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The Characteristics of Deaf Culture

Carola has worked for agencies serving the hearing loss community for many years. She is also a freelance writer.

Deaf culture has many unique behaviors and ways to communicate

Deaf culture has many unique behaviors and ways to communicate

I have worked for several agencies serving the deaf and hard of hearing community for many years. At times, I was the only hearing person in a department with a deaf boss and co-workers. As a result, I was immersed in American Sign Language and the unique cultural norms of the deaf community.

I have observed that people with profound hearing loss are diverse with various communication styles, such as lipreading and speech. Many people with severe hearing loss do not think of themselves as members of the deaf community.

What Is the Deaf Community?

The deaf community is a closely-knit group that bonds through time shared in schools for the deaf, deaf clubs, associations, sports organizations, religious groups, and regular social events. Some deaf people become active advocates for deaf rights.

This article will look at people who identify as part of a deaf community with a distinct language (sign language) and culture.

Characteristics of Deaf Culture

Here are some of the unique characteristics of deaf culture.

Sign Language

In the book Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, the authors state that sign language and self-identification with the group "should be important diagnostic factors in deciding who is Deaf."

Sign language has evolved in the deaf community as a unique language with its grammar and syntax. Countries and regions have developed their own linguistic systems. For example, American Sign Language is primarily used in Canada and the USA. Some regions have a few different signs for some things.

Sign language is not based on English or the mother tongue of users but is influenced by them. For example, English words are fingerspelled, using a manual alphabet for formal names, or when no sign is available for something.

Many deaf people deeply value sign language as part of their cultural identity.

The Use of the capital "D" in Deaf

Some people with profound hearing loss embrace their deafness as part of their cultural identity and sometimes capitalize the "d" in Deaf. Using the capital seems to emphasize that the community has a distinct cultural identity. Its use is not consistent, so this article uses the usual designation of "deaf."

Some authors will use "Deaf" to refer to the deaf community and "deaf" to describe people with severe hearing loss outside the community.

Many Deaf people see themselves as a part of a unique linguistic group with a distinct culture.

Many Deaf people see themselves as a part of a unique linguistic group with a distinct culture.

Viewing Deafness as an Identity, Not a Disability

Some members of the deaf community consider themselves as different, not disabled. They feel that they don’t need to be “fixed” by doctors through medical interventions such as cochlear implants. Instead, they see themselves as a part of a unique linguistic group (sign language) with a distinct culture.

Rejection of Certain Labels and Descriptors

Deaf people prefer to be called deaf and dislike the term “hearing-impaired,” according to several sources such as the National Association of the Deaf. The term “hearing impaired” is vague and tends to lump diverse groups such as the hard of hearing, late-deafened, and deaf into one category. The deaf also dislike the “impaired” label since deaf people do not consider themselves deficient or disabled in any way.

Deaf people also object to terms that they feel are inaccurate such as "deaf-mute," which perpetuates the myth that they cannot speak. Many deaf people do speak. They also strongly object to the term “deaf and dumb,” feeling that the term indicates a lack of intelligence.

Some Individuals Bonded in Schools for the Deaf

Some people who were educated in schools for the deaf feel a strong bond with other deaf people. Deaf schools tend to create a strong sense of community and a shared culture. With the advent of cochlear implants and other factors, some deaf schools and special programs for deaf people are amalgamating or closing.

Unfortunately, some schools have been criticized for providing inadequate education and having lower student academic scores than regular schools. Several schools worldwide have been rocked by allegations of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and proven crimes.

Unique Ways to Get People's Attention

Deaf people have developed various ways of getting people’s attention in their silent world, such as:

  • A gentle touch - usually a tap on a shoulder
  • Handwaves
  • Vibration, such as a foot-stomping or a knock on a table
  • Turning a light switch on and off

Bluntness and Openness

Deaf people can be very blunt and open in their communication, making comments that hearing people would probably not say. For example, if a deaf boss found an error in my work, he would point it out and add something like, ”That was a stupid thing to do.” Deaf people tend to explain why they were late, unlike hearing people who probably would not say anything.

Innovative Adaptions to Activities of Everyday Living

Because deaf people communicate visually with their hands, they adapt to daily life in unique ways. For example, a deaf driver may wait until surrounding traffic stops to sign to a passenger or will sign to him briefly with one hand. They may choose to sign with one hand during meals or when holding something. At performances, deaf people may show appreciation by raising their hands and twisting and shaking them in the air instead of clapping.

Saying Hello and Goodbye

Deaf people generally greet one another with a hug. The greeting used for a hearing individual depends on how close the relationship is between the deaf and the hearing person. Deaf people are sensitive to the fact that many hearing people are not comfortable with being hugged.

The deaf community is extremely close-knit, so ending a visit can be difficult. A "deaf goodbye" is notorious for being overly long, with people saying goodbye numerous times and then continuing to talk.

Use of Assistive Technology and Alerting Devices

Specially designed technology has become a part of the deaf lifestyle for many people. A special text telephone called a TTY had been used to connect deaf people for many years.

These days, deaf people tend to use computer systems that enable them to communicate face to face over a computer screen or a videophone. Deaf people may also use alerting devices that make a light flash when the doorbell or the phone rings or an alarm goes off. Fire alarms with strobe lights may also be installed.

Adaptations for Hearing People

Deaf people will adapt their deaf cultural norms to accommodate hearing co-workers and friends. For example, deaf people normally get attention by a touch on the shoulder. My deaf co-workers realized that if they came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder as I typed away on my computer, I would be startled and distracted.

Instead, my deaf co-workers or boss would stand beside me and wait patiently for me to notice they were there. If a deaf person wanted my immediate attention, they usually flicked a light switch several times or stomp on the floor.

The deaf will ask, “Do you understand?” and will use gestures or mime if needed to make themselves understood. However, if a hearing person asks this question, a deaf individual may feel insulted.

On the whole, most deaf people are patient and understanding when dealing with hearing people, especially those who do not know anything about their unique language and culture.

Concluding Thoughts

The book Inside Deaf Culture by Tom Humphries and Carol Padden demonstrates that definitions of deaf culture have faced many challenges over the years. For example, in the past, the use of sign language was discouraged or banned by doctors and educational institutions.

Nowadays, new factors are impacting this definition such as cochlear implants, medical interventions, and new technologies. In the meantime, many people in the deaf community continue to value their unique culture as a part of their identity.


FAQ, General Information about the NAD, National Association of the Deaf
American Sign Language, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders
The Differences Between Deaf Culture and Hearing, Relay South Dakota


Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries
Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America, Jack Gannon

Questions & Answers

Question: How does a deaf person show appreciation?

Answer: In general, deaf people use some unique characteristics of sign language to express emotions such as gratitude. Facial expression is used to convey the "tone of voice" such as joy, anger, sadness, or sarcasm. Deaf people also use body positions, movements, and tension to indicate the intensity and scope of their emotions. Visual cues such as pursed lips for tiny things add meaning to the signs they use. Touch and hugging are also a big part of communication. Deaf people are also quite open and can be blunt when expressing feelings like appreciation.

© 2013 Carola Finch


Sleepylog from Australia on March 04, 2013:

Interesting stuff. Thanks for this enlightening hub.