Flying hands and expressive faces are familiar sights at Strategies to Empower People. Deaf culture is part of the heart and soul of our agency and we offer an exciting signing environment where Deaf is a plus!  We are the leading California agency providing services to deaf individuals in THEIR own native language, American Sign Language, and we are also one of the largest employers of Deaf people in Northern California.  This makes our team uniquely qualified and expertly equipped to meet the needs of the Deaf people we support. Any person we serve who is Deaf is paired with an instructor that communicates in THEIR own native language to provide total communication.  Our support staff, supervisors, managers and agency founder have signing skills to help provide high-quality, holistic and culturally competent services.

Learning about Deaf Culture is perhaps the most important part of learning ASL.

Deaf Culture was first truly recognized in 1965. The idea that Deaf people had a culture of their own was first written in the Dictionary of American Sign Language by William Stokoe, Carl Croneberg, and Dorothy Casterline.

Deaf Culture is the heart of the Deaf community everywhere in the world. Language and culture are inseparable. They are intertwined and passed down through generations of Deaf people. The Deaf community is comprised of culturally Deaf people in the core of the community who use a sign language and appreciate their heritage, history, literature, and culture. The Deaf community is also comprised of other individuals who use the language and have an attitude that makes them an accepted part of the community though they may not be in the core of the community. It exists because of the need to get together, the need to relax and enjoy everything while being together. Deaf culture exists because Deaf people who are educated at residential Deaf schools develop their own Deaf network once they graduate, to keep in touch with everyone. Most of them go on to take on leadership positions in the Deaf community, organize Deaf sports, community events, etc. and become the core of the Deaf community. They ensure that their language and heritage are passed to other peers and to the next generation. They also form links with parents and siblings of Deaf children to strengthen and enlarge the community circle for Deaf children.

Culture consists of language, values, traditions, norms and identity (Padden, 1980). Deaf culture meets all five sociological criteria for defining a culture. Language refers to the native visual cultural language of Deaf people, with its own syntax (grammar or form), semantics (vocabulary or content) and pragmatics (social rules of use). It is highly valued by the Deaf community because it’s visually accessible. Values in the Deaf community include the importance of clear communication for all both in terms of expression and comprehension. Deaf residential schools and Deaf clubs are important because of the natural social interaction they offer. Preserving American Sign Language (ASL) literature, heritage, Deaf literature and art are other examples of what we value.

Culture and language intertwine, with language reflecting characteristics of culture. Learning about the culture of Deaf people is also learning about their language. Deaf people use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with each other and with hearing people who know the language. ASL is a visual/gestural language that has no vocal component. ASL is a complete, grammatically complex language. It differs from a communication code designed to represent English directly. ASL is not a universal language, however. There are signed languages in other countries (e.g., Italian Sign Language, Chinese Sign Language, Swedish Sign Language).

Deaf – This term refers to members of the Deaf community who share common values, norms, traditions, language, and behaviors. Deaf people do not perceive themselves as having lost something (i.e., hearing) and do not think of themselves as handicapped, impaired, or disabled. They celebrate and cherish their culture because it gives them the unique privilege of sharing a common history and language. Deaf people are considered a linguistic minority within the American culture. They have their own culture and at the same time live and work within the dominant American culture.

Deaf, hard of hearing, and deafened – Within the Deaf culture these words refer to a person’s audiological status. Notice lower case “d’” is used. People who describe themselves as “hard of hearing” or “deafened” do not see themselves as members of the Deaf culture. Some may know sign language but their primary language is English.

Hearing Impaired – This term often is used by the media and society in general to refer to people with a hearing loss. A more acceptable generic phrase is “deaf and hard of hearing” to refer to all people with a hearing loss. Within the Deaf culture, the term “hearing impaired” often is seen as offensive. It suggests that Deaf people are “broken” or “inferior” because they do not hear.

Hearing – Within the Deaf culture the term “hearing” is used to identify people who are members of the dominant American culture. One might think the ASL sign for “hearing” is related to the group’s ability to hear (e.g., pointing to the ear). The act of talking is clearly visible to Deaf people, whereas listening or hearing is not. From the Deaf culture perspective, it is the act of “talking” that clearly separates the two groups.

The most dominant cultural pattern in the United States is
individualism. Most Americans have been raised to consider
themselves as separate individuals who are exclusively responsible
for their own lives. Common phrases that reflect this cultural
pattern are “Do your own thing,” “Look out for number one,”
and “I did it my way.” For example, when Americans introduce
themselves, they feel it is important to include their name and
occupation, which serve to emphasize their uniqueness. Closely
associated with individualism is the importance Americans place
on privacy. Americans have “personal space” and “personal
thoughts.” They find it odd if a person does not value “being
In contrast, one of the most dominant cultural patterns in the
Deaf culture is collectivism. Deaf people consider themselves
members of a group that includes all Deaf people. They perceive
themselves as a close-knit and interconnected group. Deaf
people greatly enjoy being in the company of other Deaf people
and actively seek ways to do this. When Deaf people first meet,
the initial goal is to find out where the other person is from and
to identify the Deaf friends they both have in common.

The culture of the Deaf consists of a few important values:

Sign Langauge is the most valued aspect of Deaf Culture. Spoken English is almost completely useless to the Deaf. Even if they can learn to read lips, the comprehension of English doesn’t even come close to the language of ASL. If the ears don’t work, why would you force them to?

ASL is the natural language for the Deaf. To equate the fluency of English to hearing people, ASL is the match for Deaf people. They are not meant to use a language that is not their own, nonetheless be forced to.

The Deaf also aim to preserve ASL. There are many language systems that have been invented to try to “help” deaf children learn English (Sign Supported Speech, Signed English, and Cued Speech, to name a few). These are not languages and are not supported in Deaf culture. They have, if anything, deprived deaf children of their true language and ability to communicate effectively.

Not speaking is highly valued in this culture. Speech is commonly forced on deaf children and represents confinement and deprivation to the Deaf adult. When speech education is forced, deaf children are deprived of one of their core needs… language. The only language that is truly possible and effective is ASL.

When a hearing friend of a Deaf person turns and continues conversation as usual with another hearing friend, the Deaf person is left out. This is incredibly rude when the person could have signed or kept the Deaf friend included on what was being said (interpreting).

Exaggerated mouth movements can be seen as rude. There are only a limited number of mouth movements that are used while signing. Much-more-than-necessary mouthing can be seen as making fun of the Deaf (and you don’t want that!)

Socializing is a very important value of Deaf culture. Because there are so few Deaf people in an area, social lives are invaluable. In a society where the Deaf are commonly misunderstood, the support of others is more than necessary. Deaf dating websites have become very popular for this reason.

Back before text messaging and modern technology, Deaf people would only communicate with each other in person or in letters. They would take advantage of the little time they had to mingle with another Deaf person…

Nothing much has changed since then!

Much like the American culture, Deaf cultural values are not openly written or explained.

Deaf children learn how to fit in with Deaf culture from positive and negative feedback about behaviors and from the stories and literature that are passed down through the generations.

There is a wealth of Deaf art,  poetry, stories, theatre, media, games, deaf jokes and books that teach the culture (most of which are not written down!) These avenues always demonstrate and support the way Deaf people live their lives: being Deaf and proud!