Not all deaf people use American Sign Language to communicate. However, those deaf people who do use ASL share a language bond that unites them as part of the Deaf community.
The members of this community not only share a common language, they are also linked by similar beliefs and attitudes about themselves and about the world. Some deaf people do not view themselves as disabled. They describe themselves as part of a different heritage and culture–Deaf Culture. This strong sense of Deaf identity is nurtured by the community and passed on through generations.
ASL is the main bond that members of this community have. If you do not use ASL, you are not part of the Deaf community. Hearing people who use ASL can take part in the cultural and social life of this community. For example, hearing children with deaf parents (CODAs) acquire ASL naturally during childhood. They are a part of this community and some people even think they are a part of Deaf culture.
True proficiency in ASL is not just about having an extensive vocabulary. It’s about signing in the context of Deaf Culture. Find Deaf events in your area and converse with people who use ASL in their day-to-day lives–Deaf people. Then, and usually only then, will you truly learn to be a proficient signer.
Becoming a Member of the Deaf Community
Becoming a member of this community means more than just learning American Sign Language. You need to be willing to enter the Deaf experience. The diagram below is my illustration of the diagram developed by Charlotte Baker and Dennis Cokely in 1980 to explain how a person qualifies for becoming a member of the community of the Deaf:
The center of the diagram represents Deaf Culture. To be accepted and fully participate in Deaf Culture, you MUST possess all four characteristics that define the culture: social, audiological, linguistic, and political. The Deaf community is illustrated by the other shaded portions of the diagram. You must have at least TWO of the characteristics to participate in the community of the Deaf. Let’s take a look at each one:
You need to join in the social life of the community of the Deaf for this characteristic. This means having attended a Deaf residential school, or having Deaf family members, spouses, or friends. A hearing person who uses American Sign Language, regularly attends Deaf community events, and advocates Deaf issues (a sign language interpreter, for example) will come as close to the center of Deaf culture as a person can who does not have a hearing loss. To learn more about the important social lives of Deaf people, read my Deaf Culture article.
You MUST have a hearing loss to get credit for this characteristic. It doesn’t matter if you are deaf or hard-of-hearing, to a Deaf person, hearing loss means deafness. Deaf is a term used in the community of the Deaf to mean a life experience instead of a hearing loss. To learn more about the different terms for deaf, read this section of my Deaf Culture article to learn about the special distinction between Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing-impaired.
You must use and advocate American Sign Language. You not only need to memorize vocabulary, but also learn how to ask questions, make sentences, carry on a conversation, and provide information. You need to learn and respect the signing customs and etiquette of Deaf culture and use them to properly sign in ASL.
You need to be a passionate advocate of Deaf issues and ASL. Political members of this community are usually Deaf people who hold positions in Deaf organizations like the National Association of the Deaf.
All of the characteristics of the Deaf community are linked by attitude. You need to love the Deaf experience. If you have the proper respect, the willingness to learn about Deaf issues and deafness, and are enthusiastically involved, you will be accepted by the Deaf community whether you are deaf or hearing.