A Conversation About Deaf Culture

One of the assignments in my online course, Basic ASL for Library Staff, is to create a description of Deaf Culture that students can use when sharing what they have learned with co-workers, family members, and friends.  Kathleen Westbrook of the Appleton Public Library (Wisconsin) came up with the following imaginary conversation, which I am posting here with her permission:

Friend: Whatcha been up to lately?

Me: Well, I’m taking a Basic American Sign Language for Library Staff. It’s been great.

Friend: Are you learning a lot of signs?

Me: Oh, yeah, quite a few, but I’m also learning about Deaf Culture.

Friend: Deaf Culture? What’s that?

Me: Well, it’s a lot like any culture, you know? A group, a community, of people with a shared language…shared customs…experiences… history…beliefs. Like Japanese Culture, or Italian Culture.For the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the shared language is-

Friend: Sign language?

Me: Yep. And here in America, it’s ASL.

Friend: Wait, Isn’t sign language universal?

Me: Nope. We’ve been learning a bit about the history of ASL. It’s based largely on French Sign Language; as a matter of fact, the first main teacher was a Frenchman, Laurent Clerc, a Deaf guy.

Friend: I did not know that.

Me: That’s a whole story in itself. But getting back to Deaf Culture–and Deaf is with a capital “D”–at the heart of it is the idea that the Deaf and Hard of Hearing –

Friend: Hey, don’t you mean “hearing impaired?”Isn’t that more “P.C.?”

Me: Actually it’s not! Because at the heart of the culture is the idea, or belief, that being Deaf or Hard of Hearing is a difference, rather than a disability or an impairment; that they are able to do so many things, with the exception of hearing, and they can and do contribute to society just as they are, without needing to be “fixed.”They believe that their differences are assets.They call it Deaf Gain.

Friend: Gosh, I never really considered it that way.Because I love to hear so much -music, birds, the lakeshore and stuff–I can’t imagine that losing my hearing could be anything but tragic.

Me: Oh, I hear you–no pun intended. There are so many varied experiences of people who fall into that continuum of deafness–for some it is definitely a loss. Not everyone who has the condition of deafness necessarily embraces the Deaf Culture. But, just think, for instance, if you were born deaf, or became deaf at a very young age, you wouldn’t necessarily think of yourself as missing something or losing something; being deaf would be part of your identity, like height, or eye color, or gender, you know? Many people like that consider themselves Deaf with a capital “D.” There are Hard of Hearing folks that embrace the culture; people who become deaf later in life, or people that grew up deaf but with hearing people in hearing environments who discover and embrace it; and there are hearing people – friends, family members, teachers, interpreters, and others–immersed in it as well, immersed in the language and community, sharing the belief of Deaf Gain. But for sure, not all hearing people are.Hey, have you ever heard of audism?

Friend: No, can’t say that I have.

Me: You know, the idea that you’re superior because you can hear, or that deafness is a tragedy for all who are deaf? It’s a kind of prejudice, whether intentional or not. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it at times, without realizing it. Hey, instead of saying that the Deaf are “hearing impaired,” I could say that I’m “signing impaired!”

Friend: Ha. Wow, it sounds as if you’ve gotten a lot of food for thought. Me too, now, actually.

Me: Yeah, it sure has been eye-opening–in more ways than one–because ASL is such a visual language, you really have to watch carefully for all the nuances of the gestures, the body movements, facial expressions…

Friend:Show me some of the signs you’ve learned so far.

Me: I’d be happy to!


Want to learn more about Deaf Culture?  Check out these links for more resources!

Click here to read Kathleen Westbrook’s reviews of some of her favorite ASL resources for kids and families.


Deaf Maryland Culture

Reposted with permission from FOLDA [Friends of Libraries for Deaf Action] E-NEWS October 23, 2014

Citizens for Maryland Libraries (CML) and Maryland Library Trustees (MLT) will have its annual meeting on Saturday, November 8, 2014, 9:30 am – 2:45 pm at the Fletcher Branch of the Washington County Free library in Hagerstown, MD.

FOLDA, MD deaf community and libraries are grateful to Citizens for Maryland Libraries (CML) for its successful 2014 legislative session. It includes the requiring of the Division of Library Development Services (DLDS) of the MD State Dept of Education (MSDE) to establish a Deaf Culture Digital Library (DCDL). Maryland’s Governor signed it into the law on May 15, 2014.

We also applaud the MD legislation for authorizing MSDE to include operating funds for the Maryland Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (LBPH) in its budget and for LBPH to receive a specified amount of funding each year.

LBPH of MD, founded in 1968, has one sub-regional library, called the Disability Resource Center (DRC), formerly the Special Needs Library (SNL) opened January 6, 1986 in Montgomery County. In November 2006, SNL merged with the new Rockville Library and became the DRC.

Under the direction of the National Library Services for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress (NLS) and the DLDS, LBPH and DRC provide library services to all eligible blind and physically handicapped citizens, including deaf blind citizens and deaf citizens with disabilities and who are not able to use regular books, audio tapes and the related at the public library.

Please make sure that DEAF BLIND CULTURE and also other Deaf Cultures in MD are aware of LBPH services in MD.

Maryland Trivia for Fun and Facts

Mary Titcomb, Librarian at the Washington County Free Library in Hagerstown, MD, first introduced the bookmobile or mobile library in the United States, in Maryland in 1905.

Thirty-fifty years ago on December 6, 1977, the late Mervin D. Garretson made the first presentation about George W. Veditz at the Gaithersburg Public Library in MD. A copy of his presentation, The Veditz Genius, may be available from your local library. It has five illustrations of Veditz by the famed artist Ruth Peterson.

Alice L. Hagemeyer, President , Friends of Libraries for Deaf Action FOLDA E-Editor.

Hooray for Maryland’s Deaf Culture Digital Library!

On May 15, 2014, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law a historic bill establishing the Deaf Culture Digital Library (DCDL).  The mission of the DCDL, which will be run by Maryland’s Department of Library Development Services, is to provide “leadership and guidance in offering resources about deaf culture, acquiring and preserving an excellent collection of deaf resources in digital formats, and furnishing access to information regardless of location and, providing highly competent assistance to Maryland residents and library staff in local public library systems, academic librarians in colleges and universities, and other libraries in the state of Maryland.”  Strategic initiatives of the Deaf Culture Digital Library include:

  • Establishing the DCDL as an online central resource for Maryland library customers and staff, including information for deaf and hard-of-hearing people, parents of deaf children, and businesses and organizations providing access
  • Conducting needs assessments and providing training to library staff to improve Maryland library service to deaf customers
  • Developing deaf related programs and materials for libraries
  • Developing and supporting alliances between libraries and key deaf-related organizations

Click here for the full text of the bill.

Congratulations to the state of Maryland for taking the lead in improving library service to the deaf community!  Here’s hoping other states will follow Maryland’s lead.

A Place Where Everyone Signed

For over 300 years, the tiny island of Martha’s Vineyard, located off the coast of Massachusetts, was something of a Deaf utopia – not because it was the bastion of a strong Deaf culture, but because it was the home of a bilingual community of hearing and deaf people, where deaf islanders participated fully in all aspects of life.  That’s because the small, self-contained society had a high incidence of deafness – in the town of Chilmark, 1 in 25 residents were born deaf.  This led to all members of the society using Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (one of the seeds of modern ASL) alongside English.

Find out more in this great post from REDEAFINED: Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language (Sign without Stigma).

Or check out Nora Groce’s remarkable book, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language: 516cnGOIy1LHereditary Deafness on Martha’s Vineyard (Harvard University Press, 1988).


It just goes to show: when communication is present, our differences no longer divide us.


Setting the Record Straight About American Sign Language and Deaf Culture

I love the movie Jerry Maguire – except for one scene that always makes me want to throw something.  It’s the one where Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) and Jerry (Tom Cruise) see two deaf people signing, and Dorothy says, “My favorite aunt is hearing impaired. He just said ‘You complete me’.”

What a sweet scene, right?  The line even appears later in Jerry’s big winning-Dorothy-back speech at the end.

But here’s the problem: anyone who actually knows about Deaf culture or American Sign Language doesn’t buy it.  If Dorothy’s aunt really taught her that much sign language, then she surely also taught her that many deaf people (and certainly the vast majority of ASL users) find the term “hearing impaired” offensive.  Also, what the deaf actor, Anthony Natale, signs would be rendered word-for-word as “You make me feel complete” – and it’s highly unlikely that even a skilled, experienced interpreter would come up with such a graceful interpretation as “You complete me” on the spot, let alone a character who had only learned a few signs from her aunt.  Though the moment is no doubt lovely to those who don’t know any better, to those who do it’s another example of the pervasive sentimentalization of sign language.

Read the rest of the article at KathyMacMillan.com.

Support the Deaf Culture Digital Library

This Friday, February 21 at 1 PM, the Maryland State Legislature will hold a hearing about the establishment of a Deaf Culture Digital Library (DCDL) Bill HB653.  This groundbreaking resource will connect citizens with resources about ASL and Deaf Culture, allow librarians and service providers of all kinds to connect with grant funding, make the larger community aware of the diversity within the deaf community, and provide resources for all members of the deaf community.  Read more about the aims of the DCDL in this excellent post on Holly the Librarian’s blog.

According to Alice Hagemeyer, president of Friends of Libraries for Deaf Action (FOLDA), “This first kind of library for the deaf will also support the public library’s new trend of transforming communities. Thus, citizens will have free access to resources that are related to ASL, literature, arts and history in local communities anywhere in Maryland. America! Globally!…When it becomes a law, it will become a model for other 49 states, DC, 2 commonwealths and 3 territories.”

Whether you are a Marylander or not, YOU can support the Deaf Culture Digital Library!  Anyone can email a testimony or letter of support of this bill to Delegate Eric Luedtke via Eric.Luedtke@house.state.md.us.

Read the complete bill here.


Celebrating a Great Partnership: Clerc-Gallaudet Week is December 3-9

At certain times throughout history, fate has brought together people who were able to do great things together, their collaborations pushing them individually to great heights.  Lennon and McCartney.  Jobs and Wozniak.  Twain and Tesla.

Perhaps lesser-known to many hearing Americans is a partnership that happened by fortunate accident but would go on to shape an educational system, a language, and eventually, an entire culture: that of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, founders of the first permanent school for the deaf in the United States.

clercLaurent Clerc, born December 26, 1785 in the south of France, became deaf as a young child and spent his early years uneducated, with little to no communication with his hearing family members.  Finally, when he was twelve years old, an uncle convinced Clerc’s parents to send him to a well-known school for the deaf in Paris, the first public school for the deaf in the world.  At the school, Clerc quickly learned French Sign Language, reading, writing, philosophy, mathematics and more – so quickly that after just eight years of schooling he became a tutor and was hired as a teacher one year later.   In 1815, Clerc was selected to travel to England with the head of the Paris school for a series of demonstrations of his teaching methods – a trip that would change history.

That’s because in attendance at one of those demonstrations was thgallaudet-portraitThomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a hearing man and minister from Hartford, Connecticut who had travelled to England to research deaf education methods for a proposed school for the deaf in the United States.  He had originally come to study at the Braidwood School, an institution that focused exclusively on speech and speechreading, but had been frustrated by the Braidwood family’s refusal to share their methods.  When he attended the presentation by the French educators, Gallaudet knew that he had found what he needed for the American school.  The Frenchmen invited Gallaudet back to Paris with them.

Gallaudet soon ran out of money, and recognized that he still had not learned enough to start the school on his own.  He entreated Laurent Clerc to return to the United States with him, and Clerc, moved by the plight of the uneducated deaf children in America, agreed, abandoning the cultured halls of Paris for the wilds of the New World.

On their fifty-two day sea voyage across the Atlantic, Clerc taught Gallaudet French Sign Language, and Gallaudet taught Clerc to read and write English.  In 1817, they opened the first permanent school for the deaf in Hartford, Connecticut.  Some students came from the nearby island of Martha’s Vineyard, a community with its own established deaf community and sign language.  Most students came from hearing families where they had eked out a few “home signs”, gestures to communicate enough to get by.  But all found themselves in a rich community where Clerc’s French Sign Language blended with the signs brought by his students, forming early American Sign Language and the roots of American Deaf Culture as we know it today.

Clerc and Gallaudet went on to establish or help establish schools for the deaf in many other states, and both devoted their lives to deaf education.  In December 1974, DC Public Library established Clerc-Gallaudet Week as a way of honoring Clerc and Gallaudet’s birthdays (December 26, 1785 and December 10, 1787, respectively) and promoting library awareness in the deaf community and deaf awareness in the library community.

To learn more about Clerc and Gallaudet, check out these links:



Stories By Hand Featured in Baltimore’s Child


“In her presentations at libraries, child care centers, and schools, storyteller Kathy MacMillan always makes her audience members part of the show, whether it’s getting them to move their hands like butterflies, pretend to dig for treasure, or act like dinosaurs. Incorporating music, costumes, props, and, most importantly, movement, MacMillan’s goal is to keep her audience engaged while providing them with an introduction to American Sign Language (ASL).”

 Read the full article.

Seeing Voices

Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf by Oliver Sacks. New Seeing Voices coverYork: HarperCollins, 1989.

There’s a reason this book is a classic in the field of Deaf Studies: Sacks weaves together history, linguistics, and a deep understanding of culture to create a compelling introduction to American Sign Language and Deaf culture for the uninitiated.

How to Communicate with Someone who is Deaf

  • Don’t assume that every deaf person speechreads. Speechreading is a very difficult skill to master, and many deaf people don’t find it effective beyond common phrases such as “How are you?”
  • Keep your face and lips visible.
  • Maintain eye contact.
  • Make sure the deaf person is looking at you before you speak, sign, or gesture.
  • Speak naturally. Don’t exaggerate your mouth movements or speak too slowly. And don’t shout!
  • Be careful not to stand with your back to a window or other light source – this makes speechreading and getting information from facial expressions difficult.
  • Offer pen and paper to write notes back and forth, but be aware that English is a second language for many deaf people. When writing notes, use short sentences and plain language, and avoid idioms and slang.
  • Repeat the question to make sure you understand.
  • To get the attention of the deaf person, tap his or her shoulder or arm or wave in his or her line of sight.
  • ATTITUDE is the most important thing! Most deaf people will appreciate your efforts to communicate.