Monday, August 16, 2010

People without Words - Art and Experience of the Languageless Deaf

Wittgenstein said "The limits of my language are the limits of my world," but I know that is not true for everyone. Here are two stories about life without language.

From a NYT's review of Susan Schaller's A Man Without Words (she discovered an deaf 27 year old man who seemed "bright and curious", but who had never been taught sign language or any written or spoken language): "Without language, there is no way to understand the passage of time. Ildefonso had no idea what a birthday was. In order to get to work on time he memorized how the face of the clock looked. Ms. Schaller began to realize how crucial language is in the organization of our inner selves, how it influences our perceptions about the world. To teach adjectives, the author began with colors. When she hit the color green Ildefonso was horrified. Eventually Ms. Schaller realized that, for Ildefonso (an illegal alien), green represented the immigration officials who frequently captured him -- the color of their trucks and uniforms, even the green card he didn't have. Without language, the color came to symbolize all that was frightening. Without some language system, some explanation, history and geography cannot be comprehended unless one has lived every moment in time and traveled every foot of ground. There isn't even a way to illuminate the concepts of deafness and hearing." Despite these difficulties, he was able to work a variety of jobs throughout the United States. And when Schaller catches up with him 7 years later, he is working as a gardener "for a hospital in Los Angeles and the proud holder of a green card. His gardens are characterized by order and symmetry. He is an eager student, and his signing has advanced by light years. He tells the author he now tries to find people to interpret the evening news for him. And he has developed a philosophical bent from all those years of observing: "There is enough in the world for everyone to have a little garden," Ildefonso tells Schaller.

Our second story comes from rural Idaho: James Castle was born deaf in 1899 to a hearing family and grew up without language. He attended school for the deaf and blind, but "did not learn to read, write, speak, sign, or lip read, perhaps by choice." What he did like to do was draw and communicate through images. James drew all the time, often with soot from his woodburning stove. Check out more of James Castle's artwork in the video below. It's very moving.

From Susan Schaller's interview with a deaf teacher of the deaf, Dennis Waterhouse: "I met a languageless deaf adult who used cartoon-like drawings to communicate. My deaf students often begin conversations by pointing to a picture, drawing a picture, miming/acting out a scene-a picture. That's the beginning of almost all my lessons-my introduction to signs and words and language. We [Deaf people] all use pictures and art to communicate."

I can't help but think of many children's names and faces that come to mind who really seem in this mode. One child who immediately comes to mind is a young boy who was adopted from a poor faraway country and deprived in his earliest months. He was 6 years old and minimally verbal. As a result, intelligence testing was fairly futile. But what was neat to see was how animated he became when he discovered various little figures (a wide assortment, animals, lego and various star wars figures) in our waiting area. Suddenly the figures were dancing in the area and interacting with each other, we heard sound effects and saw whole plots unfolding. As it turned out, imaginative play with figure turned out to be of critical importance in his language development. When he was shown how Windows Moviemaker, he made wonderful stories that entertained family and friends. He began to add dialogue and his expression took a big leap.

Kids have a harder time than adults because their fine motor skills may not be as developed and so it may be harder for them to express their ideas through their hands or created projects, but fortunately technology can be a great evener.

The lives of Ildefonso and James Castle are good reminders of looking deeply for the gifts in children and adults without words.


  1. It is hard to comprehend why literary and cultural festivals with an orientation towards involving the deaf community aren't organized on a more regular basis. I seriously doubt that the deaf around the world even know about the brilliance James Castle achieved without being formally educated or being able to hear like his "normal" contemporaries.

  2. Thank you so much for these stories. They do make me wonder about my son and other children with autism spectrum diagnoses. While my son struggles with language, he also loves imaginative play. It is hard for me to always know what the "plots" are in his theatre, but I think that they are there. I wonder daily what the line really is between language disorder and autism "spectrum" (in our case pdd-nos).