Editors’ comments:

While I am familiar with the concept of “Deaf culture,” I prefer to use the term “Deaf community” to describe us. I don’t believe that the term “culture” is appropriate, since it’s too strong a term, too restrictive, and too politically-slanted. Since deaf people come from a wide variety of backgrounds, communicatively, educationally, and socially, I prefer a term that reflects this diversity.

I don’t feel comfortable defining us as having a “culture,” since deaf people in the United States are already members of American culture. Certainly, it’s possible to hold membership in more than one culture, so to speak, but if you consider carefully, you’ll see that deaf people don’t really have a distinct, full-fledged culture. We don’t have a “Deaf God,” for example, although there are a number of ASL-affirmative churches. But these churches are simply outposts of existing denominations, such as Lutheran, Methodist, Roman Catholic, or Reform Judaism. There is no distiinct “Deaf religion,” no “Deaf Bible,” no “Deaf food,” no “Deaf dress.” Deaf people are not recognizable as “deaf” at first glance.

Yes, we have ASL as the linguistic basis of our ethnic identity, but aside from that, we don’t have a distinct culture like Sikhs or Italian-Americans do, so the term “subculture” might be more appropriate. Still, I like the term “Deaf community,” since it defines us without limiting us.

“Deaf culture,” as a self-conscious political concept, is limiting rather than inclusive. It encourages a certain elitism, a snobbery. For example, in Deaf culture, a person is considered “strong-Deaf,” and is accorded respect, if s/he has Deaf parents. Since I am the child of hearing parents, and the only deaf person in my family, I’m not considered “strong-Deaf” enough by certain Deaf-culture purists. (Not strong-Deaf enough to be taken seriously, I imagine.) My status in Deaf culture is, in this view, lower than that of persons with Deaf parents and/or Deaf siblings. I’ve had a few encounters with gung-ho Deaf-culture types who have told me that they don’t consider me part of Deaf culture because I’m from a hearing family and didn’t attend Gallaudet University. Despite the fact that ASL is my first language, that I entered Indiana School for the Deaf when I was 3, began my ASL education immediately, was immersed in this environment until I graduated as valeductorian of my class, and that I participated actively in the ASL-using community of NTID/RIT—none of that cuts much ice with the Deaf-culture purists. I suppose that they consider me second-class, according to the strict Deaf Culture criteria. Or maybe third-class. Since the vast majority of deaf people have hearing parents, that would mean that only a mere handful of Deaf people can rightly be considered the “elite.” Not by one’s personal accomplishments, not by one’s contributions to the community, but simply by having the “right kind” of parents. To my view, this is as snobbish and restrictive as the views promulgated by the oralists, who excluded deaf people from the respect accorded to all other groups, communities, and societies. In defying the norms of Hearing culture, Deaf culture has set up a view that is, in its own way, just as exclusionary.

The term “community” indicates a group of people, or a segment of the population, that has shared goals, beliefs, experiences, or simply lives in proximity. Although most deaf people are geographically scattered, they do comprise a distinct community with ASL and the schools for the deaf as their socio-linguistic heart. Thus, “Deaf community” includes people from mainstreamed backgrounds, alumni of oral schools, persons with cochlear implants, and those whose first language in English—all of these disqualifying factors to membership in Deaf culture. The Deaf community also includes hearing families, friends, supporters, and advocates of Deaf people—even if they’re not native-ASL signers.

My political views are based on my own experiences, observations, and interactions with other Deaf /deaf people—and I’ve met a large number of them. When I’m asked about my feelings about Deaf culture, or if I see myself as being part of Deaf culture, I propose that we use the term “Deaf community.” Deaf culture excludes; Deaf community includes. I prefer an inclusive approach here.

Other people’s views: an invitation

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Definitions | Ethnic Culture | Commentary

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