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Chapter 5: Deaf Culture and its Roots

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes)Real History

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes)Culture

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes)Identity

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes)Language

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes)Deaf History

blue_pin.gif (1016 bytes)A Sign of Culture

In this part we will examine the links between history, identity, culture and society. It should be realised from the beginning that the purpose of the course was to bring to everyoneís attention, the concept of living history - a history which we are all part of, a history which is passed on from one generation to another and a history in which we all have to play a part.

Real History

But this is not the history which we wish to explore in this course. It is true that it is a starting point. Deaf people and hearing people participate in a set of historical facts, but the beliefs and myths which are in this have also to be interpreted in different ways by different people. In the first two sections of the course we have tried to separate the history as written by hearing people and the history of the deaf peopleís views. This is unfair in some ways because live history is always much more exciting as it relates to recent events and people can bring them to life by their story telling. Hearing people also have story telling traditions. However the same point applies - history has to be interpreted and when we engage in historical studies we are learning to use sources and we are learning to evaluate the different sources.

If we look at say, examples from GCSE History exams, we can see that there are different accounts of events. Often questions are accompanied by materials which have to be interpreted. In one example, which we may use, there is a cartoon which tries to capture the key issues in a humorous way. People are made into caricatures - larger than life - where one feature is made more prominent - John Major in Spitting Image becomes the grey man - no colour.

What this should confirm to you is that you are surrounded by different sources of information and the job is to separate them out and to know which ones are more reliable and which ones are meant to give true images. Sometimes it is very hard to tell.

In Sue Gregoryís account of literature (in Constructing Deafness) the view of deafness is often a stereotype or an ideal which people seem to want to have to confirm their views. So the girl in The Golden Bird, is silent and she restores the headmasterís faith in human nature, because of their silence.

"But for you Sunniva, the school master would be a poor desolate, unkempt creature. you have kept hope alive in me ... I had no wish to live truly. But the fire was no sooner dead than you rekindled it ." Gregory, 1991, Constructing Deafness, p297

It is a common theme that people try to use literature instead of fact. You can find many examples in Brian Grantís book, The Quiet Ear (1987). It becomes a way of thinking about events or people or feelings in a way which disguises the truth and makes them more consistent with what you want to know. This aspect of history links with mythology and with folklore which you may wish to discuss later.

An example of this is in Robinsonís story of David and the attitudes expressed by the characters (page 190 in Grantís book).

However, there are also times when the fiction is based on good observation and we can see important features of deafness explained. You can find this in the accounts of Luney Joe (Flora Thompson) (page 122-3) and Gargan (Guy de Maupassant) (page 112-115).

Stop and read these accounts. Try to think why deaf people were shown in this way. Do you think that this was appropriate at that time?

Deaf people have featured in the cinema in the same way and also now more and more in television. Deaf people can be portrayed in may different ways which will reinforce the view of the public at large. These sources are usually inaccurate abut they are what forms peopleís attitudes.

So what do we mean by real history? In this course we mean the chance to discuss with people who have lived through events, just what their experiences were. These are not always factual - often people reconstruct the events to be consistent with the feeling which are felt to be right. but they are a better more reliable way of thinking about deaf events.

So what differences do we see in deaf history as opposed to hearing history?

One of the most obvious things is that deaf people are more interested in how things looked. They are also much more likely to talk about people according to how well they communicated. But it is also noticeable that deaf people are isolated from the information and often he recollections are full of experiences and very little of the factual information is included. It is a question of the range of information sources - while hearing people can learn form the radio and newspapers which are all second hand but verifiable, deaf people are only able to use the extension of other people which is not verifiable. The stories are very different. This is now changing with the coming of video and deaf people are building a heritage.

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What do we mean by culture? This is a topic which you have already mentioned in previous sections. To recap, culture consists of many aspects of life and belief and production. In the definition which I have proposed, culture is external - it is what is expressed. If there is only one person who lives on an island and never meets other people, although the person may have a language, he could not have a culture. Culture is the expression of the experience. And it has to be agreed and to some extent, it has to be conventional.

There are different levels of culture - there is the high culture -the Arts - and there is the popular culture, sports, markets and so on.

Do you know of any deaf artists or performers? How important do you think they are to the deaf community?

High Culture is generally a form which reaches out to lots of people and is to some extent frozen. It requires the idea and expression to be retained in some standard form. A poem, a story, a play, a book, an opera. All of these are high culture and they can be more or less complex. They have deep roots and often are more valued because the people who originated them are dead. High culture is then a an expression of the historical condition in a conventional form. Not all of it is language based - there can be music or painting. However, it has to be recognised an interpreted. Sometimes people see this as the key feature of culture.

However there is also the popular culture - the form of expression which is everyday in nature. It revolves around the activities of people and it is expressed in a simple form. This can be stories, or jokes. It can also be ways of behaving, customs which are typical of an area or place. It can also be types of dress and so on. Most of the time this is accessible to most people - although everyone will have different forms of preference. It will also be a way to define the identity.

This type of cultural form has been most described for deaf people.

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A great deal of what is expressed as culture in the case of deaf people is really a form of identity. The deaf way is partly that expression of identity. In this there is an overlap between the identity and experience and the outward actions which we can see in behaviour.

In this diagram, the experience is built up from events which happen in life. These are very varied involving language, vision, and all sensory information. From this certain events are suppressed and forgotten; other events are more prominent and are incorporated into our way of seeing the world. Other events stay in our consciousness.

These events affect our way of thinking about ourselves and others and these form what we come to call our identity. The identity is built on some experiences not all. We repress some experiences and we deny others. Some come out later in life. Others are forgotten altogether. when we think of our own personal history it is a mixture of these events and experiences in our lives. Some can be recalled; some can only be recalled in certain conditions.

The identity which forms produces a consistent behaviour pattern. This is expected to be conventional - it has to follow rules which are similar to other people. It has to fit with certain expectations. It has to be organised so that people can interact with each others. So the behaviour which I use in the lecture is part of a conventional form. It is our culture to have a lecturer who talks or signs and then to have people ask questions and to interact. But in many cultures the lecturer cannot be interrupted. The students have a particular role which cannot be changed. Even when faced with different behaviour, a student may not be able fit in. This is where the identity and the behavioural rules are to be seen.

When we have talked about deaf culture often we are describing these rules of behaviour. They are interesting when they come into conflict with hearing peopleís rules or even humorous when they can be shown to be in conflict.

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In the past we have said language is the key part of culture. for deaf people it is the most visible. Deaf people can be said to defined by their language. In the past this was a stigma - sign language was an indication of deaf peopleís less than humanness. So they could be identified by the fact that they waved their hands about. Now we say it is an indicator of deafness. Now we teach sign language.

But we often say that you cannot have language without culture. You need to know about deaf peopleís way of life. This seems quite true. The people who know most about sign language are those who are also able to relate to deaf people. This in turn, gives them some access to the popular culture of deaf people. The two seem to go together. Since those who are closest to deaf people also learn the behaviours of deaf people, then they seem to be using the culture of deaf people.

But are they? Can hearing people really be bicultural in deafness. Paddy Ladd has a very clear concept which separates this out - deafhood. Although people could be bicultural if we only think of behaviour and language, they cannot be fully deaf. To be that you need to have deafhood. This is something which we will return to later in the section.

So culture has to be more than a list of behavioural rules - although they are important the use of language will not be so good if you cannot use the riles. Deaf attitude is often taken to mean the correct use of the rules.

In this view it is attitude and the use of language which leads to behaviour and this is called culture. But this seems to be a limited way of thinking about culture and it misses out the key points which are about experiences and identity and about the deafness itself.

So if we go back to culture, we have to see that it can be many outward features. It is not only behaviour. It is poetry, or stories or the deaf way. It is all of these. So we can use these as part of our study of culture. We can see the way in which deaf culture develops from experiences and behaviours.

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Deaf History

So why should we have included history in a course about deaf culture. One reason is that our definition of culture is not complete. It has become detached. It exists as something to be studied. Just in the same way that sign language has become something detached. When older deaf people criticise BSL they are reacting to the fact that they believe the language has become detached from the users and the uses. In one interview when David (a deaf senior citizen, said, BSL was no good as it could not deal with flowers - he wanted fingerspelling - he was pointing out the missing ingredient. The language is only really important when we can see it in use. The roots of the language are clear in the way that people use it.

The same applies to culture. We have begun to study culture as a separate item. We have begun to look for descriptions of it. We have begun to write it down and to discuss it. This only serves to lift it out of the soil. This detaches it from the roots. The roots are where the people are who use it. The culture only becomes meaningful when you can see it in the people and the way they use it with each other. So identity becomes important in that it is a way for us to be similar and to share the experiences. The cultural expression which follows is part of that, not separate from it.

So culture must have roots. So what are these? To build a culture, there is a need for basic components to be in place.

There have to be people it is true but they have to bring to the situation 4 aspects - behaviour (rules and conventions), identity (attitude and desire to be a member), language (a means to transmit and to share the culture) and fourthly the key, a feeling of history, a knowledge of history. This is history in the sense which we have used it in the course. The personal reaching into the past.

There are two main components to this: a sense of history and a historical self. The first is easy to understand - it can be taught; it is learning of the key pints of history. The second is only acquired through interaction. It used to be available in deaf schools which were residential when there was wide age range - up to 21 years of age. Now it is more likely to found most prominent in those who have deaf parents. It is a sort of knowing of history because you have seen old people in action in the culture. It is an internalisation of the rule of the society, just be observing and through the stores and through the folklore. It is hard to achieve.

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A Sign of Culture

So in the end, the concept of deafhood has all of these features and the internal experiences which are consistent with the views which are expressed. Paddy Ladd believes that deafhood is threatened by mainstreaming and by new invasive medical techniques. It is very hard to disagree. Deafhood is a vital component of the deaf experience. This is where the deaf culture is to be most easily recognised. And this is rooted in history in both senses.

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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