Living and Learning Deaf Culture

Living and Learning Deaf Culture

No culture is a monolith, including the Deaf community. Most people, however, want to communicate. Humans have an innate drive to understand and be understood. But people with deafness have a history of being cut off and ostracized from the community at large. Here, Karla Giese, EdD, coordinator of training and education at Chicago Hearing Society (CHS) explores that issue. Next, we hear from Judith Weinstein, a Chicago Health writer who explains how learning sign language has enriched her life and communication skills.


On Deaf Identity, Access, and Culture

By Karla Giese, EdD

I am Deaf. It’s how I identify. Identity is a personal and powerful process influenced by a variety of factors; it is also fluid and changes over time. Preferred identity terms within the Deaf community often include Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Hard of Hearing, and Late Deafened.

Over the years, the term “hearing impaired” became common. But it often has been used to portray individuals in a negative manner, as incapable of learning or speaking. As a result, many people find it offensive and prefer not to use it. ​

One of the main challenges of being Deaf in a hearing-centric world is access. The world is built around sound and spoken languages. The Deaf community is built around culture and visual languages. This makes it challenging to find a sense of connection and belonging — to enjoy movies, museums, concerts, plays, and other forms of entertainment. It makes it challenging to access drive-thrus, banking services, trainings, educational opportunities, and even to order a pizza. As a Deaf person, it is exhausting to constantly advocate for access in our daily lives. The world does not consider accessibility in a way that allows Deaf people to live and work in an equitable manner.

Around 90% of babies who are identified as deaf are born into hearing families, and an estimated 70% of those families never learn American Sign Language (ASL), per the National Association of the Deaf. This lack of language within the family can significantly impact relationships and connections.

The benefits of hearing people learning sign language include more awareness of and exposure to communicating in a visual language. Learning sign language as a hearing person allows one to communicate with people who are Deaf. It builds relationships with new people who were previously unable to connect. It helps everyone to create more inclusive spaces where Deaf and hearing people are able to communicate and be together.

Deaf people can communicate with each other all over the world. While each country has its own native signed language, when Deaf people meet, they are adept at using gestures, facial expressions, and body language to communicate with and understand each other.

Another challenge of being Deaf in a hearing-centric world is the assumption that all Deaf people are the same. Some people are born deaf due to genetic or hereditary causes. Some are deaf due to medical conditions, medications that damage the hearing, trauma, exposure to loud noises, and other reasons.

We are a community of people with a wide range of communication and technology preferences, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences. It is important to avoid assumptions and honor Deaf people’s experiences.

Some common myths surrounding Deaf people include:

  • It’s not safe for deaf people to drive.​
  • Deaf people can’t enjoy music.​
  • All deaf people wear hearing aids, and hearing aids restore hearing.​
  • All deaf people read lips.​
  • All deaf people use sign language.​
  • Deaf people are less intelligent than hearing people.​

According to the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes, “While Deaf people share certain experiences, the community is highly diverse. Some consider themselves to be part of the unique cultural and linguistic minority who use sign language as their primary language, while others do not. Deaf people have a wide range of communication preferences, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and additional disabilities that shape their interactions with their environment.”


On American Sign Language’s History and Power

By Judith Weinstein

I love studying languages. I’m fluent in French and studied it in college. I speak a smattering of other Romance languages and have studied Arabic and Hebrew as well. I can never get enough. At the heart of this passion is simply a desire to communicate with people in their own language.

I’m fascinated by languages that use alphabets other than the Latin alphabet, such as Japanese and Thai. American Sign Language (ASL) is one more language with a beautiful alphabet, only it’s a manual alphabet, not written or spoken.

I have long wanted to study ASL. Besides my love of languages, I had a personal reason to study it. My grandfather was deaf, likely a genetic condition triggered when he was hit by a car on the streets of New York. Communicating with him was difficult. No one in the family learned ASL, and my father and his brothers often resorted to pen and paper. My father too was hard of hearing but died in his late 50s, so I don’t know if he would have become deaf as he aged.

My family missed out not only on full communication but on a beautiful language. American Sign Language is a complete, natural language with the same linguistic properties of a spoken language. There is no universal sign language, and different languages have their own native signed language. Even British sign language differs significantly from American Sign Language.

Earlier this year, I signed up for an in-person ASL class at the Chicago Hearing Society, which offers online classes as well. The course was rich, and in addition to learning signs, I learned that facial expressions and movement are equally important for conveying tone and intensity.

ASL traces its origins to Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a preacher during the first half of the 1800s from Hartford, Connecticut. One spring day in 1814, Gallaudet was visiting family when he noticed that his younger relatives were not playing with a 9-year-old girl named Alice Cogswell.

Gallaudet soon found out that Alice was deaf and gestured to his hat and wrote the letters H-A-T in the sand, to Alice’s delight. Touched by Gallaudet’s interest in his daughter, her father, a surgeon, financed a trip for Gallaudet to Europe to learn more about more established deaf education and practices.

First, Gallaudet visited the family-run Braidwood school in England but refused to sign a non-disclosure agreement about their oral method of communicating with deaf people. While still in England, he met the Abbé Roch-Ambroise Sicard, the hearing founder of the Institut Royal des Sourd-Muets, a School for the Deaf in Bordeaux, France.

Gallaudet visited the school in Bordeaux and invited one of the educators, Laurent Clerc, to return to the U.S. with him. In exchange for teaching him French Sign Language (FSL), Gallaudet would teach Clerc written English. In 1817, they established the American School for the Deaf (ASD) in West Hartford, Connecticut.

The evolution of ASL incorporates another part of U.S. history as well. In the late 17th century, emigrants with a history of genetic deafness began settling on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Cape Cod with no outside commerce at the time. In the town of Chilmark, 1 in 25 people was deaf. The deaf population communicated in what became known as Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (MVSL). After the establishment of the American School for the Deaf, deaf children from the island traveled to Connecticut for their education. MVSL and FSL became intertwined in what became American Sign Language.

A few days after my first ASL class, I stopped at a store to purchase a bag of ice. I caught an employee’s attention and asked, “Do you sell ice?”

“I am Deaf,” he signed, gesturing that I should write down what I needed. I didn’t yet know the sign for ice, so I finger-spelled I-C-E. He smiled and motioned for me to follow him to the freezer.

I signed my gratitude. This was my first successful communication in my newest language, and I was thrilled. I plan to repeat the course, to continue to improve my finger spelling and other basics. I don’t know that I will ever become fluent in ASL, but just as with the other languages I’ve studied, I have one more communication tool in my toolbox. I am richer for it — and a better communicator.