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Basic Introduction to Some Aspects of Deaf Culture 

This article is intended only to be a summary and not an in-depth study. Books are written for in-depth studies. Instead, this article is designed to give a general understanding of some things from which to build and develop relationships within the Deaf Culture. It is general enough that it will apply to most Deaf people. It is understood that within the Deaf community there are variations of interests, preferences, and personalities, the same as with the hearing community. But this is good because it gives people the opportunity to invest in and build relationships on a personal basis.

Seek To Learn

When learning about the Deaf, their culture, experiences, and their language it is important to go to the Deaf people first. Many want to go to the "professionals." The Deaf response is, "Ask us, we know how we feel and these matters directly affect us." It is important to understand the Deaf person's perspective of situations. (See articles defining pathological and cultural views of deafness.)

Always have the humble attitude of a student. Always be willing, when corrected, to ask them, as one man said, to tell you more. Hearing people will never be Deaf. A person can be as Deaf as possible, but unless a person was raised in the Deaf Culture they can never fully grasp what it is like to have been raised Deaf. A well known Deaf poem says, "You have to be Deaf to understand."

When relating with a person who is Deaf, it is important to understand the people, culture, hurts, pains, experiences, and frustrations as well as the things that bring joy, happiness and a sense of bonding with the Deaf. These things that show them that they are important and have value.

The Deaf community is as diverse as the hearing community. However, when the Deaf are involved with the hearing culture, you will find that they tend to have various common reactions, feelings, and perceptions. They tend to be homogenous in this kind of a setting. This will also vary depending on the kind of hearing loss they have. The degree of contact they have had with the hearing world and their degree of comfort with it in the past will also influence this.


The Deaf community has a strong bond among themselves because of their Deafness. They place a high emphasis on relationships. A good Deaf worker must be a person who is willing to invest in relationships and to do this from a sincere heart. Insincerity will be spotted quickly. Avoiding eye contact, restlessness shown in body language, failure to spend time getting to know them on a personal basis, etc. will be read and understood very quickly by the Deaf person.


Language is probably the main component of the culture. It is important because, while the language is not universal, the structure seems to be the same worldwide. Why? Because of how deafness affects the way people think.

It needs to be understood that English is NOT the first language of the American Deaf (or other English speaking nations), but the VISUAL COMMUNICATION, sign language, is their first language. It is their "heart" language. To reach the heart, one must use the language the heart most readily understands. When this is understood and honored, it makes all the difference in the world. (That is why the Bible is translated into native languages of the people.)

This is also the reason people who become skilled in the language may (notice the word is MAY) bond with the Deaf. Effort is required to learn the language and communicate with them in that language. This can demonstrate the value the person holds for the Deaf community. Hearing people depend on words, words, words, but to the Deaf Culture, words are much less important. Learning their language demonstrates the value that they have and importance they are to the lives of hearing people.

Not all people who learn the language bond with the Deaf and their culture. When bonding takes place the Deaf are quick to notice this. Some may be very gifted in signing or interpreting. However, if they are unwilling to bond with or immerse themselves into the culture, the Deaf will not fully accept them. It is considered by some as "raping the language." This term means to use the language for personal benefit with little or no regard for building relationships with the Deaf themselves. The Deaf have often complained about this aspect in regards to some interpreters. In some recent meetings several Deaf people noticed and commented that the interpreters sat in a "huddle" and did not relate to the Deaf people present.

Many Deaf are often bothered when people sign and voice at the same time (sim-com: Simultaneous communication). ASL can not be signed and voiced at the same time. The result of attempting to sim-com is communication that loses its clarity for the Deaf. The feeling is that the Deaf are placed second in importance to the hearing people, since the reason for voicing is to provide clarity for the hearing. The language ceases to be ASL and becomes MCE (Manually Coded English) or PSE (Pidgin Sign English) at best. Again, the Deaf person often feels relegated to a second class person in society. It is amazing that many who say that they want to be involved in ministry with the Deaf are often unwilling to defer to their desires for clarity in communication. These are the people we are supposed to be serving.

The use of ASL is significant because it provides the Deaf person with the opportunity to find out who they really are as a person.. This language opens up avenues for them to express and receive information in a way that can be clearly understood. A Deaf person who graduates from a Deaf school or is taught in the language of ASL may graduate from high school with a 4th or 5th grade reading level in English (almost equivalent to the hearing graduate these days). However, they have a 12th grade level in ASL, their first language.

Visual Acuity

Deaf people have a greater degree of accuracy in reporting stories or being witnesses in court. This is because of their visual perception and their memory. They are 17% more accurate in reporting these things than hearing people. That is almost 20% better.


Some have also found that Deafness hinders relationships. God has created us for relationships. Helen Keller said, "Blindness separates people from things; deafness separates people from people." The Deaf often experience tremendous loneliness and isolation. Most Deaf people are born to hearing families (90%). Most of the families do not learn sign language at any great depth. Usually among the parents it is the mother who learns the most, not the father. This can promote a lack of a good father image. The Deaf child is left alone or set aside with little real training or teaching in the area of social development. Most hearing people cannot understand the depth of isolation this brings about nor the lack of relational skills.

In talking with many Deaf people almost all are in complete agreement about the feelings of isolation from families and other hearing settings . This leaves the Deaf person to face alone the agonizing feelings of loneliness. Often this leads to feelings of great frustration and anger. These feelings are often suppressed in the presence of hearing people. The Deaf person tends to become passive because there is a sense of hopelessness and inability to change their situation.

Relational/Social Skills

Another difficult that the Deaf person experiences, because they cannot hear, is the lack of what we call "social development skills". Many have difficulty knowing how to relate with others, especially with hearing people. There are several reasons. First, they see actions but do not necessarily know what those actions mean or how to interpret them. Second, they have emotional experiences but do not know how to identify them clearly. Few people ask them questions like, "How do you feel about the situation?" They experience these situations and emotions but have little opportunity to analyze, identify or discuss them with others.

It is also important to notice that the Deaf mainly learn from what they see. It will remain that way unless someone takes the time to explain to them, in a language they can understand, what is happening. One interesting fact that impacts this is that while 90% of the Deaf are born to hearing parents, only 10% of those parents learn sign language. This is a tragedy. How can a parent properly relate to their child without a good knowledge of signing?

Overcoming the Information Deficit

Lipreading only gives the person a maximum of 40% of the communication that can be understood. Many words are camouflaged. Say the words bath and path on your lips and have another person read your lips. To require that the Deaf person read lips is to require the Deaf person to come to the hearing side of the equation. Experiment, let it work both ways -- let the Deaf and the hearing both only lipread. Or, why shouldn't a Deaf person say, "If you want me to read lips, are you willing to learn to sign?" Actually, learning to sign is easier and a more accurate form of communication than reading lips. Should the Deaf always be expected to patronize the hearing? The Bible says we are give more abundant honor to those parts that are lacking.

Overcoming the information deficit is difficult for the Deaf person. Hearing people pick up large amounts of information by "over-hearing." It is called "360 degree hearing." A deaf person only has 180 degree hearing, and it is only what they are able to see or feel. They miss the sounds, the words, the truck driving by, the voices in the background. They miss all of that. But those things feed us information and fill our database. The Deaf need to have some other way to get this information. It is people telling them, "A truck drove by just now," "I can hear birds singing and enjoying the sunshine," "Bob just came into the other office," "I just heard the phone ring," or many other things that we as hearing people take for granted. Sometimes the Deaf person may not want you to give them all this information, but ask them their preference. Then you can be sure and they can have equal access to the information.

Another problem the Deaf person encounters is that often times they grow up in an environment where the level of communication they receive is a "maintenance level of language." This is a situation where they are told, "It is time for supper," "It is time to pray," "You need to go to bed" This is basic maintenance level of communication. This level of communication lacks sensitivity to the needs, feelings and value of the Deaf person. It is not the same level of communication as: "How do you feel when...," "What do you think about...," or "What is your opinion about...," "Would you give me your input on..."  This is to honor, show value, demonstrate our respect for the Deaf individual.  Doing this on a continual basis will go a long way in reaffirming them as individuals. It will create an atmosphere where they will be able to start trusting the hearing community, or at least the person who shows them this often overlooked respect as a person.   The Deaf are not use to this kind of treatment from the hearing world.  It will be noticed! Initially, it may not be trusted.

This is not patronizing them nor is it rejecting the hearing.  However, this is giving them what they deserve and so often fail to receive when they are among the hearing community.  It is also an attempt to break our habits and train ourselves to include the Deaf person as a person.  It is an effort to lessen some of the mistreatment they have received from the hearing community, although it may happen because of ignorance or false assumptions on our part.  To know what we ought to do and not do it is not ignorance, it is simply wrong.  The Bible says, "He that knows to do good and does not do it, to that person it become sin."

There is a lack of including the Deaf as a person in what is happening around them.  The Deaf person feels they are treated as second class citizens or unimportant members of the family.  One may suggest that a different approach should be taken.  Start asking the Deaf person  first (it helps break bad habits already formed).  Start including them at the beginning of a decision making process or ensuring that they are included at the beginning of the conversation.  One will need to train themselves to do this.  It is not a natural way for a hearing person to act.  They are use to people being able to pick up on the audible cues that precede or begin a normal hearing conversation.  Or they may assume the communication is able to be overheard if one is not directly involved in the conversation or information sharing that is happening around them.

Hearing people often forget to wait until the Deaf person is looking at them before talking. A lot of information is missed. In a group of hearing people, the Deaf person's needs are often overlooked. The conversation moves too fast and the hearing are not willing or unaware of the need to slow the conversation so the Deaf person gets all the information. They are "fed" summaries and they lack the equal access to the same information the hearing people are accustomed to receiving. It doesn't matter if it is a light conversation or intense. If the Deaf person chooses to not listen, then that is their decision. It is the same as with any hearing person making such a choice.

The right to and providing of equal access to information is what needs to be upheld. When this does not happen the Deaf person feels devalued. When people laugh and do not explain the reason for the laughter the Deaf person feels the others may be laughing at them. (It is the same as people whispering in front of others.) So all this is to say that it is important to give equal access to the information. This honors the Deaf person. It shows them that they have value. It gives them a sense of dignity when they are given access to all the information possible.

A safe environment for growth must be provided. It needs to be a place where the Deaf person can express themselves without fear of feeling rejected or stupid because they do not understand. They should not be made to feel less of a person because they do things differently than hearing people. There is a richness in the Deaf people and their culture that will add to the hearing culture. Just as people can learn from other national cultures and be enriched, hearing people can also be enriched by learning from the culture of the Deaf nation. But, for this to happen a "safe" environment must be provided.

A safe environment will include a culturally sensitive environment. In our homes and businesses we ought always to do this. This means leaning about their culture, learning what is appropriate and what is not.

Learning and doing these and similar culturally appropriate manners will show sensitivity to their Deaf Culture. It will go a long way toward making the Deaf person feel valued as the person God created them to be.

Sensitivity provides a safe place where the Deaf can make mistakes without fear of judgment. It provides love and acceptance in the face of misunderstanding. It provides a place to encourage growth. It provides a place for trust to be built. It provides and must provide all these things even if they are not returned. This is the servant heart that is needed.

The Deaf have lacked access to so much information in the past. Once they have had access to it and the freedom it can bring, there are strong currents of emotion released. They realize all they have been missing. Sometimes when the Deaf come into a new area of understanding, it may also provide for new challenges to others. It may produce resistance when people try to fit the Deaf back into the "old mold". They will not want this. They will have begun to find the person they were created to be. It is important to encourage them and enable them to continue in that walk. The Deaf are worth the investment of a person's time and energy.

Information Sharing

In the Deaf culture the sharing of information is natural. They often take it upon themselves to share information, which they have received, with the rest of the Deaf community. The information shared generally tends to be deeper than that shared in the hearing culture. This is true of first time acquaintances, also.

The nature of the information shared will be very detailed. When two Deaf people meet, they often share such information as to what time they got up, what they had for breakfast and how they prepared it, what happened on the way to work as they drove, the time they arrived, who they met when they came into the office and the response of those people, and all the events that led up until the time that they met this person. Obviously there is consideration for the depth of relationship, the setting, and the time to share. But the fact is, they share much more detail and information than is common to the hearing culture.

If a hearing person receives a phone call in the presence of a Deaf person it would be proper to tell them who the caller was, the topic of discussion and the outcome. In the hearing world that is not considered customary. Yet, the hearing person would overhear one side of the conversation and have some of that information already. Become a giver of information and do it freely.

It is important, therefore, to be a giver of information. Train yourself. Make this your goal. Make understanding the culture and sensitivity to it a goal. The rewards are great and the friendships are wonderful and rich.

Copyright � 1999, 2000 Ron Southwick. All rights reserved.

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