An introduction to Deaf Culture and Community

Deaf Awareness Week 2021

An introduction to the Deaf community and culture from our Projects Manager James Greenhalgh…

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Artwork by Christine Sum Kim, Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children and Argent
ID: A quote in white text on a dark grey background reads "If sign language was considered equal, we'd already be friends"

Artwork by Christine Sum Kim, Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children and Argent.

ID: A quote in white text on a dark grey background reads "If sign language was considered equal, we'd already be friends"

As someone who is oral deaf, meaning English is my first language, it is in recent years I’ve been able to be involved with my local Deaf communities and culture by learning British Sign Language. For Deaf Awareness Week I thought I’d share some of what I’ve come to learn about ‘Deaf’, as a national and international community of people with their own beautiful languages, organisations, history, arts and humour, and their campaign to be a recognised linguistic minority.

Deaf Culture

Some may be puzzled by the idea of a deaf community. If by deafness one means the loss of one’s hearing in adult life (which lies ahead for as much as 10% of the population as they grow older) then one can appreciate why the idea of ‘Deaf pride’ is confusing. However, sign language users are those who were born Deaf or became so at an early age – for them the issue of loss has no meaningful reality, and so we avoid the identifier ‘hearing-impaired’ or ‘hearing loss’. By creating their own communities and utilising their own languages, they have created a linguistic and cultural environment in which they take both comfort and pride, and have come to refer to themselves as ‘culturally Deaf’.

A key characteristic of the community is the use of the national sign language: BSL in the UK, ASL in the United States, LSF in France and so on. They have long held the belief that if societies learn these languages and become able to participate in what we have created, barriers can come down and all may benefit from the unique skills of Deaf existence, of a cultural community and a collective life. For example, Deaf people are generally able to adapt from one sign language to another and, as a result, are able to form a ‘global’ language of communication and move in and out of each other’s very different cultures with ease.

Deaf Arts

The cultural lives of the world’s sign-language-using communities are rich and vibrant. In the stories that these languages have to tell, of the different ways in which the human eye, hand and body can operate, they have the power to confront us with questions not only exciting but provoking, and to speak to us about the beauty of human diversity.

Deaf communities embrace a wide range of artforms, some of which originate from specific attributes of their language and culture – to give visibility to and celebrate sign languages as recognised minority languages, rich in artistic expressions such as poetry, visual vernacular and storytelling.

Deaf dance has a tradition of creating and developing a fusion of different styles of dance with sign-language incorporated into choreography, creating a unique and original aesthetic. In his video ‘Follow the Signs’ Deaf dancer Chris Fonseca tells the story of his childhood experiences through the mediums of BSL and English rap

Deaf TV programming such as BSL Zone and BBC See Hear provide a forum to discuss topics around injustice and power, culture and history, to demonstrate Deaf arts and accomplishments. Deaf theatre has also existed formally since the late 19th century, and Deafinitely Theatre creates contemporary productions combining the visual storytelling of BSL with spoken English.

Deaf-oriented Sign poetry emerged in the early 1970s with the pioneering work of Dorothy Miles.  Miles’ work combined English and ASL (later BSL), but her example inspired other Deaf people to develop purely visually oriented sign poetry which used no English at all. Contemporary poets following in her tradition include Donna Williams, Raymond Antrobus and Visual Vernacular (VV) performer Zoe McWhinney, each part of a linguistic continuum from the vocabulary-based through to the visual: Click here to find examples of Dorothy Miles’ work being performed.

The fight to have legal status for British Sign Language

Deaf communities around the world have devoted much energy over the last 200 years towards recognition of their deaf culture, and for their linguistic minority status to be enshrined in policy and equipped with resources. There has been resistance within governments to do so, meaning there is still a common lack of access to interpreting services in everyday services and institutions, local authorities, service providers, and in medical settings. The #WhereIsTheInterpreter campaign has pointed out the lack of an in-person interpreter for governmental press briefings during the Coronavirus pandemic over the last year, an act of direct discrimination as critical information is shared which is inaccessible to BSL users.

The community have never given up the hope that they can persuade majority societies to learn sign languages so that both can move in and out of each other’s worlds. One crucial battle for recognition of sign languages as official minority languages is in education, for Deaf children to receive an appropriate Deaf-centred education in their own language and at the same time to continue to make the case for sign languages to be placed as an optional language on the national curriculum, so that every child has the opportunity to be able to express themselves with their bodies as they are already encouraged to do with their mouths.

Though BSL was recognised as an official language back in 2003, we can see there’s still much more work to be done in order for the language to have legal status. Legal status would encourage the creation of more inclusive action plans across the UK, to promote, protect and safeguard the language, culture and people within the Deaf community, a cause which is currently being led by the #BSLActNow campaign:

#WhereIsTheInterpreter image created by Lynn Stewart-Taylor.

#WhereIsTheInterpreter image created by Lynn Stewart-Taylor.
ID: A collage of images of people looking to camera, in various poses and positions ranging from confused and annoyed or questioning gestures to strong and flexing their arm muscles. Centrally there is a yellow banner with white text that encourages you to 'Stand Up, Be Proud, Take Action! Below on a small red banner is # Sign The News. Bordering each of the smaller images is white text with # Where Is The Interpreter.