. example of turn-
taking, was: "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." When viewed in terms of the social, cultural,
dialogic and interactional context--the locus of communication, and where
language gets its form--there is a wide range of 'conspiracies' of
information which bring about successful communication. We (blind and
sighted people) are doing far more than simply transferring bits of
"information" through space at mismatched baud rates. 

On another topic, Powers correctly points out that the issue of blind-sighted
communication must be viewed from the perspectives of 'the sighted' as well
as 'the blind.' However, I contend that the "communication problems in the
other direction" which Powers alludes to (i.e. what sighted people experience
when communicating with blind people) are not due to intrinsic differences
between blind and sighted people and how we communicate. Rather, they are
brought about by profound ignorance, social stigma, and societal stereotypes
of blindness and blind people. So, yes, from the sighted perspective there
is a communication gap; but this is more imagined than real, and is simply
based in ignorance. So, sighted people feel uncomfortable and do any number
of things: talk louder and slower, refuse to talk at all, not address blind
people directly ("and what would he like to eat"), feel uncomfortable using
visual language ("did you see- I mean hear that movie?), etc. etc. For 
Powers, evidence of a communication gap from the sighted perspective comes
from the fact that sighted people continue to use visual cues when
interacting with blind people: "This adaption is not easy. It is well known
that (many) people continue to use gestures with blind people ..." (Nor is
this adaptation necessary...) To me, this suggests something quite the
opposite. Namely, a discomfort at communicating naturally with blind people. 
(Likewise, those teachers who feel it necessary to make major modifications
in the way they teach...) My point is that, from the sighted perspective,
what is perceived as a "communication gap" really is not due to inadequacies
(on either side) or differences in communication--but is due to ignorance and
stereotypes about blind people. For sighted people who have recognized and
dealt with their own ignorance and stereotypes, "communication gap" from the
sighted perspective is a non-issue. And what right do I have to talk about
sighted perspective? Well, as a blind person I have to be constantly aware
of the perspective of the people I'm interacting with--pretty much all of
whom are sighted, and many of whom (either consciously or not) communicate
their perspectives and attitudes about blindness. 

On another point, it seems that much of this discussion has strayed
dramatically from the original questions about communicative difficulties
between blind and sighted. It would be nice if we could stay with the topic,
so I will not devote much time to addressing the following issues raised by
Powers, since they are simply irrelevant to the discussion at hand. One
wonders why the discussion moved from communication and *blind* people to the
following "truth":

> 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. 

In relation to blind people at least, since that's what this discussion has
been about, this is not only "not politic" but, in the U.S. at least, is
generally not true. Although, I don't know, maybe in Australia blind people
are not self-empowered, productive members of society and therefore are
still a "burden"? 

> It is however a burden which society is cheerfully and increasingly
> bearing, not regarding it as an imposition but as an opportunity. 

Oh right. Like the "white man's burden" from last century? I don't care
what kind of 'good intentions' lie behind this statement; the paternalistic
and custodial attitude expressed here has been responsible for the oppression
of blind people for centuries. This is a burden which mainstream sighted
society creates and imposes on itself!--because 'you' think 'you' know what
'we' blind people need, and what is best for us! I could embellish this with
many specific examples, but I feel this is completely inappropriate and off
topic for this list and this discussion.

Indeed the area of blind-sighted communication is a fruitful one for
research. However, it is also one in which unhealthy and inaccurate
stereotypes and preconceptions abound, and need to be addressed and dealt
with before fruitful research can take place.

Robert Englebretson
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