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Aspects of Deaf Culture

The word ‘culture’ can mean a shared understanding of the world which includes certain behaviours and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: e.g. youth culture, gay culture. It can also refer to the artistic and social activities and tastes valued by a society or group.

The shared understanding of the world for Deaf people arises from their common history and language, sign language, as well as shared activities such as deaf sports.  Sign language is important not only because of the way language itself can shape the world, but its form requires certain conditions, e.g. signing needs to be used in good lighting in order to be seen and understood and is  disadvantaged when it is dark while people using spoken language are  disadvantaged in very noisy conditions. Several shared activities have developed for Deaf people within their community.

Sport has been central to many Deaf clubs and the Deaflympics, held every 4 years, are the longest running multi-sport event excluding the Olympics themselves. For more information please visit this UK Deaf Sport website page. The first games were held in Paris in 1924 and this event has been held every four years since, apart from a break for World War II. For more information about the start of the games, please visit this Deaflympics International Olympic Committee website page. Another powerful bonding forced in the Deaf culture is Athletics. Athletics open up a path to achievement where many others are shut out by prejudice due to the level playing field of certain sports. In the UK, deaf football began in 1871, and is highly popular (please visit this Britishdeaffootball website page).

In terms of cultural activities, Deaf theatre has a long tradition and in the 1890s many adult deaf social programmes included dramatic performances in sign language. The National Theatre of the Deaf began in the US in 1967 and has opened up huge opportunities for deaf actors. For more information, please visit the National Theatre of the Deaf website. There are currently a number of Deaf theatre groups in the UK and  deaf actors have also  played deaf characters in hearing theatre and TV dramas. Deaf poetry is a powerful art form as it draws meaning from the ways in which sign shapes and movement interact with each other, much like the interplay of words in hearing poetry. Deaf humour is difficult to describe and can be difficult for hearing people to understand, relying on visual communication.  However, it is a key part of Deaf culture and often focuses on the misunderstandings between Deaf and hearing people.

With the development of these aspects of Deaf culture, Deaf studies has begun to be offered at universities where the Deaf social life of human groups and individuals are studied, including anthropology, economics, geography, history, political science, psychology, social studies, and sociology. The Deaf studies curriculum includes the study of Deaf culture, people and sign language. The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education (JDSDE) is a peer-reviewed academic journal covering basic and applied research relating to individuals who are deaf, including developmental, cultural, educational, and linguistic topics (see also the Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education website page).