Instructions for the deaf

How to test the sight of someone who cannot hear.

Share options

Instruction cards for showing to patients with hearing impairments

A most interesting object in our collection comprises a series of cards from the inter-war period, supplied for assisting the ophthalmic optician to test the sight of people with hearing impairment. As you'll note from the wording on the red leather case, in the language of the time these people were known collectively as 'the Deaf'.

The optometrist who had the idea to devise the cards was Mr F. C.Cooper FBOA about whom we don't know very much but we do know that he was running a branch of Scarborow's Opticians in Dial Lane, Ipswich, in the 1920s and later worked in Colchester too. The idea must have caught on because the museum also possesses a revised edition which, like the first, was issued by the firm of J. & R. Fleming Ltd.

Cooper designed eleven large print instruction cards to tell the deaf patient what was happening and to enable a degree of communication between the patient and the practitioner, essential for conducting subjective tests where the opinion of the patient is required. Typical instructions (which are necessarily brief to fit on the card and be easily read) might be: 'Tell me which lines you see the clearest?' or 'Pick out the blackest and clearest lines'. Despite the brevity of the text he did not forget to treat his patients sensitively and politely, including the necessary words 'please' and 'thank you'.

As F. C. Cooper recognised it is particularly important to be able to test the sight of people with other sensory impairments. Other objects in the museum include a speaking tube used by an optician in the1930s to communicate wih patients who did at least have some hearing and, from an earlier period, two lorgnettes with hearing trumpets attached. Sadly there are some people who are born deaf and then go on to lose their sight, one cause of which may be the inherited condition known as Usher Syndrome where a decrease in sight ensues because of retinitis pigmentosa (popularly known as 'tunnel vision'). Usher syndrome was first described by an ophthalmologist, Albrecht Von Graefe in 1858, and because it can also lead to balance problems simply sitting the patient in a consulting room chair can be problematic. Von Graefe was not alone in studying dual sensory impairment. His contemporary, the great scientist of physiological optics, Herman von Helmholtz, 'inventor' of the ophthalmoscope, was also distinguished in the field of physiological acoustics, writing on the sensation of tone, the human perception of sound and explaining the workings of the cochlear and the bones of the inner ear.