American Deaf Culture

Culture and language intertwine, with language reflecting characteristics of culture. Learning about the culture of Deaf people is also learning about their language. Deaf people use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate with each other and with hearing people who know the language. ASL is a visual/gestural language that has no vocal component. ASL is a complete, grammatically complex language. It differs from a communication code designed to represent English directly. ASL is not a universal language, however. There are signed languages in other countries (e.g., Italian Sign Language, Chinese Sign Language, Swedish Sign Language).

American Deaf culture centers on the use of ASL and identification and unity with other people who are Deaf. A Deaf sociolinguist, Dr. Barbara Kannapel, developed a definition of the American Deaf culture that includes a set of learned behaviors of a group of people who are deaf and who have their own language (ASL), values, rules, and traditions. In 1913, George W. Veditz, president of the National Association of the Deaf, reflected in an old movie the sense of identity ASL gives Deaf individuals when he signed, "As long as we have deaf people on Earth, we will have signs, and as long as we have our films, we can preserve our beautiful sign language in its original purity. It is our hope that we all will love and guard our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift God has given to deaf people."

The values, behaviors, and traditions of Deaf culture include:

  • Promoting an environment that supports vision as the primary sense used for communication at school, in the home, and in the community, as vision offers individuals who are deaf access to information about the world and the independence to drive, travel, work, and participate in every aspect of society.

  • Valuing children who are deaf as the future of deaf people and Deaf culture. Deaf culture therefore encourages the use of ASL, in addition to any other communication modalities the child may have.

  • Support for bilingual ASL/English education of children who are deaf so they are competent in both languages.

  • Inclusion of specific rules of behavior in communication in addition to the conventional rules of turn taking. For example, consistent eye contact and visual attention during a conversation is expected. In addition, a person using sign language has the floor during a conversation until he or she provides a visual indicator (pause, facial expression, etc.) that he or she is finished.

  • Perpetuation of Deaf culture through a variety of traditions, including films, folklore, literature, athletics, poetry, celebrations, clubs, organizations, theaters, and school reunions. Deaf culture also includes some of its own "music" and poetry as well as dance.

  • Inclusion of unique strategies for gaining a person's attention, such as:
    • gently tapping a person on the shoulder if he or she is not within the line of sight,
    • waving if the person is within the line of sight, or
    • flicking a light switch a few times to gain the attention of a group of people in a room.

Additional Resources

Deaf Performing Arts Network 

History Through Deaf Eyes 

National Theatre of the Deaf 


American Society for Deaf Children 

National Association of the Deaf 

World Federation of the Deaf 

International Committee of Sports for the Deaf/Deaflympics 


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