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Schizophrenic sign language : mirror or window?


12 / 1994

Thirty five preverbally deaf adults, thirty of whom have clinical diagnosis of schizophrenia, and five who have been diagnosed manic-depressive, were interviewed in British Sign Language (BSL). Diagnoses in 23 members of this group were confirmed by our BSL/deaf culture translation of the Present State Examination (Wing, Cooper and Sartorius, 1974)and Thacker (1994). Their performances were compared to a group of healthy deaf adults matched for sex, age, ethnic background, handedness, non verbal IQ and age of sign acquisition. The interview contained both closed (e.g. picture description)and open-ended questions similar to those found in psychiatrics interviews.

The hypothesis was that a formal thought or language disorder would manifest itself in signed as well as spoken language. Analysis of the videotaped interviews does indeed reveal behaviours comparable to those seen in hearing schizophrenics, as well as phenomena only possible on a visual-spatial medium.

Errors include : neologisms, reversal of the movements of signs, "clangs" (sign choice based on manual feature rather than meaning), perseveration of signs and topics, stereotypies, echopraxia, poverty of sign and of content, cross-linguistic (spoken/signed)contamination, derailment and failure of discourse devices in addition to visual-spatial phenomena. An example of the latter is the schizophrenic subject who assigned different personalities to her two hands. Syntax errors occur more often in the control group than in the patient group.

Palabras claves

salud mental, método de diagnóstico

, Reino Unido, London


This research combines study of schizophrenic phenomenology, neuropsychology, and sign linguistics. The goals are a coherent description of thought/language disorders in deaf signers; to develop a battery of linguistic measures for more accurate diagnosis; and to shed light on the nature of schizophrenia itself.

The majority of diagnoses are made within the first five minutes of the psychiatric interview. This means that patients who do not use the standard spoken language are severely disavantaged. Preverbally deaf people traditionally have been misdiagnosed and are overrepresented in psychiatrics institutions. This study is the first attempt to quantify a significant symptom in deaf patients and therefore to give diagnosis a more systematic basis.


GESTES Groupe d’Etude Spécialisé "Thérapies et Surdités"organised in Paris the ESMHD European Society for mental Health and Deafnessthird international congress, on december 1994. The publication of the proceedings will occur later on.

Written from the speech of Alice THACKER, pathfinder deaf services, Springfield hospital, 61 Glenburnie Road, London SW 17 7DJ, UNITED KINGDOM. Adults 00 44 81 784 2773 Children 00 44 81 682 6925 Minicom 00 44 81 784 2705 Fax 00 44 81 784 2708


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GESTES (Groupe d’Etudes Spécialisé Thérapies et Surdité) - 8 rue Michel Peter, 75013 Paris, FRANCE. Tel/Fax 00(331)43 31 25 00 - Francia - gestes (@)

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