One of the first questions I asked when learning about aphasia was if aphasia affects sign language. Meaning, is manual language affected in the same way as spoken or written communication? Moreover, can people use sign language to communicate after a brain injury?

Lauren Marks tackles this idea in her new book, A Stitch of Time.

Sign Language Class

Lauren writes on page 166 about starting signing classes at the recommendation of her speech therapist. Her teacher is deaf, the students are not. She writes,

The first day was full of fumbling. She passed around worksheets with the American Sign Language alphabet, instructing the class to try asking and answering questions while practicing their fingerspelling. She communicated by writing on the blackboard, though all of us struggled with her rule of not asking questions aloud, especially with her back turned. The protocol made perfect sense, but took a little getting used to.

Lauren muddles through the questions, fingerspelling to her teacher that she is there to learn the language due to aphasia after an aneurysm. Over time, she begins to get more proficient in fingerspelling and sign, coming to understand “that language and gesture had a lot in common” (p. 168).

The Brain and Language

The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Communication has an interesting article on what is happening in the brain when a person is learning or using sign language. It contains an important question:

We have noted that patients with damage to Broca’s area can often gesture communicatively. Does this mean that a visual–gestural language may be unaffected, if there is brain damage to this region?

It comes down to the location of the brain injury. Researchers studied six cases of stroke in deaf people who use sign language to communicate. Those who sustained damage in the left hemisphere of the brain had trouble forming language. This is similar to those with Broca’s aphasia. Those with damage to the left temporal lobe had difficulty understanding language. This is similar to those with Wernicke’s aphasia. But people who had damage on the right hemisphere did not experience trouble understanding or using sign language.

We’d love to hear from speech-language pathologists who use sign language in their treatment plan. Or have you used sign language to help treat your aphasia?

Image: Butupa via Flickr via Creative Commons license