What is Deaf culture?

Like many linguistic minorities, Deaf people enjoy a unique culture, as worthy of respect as any other. The Deaf way of life is quite fascinating. It is only in recent years that research has begun to explore different aspects of Deaf relationships, communication and society.

One good example of Deaf culture is the way Deaf people interact in a restaurant. Constant eye contact is made in order to communicate visually in Sign Language, whereas hearing people don’t make such regular eye contract and may carry on eating during the conversation.

Culture is also about history and art. Within the Deaf community there is a strong tradition of story-telling and joke-telling. Stories are often passed on from one generation to the next. There have been many captivating and moving stories on the way Deaf people lived in the past, often expressed with great dignity.

Deaf people are proud of their history and of what Deaf achievers have contributed to both Deaf and hearing society in the past. They are motivated by their example to develop their lives to the fullest in the future. Deaf schoolchildren of today need access to their history and culture so that they have role models they can look up to and emulate with confidence.

The current flourishing of BSL in a range of art forms including drama, poetry, comedy and satire is a mark of the new confidence and pride which Deaf people are finding in their own language and culture. Recent productions have not only used BSL but have tackled themes which go to the very heart of Deaf experience.

Hearing people don’t always understand the importance of Deaf culture, but when they do come to discover if they can be surprised by its strength and value and often find their own lives enriched in the process. Dr Oliver Sacks captures something of the sense of revelation that a hearing person often feels on first coming into contact with Deaf culture in full flow, when he describe his visits to the Deaf university, Gallaudet, in Washington DC: 

“I found it an astonishing and moving experience. I had never before seen an entire community of the deaf, nor had I quite realized (even though I knew this theoretically) that Sign might indeed be a complete language – a language equally suitable for making love or speeches, for flirtation or mathematics. I had to see philosophy and chemistry classes in Sign; I had to see the absolutely silent mathematics department at work; to see deaf bards, Sign poetry, on the campus and the range and depth of the Gallaudet theatre; I had to see the wonderful social scene in the student bar, with hands flying in all directions as a hundred separate conversations proceeded – I had to see all this for myself before I could be moved from my previous “medical” view of deafness (as a condition, a deficit, that had to be “treated”) to a “cultural” view of the deaf as forming a community with a complete language and culture of its own.”

(Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks, © 1989)

What is Deafness?

There are two approaches to defining the word “deafness”. One is based medically on a condition of lack of hearing in the range of perceived sound common to most people.

This can be described in terms of percentage or degree. Words such as profound, severe, moderate or partial hearing loss are often used to illustrate how much a person’s hearing deviates from the general range.

A second way to define “deafness” is important to acknowledge in the context of the BDA and its membership. Deafness here is description of a state of being: it defines a group of people who share a perception of the world through an emphasis on visual and kinaesthetic input. This description of deafness is used most commonly for people who are deaf at birth or in very early childhood. Deafness here defines a cultural, social and linguistic group, and is often signified by the use of a capital “D”.

What causes Deafness?

Deafness is caused in a number of ways, Deafness can be genetic. Deafness can be caused by illness such as mumps, measles, meningitis or Rubella: this can occur during pregnancy or after the child is born. It can be caused by repeated or prolonged exposure to “noise pollution” such as loud music or noisy machinery; or by explosions, or bypersistent ear infections.

Depending on the cause of deafness, the effects can be temporary or permanent and can vary in degree of severity. There are estimated to be about 9 million deaf and hard of hearing adults in the UK, that is about 18% of the total population. About 640,000 of these are profoundly or severely deaf. As people grow older the changes of becoming deaf increase: 7 out of 10 people over 70 will have developed a significant hearing loss. As the proportion of older people as a percentage of the population as a whole increases, so too will the numbers of deafened people.

What is the Deaf community?

The Deaf community is a vibrant society where Deaf people who use sign language are traditionally drawn together through sharing news, experiences, activities and sports events. This creates a sense of belonging. Deaf people feel most comfortable in the company of other Deaf people. Hearing people who wish to learn more about sign language, the Deaf community and its culture are often welcomed.

Where do Deaf people meet?

Local Deaf clubs are situated around the country where Deaf (and hearing people as well) meet together socially and to take part in the club’s social, leisure and sports activities. Deaf clubs can be purpose-built or converted from other buildings, or can be just a single hall. The venues vary according to the resources and the inclinations of the local community. Sometimes meetings occur informally in pubs.