Deaf Culture Essentials

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 at that time.

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.

Mom and Daughter I Love You SignThe 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

No SpeakingNot speaking is highly valued in this culture. 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

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 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.

LiteratureDeaf 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!

One fantastic 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 art form. 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 ExpressionsIn 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!

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, this means the city you grew up in, not what city you are currently residing in. And by school, this means 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 LabelsIn 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” in hearing culture. 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” has been used to be “politically correct” to identify them both, but the more accepted term now to refer to everyone with a hearing loss is the “deaf and hard of hearing” community.

In Deaf culture, though, the terms are quite the opposite. There is one label for people who are part of Deaf culture, and that is “Deaf” with a capital D.

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 known as CODAs or “Children of Deaf Adults”).

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! In Deaf culture, deafness is not considered a handicap. The only real handicap of deafness is when deaf children are deprived of true communication–ASL.

You can read more tips and sights about interacting with the Deaf community on our Deaf Culture Do’s and Don’ts page.

The Best Deaf Culture Books

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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.

14 replies
  1. Mikki Ross
    Mikki Ross says:

    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!

  2. Melissa Ferrier
    Melissa Ferrier says:

    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.

    • Melissa Ferrier
      Melissa Ferrier says:

      *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.

  3. Reannon Lloyd
    Reannon Lloyd says:

    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.

    • Reannon Lloyd
      Reannon Lloyd says:

      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.

  4. Tammy Rogers
    Tammy Rogers says:

    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

  5. MsChu-Z Grigsby
    MsChu-Z Grigsby says:

    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?

    • Michelle Jay
      Michelle Jay says:

      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.

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