Introduction to American Deaf Culture - A summary of Chapter 3 of Thomas K Holcomb's book

Chapter 3 of Thomas K Holcomb’s Introduction to American Deaf Culture examines the populations that are encompassed within Deaf culture and the Deaf community, as well as the labels associated with these populations.

Holcomb begins the chapter by explaining that being “hearing impaired” or deaf is not the same as being Deaf. The term “deaf” refers specifically to physical hearing loss, while the term “Deaf” refers to an individual who uses ASL, identifies as a member of Deaf culture, and is an active member of the Deaf community (pg 38). Holcomb goes on to explore the relationship between Deaf people and their hearing family members using Dr. Jerome Schein’s 90% formula. This formula explains that over 90% of deaf people have hearing parents, and 90% of those parents have no experience with deaf people. Deaf people also have a 90% chance of birthing hearing children. Of the hearing parents who have deaf children, 90% cannot effectively communicate with their deaf children. 90% of deaf children are unable to ever achieve intelligible speech, and 90% of profoundly deaf people will use some form of sign language at a point in their lives. The 90% formula is also applied to various other aspects of Deaf people’s lives. Holcomb explains that 90% of Deaf signers today were raised in oral environments, and 90% of today’s deaf children do not attend deaf schools. In addition, 90% of deaf children raised by hearing parents experience delays in language development (pg 39)

With the grand majority of deaf people born to hearing parents, family dynamics often change drastically when a deaf child is born. Families adjust their language to be more accessible to the deaf child, install visual alert systems, and begin to deal with communication challenges. Although these changes are often extensive, they rarely last for more than 3 generations. When a hearing child is born to Deaf parents, the child often becomes bi-lingual and bi-cultural. As a result, many of these CODAs (Children Of Deaf Adults) constantly straddle the Deaf community and the mainstream hearing community.

Deaf children of Deaf parents, in contrast, are generally provided with equal communication access upon birth. A deaf child being born to Deaf parents does not change the family dynamic, but remains very similar to the dynamic of a typical American family. Deaf children of Deaf parents, as a result, tend to develop with a higher degree of ease than deaf children of hearing parents (pg 41-42).

Holcomb examines what is required to be accepted as a member within Deaf culture. Holcomb presents a model first proposed by Baker-Shenk and Cokely; this model explains that “..a person needs to possess a hearing level that is substantially different from a typical hearing person, use sign language, have Deaf friends, and exhibit interest in the well-being and integrity of the Deaf community in order to be fully accepted in the Deaf community.” (pg 42-43)

The remainder of the chapter is dedicated to explaining different labels that exist within Deaf culture, as well as the importance of these labels in the Deaf community. The four most common labels within the Deaf community, “hearing-impaired”, “Deaf”, “hard of hearing”, “hearing”, and “hearing-but” are defined within the context of Deaf culture.

Holcomb explains that the term hearing-impaired has never been accepted by the Deaf community. Culturally Deaf people generally discourage others from using the term hearing-impaired when referring to deaf people (pg 44). The Deaf community as a whole generally prefers the label Deaf over hearing-impaired. While many hearing people consider the term “deaf” to focus merely on one’s inability to hear, the Deaf community sees it as a label of social and linguistic orientation. Members of the Deaf community take pride in ASL, their cultural traditions, and being Deaf as a whole (pg 45). The term “hard of hearing” is considerably less specific label which is commonly used within the Deaf community. There is no definitive line between “Deaf” and “hard of hearing”, but there are generally accepted characteristics of each group. Deaf people often believe that the life experiences of hard of hearing people are very similar to the experiences of hearing people. There are a multitude of different opinions, both within the Deaf community and outside of the Deaf community, regarding what it means to be hard of hearing. Some people believe that one’s level of hearing should designate whether or not they are considered hard of hearing, while other believe that it is a more social and cultural based label (pg 46-47).

On the opposite side of the spectrum, the term “hearing” is used within the Deaf community to label those who are neither Deaf or hard of hearing. The term hearing carries significant connotations in Deaf culture, and is often used to label people who are seen as having opposite interests as those within the Deaf community (47-48). Another label that is used within the Deaf community for hearing people is “HEARING-BUT”. HEARING-BUT is used to describe hearing people who “…exhibit(ed) an extraordinarily positive attitude toward Deaf people and (have) a deep respect for Deaf culture in general.” These hearing people view Deaf individuals as equals, are informed and sensitive regarding Deaf culture, and have been accepted into the Deaf community (pg 48-49).

Holcomb lists several examples of labels that are used both within and outside of the Deaf community to define specific “types” of Deaf people. Lists of pathological labels (pg 50) are provided along with humorous labels (pg 51,53), labels used to mock educational/communicative history (pg 51), and labels used to sarcastically describe lifestyles of different Deaf people (pg 52). Many of these labels are used within the Deaf community, but would be considered unacceptable for outsiders to utilize.

Deaf people are proud to be labeled as “Deaf”, but dislike labels which focus solely on their hearing loss. It’s important to the Deaf community that accomplished Deaf persons are recognized as Deaf people, and not just recognized as successful individuals. Deaf people take pride in the accomplishments of members of their community, and therefore want to be informed regarding the hearing status’ of people in positive news articles and stories (pg 54-55).

Instead of being viewed as a disabled group, many Deaf people believe that they should be perceived as a linguistic minority. Many of the experiences of linguistic minorities in America parallel the experiences of Deaf Americans. Both groups struggle with access to communication, appropriate education, and the majority group’s lack of cultural awareness (pg 56). Deaf people may label themselves one way, but the hearing majority and the government are likely to label them differently. Labeling is a convoluted, unscientific, sensitive, and often arbitrary process (pg 57-59).


Allison G.

Patient and Knowledgeable Tutor with Specialties in ASL and English

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