Introduction to Deaf Culture and American Sign Language

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Introduction to Deaf Culture and American Sign Language

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.

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.

Have you found errors nontrivial or marginal, factual, analytical and illogical, arithmetical, temporal, or even typographical? Please let me know; drop me email. Thanks!

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