Deaf culture

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A drawing of the American Sign Language manual alphabet
Sign languages are an important part of Deaf culture. The American Sign Language (ASL) alphabet is shown here.

Deaf culture is the set of social beliefs, behaviors, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are influenced by deafness and which use sign languages as the main means of communication. When used as a cultural label especially within the culture, the word deaf is often written with a capital D and referred to as "big D Deaf" in speech and sign. When used as a label for the audiological condition, it is written with a lower case d.[1][2]

Members of the Deaf community tend to view deafness as a difference in human experience rather than a disability or disease.[3][4] Many members take pride in their Deaf identity.[5] Deaf people, in the sense of a community or culture, can then be seen as a minority group, and therefore some who are a part of this community may feel misunderstood by those who don't know sign language. Another struggle that the Deaf community often faces is that educational institutions usually consist primarily of hearing people. Additionally, hearing family members may need to learn sign language in order for the deaf person to feel included and supported. Unlike other cultures, a deaf person may join the community later in life, rather than being born into it.[6]

There are three views on Deaf people[citation needed]. There is a Medical View, a view commonly associated with doctors and encouraging a Deaf child's parents that they should undergo surgery. They may even go as far as to urge parents not to learn sign language believing that it will distract the Deaf child from developing his/her auditory and speech skills. The Social view welcomes Deaf individuals into the hearing world and provides Deaf people with accommodations such as interpreters. Detractors of this view argue this fails to recognize the unique situation Deaf children are in; rather than attempting to understand Deaf culture, people with this view feel as though it is the duty of the Deaf individual to find their own way into a predominantly hearing society. Finally, there is the cultural-linguistic view. Supporters of deaf culture argue this appropriately recognizes Deaf people as a minority culture in the world with their own language, social norms, and culture, and promotes Deaf people's right to collective space within society to pass on their language and culture to future generations.[7] Being involved in the Deaf community and culturally identifying as Deaf has been shown to significantly contribute to positive self-esteem in Deaf individuals.[8] This community provides support, easy social interaction, and a "refuge from the grinding frustrations of the hearing world."[9] Conversely, Deaf individuals who are not a part of the Deaf community are forced to conform to the hearing world, resulting in lower self-esteem.[10]

The community may include hearing family members of deaf people and sign-language interpreters who identify with Deaf culture. It does not automatically include all people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.[11] As educator and American Sign Language interpreter Anna Mindess writes, "it is not the extent of hearing loss that defines a member of the deaf community but the individual's own sense of identity and resultant actions."[12] As with all social groups that a person chooses to belong to, a person is a member of the Deaf community if he or she "identifies him/herself as a member of the Deaf community, and other members accept that person as a part of the community."[13]

Deaf culture is recognized under Article 30, Paragraph 4 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states that "Persons with disabilities shall be entitled, on an equal basis with others, to recognition and support of their specific cultural and linguistic identity, including sign languages and deaf culture."


"deaf" and "Deaf"

In 1972, Professor James Woodward, co-director of the Centre for Sign Linguistics and Deaf Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong since 2004, proposed a distinction between deafness and the Deaf culture.[14] He suggested using deaf (written with a lower case d) to refer to the audiological condition of deafness, and Deaf (written with an upper case D) to refer to Deaf culture.[1][3][11]

A U.S. state regulation from the Colorado Department of Human Services defines "Deaf" (uppercase) as "A group of people, with varying hearing acuity, whose primary mode of communication is a visual language (predominantly American Sign Language (ASL) in the United States) and have a shared heritage and culture," and has a separate definition for "deaf" (lowercase).[15]

This convention has been widely adopted within the culture and the scholarly literature in English,[2] and to some extent in other languages. The two terms are also widely used to refer to distinct but partially overlapping groups of people: deaf people (those with significant hearing loss) vs. Deaf people (those who identify with Deaf culture and use a sign language as a primary means of communication). Not everyone makes this distinction, however; some point out that there are many ways to be "deaf" and a simple two-way distinction is too confining.[citation needed]

"People-first" language rejected

In Deaf culture, person-first language (i.e., "Person who is deaf", "person who is hard of hearing") has long been rejected since being culturally Deaf is seen as a source of positive identity and pride.[16] Instead, Deaf culture uses Deaf-first language: "Deaf person" or "hard-of-hearing person".[17]

"Hearing-impaired" and "hard of hearing"

Hearing people may use the term hearing-impaired, perhaps thinking it is more polite than "deaf", but in fact Deaf people tend to reject it, for a variety of reasons. It is more likely to be used for people with a mild or moderate hearing loss or for people who have acquired deafness in adulthood rather than by those who have grown up Deaf. By contrast, those who identify with the Deaf culture movement typically reject the label hearing-impaired and other labels that imply that deafness is a pathological condition,[18] viewing it instead as a focus of pride.[3] Further, the term focuses entirely on the physical condition of deafness, while ignoring the linguistic and cultural distinction between those who sign and identify with Deaf culture, and those who do not.

The term "hard of hearing" is preferred over "hearing-impaired" within the American deaf community and accepted as a neutral term without negative or pathological connotations, with no implication about age of onset. It generally refers to people who depend primarily on a spoken language for communication or who have mild or moderate hearing loss. An ASL term hard-of-hearing exists and is roughly equivalent to the English term.

Deprecated terms: "deaf-mute" and "deaf and dumb"

Various terms once used to refer to the deaf are no longer used and may be viewed either as out-of-date, or an insult, such as deaf-mute, or deaf and dumb.[18] Formerly these terms were neutral, or at least, accepted, as can be seen by nicknames such as baseball player Dummy Hoy, or the former names of educational institutions, since renamed, such as Pennsylvania School for the Deaf (formerly Pennsylvania Institute for the Deaf and Dumb), Gallaudet University (formerly National Deaf-Mute College).

Deaf-mute is a literal translation of the French sourd-muet which was already in use in France in the 19th century, in the works of the founder of the deaf school in Paris, as well as in the name of the school, the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris. Since some Deaf people can also speak, the term "deaf-mute" is not accurate. The word "dumb" had meant "speechless" for centuries in English, before it gained the sense of "stupid" as a secondary meaning in the 19th century, but since "stupid" has now become the primary meaning, the term is now unsuitable to refer to Deaf people.[19]

Acquisition of Deaf culture

Merikartano school for deaf students in Oulu, Finland (February 2006)
Students at a school for deaf students in Baghdad, Iraq (April 2004)

Historically, Deaf culture has often been acquired within schools for Deaf students and within Deaf social clubs, both of which unite deaf people into communities with which they can identify.[3] Becoming Deaf culturally can occur at different times for different people, depending on the circumstances of one's life. A small proportion of deaf individuals acquire sign language and Deaf culture in infancy from Deaf parents, others acquire it through attendance at schools, and yet others may not be exposed to sign language and Deaf culture until college or a time after that.[12]

Although up to fifty percent of deafness has genetic causes, fewer than five percent of deaf people have a deaf parent,[20] so Deaf communities are unusual among cultural groups in that most members do not acquire their cultural identities from parents.[21]

Diversity within Deaf culture

Educator and ASL interpreter Anna Mindess notes that there is "not just one homogeneous deaf culture".[12] There are many distinct Deaf communities around the world, which communicate using different sign languages and exhibit different cultural norms. Deaf identity also intersects with other kinds of cultural identity. Deaf culture intersects with nationality, education, race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, and other identity markers, leading to a culture that is at once quite small and also tremendously diverse. The extent to which people identify primarily with their deaf identity rather than their membership in other intersecting cultural groups also varies. Mindess notes a 1989 study, which found that "87 percent of black deaf people polled identified with their black culture first".[12]

Characteristics of Deaf culture

Sign languages

Members of Deaf cultures communicate via sign languages. There are over 200 distinct sign languages in the world. These include 114 sign languages listed in the Ethnologue database and 157 more sign languages, systems, and dialects.[22][23] While the United Kingdom and the United States are both predominantly English speaking, the predominant signed languages used in these countries differ markedly. Due to the origins of deaf education in the United States, American Sign Language is most closely related to French Sign Language. Sign language is just one part of deaf culture. Deaf identity is also constructed around specific beliefs, values and art.

Values and beliefs

  • A positive attitude towards deafness is typical in Deaf cultural groups. Deafness is not generally considered a condition that needs to be fixed.[12]
  • The use of a sign language is central to Deaf cultural identity. Oralist approaches to educating deaf children thereby pose a threat to the continued existence of Deaf culture. Some members of Deaf communities may also oppose technological innovations like cochlear implants for the same reason.
  • Culturally, Deaf people value the use of natural sign languages that exhibit their own grammatical conventions, such as American Sign Language and British Sign Language, over signed versions of English or other oral languages. Spoken English, written English and signed English are three different symbolic systems for expressing the same language.[24]
  • Deaf communities strongly oppose discrimination against deaf people.
  • Deaf culture in the United States tends to be collectivist rather than individualist; culturally Deaf people value the group.[12]

Behavioral patterns

  • Culturally Deaf people have rules of etiquette for getting attention, walking through signed conversations, leave-taking, and otherwise politely negotiating a signing environment.
  • Deaf people also keep each other informed of what is going on in one's environment. It is common to provide detailed information when leaving early or arriving late; withholding such information may be considered rude.[12]
  • Deaf people may be more direct or blunt than their hearing counterparts.[12]
  • When giving introductions, Deaf people typically try to find common ground; since the Deaf community is relatively small, Deaf people usually know some other Deaf people in common. "The search for connections is the search for connectedness."[12]
  • Deaf people may also consider time differently. Showing up early to large-scale events, such as lectures, is typical. This may be motivated by the need to get a seat that provides the best visual clarity for the Deaf person.

Reliance on technology

  • Deaf individuals rely on technology for communication significantly. In the United States, video relay services and an array of freestanding and software-driven video phones are often used by deaf people to conduct telephonic communication with hearing and deaf businesses, family and friends. Devices such as the teletype (known as a TTY, an electronic device used for communication over a telephone line) are far less common, but are used by some deaf people who are without access to high-speed Internet or have a preference for these methods for their telephonic communication.
  • Technology is even important in face-to-face social situations. For example, when deaf people meet a hearing person who does not know sign language, they often communicate via the notepad on their cell phones. Here, technology takes the place of a human sense, allowing deaf individuals to successfully communicate with different cultures.
  • Social media tends to be of great importance to deaf individuals. Networking sites allow the deaf to find each other and to remain in contact. Many deaf people have deaf friends throughout the entire country that they met or maintain contact with through online communities. Because the deaf community is so small, for many deaf people, the stigma of meeting others online does not exist.
  • Closed Captioning must be available on a television in order for a deaf person to fully appreciate the audio portion of the broadcast. Conflicts arise when establishments such as restaurants, airlines, or fitness centers fail to accommodate deaf people by turning on Closed Captioning. Movie theaters are increasingly compliant with providing visual access to first-run movies through stand-alone devices, glasses and open caption technology which allow deaf people to attend movies as they are released.[25]
  • Alert systems such as fire alarms and alarm clocks must appeal to different senses in order for a deaf individual to notice the alert. Objects such as vibrating pillows and flashing lights often take the place of the noise-based alarms.
  • Lack of understanding about technological accessibility for the deaf causes conflict and injustice for the deaf community. For example, a significant number of deaf individuals in the UK admit that they are dissatisfied with their banks because of their heavy reliance on telephone banking and lack of assistance to deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals.[26]
  • Architecture that is conducive to signed communication minimizes visual obstructions and may include such things as automatic sliding doors to free up the hands for continuous conversation.[27]
  • Religious work among the deaf and their use of technology includes the Deaf Bible App with contains the American Sign Language translation of the New Testament and portions of the Old Testament.[28]

Literary traditions and the arts

A strong tradition of poetry and storytelling exists in American Sign Language and other sign languages. Some prominent performers in the United States include Clayton Valli, Ben Bahan, Ella Mae Lentz, Manny Hernandez, C. J. Jones, Debbie Rennie, Patrick Graybill, Peter Cook, and many others. Their works are now increasingly available on video.[29]

Culturally Deaf people have also represented themselves in the dominant written languages of their nations.[30]

Deaf artists such as Betty G. Miller and Chuck Baird have produced visual artwork that conveys a Deaf worldview.[31] Douglas Tilden was a famous Deaf sculptor who produced many different sculptures in his lifetime.[32]

Organizations such as the Deaf Professional Arts Network or D-PAN are dedicated to promoting professional development and access to the entertainment, visual and media arts fields for individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.[33]


Deaf people who sign are intensely proud of their history.[citation needed] In the United States, they recount the story of Laurent Clerc, a deaf educator, coming to the United States from France in 1816 to help found the first permanent school for deaf children in the country.[30]

Another well-known event is the 1880 Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf in Milan, Italy, where hearing educators voted to embrace oral education and remove sign language from the classroom.[34] This effort resulted in strong opposition within deaf cultures today to the oralist method of teaching deaf children to speak and lip read with limited or no use of sign language in the classroom. The method is intended to make it easier for Deaf children to integrate into hearing communities, but the benefits of learning in such an environment are disputed. The use of sign language is central to Deaf identity, and attempts to limit its use are viewed as an attack.

Shared institutions

Women's art class at State School of the Deaf, Delavan, Wisconsin, c. 1880

Deaf culture revolves around such institutions as residential schools for deaf students, universities for deaf students (including Gallaudet University, South West Collegiate Institute for the Deaf, and the National Technical Institute for the Deaf), deaf clubs, deaf athletic leagues, communal homes (such as The Home for Aged and Infirm Deaf-Mutes in New York City), deaf social organizations (such as the Deaf Professional Happy Hour), deaf religious groups, deaf theaters, and an array of conferences and festivals, such as the Deaf Way II Conference and Festival and the World Federation of the Deaf conferences.

Deaf clubs, popular in the 1940s and 1950s, were also an important part of deaf culture. During this time there were very few places that the deaf could call their own– places run by deaf people for deaf people. Deaf clubs were the solution to this need. Money was made by selling alcohol and hosting card games. Sometimes these ventures were so successful that the building used by the club was able to be purchased. However, the main attraction of these clubs was that they provided a place that deaf people could go to be around other deaf people, sometimes sharing stories, hosting parties, comedians, and plays. Many of today’s common ABC stories were first seen at deaf clubs. The clubs were found in all of the major cities, New York City being home to at least 12. These clubs were an important break from their usually solitary day spent at factory jobs.[21]

In the 1960s, deaf clubs began their quick and drastic decline. Today there are only a few spread-out deaf clubs found in the United States and their attendance is commonly small with a tendency to the elderly. This sudden decline is often attributed to the rise of technology like the TTY and closed captioning for personal TVs. With other options available for entertainment and communication, the need for deaf clubs grew smaller. It was no longer the only option for getting in touch with other members of the deaf community.[21]

However, others attribute the decline of deaf clubs to the end of World War II and a change in the job market. During WWII there was high demand for factory laborers and a promise of high pay. Many deaf Americans left their homes to move to bigger cities with the hope of obtaining a factory job. This huge influx of workers into new cities created the need for deaf clubs. When World War II ended and the civil rights movement progressed, the federal government started offering more jobs to deaf men and women. People began switching from manufacturing jobs to service jobs, moving away from solitary work with set hours. Today, deaf clubs are rare, but deaf advocacy centers and other deaf organizations have become widespread and popular.[21]

Deaf African-American institutions

National Black Deaf Advocates, which still exists, was established in 1982 "to promote the leadership development, economic and educational opportunities, social equality, and to safeguard the general health and welfare of Black deaf and hard-of-hearing people." [35]

Deaf LGBT institutions

The Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf is a nonprofit established in 1977 to, "establish and maintain a society of Deaf LGBT to encourage and promote the educational, economical, and social welfare; to foster fellowship; to defend our rights; and advance our interests as Deaf LGBT citizens concerning social justice; to build up an organization in which all worthy members may participate in the discussion of practical problems and solutions related to their social welfare. RAD has over twenty chapters in the United States and Canada."[36] There is also the American deaf resource center Deaf Queer Resource Center (DQRC), the Hong Kong Bauhinias Deaf Club, and the Greenbow LGBT Society of Ireland.[37][38]

Deaf religious institutions

There are deaf churches (where sign language is the main language), deaf synagogues, deaf Jewish community centers, and the Hebrew Seminary of the Deaf in Illinois.[39][40][41][42] In 2011 the Conservative Movement unanimously passed the rabbinic responsa, "The Status of the Heresh [one who is deaf] and of Sign Language," by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS).[43] This responsa declared that, among other things, "The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards rules that the deaf who communicate via sign language and do not speak are no longer to be considered mentally incapacitated. Jews who are deaf are responsible for observing mitzvot. Our communities, synagogues, schools, and camps must strive to be welcoming and accessible, and inclusive. Sign language may be used in matters of personal status and may be used in rituals. A deaf person called to the Torah who does not speak may recite the berakhot via sign language. A deaf person may serve as a shaliah tzibbur in sign language in a minyan whose medium of communication is sign language."[44]

Deaf women's institutions

There are 15 chapters of Deaf Women United throughout the United States; its mission is, "to promote the lives of Deaf women through empowerment, enrichment, and networking."[45] There is also Pink Wings of Hope, an American breast cancer support group for deaf and hard-of-hearing women.[46]

Libraries and the Deaf community

Deaf people at the library have the same needs as other library patrons but often have more difficulty accessing materials and services. Over the last few decades, libraries in the United States have begun to implement services and collections for Deaf patrons and are working harder every year to make more of their collections, services, their communities, and even the world more accessible.[citation needed]

The American Library Association considers disabled people, including the Deaf, as a minority that is often overlooked by library staff.[47] However, in the last few decades, libraries across the United States have made improvements in library accessibility in general and to the Deaf community specifically.[citation needed]

One of the first activists in the library community working toward accessibility for the Deaf was Alice Hagemeyer. When disabled communities began demanding equality in the 1970s, Hagemeyer decided to go back to school for her master's degree in library science. While she was studying there, she realized that there was not very much information about the Deaf community at her library or at the libraries of any of her classmates. She soon became an activist for Deaf awareness at her library, and she became the first “Librarian for the Deaf Community” from any public library in the nation. Hagemeyer also constructed a manual of resources for Deaf people and those associated with them called The Red Notebook. This notebook is now an online resource, which is available at the website of the Friends of Libraries for Deaf Action. Hagemeyer was one of the first library activists to make strides for the Deaf community.[48]

Australian librarian Karen McQuigg states that “even ten years ago, when I was involved in a project looking at what public libraries could offer the deaf, it seemed as if the gap between the requirements of this group and what public libraries could offer was too great for public libraries to be able to serve them effectively.”[49] There was a dearth of information for or about the Deaf community available in libraries across the nation and around the globe.

New guidelines from library organizations such as International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and the ALA were written in order to help libraries make their information more accessible to people with disabilities, and in some cases, specifically the Deaf community. IFLA’s Guidelines for Library Services to Deaf People is one such set of guidelines, and it was published to inform libraries of the services that should be provided for Deaf patrons. Most of the guidelines pertain to ensuring that Deaf patrons have equal access to all available library services. Other guidelines include training library staff to provide services for the Deaf community, availability of text telephones or TTYs not only to assist patrons with reference questions but also for making outside calls, using the most recent technology in order to communicate more effectively with Deaf patrons, including closed captioning services for any television services, and developing a collection that would interest the members of the Deaf community.[50]

Over the years, library services have begun to evolve in order to accommodate the needs and desires of local Deaf communities. At the Queens Borough Public Library (QBPL) in New York, the staff implemented new and innovative ideas in order to involve the community and library staff with the Deaf people in their community. The QBPL hired a deaf librarian, Lori Stambler, to train the library staff about Deaf culture, to teach sign language classes for family members and people who are involved with deaf people, and to teach literacy classes for Deaf patrons. In working with the library, Stambler was able to help the community reach out to its deaf neighbors, and helped other deaf people become more active in their outside community.[51]

Deaf libraries

The library at Gallaudet University, the only Deaf liberal arts university in the United States, was founded in 1876. The library’s collection has grown from a small number of reference books to the world’s largest collection of deaf-related materials with over 234,000 books and thousands of other materials in different formats. The collection is so large that the library had to create a hybrid classification system based on the Dewey Decimal Classification System in order to make cataloging and location within the library much easier for both library staff and users. The library also houses the university’s archives, which holds some of the oldest deaf-related books and documents in the world.[52]

In Nashville, Tennessee, Sandy Cohen manages the Library Services for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (LSDHH). The program was created in 1979 in response to information accessibility issues for the Deaf in the Nashville area. Originally, the only service provided was the news via a teletypewriter or TTY, but today, the program has expanded to serving the entire state of Tennessee by providing all different types of information and material on deafness, Deaf culture, and information for family members of Deaf people, as well as a historical and reference collection.[53]

See also


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Further reading

  • Berbrier, Mitch. "Being Deaf has little to do with one's ears": Boundary work in the Deaf culture movement. Perspectives on Social Problems, 10, 79–100.
  • Cartwright, Brenda E. Encounters with Reality: 1001 (Deaf) interpreters scenarios
  • Christiansen, John B. (2003) Deaf President Now! The 1988 Revolution at Gallaudet University, Gallaudet University Press
  • Ladd, P. (2003). Understanding Deaf Culture. In Search of Deafhood, Toronto: Multilingual Matters.
  • Lane, Harlan (1993). The Mask of Benevolence, New York: Random House.
  • Lane, Harlan. (1984) When the Mind Hears: A History of the Deaf, New York: Vintage.
  • Lane, Harlan, Hoffmeister, Robert, & Bahan, Ben (1996). A Journey into the Deaf-World, San Diego, CA: DawnSignPress.
  • Leigh, Irene W., Andrews, Jean F, & Harris, Raychelle L. (2016). Deaf Culture: Exploring Deaf Communities in the United States, San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing, Inc.
  • Luczak, Raymond (1993). Eyes of Desire: A Deaf Gay & Lesbian Reader.
  • Moore, Matthew S. & Levitan, Linda (2003). For Hearing People Only, Answers to Some of the Most Commonly Asked Questions About the Deaf Community, its Culture, and the "Deaf Reality", Rochester, New York: Deaf Life Press.
  • Padden, Carol A. (1980). The deaf community and the culture of Deaf people. In: C. Baker & R. Battison (eds.) Sign Language and the Deaf Community, Silver Spring(EEUU): National Association of the Deaf.
  • Padden, Carol A. (1996). From the cultural to the bicultural: the modern Deaf community, in Parasnis I, ed. "Cultural and Language Diversity and the Deaf Experience", Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press
  • Padden, Carol A. & Humphries, Tom L. (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Padden, Carol A. & Humphries, Tom L. (2005). Inside Deaf Culture, ISBN 978-0-674-01506-7.
  • Sacks, Oliver W. (1989). Seeing Voices: A Journey Into The World Of The Deaf, ISBN 978-0-520-06083-8.
  • Spradley, Thomas and Spradley, James (1985). Deaf Like Me, Gallaudet University Press, ISBN 978-0-930323-11-0.
  • Van Cleve, John Vickrey & Crouch, Barry A. (1989). A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America, ISBN 978-0-930323-49-3.

External links