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To be deaf is to be unable to hear. This word is frequently used and understood in an audiological sense, expressing deafness as a disease; see Hearing impairment.

Deaf subculture

The word also designates one who is a member of the Deaf community. (When used in this sense, the word is capitalized.) Being unable to hear is only a part of being Deaf. To be fully included in the Deaf community, one must also know sign language and share some perspectives on, and adaptations to, deafness. Although hearing people can participate in the Deaf community, their experiences tend to set them apart.

Sign language is the central feature of Deafness. All Deaf communities speak a sign language. In some places, such as Marthas Vineyard, groups of deaf people without a language have invented a sign language spontaneously. Deaf people write in a spoken language, not in an orthography of their sign language (although writing systems have been developed for some sign languages). Various degrees of speaking and lip-reading ability are also found among Deaf people, for interacting with hearing people who do not understand sign language.

Most Deaf individuals use certain assistive devices in their daily lives. In the U.S., Deaf individuals can communicate by telephone using a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD), also called a TTY. This device looks like a typewriter or word processor; it transmits typed text over the telephone. In the U.S., there is a telephone relay service so that a deaf person can communicate with a hearing person via a human translator. Wireless and internet text messaging are beginning to take over the role of the TDD. Other assistive devices include those that use flashing lights to signal events such as a ringing telephone, a doorbell, or a fire alarm.

Deaf people do not look on deafness as a disability. They consider deafness a positive trait, because it is tightly connected to other aspects of the Deaf subculture that are positive. Deaf unity and community is strong. The fact that deafness excludes Deaf people from some aspects of hearing culture and life reinforces cohesion within the community. Many Deaf individuals wish for their children to be born Deaf. Hearing people who do treat deafness as a disability are sometimes met with hostility.

Attitudes toward deafness

For much of time, deaf people were thought to be mentally retarded. This was not far from the truth as isolated deaf people rarely, if ever, learned language, which is fundamental to much of human thought. Aristotle believed that the deaf were incapable of learning or thinking. The kind of prejudice based on speech and hearing that Aristotle has expressed has influenced methods of teaching the deaf.

Oralism vs. Manualism

There are two opposing perspectives on how to teach language to deaf people: one is that deaf students should be taught primarily in sign language (manualism), the other is that deaf students should be taught primarily (or exclusively) to speak and lip-read (oralism). The rationale behind the latter method is that deaf people will have to interact with hearing people most of the time, so they must learn to communicate as hearing people do. The rationale behind the former method is that sign language is a natural form of communication while lip-reading and speaking are extremely difficult for those who cannot hear. Those who prefer the sign-language method take the approach that spoken language should be used only as an auxiliary language. In practice, deaf people have been observed to learn and communicate much faster and more fluently when taught in sign language than when taught orally.

In the U.S., the sign-language method was primarily used until 1880, when the second International Congress on the Education and Welfare of the Deaf[?] (composed of 163 hearing and 1 deaf individuals) voted to use the oral approach to teach deaf students. Part of the reason for the emphasis on oralism was the melting pot ideology, that everyone should share the same culture and speak the same language. Also, because sign language was not recognized as a true language, it seemed deficient as a method of communication.

One of the major factors in changing public opinion was William Stokoe's findings, published in 1960, that American Sign Language was a true language. The findings were not immediately accepted, but they played a major role in shifting the emphasis of teaching back to the sign-language method.

A growing movement in deaf education today is called bi-bi, which stands for bilingualism/biculturalism. This method aims to both respect and foster Deaf cultural identity and sign language competence and to teach and encourage skills required to function in the dominant hearing culture.

The perception and education of Deaf people as a culture were revolutionized by the student strikes at Gallaudet University starting March 9, 1988. Deaf students were outraged at the selection of another in a line of university presidents who were hearing, finding it patronizing, marginalizing, and inappropriate for such an essential part of the Deaf community. In less than a week of activism, the president-elect, who had also been criticized for malapropos statements about the functionality of Deaf people, resigned and a Deaf president replaced her.

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