Deaf Culture

What is Deaf Culture

"As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have sign language."
George W. Vedtz (1861-1937)

Generally, a culture is defined as a group of people who share the same language, adhere to the same societal values and rules for behaviour, and have a common history. We tend to think of 'culture' in relation to ethnic origin; in reality, the term today includes the culture of the Deaf, as distinctive and significant to Deaf individuals as Native culture is to Canada's First Nations Aboriginal people.(CCSD, 1994, 7)

Carol Padden (1988) defined Culture as a set of learned behaviours of a group of people who have their own:

  1. language
  2. values
  3. rules of behaviour
  4. traditions.

Deaf Culture has evolved over time as a result of a psychosocial need for deaf people to communicate and mingle with those who share similar experiences, common interests, shared norms of behaviour, survival techniques and emotional support. The focal point is the use of American Sign Language (ASL) as their mode of communication.

Deaf Culture is a positive term that encompasses a strong pride in which Deaf people as a community have shared goals, beliefs, experiences, accomplishments, leadership opportunities, and folklore in storytelling, ASL humour, signplay, poetry, anecdotes, legends, and myths. There are rules of social behaviour that Deaf people follow that are not those of hearing people. These behaviours are based on logical needs that make sense and relate to their world-view. They are generally based on the need of Deaf people to maintain good eye contact and visibility and to make signing easier and more comfortable.
"To accept the culture of Deaf people as valid is to expand and enrich our understanding of human creativity and courage in the context of social adversity" (MJ Bienvenue/ Betty Colonomous)

There is one important difference between the Deaf Culture and other national cultures. Usually culture is transmitted from adults to children. In the case of deaf children, their culture is more often transmitted through peer-to-peer interaction in schools for the deaf. The exception to this is, of course, deaf children who have parents who are also deaf, CODA (children of deaf adults). Within the Deaf Culture CODA holds a special place; they are held in high esteem. Because the majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents, they are not able to receive deaf culture from their parents as it is not a part of their life experience. Traditionally, schools for the deaf were the hub of the Deaf community and provided the opportunities to form a social network and supports, such as Deaf sports, shared experiences, and language.

Deaf students who are mainstreamed miss out on the feeling of belonging that individuals from the Deaf culture associate with their residential schools and their experience is very different from those who attend residential school. Mainstreamed students often are singled out in many respects.
Although they have access to interpreters, notetakers and other special assistive devices, they still may be loners, especially in a mainstream environment where there are few other students with hearing losses. (Gilliam and Easterbrooks, 1997)

Many students who are in the regular school system come to feel that they are caught between the hearing and the deaf world, never really a full member of either. It is often a lonely and isolating experience. For many deaf individuals, being deaf is also belonging to a close-knit caring community which is based on a rich history and beautiful language.


Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf (CCSD), 1994. Deaf People are just like You. But...