Communicating the Visual

Communication disabilities and the classical legacy

Classics has played a major role in influencing modern attitudes towards disabled people and people with sensory impairments, which further validates the focus on classical antiquities in this study.  Deafness was often perceived as a cognitive disability in antiquity, rather than a sensory and communication one; deaf people were intellectually ‘dumb’ as well as mute. This misunderstanding can be traced back to Heraclitus and Plato, but it is usually, and mistakenly, ascribed to Aristotle.  It persisted during the enlightenment, and lurks in certain dark corners today, where only articulate speech is considered to signal intelligence.  


Audism is the belief that humans can and should interact solely through speech (or written spoken language), with no exceptions. This is not only empirically incorrect, but also imposes a serious missed opportunity, as the alternative mode of communication that a visual/spatial languages like BSL provides is ignored.  

Furthermore, in Christian and early Islamic discourse, spiritual blindness or deafness was a common metaphor for a character flaw or moral shortcoming.  This persists today: for example, elites are ‘deaf’ to the needs of the poor, and one might turn a ‘blind’ eye to wrongdoing. Therefore, healing such impairments becomes a moral crusade, and we note the birth of the medical model (whereby the patient is a problem to be fixed, rather than a disabled person to be adapted to).  The ancient legacy is, as yet, unexplored in these terms.  The ancients not only shaped our perception of ‘the viewer’, but also set the link between spoken articulation, intelligence and moral aptitude.