Monday, January 15, 2001
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Posted on: Monday, January 15, 2001

Defining of deaf culture begins with language

To hear or not to hear: deafness as a gift
Documentary looks at deaf family's struggle

By Mary Kaye Ritz
Assistant Features Editor

Is there such a thing as a "deaf culture"? There’s no blind culture, or diabetic culture. There are no distinctive foods or garb, no folklore or homeland common to deaf people.

But, yes, there is a deaf culture, say hearing-impaired people who have banded together for the preservation of their way of life. They point to their special language, the basis of culture, as well as deaf socialization, deaf arts and deaf theater.

"I think there’s a very strong deaf culture here," said Nancy Bridenbaugh, director of Gallaudet University Regional Center at Kapiolani Community Center. "A lot of people believe strongly in deaf culture."

Ed Corey, speaking through an interpreter, said deaf culture is the way his family lives, as a group within the hearing culture: "Hearing culture and deaf culture are very opposite."

After movies such as "Children of a Lesser God" came out in 1986 and "Mr. Holland’s Opus" in 1995, the term "deaf pride" came to the fore.

Corey and Harvey Nathanson, a student teacher for the deaf who is deaf himself, cite:

Language: "There is valid proof that ASL does have the structure of a language," said Nathanson. The language itself has slang, common gestures and the visual-spatial concepts that allow communication.

Socialization: Besides the National Association of the Deaf and the World Federation of the Deaf, specialized social organizations exist for the deaf, such as athletic tournaments and leagues. Plus there are educational institutions, such as Gallaudet University, devoted solely to the deaf, and state-run schools like the Hawaii Center For the Deaf and the Blind in Kapahulu.

Arts: Corey points to the National Theater of the Deaf, which tours the world, as well as a relatively new means of artistic expression he practices, called song signing. Under his stage name, Ed Chevy, he interprets music for the deaf in performances.

Social activism: Civil rights groups helped establish the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But it is an invisible culture, said Jeanne Prickett, administrator at the Hawaii Center for the Deaf and the Blind. The deaf move among the wider society, silently, and their cultural schematics are hard for the hearing world to understand.

Corey’s family is deaf, as is his 12-year-old daughter. Both have decided against having cochlear implants. "I’ve established myself, I’ve grown up in deaf culture," he said. "If I tried to change, I couldn’t re-create myself in a new culture."

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