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E-Michigan Deaf and Hard of Hearing People.
ASL and Deaf Culture Photograph: Closeup of a hand against lower part of someone's profile

ASL and Deaf Community

Over 500,000 Deaf individuals in the United States claim American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary language. In fact, ASL is the third most widely used language in the United States. ASL is at the core of a rich and diverse Deaf culture that encompasses art, drama, educational institutions, religious organizations, sports, clubs, and community gatherings of every kind. The Deaf community is comprised of people who are deaf ASL users and their family members.

ASL is a comprehensive and distinct language in which manual gestures, facial expressions, and body position are used to convey meaning. Contrary to popular understanding, it is not a form of manually coded English. Research has concluded that ASL has its own syntax and grammatical structure and constitutes a true language in the scholarly sense. As a result, ASL has become a popular course at many schools and colleges that offer ASL for foreign language credit.

The capitalized form of “Deaf” is used to designate all that belongs to the culture that has evolved around deaf people and ASL. People who may be defined as clinically deaf (unable to hear spoken language) may or may not be members of the Deaf community. In most cases, a person who embraces ASL as their primary language will be considered a member of the Deaf community.

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ASL, as a distinct language, began in 1817, when two educators, Laurent Clerc and Thomas H. Gallaudet, established the first School for the Deaf in the United States and introduced French Sign Language to this country. The language used in the school gradually evolved into a completely separate language, unique to this country. As students graduated from this first deaf school, they passed on the new language to others throughout the US and Canada. Deaf people continue to transmit ASL from one generation to another in the residential schools established for the deaf. Likewise, the language is passed from parents to children and among family members and friends.

Ironically, as Deaf people obtained an increasingly comprehensive language, many in the speaking world discouraged its use. Well–meaning educators believed that the only way for a deaf person to fit into the hearing world was to learn to speak and speech–read English. They feared that allowing children to sign would interfere with their motivation and ability to learn speech. American Sign Language was prohibited in the classroom. Even so, ASL thrived on playgrounds, in dormitories, and in communities. By the 1980’s, most educational programs realized the benefit of early language development and now many encourage toddlers and their parents to use sign language.

Claiming ASL as their banner, a strong and positive identity has developed among Deaf citizens. The Deaf President Now protests at Gallaudet University in 1988, united the nationwide Deaf community around the student’s demand for respect and the right to govern their own lives. (See the accompanying sidebar.)

Deaf Power

In the spring of 1988, students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. staged an eight–day campus protest when trustees of the college chose a new president who was hearing and could not communicate in sign language. Students boycotted classes, blocked entrances to the school signing “Deaf Power,” and caught the attention of the world. Despite Gallaudet’s role as one of the world’s foremost educational centers for the Deaf, there had never been a Deaf president. The protest ended when the new president resigned and was replaced by I. King Jordan, a Deaf person who was a graduate of Gallaudet University. Students demanded that the hearing world respect their right to govern their own lives and to realize that deafness is not a disability; it is a characteristic that binds Deaf people into a vibrant, dynamic community, at the center of which is ASL

Far from being a disability, ASL has given Deaf citizens a means to express the richness of their lives and to develop a proud culture with distinctive values and traditions.

For an informative look at the conflict between the Deaf and the hearing worlds, watch the documentary “Sound and Fury,” available at many local video stores.

For more information on ASL as a unique and complete language Click here for article on “Are signed languages "real" languages?
Evidence from American Sign Language and Langue des Signes Québécoise

Sign Languages Around the World

American Sign Language is unique to the United States of American. Other countries have their own sign languages. The links below provide additional information.

British Sign Language

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