A Conversation About Deaf Culture

One of the assignments in my online course, Basic ASL for Library Staff, is to create a description of Deaf Culture that students can use when sharing what they have learned with co-workers, family members, and friends.  Kathleen Westbrook of the Appleton Public Library (Wisconsin) came up with the following imaginary conversation, which I am posting here with her permission:

Friend: Whatcha been up to lately?

Me: Well, I’m taking a Basic American Sign Language for Library Staff. It’s been great.

Friend: Are you learning a lot of signs?

Me: Oh, yeah, quite a few, but I’m also learning about Deaf Culture.

Friend: Deaf Culture? What’s that?

Me: Well, it’s a lot like any culture, you know? A group, a community, of people with a shared language…shared customs…experiences… history…beliefs. Like Japanese Culture, or Italian Culture.For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the shared language is-

Friend: Sign language?

Me: Yep. And here in America, it’s ASL.

Friend: Wait, Isn’t sign language universal?

Me: Nope. We’ve been learning a bit about the history of ASL. It’s based largely on French Sign Language; as a matter of fact, the first main teacher was a Frenchman, Laurent Clerc, a Deaf guy.

Friend: I did not know that.

Me: That’s a whole story in itself. But getting back to Deaf Culture–and Deaf is with a capital “D”–at the heart of it is the idea that the Deaf and Hard of Hearing –

Friend: Hey, don’t you mean “hearing impaired?”Isn’t that more “P.C.?”

Me: Actually it’s not! Because at the heart of the culture is the idea, or belief, that being Deaf or Hard of Hearing is a difference, rather than a disability or an impairment; that they are able to do so many things, with the exception of hearing, and they can and do contribute to society just as they are, without needing to be “fixed.”They believe that their differences are assets.They call it Deaf Gain.

Friend: Gosh, I never really considered it that way.Because I love to hear so much -music, birds, the lakeshore and stuff–I can’t imagine that losing my hearing could be anything but tragic.

Me: Oh, I hear you–no pun intended. There are so many varied experiences of people who fall into that continuum of deafness–for some it is definitely a loss. Not everyone who has the condition of deafness necessarily embraces the Deaf Culture. But, just think, for instance, if you were born deaf, or became deaf at a very young age, you wouldn’t necessarily think of yourself as missing something or losing something; being deaf would be part of your identity, like height, or eye color, or gender, you know? Many people like that consider themselves Deaf with a capital “D.” There are Hard of Hearing folks that embrace the culture; people who become deaf later in life, or people that grew up deaf but with hearing people in hearing environments who discover and embrace it; and there are hearing people – friends, family members, teachers, interpreters, and others–immersed in it as well, immersed in the language and community, sharing the belief of Deaf Gain. But for sure, not all hearing people are.Hey, have you ever heard of audism?

Friend: No, can’t say that I have.

Me: You know, the idea that you’re superior because you can hear, or that deafness is a tragedy for all who are deaf? It’s a kind of prejudice, whether intentional or not. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it at times, without realizing it. Hey, instead of saying that the Deaf are “hearing impaired,” I could say that I’m “signing impaired!”

Friend: Ha. Wow, it sounds as if you’ve gotten a lot of food for thought. Me too, now, actually.

Me: Yeah, it sure has been eye-opening–in more ways than one–because ASL is such a visual language, you really have to watch carefully for all the nuances of the gestures, the body movements, facial expressions…

Friend:Show me some of the signs you’ve learned so far.

Me: I’d be happy to!

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Want to learn more about Deaf Culture?  Check out these links for more resources!

Click here to read Kathleen Westbrook’s reviews of some of her favorite ASL resources for kids and families.

 

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