|SignWriting List Forum|
Valerie Sutton |
Date: Fri Aug 11, 2000 3:24 pm
Subject: Question: What Is Cultural Deafness?
August 11, 2000
Dear SignWriting List:
Recently someone wrote asking me what it means to be "culturally
Deaf". So I looked through my old papers, and found this old write-up
(written around 1998). I decided to post it on the web:
Physical versus Cultural Deafness
....different languages mold different cultures...
Below is the entire article from the web....
Feel free to comment! Val ;-)
Physical versus Cultural Deafness
.....different languages mold different cultures.....
Many Aspects To Deafness
People who are born hearing and become deaf late in life, are
"physically deaf", but "culturally hearing". They grew up speaking a
spoken language, using the telephone, the TV, the radio. They think,
speak, read, write and base their opinions on the world they knew
before they became deaf. They rarely learn a signed language.
People who are born into the Deaf Community, and whose first native
language is a signed language, not a spoken one, are "culturally
Deaf". Most of them are physically deaf as well. Some of them are
born-deaf or became deaf at a very young age. Some of them are
hearing people born into all-deaf families, and even though they can
hear, even though they speak a spoken language, their first language
was a signed language, not a spoken language. They base their view of
the world from the Deaf perspective. They are "physically hearing"
Hearing people have a hard time imagining what it would feel like to
be born physically deaf. Try to imagine never hearing a sound from
the moment of your birth! For a hearing adult, it is impossible to
know how that feels. But it is even harder for hearing people to
imagine "cultural deafness". Why?
Of course there are many reasons. For example, it is hard for hearing
people to think of signed languages as real languages. Yet they have
been proven by research to be as rich and as sophisticated as spoken
languages. Usually hearing people are afraid of becoming blind. But
to them, deafness doesn't seem nearly as bad. They forget that
hearing is connected with the development of speech. Born-deaf
children, or children who become deaf very young, before the age of
three, must learn a spoken language they have never heard and never
will. Hearing aids do not work for all Deaf people. And even when
hearing aids do work, they work with minimal success for the
profoundly deaf. Sounds are muffled. It is very hard to distinguish
between voices and other sounds. Oftentimes a Deaf person can only
hear bells or telephones with a hearing aid, but cannot hear voices
Deafness in Deaf families is often genetically based. There are
several genes that produce deafness. In Deaf families, most often,
everyone uses a signed language. They are "native signers", since it
is their first language. Later they learn spoken language as their
Language defines culture. Yes...of course Americans who are born-deaf
are Americans, but they also belong to a sub-culture...the Deaf
Culture. The United States is made up of many sub-cultures or
communities, such as the Irish American Community, the Afro-American
Community and the Deaf Community. There are, in other words, cultural
differences between Deaf and hearing people. The "D" in "Deaf" is
capitalized because it is referring to a group of people who use a
When a Deaf person is born into a Deaf family, they communicate in
the same language of their parents. Their language development, using
sign language from the moment of birth, is as normal as any hearing
child's language development in spoken language. Everyone in the
family uses the same language and the child starts speaking or
signing at the expected age. They began absorbing language as babies.
Deaf children born to hearing parents are not always so lucky. Of
course there are exceptional stories of hearing parents who do an
outstanding job giving their deaf child every chance for the right
education. But more often than not, a deaf child is at a disadvantage
in a hearing family. They are born different than their parents.
Often the hearing parents do not realize the child is deaf until age
three, when they realize the child does not speak. The first three
years are the crucial years for language development, so under those
circumstances the child is deprived of "normal language development".
Every member of the family is frustrated. Communication is often poor
Few hearing parents learn sign language. Few born-deaf people can
read lips well, since only 30 per cent of sounds can be seen on the
lips. That means 70 percent of the sounds are guessed at... when lip
reading. Try lip reading a language you have never heard, and you
will find the frustration level is enormous! Remember...born-deaf
people have not heard English or spoken language and never will. So
they memorize the lip reading of certain common phrases, and then
they are just polite and don't complain when they cannot understand
other sentences. They are skilled at reading body language and
guessing in context. But they miss a lot, and they often feel "left
out" and isolated.
That is why signed languages are so necessary and so wonderful. A
Deaf person who signs, amongst other people who sign, is not
handicapped. If every hearing person could sign, deafness would not
be classified as a "disability". Deaf people are just as intelligent
and as capable as any hearing person. They simply use another
language to receive full information.
Spoken Language Literacy
For born-deaf people to function in a hearing world, they must learn
to read and write spoken language - a language they have never heard.
Reading a spoken language is not based on sight alone - it is based
on sounds. When hearing people learn to read, they "sound-out" the
letters in each word. Profoundly-deaf people cannot "sound-out"
words. They must learn to read from rote-memory, without sound
connection. That is not easy!
Many born-deaf people are brilliant, and have several college
degrees. Some Deaf people read and write several spoken languages.
But others do not always read spoken languages well. We have all
heard that there are illiterate people in the United States. Most of
these people have normal hearing and normal learning abilities. Yet
as adults, they must learn to read and write. It is no surprise that
some Deaf adults, with all of their added hardships, also have
trouble learning to read and write.
It is said that born-deaf people often read and write spoken language
at around a fifth-grade reading level. That is not surprising, since
the spoken language is their second language, not their first. This
is also true for hearing people who learn a second language as
adults. They tend to read and write that second language, even though
they speak it fluently, at around the fifth grade reading level. So
the issue is not deafness. It has to do with reading and writing your
Signed Language Literacy
Signed languages are as old as history. They are not new languages
recently invented. Like spoken languages, they developed naturally.
Deaf people needed to communicate with those around them. Certain
gestures became commonly understood, and in time, as with spoken
languages, a rich vocabulary and grammar structure developed.
Like spoken languages, signed languages are living languages. They
change as the people who use them change. There is not just one
international signed language in the world. There is a different
signed language in every country. Some countries have several signed
languages. Some signed languages have several "dialects". Why? The
best answer to that question, is with another question. "Why isn't
there an international spoken language?"
People did try to invent an international spoken language, called
Esperanto. But few speak Esperanto. The naturally evolved spoken
languages are used, but not the invented ones. Signed languages are
no different. People tried to invent an international signed
language, called Gestuno. But even though the attempt was admirable,
no one really signs Gestuno. The naturally evolved signed languages
American Sign Language (ASL) is used in the USA and in
English-speaking Canada. There are many dialects of ASL. Because of
Gallaudet University in Washington D.C, and other fine schools for
the Deaf, most ASL dialects are understood by Deaf people all over
the country. ASL is remarkably standardized, considering the size of
the USA and Canada, and considering that up until now, there was no
written form for the language. It is possible that SignWriting will
help to preserve ASL, and will contribute to its standardization.
The signs listed in the SignWriting ASL dictionary help signers learn
to "spell" or write ASL signs. As with all dictionaries, individual
words or signs do not teach grammar. Learning to write proper ASL
sentences in SignWriting takes time and practice. Even native ASL
signers, who grew up with sign language, must learn how to put their
grammar on paper.
Why write signed languages? There are numerous reasons. For example,
a written form preserves signed languages for future generations.
Writing signs helps hearing people learn signs. And now that the
SignWriting Literacy Project is donating books to schools, the
teachers tell us that the pictorial nature of SignWriting makes it
ideal for teaching Deaf people to improve reading and writing skills.
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