Deaf Culture

July 4, 2008
Category: Deaf Culture

Perhaps the most important part of learning ASL

Deaf Culture was first truly recognized in 1965 (only about 40 years ago!)

The idea that Deaf people had a culture of their own was first written in the Dictionary of American Sign Language by William Stokoe, Carl Croneberg, and Dorothy Casterline.

This was a huge step for Deaf people. Before this book was written, the medical industry and those involved in Deaf education only saw Deaf people in terms of their hearing loss.The thought of Deaf people being a part of their own culture was unheard of…

Nonetheless, Deaf culture is exactly what Carol Padden defines as a culture: a set of learned behaviors of a group of people that share a language, values, rules for behavior, and traditions.

We only share general information about Deaf Culture on this page and in our many Deaf articles, so we highly recommend Don’t Just “Sign”… Communicate!: A Student’s Guide to ASL and the Deaf Community if you are learning ASL. The guide includes all of the essential Deaf Culture information you need to know so you will better understand the Deaf community and be fully prepared to talk to Deaf people.

There are many famous deaf people who introduced the world to Deaf Culture and proved that deaf people can, in fact, make history.

Language

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.

i love you sign language

The members of Deaf culture do share a language…American Sign Language, of course!

It was not until the Dictionary of American Sign Language was published that ASL was regarded as a real language. William Stokoe was the first to break ASL down into its linguistic components and prove that it truly is a language…not merely “English on the hands” or “pictures in the air” like people thought.

American Sign Language is a living, breathing linguistic masterpiece that is specially made for the Deaf.

Values

The culture of the Deaf consists of a few important values:

Language

American Sign Language is the most highly regarded asset of Deaf Culture. Spoken English is almost completely useless to the Deaf. Even if they can learn to read lips, the comprehension of English doesn’t even come close to the language of ASL. If the ears don’t work, why would you force them to?

ASL is the natural language for the Deaf. To equate the fluency of English to hearing people, ASL is the match for Deaf people. They are not meant to use a language that is not their own, nonetheless be forced to.

The Deaf also aim to preserve ASL. There are many language systems that have been invented to try to “help” deaf children learn English (Sign Supported Speech, Signed English, and Cued Speech, to name a few). These are not languages and are not supported in Deaf culture. They have, if anything, deprived deaf children of their true language and ability to communicate effectively.

ASL is so important for Deaf people to communicate, they created vlogs (video logs). They are similar to blogs, but consist of videos. That way, the Deaf can communicate with each other in their first language.

Speech

deaf culture

Not speaking is highly valued in this culture. Like I stated before, 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 ASL.

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).

Exaggerated mouth movements can be seen as rude. There are only a limited number of mouth movements that are used while signing. Much-more-than-necessary mouthing can be seen as making fun of the Deaf (and you don’t want that!)

Socializing

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.

deaf culture

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. Visit our Deaf Events page to find events in your area.

The Deaf Olympics (Deaflympics) have also been competing since 1924.

Literature

Much like the American culture, Deaf cultural values are not openly written or explained.

Four hands forming the shape of a house

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!

My absolute favorite artistic informational piece about Deaf culture is the film Through Deaf Eyes, narrated by Emmy award-winning actress Stockard Channing. If you have not seen this movie, you need to.

There are many famous Deaf stars who have brought the Deaf Community and ASL into people’s homes. Linda Bove played Linda the Librarian on Sesame StreetMarlee Matlin won an Academy Award for her debut performance in Children of a Lesser God, Deanne Bray played Sue Thomas on Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, and Shoshannah Stern is the only deaf actor to ever have a role on two prime-time TV shows at the same time, to name a few.

And let’s not forget Switched at Birth–a popular television show featured on ABC Family that has truly brought American Sign Language and Deaf Culture into the living rooms of today’s generation. It is the first television show to feature several deaf actors/characters and entire scenes shot using only ASL.

ASL not only shares its expressiveness with stories and poetry, it also greatly enhances music. ASL is popularly used in the interpretation of songs. Songs interpreted into ASL aren’t used very often in the Deaf community–they are more popular with the hearing and hard-of-hearing ASL crowd–but it is still a common and beautiful Deaf culture artform. And I do know that some members of the Deaf community appreciate song interpretations. You can see some of the best ASL song interpretations on our Best Songs in Sign Language page. You can also learn how to sign songs on our Interpreting Songs for the Deaf page.

Rules for Behavior

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.”

Eyes

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!

Facial Expression

facial expressions

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 ASL. It’s part of ASL grammar! It’s OK to be “weird” in Deaf culture…it’s normal! And absolutely necessary!

Introductions

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.

Labels

What Deaf people call themselves is something that also needs to be taken into consideration.

deaf culture

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. But, au contraire! It indeed, is not. 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–ASL.

The Best Deaf Culture Books

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What Other Visitors Have Said

Have Experience with Deaf Culture? Help Others!

Click below to see Deaf Culture do’s and don’ts from other visitors to this page…

Addressing the Deaf

by Rochelle (El Paso, Tx, US) I work at a company that employees many deaf. To accommodate and assist them we have several interpreters on staff to aid with communication. We are having issues with the deaf treating the interpreters with disrespect or acting like the interpreters are their possessions instead of people. I want […]...

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Being hearing, is it okay to sign in public?

by Kali Wright (New Jersey) Actually the opposite of sharing my knowledge; I need someone else’s. Is it okay for me to sign or practice in public? I’m hearing and very quickly learning ASL and Deaf culture. I have a Deaf friend that I see about once a month and I get so emotionally satisfied […]...

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I lost my hearing as a child

by Taylor (Italy) When I was little, my first language was Italian, after I turned 8, I started learning English. But I also lost senses as a reabction to this medication I was taking. I lost most of my eyesight, my sense of smell, and my hearing. But after a few months my mom got […]...

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Newly Diagnosed And Feeling Isolated

by Sophie Douglas (Farmington, CT, USA) I’m stuck between the hearing and the hard of hearing. Because I wasn’t diagnosed until recently at age 50, people think I’m too absorbed in dealing with it, just seeking attention. All I would like from people is to understand that this is a huge experience for me. It […]...

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I’m Deaf (Notice the Capital D) with a deaf friend

by Alex (Buffalo) I’ve been learning sign language for four years now, and have just recently started considering myself OK at it. When I first met my deaf friend, Issac, I expected him to shut me out and look down on me for totally messing up everything I sign (Because I do). I’ve found it’s […]...

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Deaf Father and Son

by Mike Kahler (Plattsmouth) My father and my son are both deaf. Neither of them sign they both read lips. My father has no assistance devises my son has a cochlear implant. I have discussed many times I would like all 3 of us to learn ASL. I think it would open a whole new […]...

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“You’re not listening!”

by Nena (Indianapolis) I have had hearing issues for most of my life. I’ve had multiple ear infections since I was a week old. I lost count on how many times I’ve had perforated eardrums. I’ve had doctors ask me if I was near an explosion. Growing up, I would either speak too loud or […]...

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Effort to communicate is appreciated

by Anonymous Effort means the world to those of us who have English communication issues! I have a somewhat severe stutter. I can’t get many words out, I can’t say my own name. It got to the point where I wasn’t communicating with anyone because no one had the patience to deal with my stutter. […]...

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Deaf American Sign Language Teacher

by Laura KOschuk (Florida, United States) I teach American Sign Language Privately and tutor it at a state college. I lost my hearing several years ago. I have met with a multitude of responses to me in my deaf community. Some feel I am not truly Deaf because I did not grow up Deaf. Others […]...

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Please be very understanding if someone deaf asks you to repeat

by Ashleigh Boone (Mississippi) I saw this the other day and it bothered me. I saw a deaf man and a hearing man trying to communicate and the hearing man was trying to do ASL. But the deaf man didn’t understand what he was trying to say and asked him to repeat this time slower […]...

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A Negative Impact on Hard of Hearing Kids in a Hearing World!

by Arianna Belle (USA) I am hard of hearing in a hearing world. I lost 80% of my hearing by age 4 due to many untreated ear infections and cannot hear at all in my right ear now in my mid 20s without a hearing aid. Being that I grew up in a hearing world, […]...

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Communicating with the hard of hearing

by Chey I am a hard of hearing teen living in a hearing world. I have one fully functioning ear, while my other eardrum is damaged from tubes and surgeries. It still can be difficult for me however to communicate with hearing people. I would like to offer some do’s and don’ts based purely on […]...

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Rude in both speaking and ASL

by Virginia I wanted to say that sometimes people are just plain rude in both speaking and ASL. I am hearing, but am very familiar with being excluded in conversations because I am highly logical (and I am looking to get diagnosed with autism) and when I don’t get or understand something sometimes people just […]...

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Hearing Culture vs. Deaf Culture

by Tamra Goleman (Ashford University) 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 […]...

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Helping or Caretaking??

by Anonymous (Fullerton, CA, USA) It’s okay to help someone you know who is Deaf if they ask for your help. However, if they do not ask, do not interfere. When my fiance and I go out to a restaurant, I let him order for himself. The waiter may look at the hearing person for […]...

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Teasing

by Megan Arhart (USA) I was a fifth-grader couple years ago. The kids in my old classroom teased me about my hearing loss. It hurts my feelings about myself, but Ms. Lisa* took care of them. She helped me out by just doing that and tell me if they do it again, I just go […]...

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Under-estimating Others Only Means Over-estimating Your Knowledge Of Them

by Janeel Hew (Molokai, Hawaii) In the silence of the night I do my best thinking and creating. The noise of the world is a distraction at times. The wisdom from within is most active for me in the calm silence. When we go into the Library; we see a sign that asks us to […]...

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Wanting to understand

by Anonymous I work at a school where there are a few students who cannot hear at all. The school where I was for many years had a couple of children and parents who communicated through some sign language. Some made audible sounds. The ones at my school now do not speak at all. They […]...

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Not just for the deaf

by Anonymous During a recent volunteering event with the Special Olympics I ended up small talking with one of the competitors who was not hard of hearing or deaf, but simply unable to speak because of a problem unrelated to hearing. He used a lot of simple ASL with some short sounds to get his […]...

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Raising a deaf child

by Melody (Howe, IN) As a young woman, I knew there were deaf people out there. I just never understood how different things were for them until I had my oldest daughter. She was born with her hearing but it was never what the doctors said it should be. At a year old, she went […]...

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A Hearing sMother

by sMother (New York, USA) I am the hearing Mother of a Deaf daughter. She was born Deaf because of Usher Syndrome. I thought it would be hard to raise and teach a Deaf child, but she has taught me so much about a culture I thought was sad and bleak. WOW was I wrong! […]...

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Some Deaf Culture Do’s and Don’ts

by Martin Here are some do’s and don’ts I’d like to add! Do’s:– Be patient with communication. – If a Deaf person does not understand you, try again to convey your message, but do not dismiss them. – Be friendly.Don’ts:– Don’t assume deaf people are not intelligent.– Don’t assume all deaf people know ASL.– Do […]...

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Another place to use ASL

by Candy Gatlin (Santa Rosa CA. USA.) My oldest is dislexic, a teacher taught her the alphabet in ASL, she learned how to spell right, knew the difference between letters, was feeling good about herself and about learning. We moved, she changed schools, second school said she could not use her hands to spell words […]...

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VERY BLUNT: Interpreters in an Academic Setting

by An anonymous interpreter in Texas I’m an interpreter at a University. CARDINAL RULE 1: I’M NOT HERE. DON’T TALK TO ME, talk to my client. “Tell her/ask him” is really annoying for the interpreter and the Deaf client. And talk DIRECTLY to them. Don’t look at me, look at THEM. Don’t ask the interpreter […]...

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Wearing hearing aids

by Dj (USA) People in general can be mean. People speak kinda loud just because I wear hearing aids. They say, Can you hear me? When a person walks up to me they ask, Are you deaf? It is just so rude. I tell them I’m deaf but not all the way. I can’t hear […]...

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Brenda Dawe, NAD IV interpreter and ASL instructor

by Brenda Dawe (Michigan) One important thing to know about Deaf culture is that no matter how long, nor how close a hearing person is involved with the Deaf, he/she will always be an “Inside-outsider.” Many mainstreamed deaf people who later find their way to the cultural community circle feel the same way. It’s all […]...

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Deaf people sometimes rude to new signers

by Nancy I love sign language. I am hard of hearing and a student of ASL. I can sign fairly well and love to do it but find when I am around deaf people I am afraid to sign because they correct me constantly and even laugh at me. I find this very rude and […]...

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Do and not do

by Marvin Spencer (Redlands,CA, USA) I’m a hard of hearing person who entered the hearing world with this loneliness of being deaf. To others, yelling is not an option and making fun of others without understanding is not worth doing. Others should try to understand other languages than just their own language. Getting into the […]...

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Do Learn To Communicate With Deaf Co-Workers!

by Diane (Texas, USA) I have known a few people that were deaf over the years and have enjoyed learning enough sign language to communicate. The best experience I have had was a co-worker that was deaf and had the best sense of humor ever! He brought me a postcard-size card with the alphabet in […]...

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Do NOT cover your mouth!

by Anonymous (Northampton, Massachusetts) One thing that happens to me at least once a week is when I am speaking to someone and I am having trouble understanding, I tell them “Sorry, I read lips, could you please look at me when you speak?” they cover their mouth and continue talking AT me. These people […]...

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Don’t tell me “Never mind” or “I’ll tell you later” because I do mind and you won’t

by Anonymous Many moons ago, I worked with a lovely woman in our corporation. Her hearing was so bad that we’d tell her when to replace her ear molds because of the feedback and she couldn’t hear it. I was just hard of hearing back then. I remember our impatient attitude sometimes with Marilyn. We […]...

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Do’s and don’ts with the deaf

by B.J. (Columbus, Ohio) Treat them how you want to be treated.If you were the one deaf would you want someone to ask your friend what you wanted. They can talk they just do it in a different way from the hearing. I was brought up not by deaf people but the blind and people […]...

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Learning ASL

by Devyn (Michigan) I am a college student, almost finished with my 2nd semester of ASL. I absolutely love it. In fact I had just watched Through Deaf Eyes this week, for the first time. I agree, it was a very amazing film and an excellent educational tool! Along with college, I have put myself […]...

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Signed Conversations

by Ansh Make sure you maintain eye contact during a signed conversation. Look straight into his/her eyes without getting distracted. You also need to avoid eating or chewing anything while signing with a deaf person. You should also make sure the lighting makes it easy for the person you are signing with to see your […]...

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Have Experience with Deaf Culture? Help Others!

Do you have any Deaf Culture do’s and don’ts you can add to this page? Please do! This will help other visitors avoid embarrassment and learn the correct rules for behavior!

Share your knowledge in the comments below. Future visitors and I both thank you!

Comments

  • I am loving the free lessons you offer. I took ASL in college many years ago, and am refreshing my memory with your courses. My daughter is also interested in learning and that makes my heart happy. I am losing my hearing, just in the past few years, so I am glad I took the classes years ago. I doubt I will ever lose my hearing completely, but only time will tell. I am only 46. I have found that I pick up signs quickly, but am very slow at reading them…its frustrating!

  • I am hearing and never really thought of the Deaf community because I was not exposed to it until recently. A friend of mine is rapidly loosing her hearing, she is scared, and when she told me how it upset her how isolated she will feel because she can’t learn to hear, but people can learn to sign, and they don’t bother to. It was a huge eye opener for me. So we sat, and she taught me little lessons and I loved being able to communicate with her in a way she felt comfortable. When we would be speaking my pitch was often too high for her, and I would notice the expression on her face and drop my pitch (as comical as I sounded) and I am still doing my best to expand my signing ability… because I want my friend to feel included and not have to go through this change alone. I look forward to teaching my children sign, because the Deaf shouldn’t have to feel isolated in a room full of people.

    • *let it be noted: not that I wasn’t aware of the Deaf community, but it has been a real change of perspective of how many hearing people go about there lives with tunnel vision, like I did, and it is unfortunate, but I am very glad I’ve had the blinders taken off and I can be a more supportive community member not just to my friend.

  • I enjoyed this article and am enjoying the free ASL course. ASL has touched my life a number of times and ways and I am beyond thrilled to build on that base. Articles like this should be read by all because clearly even today’s society is still ignorant. The notion that hearing loss is a disability sets my teeth on edge. That said I think hearing people are not the only ones who need educating. Understanding is a two way street, and we are all living in the same world, not every imagined slight is intended that way and that goes for everyone.

    • To make my point clearer, I have been on vlogs etc and have heard rants stating frequent irritation for exsample when a deaf person was asked if they drive. I would like to point out that not everyone who ever asked that was insinuating an inability brought on by being deaf, there are a great number of hearing, particularly in big cities, whom do not drive. And there are a number of such complaints; my point is don’t be so quick to be offended that you miss someone’s intent.

  • I did like the article it was cool reading about the Deaf culture I wish was a group ASL for people to meet up to communicate with one another.

  • Learning ASL has been a life long dream of mine. Now that my children are grown I am going for it. But, where do I begin? I’ve looked locally and had no luck. I really hope you can help me. I really want to make a difference for someone some day. Tammylynn

  • Hi, I was wondering who the author and when this was published.
    Thank you

    • Hi Lorn, The author is Michelle Jay and this article was first published in August 2008. 🙂

  • This is not a comment but I would like more information on how I can help the Deaf. I am trying to start a Social Club or something …..to that affect can you help?

    • Hello, I think it is great that you want to form a social club, but please know that Deaf people don’t really need your help – they have no trouble forming clubs on their own. What would be really useful is a social club for people learning ASL. You may consider forming a club like this in your area on Meetup.com.

  • I thought t was really Instering. I though learning about cochair I implant was very interesting. I’m glad they have this kind of technology.

Please leave only comments that add to the article or discussion. Any help or support comments should be directed to Start ASL Help & Support. Thank you!