ASL Lessons | Bookstore | Library | ASL University Main ►

Deaf School Observations:

Flora Grace McConkie
October 19, 2017

Observations of Deaf versus Hearing schools



            What differences would an observer notice between a Deaf school and a regular, public "Hearing" school? What simple things would stand out as indicators of cultural or community differences between Deaf and Hearing culture? In this paper, I will highlight a few personal observations of Delaware School for the Deaf (DSD), as a volunteer, intern, and then employee (as a teacher's aide in summer school).

Touching & Hugging

            Some public schools have instituted "no touch" policies, such as a middle school in Fairfax County, Virginia (Associated Press, 2007).  This could never work in a Deaf school, because Deaf people are required to use touch to get someone's attention. In the front office one day, I was sitting at a desk, working at the computer, when one of DSD's teachers came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder, to get my attention. I did not think twice about it because such a thing is so common for Deaf people -- but it is quite different than "Hearing" public schools. Probably it comes down to this: Deaf people need to touch often to get attention -- it is a necessity. Therefore, it is not viewed as anything but a means to an end, and the most natural thing in the world. In the outside Hearing world, tapping somebody on the shoulder would be viewed with suspicion, because it is not a necessity.

            Compared to Hearing people, Deaf people hug more frequently, within a wider range (Mindess, 2006). I saw this illustrated at DSD during the summer, when a high school student had not seen a particular teacher for several weeks -- their joyful hug was a pleasure to behold, and quite a contrast to the typical student at a Hearing school, who would not think to hug a teacher he/she had not seen for some time. On another occasion, I observed a school staff member give a hug to a distressed student -- something that would be less likely to happen in Hearing schools.


            I observed a young student (probably 4-6 years old) at DSD in the front office one day, chatting with the Secondary Principal. They were happily reviewing the Principal's name sign, which utilized a D because her first name is Daphne. It stuck me that it might be some time before this young student realizes the Secondary Principal has a last name -- which is the reverse of many students at Hearing schools, who know their Principal's last name before learning his/her first name. After making Deaf friends, working at DSD, and getting out in the Deaf community, I now understand that students using a name sign referring to a Principal's first name is as respectful as students at Hearing schools using "Mr. John." What is the difference, then? Deaf people do not cling to titles to show respect -- names signs are respectful (Vicars, n.d).

Calling or Texting?

            At the Alabama School for the Deaf, almost everyone "…has at least one handheld texting device, and some have two," which lets people order lunch by typing on a device and showing it at a counter (CBS News, 2010, para. 2). This comes as no surprise to me, because I observed a similar thing at DSD: while working as an intern in the office, when parents came to pick up students or visitors came to meet with teachers or staff, I did not use a phone to call the correct teacher or staff member, because so many of the them are Deaf. The office does have a video phone, but it takes a minute to turn it on, call the correct room and wait for the other person to pick up the call -- and what about staff members who are not currently in their office or classroom? Instead, I would simply text the teacher or staff member using the office cellphone. This method of communicating is very different than Hearing schools, where the secretary in the office would pick up the phone and call the classroom or office to reach the correct person. Because of this difference, I was quickly taught to verbally say to Hearing parents and visitors "I'm texting ________, I'll let you know when he/she texts back" -- otherwise visitors would question why I, as a secretary at work, was "ignoring" them and instead texting on my "personal" phone. 


            It is difficult to put into words the feeling I get when I walk into DSD -- a feeling of "you're home!" That feeling comes, in part, from the people who work there and help create an atmosphere of caring and friendliness. It comes, in part, from the memories of community events held at DSD, where I socialized with some of my favorite people. The observations noted in this paper are things I saw on the surface -- the main difference between Deaf and Hearing schools is the role Deaf schools play in individual lives and the community as a whole. As a Hearing person, I feel extremely blessed to have had opportunities to be a part of DSD, and look forward to future association with the incredible community to which DSD is a "home."



Associated Press. (2007, June 18). School penalizes students for hugs, high fives. Education on NBC Retrieved from -education/t/school-penalizes-students-hugs-high-fives/#.Wai5IbKGPtS

CBS News. (2010, Sep 20). For Deaf, Texting Offers New Portal to World. Associated Press.      Retrieved from

Mindess, A. (2006). Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters. Boston, MA: London, England: Intercultural Press.

Vicars, William G. (n.d). American Sign Language: "The use of titles." Retrieved  from





*  Want to help support ASL University?  It's easy
DONATE  (Thanks!)

Another way to help is to buy something from Dr. Bill's "Bookstore."

Want even more ASL resources?  Visit the "ASL Training Center!"  (Subscription Extension of ASLU)  

*  Also check out Dr. Bill's channel:

You can learn American Sign Language (ASL) online at American Sign Language University ™ 
ASL resources by  ©  Dr. William Vicars