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Deaf Culture: Changes and Challenges
by Paul Bacon

woman signing In the age of "Sign Language Barbie," it may be difficult to grasp society's earlier bias against deaf people and their unique form of communication. As far back as biblical times, the deaf were not allowed to own property; and as recently as the last century, innovators like Alexander Graham Bell crusaded against sign language and the intermarriage of deaf people. Overcoming these challenges and striving to gain acceptance in the hearing world while embracing the isolation of living in a world without sound have all helped to define the deaf as a group with a distinct culture.

But who are America's deaf? Statistics vary greatly depending on the definition of "deaf." The National Center for Health Statistics places the number of profoundly deaf in the U.S. at more than 400,000, while people classified as hard-of-hearing number over 20 million, or about 8 percent of the total population. Within the actual ranks of deaf people, more than half reportedly use American Sign Language (ASL) on a regular basis.

Deaf people may refer to their culture in terms of their use of sign language and the camaraderie it brings. But it is also the knowledge that they are a minority faced with certain restrictions. Uniting to fight these restrictions has also helped to define deaf culture, and recent decades have seen steady progress for the advancement of deaf causes. In the late 1960's, the resurgence of ASL in deaf schools allowed deaf students to revel in their native language after decades of signing behind closed doors. In another pivotal event known as the Gallaudet Revolution, America's first and only deaf university made national headlines in 1988 when students fervently protested their school's appointment of another hearing president. Staging rallies, barricading the campus, even marching on the Capitol, they successfully fought to hire a deaf president, winning a widely publicized victory in the battle for awareness. Even as these milestones are passed, deaf people are also celebrating their acceptance into mainstream society. Witness the crowning of a deaf Miss America a few years back, or the honoring of deaf actress Marlee Matlin with an Academy Award.

Perhaps the greatest challenges lie ahead. Technological advances are changing the way deaf people communicate, and the way they congregate. In decades past, deaf people came together in big groups at deaf social clubs. Today, those clubs are disappearing as deaf people gather in homes to watch closed-captioned televisions with their hearing friends, call each other on TTY phones, and even "hear" with the help of advanced devices like the cochlear implant.

Some fear that these changes could signal the gradual disappearance of deaf culture. But others point to the deaf community's rich history and language as proof that, after years of attempts to stimulate hearing with contraptions ranging from acoustical urns to hearing aids, deaf culture cannot be demolished by TTYs or cochlear implants alone.

Paul Bacon is a daily columnist for and a frequent contributor to Thirteen and PBS's online projects, including "The 1900 House" and "Srebrenica: A Cry from the Grave." His writing has appeared in Mother Jones, The San Francisco Examiner, Wired, Salon and Might magazine.