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Deaf Culture and Sign Language

With over 300 sign languages used in the world, there is a rich diversity of culture among Deaf communities. And in fact, deafness itself is not a prerequisite to participating in Deaf culture and community. Instead, cultural Deafness refers to a set of beliefs, practices, and traditions that are influenced by deafness and use sign languages as a primary form of communication.

Many deaf people do not belong to or partake in Deaf culture and community. A person who loses their hearing in old age or due to an accident may remain within a primarily hearing community, never learn sign language, and may not know any other deaf people. On the other hand, the hearing parent of a deaf child may learn sign language, send their child to a signing school, and become a member of the Deaf community.

Interestingly, despite the contribution of genetic factors to congenital deafness, only about ten percent of deaf or hard-of-hearing children are born to deaf parents. Thus, people may become culturally Deaf at different times during their life. While a small percentage of individuals acquire sign language and Deaf culture from birth, others go on to join the community by attending Deaf schools, universities, or through other means.

Within Deaf culture, Deaf (with a capital D) is used to denote cultural Deafness, while deaf (with a lowercase d) is used to refer to those who experience the audiological condition of not hearing but do not identify with Deaf culture or community.

Hearing loss vs. Deaf gain

Within Deaf cultural groups, deafness is generally not considered a condition that needs to be fixed. Instead, Deaf people are viewed as members of a linguistic minority group whose preservation is of paramount importance.

“Deaf Gain” is a term often used by Deaf people to highlight the benefits of being Deaf rather than the perceived losses reflected in outdated terminologies, such as “hearing loss.” Inherent to the Deaf Gain perspective is the notion that physical and cognitive differences are essential elements of human diversity.

Deaf people have unique perspectives and perceptions that differ from those of the hearing majority. For example, they tend to have spatial awareness, facial recognition, peripheral processing, and image detection skills that are unmatched by their hearing counterparts. There is also a rich history of Deaf art and innovation, particularly in the areas of poetry and storytelling. Thus, the term Deaf Gain refers not only to what an individual has to gain through membership in the Deaf community but to the wider contributions of the Deaf community to the world at large.

What is sign language?

The use of sign language is also at the core of Deaf identity. Sign languages, such as American Sign Language (ASL), are fully realized languages with their unique grammar and vocabulary. ASL is thus not a representation of spoken English, and in fact, has no relationship at all to English. For example, ASL uses a different word order than English. Sentences may be structured as ‘time + topic + comment + referent.’ Thus, rather than saying “I went to the park yesterday,” you might say, “Yesterday park go I.”

The vocabulary of ASL is also quite different. For example, in English, the word “right” has two different definitions: “correct” and “the side opposite left.” In ASL, different signs are used for each of these meanings, and they bear no relationship to one another.

Sign languages also tend to be incredibly dynamic and expressive. Unlike spoken languages, where the tone of voice and inflection may be used to add meaning to spoken content (e.g., a sarcastic or humorous tone of voice often inverts meaning, so that ‘I loooove those shoes,’ can really mean, ‘I hate those shoes’), sign languages utilize facial expressions and body language to add inflection and tone to what is being said.

Interestingly, ASL is not closely related to the sign languages used in other English-speaking countries, such as British Sign Language or Auslan (Australian Sign Language). Instead, it most closely resembles French Sign Language. This is true because the spread of sign languages and Deaf cultures around the world often followed a different trajectory to hearing history and culture. For example, the founder of the American School for the Deaf, Thomas Hopkins Gaulledet, studied and subsequently adapted deaf pedagogy from the National Institute for Deaf Children in Paris. His teachings at the American School for the Deaf eventually expanded outward and evolved into American Sign Language. The result: Deaf American and French people can get chatting with about the same ease as hearing Brits and Australians!

A brief history of deaf education

Considering the centrality of sign language to Deaf culture, oralist approaches to education, as well as technological innovations that aim to ‘cure’ deafness, are seen by some as a threat to the continued existence of Deaf culture.

The fierce guardianship of Deaf culture also stems from a long history of deaf repression and forced cultural assimilation. Sign languages occur naturally, much in the same way as spoken languages, and thus have likely existed since the inception of spoken language itself. However, it wasn’t until around the time of the Industrial Revolution that the first Deaf schools were established in Europe. Prior to this, and dating back to the time of Aristotle, it was widely believed that deafness was intrinsically linked to mutism and a lack of intelligence and that deaf people could, therefore, not be educated. It is from this set of beliefs that offensive conceptualizations of deaf people as ‘deaf and dumb’ or ‘deaf mute’ (the latter term is considered offensive because it assumes deaf people don’t have a voice, and can’t learn to speak orally) emerged. Unfortunately, such derogatory terminology is still sometimes used, further demonstrating the ignorance and mistreatment that many deaf people continue to confront today.

Early deaf schools in Europe and North America originally provided an environment in which sign languages could flourish. However, many hearing educators viewed sign language as a crude system of gesture that prevented deaf people from integrating into hearing society. Thus, public attitudes began to shift toward oralist approaches, in which teaching lip reading and speech was favored over sign language. Then, in 1880, at the International Congress on the Education of the Deaf in Milan, 164 educators (only one of whom was deaf) passed a resolution that banned the use of sign language in deaf education. Oralist approaches to education spread around the world, and for close to 100 years, sign language more or less disappeared, though it continued to be used in secret by some Deaf people in their communities.

Why was the implementation of oralism so atrocious for the Deaf community? Not only were Deaf people discouraged and often outright banned from freely expressing themselves and their culture, but the oralist approach has since been shown to stunt deaf children’s development. Research has now demonstrated that deaf children taught to sign from an early age hit their developmental milestones on par with hearing children, while deaf children taught to lip read do not. This is true because spoken language is produced by a complex set of movements that involve not only the lips, but the tongue, teeth, hard and soft palate, uvula, and vocal cords. It is thus impossible for even the most proficient lip reader to get it right most of the time because they are trying to determine what sound is being made, using only the lips as a cue, without being able to see what any of the other articulators are doing. Take the sounds ‘f’ and ‘v,’ for example. These are both known as labiodental sounds, meaning that you make them by biting down on the bottom lip and blowing out a stream of air. Virtually the only difference between them is that the vocal cords are vibrating (i.e., the voice is ‘turned on’) to make the ‘v’ sound, and are still (voice ‘turned off’) to make the ‘f’ sound. This difference is impossible to see on the lips.

Thus, lip reading might be compared to trying to tell the difference between a labrador and a golden retriever just by the way they bark. It may be possible for the well-trained ear some of the time, but it’s certainly not an exact science.

Ultimately, though, the failure of the oralist approach was not only that it didn’t work and thus generations of deaf children were not provided with adequate education, but it was also a system designed not for the benefit of deaf people, but for the convenience of hearing people. It placed all of the burdens on the Deaf community to try to assimilate into a hearing-dominant world and asked virtually nothing of the hearing world in return.

It wasn’t until the 1960s, when linguist William Stokoe’s book, Sign Language Structure, argued that American Sign Language was a complete language, with its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, that attitudes toward sign language began to shift and schools started to adopt the Total Communication approach. This approach, which continues to be popular today, advocates the use of multi-modal communication, including integration of signed, oral, auditory, written, and visual aids, depending on the needs of the individual.

Literacy difficulties

Though approaches to deaf education have made huge advances over the past few decades, there are still many challenges to overcome. Perhaps one of the greatest is the gap in literacy achievement amongst deaf individuals. The literacy rates of most deaf high school graduates are equivalent to that of an average 3rd or 4th-grade hearing child. Why? Think about what written English is. It’s a system in which symbols known as letters are used to represent the sounds of the spoken language. When hearing individuals read, we decode words into speech sounds and create a voice in our heads that replicates the words on the page. Reading is thus a two-step process: first, we transform the symbols on the page into a spoken format, then we access the meaning of the spoken word.

Now consider the fact that not only are most deaf readers unable to ‘sound out’ words and create a voice in their head, but many also don’t speak English as a first language. Recall that American Sign Language is essentially unrelated to English, and you begin to see just how sticky of a situation deaf children learning to read find themselves in. The experience is perhaps comparable to imagining learning to read in Arabic without ever having heard somebody speak Arabic.

Though SignWriting systems exist, there is no standardized written form of American Sign Language, and thus most deaf people learn to read and write in English. This may involve attempting to associate each written word with a signed word, essentially memorizing what each word looks like pictorially, without extracting any meaning from the individual letters in the way that a hearing person can connect them to sounds. Sound difficult? You bet, which is why learning to read and write remains one of the biggest challenges within deaf education.

Preservation of culture and controversy around cochlear implants

Because of the fraught history of discrimination, attempts to do away with sign language, and the still prevalent perspective of deafness as a medical condition rather than a cultural minority group, some people within the Deaf community oppose the use of technologies that aim to ‘cure’ deafness, such as cochlear implants. The use of cochlear implants has even been compared to ‘cultural genocide,’ as they are viewed as a method for ensuring a child integrates into hearing society, thus lessening the prevalence and importance of Deaf culture.

Additionally, the desire to ‘cure’ deafness takes a medical view of deafness as an ‘illness’ or ‘disability,’ and this perspective is generally opposed within the Deaf community. Opponents of cochlear implantation support a social model of disability, in which rather than attempting to ‘fix’ the hearing of an individual, society, education, and the jobs sector should be reformed to more fully accommodate the diversity of the human experience.

Still others within the Deaf community view cochlear implantation not as identity stripping, but as a method for feeling more connected to the world at large and being afforded more opportunities to succeed in life while we continue to live in a world that accommodates certain lived experiences over others.

Deaf etiquette

Deaf communities are as diverse in their beliefs and perspectives as hearing communities. However, there are some shared etiquettes used by most Deaf communities within the United States. For those who know somebody who’s Deaf or Hard of Hearing or are interested in learning some more practical information about Deaf culture, I’ll leave you with the following set of tips:

  • As a general rule, be mindful of spaces where people may be signing, and try to accommodate the environment by keeping the visual field clear and open and allowing for continual hand movements so that conversation is not broken up. For example:
    • At a restaurant, don’t put flowers or a jug of water in the middle of the table. This will interrupt the visual field where people are signing.
    • At a group gathering, have people sit in a circle so that they can see each other more easily.
    • Don’t walk in the middle of two people that are signing to one another.
    • Automatic or propped doors are a plus, as they allow for continual signing without having to stop and use a door handle.
    • If speaking or signing with a Deaf person, don’t stand with bright light or sun directly behind you, as they will only be able to see your silhouette.
    • Don’t try talking or signing with a person that is busy with another task or activity.
  • When trying to get a Deaf person’s attention or having a conversation with a Deaf person:
    • Tap them on the shoulder, wave, stamp the floor to produce vibrations they can feel, or turn the lights on and off (this last one is commonly used in Deaf settings to get the group’s attention, akin to yelling, “Can I have your attention, please?”). Do not poke them or grab their arm, as these signals are generally reserved for emergencies.
    • Wait for them to show you their preferred method of interaction, whether that be gestural, writing, speaking, etc.
    • Speak clearly. Don’t yell, and avoid chewing gum, smoking, or obscuring your mouth while talking, as most Deaf people rely on some cues given by the lips and mouth to understand others during conversation.
    • Maintain eye contact.
  • Additionally, don’t initiate a conversation about a person’s deafness. This is a very personal subject, and bringing it up can imply that you view the person as lesser or incomplete.
  • Don’t make up your name in sign language. Signed names are given by the Deaf community. When introducing yourself, it’s best to finger-spell your full name (first and last).

Some other Deaf values and behaviors include the following:

  • Deaf people tend to be more blunt and direct than their hearing counterparts. People may also share personal information more readily than would be typical for hearing people.
  • Deaf culture is collectivist rather than individualistic, meaning that the group is valued over the individual.
  • Upon meeting, Deaf people will often try to find common ground, such as shared friends or institutions. Because the Deaf community is quite small, Deaf people often have shared connections.
  • It is common for Deaf people to show up early at large events to locate seating that provides the best visual clarity.
  • Long goodbyes are typical within Deaf culture, and people will usually provide detailed information if they arrive late or need to leave early. Not doing so may be considered rude.


Janet Barrow holds a B.A. in Written Arts from Bard College, and a Master of Speech-Language Pathology from the University of Sydney. She works as a pediatric speech pathologist and freelance writer, and is currently finishing her first novel.

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