The Characteristics of Deaf Culture
I have worked for several agencies serving the deaf and hard of hearing for many years. At times I was the only hearing person in a department. As a result, I was immersed in American Sign Language and the unique cultural norms of the deaf community.
I have observed that people with profound hearing loss are a diverse group with a variety of communication styles, such as lipreading and speech. This article will look at people who identify themselves members of the deaf community with a distinct language and culture.
What is the Deaf Community?
Some people with profound hearing loss embrace their deafness as part of their cultural identity, and sometimes captalize the "d" in Deaf.
Some members of the community do not consider themselves disabled and feel that they don’t need to be “fixed” by doctors through medical interventions such as cochlear implants. Instead, they see themselves as a part of a unique linguistic group with a distinct culture.
Deaf people prefer to be called deaf, and dislike the term “hearing-impaired,” according to several deaf groups and agencies such as the Florida Coordinating Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. The term “hearing impaired” is vague and tends to lump diverse groups such as the hard of hearing, late-deafened, and deaf into one category. The deaf also dislike the “impaired” label, since deaf people do not consider themselves deficient or disabled in any way.
Deaf people also object to terms that they feel are inaccurate such as "deaf-mute," which perpetuates the myth that they cannot speak. Many deaf people do speak. They also strongly object to the term “deaf and dumb,” feeling that the term indicates a lack of intelligence.
The deaf community is a closely-knit group who bond through time shared in schools for the deaf, deaf clubs, associations, sports organizations, religious groups, and regular social events. Some deaf people become active advocates for deaf rights.
American Sign Language
The National Association of the Deaf calls American Sign Language the "backbone" of deaf culture. The book "American Sign Language, a teacher's resource text on grammar and culture" by Charlotte Baker and Dennis Cokely describes signing as a complete language in itself that has its own grammar and syntax. When a sign is not available for something such as a formal name, the deaf use a system of handshapes representing the English alphabet to fingerspell words.
The nature of sign language has created some unique cultural norms. For example, when deaf people sign to each other, they stand further apart than hearing people would during a conversation. It is difficult to go around deaf people signing to each other in narrow places like hallways, so it is not usually a big deal if a person walks quickly between two signing people. The person needs to go through fast enough so that the deaf people don't miss any signs. Interrupting the conversation by saying "excuse me" before going through two signing people may be considered rude in the deaf community.
Hearing people tend to let their eyes rove during conversations. In deaf culture, constant eye contact is essential for communication. Deaf people feel that breaking eye contact is rude.
Deaf Culture: Customs Pt. III, Disruptions to Communication (ASL)
Sign Language Interpreting
Many members of the community consider sign as their first language and prefer to communicate with hearing people via a sign language interpreter. Interpreters are highly-trained professionals who can assist either in person or through a video relay service (VRS) or remote interpreting services (VRI). VRS services help hearing and deaf people to communicate by phone through a sign language interpreter who is seen on a computer screen or on a videophone. VRI interpreters can serve from another location via a video camera. The hearing person, and the deaf person can be broadcast live onto a screen to watch each other communicate.
Schools for the Deaf
Many deaf people who were educated in schools of the deaf feel a strong bond with other deaf people, as the video below demonstrates. Deaf schools tend to create a strong sense of community and a shared culture. With the advent of cochlear implants and other factors, deaf schools and special programs for deaf people are amalgamating or closing. Unfortunately, several schools around the world have been rocked by abuse scandals and have been criticized for lower academic scores than regular schools.
Deaf people have developed various ways of getting people’s attention in their silent world, such as:
- A gentle touch - usually a tap on a shoulder
- Vibration, such as a foot stomping or a knock on a table
- Turning a light-switch on and off
Deaf Culture: Customs Pt. I, Grabbing Attention (ASL)
Deaf people can be very blunt and open in their communication, making comments that hearing people probably not say. For example, if a deaf boss found an error in my work, he would point it out and add something like, ”That was a stupid thing to do.” Deaf people tend to explain things such as why they were late, unlike hearing people who probably would not say anything.
Adapting to Activities of Everyday Living
Because deaf people communicate visually with their hands, they adapt to daily life in unique ways. For example, a deaf driver may wait until traffic stops to sign to a passenger or will sign to him briefly with one hand. They may chose to sign with one hand during meals or when they are holding something. At a performance, deaf people may show their appreciation by raising their hands and twisting them in the air instead of clapping.
Hello and Goodbye
Deaf people generally greet one another with a hug. The form of greeting used for hearing people depends on how close the relationship is between the deaf and the hearing person. Deaf people are sensitive to the fact that many hearing people are not comfortable with being hugged.
The deaf community is extremely close-knit and ending a visit can be difficult. A "deaf goodbye" is notorious for being long, with people saying bye numerous times and then continuing to talk.
Assistive Technology and Alerting Devices
Specially designed technology has become a part of the deaf lifestyle for many people. A special text telephone called a TTY has been used to connect deaf people for many years. These days, deaf people tend to use computer systems that enable them to communicate face to face over a computer screen or a videophone. Deaf people may also use alerting devices that make a light flash when the doorbell or the phone rings, or an alarm goes off. Fire Alarms with strobe lights may also be installed.
Adaptations for Hearing People
Deaf people will adapt their deaf cultural norms to accommodate hearing co-workers and friends. For example, deaf people normally get attention by a touch on the shoulder. My deaf co-workers realized that if they came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder as I typed away on my computer, I would be startled and distracted. Instead, my deaf co-workers or boss would stand beside me and waited patiently for me to notice they were there. If a deaf person wanted my immediate attention, they usually flicked a light switch several times.
The deaf will ask “Do you understand?” and will use gestures or mime if needed to make themselves understood. On the whole, most deaf people are patient and understanding when dealing with hearing people, especially those who do not know their unique language and culture.