Like many linguistic minorities, Deaf people enjoy a unique culture, as worthy of respect as any other. The Deaf way of life is quite fascinating. It is only in recent years that research has begun to explore different aspects of Deaf relationships, communication and society.
One good example of Deaf culture is the way Deaf people interact in a restaurant. Constant eye contact is made in order to communicate visually in Sign Language, whereas hearing people don’t make such regular eye contract and may carry on eating during the conversation.
Culture is also about history and art. Within the Deaf community there is a strong tradition of story-telling and joke-telling. Stories are often passed on from one generation to the next. There have been many captivating and moving stories on the way Deaf people lived in the past, often expressed with great dignity.
The current flourishing of BSL in a range of art forms including drama, poetry, comedy and satire is a mark of the new confidence and pride which Deaf people are finding in their own language and culture. Recent productions have not only used BSL but have tackled themes which go to the very heart of Deaf experience.
Deaf people are proud of their history and of what Deaf achievers have contributed to both Deaf and hearing society in the past. They are motivated by their example to develop their lives to the fullest in the future. Deaf schoolchildren of today need access to their history and culture so that they have role models they can look up to and emulate with confidence.
Hearing people don’t always appreciate the importance of Deaf culture, but for those who do, they discover and are surprised by its strength and value and often find their own lives enriched in the process.
Dr Oliver Sacks captures something of the sense of revelation that a hearing person often feels on first coming into contact with Deaf culture in full flow, when he describe his visits to the Deaf university, Gallaudet, in Washington DC:
“I found it an astonishing and moving experience. I had never before seen an entire community of the deaf, nor had I quite realized (even though I knew this theoretically) that Sign might indeed be a complete language – a language equally suitable for making love or speeches, for flirtation or mathematics.”
(Seeing Voices, Oliver Sacks, © 1989)