Listening with your Eyes: Deafness is a Culture, Not a Disability

By Raven Heroux, Editorial Intern
Photo by Cindie Andrie

When you think of culture, what do you think of? Do you think of exotic meals, holiday traditions, and foreign languages? Most people may not know this, but Deaf people have a culture all their own! They are a community of people celebrating their diversity in the same way other people celebrate their cultural diversity.

Lowercase “d” in “deaf” is reserved for the medical condition, or the ability or inability to hear on the wide spectrum of hearing. Capital “D” in Deaf is used for those individuals who are immersed within the culture; their primary language is sign language; and they communicate, live, and celebrate their deafness with other Deaf individuals.

“One of the biggest misconceptions about Deaf people is that we all sign and don’t speak, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” explained Sarah Honigfeld, a Deaf senior at Northeastern University (NEU). “Some sign only; some sign and speak; and some are bilingual—they know more than just ASL (American Sign Language) and English. It is important to ask Deaf persons how they prefer to communicate, rather than making assumptions.”

Monique DuBois, a hearing junior at NEU majoring in interpreting, explained how some people see deafness as a disability, and why she disagrees:  “Disability implies you’re unable to do something. Deaf people are a minority, with a language and lifestyle.”

DuBois’ classmate, Nicolette Hagman, said, “Deaf people can do everything except hear. It’s not hindering you in anyway.”

I met both DuBois and Hagman at NEU’s ASL program event, Deaf Deaf World. “Deaf Deaf World provides opportunities for hearing ASL students to not only practice their ability to sign, but also to experience what it feels like to be a minority in a completely Deaf world,” Honigfeld explained. “We set up scenarios similar to what a Deaf person would experience in the hearing world, such as trying to understand important announcements done in sign, or trying to communicate with different people who use a language different from their own.”

Honigfeld grew up deaf and has been immersing herself in the Deaf community in recent years. “Often, people are shocked to find out that I am Deaf when they first meet me, since I can speak well and can understand people well by lip reading,” Honigfeld said. “I have to educate my peers and co-workers about what it means to be Deaf and how to interact with Deaf people, even though we are not all the same. I have to remind people to speak a little more slowly and face me when they talk, so I can see their lips.”

Their advice for teens?

“Get uncomfortable!” DuBois said.

Hagman added, “Approach people outside of your culture. In the long run, you’ll benefit.”

Honigfeld advised teen girls to: “just be yourself and to be confident in the choices you make. So many people doubted me and my abilities because I am Deaf, but I ignored their comments and went with my gut. The most important thing was that I was confident in myself and put my best work into each task that I did, each class I took, and each job I worked.”

Whether or not you know sign language, you can attend many different types of Deaf events. Northeastern’s American Sign Language program is a great resource for students in the Boston area. There are many websites around the world that can help you out, including the Online Deaf Web Directory, Deaf Linx, and DeafSpot .

If you are Deaf, and/or looking to become an interpreter, here are some great resources:

Know of any Deaf events in your area? Share them with us, in the comments section below!

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One response to “Listening with your Eyes: Deafness is a Culture, Not a Disability

  1. The distinction between the deaf community being a minority and NOT a disability is an important one! Well researched and explained, especially for someone of the hearing community.

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