The Deaf Culture is unique. Just like there can be cultural conflicts when moving from one culture to another, moving from Hearing to Deaf Culture or visa versa can bring with it some challenges. The American Deaf Culture doesn't just share a hearing loss, it shares a unique set of values, and a unique language. Let's take a look at some of these aspects of Deafness in America.
WHAT IS A CULTURE?
A culture is founded on 2 things, shared LANGUAGE and shared EXPERIENCES. The Deaf Culture shares the language American Sign Language, and shares unique experiences as inviduals with unique barriers and communication challenges living in America.
HOW DID AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE DEVELOP?
The Deaf Culture in America took shape at Martha's Vineyard. In Martha's Vinyard 1 in 155 people were Deaf. In the town of Chilmark 1 in 25 individuals were Deaf. The village of Squibnocket 1 in 4 people were Deaf. The mainland had only 1 in approx. every 6000 people who were Deaf so there was a marked difference in the average of Deaf individuals on Martha's Vinyard. [Stats from About Health]. The reason for this was the intermarriage of individuals who carried genes for Deafness. As these individuals intermarried and had children, more and more Deaf children were born on the island. Because of all this, Martha's Vineyard Sign Language [MVSL] developed. It was used from the early 1800's to 1952. [Wikipedia Stat] The last native resident of Martha's Vinyard died in the 1950's. [About Health Stat] Both Hearing and Deaf individuals in Martha's Vineyard chose to use Sign Language. Hearing people would sign even when there were no deaf people present: children signed behind a schoolteacher's back; adults signed to one another during church sermons; and farmers signed to their children across a wide field, where the spoken word would not carry. [Wikipedia] Deafness disappeared on the island when individuals with Deafness genes left the island to live on the mainland.
Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was sent to England to learn about Deaf education. While there, he met an Abee (French priest) named Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard and two staff members Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu. The Abbe was the director of the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets à Paris. The Abbe invited him back to Paris to learn about Deaf education first hand. He did so, and there was exposed to Old French Sign Language (OFSL). Gallaudet befriended Clerc and convinced him to head back to the United States in order to establish a school for the Deaf. The two men collected public and private funds throughout New England and were able to establish a school for the Deaf in Hartford, Conn. The American Asylum for Deaf-mutes was established in 1816. Today the school is called "The American School for the Deaf" or ASD.
MVSL and OFSL were married at ASD and became what we know today as American Sign Language (ASL). Many people believe because of the original relationship between French Sign Language and American Sign Language that Americans can communicate with the French, however today, there are very few similarities in our two sign languages.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE DEAF COMMUNITY & THE DEAF CULTURE?
The Deaf Culture at its core is filled with people who are pre-lingually Deaf and Sign Language dependent. Deaf individuals who do not use ASL but prefer to speak (Oral) or Cue (Cued Speech), Children of Deaf Adults (referred to as CODAs) are also members of the Deaf Culture. Non-ASL dependent Deaf individuals, Sign Language teachers, interpreters, family members etc, are considered members of the Deaf Community. Deaf Community members cannot fully integrate themselves into the Deaf Culture. It would be similar to a light skinned individual attempting to tan themselves significantly, and live in Latin America taking on the language and culture of the natives. Their skin color may change, they may eventually learn the language, they may even develop an understanding of life in Latin America, but their cultural experience remains distinctly different.
WHAT ARE SOME UNIQUE VALUES OR PRACTICES IN THE DEAF CULTURE?
Members of the Deaf culture are known for their bluntness. What Hearing people would view as potentially rude is considered standard communication for many individuals within the Deaf Community. If a Deaf person were to say, "you've gained weight," or "your hair looks bad like that," he /she is merely stating a visual fact and in no way intending to offend.
If Deaf individuals are chatting, it is culturally appropriate to walk through their conversation signing "excuse me" rather than standing outside their conversation and waiting for a break to walk through.
Deaf individuals grab each other's attention by waving at each other, flashing lights, stomping on the floor, or tapping each other on the shoulder.
Deaf individuals often include more elaborate details in their stories.
Eye contact is critical for the Deaf. Hearing people look around at sounds during conversations, the Deaf remain engaged with their eyes.
Deaf Art is often influenced by American Sign Language or Deaf feelings of powerlessness.
HOW IS AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE UNIQUE?
The language of the Deaf Culture is beautiful. ASL is founded in images, and utilizes a unique structure, unique idiomatic expressions, and unique Signs. ASL accesses full body movements, body shifting, facial expression, pantomime, interactive positioning, symbolic shapes known as classifiers, structure defined by images, and pre-setting information, and when these elements are combined, they make some of the most beautiful images anyone has seen. ASL is unique and as a language touches the heart of the Deaf. Just as language defines many communities and cultures like French does the people of France, or Formal English exemplifies the formality of the people of England, ASL exonerates the sight based world of the Deaf.
WHERE ARE HUBS FOR DEAFNESS IN THE U.S.?
Several colleges are marked by their service to the Deaf Community/Culture. Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. is the only Deaf University. Gallaudet was signed into being by Abraham Lincoln and until recently only accepted Deaf students. Cal State Northridge (CSUN) in Los Angeles boasts 2,000 individuals on campus who sign and at any time housing between 200-400 Deaf students, making it the largest Hearing University serving the Deaf. RIT hosts NTID the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in upstate New York.
The largest Deaf Communities in the US are often founded around the institutions listed above, or tend to congregate in big cities like San Diego, Los Angeles, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, NYC, etc. The most well known Deaf-Blind Community is housed in Seattle, Washington.