When we type ‘what is culture?’ into google, countless definitions pop up because the culture is complex and is far more than where you are from. When we talk about ‘what is Deaf culture?’ perhaps the most fitting definition of culture is this:
A Culture is a system of norms, values, standards and behavioural models that is socially acquired and shared by a group of individuals and in a cognitive context. […] A culture constantly evolves through contact with other cultural systems and because of changes in the perceived and natural world. (Olalla-Soler 2015,90)
According to the World Health organisation, deafness affects over 5% of the global population. So, if we look at the global Deaf community, there are cultural aspects that are shared and are constantly evolving. This is because each country’s Deaf culture will always be influenced by the country in which Deaf people live as is their sign language. A common misconception is that all sign language is the same.
It is important to understand that members of the Deaf community do not identify with having a disability. Deafness is simply another way of living the human experience.
However, with 9 out of 10 deaf children born into hearing parents, the first port of call for new parents navigating through the world of deafness is almost always medical. This means that most families are offered hearing devices such as cochlear implants, rather than the social aspect which often includes sign language and the Deaf community.
According to the British Deaf Association, only 1 in 10 of this families will learn sign language with their children. This means that some Deaf people do not start signing until later on in life when they perhaps meet other Deaf or start to learn sign language at school.
Deaf children who have parents that are deaf are culturally Deaf from the start. Their first language is sign language and their parents will bring them to community events from a young age. For those children, their identity as a Deaf person is strong. It is atypical for a deaf child born to hearing parents to be introduced to the deaf community at a young age and generally speaking they will find the community later in life either through school, sport, work or recreational activity that runs parallel to the hearing world. For example, bush walking group.
Technology and the shift it has placed on Deaf Culture.
If we revisit the definition of culture ‘… A culture constantly evolves through contact with other cultural systems and because of changes in the perceived and natural world’ it is obvious that this applies to the Deaf community.
The introduction of communication technology such as a mobile phone and laptop has indeed impacted society as a whole, however, the it has placed quite a shift in the Deaf Community with applications such as Skype and Facetime. This has meant that most previous communication devices such as TTY are no longer in use and it has meant that the community can rely on visual communication irrespective of location.
Technology has also opened the door for a more global Deaf community as Facebook has enabled Deaf people to post vlogs and share information in their own language. It has created a virtual community in which people within their community can share information. An example of some internet vloggers are the Daily Moth, who share news and current affairs from around the world and although it is delivered in American Sign Language it does have a strong global following.
The Australian Deaf Community has shifted with the introduction of new technology. In the past, the now senior members of our community would gather together with friends and families weekly to share stories. This is sadly more a thing of the past as the Deaf community now meet at events rather than a Deaf club. In Australia the Deaf community host event for each other to catch up at a thing like the Deaf Market, Deaf expo, art club, and sporting events which play a huge role in Deaf culture.
Sign language in Australia The Deaf Community is considered a language minority of Australia. However, they are not bound by one language. Within each subculture there are different languages and dialects. For example, each state have significant sign variation in Auslan. Auslan is the majority sign language of Australia however there is also Australian Irish Sign Language, indigenous sign languages such as Yolungu Sign Language. (Adam Schembri)
Deaf v Hearing Culture
The Deaf community have some unique characteristics that are shared throughout the global community such as sign languages and a system of values and beliefs that stem from identifying as Deaf.
We use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share language and a culture (Padden and Humphries 1988:2). This is important when we look at Deaf culture because it is more than audiological.
Hearing people who are unfamiliar with the Deaf Community usually aren’t aware that Deaf culture exists. From a social perspective, the common misconception is the Deaf people have the same social values and system of beliefs. This is also why many people in the Deaf Community feel misunderstood.
Deaf Awareness Training is offered by various members of the Deaf community to people who maybe work with deaf or encounter Deaf people during their workday.
This training is really important in understanding the Deaf Culture and how to best interact with a Deaf person.
Whenever you have an interaction with two cultures there is always bound to be a slight difference in values and beliefs as well as language barriers. These clashes happen with the hearing and Deaf communities, here are some examples.
Deaf people like to have a well-lit room when having a conversation so will often opt to sit in the brightest part of the restaurant. Often Hearing people will enjoy the dim lights as it is calmer and more romantic.
In hearing culture, it is considered rude to comment on someone’s physical appearance, however, it is considered quite normal in Deaf culture mainly because their language is so visual. For example, hearing people might say “have you met Michael? He is short with grey hair and glasses.” Deaf may say “You know Michael he is short with a round face and glasses.”
It is also common in Deaf culture to tap someone on the shoulder, bang on a table or tap the floor to gain another person’s attention.
The term Audism was first discussed in an unpublished paper written by American communication and language researcher Tom L. Humphries in the 1970s as a way of explaining discrimination towards people whom are Deaf. His definition is was this
“in the form of people who continually judge deaf people’s intelligence and success on the basis of their ability in the language of the hearing culture.”
Another example is when Deaf people “actively participate in the oppression of other Deaf people demanding of them the same set of standards and behaviour and values that they demand of hearing people.” (Humphries)
Audism is something that the Deaf community face in the hearing world daily. Whether it be due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of Deaf culture and the community or intentional, for example, when Deaf people try for access and equality but are denied or they are judged for their deafness.
Examples of Audism
- Not taking the time to communicate
- Assuming deaf people can’t do things
- Believing that being deaf is some sort of tragedy
- Employment discrimination such as intentionally not providing an interpreter for meetings
- Forcing medical intervention
Audism happens in the workplace more often than you would think. It is a combination of these examples that lead to some deaf people having a hard time getting a promotion or for young Deaf students who are never given the opportunity to become class or sport captain.
Membership criteria of the deaf community
The Australian Deaf community is made up of Deaf members and those who are not culturally deaf but are allies of the community who maybe work in the community or share in a common purpose. To be a member the following criteria is essential. You do not need all five, however, you must have majority.
The Australian Deaf community have many big events that are annual, biannual which provide different community members an opportunity to volunteer, or simply attend. These community events can bring the larger community together to catch up with some deaf travelling interstate to attend and catch up with old friends. For Deaf people in the community, all members are welcomed.
Within the broader Deaf community, there are smaller groups all working towards achieving the same community goals there will almost always be, however, a level of disagreement and antagonism that happens due to a range of outside factors such as social, political and economic.
Is considered to be one of the most important parts of acceptance into the community if you are a hearing person.
Members who are the heart and soul of the community share a commonality in how they experience the world.
Probably one of the most important for all Deaf members of the community, when they accept new people into their community, is their attitude. Having a sound understanding of the Deaf community, respect for the language and what it means to be an ally. Some people may socialise with deaf for their own benefit such as learning the language. This is not something the Deaf community appreciate and people who deem the community purely as a place of work will never be true members of the community. One other unacceptable attitude people feel it is their responsibility to ‘help’ the community, as this is part of audism, see above for more details on audism.
Olalla-Soler, Christian (2015). An experimental study into the acquisition of the cultural competence in translator training. Research design and methodological issues. Translation & Interpreting, 7(1), 86-110.
Padden, Carol. & Humphries, Tom. (1988). Deaf in America : voices from a culture. Cambridge, Mass : Harvard University Press
Ladd, Paddy . 2003. Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood. Cleveland, OH: Multilingual Matters LTD.
Humphries, Tom . 1977. “Communicating Across Cultures (Deaf/Hearing) and Language Learning.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Union Graduate School, Cincinnati, OH.
Deaf Studies Think Tank (2002 : Gallaudet University) and Bauman, H-Dirksen L., 1964- Open your eyes : deaf studies talking. University of Minnesota Press ; Bristol : University Presses Marketing [distributor], Minneapolis, Minn, 2008.
Johnston, T., & Schembri, A. (2007). Australian Sign Language (Auslan): an introduction to sign language linguistics. Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press.