Deaf culture club

deafness a disability or is it an opportunity to join a thriving
cultural group? Natalie Valios reports on a debate sparked by a
well publicised case in the US.

American couple’s decision to deliberately give birth to a deaf
child has stimulated a fierce debate among members of both the
hearing and deaf communities. The lesbian couple, who are both
deaf, already had a deaf daughter fathered by a friend with five
generations of deafness in his family. With the help of the same
friend, their second child was also born profoundly deaf in one
ear, with residual hearing in the other, a few months ago.

Defending both decisions, the women said they were part of a
generation that viewed deafness not as a disability but as a
cultural identity. Indeed, one British deaf mother of a deaf child
interviewed at the time the news broke said that she did not see
deafness as a disability, but as a way into a rich culture. She
added that deaf people who would rather have a hearing baby were
unconfident of their identity as deaf people and regarded hearing
people as superior.

there are few hearing people who would sympathise with such a
decision, it undoubtedly highlights just how strongly some deaf
people feel about their culture. But how many deaf people share
their view? According to James Strachan, chief executive of the
Royal National Institute for Deaf People, it needs to be put into
perspective. There are 8.7 million deaf or hard of hearing people
in this country. The majority are older people who are hard of
hearing. About 700,000 are severely or profoundly deaf. Of these,
an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 are British Sign Language users.
While some can lip read and speak, some do not use speech at

people refer to the ‘Deaf community’ it tends to mean that small
group of BSL users, within which there’s a subset who very much see
their deafness as a form of cultural identity and BSL is the key
emblem of that,” Strachan says.

himself was born profoundly deaf to hearing parents. The emphasis
during his education was on speech therapy and lip reading. He
believes that it is the obligation of any parent to maximise their
child’s potential and calls the American couple “outrageously
selfish” to ignore doctors’ advice to have a hearing aid fitted in
their son’s ear that has residual hearing. If the auditory cortex
is not stimulated at an early age in an ear with residual hearing
the damage cannot be undone, he says.

people would say we can still have cultural identity and take
advantage of technology.”

than 800 children are born severely or profoundly deaf each year,
90 per cent to hearing parents. “Of those families where there is a
deaf child and the parents’ first language is BSL, then there’s a
natural desire to be able to communicate with your child in your
first language. But for hearing parents, there is a natural desire
for them to find any means that encourage their child to speak,”
says Strachan.

there is a degree of tension between those who choose to lip read
and those who choose to sign. Deaf BSL users view their deafness as
a cultural identity, they are proud of their language and feel they
belong to a linguistic minority group. Those who can use hearing
aids, or speak or lipread or both, have English as their first or
preferred language. Most of them have acquired deafness and see it
as a medical condition.

Lawson is director of the Scottish Council on Deafness, but
speaking in her personal capacity, she thinks that the tension
between the two can be resolved by mutual respect of their
differing needs. “They have different needs and therefore have
different views of priorities. For example, Deaf BSL users want the
language to be recognised and deaf children to be taught
bilingually (BSL and English). But hearing aid users want better
hearing aids and improved loop systems.”

tension is borne out by the fact that some lip readers believe that
the BSL community may not actually welcome technogical advancements
to aid hearing, such as cochlear implants, seeing them as a threat
to their culture.

says: “Many Deaf BSL users do not want to take up cochlear implants
because they are comfortable about being deaf and are proud of
their identity. They dislike the thought of “a piece of wiring”
invading their brain. They do not want their deafness to be cured
and they are more concerned about improved access to services,
information, and democracy.”

The Deaf
community is a proud community, says Jeff McWhinney, chief
executive of the British Deaf Association. “It is proud of its
culture, its history and, above all, its language – British Sign
Language. This sense of pride in Deaf identity is a mystery to many
hearing people.”

represents the UK’s Deaf community. BSL is a visual language,
communicated in a variety of ways: specific signs using different
hand shapes and movements, facial expressions, lip patterns and
upper body and head movements. It is not based on English and
different countries have their own national sign languages.

was founded in 1890, after an international congress of hearing
educators of deaf children called for sign language to be banned in
schools across the world. A Royal Commission in Britain agreed and
sign language started disappearing from the classrooms of deaf
schools. The language survived and the BDA is currently calling for
BSL to be officially recognised in this country under the European
Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, which the UK has
signed and ratified.

uses BSL, and lipreads and speaks only if and when those she is
talking to can follow her speech and do not use sign. However, she
prefers to use BSL. “The most important part of Deaf culture is its
sign language,” she says. “Without this language, the shared
traditions, customs and beliefs could not be passed on from one
generation to the next.”

is Sally Paull’s first choice of communication and she has fairly
good lipreading skills. Paull’s son, who is hearing, signs. She
does not see deafness as a disability: “It is more of an
inconvenience at times when I am left frustrated at not being able
to have full access to television, theatre and other events due to
lack of subtitles or signed interpretation. Occasionally I am
disappointed with the attitudes and ignorance of people who find
deafness a problem, which hinders the communication flow and

So, what
do people mean when they talk about Deaf culture? For Paull, this
means sharing a common language for communication purposes, social
interaction choices and identity issues. “Historically, deaf people
have been oppressed and often referred to in negative ways.
Thankfully this is changing, access to information and services
have improved greatly in most areas and we are seeing sensitive and
informed people recognising that deaf people have the right to
express their beliefs, values and choices.”

According to the BDA, like many linguistic minorities, deaf people
enjoy a unique culture. One example of Deaf culture is the way deaf
people interact in a restaurant. Eye contact is constant so they
can communicate visually in sign language. Hearing people may not
have such regular eye contact and often carry on eating during a
conversation. Within the Deaf community there is also a strong
tradition of storytelling and jokes, which are passed from one
generation to the next.

Meanwhile, the BDA is still fighting to allow deaf children to be
taught sign language in schools. “We are still challenging a
medical model that automatically sees deafness as something to be
treated or cured,” says McWhinney. “Above all we are still fighting
a battle to be accepted for who we are: people who are proud to be

– For
more information, contact RNID on 020 7296 8000 or go to  or BDA on 020 7588 3529 or go to 

In this
article “deaf” is used when referring to the audiological condition
of not hearing, but “Deaf” is used for describing those who
identify themselves culturally and linguistically as members of the
sign language-using Deaf community.

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