In a message dated 4/19/2006 7:43:17 PM Pacific Daylight Time, a Hard of Hearing fellow named John
Reading through your Deaf Culture pages, I'm struck by what seems
quite strange to me. It's clear that I'm not part of the Deaf
Culture, even though I've been HOH for many years. I don't have
contact with other deaf/hoh people and don't know sign language. A
light dawns, as I see the hints of what exists there in the Deaf
Culture, and I'm filled with admiration and respect. I understand
why they would resent being viewed as "impaired", and I have felt
"disabled" for years. What seems strange, then, is that they adopt
the term "Deaf" to refer to their culture, when, to me, it seems
that is not at all what the culture is really about. For example, I
am HOH, but that does not make me part of the Deaf Culture. I am an
outsider, and I hope I'm not saying anything offensive, but it seems
to me what epitomizes the culture most is their ability, their
manual language skills, rather than their inability, the lack of
It would seem more appropriate to me to adopt a "positive" name for
the culture, such as the ASL Culture, or the Manual Linguists
Culture (when being more globally inclusive). The word "deaf" refers
to the inability, the lack of hearing. So why is that any less
offensive than "hearing impaired"? And the lack of the ability to
hear is not what qualifies a person to be a member of the culture,
so the word deaf is not even appropriate, besides being negative.
To me it seems like referring to the Spanish Sub-Culture in the US
as the Non-English. Like a group of Spanish-only speaking people
getting together and adopting a name for themselves like The
Association of the Non-English. Rather than focusing on what they
can't do (can't hear), by calling themselves Deaf, why isn't it that
they focus on what they do so well (speak a different language, ASL)?
You asked, "Why is the term 'deaf' any less offensive than the term
Hearing people perceive the word "deaf" to be a negative label
describing an inability to hear. Deaf people on the other hand consider
the term Deaf to be a positive label describing a community of people
who share a language and culture. Notice that the word "deaf" (lower
case) refers to the audiological condition of not hearing. The word
"Deaf" (upper case) is a cultural term. We see ourselves as "Deaf"
people, not "impaired" versions of Hearing people.
The sudden granting of the ability to hear to a "totally" deaf person
would likely be extremely traumatic. First of all, his or her brain
would not be wired to make sense of the incoming sound. All of his
habits would be Deaf. And the majority of his close friends would
be Deaf or CODA (hearing children of Deaf).
You compare the Deaf to the Spanish. In doing so, you make my point.
Speakers of Spanish like and approve of the term "Spanish." Whatever
the phrase "deaf" used to mean, whatever negative associations the
phrase used to carry--is not today's reality. The reality is that Deaf
people like and approve of the term Deaf.
In a message dated 4/20/2006 12:41:05 AM Pacific Daylight
Time, john@ writes:
- Hi Bill,
- I'm pleasantly surprised to get an answer so quickly, since I'm
sure you are a very busy person.
- I understand what you're saying, but I'm not sure I made myself
clear. I hope I'm not imposing by trying to explain myself again.
- If a hearing person refers to a Deaf person as deaf, he most
likely does not understand the culture and the meaning it has to the
Deaf person. I didn't, until I read your web site. You've explained
it very well there, and I understand that now. When most hearing
people say "deaf", they most likely do not mean Deaf, they simply
mean to say "you're a person who can't hear". So for the Deaf
community to choose to call themselves that doesn't gain them the
respect that they are looking for from the hearing world. The
hearing people "don't get it". They don't know there are two
different words, Deaf and deaf.
- Another way to try to explain what I'm trying to say: What is it
that Deaf people are proud about when they feel proud about being
Deaf people? I'm thinking it is not the fact that they cannot hear,
but rather all of the cultural things, including ASL, that they have
developed. Their lives as people, and as a People, and the fact that
they don't hear is not important, wouldn't even be wanted if
offered, as you say. They're proud of who they are, not what they
cannot do (hear). I'm not presuming to say I know, because I don't.
This is just what I'm thinking. Am I wrong about that?
- I understand (now, thanks to you) that Deaf people consider the
term Deaf to be positive. But they've chosen to create a new "name",
"term" or "word", Deaf, as opposed to deaf, by which they wish to be
called by the hearing people. They distinguish the two, deaf and
Deaf, but they sound exactly alike, so the hearing people are less
likely to get the message. If the Deaf people succeed in getting the
hearing world to stop using the term "hearing impaired" and refer to
them as d-e-a-f instead, will they have accomplished anything?
Where's the respect and understanding when a hearing person utters
the sound that's pronounced deaf, if you have no idea if he means
the same thing when you utter the same sound, but are meaning Deaf?
At 08:58 AM 4/20/2006, Bill Vicars wrote:
We are discussing a classic "public relations issue." Is it
easier and/or better to come up with a new label than it is to
change public opinion of an existing label? To some degree, this is
a matter of pride. Regardless of how Hearing people perceive the
term "Deaf," we as a community are proud of the label. To abandon
that label would smack of giving in and of being ashamed of who we
are. Instead what we have is a type of defiance. A counter culture
that takes pride in the very thing for which the majority culture
pities us. Perhaps it is a defense mechanism, but I prefer to see
it as a form of social evolution. The "pride response" is a defense
or coping mechanism developed by a social "animal" in response to a
threat presented by the environment (audism/oppression).
Now, let's compare this situation with that of "Americans."
Throughout the world, the people of many nations consider
"Americans" to be war mongering, indulgent, fat, self-centered,
So then, should Americans choose a different label for
themselves? We could call ourselves "Freedans" because we love and
support freedom. That way other nations would perceive us as being
lovers of freedom rather than drivers of gas guzzling sport utility
It is a fact though that labels are transitory. I suspect that
a few hundred years from now many of today's labels will be relics.
In a message dated 4/22/2006 11:44:29 AM Pacific Daylight
Time, john@ writes:
- Dear Bill,
- I understand the "pride response". That seems natural,
appropriate and healthy. I'm sure you're right about social
evolution and things will change.
- I'm reminded of the Blacks. (I'm no sociologist, so please
correct me if I'm wrong; just my layman's understanding.) They first
preferred to be called Negroes, to avoid the derogatory term nigger,
then they preferred to be called Blacks, but later wanted to be
called African Americans. Not all of them, most likely, some may
still prefer Black. These are designations they chose for
themselves, and felt good about. And Black is similar to Deaf, I
think, in that the words black and deaf both describe just one
physical characteristic, but Deaf and Blacks mean much more. I'm
just guessing that the Blacks feel similarly about Black as the Deaf
do about Deaf. My uneducated gut feeling is that Black evolved to
"African American" because that more completely embodies everything
that they are wanting outsiders to understand when they refer to
them. The parallel that pops to mind is that Deaf might evolve to
American Signers, or something of the sort. Not that the term Deaf
would be discarded, just as Black has not been replaced by African
American. It's also a parallel that not all Blacks are African
Americans, and not all Deaf are American Signers (other sign
- It IS a public relations issue, as you say. No easy task and one
that only happens over time. But one worth continually nudging
along. Rather than discarding the existing label, Deaf, the public
relations might work best as with African Americans not discarding
Black. Keep "Deaf", but make the term American Signers more common.
- As for the "Americans" changing the name to "Freedans", I
understand your point. The Black=>African American illustrates more
the point I was originally trying to make. With both the words deaf
and black describing a single physical characteristic, and both
words potentially being considered a negative (deaf an inability,
black possibly evil, in the dark).
At 05:38 PM 4/22/2006, you wrote:
I agree with the Black / Deaf comparison. That idea crossed my mind
while typing an earlier email.
An interesting point though is that there are many "whites" living
Suppose they moved to the United States (as I'm sure some do). They
could "technically" be called African Americans.
Do you think they such "African Americans" could integrate well with
what we commonly refer to as African American Culture? And suppose
there were some sort of community event and one of these white
"African Americans" stood up and announced that he was African
American and how proud he was to be a "brother." How do you think
that would go over?
Hearing people may learn to sign, but they still don't know what it
is like to be physically deaf.
That knowledge is a large part of our culture. It is part of "the
Deaf Way." Deaf people, by virtue of having a shared experience,
have automatic connections to each other. Calling ourselves
something other than Deaf would lessen those connections.
Labels like Black and Deaf function in such a way as to draw a
perimeter around a culture. Sort of like wearing light or dark
jerseys helps to define who is on what team.
Calling ourselves American Signers would expand the perimeter to
such a degree that the boundaries of our culture would become
confusing and in a large part, meaningless.
Taken to the extreme, perhaps we should abandon all labels. No
Blacks, no Deafs, no Christians, no Jews, no Muslims--just billions
of Earthlings. Would the earth be a better or worse place? More
peaceful, but also more boring.
In a message dated 4/22/2006 10:20:50 PM Pacific Daylight Time,
Yes, that's interesting about white African Americans. Point noted.
I'm surprised that you think calling yourselves American Signers
would expand the perimeter so much. I was imagining the term to only
refer to people who use ASL as their "native" or primary language,
not a hearie who learns ASL and uses it only as a second language.
Just as my learning Spanish doesn't make me Spanish.
On your "Who is this Guy" page you indicate you're not totally deaf,
but you consider yourself Deaf, is that correct? I'm not sure
exactly where the line is there between hoh, deaf and Deaf. I'm
quite hoh now. My wife can have the TV on at a comfortable listening
level for her and I can't tell whether the sound is even on or off;
it's total silence for me at that level. For the TV I use CC, some
info from lips, and my head phones connected to the stereo graphics
equalizer, boosting the high frequencies with the equalizer, and
making one ear phone louder with the balance.
Yes, I agree, you learning Spanish wouldn't make you Spanish, it
would make you an "American Spanish Speaker." And if we stopped
calling anybody Spanish, and instead called all users of Spanish
"American Spanish Speakers" -- we would then be unable to tell
from that label who was culturally Spanish and who just knew the
The term Spanish carries both meanings: the culture and the
The phrase American Signer doesn't carry as much "cultural
information" it is ambiguous.
Deaf people want that cultural information included in their
d/Deaf means both the culture and the condition.
I'm an example of someone on "the line." Meaning I'm borderline and
thus it isn't clear. Am I Deaf or am I Hearing? I tend to introduce myself as "Deaf / HoH." Thus establishing my
ties to the Deaf community and yet acknowledging that while I
have a hearing loss, I am also able to hear enough to somewhat
function in the Hearing world.
I like how you have accommodated your hearing loss via
technology. I too tend to adjust the equalizer, except I raise
the middle tones.
Dr. Bill's new iPhone "Fingerspelling Practice" app is
GET IT HERE!
NEW! Online "ASL Training Center!" (Premium Subscription Version of ASLU) **
CHECK IT OUT **
Also available: "ASLUniversity.com" (a mirror of Lifeprint.com
less traffic, fast access) **
VISIT NOW **
You can learn sign language online at
American Sign Language University ™
hosted by Lifeprint.com ©
Dr. William Vicars