The research concerning the visual perception in deaf subjects has led to contradictory results: Deaf subjects have been reported to show enhanced visual perceptual skills compared to hearing subjects (Neville & Lawson, 1987). On the other hand, there are indications that acoustic deprivation may produce an inferiority in all sensory modalities (Myklebust, 1964). These contradictions may be due to methodological differences: The investigators selected different conditions (e.g. attentive/nonattentive) and various samples of deaf subjects (e.g., different age, language, and aetiology groups).

In our study, we tested a large sample of deaf subjects with texture segmentation and visual search conditions, which allowed us to differentiate between visual processing with and without attentional load. All deaf subjects had profound hearing loss within the first year of life. Our results suggest that the visual processing capacity of deaf children and adolescents does not exceed that of age- and gender-matched hearing subjects. Rather, deaf school children show deficits in visual processing in conditions with and without attentional load. Age (6 to 20 years), language used (oral, sign, oral + sign), and aetiology for deafness (genetic, maternal rubella, perinatal, infection in the first year of life, unknown) did not consistently influence the results.

The deficits in visual processing were partially compensated for in adult deaf subjects. The performances of deaf and hearing adults in trials that could be solved preattentively did not differ statistically significantly, but in attention-dependent trials the deaf subjects were more efficient than the hearing controls.

We conclude that visual compensation for deafness is limited to attention-dependent tasks and does not develop until adulthood.

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