Deaf: A culture of its own – Elizabethtown News Enterprise

Deaf: A culture of its own

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Anita Dowd really didn’t understand deaf culture until she went to Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. The university is a leading liberal arts institution whose student body is almost entirely deaf or hard of hearing. There, everyone communicates using American Sign Language.

Hard of hearing since childhood but able to speak using her voice, Anita had learned English as her first language.

“ASL is not English, it is another language,” Anita said. “I was a wallflower there, for a while. And I’m never a wallflower.”

But she soon learned ASL — she had to. She wanted to be part of the deaf community and needed to be able to communicate.

“When you look at basic human needs, communication is as necessary as food and water,” Anita said. That is particularly true of the deaf. ASL is the glue that binds the deaf community.

ASL is a method of communication that uses hand and arm gestures, postures and expressions — it is neither written nor spoken. It has its own syntax, rhetoric and grammar that are different from English and is recognized as a foreign language — the fourth most widely used foreign language in the U.S., according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. It is a conceptual language, in which facial expression and body language are very important.

Aside from the language, people in the deaf community also share a set of beliefs about themselves and how they fit into the larger society, according to the National Association of the Deaf.

Typically written with a capital D, deaf culture does more than identify someone who has a hearing loss. It is a cultural distinction of someone who speaks the language, is involved in the community and participates in the deaf world. Members of the deaf community do not think of hearing loss as a disability and do not mourn the inability to hear. The term “hearing impaired” is considered offensive, because it implies that deaf people are disabled or “broken.”

The words deaf (with a lowercase d), hard of hearing and deafened typically are used to identify the clinical diagnosis of hearing loss. People who describe themselves as hard of hearing or deafened may not associate with the deaf culture, and the deaf community does not necessarily include all people who clinically are deaf.

Roughly 640,000 Kentuckians and 20 million Americans are deaf or hard of hearing, according to the Kentucky Commission on the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and Gallaudet Research Institute.

The deaf and hard of hearing population at large, which typically is lumped together for demographic purposes, is diverse, encompassing varying levels of hearing loss, preferred communication methods, philosophies and views about deafness and hearing loss. While some believe the deaf should embrace the culture and ASL, others wish to fit into mainstream society by communicating orally rather than with sign language, or some take measures to fix their hearing loss, such as the much-debated cochlear implant, an electronic device that is implanted surgically to improve the hearing of someone with severe hearing loss.

Those who are hard of hearing tend to fall somewhere between the deaf community and mainstream society, Dowd said. Hard of hearing usually describes someone who has mild to severe hearing loss but is not profoundly deaf.

Many people who are hard of hearing rather than deaf will mourn the loss of their hearing, but not Dowd. Although her clinical diagnosis is hard of hearing — she still can hear low-pitched sounds with the help of hearing aids — she calls herself deaf.

“A lot of hard of hearing people feel a loss, mourn the loss,” she said. “I don’t mourn anything. I don’t see this as a disability. To me a disability prevents you, hampers you, impairs you. I don’t feel broken.”

Culturally speaking, however, she feels at home neither in the hearing nor the deaf world.

“I ride the fence,” she said. “I’m not hearing; I’m not linguistically deaf. I’ll never be 100 percent in the hearing or the deaf world. A lot of hard of hearing are there. A lot of hard of hearing do not want to be in the deaf culture. They never learn to sign. They’ve made adaptations and function where they function.”

“(The deaf community) is a linguistic minority,” Dowd said. “If you don’t know ASL, you may not feel part of that group.”


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