Insights into Deaf Culture

By Justin Lee

Justin Lee’s journey into Deaf culture upbringing and ASL. He shows cultural and language differences between ASL and English. To understand them, ask and smile.
Roxane King
ATA ID Blog Content Editor

Flashing lights, hugs from strangers, pounding on tables, and more await those coming into the Deaf Cultural world. After all, how does one communicate with another who cannot hear? From the perspective of one who grew up in the “hearing” world, these cultural norms were anything but normal; yet they have become ingrained, almost second nature. Now these are my norms and are part of my world.

Journey into Deaf Culture

My journey into Deaf culture started in elementary school while riding the school bus: a friend of mine named Francis allowed me into the American Sign Language world. My friend taught me the manual alphabet and some basic conversational sign language, such as roller skates and “how are you?” Later, I volunteered at a camp for Deaf and hard of hearing children during the summers of my university career: I tutored students and helped them with their homework and I eventually became a certified interpreter.

We expect others to behave similarly to ourselves and our cultural upbringing.

As we all know, delving into a new culture can be jarring. Unsurprisingly, my experience was just that. Let me set the scene for you: An above-garage apartment and a brand-new roommate (who happens to be Deaf). I set my alarm to sound at 7am, then drift off to sleep— and the next thing I know, the floor is shaking and the lights are flashing. An ear-piercing alarm sounds. Panicking, I bolt out of bed, my mind racing, “Is there an earthquake?… No, this is Tennessee… Is there a tornado?… Why isn’t Drew waking up?” I then realize that all of the noise is coming from his alarm, and he is sleeping through it!

We expect others to behave similarly to ourselves and our cultural upbringing. These are unwritten cultural rules, or cultural norms. Culture shock strikes when someone behaves dissimilarly or contrary to our expectations. One Deaf cultural norm that stands out to me is hugging: In the American Deaf culture, often times greeting or salutations include a hug or an embrace, at the very minimum a handshake is exchanged. This came as a shock to me because I am not a gregarious, touchy-feely type of person.

How to get the attention of a Deaf or hard of hearing person?

Simply calling out a name obviously will not work. A simple tap on the shoulder or upper arm will work for those in close proximity. However, if you need the attention of someone across the room, what do you do? Some options include:

  • Flashing the lights briefly.
  • Stomping on the floor.
  • Walking across the room to grab their attention.
  • Eye contact is incredibly important.

To an outsider it can be a bit unnerving, it almost feels like they are staring you down; however, direct eye contact is expected when someone is communicating with you, as this shows that you are fully engaged in the conversation. Breaking eye contact while in a conversation is akin to interrupting and stating that their conversation is not worth your time.

Living isolated by a majority of those who live around you, simply because of the mode of communication, can be very difficult. A majority of the Deaf and hard of hearing community in the United States communicates with a three-dimensional language known as American Sign Language (ASL). ASL is a unique language that differs greatly from English both linguistically and in modality.

Differences between ASL and English

Instead of articulating phonemes with one’s mouth, teeth, tongue, and throat, one articulates ASL with one’s hands, fingers, face, and surrounding space. As such, an individual whose primary language is ASL may struggle reading and writing in English, especially in complex situations such as recording a doctor’s appointment.

Members of the Deaf community refer to themselves as deaf or hard of hearing.

Another unique feature of ASL and Deaf culture is direct or blunt speech. With a language as descriptive and visual as ASL, there is not room for flowery embellishments to spare feelings. A great example could be two friends who have not seen each other in a few years and one states to the other, “Man, you seemed to have really packed on some weight,” which in the wonderfully descriptive visual ASL looks something like, “Wow! You were thin before, but now you have gained weight and are fat!” In American hearing culture, that is just plain rude; however, in Deaf culture this is a sign of respect. It is subtextual commenting to the friend, “Hey, I care enough about you to notice that you gained weight!”

The Deaf community shares a unique lexicon used to identify various individuals with whom they come in contact.

Members of the Deaf community refer to themselves as deaf or hard of hearing. Members of this community often view the medical term “hearing impaired” as derisive. It places emphasis on the physical disability. As Dr. King Jordan, the seventh president of Gallaudet University, stated, “Deaf people can do anything hearing people can, except hear;” and the Deaf community proudly bears this as their motto.

There are also special monikers for those in the Deaf community but are not deaf themselves. One of the most commonly used terms is CODA, or a child of Deaf adult(s). This is, used to refer to a hearing child of Deaf adults. These CODAs are often used to be interpreters at a very young age. CODAs are the true native ASL signers, because they are exposed to ASL from birth.

You may have noticed the term hearing throughout the article. This term refers to those who can hear, and usually to the uninitiated of the Deaf community. It is similar to the Blind community referring to those who can see as sighted. Speaking of the Blind community, there is a sub-section of the Deaf community that is DeafBlind. Members of this community have varying degrees of a comorbidity of hearing loss and vision loss. The individuals DeafBlind may communicate in a variety of manners, ranging from tactile ASL, ProASL, Braille, tracking, etc. There is no one size fits all.

Poor quality interpreting leads to misdiagnosis

I would be remiss if I failed to mention and discuss the problems faced by the Deaf community. Members of this community, this culture, all share a common bond and a common frustration. With the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, providing access to individuals with disabilities, e.g., hearing loss, is mandated. Nonetheless, the members of the Deaf community still struggle to gain access in a variety of everyday situations.

Things are improving, to be sure; however, common struggles arise daily. For example, many Deaf individuals who communicate mainly in ASL still struggle to obtain quality interpreters for everyday occurrences and situations: doctor’s appointments, education, or even an emergency trip to the hospital. Often those in charge balk at hiring an interpreter. As mentioned previously, interpreters that are hired frequently lack the proper skills to interpret effectively.

…many Deaf individuals who communicate mainly in ASL still struggle to obtain quality interpreters for everyday occurrences and situations…

Once, I went to interpret in a mental health setting. The doctor came in and asked the patient how their headache was. The patient very emphatically stated that they had been trying to tell the doctor that they were hearing voices, not suffering from a headache. The doctor mentioned that the previous interpreter, who had just graduated from a two-year training program, had never mentioned that.

In another setting, I arrived to replace another interpreter for a psychological evaluation. Thankfully, that interpreter realized that they were not skilled enough to interpret that; however, the very same interpreter told the staff that the patient “…has no formal language and only speaks gibberish…” It turns out that the patient actually communicates with another country’s sign language and had no need for the evaluation; the other interpreter was not skilled enough to recognize the structure of language and ‘diagnosed’ the patient as dysfluent.

Unfortunately, these types of scenarios are not isolated events, they happen daily. This leads to patients being misdiagnosed, given incorrect instructions for medicines, protective services being called, and worse.

When in doubt, ask

Frequently, this unique community, this beautiful culture, is marginalized and even disregarded out of ignorance. The Deaf community has its own cultural norms, such as eye contact, hugs, flashing lights, and direct or blunt speech. A dash of education and an attempt to understand will go far to prevent misunderstandings and cultural shock.

Always remember: when in doubt, ask. If you are unsure of the correct terminology or cultural protocol, ask. Assumptions about cultural norms and communication preferences often lead to frustration for all parties involved. Take a minute and refer to the resources below if you have any more questions, feel free to reach out to me for specific questions. If I do not know the answer, I will certainly find it for you.



Edited and adapted from Caduceus, with the author’s participation.
Article edited per Writing for the Web guidelines in Author guidelines.

Justin Lee is an interpreter with over 15 years of professional experience. He is an amateur linguist and aspirational polyglot. He currently works between ASL and English, holding the BEI Master Interpreter certification (Texas Health and Human Services) and the National Interpreter Certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. He loves to travel and experience the world through language, food, and culture. Currently, Justin has a passion for training and mentoring interpreters to raise the standard of quality to better serve those in need of interpreting services.

Image of hand sign by OpenClipart-Vectors via

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1 comment

    • Roxana Del Barco, CMI, CHI on March 5, 2019 at 11:52 am

    Interesting and insightful! The admonition “When in doubt, ask.” could be a mantra for all intercultural interactions. Thanks!

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