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Deaf culture is based on the heritage and traditions of the Deaf community. Features of Deaf culture include a shared language (American Sign Language) and customs; literature and art; intermarriage; and social, political, business and sport organizations. Not all people who are deaf participate in Deaf culture, just as not all people born Jewish participate in Jewish culture.
The man you nod to as you pass him working in his garden or the jogger whose path you cross every morning--any one of them may be deaf. Deafness is invisible. Be careful not to stereotype people. Deaf people differ from each other as much as hearing people do.
People communicate in many ways--through speech, writing, pictures and gestures. Hearing people supplement their spoken words with voice tone and inflection, facial expression and hand gestures. Most deaf people use sign language and fingerspelling. Some prefer to lipread and use their voices. Many use a combination of these methods.
Hearing losses vary. Most deaf people have some residual hearing. The sounds they hear may seem faint, distorted or incomplete. Some deaf individuals have no residual hearing.
Lipreaders or speechreaders must watch not only the lips, but also the cheeks, teeth, tongue, neck and facial expression of the speaker. Still, only 40% of speech is visible, and many sounds look similar on the lips. Most people would find it impossible to tell the difference between words like "bat," "mat," "pat," "bad," "mad," "pad," "ban," "man," and "pan" from lipreading. Or combinations of words may look confusing to the lipreader: "I love fried eggs" and "I love Fridays," or "I'd like 15 stamps" and "I'd like 50 stamps." Very few deaf people can depend entirely on lipreading; some use a system of hand signals (cued speech) to guide lipreading.
Some deaf people are born deaf or lose their hearing before they learn a spoken language. Others become deaf later in life because of illness, injury or congenital conditions. Ninety percent of deaf babies are born to hearing families; the 10 percent born to deaf families grow up learning sign language very much as hearing babies learn spoken language--by observing (instead of listening) and imitating. Learning English can be a slow process for children deafened before they learned a spoken language and who were raised without a visual language.
Some deaf people use their voices and some do not. Most have had years of speech therapy and training, and some have developed clear speech. Many have developed speech that is understandable upon repetition but which is marked with unclear pronunciation or intonation. Some deaf people mouth words without voicing them. Whatever the choice of the individual, use of voice is not an indicator of intelligence or academic standing.
Deaf people appreciate the efforts of hearing people to learn and use sign. The slow communication speed is a common experience of anyone learning a new language. A deaf person will understand a hearing person's message even with mistakes, just as a hearing person will usually understand the spoken message of a person just learning English who makes some mispronunciations and grammatical errors.
Some of the ways to get the attention of a deaf person are to tap the person on the shoulder, wave hands, flash lights or stomp feet on the floor. Deaf people may use these methods to get the attention of others. If one person can't get the attention of the intended person but does get the attention of someone near that person, the signaler may point to the person wanted and the nearby person may tap that person on the shoulder. Your shoulder may be tapped in the process of getting someone else's attention.
Deaf people usually do not have private conversations where they can be "overseen," so a deaf person knows it is OK to watch for a pause in a signed conversation, interrupt with a gesture, deliver the message and leave. Hearing people, however, will not watch what they believe to be a private conversation, and will stand by, waiting to be acknowledged. If you do this with deaf people, they will not understand your intention and will continue their conversation. To interrupt a signed conversation, make your desire known by eye contact and gesture without waiting for a pause, then stand by without observing until the person you want to talk to turns to you.
When conversing with groups including deaf people, be sure to restate the topic as a courtesy every time someone joins your conversation or group. At meetings, it is often helpful to write an agenda on a board or an overhead transparency, and indicate the current item under discussion with arrows.
A deaf person would consider it impolite for someone to interrupt a conversation in order to ask to pass by, yet a hearing person would consider it impolite for someone to just walk between two people having a conversation. If you encounter two deaf people having a conversation, see if there is a path around them; if not, walk quickly and unobtrusively between them, signing "excuse me" whether or not the people see it. Conversely, if you are in conversation with another hearing person and blocking the path of a deaf person, that person may touch your back so you will step forward and allow you to walk behind him.
Deaf people are not always aware that they are making noise that is disturbing to hearing people. They appreciate knowing this and being told so in a friendly way.
Some people say that long and reluctant goodbyes are a part of Deaf culture. Before technology allowed deaf people to communicate with each other and hearing people more easily, all communication had to take place face-to-face, and such meetings were often difficult to arrange. The old tradition of saying goodbye only after much repetition and reluctance seems to have held. Even when communicating on a TTY, for example, the signoff signal (SK) is usually repeated, and a person never elects to end the conversation without making sure the other person or people are really ready to end it ("GA or SK"--"go ahead or sign off").
A TTY (also sometimes called a TDD) is a machine that allows deaf or hearing people to communicate over phone lines with others who have similar equipment by typing their messages back and forth. To learn more about TTY etiquette, read guides especially written for using this device.