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.