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Understanding Deaf Culture

Deaf People | Deaf Culture | Definitions | ADA / Rehab Act | Using Interpreters | Be an Interpreter

WIN seeks to help not just with communicating, but with helping organizations understand their legal obligations under the ADA. When they do not share the same cultural awareness or language, this can be difficult.

Deaf Culture
It often comes as a surprise to people that many deaf people refer to themselves as being members of Deaf culture. The American Deaf culture is a unique linguistic minority that uses American Sign Language (ASL) as its primary mode of communication. This tipsheet provides a description of Deaf culture and suggestions for effective communication.

Common terms used within the Deaf community:
The American Deaf culture has labels for identifying its members. These labels reflect both cultural values and beliefs.

Deaf - This term refers to members of the Deaf community who share common values, norms, traditions, language, and behaviors. Deaf people do not perceive themselves as having lost something (i.e., hearing) and do not think of themselves as handicapped, impaired, or disabled. They celebrate and cherish their culture because it gives them the unique privilege of sharing a common history and language. Deaf people are considered a linguistic minority within the American culture. They have their own culture and at the same time live and work within the dominant American culture.

Deaf, hard of hearing, and deafened - Within the Deaf culture these words refer to a person's audiological status. Notice lower case "d'" is used. People who describe themselves as "hard of hearing" or "deafened" do not see themselves as members of the Deaf culture. Some may know sign language but their primary language is English.

Hearing Impaired - This term often is used by the media and society in general to refer to people with a hearing loss. A more acceptable generic phrase is "deaf and hard of hearing" to refer to all people with a hearing loss. Within the Deaf culture, the term "hearing impaired" often is seen as offensive. It suggests that Deaf people are "broken" or "inferior" because they do not hear.

Hearing - Within the Deaf culture the term "hearing" is used to identify people who are members of the dominant American culture. One might think the ASL sign for "hearing" is related to the group's ability to hear (e.g., pointing to the ear). However, the sign for "hearing" is related to the ability to "talk." The act of talking is clearly visible to Deaf people, whereas listening or hearing is not. From the Deaf culture perspective, it is the act of "talking" that clearly separates the two groups.

Comparison of Values:
The most dominant cultural pattern in the United States is individualism. Most Americans have been raised to consider themselves as separate individuals who are exclusively responsible for their own lives. Common phrases that reflect this cultural pattern are "Do your own thing," "Look out for number one," and "I did it my way." For example, when Americans introduce themselves, they feel it is important to include their name and occupation, which serve to emphasize their uniqueness. Closely associated with individualism is the importance Americans place on privacy. Americans have "personal space" and "personal thoughts." They find it odd if a person does not value "being alone."

In contrast, one of the most dominant cultural patterns in the Deaf culture is collectivism. Deaf people consider themselves members of a group that includes all Deaf people. They perceive themselves as a close-knit and interconnected group. Deaf people greatly enjoy being in the company of other Deaf people and actively seek ways to do this. When Deaf people first meet, the initial goal is to find out where the other person is from and to identify the Deaf friends they both have in common.

A person's physical appearance is noted and remembered because it is the landscape for all signed communication. Sometimes a person's name may not come up until the end of the conversation. Closely associated with collectivism is the importance of open communication. Having secrets or withholding information work against an interconnected collective.

The behaviors associated with cultural values are deeply rooted. We do not consciously think about the rules involved when making introductions or how to say goodbye when we leave. As children we saw these behaviors repeated often and have long since fully incorporated them into our cultural repertoire. It is only when we are placed in a culture that uses different rules that we realize there is another possible way to accomplish the same task. For example, when a Deaf person leaves a gathering of other Deaf people, the process is quite lengthy. In Deaf culture one approaches each group to say goodbye, which often results in further conversation. The entire process may take more than an hour to accomplish. This behavior may seem unusual; however, if we remember that Deaf culture highly values being interconnected with all of its members, the behavior makes a great deal of sense.

American Sign Language:
Another important cultural value for Deaf people is their language - ASL. Most Deaf people spend the majority of their lives with people who do not know ASL. It is only when Deaf people are in the presence of other Deaf people that all communication barriers are removed.

It is obvious to most people that ASL is a visual language. What is not so obvious is how the visual nature of the language impacts on the rules for communication. In spoken languages there is no requirement for eye contact between the speaker and listener. In fact, we spend very little time looking at each other. We are not used to maintaining eye contact for long periods of time. Also, we often allow environmental noises to take our attention and we divert our eyes. In a signed conversation the "listener" must always look at the "speaker." From the Deaf perspective, broken eye contact or the lack of eye contact shows indifference.

Most hearing people do not freely and effectively use their face and body to communicate, so Deaf people see their communication as lifeless and lacking emotion.

Facial expression and body language are integral parts of ASL. Deaf people have an exceptional ability to use and read nonverbal communication. They pick up on very subtle facial and body movements. An important aspect of body language is the use of "touch." Touching another person is used in Deaf culture to greet, say goodbye, get attention, and express emotion.

This NETAC Tipsheet was written by Professor Linda Siple, Assistant Professor Leslie Greer, and Associate Professor Barbra Ray Holcomb, all of the Department of American Sign Language and Interpreting Education, National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology, Rochester, NY.

This publication was developed in 2004 under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) and produced through a cooperative agreement between RIT and OSERS (H324A010002-04). The contents herein do not necessarily represent the Department of Education's policy nor endorsement by the Federal Government.