Deaf Culture Report
Deaf people as a linguistic minority have a common experience of life, and this manifests itself in Deaf culture. This includes beliefs, attitudes, history, norms, values, literary traditions, and art shared by Deaf people.
Deaf culture is at the heart of Deaf communities everywhere in the world. Each Deaf community is a cultural group which shares a sign language and a common heritage. Members of Deaf communities all around the world therefore identify themselves as members of a cultural and linguistic group. Identification with the Deaf community is a personal choice and is usually made independent of the individual’s hearing status, and the community is not automatically composed of all people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. The Deaf community may also include family members of Deaf people, sign language interpreters and people who work or socialize with Deaf people who identify with Deaf culture. A person is a member of the Deaf community if he or she self-identifies as a member of the Deaf community, and if other members accept that person as a member. Very often this acceptance is strongly linked to competence in a signed language.
Deaf people have their own local, national and international organizations around the world, which might be social, athletic, scholarly, religious, and/or literary. Deaf people regularly meet each other in Deaf clubs, events, sporting matches and conventions. They share information, concerns and reciprocal support.
Article 30, paragraph 4 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities recognizes Deaf culture in the following statement: “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”.
Culture may be defined as patterns, traits, products, attitudes, and intellectual / artistic activity associated with a population.
Based on this definition, the Deaf Community has its own unique Deaf Culture. Deaf people produce plays, books, artwork, magazines, and movies targeted at Deaf and Hard of Hearing audiences. In addition, the Deaf Community engages in social and political activities exclusive to the Deaf Community.
Differences of Hearing Culture and Deaf Culture
First, there are differences in the way language is used in different cultures because culture affects communication behaviors. You cannot have one without the other. Hearing cultures use language to communicate one with another by using the spoken word alternating with listening. Deaf cultures communicate in the way of sign language. The way I speak, my communication skills, my values, morals, behaviors and attitudes came from the culture in which I live. People that are deaf have learned to communicate in sign language and their communication skills, values, morals, behaviors and attitudes came from the culture they live in.
Additionally, the differences of communication of hearing cultures and deaf cultures are to be respected which will help in social interactions to avoid negative assertions; such as biased opinions, criticisms, and judgments. In hearing and speaking cultures nonverbal communication such as body movement and facial expressions are subconscious. In deaf cultures their communication skills depends greatly on moving their bodies, hands, arms, heads, and outwardly show expressions on their faces which are both conscious decisions and efforts in order to communicate. In ÖGS in same cases a facial exprisson even has grammatical meaning. In hearing cultures one of the basic principles of communication is to avoid degrading, negative, hurtful, and disrespectful comments to others. It is important to know the culture of the persons we come in contact and interact with, as well as appreciating their language. To label or call people names such as saying that they are stupid, for example, or use snide remarks for the way one may look, dress, act, or behave is not an ethical means of communicating effectively.
Finally, another concept of the use of language in the deaf culture is to “Protect freedom of expression, diversity of perspective, and tolerance for dissent”. If someone refers to a deaf person as ‘having a handicap’ because they are deaf and do not speak is considered degrading and a negative, criticizing statement about who they are. People who are deaf have their own set of values, morals, and beliefs just as people who can hear and speak have within their culture. Deaf cultures should not be discriminated against just as it is immoral and unlawful to discriminate a person’s culture of religion, race, creed, color, or gender. Discrimination goes against the law, principles of ethical conduct, the value of equality, and can destroy relationships, as well as a person’s self-worth.
Deaf Culture and Sign Language
Culture and language intertwine, with language reflecting characteristics of culture. Learning about the culture of Deaf people is also learning about their language. Deaf people use Sign Language (SL) to communicate with each other and with hearing people who know the language. Although SL is a visual/gestural language, in some cases, for example in ÖGS, there are signs which are accompanied by a sound. SL is a complete, grammatically complex language. SL is not a universal language, however. There are signed languages in all countries (e.g., Austrian Sign Language, British Sign Language, Portuguese Sign Language, Turkish Sign Language, etc.).
Language and culture are interrelated. Sign language is central to any Deaf person, child or adult for their intellectual, social, linguistic and emotional growth but to truly internalize the language, they must have the culture that is embedded in the language. Every linguistic and cultural group has its own way of seeing and expressing how they see and interpret the world and interact in it.
Language and culture go hand-in-hand (no pun intended!) Without language, it’s impossible to learn the culture. Without culture, language has nothing to refer to.
Can we communicate effectively with one another without the use of speaking or hearing the spoken words of another person or gain knowledge about a different language without understanding their culture? People who are deaf have a different way of communicating and have their own language that differs from hearing cultures. While there are ways of communicating in both hearing cultures and in deaf cultures, there are differences in the way language is used where the concepts studied in class to evaluate those differences are beneficial to learning why respect and ethical communication is important, and to gain an appreciation for those differences.
Components of Deaf Culture
Culture consists of language, values, traditions, norms and identity (Padden, 1980). Deaf culture meets all five sociological criteria for defining a culture.
Language refers to the native visual cultural language of Deaf people, with its own syntax (grammar or form), semantics (vocabulary or content) and pragmatics (social rules of use). It is highly valued by the Deaf community because it’s visually accessible.
Sign Language (SL) is:
- The preferred language of the Deaf community;
- A visual gestural language;
- A language with its own syntax and grammatical structure.
Sign language (SL) is not:
- Signs in Spoken or Written Language word order;
- An auditory or written language;
- A universal language.
Historically, SL has been passed from one generation to the next in schools. Even when SL was not allowed in the classroom, Deaf staff and peers discreetly used their cherished language to communicate. SL has also been preserved through deaf families and social gatherings.
Identity is one of the key components of the whole person. Accepting that one is Deaf and is proud of his/her culture and heritage and a contributing member of that society is key to being a member of the cultural group.
In hearing culture, the terms used to describe deaf people have to do with their hearing loss. The term “hard of hearing” is better than “deaf.” Hard of Hearing people are generally regarded as being easier to communicate with and fit in better with hearing people. Deaf people, on the other hand, are seen as being difficult to communicate with and that they may not even speak. The term “hearing-impaired” is also used to be “politically correct” to identify them both.
In Deaf culture, though, the terms are quite the opposite. There is one label for people who are part of Deaf culture… Deaf.
This label has nothing to do with hearing loss. Regardless of how much better your hearing is than the next guy, you’re still all “deaf.” Using the term “hard of hearing” can be seen very negatively…like you’re saying you’re better than everyone else (because that’s the one-up in hearing culture).
You will also see both the terms “deaf” and “Deaf” used. They are referred to as “little d” and “big D.” “Little d” deaf refers to people who have lost their hearing. “Big D” Deaf refers to people who are involved in Deaf culture and share the values, behaviors, and language of that culture. Just because you are deaf, doesn’t mean you are Deaf. And in some cases, just because you are Deaf doesn’t mean you are deaf (as is the case for some hearing children of Deaf parents–CODAs).
The term “hearing-impaired” is seen even more negatively because that says there is something wrong with being Deaf (which is the complete opposite of what Deaf people believe!) Most hearing people believe that deafness is a handicap. Deaf people can do everything except hear. Everything! Deafness is not a handicap. The only real handicap of deafness is when deaf children are deprived of true communication–SL.
Values in the Deaf community include the importance of clear communication for all both in terms of expression and comprehension. Deaf residential schools and Deaf clubs are important because of the natural social interaction they offer. Preserving Sign Language (SL) literature, heritage, Deaf literature and art are other examples of what we value.
The following are highly valued and vital aspects of everyday living by the Deaf community. Notice the value comparisons between people who are Deaf and people who can hear.
People who are Deaf value: People who can hear value:
- Sign language Spoken language
- Eyes (rely on vision) Ears (rely on sound)
- Hands/signs Mouth/Speech
- Videophone (VP); Relay Service; TTY Telephone
- Visual/vibrating alerting systems Sound alerting system
- Video mail Voice mail
- Interpreters Speakers
- Captioning Dialogue
Traditions include the stories kept alive through Deaf generations, Deaf experiences and expected participation in Deaf cultural events.
The traditions of the Deaf community are a reflection of their cultural values. It is understandable that many of their traditions are based on the face-to-face gathering of people who are Deaf, because communication—the lifeblood of any culture—only happens visually in this community.
The traditions materialize in the strong family-like ties and lifelong camaraderie that develops between individuals. Some examples include their strong devotion to community Deaf club/events, Deaf alumni events, senior citizen gatherings, religious activities, conferences, and sporting events at the local, regional and national level. These provide a social gathering opportunity, a mechanism for participation in the political and economic decision-making trends affecting Deaf citizens and a means for grooming new leaders to carry on Deaf community traditions. Events are frequently filled with entertainment such as Deaf folklore, arts, history, SL poetry, songs and joke-telling.
Norms refer to rules of behaviour in the deaf community. All cultures have their own set of behaviours that are deemed acceptable. For Deaf people, it includes getting someone’s attention appropriately, using direct eye contact and correct use of shoulder tapping.
Making eye contact:
- Essential for effective communication;
- Important because people who are Deaf read the nuances of facial expressions and body language for additional information.
- Hand waving is most common;
- Tapping the shoulder or arm is acceptable.
Flickering lights on and off is also common;
- Tapping on a table or stomping foot on a floor is done occasionally;
- Using a third person to relay attention is sometimes used in a crowded room.
Meeting others within the Deaf community:
- Greetings often include hugs instead of handshakes;
- Conversations tend to include elaboration about lives and daily occurrences;
- Conversations tend to be open and direct;
- There is an interest in other people’s connection with the Deaf community.
Not speaking is highly valued in this culture. Speech is commonly forced on deaf children and represents confinement and deprivation to the Deaf adult. When speech education is forced, deaf children are deprived of one of their core needs…language. The only language that is truly possible and effective is SL.
When a hearing friend of a Deaf person turns and continues conversation as usual with another hearing friend, the Deaf person is left out. This is incredibly rude when the person could have signed or kept the Deaf friend included on what was being said (interpreting).
Socializing is a very important value of Deaf culture. Because there are so few Deaf people in an area, social lives are invaluable. In a society where the Deaf are commonly misunderstood, the support of others is more than necessary. Deaf dating sites have become very popular for this reason.
Back before text messaging and modern technology, Deaf people would only communicate with each other in person or in letters. They would take advantage of the little time they had to mingle with another Deaf person…
Nothing much has changed since then!
Deaf people will stay at a gathering very late to get in as much time as possible with their friends. When a hearing gathering generally ends around 10 at night, a Deaf gathering can end at 3 in the morning!
There are many Deaf events available to everyone (deaf and hearing!) who wants to socialize with the Deaf. The Deaf Olympics (Deaflympics) have also been competing since 1924.
Deaf cultural values are not openly written or explained. Deaf children learn how to fit in with Deaf culture from positive and negative feedback about behaviors and from the stories and literature that are passed down through the generations.
There is a wealth of Deaf art, poetry, stories, theatre, media, games, deaf jokes, and books that teach the culture (most of which are not written down!) These avenues always demonstrate and support the way Deaf people live their lives: being Deaf and proud!
Deaf people are not only part of a like-minded group. They are part of a culture that has a set of learned behaviors that you need to know to be able to “fit in.”
In hearing culture, it is rude to stare. However, in Deaf culture, staring is necessary. If you break eye contact while a person is signing to you, you are incredibly rude! That’s like plugging your ears when someone is speaking to you!
In hearing culture, facial expression is very limited. If you move your face or body a lot while you are talking, you can be seen as “weird” (and nobody wants to be weird!)
However, in Deaf culture, facial expression and body movement is required for SL. It’s part of SL grammar! It’s OK to be “weird” in Deaf culture…it’s normal! And absolutely necessary!
In hearing culture, you normally introduce yourself by your first name only.
Deaf people, however, introduce themselves by their full names, and sometimes even what city they’re from or what school they went to. By city, I mean the city you grew up in, not what city you are currently residing in. And by school I usually mean a residential school you attended. The Deaf community is very small, and Deaf people like to find those specific commonalities with each other.