Culture is about the way we do things and the beliefs and values we hold. Deaf communities have many distinctive cultural characteristics, some of which are shared across different countries. Characteristics of Deaf culture include:
Sign language is at the centre of Deaf culture and community and the single most unifying characteristic. In Australia , the Deaf community's language is known as Auslan (Australian Sign Language).
Anyone who does not value Auslan is unlikely to either feel comfortable within the Deaf culture, or to be accepted by it.
It is not necessary to be fully fluent in Auslan, but what is necessary is acceptance of Auslan as a language in its own right and respect for it. If a person can show that they understand Auslan's value for Deaf people, Deaf people will help them to learn it. Without this they are unlikely to receive a warm welcome into the community. At best, they will be treated politely, but as an interloper or a "tourist". This attitude is not unique to Deaf culture, it can be found in other language groups too.
Sharing similar values is very important in any culture. In Deaf culture, some of the shared values are:
- Respect for Auslan
This is a core value, as explained above.
- Deaf is normal
For culturally Deaf people, to be Deaf is a natural state of being. It is an everyday part of their life and their identity. To express sadness or regret for a person's deafness can be considered a lack of acceptance of who they are.
Deaf people do not usually see themselves as disabled or impaired and dislike being referred to as "hearing impaired". They see themselves as "normal Deaf people" not as "people with impaired hearing". The disability they experience is a result of assumptions and barriers that hearing society imposes on them. This view can perhaps best be explained by the saying "in a room full of Deaf people it is the hearing person who cannot sign who is disabled".
Deaf people also generally have little interest in "cures" for deafness. They value their identity as Deaf people and see no value in becoming a different person.
- Deaf babies are highly valued
For Deaf people, having a deaf baby is something to celebrate, not something to grieve over. Deaf people value their children, whether they are deaf or hearing. They also value other people's deaf babies and welcome them into their community.
Within Deaf culture there are behaviours that are considered rude, but which are perfectly acceptable in hearing culture, and vice versa. Some examples are:
- Eye contact
Eye contact is extremely important. Hearing people often talk to each other with comparatively little eye contact, but within Deaf culture, avoiding eye contact can be seen as rude. Looking away while someone is signing to you is definitely a no-no.
In Deaf culture, it is acceptable to touch another person to gain their attention, even if you do not know them well. However, there are rules about where or how to touch. A light touch on the arm or shoulder is acceptable.
- Physical proximity
When two hearing people are having a conversation they often sit or stand close to each other, sometimes side by side. Deaf people sit or stand further apart and preferably opposite each other so that they can see each other's "signing space" comfortably. This physical distance may appear unfriendly to hearing people, but Deaf people usually find it uncomfortable trying to converse in close physical proximity.
Acceptable levels of directness vary considerably between all cultures. From Deaf people's perspective, hearing people seem to say things in oblique and roundabout ways. From hearing people's point of view, Deaf people may appear blunt or abrupt. These are cultural differences which need to be understood and accommodated.
- Thumping on tables or floors
Deaf people often thump on tables or floors to gain each other's attention, in the same way as hearing people call a person's name or shout. This behaviour can appear aggressive to hearing people, but in Deaf culture it is not.
Some customs are common in the Deaf community. They include:
- Who are you?
When Deaf people meet each other for the first time, or when they introduce each other, they will often provide more personal details than a hearing person might. They always give their first and last names, because there is a higher chance, in a small community, that this will provide information about their family or community connections. This can be particularly important if they come from a family with several generations of Deaf people - such families are considered to be at the core of the Deaf community. They will often add other information about their associations with particular places, sporting or cultural organisations, or the school they attended.
If you cannot volunteer any of these defining characteristics, or if you are a hearing person, you will most likely be asked questions about your connection with Deaf people. This introductory information establishes where you "fit" in the community - or to be direct about it as is often the Deaf way, whether or not you are acceptably "Deaf".
- The long goodbye
When Deaf people are leaving a gathering of friends (and Deaf people who belong to the Deaf community tend to have many friends) they take much longer than most hearing people do to say goodbye. The custom is to seek out one's friends and in the process of saying goodbye, discuss when they next expect to meet. Since there are so many people to say good bye to and so many future arrangements (vague or concrete) to make, it takes a long time before the person actually leaves.
Most hearing people, when they think about technology for deaf people, think about hearing aids and cochlear implants. To Deaf people, this is a "hearing" way of thinking - i.e., looking for technology to make deaf people hear.
For most Deaf people, technology means things that will make living as a Deaf person in a predominantly hearing culture more comfortable and convenient, e.g., flashing lights for door and phone, vibrating alarm clocks, TTYs, videophones.
Throughout history, Deaf people have devised ways to live as Deaf people. Even before we had modern technology, Deaf people found ways to adapt household items to suit them.
Deaf people also prefer or select particular kinds of environments - they often prefer open-plan houses with good sight-lines, round tables rather than rectangular, and they always choose strong, even lighting rather than soft lamps, candles, or flickering lights.
Deaf people are very proud of their heritage, which includes:
- significant places (e.g., under street lights in particular areas before clubs were established), schools and clubs and the buildings that housed them
- stories of how Deaf people have withstood persecution (e.g., in Nazi Germany)
- attempts to "cure" them (e.g., the early 19 th century French doctor Jean-Marc Itard, who attempted a variety of bizarre cures on the pupils of the deaf school in Paris; and today's cochlear implant)
- the suppression of sign language by hearing educators and its survival and growth underground
- famous Deaf people, e.g., the Spanish painter "El Mudo", England's Queen Alexandra, Australian pioneering teachers FJ Rose, Thomas Pattison and Sister Mary Gabriel.
All these things, and many others, give Deaf people a sense of their place in history - they hold a place in the world's story that is uniquely theirs.
Deaf people who grow up isolated from the Deaf community and later discover it, also discover this sense of historical identity and belonging and it becomes very valuable to them. In fact, this common experience of isolation from the Deaf community is part of Deaf history.
Art and humour
Deaf theatre groups are popular in Deaf communities. In Australia the Australian Theatre of the Deaf is well known, but there are also amateur theatre groups.
Deaf artists often have a particularly "Deaf" style, for example the depiction of Deaf symbolism such as hands and signs. Film making is now becoming a popular art form in the Deaf community.
Deaf people tell jokes about the Deaf life, and about hearing people. Deaf communities often hold comedy nights where people tell jokes, funny stories, and true life anecdotes.
Why do Deaf people have a different culture?
Cultures develop around people's self-identity, i.e., their experiences and ideas about themselves and their place in the world. It is a natural development when people who share similar experiences and identities come together. Cultures gather strength when they are passed down over generations and are enriched with historical knowledge.
Deaf people's interaction with other people and with the world around them is primarily visual. Deaf culture is based on this visual orientation.
Many people seem to believe that by isolating Deaf people from each other, this Deaf cultural identity would not develop. But people seem to have an innate need to congregate with others who are like them in some way and who accept them for who they are, and Deaf people are no different - sooner or later they seek each other out. Ironically, the experience of isolation from the Deaf community and the Deaf culture becomes for many Deaf people one of the commonly shared experiences and hence one of the culture's unifying factors.
A bilingual, bicultural people
Deaf people who belong to the Deaf community are bilingual and bicultural. They use Auslan in the Deaf community and English in the hearing community to varying degrees of fluency. They live and work to varying degrees with hearing people in the hearing community and with Deaf people in the Deaf community. Although they often struggle with discrimination, prejudice and misunderstanding in the hearing culture, and live rich and fulfilling social, sporting and cultural lives within the Deaf culture, they continue to be part of both cultures.
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