Deaf Culture: Providing Access to Historically Created Solutions for Effective Living

The issue


Deaf Culture is a relatively new term used to describe the strategies deaf people employ to organize their lives in an effective manner. The use of sign language, the importance of congregation for their social, religious, athletic, and educational needs, and the direct discourse style have been typical markers of Deaf Culture.  However, with the changing educational experiences of deaf children shifting from traditional residential school settings to inclusive public school programming, this raises the question – has Deaf Culture become obsolete for deaf people today?

What we know

Throughout history, there has been documentation of the existence of people who do not hear. In almost all cases, deafness is seen as a debilitating health condition. Typically, having deaf offspring comes as a shock, because most (hearing) parents have no familiarity with deaf people.  Parents will do anything to remedy their children’s hearing condition and usually rely on the professional community for assistance.  Such advice usually revolves around aural rehabilitation and intensive listening and speaking therapy at the expense of learning a visual language even though there is insufficient evidence to support that dichotomy.

Technology to address hearing challenges continues to improve and evolve, as evidenced by increasingly powerful hearing aids and cochlear implants.  However, to date, there is no corrective device that completely restores hearing the same way eyeglasses serve to correct vision problems. While some deaf people thus are able to develop spoken language skills that allow them to communicate that way, for many others their ability to hear and speak effectively continues to be problematic. A natural sign language can offer them an alternative, but without immersion among fluent signers, acquisition of sign language will be a challenge. For children, the key is to ensure that each deaf child receives language and communication support that meets their individual needs. Those deaf individuals who continue to struggle with communication often are drawn to the Deaf community in search of solutions.

A primary function of any culture is to provide access to historically-created solutions for effective living.  Deaf Culture plays that role well.  Solutions are readily available from more seasoned deaf individuals whose educational and communicative backgrounds are as diverse as today’s generation of deaf people.  As such, there are some individuals who have given up on their hearing devices and find it more effective to communicate primarily through sign language and writing.  Other people couldn’t and wouldn’t live without their hearing devices and embrace signing as well.

In spite of the diminished existence of residential schools and Deaf clubs, the Deaf community continues to thrive albeit in different forms.  Temporary meeting locations attract legions of deaf people and their hearing allies to events, with announcements made with lightening speed through social media.  Evidently, the powerful need to congregate with others like themselves continues for many deaf people today.  Scores of books, articles, blogs, and vlogs about the terrible price some have paid growing up isolated in the mainstream continue to be disseminated.

Despite the insistence of some people that Deaf Culture has become obsolete, there is much to learn from today’s generation of deaf people about the importance of shared experiences, of belonging, and the wisdom of our elders.

What we don’t know

Even with all the advancements in technology and varying pedagogical approaches used with deaf children, there continues to be huge variation in the results of their academic, linguistic, communicative, and social development and preferences, all of which have an impact on effective living as deaf individuals.  Reasons for these differences are impossible to pinpoint.  Additionally, full access to the world via a spoken language or a visual one depends heavily on early exposure and appropriate language input.  Yet such access does not guarantee desired results. As dogmatic as some are about their preferred methodology, research has failed to provide a clear answer as to what is most effective practice for individual children.


Generations of deaf people have suffered from ill-conceived practices and policies, however unintended, of denying them access to solutions readily available through Deaf Culture.  Consequently, too many deaf people struggle with isolation within their homes, at school, and in the community.  Providing deaf children with access to Deaf Culture will go a long way in creating healthy environments in which they can thrive.  Solutions abound for breaking down linguistic, communicative, educational, and attitudinal barriers to make effective living possible.

Posted on October 1, 2014 by
Thomas K. Holcomb
Ohlone College

Further reading