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Deaf Community & Deaf Culture


Big “D” Versus Little “d”


W. Joseph Garcia introduced the concept, which has stuck, that if referring to a person who is a member of the Deaf community, and is self-identified as culturally Deaf, the word will be capitalized to represent a culture. If only referring to the audiological state of deafness, the word is spelled with a lowercase “d.” Also, if referring to a person who is not culturally Deaf, but is audiologically deaf, the word will be in lowercase letters. For example, many late-deafened or oral deaf do not associate with the culture and community of the Deaf; therefore, when describing them, the lowercase “d” would be used. It is an identity and one that each deaf person must decide for themselves. It has nothing to do with hearing ability. Many people, who, audiologically, are considered hard of hearing, are strong supporters and active members of the Deaf community. Conversely, there are many totally deaf individuals who stay exclusively in the Hearing world and do not socialize with culturally Deaf individuals.


Defining Deaf Culture and Community

What is the Deaf Community?
A community is a group of people who share common interests and a common heritage. The Deaf Community is comprised of individuals, both deaf and hearing, who to varying degrees embrace particular community goals that come from Deaf cultural influences. This topic card is presented from a Deaf cultural and community perspective.

What is Deaf Culture?
A culture is generally defined as a system of values, beliefs, and standards that guide a peoples' thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Deaf Culture is comprised of five areas, which are: language, identity, values, rules of social interaction and traditions.

Deaf Culture
It often comes as a surprise to hearing people that there is a group of deaf individuals who refer to themselves as the Deaf community. This community functions in many ways like other minority groups. But unlike other minority groups, which are defined by racial or ethnic boundaries, the American Deaf Community is a linguistic minority group. Their language is American Sign Language (ASL).

Because Deaf people are a linguistic minority group, they are often overlooked or otherwise invisible to the majority of the hearing population. They may interact with hearing people using their voices, or they may choose to use an interpreter or even pen and paper as their communication mode. They may or may not use hearing aids, assistive technology, or other auxiliary services such as CART, or interpreters. They also have a variety of educational backgrounds and written communication skills.

The Deaf community has common labels for identifying who they are. These labels have strong connotations, which assist other members of the deaf community in understanding where that particular member stands within the community. Offered here are definitions of certain terms used by the Deaf community, but with a twist, the words are defined from "deaf-world's perspective." They do not define themselves based on the degree of hearing loss, like the majority of the hearing community does, instead, they focus on the individuals themselves and what communication method they prefer to use and other behavioral and cultural values and norms. For this reason, it may be different from the standard definition that people are accustomed to understanding.

To fully understand the deaf community, one needs to figuratively "put on a different pair of glasses" than one normally uses. In this regard, one is seeing the Deaf World from the inside out, instead of outside in.

Deaf Traditions


There are many traditions that are an important part of the Deaf Culture. They include:

  • Storytelling using ASL
  • Sharing folklore
  • Giving name signs that reflect something about the individual
  • Attending social gatherings including homecomings, tournaments, conferences, and reunions.
  • Belonging to the local or national Deaf organizations.


The traditions of the deaf community are a reflection of their cultural values. It is understandable that many of their traditions are based on the face-to-face gathering of Deaf people, because communication—the lifeblood of any culture—only happens visually in this community. The traditions materialize in the strong family-like ties and lifelong camaraderie that develops between individuals. Some examples include their strong devotion to residential schools for the deaf, community deaf clubs, churches, and local, regional and national deaf sporting events.

Traveling great distances to participate in or enjoy Deaf softball games, golf tournaments and bowling leagues is common practice. Deaf alumni eagerly return for their residential school’s homecoming where banquets and entertainment events are filled with Deaf Folklore and ASL poetry, songs and joke-telling. Family milestone events for their classmates are attended as if the classmates were biological brothers or sisters.

Deaf-focused organizations such as the National Association of the Deaf and the National Fraternal Society of the Deaf enjoy widespread participation. This is because they provide a social gathering opportunity, a mechanism for participation in the political and economic decision-making trends affecting deaf citizens and a means for grooming new leaders to carry on deaf community traditions.


Deaf Entertainment

Theatres That Use the Deaf and Sign Language in the USA


Los Angeles, CA

Deaf Artists of America

Rochester, NY


Deaf Moose Theatre (DMT)

Deaf West Theatre Company

Los Angeles CA

Deaf Youth Drama Project

Seattle, Washington

Lights On Deaf Theatre

Rochester, NY

Lights On!

Rochester, NY


New York Deaf Theatre (NYDT)

New York, NY

Northern Sign Theatre

Minneapolis, MN


TIP -- Theatre Interpreting Project of Northern Sign Theatre and D.E.A.F. (Deafness Education Advocacy Fund.)

Quiet Zone

Lake Forest, CA


SignRise Cultural Arts, Inc.

Silver Spring, MD


South Florida Theatre of the Deaf (SFTD)

Fort Lauderdale, FL


Sunshine Group –NTID


Onyx Theatre Co., Inc.

New York, NY

Deaf Poetry

You Have to be Deaf to Understand the Deaf

  What is it like to "hear" a hand?
  You have to be deaf to understand.
  What is it like to be a small child,
  In a school, in a room void of sound --
  With a teacher who talks and talks and talks;
  And then when she does come around to you,
  She expects you to know what she's said?
  You have to be deaf to understand.
  Or the teacher thinks that to make you smart,
  You must first learn how to talk with your voice;
  So mumbo-jumbo with hands on your face
  For hours and hours without patience or end,
  Until out comes a faint resembling sound?
  You have to be deaf to understand.
  What is it like to be curious,
  To thirst for knowledge you can call your own,
  With an inner desire that's set on fire --
  And you ask a brother, sister, or friend
  Who looks in answer and says, "Never Mind"?
  You have to be deaf to understand.
  What it is like in a corner to stand,
  Though there's nothing you've done really wrong,
  Other than try to make use of your hands
  To a silent peer to communicate
  A thought that comes to your mind all at once?
  You have to be deaf to understand.
  What is it like to be shouted at
  When one thinks that will help you to hear;
  Or misunderstand the words of a friend
  Who is trying to make a joke clear,
  And you don't get the point because he's failed?
  You have to be deaf to understand.
  What is it like to be laughed in the face
  When you try to repeat what is said;
  Just to make sure that you've understood,
  And you find that the words were misread --
  And you want to cry out, "Please help me, friend"?
  You have to be deaf to understand.
  What is it like to have to depend
  Upon one who can hear to phone a friend;
  Or place a call to a business firm
  And be forced to share what's personal, and,
  Then find that your message wasn't made clear?
  You have to be deaf to understand.
  What is it like to be deaf and alone
  In the company of those who can hear --
  And you only guess as you go along,
  For no one's there with a helping hand,
  As you try to keep up with words and song?
  You have to be deaf to understand.
  What is it like on the road of life
  To meet with a stranger who opens his mouth --
  And speaks out a line at a rapid pace;
  And you can't understand the look in his face
  Because it is new and you're lost in the race?
  You have to be deaf to understand.
  What is it like to comprehend
  Some nimble fingers that paint the scene,
  And make you smile and feel serene,
  With the "spoken word" of the moving hand
  That makes you part of the word at large?
  You have to be deaf to understand.
  What is it like to "hear" a hand?
  Yes, you have to be deaf to understand.

(Written at 1971 by Willard J. Madsen, professor of journalism at Gallaudet University. This poem was translated into seven different languages and reprinted in publications, including DEAF HERITAGE, p. 380.)

Thoughts of a Deaf Child

My family knew that I was deaf
When I was only three, and since then fifteen years ago
Have never signed to me.
I know when I'm around the house,
I try and use my voice,
It makes them feel more comfortable;
For me, I have no choice.
I try, communicate their way-
Uncomfortable for me.
My parents wouldn't learn sign
Ashamed or apathy?
I never cared about the sound of radios and bands;
What hurts me most is, I never heard
My parents' signing hands.

-Stephen J. Bellitz
Reprinted from Senior News, July 1991

Ode to a Deaf Child . . .

One day I saw a little child as lovely as a flower,
She danced and ran, she jumped and turned ...
I watched her for an hour.
This child of God was all the things I'd want my own to be,
Magnificent of heart and limb a curiosity.
But when God made this little one he didn't give her sound,
He left her in silent world where quiet is profound.
A deep abyss, a lonely world, away from all who hear,
To never know the voice of man in happiness or fear.
And as I watched her hands make pictures in the air,
A silent unknown rhythm that I could never share.
For in this world of silence the hearing rarely go,
Because they lack the picture words it never can be so.
This causes me to wonder about the world of sound,
What is it that we're missing where the silence is profound?
And then I knew the answer, it suddenly was there--
To live and love together means people have to share.
Thus in the world of picture words where pretty symbols flow,
The meanings of I LOVE YOU is there for all who know.
And so I guess the world of sound will stay a world apart,
Until it learns the picture words, it cannot share the same heart.

Philip A. Bellefleur, Ph.D.


ABC Stories & ASL Poetry  

American Sign Language is commonly used in literary forms such as ABC Stories and ASL Poetry. Both of these forms show the creativity and beauty that can be found in ASL through the use of patterns and symbolism. Enclosed in this link are two ASL Poems and two ABC Stories with explanations of the meanings behind them.

* ASL Poem: "DEAF WORLD" (Rendition of Clayton Valli's Poem, by: Jed Galimore)


* Explanation: ASL Poetry allows the Deaf to see how different elements combine to create expressions of beauty. This particular poem describes Deaf experiences growing up. But the actual sign for "growing-up" is never used, rather, the signing in the poem shows this process by slowly elevating around the Signer. This poem is about a deaf person finding his place in the world. There are also some hidden symbols within this poem, but I'll let you find those for yourself. =)


E = E-E-E-K!
F = LOOKING AROUND (the room)
G = ZOOM OFF (He sees someone)
H = HURRY ALONG (He decides he better)
I = IMAGINE (He begins to, fearfully)
J = ART on the WALL (He notices it)
K = SMOKING a cigar (picture of a man)
M = M-M-M-M-M (The man hears a sound)
N = he LOOKS-AT the painting again
O = HOLE (He notices it in the painting)
Q = It is the QUEEN
S = She has HUNG herself
Y = He orders the person to STAY where he is
Z = He holds up a cross and ESCAPES!

* Explanation = Signing ABC Stories by using every letter of the alphabet is common among the Deaf Culture. The phrases to the right of each letter is how each letter would be signed and how it fits into the story. The capital letters stand for the exact ASL gloss (or words that are signed) that would be signed by a deaf person. The rest of the phrases help you to understand how the ASL gloss fits into the story. This particular story is about a man who enters a haunted house and then realizes he's not alone when he hears an "Eeek" sound behind him. He runs away from the sound and enters a room where he sees a painting on the wall with a hole in it. When he looks through the hole, he sees another room where the queen of his country is hanging, dead, by a rope! As he steps back in horror, he glances to the right to see a strange person putting a curse on him! He runs out of the house and escapes before any harm comes to him.

* ASL Poem: "HANDS" (Rendition of Clayton Valli's poem by Claudia Jimenez)


* Explanation: The only handshape used throughout this poem is the "5" handshape. This poem is rich in symbolism - the signs show the cycle of the four seasons throughout the year. SNOW is for winter ,FLOWER+S are for spring, WHEAT WAVES is for summer, and LEAF FALL is for autumn. All of these signs are signed naturally out from the body, just like the events in the poem, which occur naturally in the world.

 * ABC Story:  "CAR RACE"

A = COMPETITION (It's a race)
C = WHEELS (vibrating)
D = STICK SHIFT (vibrating)
E = EEEEEEEK! (wheels screech)
F = Spectator's EYES watch the cars
G = Cars ZOOM past
H = Winning driver says "I BEAT YOU" to another driver
I = I-I-I (he displays a very large ego)
J = The other driver is JEALOUS
K = and says "Boy he thinks he's KING of the road"
M = "M" (missing from text)
N = Second driver LOOKS BACK to what had happened in the race
O = "O" (missing from text)
P = "P" (missing from text)
Q = He put the KEY into the ignition and started the car
R = READY to go
S,T = (two hands on the steering wheel)
U = He LOOKS AT the dashboard
V = STUCK (something wrong with car)
Y = WHY didn't he win?
Z = "Z" (shaking his head, meaning "too bad")

* Explanation = (Please refer to the explanation for the "Haunted House" ABC Story above for information on how ABC Stories are used in Deaf Culture) This ABC Story, "The Car Race," is about a race car driver who is competing in a race and to start off, he/she can feel the wheels and the stick vibrating, and then the driver takes off! All the spectators watch as the cars zoom past them, and the driver notices that after the race the driver who beat him/her says, "I beat you!" This makes the driver angry and jealous, and he/she begins to think back on what just happened in the race that caused him to loose. The driver goes over everything that he/she checked including the dashboard, steering wheel, and then he remembers that when he turned the key, something was wrong with the car and it caused him to get stuck in a low gear which resulted in him loosing the race. NOTE: The "O" and "P" are said to be "missing from text" because they are just random handshapes the narrator of this story makes when he/she is thinking to him/herself and they don't symbolize any specific object or action in the story.

Famous Deaf & Hard of Hearing People


  • AMBROSI Gustinus (1893-1975) Working primarily in bronze and marble he created sculptures in the classical tradition. He was also the master of the portrait bust. As sculptor, poet, graphic artist and philosopher Ambrosi symbolized to many a Renaissance man who had surmounted his fate. Shortly before this seventh birthday, he was stricken with meningitis resulting in deafness. In 1912, he received both the National Prize for Sculpture and the Felix Von Weingartner Medallion.
  • ARNOLD Hillis (1910-present) American sculptor and teacher who lost his hearing at six months of age due to spinal meningitis. He taught sculpture and ceramics for 32 years at Monticello College in Godfrey, IL, now Lewis and Clark Community College. He is an advocate of symbolism and his art reveals a debt to expressionism.
  • ASHLEY Jack (1922-present) Politician. Jack is probably the only totally deaf member of any legislature in the world. His story is an inspiring record of coping with restricted education and vocational opportunities and with the impact of total deafness. His career was threatened in 1968 when he became totally deaf after a supposedly minor operation for the repair of the perforation of his left ear. His autobiography (Journey into Silence) 1973 describes his feelings on returning to Parliament following this disaster.
  • BALLARD Kaye (1926-present) Stage actor and TV comedienne who starred in television series The Mothers-in-Law 1967-1969.
  • BEETHOVEN Ludwig Von (1770-1827) Brilliant composer who experienced bipolar depression and lost his hearing in 1800.
  • BOVE Linda (1945-present) Bove, who is deaf, started on Sesame Street in 1971 and in 1976, she became a permanent member of the show. Also was the female lead in Spoon River Anthology. Her parents were also deaf. In college, she majored in Library Science and took part in dramatics where she claimed her performances as Polly Peachum in Three Penny Opera. She has contributed greatly to children's theater and is one of the first five members who started Little Theater for the Deaf. She also is a member of the National Theaters of the Deaf. She has also appeared on Search for Tomorrow, Dick Cavett Show and Happy Days.
  • BRIDGMAN Laura (1829-1889) First deaf-blind student ever educated in the United States. She became deaf and blind due to scarlet fever. In 1837, she came to the attention of Samuel G. Howe - founder and director of Perkins School for the Blind. This is where she learned to read, write and do math. She became a good seamstress and learned to sew on a sewing machine. She could deftly thread a needle with her tongue.
  • BRODERSON Morris (1928-present) Artist who is known as a noted digressive painter. He gained national recognition with the painting of The Chicken Market (1960). Deaf at birth and educated in California. Many of his themes are from his travels.
  • CLARKE John Louis (1881-1970) His Indian ancestry and environment led him to his fame in woodcarving. His father was half Blackfeet Indian and known as Chief Stand Alone and his mother was full-blooded Blackfeet and known as First Kill. At 2 years of age, he had a severe attack of scarlet fever, which left him deaf. He liked to carve in cottonwood and his favorite two animals to carve were bears and goats. He also modeled in clay, painted in oil and watercolor and drew in crayon and charcoal. He was known among American sculptors as The Bowie Knife Sculptor. His best medium was wood.
  • CLINTON William Jefferson (1946-present) 42nd President of the United States wears hearing aids.
  • CORNFORTH John Warcup (1917-present) He was a distinguished scientist and joint Nobel Prize winner for chemistry (1975) was profoundly deaf from otosclerosis for most of his life. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1937 and his Master's in 1938. His first research in Australia was on natural produces from plants, while employed at Mill Hill Research Laboratories 1946 to 1962 he developed his basic approach to stereochemistry of enzyme processes. Stereochemistry deals with three-dimensional architect of molecules an it is in biochemistry applications where he made his most significant contributions. In 1965 he was jointly awarded the CIBA Medal of the Biochemistry Society. In 1968 he received the Davy Medal of the Royal Society. He held two professorships, associate professor of molecular science at Warwick (1965-1971), and visiting professor of chemistry at Sussex (1971-1975). He received many honors and awards in addition to the Nobel Prize. He communicated by lip-reading and writing, and he did not practice sign language.
  • EDISON Thomas (1847-1931) Prolific inventor who holds the record for obtaining the most U.S. patents. Inventor of the electric light bulb, phonograph, and the motion-picture projector. Due to scarlet fever Thomas Edison permanently damaged his hearing in both ears. He was known as the wizard of Menlo Park.
  • FABRAY Nanette (1920-present) Born Ruby Nanette Fabares and made her debut in vaudeville at the age of 4. She had a featured role in the popular Our Gang Comedy series on state and screen. In her teens, she was diagnosed with otosclerosis and suffered emotionally and physically with the hearing impairment for most of her career. Some of her films were: Elizabeth and Essex 1939, A Child is Born 1940, The Band Wagon 1953, Happy Ending 1969, Harper Valley PTA 1978. She was the first person to sing and sign a song on prime time television. She also did this on the Carol Burnett Comedy Hour, which greatly helped bring deaf awareness to television viewers.
  • FERRIGNO Lou (1952-present) American actor who played the Incredible Hulk is deaf.
  • GLENNIE Evelyn (1965-present) Musician and internationally renowned percussionist who lost most of her hearing in early childhood.
  • GOYA Francisco (1746-1828) A leading Spanish painter, was one of the first masters of modern art. His full name was Jose' de Goya y Lucientes. In 1792 Goya became ill and gradually lost his hearing. In 1820, isolated by his deafness he returned to Madrid.
  • JORDAN Irving King (1943-present) Irving’s life changed in an instant one night in 1964 when an oncoming car struck his motorcycle. His skull was fractured. He became deaf at the age of 21. He adjusted to the world around him and enrolled at Gallaudet University. He graduated in 1970 and went on to obtain his Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Tennessee and in 1973 he got his degree and returned to Gallaudet to teach. In 1988 he became the President of Gallaudet following a student protest for a deaf president. He became the first deaf president of Gallaudet University.
  • KELLER Helen (1880-1968) Author, activist, lecturer and renowned humanitarian who lived an active physical life. She wrote 14 books and innumerable magazine articles, gave lectures, hobnobbed with presidents, traveled the globe on behalf of the blind, and became one of the most admired women in America if not the world. She traveled around the world to bring a message of hope and goodwill to millions of disabled people.
  • KISOR Henry (1940-present) Due to meningitis and encephalitis Henry became deaf at the age of three. He learned to read lips. His mother used the Mirrielees system to understand language. He became a skilled lip reader. Doris Irene Mirrielees believed deaf children could live productive lives if they understand language. His first job was with the Evening Journal in Wilmington DE. In 1965, he moved to Chicago and worked for the Daily News. In 1978 he was hired to work for the Chicago Sun-Times and continues to work there today. In 1990 he published What’s That Pig Outdoors? A Memoir of Deafness.
  • LOW Juliette Gordon (1860-1927) Founder of the Girl Scouts. Due to childhood illness that left her susceptible to infections she became hearing impaired.
  • MATLIN Marlee (1965-present) At eight she began to perform with a children’s theater group at the Center On Deafness in Northbrook, IL. Displayed remarkable talent in her first major role as Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Enrolled in Harper College at Palatine, IL where she planned to major in criminal justice. She wanted to be a police officer but realized her deafness would be an obstacle so she dropped out. Before she left Harper College, she learned that auditions were being held for a Chicago production of the play Children of a Lesser God. She tried out and was awarded the role of Lydia. While the play was going on, Paramount began work on a film version and she got the role for this as well. Won Oscar as Best Actress in March 1987 for her role. Has appeared on numerous television shows.
  • O’NEIL Kitty (1946-present) Deaf and a great stuntwoman in many television shows, (Wonder Woman, Baretta). On December 4 1976, she drove a rocket car to become the Fastest Woman on Earth.
  • REAGAN Ronald (1911-2004) 40th President of the United States. 1981-1989. Also served two terms as governor of California. In 1932 he became a radio announcer for WOC in Davenport IA and later WHO in Des Moines IA. In 1937 he signed a contract with Warner Brothers and his first film was Love is on the Air. Suffered from Alzheimer's Disease and died from complications of pneumonia.
  • WHITESTONE Heather (1973-present) Due to the flu and the drug the doctor gave her at 18 months of age, it left her deaf. Her mother spent hours to teach her to lip-read and to learn rhythm she took ballet. In college, she majored in accounting, but ballet remained her true passion. She started entering beauty pageants. In September 1994, she found herself in Atlantic City, New Jersey, competing for the title of Miss America. She was the first woman with a disability ever to hold the treasured crown.