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Deaf Community and Deaf Culture

Like many things, deafness is diverse. Aside from varying causes, there are different types of deafness. Whether you’re deaf, Deaf, or hard of hearing, there’s a community for you that’s often tied to your identity.

What is Deaf Culture?

Deaf Culture refers to people for whom deafness is their primary identity. They rely on American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. Many don’t believe in wearing hearing aids or cochlear implants. They take pride in a rich history of behaviors and traditions. If you’ve ever seen the term “capital-D Deaf,” it refers to people who are part of this Deaf community.

History of Deaf Culture

The Harvard Linguistics Department has a brief overview of Deaf history. It goes as far back as 1714, when Martha’s Vineyard residents created and learned Martha’s Vineyard sign language (MVSL) because there were so many deaf residents. It’s now extinct.

Forty-six years later, French sign language (FSL) was founded. This made it possible for deaf people in France to be educated.

Jumping ahead a bit to 1816, that’s when Thomas Gallaudet brought Laurent Clerc, a Deaf man from France, to the US to help set up a school for the deaf. The following year, the first school for the Deaf using sign language was founded by the men. It was called the Hartford Asylum for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb. And the sign language? It was a combination of MVSL and FSL.

In 1864, Gallaudet University was founded. It’s still the world’s only liberal arts university for deaf and hard of hearing students.

The National Association of the Deaf was founded in 1880. According to NAD’s website, “the NAD was shaped by deaf leaders who believed in the right of the American deaf community to congregate on issues important to them, and to have its interests represented at the national level. These beliefs remain true to this day, with American Sign Language as a core value.”

Deaf People

How Many Deaf People Are There in the World?

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported in March 2020 that there are 466 million people in the world with “disabling hearing loss.” Disabling hearing loss refers to hearing loss greater than 40 dB in the better hearing ear in adults, and a hearing loss greater than 30 dB in children. The WHO estimates that by 2050, over 900 million people will have disabling hearing loss. Causes include genetics, birth complications, infectious diseases, medications, noise exposure, and age. And now with COVID-19, hearing loss may be a potential side effect. Sixty percent of childhood hearing loss stems from preventable causes.

According to the WHO, “unaddressed hearing loss poses an annual global cost of $750 billion.”

Deaf Identities and How Deaf People Communicate

If you rely on ASL to communicate, you probably call yourself Deaf, with a capital-D. You don’t think deafness is something to “fix.”

If you communicate via speaking, reading lips, and/or listening and consider your deafness to be one aspect of your identity, you most likely use deaf with a lower-case D. You might call yourself oral, or as has been used more recently, “speaking deaf.” You consider hearing aids and cochlear implants to be tools that allow you to be independent, not “fixes,” since you’re still deaf (whether or not they’re worn).

If you don’t have a severe or profound loss, perhaps you prefer the term hard-of-hearing. “Hearing impaired” isn’t used as often these days, as it has a negative connotation. “Hearing loss” is a neutral, umbrella term. Ultimately, whatever words you use to describe your hearing loss boils down to personal preference.

Read more: Hearing Loss

Being a Part of the Deaf Community

Many people assume that there’s one deaf community, which isn’t the case. There are subsets based on racial or ethnic identities, such as Black and Deaf. There’s the Deaf community, the speaking deaf community, etc.

Online Deaf Community Such as HearingLikeMe

Did you know that here at HearingLikeMe, we have more than just content about hearing loss? We have an online community. Kind of like Facebook, but our very own. You can apply here to join!

There are many Facebook groups for hearing loss; it’s just a matter of finding one that fits. Do you have a cochlear implant? There’s Cochlear Implant Experiences and Cochlear Implant Online. You can even join one specific to your manufacturer. If you’re oral, there’s a group called Oral Deaf Parents Supporting Each Other. Just put some keywords in the search bar and see what comes up!

Other Organizations for the Deaf Community

Many organizations serve the deaf community and have social media accounts as well (including groups on Facebook), and even in-person chapters. Here are a few in alphabetical order:

Why Do Some People Learn Sign Language?

People who are Deaf consider sign language to be part of their culture. Others may learn it to communicate with them. Some parents use it with their hearing or deaf babies to allow them to communicate before they’re able to verbalize. It’s considered a foreign language, so some students might find it more interesting than learning, say, French. It’s also a visual language that many find beautiful to watch.

How do You Learn More About Deaf Culture?

Explore a website like NAD. Read some books. Here’s a brief tip sheet from the National Deaf Center, which provides an overview. Take a class on ASL, or download an app to do so.

Read more: How to learn sign language

Stories from Phonak hEARos

Everyone has their own personal journey of deafness and finding their deaf community. Here are a few stories from Phonak hEARos.

Lisa Goldstein

I was born deaf, but it wasn’t diagnosed until I was 14 months old (this was well before Mandatory Newborn Infant Hearing Screening). My parents knew nothing about deafness but immediately educated themselves. They soon realized that I could always learn how to sign but couldn’t always learn how to talk, due to the developmental window. I was outfitted with hearing aids and enrolled in speech therapy. I worked with a speech-language pathologist daily in addition to practicing with my parents at home. This continued through high school.

Three years after I was born, my sister came along. Because of my deafness, her hearing was tested right away. She too had a profound hearing loss.

When I was eight, we went as a family to our first AG Bell Convention. At the time, it was held every two years in a different city. There were sections for parents, professionals, and deaf adults. While our parents soaked up learning and support, children were enrolled in a Children’s or Teens program where we got to meet our deaf peers and do fun field trips with them. Even though I had a built-in support network in my sister, it was life-affirming meeting so many others like me. Since this was before the Internet, I often wrote letters to keep in touch between conventions.

From then on, I didn’t miss a convention. My family turned each one into a family vacation, where we’d explore the area before or after. Those memories remain vivid today. And those friends? I’m still in touch with all of them; we provide support online and in person.

Ashley Derrington

Ashley Derrington was born with severe bilateral sensorineural hearing loss, but wasn’t diagnosed until she was two years old. She speaks, relies heavily on lipreading, and is trying to learn ASL. She wears a Phonak Naida V-SP hearing aid in one ear and has an Esteem implant in the other.

Growing up, Derrington didn’t know anyone else that was deaf, other than older people. But her soccer coach was the coach for the US Deaf Women’s National Soccer Team and reached out about having Derrington try out for the team in college. At the time, Derrington was busy with school and preparing for a move to Los Angeles.

“I finally decided to meet with the team in 2017, so that is probably the first time I was really exposed to or interacted with anyone else in the deaf community,” Derrington recalls. “From there, I started traveling and using the travel as a way to learn about my own hearing loss and about deaf communities in other parts of the world. It was through this project that I was connected to the HLM community, and the rest, as they say, is history!”

Derrington says that it’s meant the absolute world to meet others like her, to have others to share her struggles with, and who also understand it. Building a global network of deaf friends has been a blast, she adds.

“It’s a reminder that I’m not alone and that there’s such a huge variety of people on the deaf spectrum,” says Derrington.

Isabella Candanosa

Isabella Candanosa started losing her hearing when she was about 11 years old. She was diagnosed with progressive bilateral conductive hearing loss – not easy news for a preteen! Currently, her loss is moderate-severe, but it’s continuing to decrease while slowly stabilizing. She wears two Phonak Sky Marvel hearing aids.

Candanosa communicates both with speech and sign language. In her college classes, she usually has a sign language interpreter or captioner.

Her first exposure to her Deaf community was when she began advocacy work.

“I was invited by a mentor (who also happens to be an ASL interpreter) to collaborate with lawmakers to create new laws benefitting the Deaf community in the state of Texas,” Candanosa says. “Not long after, I started my Instagram blog, where I share stories and tips on life as a Deaf person. This led me to find and join Phonak hEARos. I now consider myself part of the online Deaf community as well!”

This community has taught Candanosa how to be confident with her hearing loss.

“I’m no longer a shy middle schooler trying to hide my hearing aids,” she says. “I wear them with pride!”

Author Details
Lisa A. Goldstein has a Masters in Journalism from UC Berkeley, a digital hearing aid, a cochlear implant, and plenty of deaf-friendly communication equipment. She spends her days juggling life as a freelance journalist, wife, and mother of two in Pittsburgh, PA.