Understanding Deaf Culture


There are two views on deafness and Deaf individuals.

The first of these is often referred to as the "medical/pathological " model. Those who support this viewpoint will regard a deaf individual as someone who cannot hear, who is lacking auditory capability, who is deficient in some way because he or she may not be able to communicate by "speaking" and "hearing". This viewpoint focuses solely on what a deaf person cannot do - hear - and disregards the many positive attributes and abilities of individuals who are Deaf. It is a narrow and negative viewpoint in which Deaf persons are viewed as needing assistance and in which "deafness" requires a cure.

The opposing viewpoint - often referred to as the "cultural model" - is promoted by Deaf persons themselves, and by advocates and professionals working within the Deaf community. It postulates that the inability to receive audible information is not and should not be the sole and exclusive defining characteristic of any individual or group thereof, and that a far more effective and inclusive approach is to view a Deaf person for what they can do rather than what they cannot. A simple yet pivotal argument often used by Deaf advocates is that since Deaf people can communicate easily and fluently amongst one another using American Sign Language, the communicative abilities of Deaf individuals are not diminished at all; they are simply perceived as diminished by "hearing" standards of receiving and expressing information audibly. Deaf people could in fact just as effectively argue that it is "hearing" people who are at a disadvantage, since few "hearing" people can communicate fluently in ASL the way a native ASL user can and does.

In the first half of the 20 th century, the leading proponents of deaf education favored what is known as the "oral method ", which essentially focused on teaching deaf children to speak and to use speech-reading to comprehend what was being said to them. This approach did not take into account that children who are very severely deaf will find it impossible to acquire spoken language skills on a par with "hearing" individuals; it also did not address the issue that speech-reading is a complicated and very variable - hence unreliable - skill set. The focus was on making Deaf children as "hearing" as possible, regardless of the consequences for the Deaf child and his or her parents.

Much more recently, research has conclusively shown that communicative abilities in infants develop long before the ability to speak does. In fact, parenting magazines and experts encourage hearing parents of hearing children to develop some form of sign language with their infant so that communication can be established before speech is developed, eloquently making the point that the mode of communication is fairly irrelevant as long as one exists - a finding in stark contrast to the central tenets of the "oral method ", which stressed the overriding importance of spoken and audibly received communication and strongly discouraged sign language.

American Sign Language plays a central role - as all spoken languages do - in the context of understanding the culture of the people who use it to communicate. Deaf people throughout the world have developed unique and distinct forms of sign language; even regional dialects exist in geographically diverse areas within individual countries. Far from being a simple visual translation of English, American Sign Language is in fact a language all of its own; it is formally recognized by many governmental and educational institutions as being the equivalent of any other foreign language. It is available in the curriculum of several of the country's leading universities as a viable option for hearing students wishing to meet their foreign language credit requirement. The World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), which operates under the auspices of the United Nations Organization and consists of national state and country Associations of the Deaf, even created an universal sign language, Gestuno, much as the UN tried to establish Esperanto as the "universal" hearing language.

Deaf Culture manifests itself both within the language (ASL) and within the social norms of the Deaf community itself, which differ substantially from those in the "hearing" world. Like any other culturally and linguistically diverse group, Deaf individuals tend to commingle and congregate at events where their language is the preferred mode of communication. Deaf individuals will also eschew verbal and written communication when communication and technological alternatives such as ASL interpreters or Video Relay Services are available as options, since these allow Deaf individuals to communicate in their native visual language rather than to have to use English-text based communication methodologies.

Today, Deaf individuals can be found productively contributing at every level of state, public and private enterprise and within our communities; the only areas where Deaf people cannot succeed are those where the medical/pathological view is firmly entrenched and Deaf people are viewed based on misinformed stereotypes or prejudices that have no basis in fact.

For persons interested in understanding more about Deaf Culture, it is worthwhile to examine the history of the 1988 "Deaf President Now" movement. Deaf students at Gallaudet University - the world's only liberal arts college for Deaf students located in Washington, DC -. When the (hearing) Board of Trustees chose a hearing candidate to be the 7 th president of the university - rather than one of two Deaf professionals also in the running - a massive protest erupted. Deaf students and their supporters locked the gates and took over the campus. After several days of growing protests, the hearing candidate tendered her resignation, as did the hearing board president; Dr. I. King Jordan - a Deaf professor at Gallaudet - was appointed as new president of Gallaudet University. This event attracted widespread media coverage on the major networks worldwide, and has to this day remained the Deaf community's seminal civil rights accomplishment. - An excellent photo and video chronicle of this event is available at the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center website at Gallaudet University.

Contact for Understanding Deaf Culture

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