Deaf community and Deaf culture are two phrases used to refer to persons who are culturally Deaf as opposed to those who are deaf from the medical/audiological/pathological perspective. When used in the cultural sense, the word deaf is very often capitalized. Being unable to hear is only a part of being Deaf. In fact, when the word is used in the cultural sense, hearing is one of the least important criteria used to delineate membership within the group. Many persons that would be labeled as hearing or hard-of-hearing from the audiological/medical/pathological perspective would be labeled, or would label themselves Deaf from the cultural one. Similarly, a person who identifies themselves as Deaf may in fact have much more hearing than one who identified themselves as hearing or hard-of-hearing. The use of the cultural label is a question of personal identity much more than a question of hearing ability.
Culturally deaf people (sometimes called the capital D deaf) do not look on deafness as a disability. There is a simple explanation for this: Within the community of deaf people, deafness isn't a disability but an asset in much the same way it is an asset to be a Navajo within the Navajo tribe or Korean within the community of Koreans of Los Angeles. In short, it's a distinction about language. Since the Navajo or Korean views their language as no more than a social disability within the larger majority culture, so do members of the signing deaf community. They consider deafness a positive trait, because it is tightly connected to other aspects of Deaf culture which they experience as positive. Deaf unity and community is strong. The fact that deafness excludes deaf people from some aspects of hearing culture reinforces cohesion within the community. As an example of how thouroughly deafness is seen as a positive attribute, many Deaf individuals wish for their children to be born deaf. This can be hard or even impossible for hearing people to understand but there is also a simple explanation for this when one considers how difficult it is for hearing parents of deaf children to raise them. It is no less difficult for deaf parents to raise hearing children. Both hearing and deaf parents who have children unlike them understand how much more simple life is when they fully understand the needs of their children and can communicate with and relate to their child's experience in the world. As hearing parents seek out resources to help them in the nurturing and education of their deaf children, so, too, must deaf parents take extraordinary steps to ensure their hearing children, whose mother tongue is sign language, are exposed to hearing people and culture. So it comes as no surprise that both hearing and deaf parents see their best abilities and skills being utilized on children who are like them. Hearing people who treat deafness as a disability or subscribe to a pathological perspective of deafness are sometimes met with hostility by those in the Deaf community. As rare an instance as it is, it is sadly a reaction to the hostility the deaf experience from hearing people throughout their lives. Although hearing people can and do participate in and belong to the Deaf community, their different life experiences tend to set them apart. Of course, hearing Children Of Deaf Adults or CODA's experience full acceptance within the Deaf-World, the term deaf people use to describe their social network. But acceptance into this world extends to both hearing and deaf friends and relatives who cherish the easy flow of communication within the group and uphold the hard-earned values, history, mores and dignity of deaf people.
Is the Deaf community a real culture?
Sociologists, who are the ones we charge with settling such questions, have a list of properties that a group of people must possess in order to be considered a culture. For example, a prison population would not be considered a culture in the sociological sense because the people incarcerated are not there of their own free will. The Deaf community has all of the attributes a group of people need: a shared language, attitudes and beliefs in common, literature, art, volunteer associations, a tendency to marry within the group, etc., in order to be considered a true culture.Therefore, it is not an instance of grandiosity or even a slight exaggeration to use the phrase Deaf culture.
As with any other culture, there exist a set of shared experiences, attitudes and cultural norms that serve to identify and bring together members of the community while simultaneously serving to exclude outsiders from entering the core group. To be fully included in the Deaf community, one must at least have the following attributes and possibly others not mentioned.
- Fluency in sign language and a positive attitude toward the language. Sign language is the centralmost valued aspect of Deaf culture and having a shared language sets up a powerful affinity for the Deaf as well as for the hearing cultures. Language is often a central, indeed required, component of a culture for any group of people. In hearing cultures a similar expectation is made of foreigners who are expected to learn the language of the land they have emigrated to if they expect to successfully assimilate into the culture. While use of the majority language is desirable, deaf peoples centuries-old difficult in acquiring spoken language reflects great credit upon the genius involved in creating an original, indigenous language that is truly "of" the nation that nurtures them as citizens, serving both their national heritage and values while serving the deaf community itself.
- Knowledge and respect of the cultural norms of the Deaf community. For example, the Deaf community has attention-getting behaviors: waving a hand or creating a vibration with an object to gain attention, pointing at people is not considered rude behavior; rules for eye contact: insisting on direct eye contact to glean meaning; norms for introductions and leave-taking: prolonged and physical with much contact; humor: both wit and self-deprecating, and many other cultural norms which are uniquely different from those of the hearing culture it is embedded within.
- Adaptations to deafness. Depending primarily on one's eyes instead of ears for interaction with the surrounding world triggers innate responses that occur in all humans. Entering a room that is pitch dark or filled with overwhelming noise triggers these responses in everyone, hearing or deaf. But a noisy room poses no obstacle to the deaf who can carry on extended and detailed conversations without missing a word. Also, no small number of hearing people have not expressed delighted wonder when watching two deaf people converse through a closed window or glass office wall, a communications obstacle which can only be overcome by yelling or with the use of sign language. This is one reason deaf people were so highly sought as employees in large-scale manufacturing and publishing where the noise of machinery is a moot concern. A deaf person's perspective of the world adjusts to the situation. Hearing people often react with dismay when a deaf person expresses no sense of loss over being unable to experience sound. But this is precisely the way people who are born without a sense of smell think: it's difficult to get emotional over, and often looked down upon, to cry over someone one has never had. One of the most lauded values of the hearing world is when homage is paid to people who seem to have a good understanding of their limitations. Deaf people are instantly aware of the things they cannot succeed in and are remarkably adept at ferreting out the range of activities and in which they can occupy or create an established niche. It only seems radical to the hearing, perhaps, because they are aware of the abundance of opportunities afforded to people who hear sounds. Yet, as is well know, Antonio Salieri desperately wanted to create music of sublime and enduring quality, but only Mozart had the ability. Deaf aspiration may strike the hearing world as low or not living up to one's potential, but when the same observation is turned toward the hearing, only then can it be understood as a challenge to all people. Hearing persons who are members of the Deaf community are aware of and share this Deaf-World view not so much as they are expected to, but because they have witnessed the common-sense practicality of deaf methods of problem solving.
Mainstream recognition of Deaf culture
For much of history deaf people were largely expected to adapt to hearing culture as best they were able or to be hidden or invisible. Recently, especially in the United States, the recognition of a Deaf culture has been increasingly recognized. A watershed point in the appreciation of a long-standing and important Deaf culture by the dominant hearing culture was the series of student strikes at Gallaudet University starting March 9, 1988. The Deaf students at the university were outraged at the selection of another in a long line of university presidents who were hearing and who had little experience or competence with Deaf culture. They claimed selecting such an individual when there were deaf applicants who were better qualified was patronizing, marginalizing, and inappropriate for such an essential office in the Deaf community. After less than a week of activism, the president-elect, who had also been criticized for malapropos statements about the functionality of deaf people, resigned and a deaf president replaced her.
In the UK a charity called the Dorothy Miles Cultural Centre (DMCC), based in Guildford, exists to bridge the gap between deaf and hearing people through social, cultural and educational activities. The Centre also offers courses in British Sign Language (BSL) which are accredited by the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP). DMCC runs drama workshops involving professional actors and organises sporting events, including an annual cricket match.