Deaf studies

Deaf community and Deaf people

Deaf community is loosely defined as a community of signing people enculturated with Deaf culture. They share a common signed language (e.g. ASL), Deaf culture, journey of Deafhood, and experiences.

According to the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), there are approximately 72 million deaf people worldwide, of which more than 80 percent live in developing countries.

Membership of Deaf Community

The avenues to membership of Deaf community are primarily four areas: audiological, political, linguistic, and social.

Avenues to membership in Deaf community
Source: American Sign Language: A Teacher's Resource Text on Grammar and Culture by Charlotte Baker-Shenk and Dennis Cokely. P. 56.

This illustration is a model of describing members of Deaf community that shows overlapped factors based on the "attitudinal deafness". The membership area may be fluid a bit. The examples below are only generic. It varies from a person to person.

Deaf member in Deaf community
Image: A core membership of Deaf community

Being Deaf (audiological avenue) is clearly a required factor for the core of the Deaf community plus other factors. E.g. Being Deaf with the capital D (audiological avenue), speaking ASL fluently or natively (linguistic avenue), growing up in a school of/for the Deaf and/or socializing in Deaf community such as attending Deaf events or having Deaf friends (social), and advocating for sign language, human rights, better services, etc., and/or fighting against hearing oppression (political).

A hearing person will never be in that core area. She/he doesn't have a journey of Deafhood and has no experience of being Deaf. She/he has a hearing privilege and may be not aware of privileges.

Deaf member in Deaf community
Image: A coda in Deaf community.

This illustration might depict a hearing coda who grows up in Deaf family, lives and breathes with two languages, signed ASL and spoken English, every day (linguistic avenue), interacts with Deaf friends or acquaintances through their Deaf parents and their network (social avenue), and understands Deaf history, hearing oppression, and Deaf culture and is an ally (political avanue). This person may have an identity of half hearing and half deaf inside even though she/he is audiologically hearing (audiological avenue). Not all codas have the same membership avenues.

For example, a coda growing up with a deaf parent who is oral and uses vocal language with their hearing children, doesn't share the same membership or experience with another coda who grows up with a Deaf parent of Deaf family who is bilingual (written English and ASL) but doesn't vocally speak at all.

Deaf member in Deaf community
Image: An interpreter in Deaf community.

A membership of the English-ASL interpreters varies. Some interpreters use ASL only during the work hours, don't socialize much or rather occasionally attend a Deaf event, and/or is neutral in political advocacy. Other interpreters may be more involved in Deaf community and events, have Deaf friends, speak both English and ASL regularly, and involve in advocacy as an ally. One highly active interpreter/ally, that I know for example, socializes only with Deaf friends and interpreters and admits she has little, if not none, hearing non-signing friends.

Deaf member in Deaf community
Image: A hearing politician in Deaf community

This hearing politician doesn't know ASL at all, maybe just a few words that he uses to impress in his speech at a special event. He may be the one who works with Deaf leaders for a period of time in developing a bill to bring to the assembly at legislature to vote for the official recognition of ASL as a language. His membership in the political avanue is fluid and temporary.

Another example (not related to the image above): an oral deaf may be readily accessible to the membership of Deaf community because being deaf is their birthright. But, they may be still an outsider because they are oral, not knowing sign language. They may not be aware of the culture, history, customs, and values. They internalize hearing values and ways of life. They may marry hearing spouses, have no deaf friends, and are not involved in Deaf community.

Those scenarios give you an idea of the ambiguous membership of Deaf community, depending on the attitudes, values, and beliefs towards Deaf people, culture, and sign language.

Where is Deaf community?

Organizations and associations of the Deaf, Deaf clubs, Deaf-run buildings, bilingual schools for the Deaf, social events (offline and online).

Deaf clubs were common across North America and Europe in the old days for Deaf people, codas, hearing signing friends, etc. before the advent of technology (video, Internet, phone texting). The clubs used to be Deaf people's "second home." They can be used as a place for parties, meetings, and regular social events.

The traditional Deaf clubs have been gradually declined since the 1960s with the advent of technology and with the rise of accessibility, equality and rights. First, TTY/TDD in the 1970s, then Internet in the 1990s, video phones in the 2000s. In the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, video-based webinars, presentations, gatherings, and such online have become more common and they have brought Deaf people together closer. It's kind of virtual or digital Deaf clubs.

Readings if you're interested in more

"Growing up at the Deaf Club" (2009) by Charlie Swinbourne.

The Deaf Community in America: History in the Making by Melvia M. Nomeland, Ronald E. Nomeland. Page 142.

American Sign Language: A Teacher's Resource Text on Grammar and Culture by Charlotte Baker-Shenk and Dennis Cokely. Pages 54-58.

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