Speaking “Deaf”

Deaf Culture 101

When I first started working with hard-of-hearing and late-deafened adult communities, Deaf Culture was a mystery to me. So I did was most journalists do – asked someone within it to explain. This is part of what I learned.

A Linguistic and Cultural Minority

Deaf Culture is not based on a country of origin or family ties but has its own language and values, and an internal support system made up of Deaf and Sign-fluent persons. In a nutshell, Capital-D Deaf persons consider themselves to be a linguistic and cultural minority while lower-case-d deaf do not. Most culturally Deaf persons were taught Sign language since birth and consider it their mother tongue.

“It’s an oppressed group trying to be recognized as a cultural minority. The perception of being deaf is that it’s a disability, but Deaf people do not believe that. They function as well as anyone else. The only thing that differentiates them is linguistic differences and their need for interpreting.” ~ Bohdan Ladashevska

Cultural Genocide

Interpreter Ladashevska compares Deaf Culture to Gay Culture, noting there’s a similar political pride in both. He is himself reluctant to discuss Deaf politics. “It’s like asking someone white to comment on black issues – I’m still a hearing person.” Because institutions are where Deaf persons develop their cultural identity, and learn and practise their language, Deaf Culture considers the mainstreaming of Deaf children to be cultural genocide.

According to Ladashevska, this matter can put interpreters between a rock and a hard place. While the Deaf community doesn’t want qualified interpreters to work in public schools, interpreters say underqualified interpreters are working in the mainstream, leading children to develop substandard language skills. Interpreters want to improve the quality of education, to make employers aware, to make sure all Deaf children have skilled language models.

Medicalizing Deafness

You may also have read or heard of some of the controversy about Cochlear Implants and, if you are a hearing person, perhaps you have difficulty understanding why every single person wouldn’t want to hear if they had the opportunity. Nothing is that simple. Deaf Culture is extremely wary of ‘medicalizing’ deafness, where being deaf is treated as a defect that must be corrected. The loss of Deaf culture is, to them, a genuine and very real concern.

For more comprehensive information about Deaf culture, please visit Canadian Association of the Deaf Deaf Culture vs. Medicalization.

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There Is No ‘Us’ and ‘Them’

Everyone should know something about hearing loss. Most of us will, at some point in our lives, know someone experiencing it. Moreover, most of us will likely experience hearing loss ourselves. So here are some very basic tips to help us to better understand the range of communications that are used within what’s known as the deaf community, keeping in mind that very few people are actually completely deaf.

  • If you’ve been late-deafened, chances are you lip-read in the oral language(s) you already understand. Anyone can, at any time in their life, become deaf. If you were to lose your hearing today, you would have no use nor need for Sign language because you wouldn’t understand it. The majority of late-deafened persons are adults, many in their advanced years. For more information and resources, see Hearing Speech and Deafness Center.
  • If you’re deafblind, you rely on an intricate series of touches called two-hand or tactile communications using the Deafblind Manual Alphabet. In many instances, deafblind persons have been so since birth but deafblindness is also acquired from disorders such as Usher Syndrome and Rubella. Red and white canes are used as a symbol of deafblindness. For much more comprehensive info, check out this unique website created by deafblind James Gallagher: A-Z to Deafblindness.
  • If you’re hard of hearing, you speak orally and need amplified sound. Some hard of hearing individuals have lost the ability to hear certain tones over time. While many of us think only older people are affected by hearing loss, the reality is that the age range of persons affected is wide. Some infants are born hard of hearing, and medical conditions can bring about hearing loss at any age. Organizations and support groups exist for this community including Hard of Hearing Young People Foundation and the Hearing Loss Association of America. For more information and resources, Northern Virginia Resource Center is a good place to begin.
  • If you’re oral deaf, you learned speech as your first language and were mainstreamed. An oral deaf person who can both Sign and speak orally may be considered deaf if he/she is accepted as such by other deaf persons and uses Sign within the deaf community. Oral deaf individuals are often mainstreamed. For much more detailed information, Canadian Association of the Deaf is an excellent resource.

For more comprehensive information about Deaf culture, please visit Canadian Association of the Deaf Deaf Culture vs. Medicalization.

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@ Lynnette D’anna 2017. All rights reserved. A portion of this article with the accompanying photographs first published by Interchange. D’anna worked for more than a decade as a Graphic Interpreter within the hard-of-hearing and late-deafened adult communities.