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The Written Word: Communication in the Deaf and Hearing Communities

By David Smooke
November 7, 2010

The Written Word: Communication in the Deaf and Hearing Communities

                The interpretation of the written word between and amongst the Deaf and Hearing Communities creates a different set of boundaries than their primary forms of communication, signing and the spoken word. This is not arguing that the written word eliminates the inhibitors of communication between the Hearing and Deaf Communities. This paper demonstrates how the means and boundaries of communication created by the written words are often less inhibiting to communication between the Hearing and Deaf Communities.

                What defines the written word as a form of communication beyond two-dimensional visual symbols that form language? First and foremost, it differs from signing and speaking by lacking body language. "Body language is an important part of communication which can constitute 50% or more of what we are communicating," reads the using body language section (while speaking) of Every ASL sign is advanced form of body language. When reading, body language must be inferred from descriptions, tone, and meaning; the lack of body language is a greater loss to those who rely upon it more, the Deaf Community.

                Amongst yourself, reading is a silent activity; one who can hear and one who is deaf both sound silent when they are reading. However, some foundations of literature, poetry, and music, the recognition of rhythm, rhyme, pitch and intonation rely upon sound.  Deafness exposes one to fewer examples of how to interpret and create differentiable sounds. Comprehending the phonological nature of words when reading can be easier for the Hearing Community; members of the Deaf Community, especially those who were born deaf, imagine or through repetition imitate sound.  Letters themselves take on a different meaning; in learning proper spellings, Deaf Communities more quickly learn where the letters visually belong -- seeing letters as delineations to form and sound as a positioning of lip movements -- whereas, the Hearing Communities more quickly learn how sounds of letters and groups of letters could form the sound that is a word or imitates the sound of a word.  Not so surprising, Beryl Lief Benderly explains in "Dancing Without Music" (pg 90-91) that deaf children choose spellings from a different set of knowledge that is often more accurate than hearing children:

                "Usually the deaf child omits one or more letters; only rarely does he make the typical hearing child error, inventing a wrong spelling that gives the same pronunciation. No less an authority than Dr. Samuel Johnson, the dictionary maker, made this observation two centuries ago. Marveling at the orthographic skill of deaf pupils at Thomas Braidwood's school in Edinburgh, he remarked that ‘letters to them are not symbols of names, but of things, where they write they do not represent a sound but delineate a form. It may be that deaf children have an advantage of spelling English, the most unphonetic of alphabetic languages. They're not mislead by sound.'"

                While phonological decoding can be more difficult for the deaf, there are many examples of members of the Deaf Community producing sound based art. Poetry is the form of written language that relies most heavily upon sound. Yet there are and have been many deaf poets.  While the most complex forms of expressions are as likely to be understood and created by those who can hear or cannot hear, the performance of these ideas is more readily completed (or accepted as completed) by those in the Hearing Community. The demonstration of this fact I found most saddening was in a nonfiction account in "Dancing Without Music" (pg 198). "Mary," states:

                "When I gave the valedictory (at a school for the deaf), I spoke it even though no one in the class could hear. Finally, I got out of school, and went among hearing people with my wonderful voice. Can you imagine my shock, my humiliation, when, as often as not, they couldn't understand me! I was so mortified that I decided I would never speak again unless I really had to. If I was going to be deaf, then I'd be deaf."

The discrepancy in pure oralism that "Mary" describes here in an extreme fashion is an important factor in preventing a great deal of communication between the Deaf and Hearing Communities. In a blunt paraphrasing, the deaf are hesitant to speak and not be understood while the hearing are impatient to listen without comprehension; this is why the written word holds great power between the communities.

                When cell phones originally became nationally used in the 1980s, they offered little help to the Deaf Community, even though the Hearing Community changed vastly, anyone with a phone could be reached just about anywhere. Then in the 1990s and 2000s, a similar wave hit the deaf community when text messaging became prevalent in the nation. Members of the Deaf Community now had a handheld way to communicate with friends, acquaintances, and associates who were not present, which is akin to the phenomenon that audio cell phones created for the Hearing Community. In a Fort Wayne News-Sentinel on Sept. 20, 2010, Jay Reeves wrote about how texting creates independence for the hearing impaired. In the article, Derek Schmitz, a graduate of the Mississippi School for the Deaf and attendee of Gallaudet, took the effects of the new means of communication to another level in saying that they bridged the Deaf and Hearing Communities, "I do use texting to communicate with hearing people, (Communications) between hearing people and deaf people are improving a lot by texting."

                Technology has made communication of the written word more immediate and accessible;  nevertheless, the use of the written word to communicate between the Deaf and Hearing Communities is not new. An early example can be found in Beethoven's conversation notebooks. On Feb. 16, 1970, Time Magazine described them:

                From the age of 45, he was totally deaf, and anyone who wanted to talk to him had to write out the message. For this purpose, Beethoven would obligingly pull a pencil and a rumpled 5-in. by 7-in. notebook out of his pocket and offer them to visitors. Because he usually replied orally, the conversation books are as one-sided as one half of a telephone call.

                Many consider Beethoven's ninth symphony to be his greatest musical achievement. Microsoft Word defines music as "sounds that produce effects." Without hearing the effects, Beethoven wrote so others could produce his musical effect. In the 1820s when he was at a complete loss of hearing and no longer played the piano in public, Beethoven created his most historically significant piece of work.

The most complex communication in any form-- words, music, whatever -- can be understood by those that hear and those that cannot. The difference between the communities lies in the expression and fluency, and not the ability to understand ideas. Many of the Deaf Community, such as Beethoven, have chosen to communicate by speaking although they cannot hear their own words because it accelerates the rate and broadens the range of people one can communicate with, and others such as "Mary," have chosen to cut off much of their communication with the Hearing Communicate as to prevent potential ridicule. The written word, which is more accessible than ever, allows the Deaf and Hearing Communities to communicate while each sacrificing less of their own purity of expression and comprehension.  [End]



Benderly, Beryl Lieff. Dancing Without Music. Garden City, New York: Anchor Press/Doubbleday, 1980.

Deaf American Poetry, An Anthology. Ed. John Lee Clark. United States of America: Gallaudet University Press, 2009.

 Local Scribes. "Music: The Master's Voice." 16 Feb. 1970. 5 Nov. 2010. <,9171,904184,00.html#ixzz14dsHAbcB>.

Microsoft Word Dictionary courtesy of Microsoft Office 2011.

Prevot, Dominique. "Beethoven's Biography." Dec. 2001. 7 Nov. 2010. <>.

Reeves, Jay. "For deaf, text messaging opens a new portal to world." Ed. Morris, Leo. 20 Sept. 2010. 5 Nov. 2010. <>.

Straker, David. "Using Body Language." 5 Nov. 2010.  <>.


Additional notes from the author, David Smooke:

Note: Those who have entered the Deaf Community later in life can create sound -- with similar ease as those in the Hearing Community -- by choosing from memory, as illustrated by Beethoven's ability in continuing to make symphonies in his long process of hearing loss (ex. The compositions of Symphonies 1 through 9).

Note:  See John Lee Clark's Deaf American Poetry, An Anthology, which features John R. Burnet, James Nack, John Carlin, Mary Toles Peet, Laura C. Redden, Angeline Fuller Fisher, Alice Cornelia Jennings, George M. Teegarden, J. Shuyler Long, James William Sowell, Howard L. Terry, Alice Jane McVan, Earl Sollenberger, Felix Kowaleski, Ly E. Galladay, Rex Lowman, Robert F. Panara, Mervin D. Garreston, Dorothy Miles, Linwood Smith, Curtis Robbins, Clayton Valli, E. Lynn Jacobowitz, Debbie Rennis, Willy Conley, Pete Cook, Katrina Miller, Damare Goff Paris, Raymond Luczak, Abiola Haroun, Christopher Jon Heuer, Kristi Merriweather, Pamela Wright-Meinhardt, John Lee Clark, Kristen Ringman, and Alison L. Aubrecht. Taking this form of expression further in the musical sense creates rapping. Deaf rappers include but are not limited to Sean Forbes, Signmark, Jcdainfamous, Jeremy Joseph aka "Chosen," and Chakaron (interestingly, most of the time, those on this list chose to sign while they rap and as countless music videos depict, most rappers choose to communicate with their hands, arm, and facial expressions while they rap).


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