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Chapter 4: Deaf History to Culture

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Deaf Cultural Life

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Rules of Behaviour

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Customs

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Traditions

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Deaf Culture

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Cultural Identity

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Deafness-Hearingness

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) The Status of the Deaf Community

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes) Review

In this part, the aim is to bring history into real life, by talking with older deaf people or those who have had knowledge of how things were in the past. We will spend one session just presenting different stories form the past of deaf people. The primary purpose is to show how deaf people conducted their lives in the face of hearing people’s rules. We often say there were two deaf societies - the one which was organised by the missioner and the teacher and the real world of deaf people - where the deaf person was able to organise and carry out activities. The second was where the real information was and where the culture and language were able to grow. We do not know enough about this area. This is why we have to begin in this way.

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You can follow this up when you look at the deaf views of history which have been explained in the video - Festival of Deaf Culture (in our Resource Room). These are important as they tell us about deaf people’s lives then and also about deaf people’s views now. These have to be contrasted with how hearing people in their writings have viewed the deaf experience. This deaf view of history is very important in your assignment and in your understanding of history. You will have to work on this.

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Deaf Cultural Life

By this point it should be clear what the thrust of the argument is. Deaf people are unique because of their hearing loss, early experiences, language and community commitment. In many respects they function like a minority group. Almost certainly they have a firm base of "culture". Previous definitions of the pathology of deafness do not predict membership of the Community and are misleading for any serious student of the Deaf Community. The history of pressures to "abolish deafness" and to "normalise" through oral language, have meant that the emergence of deaf ethnicity has been painful and characterised by both overt and covert oppression. Not surprisingly cultural life has been hidden from prying eyes. It has begun to emerge through the media interest in BSL and the awareness of its place among the `visual arts'. "High culture" as this form of public performance may be termed is increasingly apparent in Deaf poetry festivals and drama productions.

The position of translated theatre (where an interpreter is present) or where sign and voice are used by the actors (e.g. Children of a Lesser God) is ambiguous. Deaf people may choose not to attend as it does not express or echo their own cultural experience. Frequently the true expressions of culture revolve round jokes on the hearing population or on the experience of schooling with the roles reversed. The anger which Benderly(1980) described is expressed in such performances. The rejection of patronising hearing perceptions or even mistaken views of others with a hearing loss have begun to be addressed:

"The basic problem lying at the heart of deafness, can occasionally be overcome by brilliant lip-reading or excellent manual signing. But such a solution is extremely rare. The born deaf child cannot be expected to acquire the subtleties of language with the same easy facility of a hearing child. Manual signing can bridge the gap and it is evident when using manual communication profoundly deaf people have no difficulty in communicating with each other." Ashley(1986, p. vii)

The rejection of these views comes in humour:

"It was Halloween Night at about 8.30. My doorbell flashed for what seemed to be the hundredth time. I groaned and thought, "What idiot would send their kids out this late?" Grabbing a bowl of candies, I went to the door wondering what costume this kid would be wearing; so far the scariest one was a kid with a Ronald Reagan mask. As I opened the door and glanced down at the kid, I couldn't believe my eyes. I screamed, dropped the bowl, and ran back into the house bolting the door shut behind me. The kid was dressed like a hearing person." Bahan(1989, p. 17)

As it turns out he is having a series of nightmares which are directed at the hearing but even aspects of deafness and sign can be ridiculed:

"My girlfriend went to Gallaudet college and returned a different person. I didn't know her, I couldn't even understand her!

"Calm down. Tell me what did she do that you didn't understand?" asked my roomate soothingly.

"I didn't understand her signing. She signed sooo strange - using signs like ING, WAS, THE ..." Bahan(1989, p. 18)

In these instances Deaf people reject the limitations placed on them by hearing people. The jokes are frequently on the fact that the hearing person cannot understand properly. Hearing-like signing will be ridiculed. Another situation which is frequently called to mind in deaf stories is the reaction of hearing people when they discover that another adult is Deaf. Bahan again:

"I am deaf," I said, which is the usual thing I would say to prevent any misunderstanding.

"Hi, Dave, I am Susan. Is there anything I can do for you?"

I suddenly realised she didn't understand me, so I pointed to my ear and shook my head, "no".

Susan's face turned pale. I was tempted to say "boo," but was afraid she would have a heart attack. I could see the newspaper headlines: DEATH MAN SCARED RECEPTIONIST TO DEAF" Bahan(1989, p. 29)

It is these aspects of everyday life which form the basis of Deaf Culture, which shape the perception of the users of BSL and ultimately produce the poetry, drama and stories of the Deaf Community. We do not have any written sources in the UK which are as clearly presented as Padden and Humphries(1988) and Wilcox(1989) have done for American Deaf Culture. However we can learn a great deal from what they have to say and most of it applies to Deaf Culture in Britain.

Tackling this area continues to be difficult since there is little clear-cut evidence on the cultural base of the deaf community. The comments in this section are rather tentative. Much has been made of the differences between deaf and hearing culture but it can also be claimed that many of the social customs and traditions are shared between the two communities. In fact, for a great deal of the time the two sets of cultural practices are similar(even when it turns out that the cultural values are different). This is true in major festivals - Christmas, New Year and so on. The same can be said about weddings, births and deaths where church services and receptions follow similar patterns even though(and this is a very significant point) deaf people will often be unaware of the motives and beliefs of hearing people which are enshrined in the practice. This is a function of a community surrounded and swept along by the customs of the majority. Such practices are likely to bring to the fore similar feelings and emotions among deaf people as among hearing people. However there are differences which are important and about which social workers in particular, have to be sensitive. To tackle these I will consider four rather different aspects: Rules of Behaviour, Customs, Tradition and Culture itself.

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Rules of Behaviour

Hall(1989) sets out some of the principles which govern interaction among American Deaf people which constitute cultural norms for behaviour. Many apply directly to BSL as well. Most of the features arise from the exploitation of vision and space rather than sound but are now firmly identifiable as key aspects of the way deaf people behave.

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Before you read each section, stop and try to think what you expect to be said about deaf people. How do they use attention and touch? How do they take turns? What happens if someone turns away in a conversation? And so on. Try to think about this before you read that section.

1. Attention-Getting and Touch - Deaf people touch each other more than do hearing people (at least in British culture). Entry into a conversation or attention getting is often done by touch. In English culture we use vocatives (usually the person's name) but this is virtually never done in BSL. Names do not function as vocatives for the obvious reason that signing a name does not bring the person's eye-gaze towards the signer. Touch is used instead and hugs are frequent in greetings between people of the same or opposite sex.

Touch is permissible in the upper arm (most common), the forearm or shoulder. When sitting next to someone well known and/or where the communication is to be furtive, then touch on the upper leg or thigh is possible. Touch on the front of the body is never allowed except in intimacy. Touch on the back may provoke an angry response. This is an area of cultural conflict where hearing norms allow one to touch or push people in the back. Deaf children pushed in the back by hearing children will often treat it as a "fight signal" and will react violently. Teachers approaching and touching a child from behind will find more than just a startle response.

In getting attention when a person is out of reach other devices are used such as waving or even stamping the floor or banging on the table. This latter is less acceptable as it disturbs other people as well. When the attention of a whole audience is required then the lights of the room may be flashed. However, use of lights is complicated (see below).

2. Turn-taking is complex in BSL. The signer during a conversation may look away from the viewer indicating a wish to hold the floor. The viewer may attempt to break into the conversation by waving with a wrist action or beginning to frame a comment but it is more likely that facial expression will inform the signer that the viewer wishes to contribute. Turn-taking is generally discussed under a linguistic heading in BSL study and to explain it fully requires more detail than we have space for here.

3. Breaking into an ongoing conversation is also rule-bound. If two people are signing and a third person appears on the scene and wishes to interrupt to ask the first person about some urgent matter(and it would usually be important or else there would be no intrusion), then the format is to touch the first person on the upper arm or shoulder while engaging the second person in eye-contact. The signing is then directed towards the second person: "SORRY INTERFERE ... ASK(directed at first person)", ask the question of the first person and then turn back to the second person and apologise again. The key point is that the person who is interrupting has to address himself or herself to the second signer not to the person with whom he or she wishes to converse.

4. Turning Away in BSL is generally an insult and when attention is called away, the signer has to adopt a convention to ensure that the viewer is not upset. This is often done by signing "HOLD-ON" or holding the viewer's arm while turning away. Without this it will be seen as a major insult and will often provoke an angry reaction from a deaf person. It can occur frequently as a conflict between deaf-hearing norms in the following way: social worker in discussion with a deaf person is interrupted by a second hearing person who calls out "sorry" or "excuse me" and then gives a brief message to which the social worker turns(assuming sub-consciously that the deaf person has also been party to the opener of "excuse me"). In fact the reality is that the deaf person, stopped in mid-flow by the viewer looking away, will become upset. The same is true of telephone interruptions which again because they are sound based will not come with any warning to the deaf person and will therefore be treated as insulting if the hearing person simply picks up the phone in the middle of a conversation. If a deaf person turns away from another deaf person in mid-conversation, it will usually signal a serious argument.

5. Taking another's hands while he or she is signing is a very aggressive act and similar to covering someone's mouth while talking. Educators have in the past frequently broken this rule in their treatment of deaf children. It prevents articulation and says "I don't want to see what you have to say, it is not important." This is definitely to be avoided as it is a source of much of the cultural anger of deaf people whose memories of having their arms held down in class will often be vivid.

6. Use of the light to gain attention and "ringing the doorbell" are further areas of problem which are governed by deaf conventions. If a deaf person wishes to gain the attention of a group of people in a meeting it is likely that the light switch will be flicked on and on off very briefly once or twice. If this is the final warning or final call to order of the group, the flashing will be more insistent with repetition of very short bursts. Entering a room where a singe deaf person is working or engrossed in a task would usually be preceded by a very brief flick of the main light, on and off. All of these are very short bursts similar to gentle tapping on the door. Lengthening the flashing is equivalent to pounding on a door for a hearing person and is a major irritant.

The same rules apply to flashing doorbells where there is an added problem of plunging the room into darkness. Sometimes this will be used by a close friend as a joke - to hold the flashing doorbell for a much longer time, keeping everyone in darkness before releasing it. Such a practice is not acceptable from a hearing caller.

7. Privacy and confidentiality are more difficult to achieve in the Deaf Community because of the general visibility of conversations. Topics which are personal will not be discussed in the social area of the Deaf Club unless they are already common knowledge. Hearing people because they liken silent signing to "whispering"(and assume that others cannot "hear" the conversation) tend to have difficulty in knowing when a topic can be discussed openly. Matters which are seen in the open space of the Deaf Club tend to be considered as public knowledge and so can be repeated elsewhere - rumours are easily spread.

8. Leave-taking in the Deaf Community is a lengthy process. Deaf people are usually the last to leave any general gathering as there are always final things to talk about. This may be a function of the lack of alternative remote communication channels but it does mean that Deaf people will continue to converse outside the Deaf Club long after the place has been locked up for the night.

This is a very brief outline of some of the more commonly encountered aspects of behaviour but one can see that this is a very small area of interaction and it would take a much greater space to give a complete guide to how to behave among deaf people. As in any new culture, "be aware that there are different norms for behaviour and be alert to signs of disapproval".

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Defining the nature of customs within a community is rather difficult because they may often appear general to the members but yet be rather local in their observation. There is a great deal to do to adequately define the customs of the deaf community but we can obtain some pointers from these examples below.

1. Marriage and Weddings: Although these events are often joint hearing/deaf occasions and follow similar pattens in outline, the meaning and performance may be rather different for a deaf person. It is often said among deaf people that a wedding has to be a very open event and everyone has to be invited. In effect, it may be more like a "village" wedding when it was the norm for everyone to join in the celebrations. Customs which are common in hearing weddings such as after-dinner speeches are avoided in deaf-managed weddings. Deaf participants will often seem uninterested in a person signing at the top table(whereas hearing people would stop talking for the speeches). Personal stories about the bride or groom are less likely.

2. Funerals and Death: While the general outline of services and practices are dictated by the general community, deaf people's involvement may be rather different. Church services are part of a hearing culture and although it is normal for deaf people to attend or request such a service and to have it interpreted, it may be poorly understood in terms of its significance. Deaf people may also be uneasy about any eulogy on the deaf person who has died as it may be considered tasteless, coming through an interpreter who did not know the person well.

There is no reason to suppose that deaf people feel any less grief following a death. The reaction may be confounded by the extent to which the hearing family take over the organisation. However, deaf people may appear more accepting of the loss and be more prepared to re-appear at the deaf club after only a very short period of mourning. They may also seem to be more matter-of-fact and philosophical about the loss. Again this is an area where generalisation is dangerous since there is a great deal of borrowing from hearing norms but we can expect deaf people to react differently since there are wide divergences in hearing cultures in relation to the process of grieving.

3. Time and Time-keeping: It is sometimes stated by hearing workers with deaf people that they function on a different time-scale and that deaf people are poor time-keepers. There is no reason to expect that deaf people's real concept of time is any different from that of hearing people though one can see that time is expressed very differently in a visual spatial language. Specifically, time-marking in BSL is realised by setting a time-marker at the beginning of the event or utterance and then all the succeeding action occurs in the "present tense". While this my make it difficult for hearing people to determine when an event is occurring it does not usually cause any problem for deaf people. The advantage of this system is that it allows the attachment of a very rich system of aspect marking (something which is relatively weaker in English). Failure to "turn-up" for appointments arises because of lack of clear communication in the first place(about the time, place or importance of the meeting), lack of perceived relevance and lack of a means to cancel or postpone an appointment when a difficulty arises.

Appointments made by a deaf person for someone to visit at his or her home(repair men, delivery men, friends) invoke customary behaviour. Because of the unreliability of the systems of signalling a person's arrival, deaf people will abandon their normal daily routine to "wait near the door". This will take the form of sitting by the window and frequently glancing outside, or making frequent trips to the door itself. In effect, it causes great disruption to a deaf person's routine and means that while someone is expected, very little can be done except this form of 'active waiting'. Not surprisingly, if the expected person arrives very late, the deaf person can be rather upset, not because it is not possible to understand that other people can be delayed but rather because a whole period of time has been wasted in needless "waiting". Social work visits should be very mindful of this issue.

4. Social Customs: At present these are poorly researched and it is not possible to provide a great deal more insight into these. It is customary to have young children at the deaf club late at night. It is customary to hold surprise parties for anniversaries and birthdays. These aspects remain to be more fully described as research on the community progresses as it is clear that customs of this sort are present in the deaf community.

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Customs and traditions are some of the most important features of different communities. When you go abroad, you find they have different holidays and that they have different celebrations. Sometimes when you arrive you find everything closed for some event which is quite unusual for you. Every year at the same time, these events take place. These are customs which relate to the traditions of the country. Do deaf people have these traditions?

As with customs there has been very little research to inform us of how the traditions of deaf culture are expressed. At a local level, Christmas parties for deaf children, Christmas meals for the elderly and periodic rallies of deaf communities are traditional in the sense that they re-occur and have a long history and an important place in the working of the community. Even where they are derived from an event celebrated by society as a whole there will have developed a "deaf way" of doing it.

Many traditional stories within the deaf community relate to the development in adversity and will revolve around the problems of oralism or of education. Experiences such as those of the deaf children in the schools in the early part of the century where they were referred to by number rather than by name are passing into the folklore of the culture. Frequently deaf people will use humour to exorcise some of the awful experiences they had in their development. Such stories which are "traditional" among deaf people at gatherings are part of a dimension which is discussed more fully in the section on culture.

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You could stop at this point and try to remember some deaf jokes. Think about whether they are jokes against deaf people, or against hearing people or are jokes which need sign language.

Jokes are used to help people come to terms with the problems which they have or to deal with the pressures which they have. Do you think this is true for deaf jokes?

Deaf games are also another feature of cultural life and are an important tradition. Parties are not characterised by loud music as they are in a hearing society but rather by the gradual unfolding of increasingly complex deaf games. These may be quizzes or forfeits or other games designed to catch out the unwary participant much to the amusement of the group. There is no easy listing or description of these and just as in any cultural situation there are a range of games which are unique to deaf people deriving their importance and salience from sign language or the customs and behaviour of deaf people. We have a long way to go before we can fully understand them.

There are many other conventions of Deaf Culture which will gradually emerge as hearing people stumble across them or as Deaf people become more confident about discussing them. They represent the functioning of a Community which is quite different from the hearing/speaking society.

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Deaf Culture

Taken together, the three areas mentioned (behaviour, customs and traditions) form key parts of the culture of deafness. They do not however completely define it. Completing the picture may be some way in the future but we can at least add two aspects: cultural identity (and deaf pride) and the dimension of deafness-hearingness.

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Cultural Identity

While the customs and behaviour are outward manifestations of culture there is an important "inner" factor which is the extent to which the individual feels part of and comfortable with these practices and experiences. Cultural identity could be measured in some sense by one's adherence to the beliefs and customs of the community. It is indicated by involvement at the deaf club and the degree to which one seeks out other deaf people. But it is more than this - it is a sense of closeness to others, a removal of barriers and of the necessity to negotiate the norms of interaction. It is a feeling of shared experience of the world. It is the identity of being deaf. It is readily recognised not only by the participants but also by those who observe:

"As soon as Clerc beheld this sight (the children at dinner) his face became animated; he was agitated as a traveller of sensibility would be on meeting all of a sudden in distant regions, a colony of his countrymen ...Clerc approached them. He made signs and they answered him by signs. This unexpected communication caused a most delicious sensation in them and for us was a scene of expression and sensibility that gave us the most heartfelt satisfaction" (de Ladebat, 1815)

This is one of the best description of this feeling of identity and it can be retold in nearly every situation in which deaf people come into contact with each other. It is this experience of relationship which is the central feature of deaf community and culture.

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One further critical dimension of deaf community life is its closeness or distance from the hearing norms. Deaf culture has grown in adversity with, at times, appalling experiences being imposed on very young deaf children, by unknowing parents and by well-intentioned teachers and other professionals. Not surprisingly deaf people view their distance from hearing behaviour and custom as a key indicator of their deafness. The nearest we can get to this in hearing culture in the UK is the strength of the term "sassenach" when applied by some older Scottish people. As a term it draws its vehemence from its onomatopoeic quality and the repeated "s"; it conjures up for Scottish people a period of oppression of both person and of culture which was probably more severe(as it was life threatening) than that experienced by deaf people. If one can understand this usage in English we can begin to get the flavour of the way in which deaf people define themselves.

On the one hand "sassenach" has become more acceptable as a joking term and there is no longer the same antagonism (or at least it is contained within socially acceptable bounds in say, sporting events). In the same way deaf-hearing relations are blurred by the needs of deaf people to be successful and to master the career structure of a hearing controlled society. As a result deaf people have to accept hearingness in one way because it is only through their understanding of it that they can progress in life. Yet as Benderly said (in the quote earlier) there is a deep-seated mistrust and misunderstanding of the hearing way. People who are seen to be closer to the hearing way and who are seen to sympathise with it in say, education, are often "written off" by other deaf people. Yet both deaf and hearing people are bound together by the larger society. It is something of a paradox and one which our research so far does not disentangle. The deaf identity has to be seen along a dimension of deafness-hearingness.

The tension is seen in the way that humour is expressed and the tendency to make fun of hearing people. This is seen in jokes and in plays or mime where it is the hearing person who misunderstands or is made to look foolish. Such devices are important aspects of community life and are as much expressions of deaf identity as the more obvious aspects of visual and earthy humour which can be seen.

We are still some way from describing and understanding deaf culture. It requires deaf researchers to work with the community to try to create a picture of this rich and complex society in Britain.

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The Status of the Deaf Community

This is a complicated question as Deaf Communities are in different stages of development in different countries and in different parts of the UK. Everywhere there is an increasing awareness and evolving pride in being Deaf, but this is still based on an inadequate knowledge base. The work of the British Sign Language Training Agency in Durham University has done a great deal to set this process in motion. A considerable number of people have passed through their training courses, have been prepared to understand their own culture and have gone away much richer and more confident. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of grass-roots development needed to make sure the population at large have a grasp of their own identity. This is similar to other minority groups and relates to the lack of empowerment which was an earlier theme of this Unit.

Such a lack of empowerment should be a thing of the past in view of the major events which took place in Washington in March 1988. Gallaudet University which is the only deaf college in the world appointed a new President. as has been the standard pattern throughout the history of all organisation for deaf people, the hearing ruling body chose another hearing person for the post. Immediately this produced a great student protest movement which was likened to the civil rights movement in the 1960's. As well as being perfectly organised internally and being able to bring the University to a standstill, the protesters were able to enlist the sympathies of the nation and in particular to mobilise on their behalf, the politicians in Washington. As a result they were able to force the reversal of the decision to appoint a hearing person and had a deaf president installed. For the deaf community in general this was a historic and momentous event(Gallaudet in the News, 1988) which should have had a major impact across the world.

Unfortunately, there has been no spreading revolution and no re-statement of the rights of deaf people in any other country. Culture and identity are bound up in the experience of deafness and it is this aspect which has to be seen and understood by those decision-makers. If we fail to take the opportunity to understand we will continue to misunderstand deaf people, to deny their language and culture and to accentuate our own ethnocentricity.

To summarise: The main thrust of the course is clearly specified in what Bahan has to say about the deaf and hearing worlds.

"She looked a bit irritated, and said, "Why don't you speak?" while pointing to her lips.

I thought "she must be one of those wackos," and proceeded to squirm my slimy tongue around its oral cavity and uttered, "Un hs..hagmerbersugar uth kees."

She suddenly looked bewildered, and turned to look at the menu. She took my order and left.

Fifteen minutes later she came back with my cheeseburger and a note. I read the note and it said: "I have a deaf brother who went to a wonderful school up north. Now he speeks wel, you know you shoold lern to speek. Its nevar to lat. Aftar al you lif in a hearing wurld."

I read her note and wondered where she learned to write. But as I read on I thought, "what right does she have to claim, without asking me, that I did not receive speech training. After all, I went to a school that incorporates this method in its School Philosophy.....

I pondered on that issue. What right do hearing people have to impose on us the dominance of their world? What is even worse, there are deaf people who strongly uphold hearing world values on us deaf people. They go around saying you have to learn to speak because it is a hearing world. It's strange because while they use that phrase, they are denying their own existence as a deaf person. If the world is not theirs, then who are they?

I am proposing for us all to go out and say, "Hell, it's our world, too! Of course, I cannot deny the fact that there are more many more hearing people than there are deaf. But I can and will deny them the right to claim the world."

Bahan(1989, p. 45-47)

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This is quite a complicated part of the course which has a great deal of detail on the way deaf people think about themselves and how the hearing community imagines them. It is also a source of some insecurity because deaf people seem to have fewer distinct rules and customs. However, it does not take long to go through each topic in this section and to start to find features which are unique to deaf people. Review this section carefully and make sure you know how rules of behaviour, customs and traditions can be described in the deaf community.

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This course was prepared by
Centre for Deaf Studies
1997 Centre for Deaf Studies
University of Bristol

This course was funded under
the FORUM Project
in the EU Horizon Programme