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Understanding Deaf Culture

Amanda Gregory, LCPC, EMDR

1 out of every 1,000 people in the United States becomes deaf before age 18. In addition, a larger number of people report developing hearing loss that impacts their daily lives. Yet, Deaf culture is a concept that many hearing people have not encountered or do not understand. Here are some concepts to consider on your journey to understanding Deaf culture:

The Meaning of Terms

It’s important to know the correct meanings of terms commonly used by members of Deaf cultures. Here are a few that you need to know:
deaf (lower case d): an audiological condition.

  • Deaf (upper case d): Deaf culture.
  • “Hard of hearing”: mild or moderate hearing loss, not deafness. This term is preferred instead of the term hearing impaired, which implies that something is wrong with the individual.
  • Deaf Gain: deafness is a strength as members of Deaf cultures have much to contribute to society.

Avoid using terms such as “deaf-mute” and “deaf and dumb,” as these terms are offensive.

It’s A Culture, Not A Disability

Deaf is a culture, not a disability or something that needs to be overcome. In fact, the physical lack of hearing is only one aspect of Deaf culture. Deaf cultures have their own histories, traditions, languages, forms of art, and values. Colorado’s Department of Human Services defines Deaf as “a group of people, with varying hearing acuity, whose primary mode of communication is a visual language (predominantly American Sign Language (ASL) in the United States) and have a shared heritage and culture,” (Colorado Secretary of State, 15). Deaf cultures may include people who are deaf or hard of hearing and even hearing people who identify with Deaf culture. For example, a person with no hearing loss who works as an ASL translator and identifies with Deaf culture is a member of a Deaf culture.

Deaf culture is highly varied, as its members are also members of other cultural groups. For example, some members of Deaf cultures may also identify as black, LGBTQ, Muslim, or a woman. Just as all these cultural groups have various subsets and groups, so do Deaf cultures.

Sign Languages Are as Diverse As Spoken Languages

Members of Deaf cultures communicate with sign language and there are many types of sign language that are used throughout the world. It’s important to understand that sign language is its own language and not a subcategory of another language. For example, American Sign Language (ASL) is not English. In fact, ASL is closer to French than English, but it’s still not considered French as ASL is a type of sign language with its own distinctive alphabet, vocabulary, and grammar.

Sign Language consists of many different dialects. Citizens of the United States and the United Kingdom predominantly speak English, but idioms such as “tenner,” “nosh,” and “cracking,” which are used in the United Kingdom, may not be understood by American speakers. Therefore, not all people who use ASL will automatically understand all the signs used in ASL due to differences between regional dialects. It’s important to know that not every Deaf person speaks the same language.

Explore Deaf Arts

A great way to learn about a culture is by exploring their contribution to the arts. Here are a few suggestions:


  • See What I’m Saying (2010)
  • Through Deaf Eyes (2007)
  • Sound and Fury (2000)


  • The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community by Harlan Lane
  • Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood by Paddy Ladd
  • Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love by Myron Uhlberg


  • Mandy Harvey
  • Sean Forbes
  • Beethoven’s Nightmare

Understanding cultures different from your own can help you to excel in your relationships. If you need assistance contact Symmetry Counseling at (312) 578-9990 to schedule an appointment.

Colorado Secretary of State (May 2010) Rule Manual 27 Colorado Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Retrieved from

Gallaudet University (February 2005) Research Support and International Affairs. Retrieved from

National Association of the Deaf (December2015). Community and Culture – Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from

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