SoundSpace Online

Deaf Identity

Given the wide diversity in the deaf population this range of views should not be surprising, and it would be an oversimplification to suggest that there is one single deaf identity. To a large extent how deaf individuals choose to identity themselves is reflective of this diversity ([145]). These identities can be related to variables such as level of hearing loss, cause of deafness and communication choice. Many government agencies and other institutions frame deafness as a disability; that is, the focus is on hearing loss. In contrast, Deaf people often view themselves as  a distinct linguistic and cultural group with a unique identity that is not defined by its hearing loss, but by its use of language and common experiences and culture. The majority of deaf children are born into hearing families, and therefore into families where the language of the home is a spoken one not a sign language, and where there is no experience of Deaf culture (for further discussion, see also [212]).  

Those who do use a natural sign language such as British Sign Language (BSL) or American Sign Language (ASL) as their first or primary language, and identify strongly with the values and culture of deaf people describe themselves as belonging to the Deaf (with a capital D) community, having a Deaf identity. Please visit this World Federation of the Deaf website page for more information on deaf culture. This group has tended to include those who have attended schools for the deaf or who have Deaf parents who sign. However there are also Deaf individuals across the range of hearing loss who choose to identify with the culturally Deaf community.
But it is also important to note that using sign language does not necessarily signal membership in the Deaf community. There are deaf people who choose to communicate through sign language, or a combination of spoken and signed language, but may not identify as culturally Deaf. Their use of signed communication has more to do with facilitating communication and providing visual access to a spoken language, than with identity.

The majority of people with hearing loss choose to communicate predominantly through spoken language and may describe themselves as “deaf” or “hard of hearing” – and in some contexts as “hearing impaired”. This group typically includes those individuals with lesser hearing losses or those who have lost their hearing as a result of disease, accident or aging. But it also includes those with greater hearing losses who rely on the use of hearing technologies (e.g., cochlear implants) to listen and speak. Although many of these individuals identify themselves as deaf, they are not likely to identify themselves as part of the culturally Deaf community, nor rely on sign language to communicate. Please visit The Ear Foundation website page - Communication needs for a recent study on communication needs and to download the report.  

For deaf individuals, as for any group, identity is a complex construct, and it goes beyond looking at level of hearing loss, use of hearing technology, or communication choice. Rather each deaf person constructs their own identity as a consequence of their particular life experience, values and choices, and the way in which they view their deafness. With rapidly changing communication and hearing technologies, the idea of Deaf identity grows more complex.