Deaf Culture and Sign language

The concept of "Deaf culture" has been around for a very long time but this term "Deaf culture" doesn't emerge until the 1970s. Before that, the conceptual terms were used, such as DEAF WAY/POSS, DEAF WORLD, DEAF TEND-pa. Likewise for 'hearing culture' but that's another story.

"I had now to see them [Deaf people] in a new, 'ethnic light,' as people with a distinctive language, sensibility, and culture of their own." -- Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices.

What is culture? There are over 100 definitions! Basically, culture is a set of learned behaviors of a group of people who have their own language, values, rules of behavior, and traditions.

Language and culture are inseperable. Where there is a language of its own, there is a culture and heritage. Deaf people are a cultural-lingual group. Deaf people usually don't see ourselves as a disability group which is a social construction in the hearing world.

"Deaf culture is the set of social beliefs, behaviors, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are influenced by deafness and which use sign languages as the main means of communication." -- Wikipedia.

"We believe that you cannot teach a new language if you do not teach the culture behind that language." -- Gabriela Mistral Latin American School, Edmonton.

Aspects of culture

There are three general aspects of culture: materialistic, normative, cognitive. Or Nitza Hidalgo's three levels of culture: concrete, behavioral, and symbolic.

Materialistic aspect (also "concrete aspect") is something people can observe concrete things of a culture.

For example, in Deaf culture, one can see concrete signs such as teletypewriters (TTYs), videophones, texting, flashing light for doorbell and phone, etc. And, most of all, signing.

Normative aspect (or "behavioral aspect") of culture is a set of rules of social interaction that outsiders can observe behaviors, such as rules of touching, eye contact, a way of introducing, attention-getting, eye gazing, hugging (greeting), etc.

Cognitive aspect is something one cannot observe, such as thoughts, attitudes, beliefs, and values. They can be learned or observed through language and communication.

Collectivism-Individualism Dimension

Collectivism is identifying with the needs of the group over the needs of the individual.

Collectivism by geerthofstede
Image source: geerthofstede.com

Individualism is highly found in North America; contrastly within the individualistic countries, collectivism is traditionally found in Deaf community across North America. However, with technologies and changes, there may be a blend of collectivism and individualism among Deaf individuals. Why are Deaf people collectivistic?

Collectivism fish

Oppression is a large factor that Deaf people have long united together to fight against oppressions (audism and linguicism), to share and exchange information, to socialize, etc. They unite through their common language and experience of being Deaf.

Insider-Outsider Distinction

Insider-outsider distinction is typically found in many collectivist cultures. If a foreign person presents in collectivist cultures (e.g. Asia, Native American communities, Deaf community, etc.), she/he stands out as an outsider. One of some examples is a two-tiered pricing structure in an Asian country.

Insider Outsider Distinction

"It is for this reason that Deaf people have a strong need to know who is deaf and who is not, who went to a deaf school and who did not, and who grew up signing in contrast to those who learned how to sign more recently. As part of Deaf culture, this type of information is routinely disclosed as part of introductions when people meet each eother for the first time (Murray 2008). This allows them, just like people from any other collectivist culture, to protect themselves from potential harm from outsiders (Pudan-Smith, 2006)." -- Ref

When a hearing person is introduced, the very first thing Deaf people need to know whether the person is hearing. Usually, culturally Deaf people can tell whether a person is hearing or not. When uncertain, one will ask or disclose.

Deaf Culture Highlights

My ASL students, who were given a task to attend a social event in Deaf community, outlines common observations as follows:

  • Virtually everyone mingles, regardless of age. In hearing culture, age typically divides people into groups.
  • Share information more with other fellows.
  • ...
  • Naturally, there are variations among Deaf people (e.g. their nationalities, personalities, backgrounds, education, etc.) within their own Deaf community.

    Related posts

    Most hearing people are unaware of their own hearing culture that Deaf people have observed for a long time.

    Deaf community.