Deaf Culture and American Sign Language

  Locations of visitors to this page
be notified of website changes? subscribe

Deaf Culture and American Sign Language

Los Hearing Aid Tienda

To begin with, I'm "Hearing". I have no extensive experience with a "signed language", the "Deaf" community, or any of the social service agencies that provide services to the Deaf. I'm not an expert on anything even remotely related to Deaf culture, anthropology, audiology, or linguistics.

I offer a Hearing person's perspective on Deaf culture and using American Sign Language (ASL). My ASL is terrible and limited, but no worse than my tourist French. (The important thing is that I can speak with the natives; grammar be damned at this phase of communicating.) What I say is targeted to Hearing web surfers with an interest in things Deaf (although most of the comments I receive are from Deaf surfers).

It is very common in our majority Hearing culture to view the Deaf as a minority disabled group who are in need of our help, or of rescue by coddling or surgery. It's been my experience that the Deaf are a vibrant group who are more accurately seen as an ethnic culture, with its own language, mores, and customs.

The ethnocentrism, imperialism, "oralism", and paternalism we've foisted upon the Deaf community is shameful, and does us no credit. It's high time we Hearing learned from the mistakes of our ancestors, and do better.

Learning about the Other is the first step. Here we go.

The Hearing have very little experience of the Deaf. Unless a family member is born with a hearing deficit, or a loved one becomes deaf through illness or misadventure, we can traverse the span of our days without any significant interactions with the Deaf.

We have many misconceptions about the Deaf, and about signed languages. Because we have such little interaction with the Deaf, both personally and societally, we have few chances to realize our misunderstandings. The personalities who have become known to the Hearing community typically bear little resemblance to the average Deaf person. (I'm thinking about Marlie Matlin and the 1995 Miss America, both of whom are very oral and communicate on television by "speech-reading" and voicing, without any signing.)

Before 1987 I had never had any significant contact with the Deaf. That year I became involved with an extended family that included two "sign-language interpreters" for the Deaf. I began to hear stories about interpreting, about the hurdles the minority Deaf face in the majority hearing culture, about sign language and linguistics. In 1993 I began taking lessons in signing American Sign Language (ASL) at the Community College of San Francisco. I also began keeping notes about the things I'd learned.

In early 1994 I began assembling World-Wide Web pages. In my inital pass I left a stub entitled "sign language," which I intended to flesh out at some later date. After an embarrassing number of people, from places as far away as Japan and Scandinavia, asked me when my sign language pages would be ready, I broke down and began to enter and organize my notes, leading to what you see here. Thank you all for nagging me.

Deaf or deaf?

Just as the Israelis are forced to deal with the term "Jewish" being applied to both a religious group and a nationality, we must deal with two interrelated aspects of the Deaf.

An audiological deficit

The beginning of our experience of the Deaf must begin with the definition we're given early in our schooled lives: the deaf cannot hear. This medical pathology, that a deaf person is identified by an audiological deficit that prevents them from receiving any audio stimuli, is the cornerstone of the Hearing community's perception of the Deaf as malformed, defective, handicapped beings.

We measure the Deaf against our hearing, "normal" selves. It's rare for us to see Deaf people having rich, full lives, complete with conversations, loves, children, and the like. We focus upon the one aspect that makes us different. This is a the hallmark of the Hearing: we (in general) refuse to find out about the Deaf experience by asking the Deaf. Harlan Lane, writing in the voice of Laurent Clerc, shows this trend in his description of the book The Education of the Congenitally Deaf:

Dozens of hearing authors are cited in the work of this brilliant man who never taught a deaf person anything, and scores of hearing authors in turn have since cited him, and criticized each other's citations, and cited conflicting views, until all of this citing of hearing people has become, for hearing people, the history of deaf people. Worse, deaf children have been led by hearing teachers to learn this so-called history, and to revere its heroes, who are, not surprisingly, other hearing teachers.

We see this pattern a frightful number of times. Our societal attitudes toward, and our interactions with, the Deaf are shamefully tainted with our ignorance.

While medical minstrations targeted at hearing people who have lost their hearing (c.f. "hard-of-hearing") may in some cases be appropriate, the Deaf experience of themselves doesn't center upon an inability to hear. (Never mind that there is a spectrum of hearing ability, just as there is a spectrum of visual acuity, and not all who we call Deaf are completely without hearing.)

Using the medical pathology as the definitive description of the Deaf has shown to be clearly inadequate when the goal is satisfying interactions.

A people with a culture

Far more satisfying is dismissing any focus on hearing deficit altogether, and viewing the Deaf as a cultural community with their own language, customs, and history. Holding the Deaf in the same light as you might, say, Gypsies or Jews, is more in line with how the Deaf view themselves: a minority culture.

Just as (to pick an example) the Mexican community in the United States have their own language and culture, and need interpreters to interact with the majority Anglo English-speaking culture, the Deaf are a self-standing culture not in immediate need of "fixing". (To be perfectly clear: I hold proponents of "English First!" or English-only government and schooling with the same contempt that I hold those oralists who persist in viewing the Deaf as a group that must be assimilated into the mainstream culture. That either of these attitudes exists in such a multicultural land as ours is a sad commentary on xenophobism.)

When one interacts with the Deaf as a people using a different language, rather than as broken people, their humanity, humor, and intense inner and cultural lives can be seen.

Sign-language interpreters for the Deaf

Unless you make the effort to learn a signed language at a local community college (an effort well worth doing) you'll most likely depend upon someone fluent in both your local signed language and your local spoken language. Unlike persons who professionally convert one human language into another, sign-language interpreters are by custom not called "translators".

Interpreters, or 'terps as they refer to themselves, typically spend quite a bit of time perfecting their craft. There are professional societies; in the USA your terp will most likely be certified by RID (the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf). They deal with a great variety of differences in clients and jobs: proficiency in Sign, technical (scientific, legal, historical/biblical, and jargon) language, and of course, personalities. Terps prefer certain types of jobs and clients just as a particular client will prefer some terps over others.

Signed languages

Until recently, research on signed languages was rare, and the mistaken ethnocentric assumptions of the Hearing wound up becoming popular wisdom for both the hearing and the Deaf:

Happily, these myths have mostly been demolished. We now know that signed languages are complete entities unto themselves, able to express in their own way everything that can be said or written in English, Spanish, Japanese, Welsh, Arabic, Mandarin, and Urdu. (Or at least as well as any language can express ideas present in another one.)

See also

This weblet is hardly the be-all or end-all of information about Deaf culture or signed languages. Here are just some of the resources about which I know. I trust you'll let me know of others worth of note.