Defining Deaf Culture

To properly understand a concept, we first turn to the dictionaries, to see how that word is defined in our language, objectively, and the multiple subjective meanings it holds in our society. So far, we haven’t found a dictionary that includes a citation for “Deaf culture,” but all dictionaries have listings for “culture,” so we’re including two of them. A definition of Deaf culture is quoted from our book, For Hearing People Only: Third Edition.

Dictionary definitions of culture

From The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language,
Fourth Edition
(online version):

Cul·ture (kul'cher) n.

  1. a. The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought.
    b. These patterns, traits, and products considered as the expression of a particular period, class, community, or population: Edwardian culture; Japanese culture; the culture of poverty.
    c. These patterns, traits, and products considered with respect to a particular category, such as a field, subject, or mode of expression: religious culture in the Middle Ages; musical culture; oral culture.
    d. The predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.
  2. Intellectual and artistic activity and the works produced by it.
  3. a. Development of the intellect through training or education.
    b. Enlightenment resulting from such training or education.
  4. A high degree of taste and refinement formed by aesthetic and intellectual training.
  5. Special training and development: voice culture for singers and actors.
  6. The cultivation of soil; tillage.
  7. The breeding of animals or growing of plants, especially to produce improved stock.
  8. Biology
    a. The growing of microorganisms, tissue cells, or other living matter in a specially prepared nutrient medium.
    b. Such a growth or colony, as of bacteria.
    tr.v. cul·tured, cul·tur·ing, cul·tures
  9. To cultivate.
  10. a. To grow (microorganisms or other living matter) in a specially prepared nutrient medium.
    b. To use (a substance) as a medium for culture: culture milk.

[Middle English, cultivation, from Old French, from Latin cultura, from cultus, past participle of colere; see cultivate.]

From Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary,
Tenth Edition

cul•ture \ 'kul-cher\ n [ME, fr. MF, fr. L cultura, fr. cultus, pp.](15c)

  2. The act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties esp. by education
  3. expert care and training (beauty ~)
  4. a: enlightenment and excellence of taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training
    b: acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science as distinguished from vocational and technical skills
  5. a: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
    b: the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group
    c: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes a company or corporation
  6. cultivation of living material in prepared nutrient media; also: a product of such cultivation
Note that “culture” has several definitions, and encompasses special training, socially transmitted codes and patterns of conduct, intellectual develpment, enlightenment, knowledge, beliefs, and sophistication. Particularly relevant to a discussion of Deaf culture are the characteristics of “predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization” and “beliefs. social forms . . . the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices.”

An insider’s definition

So much for the dictionary definitions. Now, here’s our definition of Deaf culture:

From For Hearing People Only: Third Edition, Chapter 55:

One possible definition of U.S. Deaf culture (and there must be many!) is a social, communal, and creative force of, by, and for Deaf people based on American Sign Language (ASL). It encompasses communication, social protocol, art, entertainment, recreation (e.g., sports, travel, and Deaf clubs), and worship. It’s also an attitude, and, as such, can be a weapon of prejudice—“You’re not one of us; you don’t belong.”

Despite the mighty efforts of generations of oralists, deaf people still prefer to communicate and mingle with their own kind. That is the psychosocial basis of Deaf culture. Deaf people in the United States have staunchly resisted the unstinting attempts of oralists to eradicate the use of sign language and assimilate them into the hearing mainstream. The simple fact is that deaf people who attend the common residential schools for the deaf—no matter what mode of communication is forced on them in the classroom—tend to seek out other deaf people and communicate in sign language. This is true, to some extent, in other countries, but the U.S. arguably has the most sophisticated and creative—and public—Deaf culture of any.

Note that “Deaf culture” is a positive term, indicative of pride and a communal identity, whereas terms like “hearing-impaired” and “deafness” do not connote any particular pride or sense of community. There are oralists (deaf as well as hearing) who deny that there is such a thing as Deaf culture. They prefer to see it as an artificial political construct formulated in recent times, more of a self-conscious, posturing attitude than a reality. This view denies the importance of ASL to Deaf people.

Each ethnic and religious group has its own culture. In the case of U.S. mainstream Protestants, the characteristics may not be sharply defined. Recent Hindu or Hmong emigrants, for example, will likely have a well-defined, all-encompassing culture—a distinct mode of dress, a distinct cuisine.

Deaf people who claim a culturally “Deaf” identity compare themselves to members of other ethnic communities. “We have a language; we have a culture,” they say. Opponents of this view don’t see deaf people as members of an ethnic minority but simply as handicapped persons, people with a hearing loss, people with a hearing disability, audiological patients.

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