Let's talk Deaf Culture

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Deaf Culture

Culture is about the way we do things and the beliefs and values we hold. Deaf communities have many distinctive cultural characteristics, some of which are shared across different countries. Characteristics of Deaf culture include:


Sign language is at the centre of Deaf culture and community and the single most unifying characteristic. In Australia, the Deaf community’s language is known as Auslan (Australian Sign Language).

Anyone who does not value Auslan is unlikely to either feel uncomfortable within the Deaf culture, or to be accepted by it.

It is not necessary to be fully fluent in Auslan, but what is necessary is acceptance of Auslan as a language in its own right and respect for it. If a person can show that they understand Auslan’s value for Deaf people, Deaf people will help them to learn it. Without this they are unlikely to receive a warm welcome into the community. At best, they will be treated politely, but as an interloper or a “tourist”. This attitude is not unique to Deaf culture; it can be found in other language groups too.


Sharing similar values is very important in any culture. In Deaf culture, some of the shared values are:

Respect for Auslan

This is a core value, as explained above.

Deaf is normal

For culturally Deaf people, to be Deaf is a natural state of being. It is an everyday part of their life and their identity. To express sadness or regret for a person’s deafness can be considered a lack of acceptance of who they are.

Deaf people do not usually see themselves as disabled or impaired and dislike being referred to as “hearing impaired”. They see themselves as “normal Deaf people” not as “people with impaired hearing”. The disability they experience is a result of assumptions and barriers that hearing society imposes on them. This view can perhaps best be explained by the saying “in a room full of Deaf people it is the hearing person who cannot sign who is disabled”.

Deaf people also generally have little interest in “cures” for deafness. They value their identity as Deaf people and see no value in becoming a different person.

Deaf babies are highly valued

For Deaf people, having a deaf baby is something to celebrate, not something to grieve over. Deaf people value their children, whether they are deaf or hearing. They also value other people’s deaf babies and welcome them into their community; deaf babies are treated as royalty.

The eyes have it among the Deaf community

For obvious reasons, the Deaf community is very visually based, so they use their eyes to convey meaning and position themselves to best see the world around them. For example, Deaf people sometimes use their eyes for pointing. This is called eye-gazing. Deaf people also stare to refer to someone who isn’t present. Also, you may notice that many Deaf people in offices have their desks facing the door, so they can see right away if someone enters the room. If they have computers, their desks may even be a little lower than normal so that they can sign more easily to people on the other side of the desk. And at social gatherings in someone’s home, it’s not uncommon for everyone to gather around the kitchen table. They do this because kitchens typically have good lighting, allowing everyone to see the Signs clearly.

Leaving egos at the door

If you’re a novice signer and an invitation is extended to you from a Deaf person, the first rule is: Enjoy yourself! You were invited because that person wants a friendship and/or wants to introduce you to other members of the Deaf community.

For people who can hear, having a Deaf person correct your signing can be frustrating, even insulting. But when a Deaf person corrects your signing, he or she views you as being worthy of the time spent to do it. Your Deaf friends see something in you that make them feel good.

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Within Deaf culture there are behaviours that are considered rude, but which are perfectly acceptable in hearing culture, and vice versa. Some examples are:

Eye contact

Eye contact is extremely important. Hearing people often talk to each other with comparatively little eye contact, but within the Deaf culture, avoiding eye contact can be seen as rude. Looking away while someone is signing to you is definitely a no-no.


In Deaf culture, it is acceptable to touch another person to gain their attention, even if you do not know them well. However, there are rules about where or how to touch. A light touch on the arm or shoulder is acceptable.


Acceptable levels of directions vary considerably between all cultures. From Deaf people’s perspective, hearing people seem to say things in oblique and roundabout ways. From hearing people’s point of view, Deaf people may appear blunt or abrupt. These are cultural differences which need to be understood and accommodated.

Thumping on tables or floors

Deaf people often thump on tables or floors to gain each other’s attention, in the same way as hearing people call a person’s name or shout. This behaviour can appear aggressive to hearing people, but in Deaf culture it is not.

Cracking the code within Deaf conversation

You may also notice Deaf people silently signing together, but when you enter the room, they begin to use their voices. This action is known as code switching. They want to include you in their conversation, so it’s a compliment.

Novice signers often have trouble trying to keep up with Deaf conversations. The first instinct is to ask the Deaf person to slow down, but that’s actually the wrong way to go about it. The Deaf converse at a pace that is normal for Sign. Your eyes need to get used to following the action. If you get lost somewhere in the conversation, that’s okay. Don’t be embarrassed if someone asks if you understand; repeat what you think you understood. Honesty is honesty in any language.

Questions you shouldn’t ask a Deaf person

Never initiate a conversation about a Deaf person’s hearing loss. Questioning someone about this implies that you don’t view that person as whole, but broken, incomplete, or inferior. The Deaf often comfortable talking about their hearing aids, batteries that needed replaced, and ear moulds, but it best if you leave this subject to the individual who has the disability.

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Some customs are common in the Deaf community. They include:

Who are you?

When Deaf people meet each other for the first time, or when they introduce each other, they will often provide more personal details than a hearing person might. They always give their first name and last names, because there is a higher chance, in a small community, that this will provide information if they come from a family or community connections. This can be particularly important if they come from a family with several generations of Deaf people – such families are considered to be at the core of the Deaf community. They will often add other information about their associations with particular places, sporting or cultural organisations, or the school they attended.

If you cannot volunteer any of these defining characteristics, or if you are a hearing person, you will most likely be asked questions about your connection with Deaf people. This introductory information establishes where you “fit” in the community – or to be direct about it as is often the Deaf way, whether or not you are acceptably “Deaf”.

The long goodbye

When Deaf people are leaving a gathering of friends (and Deaf people who belong to the Deaf community tend to have many friends) they take much longer than most hearing people do to say goodbye. The custom is to seek out one’s friends and in the process of saying goodbye, discuss when they next expect to meet. Since there are so many people to say goodbye to and so many future arrangements (vague or concrete) to make, it takes a long time before the person actually leaves.

Technology/material things

Most hearing people, when they think about technology for deaf people, think about hearing aids and cochlear implants. To Deaf people, this is a “hearing” way of thinking – i.e., looking for technology to make deaf people hear.

For most Deaf people, technology means things that will make living as a Deaf person in a predominantly hearing culture more comfortable and convenient, e.g., flashing lights for door and phone, vibrating alarm clocks, TTYs, videophones.

Throughout history, Deaf people have devised ways to live as Deaf people. Even before we had modern technology, Deaf people found ways to adapt household items to suit them.

Deaf people also prefer or select particular kinds of environments – they often prefer open-plan houses with sigh-lines, round tables rather than rectangular, and they always choose strong, even lighting rather than soft lamps, candles, or flicking lights

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Deaf people are very proud of their heritage, which includes:

    • Significant places (e.g., under street lights in particular areas before clubs were established), schools and clubs and the buildings that housed them.
    • stories of how Deaf people have withstood persecution (e.g., in Nazi Germany)
    • attempts to “cure” them (e.g., the early 19th century French doctor Jean-Marc Itard, who attempts a variety of bizarre cures on the pupils of the deaf school in Paris; and today’s cochlear implant)
    • the suppression of sign language by hearing educators and its survival and growth underground
    • famous Deaf people, e.g., the Spanish painter “El Mudo”, England’s Queen Alexandra, Australian pioneering teachers FJ Rose, Thomas Pattison and Sister Mary Gabriel.

All these things, and many others, give Deaf people a sense of their place in history – they hold a place in the world’s story that is uniquely theirs.

Deaf people, who grow up isolated from the Deaf community and later discover it, also discover this sense of historical identity and belonging and it becomes very valuable to them. In fact, this common experience of isolation from the Deaf community is part of Deaf history.

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Art and humour

Deaf theatre groups are popular in Deaf communities. In Australia the Australian Theatre of the Deaf is well known, but there are also amateur theatre groups.

Deaf artists often have a particularly “Deaf” style, for example the deception of Deaf symbolism such as hands and signs. Film making is now becoming a popular is form in the Deaf community.

Deaf people tell jokes about the Deaf life, and about hearing people. Deaf communities often hold comedy nights where people tell jokes, funny stories, and true life anecdotes.

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A bilingual, bicultural people

Deaf people who belong to the Deaf community are bilingual and bicultural. The use Auslan in the Deaf community and English in the hearing community to varying degrees of fluency. They live and work to varying degrees with hearing people in the hearing community and with Deaf people in the Deaf community. Although they often struggle with discrimination, prejudice and misunderstanding in the hearing culture, and live rich and fulfilling social, sporting and cultural lives within the Deaf culture, they continue to be part of both cultures.

What is important in communication in the two cultures?

Deaf Culture
Hearing Majority Culture
Personal Space
Eye contact
Eye contact also but some do not and not rude
Nice even though don’t mean it
Say it as it is
Use too many words – go round and round
Walk through conversations
Apologies to others
Long goodbyes
See you later!
Lights – bright, surroundings to see signs
Usually does not matter when talking
Facial Expressions
Tone of voice
TTY, SMS, emails, captions, doorbell lights, MSN, Facebook, Skype etc.
Phone and computers
Considered being RUDE!
Not using “YOU” much
Use all the time
Kitchen conversations
Some families yes, but not always – more to Lounge
Sign Names (personal to them as well as being accepted in Deaf community)
Nick names of full names