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Deaf Culture

Linguistics and Dialects of American Sign Language

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Deaf Culture

     The Deaf community exists throughout the United States from rural America to small towns and big cities (Padden and Humphries, 2005).  The geographic or ethnic background of an individual does not determine membership or alignment with the Deaf community, and it is not limited to one's inability to hear.  The Deaf culture has a cultural and linguistic history.  Schools for the deaf (Residential Schools for the Deaf), Deaf clubs, organizations of Deaf people, Deaf churches, and Deaf sports exist only because of its members and support from the community (Stewart and Kluwin, 2001).

Various Groups That Make Up the d/Deaf  Population

 The degree of hearing, onset of deafness, community affiliation, and the preferred means of communication usually define them.

  1.   Oral Deaf: Are individuals who have a profound losses and prefer to communicate through speech and speechreading to aid in conversation. (Stewart and Kluwin, 2001). 
  2.  Late-deafened: They are a group of individuals who have lost their hearing as adults.  Members of this group tend to use assistive devices and necessary modifications to compensate for their hearing loss (Stewart and Kluwin, 2001).
  3. 'd' deaf: This shows a more pathological view or someone who is deaf, but does not align themselves with the community. They may use sign language or be members of the Oral Deaf (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
  4. 'D' Deaf: Are members who are in the Deaf community and use American Sign Language as their mode of communication (Padden and Humphries, 2005).

Residential Schools for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing

     On April 15, 1817, the first permanent school for the deaf opened in Hartford, Connecticut.   It was referred to as the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons.  Today, its name has changed to the American School for the Deaf (Cleve and Crouch, 1989).
    According to Carol Padden and Tom Humphries, residential schools partly arose to resolve problems with deaf children living among hearing people.  During the late 1800's, these schools were referred to as "asylums" or "institutions" where the responsibility of feeding, clothing, and instructing deaf children became the responsibility of the state.  When parents enrolled their children in one of these schools, they also forfeited their parental rights to their children (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
     Due to the low incidence of deaf children, a school serviced a large geographic area, requiring dormitories to be built since the children could not commute from home each day (Cleve and Crouch, 1989).  The deaf children and their parents would only see each other only during holidays and summers when school was not in session.  Some parents decided not to send their children to residential schools due to this separation (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
     The first school of the deaf used a communication style of sign language (Humphries and Padden, 2005), which was a mix of gestures learned from the home or community of students and French Sign Language.  Laurent Clerc, who traveled from France to set up the first school for the deaf (Padden and Humphries, 1988), introduced French sign language.  This mix of French Sign Language and home signs was the beginning of American Sign Language (Paden and Baker, 2005). As time passed, and more schools were established, other modes of communication developed throughout the country (Padden and Humphries, 2005).  Credit for the first successful school for the deaf is given to a school in Connecticut.  This school emphasized that deaf individuals required education so they could be saved and know Jesus (Cleve, and Crouch, 1989).
     By the late 1960s, most children who were deaf were educated in a residential school.  Nearly every state in the United States had at least one school for the deaf and some even had several such schools (Padden and Humphries, 2005).  Educators and heads of these schools often had a paternalistic view of these children.  Many felt these children were less fortunate and they were doing their duty by helping the less fortunate (Cleve and Crouch, 1989).  Along with their paternalistic view of deafness, these individuals frequently believed the students living in the dormitories required strict discipline (Padden and Humphries, 2005).  The book, Inside Deaf Culture, relays sad and numerous accounts of sexual and other abuse, inflicted on vulnerable children by heads and instructors of the school.  During that time, access to interpreters and people who knew sign language was minimal (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
     In 1878, many influential individuals invited educators of the Deaf and hard of hearing from around the world, from both the manual and oral backgrounds, to discuss sign language and its role in the classroom (Cleve and Crouch, 1989).  The resulting meeting was titled the Milan conference.  According to Jamie Berke (2005), the Milan Conference was fixed in such a manner that Oralists swung the vote to ban signing from classrooms (Cleve, and Crouch, 1989).  After the conference, American Sign Language was removed from classrooms and use of speechreading and other oral techniques were promoted instead (Cleve, and Crouch, 1989).
     During the late 1800s, Deaf children could only use their language while in their dorm rooms or private moments talking to their Deaf instructors.  Business owners were not as likely to hire Deaf people as they did previously (Cleve and Crouch, 1989).  As much as the Oralists tried to silence American Sign Language, it prevailed.  Eventually, the tide swayed, and signing was brought back into some of the schools for the deaf.  Along with ASL came various manual codes for the Deaf (Padden and Humphries, 2005, and Cleve and Crouch, 1989).
     Deaf adults who grew up during that period sometimes possessed a very negative view from their own experiences and therefore would not send their children to a deaf school.  Today, many Deaf adults have pleasant memories of a very different learning environment and would, therefore, send their children to a residential school.  For some, fellow classmates, Deaf instructors, and dorm parents were extended family and a support system they did not have at home (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
     Residential schools are a system of education for the Deaf community as well as locations where much of their cultural traditions, beliefs, experiences, and language are passed from one generation of students to the next.  Most residential schools have Deaf instructors who attended and graduated from that school.  It is this connection between generations that allows the Deaf teachers to aid in transition of the history and culture of the Deaf (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
    The history of the management of schools for the deaf also has affected the views and beliefs of the Deaf culture.  Prior to desegregation, many schools for the deaf would segregate African American children from the Caucasian children.  They would even separate them further into Oral deaf versus Manual Deaf in these schools.  When desegregation of children of color took place, many African American Deaf teachers lost their jobs.  It was difficult for these teachers to find work in their field and unfortunately, much of their history was lost (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
    Today, residential schools are not the only education option for deaf children.  Due to special education laws that were passed, deaf children can attend public schools in self-contained classrooms and even mainstreamed classrooms with some form of assistance, such as an interpreter or note taker (Padden and Humphries, 2005).  Inclusion of deaf children in the public schools has changed Deaf individuals' access to Deaf culture.  Tom Humphries, raised by his hearing parents, did not join the Deaf community or know of its existence until he went to Gallaudet for post - secondary schooling (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
     Educators for the Deaf and hard of hearing, whether itinerant or in the classroom should ensure some Deaf culture studies are included in the curriculum.  This allows students who are deaf to be aware of a culture to which they can belong if they so choose.  In addition, it teaches all students about diversity, including differences between individuals who share the same kind of hearing loss (Kluwin and Stewart, 2001).

Gallaudet and the Deaf Community

    Gallaudet, a university designed for instruction of individuals who are d/Deaf, was established in 1856.   On April 8, 1864, the Columbia Institution was given the right to grant college degrees in Liberal Arts and Sciences by President Lincoln (Gallaudet University: A brief history). 
March 1988: "Deaf President Now Movement"
     Since the school's inception, there has never been a Deaf President.  This movement was provoked by the Board of Trustees of Gallaudet University electing a hearing President, Elizabeth Zinser, who had very little knowledge of individuals who were Deaf or of their languages.  The movement was supported by school staff, faculty, students, and the Deaf communities around the world.  The school was closed during the weeklong protest.   For the frist time the hearing community saw the voices of the Deaf community (Gallaudet University: a brief history).
    Students made four demands of the Board of Trustees.  Elizabeth Zinser was to resign and a Deaf individual was to replace her.  Also, they wanted the chairperson of the Board of Trustees, Jane Spilman, to step down from her position.  The Board would also be required to have 51% of its members be individuals who were Deaf.  In addition, the last request was that nothing would be held against any staff or students who participated in the protest.  By the end of the week, all their requests were met.  For the first time in history, Gallaudet had a Deaf President and his name was Dr. I. King Jordan (Gallaudet University: a brief history).

Deaf Club and it's role in the Deaf community

    Today, Deaf clubs do not have the same meaning to the Deaf community as they did during World War II, but their influence on the Deaf community is significant.  Some Deaf clubs still exist, such as the Wilkes-Barre Society of the Deaf, which is owned and operated by Deaf people.  Most clubs are populated with elderly members who can remember what the 1960's were like (Padden and Humphries, 2005).   In the 1960's, Deaf clubs were prevalent throughout the communities.  These clubs were built by the Deaf people employed in factories and industrial occupations (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
Clubs were divided by:
  • Ethnic background
  • Racial Background
  • Communication mode
  • Line of work. (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
Clubs Functioned as:
  • Hiring Halls
    •   Newcomers could come to the club for fellowship, as well as in search of jobs. 
  • Outlet and a support group
    •  Members could find support when they were experiencing problems in the work place.
  • Find Services
    • For example, someone who knew how to create flashers for doorbells prior to today's technological advances (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
What has happened to Deaf Clubs?
       While some Deaf clubs remain, most of the members have moved on to create or join professional associations.  Today, membership is defined by an individual's need.  Unlike the segregation in Deaf Clubs of the past, these organizations exist based on the beliefs of civil rights, citizenship, and one's profession.  While they may have gone away, the Deaf community still holds these Deaf Clubs dear to their hearts (Padden and Humphries, 2005). 

Technology and its effect on the Culture

     Technology has provided many improvements in the lives of Deaf people. 
 Assistive Devices
  • Specialized doorbells
  • Specialized mobile pagers
  • Sidekicks, which function like a cell phone does for hearing individual, are popular in the Deaf community.

Technology Giving Voice to the Deaf Community

  It is technology that aided the Deaf Culture in accessing and controlling voice to benefit them (Padden and Humphries, 2005).

      In 1906, a projection - type device, referred to as a "vitascope" was invented allowing moving footage to be displayed on a screen.  Ten years after invention of movies, a group called the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), started to produce their own set of moving picture films.  The group decided to use these films to advance their goals of the organization, promote sign language, and spread the voice of Deaf people throughout the United States.  In 1913, eighteen films had been produced.  These films are remarkable in the fact that viewers today can tell not only what sign language looked like during that time, but what Deaf people wanted to say to each other, as well as to the rest of the world (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
     NAD made these films during a time when Deaf people struggled to make themselves heard over the clamor of speech and the banishment of sign language.  At the end of his term as president of the NAD, George Verditz was requested to give a lecture on "The Preservation of Sign Language" (Cleve and Crouch, 1989).  Others such as Edward Miner Gallaudet were selected to appear in these films.  These films are precious because they help the Deaf community and the world develop an appreciation of the history of this language (Padden and Humphries, 2005).
     Half a century after these films were created, they disappeared from popular use and were left in storage in the basement of Gallaudet library.  When sign language research began to blossom, these old films were remembered, retrieved, and shown again.  These films are widely available on video.  Verditz's famous lecture, in particular, is shown to many sign language classes as well as Deaf Culture classes as an example of old style signing and the emotions that existed during that time (Padden and Humphries, 2005).

Deaf Communities Views On ASL

      George W. Verditz, a president of the NAD in 1904 is often quoted,
 "As long as we have Deaf people, we will have sign language" (Padden and Humphries, 2005). 

Date Created: May 15, 2006 Time: 10:52 pm
Date Modified: June 8, 2006