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Deaf Culture:  Navigating a Deaf Environment

Bill Vicars
April 7, 2006

Navigating a Deaf Environment

An associate of mine just came back from Asia.  He thoroughly enjoyed the trip, but there was one thing that he found disconcerting in one of the places he visited. It was the way people crossed the street.  Apparently due to the hustle and bustle of the city, drivers and pedestrians had developed an understanding that would allow both to get to their destinations as efficiently as possible.  The pedestrian natives, upon deciding to cross the street, begin walking toward the other side of the street at a steady pace.  Oncoming cars then either slow down or adjust their direction slightly and only as much as necessary so as to barely avoid hitting the pedestrians.  It is important for pedestrians to keep moving and not stop or slow down because the drivers can only plan their speed appropriately if the pedestrians move at a consistent speed.  My associate told me how unnerving it was for him to get used to "moving through" traffic in this foreign land.

I reflected on how this culture of "driver/pedestrian navigation" is very similar to the aspect of Deaf culture that has to do with navigating in a sign language rich environment.

If two deaf people chatting in the hall and you need get through (and you can't easily slip behind them)--just walk through. Don't hesitate at all. If you slow down or hesitate it will be more distracting than if you just keep going. Of course, use common sense, if the passageway is narrow you might need to slow down just to avoid tripping, but the point is that you don't become a distraction. You don't need to sign "excuse me." Don't duck. Just walk through at a steady pace.

Now, should you sign, "excuse me" before going through?
It isn't required.  Just walk through.  If you want to do a very small "excuse me" while you pass through (without slowing down), that is fine.

It is important that I point out  that you will see conflicting advice out there.  I can show you TWO popular text books written by "experts" that state two very different opinions regarding saying "excuse me" when going through a signed conversation.

My advice?

1.  Keep moving at a steady pace.  (If you slow down or change speed more than a little…they might think you are coming to join the conversation)
2. Don't crouch.  You can lower your head a "token" amount...but don't stoop down.
3. If you do choose to sign "excuse me" keep moving, and sign it very small and not as if you were actually communicating with them.  They will see it with their peripheral vision and know that you were making an attempt at politeness.

If you walk through at a consistent  pace the signers can both shift a bit and not have to slow down their conversation.


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