The Choice of Deafness

Signed Languages and English


A Language Funnel

Cochlear Implant Controversy

Lena’s New Life

On Teaching English

Works Consulted




In literature on educating the deaf, you will often find the word "Deaf" capitalized.  This is the form used in reference to a specific, self-defined cultural group in the United States, with a common history and language.

The essential elements of Deaf culture are American Sign Language (ASL) and a common sense of pride in overcoming adversity.  Prior to the middle of the twentieth century, most education for the deaf was oral and aural.  Children were discouraged from using their hands to communicate, and in some cases were even forced to sit on their hands.  At the same time, sign language privately continued between students and others in the deaf community.  When many deaf people became frustrated and could not achieve an outlet for their communication needs, the popularity of state-run, residential schools for the deaf began to grow.  These schools used American Sign Language (ASL), and graduates of these schools eventually came back to teach in them, providing a government-funded and legally protected, institutionalized way to transmit Deaf culture and language.  Deaf children were finally able to communicate in a language they could absorb visually and could see their teachers as deaf role models. Deaf colleges using ASL for instruction were also founded, among them Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.  A movement known as Deaf Power emerged in 1988 at Gallaudet, during protests for the "Deaf President Now" (DPN) Movement.

As Harlan Lane explains in his book Mask of Benevolence, there is fierce group loyalty and protectiveness surrounding Deaf language and culture.  Another writer on Deaf culture, Carol Padden, says that Deaf identity itself is highly valued among members of the culture; members of the broader deaf community often indicate that hearing individuals are excluded from this identity and can never become full members of Deaf culture. Even with Deaf parents and a native command of ASL, a hearing child will have missed the experience of growing up deaf.  For many members of Deaf culture, speech and thinking like a hearing person (for example, "thinking in" internalized English language) are undesirable.

There is a particular figuration of deafness in Deaf culture that avoids identifying deafness as a handicap. On the contrary, many Deaf individuals consider it an asset within the framework of Deaf culture to be deaf in behavior, values, knowledge of traditions, and fluency in ASL. Deaf culture views deafness not as a disability but as a different way of being.  It is important to note, however, that not all members of the deaf community share the opinions of Deaf culture's staunch advocates.  Group identity depends on variables such as age at onset of deafness, the setting of a person's education, language, whether parents were deaf or hearing and if they signed or not, which language the deaf person uses, and personal attitudes toward the hearing world.  In addition, there are many hard-of-hearing individuals who prefer Deaf culture over "hearing culture," although there is also a portion of the community which views hard of hearing people as being on the outskirts of Deaf culture.  The strongest group identity within this hierarchy belongs to those with the highest level of ASL fluency, generally those whose parents were also Deaf.

On to:  My Life as a Language Funnel