There can be a very strong sense of deaf pride amongst those who live, school, and work with others using American Sign Language. Deafculture.com states, “Deaf people who claim a culturally “Deaf” identity compare themselves to members of other ethnic communities. “We have a language; we have a culture,” they say. Opponents of this view don’t see deaf people as members of an ethnic minority but simply as handicapped persons, people with a hearing loss, people with a hearing disability, audiological patients.”
I have always felt strongly that there is a deaf community and culture. In the ninth grade, I even wrote a report entitled, “Deaf Culture”, defining and explaining what this culture is and trying to describe the large deaf population and school close to where I lived. (As a side note, “deaf” and “death” are easily misinterpreted words. It made for an interesting conversation between adults and myself when they thought I was studying Gothic death ceremonies.”) My tween and young teen career aspiration was to become a teacher for deaf students. Obviously, I did not think my college choice through thoroughly when I enrolled in a school lacking in ASL classes.
In graduate school, one of my professors claimed that culture was defined by language. If you do not know a person’s language, you cannot experience their culture. For example, the Inuit Eskimos may have had many different words for snow, thus shaping their concept of what “snow” is. Some words in Chinese are inauspicious; for example, “four” sounds like “death” so when choosing dates for events, the 4th month and 4th days are avoided. Other words, such as “fish” have special symbolism because it sounds like “fortune”. On special occasions (such as teh New Year), fish is eaten to represent good fortune.
Any person who is deaf and uses American Sign Language as a primary language, is making and shaping his/her culture.
Where this gets interesting, however, is with today’s medical advances to help many gain or restore hearing through surgery, hearing aids, and cochlear implants.
Are medical advances helping or hurting quality of life?
I found it interesting that the ASL class in which my daughter attends is not the only preschool class for children who are hard of hearing. The city also has a class that is taught exclusively verbally. No ASL. That really ticks me off. It denies the child any choice into entering the culture. That child may never become fully verbal, but they have lost precious initial years in learning a language.
These issues weigh on my heart as I think of not only those who strongly identify with their Deaf Culture and ASL first language, but also of my student(s) who have gained a language thanks to hearing technology.