Deaf Culture: The Basics

What is it?

Deaf culture as defined by Dr. Barbara Kannapell (deaf professor at Gallaudet University): a set of learned behaviors and perceptions that shape the values and norms of deaf people based on their shared or common experiences.

Deaf culture as defined by Dr. Bill Vicars (Deaf ASL teacher): Deaf culture consists of the norms, beliefs, values, and mores shared by members of the Deaf community. We believe that it is fine to be Deaf. If given the chance to become hearing, most of us would choose to remain Deaf. We tend to congregate around the kitchen table rather than the living room sofa because the lighting is better in the kitchen. Our good-byes take nearly forever, and our hello’s often consist of serious hugs. When two of us meet for the first time we tend to exchange detailed biographies and describe our social circles in considerable depth.

Deaf culture as defined on DeafNation T-Shirt: Deaf: (n) 1. a particular group of people who share a beautiful language: ASL (American Sign Language). 2. a term measured by culture and attitude, not by an audiogram. 3. a member of a vibrant group of people with their own culture, history, folklore and humor. 4. which vibration and vision are the primary senses.

Now, to clarify things a little more, let’s put aside what deaf culture is, and discuss what deaf culture is not.

Cultural Perspective vs Pathological Perspective

There are those who insist there is no such thing as Deaf culture. Some people will argue that deafness is nothing more than a disability, a disability that must be fixed. Getting this disability “fixed” may involve repeated visits to an audiologist, getting fitted for hearing aids, attending numerous speech therapy sessions, or even undergoing surgery to get a cochlear implant.

This is what’s called the pathological approach to deafness. It focuses on what’s wrong–the inability to hear–and utilizes numerous technological and therapeutic strategies to solve the problem. The success of this approach varies from individual to individual.

It is not my intention to be overly critical of the pathological approach. First, as previously mentioned, the results vary on an individual basis. Second, it must be acknowledged that there are those who, based on the degree of their hearing loss (or time of onset), may feel more comfortable in the hearing world. For many hard of hearing or late-deafened people, technology may be a welcomed addition that allows them to continue functioning in the world of their choice. Last but not least, it’s not entirely a black-or-white issue; there are many deaf people who use technology to aid their hearing ability AND participate in the Deaf culture.

So when people argue whether deafness is a disability or a culture, I often respond with a quote from a book, Deaf Again (Handwave Publications, 2005): “Deafness is a disability that is so unique, its very nature causes a culture to emerge from it. Participation in this culture is voluntary.”

Here are some of the characteristics and values of Deaf Culture:

  • Membership in the Deaf community is usually based on deafness, although many children of deaf adults, interpreters, and other persons fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) often become “part” of the deaf community. 
  • There is a heavy emphasis on vision. American Sign Language (ASL), a visual mode of communication, is the language used within the Deaf community. Members gain the vast majority of their information through their eyes, and by a observing closely what is happening around them. 
  • There is a specific set of social norms. The accepted forms of etiquette within the Deaf community are somewhat different from those in the general society. For example: 
  • Members do not generally use their voices with Deaf friends, but will with hearing persons. In fact, many members of the Deaf community disassociate themselves from speech. 
  • Members will wave, tap or throw a small piece of paper to attract a person’s attention. 
  • In Deaf culture, it is polite to “talk”, that is sign, with one’s mouth full, but speaking with one’s hands full is not done. 
  • Members use a variety of devices to replace ordinary alarm clocks, doorbells, telephones, fire alarms, etc.. 
  • Deaf culture had no prohibition against staring, because it is necessary for effective communication. In hearing culture, however it is often considered rude. 
  • Members place a strong emphasis on fostering and maintaining social ties within the community.

Future blog posts and videos connected to this blog will continue to explain more about what deaf culture is, what it means, and why it is important. Deaf Culture is a very broad subject and I look forward to sharing more information and examples of deaf culture in daily living experiences.


About signsoflifeasl

Ashley and Taylor aim to bridge the gap between the Hearing World and the Deaf World by creating awareness of Deaf Culture and teaching sign language through written word as well as signed videos (captioned for the signing-impaired.) Using humor and fun, Ashley and Taylor hope to make learning a new language and culture a fantastic experience for everyone! Ashley is a deaf individual whose major is in Communication with a double emphasis in Public Relations and Organization Communication. She is a double minor in Psychology and Human Development. For Grad School, she plans to get her Masters degree in Social Work and hopes to advocate for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Ashley is fluent in written and spoken English, as well as ASL and written German. She is the President of the Sign Language Club at her college. Taylor is a Hearing individual who is thinking about becoming a Special Education Teacher for young children. Her mother is an interpreter and Taylor has grown up learning about ASL and deaf culture, and is currently learning sign from both Ashley and her mother.
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7 Responses to Deaf Culture: The Basics

  1. Morgyn says:

    Awesome blog thank you for posting. I’m always looking to learn more about Deaf culture as on my good friends is Deaf and often I communicate with Deaf & HoH at work. 🙂

  2. Morgyn says:

    Oops – sorry for typo, should be “one my good friends” not “on my good friends”.

  3. Pingback: The Wall | UMHS Interpreter Services

  4. Pingback: More Continued Reading and Questions To Ponder From Far From The Tree | Consilient Interest

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