Shining the Spotlight on Deaf Culture During Deaf Awareness Month

Man & woman using sign language at Kellogg Conference Center

The first International Day of the Deaf was celebrated by the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) in 1958. That one day of awareness was later extended to a full week, becoming the International Week of the Deaf (IWD). 

The WFD is an international organization composed of 130 national associations of the deaf. Together with the United Nations, they serve the global community to improve human rights of deaf persons, the status of national sign languages, access to education, and access to information technology and services.  

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) represents the United States as an affiliate member of the WFD. Thanks to Gallaudet, there is an active deaf community here in DC. DeafDC publishes a calendar of events, many of which are related to learning and practicing American Sign Language (ASL). 

The deaf community in the US is larger than you might think 

It is estimated that nearly 10 million people in the US are hard of hearing and close to 1 million are functionally deaf. More than half of those with hearing loss or deafness are 65 years or older. 

The largest deaf and hard-of-hearing communities are concentrated in Rochester, NY; Washington, DC; Austin, TX; Chicago, IL; and Los Angeles, CA. 

Are you Deaf or deaf? 

Deaf with a capital D refers to people who have been deaf from birth or became deaf before they learned to talk. People who lost hearing after those milestones are referred to as deaf. 

It may seem like a small nuance, but when it comes to communication, it is not. For most Deaf people, sign language is their first language and English is their second language. As a result, it is difficult for them to understand complicated messages in English. 

Sign language is not universal 

Just like our spoken languages, sign languages are different in every country, and regions have their own dialects and slang. 

ASL has its own unique rules. In English, grammar is spoken and written. In ASL, grammar is found in body language and facial expressions. Syntax is very different as well. In English, you ask, “Where is the bathroom?” In ASL, you ask, “Bathroom where?” 

Signing and speaking English at the same time is called simultaneous communication (or SimCom). It is not a language, nor is it recommended when communicating with a deaf person. ASL trains the brain to process linguistic information through hand gestures, not by reading lips (which many Deaf people cannot do). 

Like all languages, ASL is a living language that grows and changes over time. As this article in the New York Times demonstrates, your grandparent’s ALS is very different from today’s. For example, “an old sign for Italy included a cross, but many Italians are now secular; a new sign traces the squiggly outline of Italy’s shape, the famous boot.” 

Did you know these celebrities are deaf? 

Composer Ludwig van Beethoven, disability rights advocate and political activist Helen Keller, and actress Marlee Matlin are probably the best-known members of the deaf community, but did you know that some of today’s best-known actors and musicians are deaf - or nearly deaf - in one ear? 

Comedian and actor Stephen Colbert; actresses Jane Lynch, Holly Hunter, and Halle Barry; actor Rob Lowe; and KISS frontman Paul Stanley are all deaf in one ear.  

Singer and actress Kristin Chenoweth suffers from Meniere’s disease, which can cause varying degrees of hearing loss. 

How to communicate with deaf people 

If you know someone in your neighborhood or community who is deaf, a simple wave hello is a perfect greeting. You may also want to learn some simple signs so you can exchange pleasantries when you see them. 

For those who are hard of hearing or can read lips, speak clearly and enunciate. Avoid exaggerated mouth movements, as it is considered rude. For deaf people who can speak, use gestures as best as possible. Attempting to communicate in ASL will be warmly welcomed.  

If you’d like to learn more about deaf culture, the National Deaf Life Museum at Gallaudet University is a wonderful place to start. Their exhibits will open your eyes to the depth and breadth of this community’s history, traditions, and much more.  



Wikipedia - Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet 

The Arc of Monroe, NY 

National Association of the Deaf