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The Culture of Deafness

February 21st, 2010

deaf-pride-culture.jpgIn Britain alone, there are as many as eight million people with a hearing loss, only fifty thousand of whom are sign language users. So, who uses sign language and who doesn’t?

If hearing is present at least up to the age of eighteen months, a child is classed as post-lingually deaf, meaning that he or she has become sufficiently accustomed to the sound and order of words to be able to understand the use of spoken language. A child who is pre-lingually deaf may have no concept of audible language and may therefore become part of a different culture, which is found in the deaf community. The language will be that of signing, with its own syntax and grammar, a language with its own regional variations and with more of a reliance on body language and facial expression than is called for in spoken communication.

By the age of five years, the hearing child has a significant vocabulary and can speak in basic sentences. The deaf child may have no more than a handful or words, leaving the parents wondering about the future. How will they communicate? The majority of deaf children are born to hearing parents and an overwhelmingly high percentage of these parents never learn to sign. Many deny the child’s deafness and, instead of allowing the acquisition of the natural visual approach to communication, they attempt to make the child hearing, in all but the real sense of the word.

Parents who approach the deaf education system will be allowing their child access to a deaf culture, a deaf community, and sign language. These children will spend a great deal of time learning how to lipread though; as they may never have heard the spoken word, much of the language may be forever beyond their grasp.

A brief look at spoken English shows that many words sound the same but have different meanings (buy and by, pair, pear and pare), whilst a same word in phrasal verb form can mean many things (get up, get over, get off, get away), making understanding very difficult. The deaf child stands little chance of understanding regional differences (bun stottie, fadge, bap etc.) and, with a different syntax and grammar, a full understanding of written language may never be mastered. Sentence construction in sign language tends to be front-loaded. ‘The front door of my house is red’ becomes ‘my house front door colour what? Red ’, while ‘last week, I went to London’ presents itself as ‘last week me where? London’. Sentences appear less than whole, but with supporting body language, facial expression, and the sign’s placement and position, the message is equally clear. Sign language is indeed as whole as spoken language, but for the deaf child in a hearing family, the best education route is debatable.

As mentioned previously, post-lingually deaf are those who have heard the spoken word and may have lost some or all of their hearing through illness, accident, or age itself. The skill of lipreading is something that, with progression of deafness, they may have already been doing without realising it, as we all tend to look at people’s lips during conversation.

Again, the same difficulty of recognising a word such as peat, beat, or meat will occur, as they all look the same on the lips. Understanding some of the context of the conversation will, however, allow for a better guess.

Being on the edge of communication presents many difficulties. Words spoken may be too quick to catch, and when in a group situation, knowing who is speaking next creates gaps in the conversation. Background noise and bad lighting and even a man’s moustache can affect one’s ability to read what is going on. At this stage, body language and facial expression again become important, this time to support the spoken word. Indeed, it is wise to remember that lipreading is not an easy option, and some may resort to paper and pen to get the message across. Whichever method is chosen, they both relate to the culture of the hearing world in which the post-lingually deaf person belongs.


This article was supplied to us by Denise Watson from Constant Content.


One Response to “The Culture of Deafness”

  1. comment number 1 by: Anonymous

    “A child who is pre-lingually deaf may have no concept of audible language and may therefore become part of a different culture, which is found in the deaf community.”

    It is possible for a pre-lingually deaf person to learn to speak and function in a hearing world.

    I believe the parents of deaf children do them a great disservice by assuming only sign language and lip reading are possible for their children. With the advice of the school system, the parents relegate their children to self-contained deaf classes in school. These classes operate under an umbrella of low academic expectations. The future for these children is most often severely limited. They are lucky to attain a reading level of 4th grade by high school graduation. Even school systems fail to incorporate the idea that deaf children are not stupid - they simply can’t hear.

    Some may argue with this, but my son became deaf before he was a year old. Recently, he graduated from Texas A & M with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. Nobody can argue with that.

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