Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a culture as the beliefs, customs, etc. of a particular society, group, place, or time. Because of their unique experiences growing up Deaf in a hearing world, Deaf people worldwide share many of the same beliefs, customs, and norms of behavior.
Note: Not every person with any amount of hearing loss always identifies with the Deaf community. The term “Deaf” (with a capital D) refers to individuals who share a common culture based on their use of sign language, their values and views as Deaf individuals, their rules for behavior, etc. The term “deaf” (with a lowercase d) refers simply to a lack of ability to hear.
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Many (if not most) Deaf do not regard their deafness as a physical handicap. Instead, it is simply the way they are and is a distinction that they live with comfortably.
Many Deaf people who have accepted this distinctive, if given the opportunity to become hearing, would refuse. Deafness is their way of life, and an important part of who they are. Deaf children born to Deaf parents are also highly valued by their family; they are not regarded as handicapped or a source of embarrassment.
Deaf schools are also an important part of their culture. It is at these schools that the traditions of Deaf culture and sign language are passed on to the next generation. The language of the Deaf is of central importance in the culture. It is through sign language that Deaf people are able to communicate with the world.
In most cultures, the basic unit of culture is the family. Families pass on their language, their traditions, their beliefs, etc. from one generation to another.
This is not the case for most Deaf people. Because a vast majority of Deaf children are born into households where both parents can hear, and neither knows sign language, the language barrier becomes an information and cultural barrier. Deaf children become isolated from the culture of the rest of their family.
Thus, in Deaf culture, the basic unit of culture is the individual. Deaf people learn Deaf culture and sign language typically from exposure to other Deaf people (through Deaf schools, Deaf clubs, social events, etc.).
Because Deaf people talk with their hands and listen with their eyes, there are some practical everyday things that are done differently from the hearing world:
To get the attention of a large group, instead of whistling or speaking in a loud voice, the lights are flashed to catch the attention of a Deaf audience. In one-on-one situations, a shoulder tap or hand wave is customary to get the attention of a Deaf individual.
When Deaf people are chatting in smaller groups, they make a circle so that everyone has access to the conversation.
During prayer time, the signer lifts his eyes heavenward (signifying the conversation with God), while the others keep their eyes open watching the signer.
Eye contact is of top priority in the Deaf community. Breaking eye contact signifies an interruption into the conversation.
Instead of clapping one’s hands to applaud, hands are waved in the air so that the Deaf can see the audience cheering.
Members of the Deaf culture have a shared history.
Unfortunately a significant portion of this history was very oppressive to the Deaf. There were many eras when sign language was forbidden, speech was forced and Deaf people were looked down upon. Schools that emphasize lip reading and voicing (and forbid sign language) are called oral schools. Students struggled to understand material presented to them, as it was done through written means. Students were often punished for signing within the classroom.
Unfortunately the church was not immune to some of this. Many years ago some pastors mistakenly interpreted Romans 10:14 (“How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”) to mean that Deaf people cannot be saved, because they cannot hear.
This situation is changing, but in many countries oppression is still the reality.
The Deaf culture is a collectivist culture. They typically think in terms of community rather than individually.
Subjects that are not normally discussed in individualist cultures (e.g., money, personal health) are more openly discussed in collectivist cultures.
Deaf people have a more relaxed sense of time than many.
They are known for arriving late, and not leaving at a punctual time, not necessarily following the American standard for punctuality. This is because the present moment is more valued than the schedule.
Similarly, Deaf goodbyes tend to be much more drawn out. Because the time fellowshipping with other Deaf people is cherished, the goodbyes tend to last for a significant length of time.
Deaf people also use touch more often than hearing people to get one’s attention, turn taking in conversation, etc.
Lighting is of high importance in Deaf culture. Because the eyes are used constantly in communication, dim environments can create strain on the eyes; therefore good lighting in work place situations is valued.
Open areas are also important. Small, separated rooms makes it difficult to communicate with others, while large open areas provides easy access to communication.