ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library

Deaf Culture:  The Deaf Community as A Pond

Updated 09/12/08
Updated 06/08/2016
William G. Vicars, Ed.D.

The Deaf Community as a Pond

The Deaf Community is like a pond.
The fish are Deaf people.
The frogs are hard of hearing people.
The landwalkers strolling on the banks are Hearing people.
The water is the silent environment.
The ability to breathe the water is ASL.
Fins, flippers, and webbing (the ability to navigate the water) is familiarity with Deaf Culture.
Snorkelers are individuals who have learned enough sign language to skim along near the top of the water.
Scuba divers are the graduates of interpreter training programs and Deaf Studies programs who have invested heavily in being able to breath under water.
Mudskippers (fish that have crawled out of the water and are waddling around on their front fins trying to walk and gasping on the air) are the oralists and cochlear implant recipients.
Dolphins and porpoises are children of deaf adults (CODAs), Siblings and Spouses of Deaf adults (SODAs). They live in the water, are often mistaken for fish, but breathe air.
Flying fish are those culturally and physically deaf individuals who also happen to be good at lipreading. They occasionally go into the air but come right back to the water.
A lonely fish in a small bowl is a Deaf person who is isolated in a hearing family or public school.  If you put a fish in a bowl and stick the bowl on a table or shelf--that fish is now isolated, lonely, and dependant on the "owner" for food and fresh water.

I'm happy that people are considering and discussing my analogy. 
I came up with it because so much wanted a simple way for people to understand the relationships between hearing and Deaf in the pond.
I originally only used three "characters in the analogy: fish, frogs, and landwalkers."
At first I lumped codas and sodas in with the frogs. But then later realized that there needed to be more distinctions due to the differences in levels of commitment to the water (visual environment/ASL).  Frogs are physically different from either landwalkers or fish.  They are not as skilled at breathing air as landwalkers and they are not as fast at swimming as the fish.  Thus I decided that only hard of hearing people are frogs.

Hearing people who know ASL are still landwalkers but they now have a tool with which to function in a water environment.  Some landwalkers simply take a deep breath and dive in for a few minutes. They thrash around, scare the fish, and then climb out after a few minutes and tell their friends what a great time it was swimming. 
Others buy a snorkle (take lots of classes, attend deaf events). 
Others grow up around water, (codas/sodas) buy boats, snorkels, scuba gear, could stay down a very long time and understand how to get along with the fish without scaring them.   Interpreters could fit into either category, snorkeler or scuba diver, depending on whether they grew up around the fish and or how much they currently immerse themselves in the water.

Fish and some species of frogs must be in the water or they will die.
They have no choice.  They can't climb out of the water at the end of the day, dry off and go home.  The water is their home.

I've added yet another "creature" to the pond:  Dolphins (and porpoises).  It seems to me that some Codas are like dolphins. 
Dolphins are born in the water and swim like a fish.  Their mannerisms are like those of fish, but technically dolphins are not fish -- they are mammals, they breathe air. 
That is like some Codas.  They are born into the Deaf community and ASL is their first language.  Their mannerisms are similar to those of Deaf people, but Codas can hear.

Update 2016:

Dear Dr. Bill,
Recently the leaders of my church offered to set up a "Deaf Corner" on the church bulletin board. I don't think there needs to be a "Deaf corner" for the church bulletin board. To me that is like having a "seniors corner" or a "diabetic corner." We don't need to be separated from the rest of the church members.  What do you think?


Dear _______,

Having a Deaf corner is more like having a "Single Adults Corner."  Having specialized spaces is a way for like-minded folks to more efficiently link to other like-minded folks.

Sure, I get it that civilizations have long histories of restricting minorities and people with disabilities to segregated spaces and environments.  In general that is a bad thing.

However, I'll suggest to you that the more "Deaf spaces" that exist the more we will thrive.

The LRE (Least Restrictive Environment) educational reform initiatives of the 70's and 80's totally missed the mark when it came to serving the Deaf and that is still the case today.

For us Deaf, the LRE is 'not" integration but actually segregation. What works for us is the opposite of what works for most "so called" disability groups due to the fact that our issue is isn't "disability" rather it is language.

Suppose I had a lot of pets: cats, dogs, birds, and fish. Then suppose I said let's integrate the "fish" with the rest of my pets -- so that my fish don't feel separated and alone. So, I dump the fishbowl out on the floor so the fish can "hang out" with the rest of the pets. Then I wonder why the fish are not thriving since I have gone out of my way to do them the favor of integrating them.

The BEST place for fish is going to be a huge pond, a river, or an ocean.
If they "have to" be anywhere other than those places then we start working our way down from an aquarium to a fishbowl.
Water is to Fish as "Deaf Spaces" are to "Deaf people." Fish need water to exist. Deaf people need visual communication to thrive.

Anyway, my thought is that you could use the "Deaf corner" to post links to your church's ASL-related materials, your Deaf group's Facebook page, the Sunday meeting schedule for your Deaf group, and any extra meetings that your Deaf members hold.  Also you might want to post a link to and so your Hearing members can learn sign language. Or set up a "Gospel Signing class" and use the "Deaf Corner" on the bulletin board to list the day, time, and meeting place of the class.

That way the Hearing members and any visitors (both Hearing and Deaf) can see the links and hook up with your Deaf group -- thus making it stronger.

Switching topics:

Suppose someone came to visit my house and I showed them my dogs, cats, and my fish in the bowl. As I introduced the fish suppose I mentioned "and here is my disabled fish." 

When my visitor asked why I thought the fish is disabled, I'd tell them, 'The fish can't walk and he needs water to get around in." 

Pretty silly eh? 

Obviously the fish is not disabled simply because it uses a different modality for mobility.  Similarly Deaf people are not disabled simply because we use a different modality for communication.  Sure, if you pour out a fish onto the floor it is going to seem "very disabled." But the same is true if you were to put a cat in a river. (Don't do it.)  Similarly a Hearing person will seem disabled if you put that Hearing person (who doesn't know sign language) in an environment where it is too noisy to hear, (for example, on "on a loud dance floor").  Two Deaf people however will have no problem communicating in that same noisy environment.

A large, healthy, muscular man (or woman) is disabled if he needs to fit through a small space.  Eventually, if we live long enough, we are all going to become "disabled" due to the ravages of time on our bodies.

Thus "disability" is situational and "the disabled" includes everyone--we all take our turns - depending on where we are and what we are being expected to do. Conversely, none of us are disabled if our environment matches our abilities.

- Dr. Bill