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What Wikipedia Can’t Teach You About Deafness

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The Wikipedia entry on deafness will give you the definition; signs and symptoms; causes; diagnoses; prevention; treatments and more. These are all from the medical perspective of being deaf, with a small “d”, and don’t show you the full story of a Deaf person, with a capital “D”.

What’s the difference between deaf and Deaf?

People who are “deaf” don’t necessarily associate with other members of the deaf community, usually don’t sign, strive to fit in more with hearing people, and identify their hearing loss in medical terms only.

People who are “Deaf” identify themselves as culturally deaf and have a strong Deaf identity. They usually come from a School for the Deaf, are fluent signers, and are heavily involved with other Deaf people, clubs, and events. These Deaf are proud of their Deaf Culture, and believe they are not “broken” and don’t need to be fixed by the medical community.

What is Deaf Culture?

Deaf culture centers around American Sign Language (ASL) and their identity and unity with other people who are Deaf and hard of hearing, hearing signers, and C.O.D.A.s (Child of Deaf Adults). It focuses on what deaf people can do, instead of focusing on the ability to hear or speak. Dr. Barbara Kannapell (a deaf professor at Gallaudet University) explains it this way:

“Deaf culture is a set of learned behaviors and perceptions that shape the values and norms of deaf people based on their shared or common experiences.”

What’s it like being deaf?

This is hard to answer, because each person experiences life differently. Their experiences vary greatly depending on whether their family communicated orally or in ASL; whether they were mainstreamed or went to a Deaf school; whether they can hear some, speak, lipread and many other variables.

That said, there are several experiences that are common among deaf people:

  • Being in a hearing family (more than 90 percent of deaf children are born to hearing parents). Whether the parents sign or not, deaf people may get left out of family gatherings, conversations, and news. They may rather avoid these situations, or isolate themselves and entertain themselves.
  • When a deaf person is trying to be involved in a hearing group’s conversation and they’ve missed something, they’re often told “Never mind”, “I’ll tell you later”, or “It wasn’t important”. This is a major pet peeve among many deaf people; it’s dismissive and belittling.
  • When some people find out that a person is deaf, their expectations of that person drop substantially. Then they’re surprised when they discover that the deaf person actually has a higher education degree, a job, is married or has children. The ability to hear or speak does not correlate to intelligence or comprehension.
  • People, especially in the medical community, inquire why we don’t get “fixed”. Hearing aids or cochlear implants are a personal decision and no one’s business. If the deaf person does have a hearing aid or C.I., people wonder why it’s not a cure and we still struggle with hearing and speech discrimination.
  • Deaf people have to tolerate the barrage of questions from ignorant people. Stupid questions like “can you read and write?” or “can you drive?” Just because they’re missing a sense, that doesn’t mean they can’t function on a daily basis.
  • Deaf people face a lot of discrimination. Ignorance, low expectations, assumptions, and apprehensiveness can interfere with a deaf person’s life. They face barriers to education, employment, health needs, and daily living.
  • Deaf people get “pigeon-holed” together. The general public assumes that if you meet one deaf person, you’ve met them all. They get pre-judged based on the actions of other deaf people before them. There have been cases of Deaf people getting barred from getting a hotel room because some other deaf people before them trashed the place.

The “Bright Side” of Deafness

The previous bullets listed a few of the hardships of Deafness, but there’s a multitude of positive realities of being Deaf.

  • Having a beautiful and rich language in ASL. ASL is not a “translation” of English; it has its own grammar, syntax and rules.  It uses the full range of hands, facial expressions and body language to convey its message.
  • Bonding with other Deaf people in a tight-knit community. Being part of a “small world” gives Deaf people a sense of belonging and a barrier-free environment to communicate, express themselves, share information, and thrive.
  • Having a strong tradition in poetry, storytelling, art, and film all done in Sign Language.
  • Being more visually keen. Deaf people rely on and interpret the world around them through their eyes. They “notice” more going on around them visually. It’s been proven that Deaf people are better drivers because of this.
  • Deaf people can “tune out” their surroundings as well. Noise doesn’t bother us. Those who wear hearing aids or a cochlear implant can take them off for some silence.

Every Deaf person is unique, but there is one thing we all have in common:  we want to be treated with respect. We have families, friends, communities, and lives that are just as fulfilling as those of anyone else.

We may be different, but we are no less equal.

Follow Tracy’s journey at Deafblind Confessions.

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Originally published: March 29, 2016
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