a story lives forever
Sign in
Form submission failed!

Stay signed in

Recover your password?
Form submission failed!

Web of Stories Ltd would like to keep you informed about our products and services.

Please tick here if you would like us to keep you informed about our products and services.

I have read and accepted the Terms & Conditions.

Please note: Your email and any private information provided at registration will not be passed on to other individuals or organisations without your specific approval.

Video URL

You must be registered to use this feature. Sign in or register.


The subculture of people who are deaf


My interest in the deaf and Martha's Vineyard
Oliver Sacks Scientist
Comments (0) Please sign in or register to add comments

I developed an unexpected interest in 1986 when I was sent a book to review. It was a book called, When the Mind Hears, by Harlan Lane, and it was… and it portrayed the amazing history of deaf people and sign languages. I was upset when I saw how interesting and extraordinary this was, because I had... I still wanted at that time to write about Tourette’s syndrome, and I realised this was going to be shouldered and pushed aside by sign language and deaf people. But I was very excited by the book, and it precipitated a personal adventure for me; it and another book about how there had been a massive population... quarter of a population in Martha’s Vineyard, or part of Martha’s Vineyard, had been born deaf. And the title of this other book, which I read at the same time, was, Everybody Spoke Sign Language.

In Martha’s Vineyard in 1850, for example, a quarter of the population was deaf, but all the population signed, hearing and deaf, and given this, there was… the deaf were no longer singled out, they were just seen as farmers, scholars, uncles, husbands, teachers, like anybody else. I... I found this astounding, and I got into the car – had I had a motorbike I would have gone on the motorbike – I got into the car and I went to Martha’s Vineyard, and the... there’re no longer any deaf people there, but some of the oldest people in 1986 had still been native signers, and might themselves fall into signing when they were together. And this was astounding, seeing hearing, talking, people who in fact were signing to each other by preference. But these two books launched an adventure for me, which took me to the Gallaudet – the university of the deaf, many schools for the deaf, and it led to my meeting Ursula Bellugi who has been the great linguist of sign language, along with a man, now deceased, called William Stokoe, who was the first to realise, around 1960, that in fact the deaf were not gesturing or... or using pidgin English, but there was a… but Stokoe realised there was a genuine language with its own syntax and vocabulary.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Martha's Vineyard, When the Mind Hears, Everybody Spoke Sign Language, Harlan Lane, Ursula Bellugi, William Stokoe

Duration: 3 minutes, 21 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012