American Deaf Culture
What is Deaf Culture?
Although some people may consider being deaf or hard of hearing a physical difference, many consider it to be a cultural/linguistic identity. As Carol Padden and Tom Humphries described in their book, Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture:
We use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language – American Sign Language (ASL) – and a culture…. Fewer than 10 percent are born to parents who are also Deaf. Consequently, in contrast to the situation in most cultures, the great majority of individuals within the community of Deaf people do not join it at birth.
Although members of the Deaf Community are very unique and differ in many ways, there are some general commonalities. American Sign Language (ASL) is the preferred mode of communication. There is a deep respect for Deaf history, residential schools, Deaf associations, and social ties. Again, from Padden and Humphries:
Deaf Culture is a powerful testimony to both the profound needs and the profound possibilities of human beings. Out of a striving for human language, generations of Deaf signers have fashioned a signed language rich enough to mine for poetry and storytelling. Out of a striving to interpret, to make sense of their world, they have created systems of meaning that explain how they understand their place in the world. That the culture of Deaf people has endured, despite indirect and tenuous lines of transmission and despite generations of changing social conditions, attests to the tenacity of the basic human needs for language and symbol.
Why is Deaf Culture Important to Parents?
We typically receive the news that our child is deaf or hard of hearing from hearing medical professionals. They are usually very skilled and knowledgeable about the diagnostic process and perhaps the medical interventions that a parent can pursue. However, that medical professional may have limited knowledge or training about Deaf Culture and may not understand or value the option of using sign language or participating in the Deaf Community. It means that we as parents may need to look elsewhere to understand all available communication opportunities before making decisions, and recognize each strength and weakness when listening to advice.
Striving to understand Deaf Culture can be a critical step forward in showing respect for a community with a rich history. There are many stories and books written by Deaf adults who have felt cheated by not being exposed to the Deaf Community or sign language when growing up. Some will describe “coming alive” when first entering a residential school, seeing sign language after being raised orally, or attending Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. (See the Minnesota Hands & Voices Resource Directory - National Organizations.)
Your child may struggle with his or her own identity at some point. You may decide to help shape your child’s identity by involving him in the Deaf community and using sign language in your home. On the other hand, you may decide not to use sign or attend Deaf events. It is your family’s choice. One day, your child may question why you made the decisions you did. The choice, the decision, and your answer to your child's questions are yours and yours alone.
Whether you actively involve your child in Deaf social activities or schools or not, you will come in contact with members of the Deaf Community. Using the right terminology is another important way to show respect. The terms “hard of hearing” and “deaf” can be confusing to parents. As described in the National Association of the Deaf Community and Culture FAQ:
How people “label” or identify themselves is personal and may reflect identification with the deaf and hard of hearing community, the degree to which they can hear, or the relative age of onset. For example, some people identify themselves as “late-deafened,” indicating that they became deaf later in life. Other people identify themselves as “deaf-blind,” which usually indicates that they are deaf or hard of hearing and also have some degree of vision loss. Some people believe that the term “people with hearing loss” is inclusive and efficient. However, some people who were born deaf or hard of hearing do not think of themselves as having lost their hearing.
Because in the Deaf Community deafness is regarded to be a cultural phenomenon, rather than a disabling condition, it can be considered offensive to use the words “hearing impaired” or “disabled.” The terms “deaf” or “hard of hearing” are more acceptable.
Deaf Culture is also relevant in that many of the decisions we make as parents have a Deaf perspective. Where your child attends school, what communication option you choose, or whether you decide to pursue a cochlear implant all may have a Deaf Culture perspective. In weighing options for your child, it is important to know how some members in the Deaf Community view that decision so you understand the reactions you may encounter later on.
Benefits of the Deaf Community
Membership in the Deaf Community can offer many benefits. These may include:
- Improved self-esteem
- Sense of pride in one’s history
- Respect and use of sign language
- Emphasis on one’s strengths
- Community acceptance
There are many Deaf churches, political, and social organizations. Knowledge of, or your child's participation in, events hosted by such organizations can provide modeling of sign language by native users, adult mentoring, and your child's feeling of support by others like himself or herself. Many members of the Deaf Community are well informed about current technology and devices that can be of benefit in everyday life, simply because they use them often.
Regardless of a parents’ degree of involvement in the Deaf Community, adult role models who are deaf or hard of hearing can have a huge positive impact on the life of child. All children want to know they are not alone. Parents who meet adult role models can find reassurance that their child will have a successful future. Parents are strongly encouraged to seek out individuals who are willing to share their precious gift of life experience to foster their child’s self-esteem.