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 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.
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.
The culture of the Deaf consists of a few important values:
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.
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 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.
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 https://www.ohsoez.com to find events in your area.
The Deaf Olympics (Deaflympics) have also been competing since 1924.
Much like the American culture, Deaf cultural values are not openly written or explained.
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 Street,
Marlee 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.”
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!
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!
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.
What Deaf people call themselves is something that also needs to be taken into consideration.
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…
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.
Check out this fantastic video by JoJa+ that takes a deeper look into Deaf culture and how it relates to society’s need to “cure” deafness:
The Best Deaf Culture Books
What Other Visitors Have Said
Click below to see Deaf Culture do’s and don’ts from other visitors to this page…
Being hearing, is it okay to sign in public?
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 …
Deaf Father and Son
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 …
“You’re not listening!”
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 …
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 …
A Negative Impact on Hard of Hearing Kids in a Hearing World!
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 …
Communicating with the hard of hearing
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 …
Wearing hearing aids
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, …
Do NOT cover your mouth!
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, …
another place to use ASL
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 …
Please be very understanding if someone deaf asks you to repeat
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 …
Raising a deaf child
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 …
Wanting to understand
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 …
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 …
Helping or Caretaking??
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 …
Do and not do
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 …
Under-estimating Others Only Means Over-estimating Your Knowledge Of Them
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 …
Don’t tell me “Never mind” or “I’ll tell you later” because I do mind and you won’t
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 …
do’s and don’ts with the deaf
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 …
Brenda Dawe, NAD IV interpreter and ASL instructor
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 …
Some Deaf Culture Do’s and Don’ts
Here are some do’s and don’ts I’d like to add!
– Be patient with communication.
– If a Deaf person does not understand you, try again to convey …
Do Learn To Communicate With Deaf Co-Workers!
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 …
Deaf people sometimes rude to new signers
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 …
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 …
I’m Deaf (Notice the Capital D) with a deaf friend
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, …
Hearing Culture vs. Deaf Culture
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 …
VERY BLUNT: Interpreters in an Academic Setting
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 …
Addressing the Deaf
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 …
I lost my hearing as a child
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 …
Newly Diagnosed And Feeling Isolated
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 …
Effort to communicate is appreciated
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 …
Deaf American Sign Language Teacher
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 …
A Hearing sMother
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 …
Rude in both speaking and ASL
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 …
Not just for the deaf
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, …
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!