Deaf culture

From Academic Kids

Deaf community and Deaf culture are two phrases used to refer to persons who are culturally Deaf as opposed to those who are deaf from the medical/audiological/pathological perspective. When used in the cultural sense, the word deaf is very often capitalized. Being unable to hear is only a part of being Deaf. In fact, when the word is used in the cultural sense hearing is one of the least important criteria used to delineate group membership. Many persons that are labeled hearing or hard-of-hearing, from the medical perspective, are labeled or would label themselves as Deaf from the cultural perspective. Similarly, a person who self-identifies as Deaf may in fact have much more hearing than one who identifies themselves as either hearing or hard-of-hearing. The use of the cultural label is a declaration of personal identity much more than an explanation of hearing ability.

Culturally deaf people do not look on deafness as a disability. There is a simple explanation for this: within the community of deaf people, deafness is not a disability but an asset in much the same way it is an asset to be a Navajo within the Navajo tribe or Korean within the community of Koreans of Los Angeles. In short, it is a distinction about language. Since the Navajo or Korean view their language as no more than a social disability within the larger majority culture, so do members of the signing deaf community. They consider deafness a positive trait, because it is tightly connected to other aspects of Deaf culture which they experience as positive. Deaf unity and community is strong. The fact that deafness excludes deaf people from some aspects of the hearing culture further reinforces cohesion within the community.

As an example of how thouroughly deafness is seen as a positive attribute, many Deaf individuals wish for their children to be born deaf. This can be hard or even impossible for hearing people to understand, but there is also a simple explanation for this when one considers how difficult it is for hearing parents to raise deaf children. It is no less difficult for deaf parents to raise hearing children. Both hearing and deaf parents who have children unlike them understand how much simpler life is when they fully understand the needs of their children and can easily communicate with and relate to their child's experience in the world. As hearing parents seek out resources to help them in the nurturing and education of their deaf children so too must deaf parents take extraordinary steps to ensure their hearing children, whose mother tongue is a sign language, are exposed to hearing people and culture. Furthermore, Deaf parents know from firsthand experience that Deaf people are able to live productive, fulfilling, and rewarding lives. So, taking all this into consideration, it comes as no surprise that as with hearing parents, some deaf parents see their abilities and skills best utilized on children who are similar to them in how they will experience, understand and react to the world around them.

Hearing people who treat deafness as a disability or subscribe to a pathological perspective of deafness are sometimes met with hostility by those in the Deaf community. As rare an instance as it is, it is a reaction to the hostility that deaf people experience from hearing people throughout their lives. Although hearing people can and do participate in the Deaf community, their different life experiences tend to set them apart. Of course, hearing children of deaf adults (commonly called "CODAs") experience full acceptance within the Deaf-World, the term deaf people use to describe their social network. But acceptance into this world extends to both hearing and deaf friends and relatives who cherish the easy flow of communication within the group and uphold the hard-earned values, history, mores, and dignity of deaf people.


Is the Deaf community a real culture?

Culture is expressed by the inter-relatedness and interdependent traits, behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, values, mores, history, and, often, language of a group. The determination as to one's membership in a particular cultural group is not determined by vote or election to the group by its constituent members, but by individual election to embrace the core values of the group. In this regard, the community of deaf people because they have a language and history that binds them thus have a conceptual framework in which to be viewed as a culture. Well known cultural groups such as women, gays and lesbians, African-Americans and indigenous peoples such as the Inuit tribe of Alaska represent minority cultures that are embedded within a larger majority culture. Each group has culturally devised behaviors, beliefs and values that serve as markers for who does or does not embrace the overall worldview of the group. When comparing the community of deaf people with these groups, the commonalities are consistent with all of them. In many respects, minority cultures can be described as groups who are bound together because they are disadvantaged by the beliefs and practices of the majority culture in which they are embedded. This is true of language minorities such as the community of deaf people and Hispanic-Americans, ethnic and racial minorities such as Turkish Armenians, religious minorities such as Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses, and sexual minorities such as gays and lesbians.

Deaf culture has its own values, mores, history, organizations, art and behaviors that mark those individuals who embrace the group. So for the deaf, it is not by diagnosis but by individual identification that determines membership. The deaf world, unlike all of these groups with the exception of the indigenous Inuit tribe, Turkish, Armenians, and Hispanic-Americans, finds its center primarily in sign language and secondarily in shared values. In the conceptual framework of culture, deaf culture shares its closest parallel with minority language groups, a scale of human experience much smaller than the majority culture in which it is embedded, but nonetheless, deaf culture possesses every single aspect of culture that defines cultural groups at all; minority or majority.

Group attributes

As with any other culture, there exists a set of shared experiences, attitudes and cultural norms that serve to identify and bring together members of the Deaf community while simultaneously excluding outsiders from entering the core group. To be fully included in the Deaf community, one must at least have the following attributes and possibly others not mentioned.

  • Fluency in a sign language and a positive attitude toward the language. Sign language is the centralmost valued aspect of Deaf culture and having a shared language sets up a powerful affinity among the Deaf as it does in hearing cultures. Language is often a central, indeed required, component of a culture. In hearing cultures foreigners are expected to learn the language of the land of their residence in order to successfully assimilate into the culture. Use of the majority language is desirable, but the grave difficulty of acquiring spoken language for the prelingually deaf has been balanced by the community's genius in creating original, indigenous sign languages that are truly "of" the nation that nurtures the signing deaf as citizens, embodying both their national culture and the culture of the deaf community itself.
  • Knowledge and respect for the cultural norms of the Deaf community. For example, the Deaf community has attention-getting behaviors: waving a hand or creating a vibration with an object to gain attention; pointing at people is not considered rude behavior. Direct eye contact is insisted on to glean meaning. There are Deaf culture norms for introductions and leave-taking, which are prolonged and physical with much contact, humor, self-deprecation and wit. Many other cultural norms are different from those of the hearing culture within which Deaf culture is embedded.
  • Adaptations to deafness. Deafness may present both liabilities and assets in the interaction of the Deaf with the surrounding world. While one cannot attract the attention of a deaf person by calling their name, deaf people can communicate freely where ambient noise prohibits communication, or even comfort, among the hearing. This is one reason deaf people are highly sought after as employees in large-scale manufacturing and publishing where the noise of machinery is a serious concern. Two deaf people can converse through a closed window or glass office wall, or across a space too large for a voice to carry, so long as they can see one another.
  • Many Deaf do not see themselves as disabled. A hearing person may not understand why some deaf people express no sense of loss over being unable to experience sound. Since experiencing sound is something some deaf people never had, there may be no loss or associated emotions with not having it. Deaf people are aware of the things they cannot succeed in and may be adept at ferreting out the range of activities in which they can occupy or create an established niche. This may seem unusual to some hearing people because they are aware of the abundance of opportunities afforded to people who hear sounds. Hearing persons who are members of the Deaf community are aware of and share this Deaf-World view not so much because they are expected to, but because they have witnessed the common-sense practicality of deaf methods of problem solving.

Mainstream recognition of Deaf culture

For much of history deaf people were expected to adapt to hearing culture as best they were able or to be hidden or invisible. Recently, especially in the United States, the existence of a Deaf culture has been increasingly recognized.

Deaf President Now: The 1988 student strike at Gallaudet University was a watershed point in the awareness of Deaf culture by the dominant American hearing culture. DPN student organizers and allies forces the university serving an all-deaf and hearing-impaired population to select its first deaf president. The movement helped frame the struggles of deaf people within the context of a civil rights movement.

In the UK a charity called the Dorothy Miles Cultural Centre (DMCC), based in Guildford, exists to bridge the gap between deaf and hearing people through social, cultural and educational activities. The Centre also offers courses in British Sign Language (BSL) which are accredited by the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP). DMCC runs drama workshops involving professional actors and organises sporting events, including an annual cricket match. There is also widespread availability of of BSL courses from other providers across the UK. Nearly all terrestrial television is closed captioned.


  • John Vickrey Van Cleve, Barry A. Crouch, A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America, 1989, ISBN 0930323491.
  • Raymond Luczak, Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader, 1993, ISBN 1555832040.
  • Carol A. Padden, Tom L. Humphries, Inside Deaf Culture, 2005, ISBN 0674015061.
  • Oliver W. Sacks, Seeing Voices; A Journey Into The World Of The Deaf, 1989, ISBN 0520060830.

Deaf Media

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