Most of us communicate without ever saying a word. Some of us speak with our hands, or with touch. Almost all the communication we encounter in our everyday lives is nonverbal: billboards, images and text included. We humans can communicate with our entire bodies – and this ability has helped us adapt to disabilities in amazing ways.
Reading body language comes completely naturally to most people; it’s been a part of our evolution through the ages. It’s pretty universal between species too. When frightened, all mammals adopt one of two stances: they either shrink themselves down, with flattened ears and body posture – or they make themselves appear as big as possible, with puffed out fur and open, upright posture.
These are reflex actions, brought on by the fight or flight response – a hormonally induced response that dictates whether an animal should fight or flee. We humans have the same response built into us. Reading and recognising fear and aggression is almost universal across mammals, by body language alone.
Humans take it a step further when communicating with each other. Not only can we recognise the big, base emotions in others, we can detect subtleties in behaviour that give away if a person is lying, or if someone feels uncomfortable.
That kind of perception has helped us to become a powerful social species, which builds long-lasting relationships. It has always been essential to our survival, in more ways than one. Our capacity for pattern recognition and interpersonal bonding has helped us overcome so much, including disabilities.
Signed languages include British Sign Language (BSL) and American Sign Language (ASL), which (unlike the English spoken in Britain and the USA) aren’t cross-intelligible or interchangeable. There are signed languages in each corner of the world, born and developed wherever there are deaf people – but they’re also used by hearing people who have trouble speaking, or people with a physical disability that doesn’t allow them to speak.
Signed languages are leaps and bounds beyond nonverbal communication. Signing is not instinctive, like reading body language is: it’s a learned language that’s as complex and intricate as any spoken language, with as many variations around the world as there are languages themselves.
Our senses are more complex than we give credit for. Smell and taste have historically helped us identify which foods to eat and what substances to avoid – but in the modern world, these senses have become vessels for pleasure over survival systems. Although now a socially complex area of discussion, our sense of touch is as important as ever.
Take braille for example, a way of reading and writing with touch alone. Blind people have been able to read ever since French educator Louis Braille invented the most complete and powerful sensory language ever devised. Louis Braille was blinded after an accident as a child – but he had wonderful parents who helped him to thrive.
His brilliant creativity and diligence led him to develop Charles Barbier’s night writing into a fully-fledged writing system, by simplifying and optimising existing methods.
Braille has remained almost unchanged since 1824.
For people with both impaired sight and impaired hearing, touch is an extremely important sense – and braille allows complex two way communication using only touch.