Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Divergent Development of Verbal Skills in Children Who Are Blind or Sighted

Academic journal article Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness

Divergent Development of Verbal Skills in Children Who Are Blind or Sighted

Article excerpt

Abstract: This empirical study compared the average ages at which four children with congenital blindness acquired 29 verbal skills with given age norms for sighted children. The results indicated only small developmental delays in the acquisition of verbal skills in the four children, but a high degree of variability in developmental delays within and across nine categories of verbal skills.


Language is thought to offer a major compensation for children who are blind by providing the opportunity to gather information about persons, objects, spatial properties, and situational events that is not or is only insufficiently accessible through the remaining senses. Some authors (Miller, 1963; Perez-Pereira & Conti-Ramsden, 1999; Wills, 1979) have assumed that the restrictions imposed on children who are blind give them a great psychological need to acquire verbal communication. "If we tried to picture the most precocious child orator, we should think of a blind girl, the only daughter of wealthy parents" (Miller, 1963, p. 157). Miller's statement was highly controversial in the earlier--but no longer popular--nativism-empiricism debate. Linguists who took a more nativist stance on the acquisition of language by children who are blind (Chomsky, 1980; Gleitman, 1981; Landau, 1983, 1997; Landau & Gleitman, 1985) would probably have agreed with Miller because nativist theory predicts that the lack of vision will only slightly impair the acquisition of language.

In contrast, researchers who have taken an empiricist position (Andersen, Dunlea, & Kekelis, 1984, 1993; Dunlea, 1989; Dunlea & Andersen, 1992; Fraiberg, 1977; Preisler, 1997; Urwin, 1983, 1984) have assumed that children who are congenitally blind experience substantial language delays because their theory predicts that deficits in experience during the acquisition of cognitive and social competencies will have a negative impact on the acquisition of language. It is only in recent years that researchers have started to consider the idea that a higher percentage of children who are blind may use alternative strategies of language acquisition, such as a holistic (Gestalt) style of language acquisition compared with the more analytical style of children who are sighted (Perez-Pereira & Conti-Ramsden, 1999; Peters, 1987, 1994).

Generally, empirical findings on the acquisition of language have revealed relatively small quantitative differences between children who are blind and those who are sighted (Bigelow, 2005; Brambring, 2003, 2005; Hatton, Bailey, Burchinal, & Ferrell, 1997; Rogow, 2000). Although children who are blind experience a slight delay in the acquisition of their first meaningful words, they overcome this delay rapidly, so that generally no differences can be confirmed when 10- or 50-word vocabularies are compared (Bigelow, 2005; Mulford, 1988).

Qualitative differences between children who are blind and those who are sighted can be found in the type of nouns used in early speech (Bigelow, 2005; Brambring, 2003; Mulford, 1988; Perez-Pereira & Conti-Ramsden, 1999). Children who are blind use more specific nouns, that is, they seem to have difficulty recognizing the similarity of different objects within one semantic category. For example, they fail to recognize differently shaped chairs as all belonging to the category of chair. A differential analysis of the nouns used by children who are blind and those who are sighted revealed one interesting example of differences in adaptive use: Whereas children who are blind use animal names less frequently than do sighted children (8% versus 20%), they name everyday objects, such as furniture, more frequently (22% in children who are blind versus only 9% in sighted children; see Bigelow, 1987, 2005). Animals are attractive for sighted children because of their appearance, their behavior, and the possibilities of playing with them, whereas for children who are blind they are often unpredictable and associated with anxiety (Brambring, 1993). …

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