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Deaf Culture -- The Phoenix

Kendall Todd
May 24, 2011

            Hearing that a person is deaf leads most to think about the physical nature of not being able to hear sound.  Sound is something the hearing world relies on to describe life's experiences.  What if I were to tell you there is an entire community which believes the lack of ability to hear sound actually defines a unique and beautiful life experience?   Would this confuse you?  It did me. How can not having the ability to hear (one of the attributes I use to define each and every day) not be an essential piece to fully describing life?  The answer lies within the concept of Deaf culture.

            It is difficult to find a single definition of "Deaf culture."  There are facets embraced by one group yet slightly varied in another.  First consider the definition of culture: the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 2011).  Now consider the definition of deaf: lacking or deficient in the sense of hearing (Merriam-Webster, 2011).

So, when put together, the definition of Deaf culture here would be: the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought for those who are lacking or deficient in the sense of hearing. If only it were this easy.  The fact of the matter is no culture can be so easily defined.  It seems there is room for multiple interpretations of the concept.  One common thread amongst attempts to define Deaf culture is the idea that it is a positive way of describing one's identity.  Using labels like "hearing-impaired" and "deafness" do not allow for celebration and the taking of pride in the unique quality of being deaf and communicating with a common language.     

Members of the Deaf community tend to view deafness as a difference in human experience rather than a disability (Paddy, 2003).  People who are a part of the community may also be family members, those who know and interpret using ASL, or simply can relate to other members in the community due to an experiential connection.  As with all social groups to which a person chooses to belong, a person is a member of the Deaf community if he/she identifies him/herself as a member of the Deaf community, and other members accept that person as a part of the community (Baker; Padden, 1978).

At this point in my studies, there is no possible way I could do justice to defining the concept of Deaf culture.  Reading about it is a start.  But I have come to realize authentic experiences with those within the Deaf community are imperative.  This will give me the opportunity to use the skills I have learned in isolation.  More importantly, it will give me insight by allowing me to experience the celebration which takes place within the Deaf community.   In an attempt to develop my own definition of Deaf culture, I cannot help but envision the concept of the mythological fire spirit of the phoenix.  In the words of the Roman poet Ovid,

From the body of the parent bird, a young Phoenix issues forth, destined to live as long a life as its predecessor. When this has grown up and gained sufficient strength, it lifts its nest from the tree, and carries it to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun (Bulfinch, 1913).

Much like that of the phoenix, a community has risen from what some would call the ashes of oppressive labels and stereotypical judgment into the birth and growth of what is now known as Deaf culture. 

Works Cited:

       The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition (online version). (2011).

       Baker, Charlotte; Padden, Carol. American Sign Language: A Look at Its Story, Structure and Community. (1978).

       Bulfinch, Thomas. Age of Fable: Vols. I & II: Stories of Gods and Heroes. (1913).

       Ladd, Paddy. Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood. Multilingual Matters. (2003).

       Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2011).



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