What you need to know about Deaf culture!

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Published On: 10 Aug 2022Categories: Articles, Deaf Awareness

Culture is about the way we do things and the beliefs and values we hold.

Deaf culture is recognised under article 30, paragraph 4 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which states that “Persons with disabilities shall be entitled, on an equal basis with others, to recognition and support of their specific cultural and linguistic identity, including sign languages and deaf culture.” https://www.un.org/development/desa/disabilities/convention-on-the-rights-of-persons-with-disabilities.html

The Deaf community may include family members of deaf people and sign-language interpreters who identify with Deaf culture and does not automatically include all people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

According to Anna Mindess, “it is not the extent of hearing loss that defines a member of the Deaf community but the individual’s own sense of identity and resultant actions.”

“deafness” and “Deafness”

deaf (written with a lower-case d):

  • NOT using sign language as primary way of communication
  • Integrating predominantly with the hearing community
  • Perceives deafness as an impairment

Deaf (written with an upper-case D):

  • USE sign language as primary way of communication
  • Immersed in Deaf culture
  • Deafness as socio-cultural perspective

As with all social groups that a person chooses to belong to, a person is a member of the Deaf community if he or she “identifies him/herself as a member of the Deaf community, and other members accept that person as a part of the community.”

In South Africa, the Deaf community’s language is known as SASL (South African Sign Language).

Anyone who does not value SASL is unlikely to either feel comfortable within the Deaf culture, or to be accepted by it.

In any culture, it is very important to share similar values. In Deaf culture, some of the shared values are:

  • Respect for SASL
  • Deaf is normal
    For culturally Deaf people, to be Deaf is a natural state of being. It is an everyday part of their life and their identity. To express sadness or regret for a person’s deafness can be considered a lack of acceptance of who they are.
    The disability they experience is a result of assumptions and barriers that hearing society imposes on them. This view can perhaps best be explained by the saying “in a room full of Deaf people it is the hearing person who cannot sign who is disabled”.

Within Deaf culture there are behaviours that are considered rude, but which are perfectly acceptable in hearing culture, and vice versa. Some examples are:

  • Eye contact
    Eye contact is extremely important. Hearing people often talk to each other with comparatively little eye contact, but within Deaf culture, avoiding eye contact can be seen as rude. Looking away while someone is signing to you is a no-no.
  • Touch
    In Deaf culture, it is acceptable to touch another person to gain their attention, even if you do not know them well. However, there are rules about where or how to touch. A light touch on the arm or shoulder is acceptable.
  • Physical proximity
    When two hearing people are having a conversation they often sit or stand close to each other, sometimes side by side. Deaf people sit or stand further apart and preferably opposite each other so that they can see each other’s “signing space” comfortably. This physical distance may appear unfriendly to hearing people, but Deaf people usually find it uncomfortable trying to converse in close physical proximity.
  • Directness
    Acceptable levels of directness vary considerably between all cultures. From Deaf people’s perspective, hearing people seem to say things in oblique and roundabout ways. From hearing people’s point of view, Deaf people may appear blunt or abrupt. These are cultural differences which need to be understood and accommodated.
  • Thumping on tables or floors
    Deaf people often thump on tables or floors to gain each other’s attention, in the same way as hearing people call a person’s name or shout. This behaviour can appear aggressive to hearing people, but in Deaf culture it is not.

Some customs are common in the Deaf community, this include:

  • Who are you?
    When Deaf people meet each other for the first time, or when they introduce each other, they will often provide more personal details than a hearing person might. They always give their first and last names, because there is a higher chance, in a small community, that this will provide information about their family or community connections. This can be particularly important if they come from a family with several generations of Deaf people – such families are considered to be at the core of the Deaf community. They will often add other information about their associations with particular places, sporting or cultural organisations, or the school they attended.If you cannot volunteer any of these defining characteristics, or if you are a hearing person, you will most likely be asked questions about your connection with Deaf people. This introductory information establishes where you “fit” in the community – or to be direct about it as is often the Deaf way, whether or not you are acceptably “Deaf”.
  • The long goodbye
    When Deaf people are leaving a gathering of friends (and Deaf people who belong to the Deaf community tend to have many friends) they take much longer than most hearing people do to say goodbye. The custom is to seek out one’s friends and in the process of saying goodbye, discuss when they expect to meet again. Since there are so many people to say goodbye to and so many future arrangements (vague or concrete) to make, it takes a long time before the person actually leaves.

Most hearing people, when they think about technology for deaf people, they think about hearing aids and cochlear implants. To Deaf people, this is a “hearing” way of thinking – e.g., looking for technology to make deaf people hear.

For most Deaf people, technology means things that will make living as a Deaf person in a predominantly hearing culture more comfortable and convenient, e.g., flashing lights for door and phone, vibrating alarm clocks, videophones.

Deaf people also prefer or select particular kinds of environments – they often prefer open-plan houses with good sight-lines, round tables rather than rectangular, and they always choose strong, even lighting rather than soft lamps, candles, or flickering lights.

Deaf artists often have a particularly “Deaf” style, for example the depiction of Deaf symbolism such as hands and signs. Film making is now becoming a popular art form in the Deaf community.

Deaf people tell jokes about the Deaf life, and about hearing people. Deaf communities often hold comedy nights where people tell jokes, funny stories, and true-life stories.

Why do Deaf people have a different culture?

Cultures develop around people’s self-identity, i.e., their experiences and ideas about themselves and their place in the world. It is a natural development when people who share similar experiences and identities come together. Cultures gather strength when they are passed down over generations and are enriched with historical knowledge.

Deaf people’s interaction with other people and with the world around them is primarily visual. Deaf culture is based on this visual orientation.

Many people seem to believe that by isolating Deaf people from each other, this Deaf cultural identity would not develop. But people seem to have an innate need to congregate with others who are like them in some way and who accept them for who they are, and Deaf people are no different – sooner or later they seek each other out. Ironically, the experience of isolation from the Deaf community and the Deaf culture becomes for many Deaf people one of the commonly shared experiences and hence one of the culture’s unifying factors.

Adapted from: https://www.aussiedeafkids.org.au/deaf-culture.html