What is “Deaf Culture” & The Deaf Community


Here are two of SJ’s previous articles on what is “deaf culture”, and on the back of it, an important message for the deaf community.



Have a great day wherever you may be.


Views From The Velvet Prison by Mervyn James.

Mr Mervyn James.

Mr Mervyn James.

The culture gig is, basically, a response to isolation, and controlled environment approaches… not in-built genetic norms of any kind, since only point 2% of the entire deaf area with profound loss that relies on sign language, has a true genetic background. I do not think we do deaf children or deaf adults a service by pandering/recognising that Isolation as an acceptable norm ever.

It can be seductive to think we/they are ‘with own kind’, but the ongoing effect and lifestyle is isolation.  Many years when I started out and went profoundly deaf, I called this ‘The Velvet prison’… cool, cosy, and a defence and ultimately a refuge against a hostile hearing world, mainly because the belief is it is too tough out there… it certainly was for me at that time.

Now, I’d rather push access and education to break that up, so true equality and inclusion is seen in real time and not an occasional favour both mainstream and the deaf sign users go with occasionally, ‘look busy we are being watched..’ sort of thing. To use a rugby term, it was ‘going through the phases.’ but then failing to follow through to score a try at the end.  Playing the game not really expecting an end result.

There is no access, no equality, and no inclusion unless, we are all in it together, if that isn’t the case, then what we see is a ‘secular or segregated’ approach, whereby those who feel they are unable to avail themselves of the ‘bridges’ of communications, or utilise the laws that exist to enhance integrations between hearing and deaf, who are then doomed by default, never to take any active part in their own inclusion.

For many adults it is already too late, you can’t teach some of these old dogs new tricks, and they are perfectly content to stay as they are, ‘all deaf together’ or ‘all hearing Impaired’ together or even ‘all hearing together.. well, all of some or other together… but we do need to stop these views being portrayed as a virtue and part of being a deaf or person with other hearing loss. Isolation is not a cultural trait, it is a norm forced on people by a lack opportunity to break out, via discrimination, or oppression, or simply by personal choice.

That need not be the case for all but a very few. It has to be said, many with hearing and hearing loss, but not profoundly deaf, do seem to adopt the ‘let’s leave them to it..’ or ‘cest la vie..’ approaches, and they/we should not be doing that because it feeds the view isolation is inevitable, or even a lifestyle choice and right.

Occasionally it can look like ‘Not our business…’ and then divides become apparent, acceptable and very real.  In reality the ‘non-deaf’ with all their varieties and degrees of loss are at present not visible, unlike others who are HIGHLY visible through sign mediums, but the ‘non-deaf’ are the least empowered of all…. If you talk about ‘Invisible’ disabled then, that is us, it certainly is not someone deaf who signs who cannot HELP but be visible.

It may account for people who represent those areas latching on to aspects of sign so their issues can be seen too. It doesn’t work given the huge profile of signed language currently, and the awareness approaches that seem to be opposing each other by virtue of the fact they use different means to communicate, and/or a mixture of such approaches that the more ‘purist’ of deaf advocates don’t approve of. There is now a division of communication approach that polarises people. Deaf awareness never worked, never will.

Probably the biggest issue all with hearing loss now face, is how to pursue own access to the ultimate aim of acceptance and integration. Utopia will not happen. Even Martha’s Vineyard, which was held up as a yardstick to true deaf-hearing communal acceptance, disintegrated when that isolation was broken. In the Middle East, a whole tribe of nomads near Israel are near all deaf, and face the same outcome.

Perhaps herein lies the real reason for the pursuit of culture with some deaf, if that isolation, (which is the glue that holds the deaf ‘community’ together), is broken, then, so is their social base destroyed, certainly put under extreme pressure, who wants to be alone ? A powerful reason to pursue a cultural ideal.

~ Mervyn James.

Who can also be found at “At The Rim.

The Deaf Community – An Important Message.

Many years ago, deaf people were not considered to be in a position where they could be a proactive member of society. For at times, families would hide their deaf child away because they felt ashamed simply because they had a child who happened to be deaf or even worse, were not diagnosed as deaf but for want of a better word, dumb. Some of these people were mistreated, abandoned and abused.

Looking around us today, it is a completely different picture. It is not yet perfect but the deaf now have a community which has come a long way and I am using the word “community” and not “culture” because the word “culture” is rather complex and divisive. When one uses the word “culture”, it is in reference to customs, habits, language and many other factors that belong to a particular group of people who are different to others.

Sign language alone should not form the basis for a “deaf culture” because deaf people are born into a culture that already exists – if you are born into the British culture then by default you are British. Bearing in mind, that sign language is derived and based on our mother tongue. Both deaf and hearing people as well as monkeys and apes can use this form of visual language. On the other hand, it would be wrong of us to assume anyone who may be hard of hearing, deafened, deaf or deafblind automatically know sign language. To presume that everyone deaf can sign is not correct and it is misinforming our society of today.

A baby who has been born deaf into a British hearing family, growing up with the family’s customs and ways, can he suddenly deny his family’s culture and refer to himself as deaf only? Insinuating, that because his family is hearing, they do not belong to a “deaf culture” despite having tried their very best to provide their child with an enriching and balanced upbringing, encouraging him to speak, sign and integrate with his peers regardless of whether they were deaf or hearing.

It would be extremely hard for me to separate myself from the people that taught me everything I know and in the process hurting them in return by secluding myself to another particular culture, especially one that we find difficult to define.

To put it simply, we have habits (no, not those long brown gowns!) which is interpreted by some as “deaf culture”, or more appropriately termed as learned behaviour. On the contrary, we can learn it, be aware of it but it does not mean we have to adopt it.

Sadly, there are deaf parents who hope their child will be born deaf because they believe they belong to a deaf culture only and by having a hearing child, they would break that familiarity to what they only know. This is an extreme stance to have and it is one that is potentially damaging.

By simply saying to hearing people “If you do not make the effort to communicate with me then I will separate myself from you all together” is so not the route to take; the more they see of you, the more they are forced to understand you. I say forced because hearing people have the option to learn at least some basic sign language like finger spelling which should at least be made part of today’s school curriculum.

One (i.e. Paddy Ladd and his Deafhood book) could argue that residential schools for the deaf is the main continuity for “deaf culture” being learned – perhaps forty years ago but not today. Because forty years or so ago, the differences in technology, segregation and concentration then and now could not be more evident unless influenced and taught otherwise by the older generations.

As stated on NDCS website, “90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents with little or no experience of deafness or knowledge of how to communicate with a deaf person”. The other 10% would probably grow up with sign language as their first language in cases where the deaf parents also sign rather than having to wait until they have contact with other deaf children, which is normally the experience of the other 90% at school. Approximately, nowadays, 90% of those deaf children born severely or profoundly deaf are likely to be implanted before their second birthday – More than 60% of the children at Mary Hare School now have implants.

Where hearing aids and implants are concerned, people have feared deaf identities and the linguistics will be lost, “I am still deaf” one may remark. Of course, you will still be deaf because your hearing aid(s) or implants will not be in use 24/7 and you will have grown up as a deaf person, lip-reading, signing (if able to). The deaf majority at present, thankfully, now sees a CI as a superior hearing aid, which actually has very little bearing on “deaf culture” despite a tiny percentage that are anti-CI and vehemently trying to turn people against CI’s by using an excuse along the lines of “social cleansing”.

There is a term albeit rarely used, which is the “hearing brain”. I understand this to mean when someone loses hearing later in life after growing up living life to the max as a hearing person possibly could, has been fortunate to receive a cochlear implant, only to characteristically revert to whom they grew up as. Do we or rather, should we put that down to “hearing culture”? When it is whom they have learnt and happen to be, within themselves and society just as we are who we are and that others have taught us who to become.

My fear of seeing people belonging to one culture and denying everything, everyone else around them is that there is a danger of separating ourselves from the mainstream culture we have to live in and share.

In being exclusive, this will undo all the hard work that has been achieved before us, by the many generations of deaf people. They are the ones who struggled and fought hard to finally be accepted within the mainstream society today. If anything, we should continue to strive albeit much harder to keep this sense of inclusion and integration developing but there is a cycle, especially where learnt behaviour is concerned, reoccurring in many senses that people need to break out of this habit, especially if they want to advance further as an inclusive and diverse community.

There is a still a lot that has to be done, in terms of educating society that we are all equals and just as capable but not by creating and realising any further divisive ideas. With positivity, forward thinking and unity, this can be achieved by the deaf community but only if the will is there.

~ SJ (Sara Jae)

What Is “Deaf Culture”?

E. Adamson Hoebel’s book of Anthropology: Study of Man. “describes culture as an integrated system of learned behaviour patterns which are characteristic of the members of a society and which are not a result of biological inheritance.”

Ask a British person “What is British Culture?” and they may struggle for the very first few minutes before trying to answer with possibly the majority using examples due to characteristics based on tradition, customs, habits, cuisine and environment they live in. Ask a deaf British person and most likely he will give the same answer as a British person who happens to be hearing. My question is as deaf people do we actually have a separate set of customs and traditions to the British who are hearing?

How did the deaf community start using the term “Deaf culture” when it is actually a subculture – a particular social group within a national culture? If “Culture” is not supposed to be applied to biological or genetic inheritance – is there such a thing as a hearing culture?

Are we making it hard for ourselves if we are excluding ourselves from the world around us by creating this “Deaf Culture” or is it a positive thing that should be celebrated?

Being deaf makes those of us unique in the sense that it is a hidden disability but there is a percentage who corner themselves even more so expecting the hearing world to understand them, to learn sign language and come totally their way. Those who think that, do so because they believe there is nothing wrong with them – that the negative lies within the hearing world and so they should make that effort. This again is sometimes not of their own doing when they have been so immersed with their own surroundings and peers for so long. But there are those who may go to an extreme when so proud to say “Deaf Power!” – Even several hope their children will be deaf too. They have on occasion been branded as Fascists. Yet with that kind of mentality nothing will be achieved in terms of improving services and access for deaf people in general.

Those who are able to wear hearing aid(s), have a cochlear implant or learn/choose to speak do so in order to improve the quality of their lives and in an attempt to be able to engage with the hearing world better. This is not a bad thing to want to do. To meet half way and for this reason I believe parts of the deaf community should not be looking down on these people as some sort of traitors who in their eyes are betraying the so called “Deaf culture”. The hypocrisy of these people is very clear when they rely on a hearing person or their own hearing children to be their interpreter and will not accept anything less when they can make the effort to meet half way. My point is, the more we isolate ourselves from the hearing world – the harder it will become for the hearing people to make any effort to understand us.

Extreme views are never a positive thing in any walk of life so you can only imagine (for some to an extent) my utter disbelief when someone arrogantly once said “Interpreters should be grateful to the deaf community for providing them with a job”. Some may also say that providing interpreters, and the time it takes to get one is drainage on the tax we all pay.

Just because we happen to be deaf, deafened, HoH, deaf-blind and so on, it does not mean certain attitudes, chips on shoulders etc. exist only in one part of the world that we are in – this behaviour will manifest regardless, wherever one may be. Except that it does not give anyone the right to disrespect, degrade and/or humiliate another.

There are also those who dictate to us still that we should be using the “big D or little d” to identify and potentially divide within the deaf community – once again, would you use a big H to identify and describe certain hearing people or their world? I do not even feel comfortable using the term “hearing world“ because this is everyone’s world supposedly united – for each and every single one of us. So why impose that onto our own? Or accept it even especially when it is not grammatically correct?

Sadly, people are far too easily influenced by others around them. People have for so long been telling others what to do and/or who to be and it is high time for that to stop. For people to think for themselves and stand on their own two feet, to not follow the flock just because of peer pressure. To be true to yourselves and do what you feel is right – ask questions and seek knowledge, for knowledge is power whilst striving for equality – as equals.

“The beauty of the world lies in the diversity of its people”

“The beauty of the world lies in the diversity of its people”

Now ask yourselves wherever you may be, what is “deaf culture”?

~ SJ (Sara Jae)

Many thanks to SLFirst for publishing this article in their magazine.