An Introduction to American Deaf Culture

Stories, Art, Traits, Attitudes, and Other Aspects of Deaf Culture

Deaf Caucasian friends signing at dinner table
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The term "deaf culture" is commonly used in the deaf community. Deaf culture is used to describe the unique characteristics found among the population of deaf and hard of hearing people. It's reflected in art, literature, social environments, and much more.

What Is Deaf Culture?

In order to define deaf culture, we must first understand the definition of culture in general. Culture is typically used to describe the patterns, traits, products, attitudes, and intellectual or artistic activity associated with a particular population.

Based on this definition, the deaf community can be said to have its own unique culture. Deaf and hard of hearing people produce plays, books, artwork, magazines, and movies targeted at deaf and hard of hearing audiences. In addition, the deaf community engages in social and political activities exclusive to them.

American deaf culture is a living, growing, changing a thing as new activities are developed and the output of intellectual works increases.

Deaf Cultural Arts

Art: Anyone could easily decorate their entire home with deaf-themed artwork. Art with American sign language (ASL) and deafness themes is readily available through vendors focusing on products for and by deaf and hard of hearing artists. Many deaf artists also run their own websites.

Throughout the country, you can find exhibits of deaf artists, including painters, photographers, sculptors, and more. While some incorporate a hearing loss theme into their work, others do not and you might not even know that they cannot hear.

Look around for art displays at local deaf community organizations and schools. The National Technical Institute for the Deaf's Dyer Arts Center in Rochester, New York has some fantastic examples of deaf art on regular display.

Deaf Theatre: For years, deaf theater groups have developed and produced plays with deafness and sign language on the stage.

There are professional deaf theater companies that entertain deaf and hearing audiences alike. 

Deaf West is just one of the notable deaf theater companies. They were so successful in the production of "Big River," that it made it onto Broadway. This show included both deaf and hearing actors.

You will also find a number of amateur and children's theater troupes specifically for deaf people. These are a fantastic way to get involved in your local deaf community.

Books on Deafness: A number of deaf and hard of hearing people have written and published books with themes on sign language and deafness. Several of these have become required reading in deaf studies classes.

Deaf Cinema: Deaf people have produced movies and hold their own film festivals. These often focus on a celebration of deaf culture and are a great time for the community to gather.

Poems on Deafness: Deaf people use poems to express their feelings about having a hearing loss or to describe their experiences. Some poems are online and others have been collected in books.

ASL poetry is a special form of poetry that uses sign language. Deaf people have also created their own form of deaf humor that focuses on the deaf experience.

Likewise, ABC stories can be told using the sign language alphabet and there are many unique idioms in sign language.

Sign Language

Sign language is the aspect of deaf culture most closely identified with deafness. Deaf and hearing people who are native signers — that is, they grew up with sign language — tend to have the most fluent signing skills.

Each country has its own sign language. Even within countries, you will find sign language dialects similar to what is called a "New York accent."

Deaf Social Life

Socialization in the deaf community takes many forms. A particularly popular means is the meeting at a restaurant.

These meetings have come to be known by various names like "ASL dinner," "signing supper," and "silent supper." Another popular social vehicle is the "deaf coffee," which is a meeting at a coffee shop to chat.

The deaf community has its own online dating sites, some of which are described in signs of love.

Perspectives on Deaf Culture

Deafness is caused by the loss of hearing, which is a medical condition. Yet, people who are deaf have created all of the above. This has led to the argument: Is deafness pathological or cultural? If deafness is cultural, is it a disability? This is an interesting topic and one that is discussed regularly in the deaf community

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