Deafness as a culture

“Try not to associate bodily defect with mental, my good friend, except for a solid reason”
– Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

What is the first thought that pops into your head when you think of the word deaf? Do you think of a disability? An inability to function in society? Do you think of loss? Of a deficiency in one of the most vital senses? Or do you think of group of people with similar values and beliefs, brought together through their experiences?

The medical model sees deafness as a disability, an impairment that needs to be fixed. A disability is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses or activities. In this sense, one could agree that deafness is considered a disability. However, deafness comes in two forms: deafness, indicating disability, and Deafness, indicating a culture.

Culture is defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviors of a particular people or society. Deafness can therefore be viewed as a disability or an altered human experience. Deaf culture can include beliefs, behaviours, traditions, history, and values of the community. Deaf culture is an ethnocentric culture, based more upon sign language and relationships rather than a common native land – it is a global culture. Deaf Culture sees itself as a language minority than a disability.


Values and Beliefs

A culture tends to have its own beliefs and customs that are shared by its members, and deaf culture is no different. Deaf social protocol is based upon maintaining good visibility with others in the environment (Deaf Culture 2014).

Some examples of social customs within this culture include:

  • Rules of etiquette for getting attention and politely negotiating a signed environment
  • Keeping one another informed of what is going on in one’s environment – for example, letting someone know that one is going to the bathroom (in the hearing environment this is often not needed)


Arts and Literature

As with other cultures, deaf culture is rich in history and art. Storytelling also makes up a big part of the culture. Clayton Valli was an American deaf linguist who created works in ASL performed through handshape, movement and facial expression. One of his pieces of work, called Dandelion can be found here.

There is also a National Theatre of the Deaf in the USA that involves productions using ASL and spoken word. Their mission statement is to educate the public and open their eyes and ears to deaf culture (National Theatre of the Deaf 2014).

Media is a vital component in getting ones message heard, and many artistic groups throughout the world have increased awareness of deaf culture, helping to stem ignorance and begin a conversation about the experience of being deaf. Movies and TV programs also need to start promoting deafness not as a pathological condition but as a way of life, helping to banish this perception of disease and impairment.


Cochlear Implant Controversy

Cochlear implants are electronic devices that can be surgically implanted in patients who are deaf due to sensory hair cell damage. They can provide hearing in order to increase understanding of speech, and it is estimated that 324,000 people worldwide have received them as of 2012 (NIDCD 2013).
Although this may seem like an incredible treatment for those who have difficulty hearing, it also gives the suggestion that deafness is a condition that needs to be fixed. Some deaf people are not so much against the cochlear implant, than what it represents: a lack of respect for their culture. Indeed, some people have gone so far as to describe these devices as a means of cultural genocide.

It can be argued that deafness, as a cultural identity, should be encouraged to thrive and be supported in today’s diverse society. Others believe that every child should be given an equal chance in life. Through cochlear implants one will have opened the door to greater opportunities, such as better chances of finding employment, integrating with the community at large, and achieving a greater level of success. But why should a deviation from the norm result in fewer opportunities in the first place? Shouldn’t we be dealing with this inequality rather than trying to cover it?

Doctors may see a deaf child as missing something vital, being impaired and therefore not able to function in society. The word impairment implies fault; imagine the implications this can have on a child who is told they need to be fixed. Children should feel proud of who they are, not ashamed of what they were born with. What kind of impact would such thoughts have on their self-esteem? We all know how isolating it can feel to be different during childhood; why should we push these children further away from society?

Cochlear implants are seen as being oppressive: an illustration of our overreliance on the biomedical model. Instead of seeing a child as impaired, it would be more helpful to see the child as having a different natural language. We live in an age where we preach about acceptance and diversity. Shouldn’t we be embracing the deaf culture instead of annihilating it?

What does this mean about the future? If we find the cure for deafness tomorrow, does that eradicate an entire culture? Will there be people out there who will refuse to accept the cure for their child? And what implications will that have on the medical profession – can we accept this refusal? After all, every child deserves the best start in life. Where do we stand between respecting ones beliefs and doing the best for our patient?



It has been suggested that deafness can be an isolating experience; you are part of a minority, cut off from the rest of the world. One could also argue that there are plenty of cultural minorities out there; despite English becoming more and more vital in our multicultural environment, there are many minor cultures out there who do not have English as their native tongue and are therefore cut off from a large part of civilization. Does that stop them from being a culture?

Diversity is a good thing: it is what makes society grow. It is needed for creativity, for quenching ignorance and progressing as a race. What is considered normal in this day and age? Having an illness gives you a new identity, a new way of looking at the world and translating your surroundings. What is considered illness to one person is considered normal to another. By embracing the different views on deafness, we embrace the diversity of mankind and what it has to offer.


Deaf Culture. 2014. Comparative chart: deaf and ethnic cultures [Accessed: 17thDecember 2014]
Deaf Cultural Centre. Arts & Culture [Accessed: 17th December 2014]
Jones, M.A. 2002. Deafness as Culture: A Psychosocial Perspective. Disability Studies Quarterly. 22:51-60
National Theatre of the Deaf. 2014. About the National Theatre of the Deaf [Accessed: 17th December 2014]

Featured image:
DEAF project #5 by Dario-Jacopo Lagana’

Gunjan Sharma

GS is a medical student at Cardiff University. She has an interest in Global Mental Health, Medical Humanities, Anthropology and the link between Healthcare and Philosophy (for example, the link between moral responsibility and psychopathy). She is particularly interested in a career in Forensic Psychiatry, and the role of mental disorders as symptoms of society. In her spare time, GS is an avid reader with a to-read list of over four hundred books long. She reads a wide-range of genres, from Fantasy to non-fiction. She is a strong believer in the spoken word and has an odd habit of memorising poems. Prizes: Prizewinner of the 2014 Careif Suicide Prevention Essay Competition. Joint Prizewinner of the 2016 Medical Student Essay Prize of the Forensic Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Prizewinner of the 2016 Medical Student Essay Prize of the Spirituality Faculty of the Royal College of Psychiatrists

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