|500,000 to 2 million (100,000 to 500,000 primary ASL users out of nearly 2,000,000 profoundly deaf persons (1988), 0.8% of the US population. 15,000,000 hard of hearing persons in the US (1989 Sacks) (from SIL Ethnologue)|
|Regions with significant populations|
|United States||500,000 to 2 million|
|American Sign Language, occasionally spoken or Signed English in mixed company|
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A Deaf American is defined as a member of the American Sign Language linguistic minority. Though they are medically deaf, children of Deaf people and a few hearing people who learn ASL can become adopted into the wider Deaf community. Inversely, "Deaf American" is not inclusive to all people with hearing loss but only those who use ASL as their primary language.
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The history of Deaf Americans, for the most part, parallels that of American Sign Language (ASL).
Although Deaf American identity is now strongly tied to the use of American Sign Language, its roots can be found in early Deaf communities on the American East Coast, including those that communicated using Martha's Vineyard Sign Language. Martha's Vineyard Sign Language bloomed from necessity due to an unexplainably high number of hereditarily Deaf Americans in the area. The language became so popular, even the hearing Vineyard workers adopted it. The Vineyard language contributed hundreds of signs to the modern ASL we utilize today.
An important event in the history of Deaf Americans was the introduction of French Sign Language to the Deaf community at the American School for the Deaf in 1817. The many different cultures met at a confluence and formed one Deaf American Deaf culture centered around ASL. The culture transferred from student to student and from alumni to their respective home communities.
This tradition continued until 1880 when oralism began to replace manualism as the dominant approach to Deaf education, almost obliterating ASL and Deaf culture in America. Oralism was the main philosophy in Deaf education until 1965 when the linguist William Stokoe argued that ASL should be regarded as a full language with all of the expressive power of any oral language. Deaf Pride began to shoot higher than it had in a century and Deaf education returned to manualism for the most part.
Norms of Deaf American culture
- The use of American Sign Language (ASL) is favoured over secondary codes such as Signed Exact English (SEE). ASL is a separate language from English and the Deaf community rejects English-like signing.
- It is important to maintain a high awareness of all that is going on in one's environment and to help keep others similarly informed because "deaf people do not have access to the noises that clue us in to what others are doing when out of view". It is common to provide detailed information when leaving early or arriving late and withholding such information is considered rude.
- Introductions are an important aspect of Deaf culture. This exhibits the effort to find common ground. "The search for connections is the search for connectedness."
- Time is also considered in a different light for the Deaf community. Showing up early to large scale events, such as lectures, is typical. This is motivated by the need to get a seat that provides the best visual clarity for the deaf person. It is also common to be late to social events such as meeting friends for coffee or play dates with children. This could have stemmed from the fact that until recent years with the creation of text messaging, it was nearly impossible to inform a friend when you were running late. However, at Deaf social events, such as parties, it is common for Deaf people to stay for elongated amounts of time, for the solidarity and conversations at social gatherings for the Deaf are valued by Deaf culture. This can be explained by the fact that the Deaf community stretches throughout the entire country, so to gather means that a lot of 'catching up' is necessary.
- A positive attitude toward deafness is also expected within the Deaf community. In Deaf culture, deafness is not considered a condition that needs to be fixed. One must also realize the importance of ASL to the Deaf community. ASL represents the liberation of language minority, oppressed for many years by the turmoil of oralist teachings. That is why the language is so precious to the identity of the Deaf community.
Rejection of cochlear implants
Within Deaf communities, there is strong opposition to the use of cochlear implants and sometimes also hearing aids and similar technologies. This is often justified in terms of a rejection of the view that deafness, as a condition, is something that needs to be 'fixed'.
Others argue that this technology also threatens the continued existence of Deaf culture, but Kathryn Woodcock argues that it is a greater threat to Deaf culture "to reject prospective members just because they used to hear, because their parents chose an implant for them, because they find environmental sound useful, etc." Cochlear implants may improve the perception of sound for suitable implantees, but they do not reverse deafness, or create a normal perception of sounds.
Rejection of oralism as a teaching method
There is strong opposition within Deaf communities to the oralist method of teaching deaf children to speak and lip read with limited or no use of sign language in the classroom. The method is intended to make it easier for deaf children to integrate into hearing communities, but the benefits of learning in such an environment are disputed. The use of sign language is also central to Deaf identity and attempts to limit its use are viewed as an attack.
- 'For Hearing People Only' (3rd Addition) By Matthew S. Moore and Linda Levitan
- Woodcock, Kathryn (1992). Cochlear Implants vs. Deaf Culture? In Mervin Garretson (ed.), Viewpoints on Deafness: A Deaf American Monograph. Silver Spring, MD: National Association for the Deaf.
- Ethnologue, "Ethnologue Report on American Sign Language," http://www.ethnologue.com/show_language.asp?code=ase