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E-Michigan Deaf and Hard of Hearing People.

Deaf Culture

Cul·ture n.1. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought characteristic of a community or population.
   –American Heritage Dictionary 2nd College Ed.

The Deaf Community is a true minority culture within the larger culture of the United States. While holding to many of the traditional American values and patterns, members of the Deaf community affiliate and identify with patterns, beliefs, and language that are uniquely Deaf. In this context the word ‘deaf’ is no longer a clinical term defining a physical disability, rather ‘Deaf’ is a descriptive name that identifies one’s heritage and sense of belonging.

Topics in this section include:

Common Ties

As stated elsewhere, not all who are deaf in a clinical sense are members of the Deaf community. The defining features of the Deaf community include:

  • Primary communication is via visual rather than auditory means.
  • A feeling of pride in the language of the community: American Sign Language
  • Culture that is passed from Deaf adults to Deaf children in residential schools for the Deaf, from Deaf parents to their children, from children of Deaf parents to other Deaf people.
  • A sense of shared experience, history, and belonging.
  • Participation in community events with other Deaf community members such as theatre, sports, Deaf Clubs, Internet Chats, weddings, funerals, and other gatherings.
  • Primary relationships (spouses and close friends) are usually members of the Deaf community also.

Among Deaf people, the signs for Deaf and Hard of Hearing do not necessarily refer to a degree of hearing loss; rather they indicate a perception of oneself, or another person, in terms of community standing. Deaf means one has a central connection to the Deaf community, while the sign for Hard of Hearing can refer to persons with hearing loss who continue to display characteristics of hearing persons, such as using a telephone and other hearing–like behaviors. In their book, “A Basic Course in American Sign Language,” authors Tom Humphries, Carol Padden and Terrence J. O’Rourke summarize it this way:

“These labels are cultural, rather than strictly audiological. There are Deaf people who hear to some degree and speak quite well and some Hard of Hearing people who are totally without hearing and do not speak very well. What is important is their public behavior as Deaf people or Hard Of Hearing people. Deaf people do not, at the center, view themselves as disabled or handicapped; instead, their view of themselves is one of wholeness and completeness. They view themselves as competent individuals with a linguistic and cultural history. This way of viewing themselves is learned from other Deaf people and is an example of the knowledge which Deaf people share.”

For one woman’s perspective and experience, read an article by Trudy Suggs, an accomplished writer and business woman.

Culture, Literature, Society and Community Life

The broad tapestry that is Deaf culture is expressed in a variety of ways, including literature, performances, folktales and humor, an example of which is in the accompanying box.

Deaf Joke

A deaf couple checks into a motel, and then retires for the night. In the middle of the night, the wife awakens with a headache and asks her husband to go to their car for aspirin. Once there, he forgets which room they occupy; after some thought he blows the car’s horn a couple long blasts. Quickly, room lights snap on, all but one. It’s his wife’s room, of course. He locks up and returns to their darkened room.

Story telling is highly valued in the Deaf Community and has resulted in a body of ASL literature that includes “oral” history, folktales, jokes, and various types of performances. The richness of Deaf literature was once only available to Deaf community members who were fluent in ASL. In recent years, through video, theatre, and the employment of Deaf people as college instructors of ASL, this rich heritage is appreciated by hearing people as well.

While living and working within the larger ‘hearing’ society, Deaf community members foster and maintain a positive self–identity and sense of belonging. The following is just a small sample of the many organizations and activities that have been established by members of Deaf Community:

  • Deaf Clubs — Formerly the hub of Deaf communities, their prominence has faded in recent years as young Deaf members choose alternate means for socializing. Even so, many communities still maintain active Deaf Clubs for social activities, fund raising, and political activities.

  • Community Service Organizations —These organizations serve a variety of functions from hiring and scheduling interpreter services to providing mental health and other services that are not adequately provided for by ‘hearing’ organizations. Deaf community members value these organizations as a link between their community and those who do not speak ASL.

  • World Recreation Association of the Deaf (WRAD) and American Athletic Association of the Deaf (AAAD) — These and similar sports organizations are open to hearing people also. A substantial listing of such organizations is included in the Organizations & Agencies section.

  • The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) —NAD is one of many groups that represent the social, legal and political needs of the Deaf community. Visit their Web site (

  • The Chicago Institute for the Moving Image (CIMI) which features films produced by deaf filmmakers and supports Deaf people in the media. For more information, email David H. Pierce at

Martha’s Vineyard: Where Everyone Spoke Sign Language

For over 300 years, on the small island of Martha’s Vineyard off Cape Cod, everyone knew sign language. So many of the island’s citizens were deaf that the culture of the island became bi–lingual and bi–cultural. As a result, Deaf people were fully integrated into the fabric of life and business. For a brief time in history, Deaf people demonstrated that when there is no language barrier, there is no ‘disability.’

For more information on Martha’s Vineyard:
Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: Hereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard, by Nora Ellen Groce and John W. M. Whiting Published by Harvard University Press.

Martha’s Direct on the web: community.html

For More on Deaf Culture

Deaf Art and Culture:

Additional wonderful information on Deaf Art and Culture can be found at: Deaf Linx: Art and Culture.


The best way to learn about Deaf Culture is by attending events within the community. See our Calendar for activities that interest you.

Books and Media:

There are a number of books on Deaf Culture and ASL. We have listed only a few.

See What I Mean: Differences between Deaf and Hearing Cultures
This video, by Thomas K. Holcomb and Anna Mindess, takes a humorous look at the two cultures. Issues such as attitudes toward time, leave–taking, privacy, giving and receiving criticism, and comments on personal appearance are all explored and discussed from the point of view of both cultures.

Some media/books are available at
(Just click on Book image or title to Amazon Website for further book information/order)

Deaf Like Me

by Thomas S. Spradley

Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture

by Carol Padden, Tom Humphries

Deaf Culture Our Way
by Holcomb
Tim Johnston, our web master, highly recommends this book. He says, “This book is full of hilarious anecdotes and stories of Deaf Culture.”

The Feel of Silence (Health, Society, and Policy)

by Bonnie Poitras Tucker
The Feel of Silence is the autobiography of a woman, now an attorney, who had a hearing loss from early childhood. Nan Asher, on the E-Michigan editorial committee says:
"This is a very good read! Her perspective took me a few months to "get." But once I got it, I understood myself a WHOLE lot more!"

For Hearing People Only: Answers to the Most Commonly Asked Questions About the Deaf Community
by Matthew S. Moore, Linda Levitan
(Look at their book’s website:

Introduction to the Deaf Community

A Journey into the Deaf–World

by Harlan Lane, Robert Hoffmeister, Ben Bahan, Benjamin J. Bahan

A Place of Their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America

by Carol Padden, Tom Humphries

Reading Between the Lips: A Totally Deaf Man Makes It in the Mainstream

by Lew Golan

Train Go Sorry : Inside a Deaf World

by Leah Hager Cohen

When the Phone Rings, My Bed Shakes: Memoirs of a Deaf Doctor

by Philip Zazove, M.D.
This book is by a Michigan physician. Read his profile on E–Michigan.


DEAFDIGEST is a free, weekly national on–line newsletter (

American Deaf Culture: Perspectives on Deaf People

Deaf Culture: Suggested Readings from the Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center

Deaf Culture from ASL

Demographic Aspects of Hearing Impairment:
Questions and Answers

Demographics from Gallaudet Research Institute

Who are Hearing People?
Members of the Deaf community, interpreters, and other individuals who work and live with Deaf citizens, sometimes refer to people and organizations as ‘hearing.’ In this context, hearing people are those who do not sign, hear relatively normally, and communicate primarily by speech. Most importantly, hearing people lack understanding of Deaf Culture and language. A Hearing organization is one that is designed by and for people who use spoken language to communicate. Deaf people, whose language is ASL, are often excluded from full participation in these organizations or obtain access only through an intermediary interpreter or Deaf organization.

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