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My Hands are My Voice: Celebrating Deaf Awareness

“Deaf can do anything except hear” – Marlee Matlin  


For many years the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community were thought to be less than because they were not able to hear. Deaf and Hard of Hearing people are no different than you and I. September is Deaf Awareness month and though many are aware of deafness or Hard of Hearing they may not be aware of the culture or the origin within the Deaf society.  


Sign as a Language 

Sign language did not become an official language until 1960 when Willam Stokoe a professor at Gallaudet University argued for the legitimacy of sign as a language through his research (Pare, 2016). Sign language is not a bunch of simple gestures but is as complex and meaningful as any spoken language.


According to the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), American Sign Language (ASL) is a visual language that is performed with a combination of movement, placement, and shape of the hands and arms. Facial expressions and body movements are additional components of the language that help further convey a message. It is important to know that ASL is not the universal language for those who are deaf and hard of hearing. Sign language like spoken languages comes in many different forms. ASL has its very own grammar rules that are unique to America, while other countries have their own sign language. 


Unlike in other communities with disabilities, the Deaf community prefers to be addressed as Deaf and then the person rather than a person who is Deaf. This mainly comes from viewing deafness as a part of who they are and not as a deficit. Identity-first vs. person-first language is an important distinction


Culture is our background and within our backgrounds, we may define or identify ourselves within our culture. For the Deaf community, there are three different classifications that a person might fall into: Deaf, deaf, or Hard of Hearing.


Deaf, deaf, and Hard of Hearing 

National Association of the Deaf states that the difference between capital D and lowercased d in deaf implies that capital D Deaf people “inherited their sign language, use it as a primary means of communication among themselves, and hold a set of beliefs about themselves and their connection to the larger society”. Captial D people may have been born deaf or developed deafness at an early age. 


Lowercase d is for deaf people who may have developed an audiological condition such as hearing loss over a period of time, illness, or who might adopt the deaf culture after becoming deaf. “Although these people share the condition of not hearing, they do not have access to the knowledge, beliefs, and practices that make up the culture of Deaf people.” (National Association of the Deaf, n.d.). These interpretations may also vary from one Deaf individual to the next.  


Hard of Hearing implies that there is to some degree a level of hearing loss which can be mild, moderate, or severe. Hard of Hearing people may use different tools like hearing aids and cochlear implants that may aid in their ability to detect sound. Those who are Hard of Hearing often may choose between being in the culture of the hearing, deaf, or a combination of both at their discretion.  



What are the different degrees of hearing loss? Ashley Hughes, Au.D.  (2019) 

Deaf and Hard of Hearing: We do NOT need to be fixed 

While sometimes implants and deafness can be corrected, that does not mean they want or need to be fixed. Often people think that implants correct deafness or enhance their ability to hear. For many, these implants only make things louder. For example, if you turn a station on with static it will not give you the clarity to hear the station if you simply turn up the sound.  Implants can also pick up other sounds and frequencies which can make them uncomfortable to wear.  


This is not the case for all situations. Some find that their implants or hearing aids do improve and assist them with little to no issues at all. For instance, Boys Town National Research Hospital is one of 15 centers across the country that test for the advancement of a hearing implant called Electric Acoustic Stimulation (ESA). Jennifer who was a part of the clinical trial states, “There has never been a downside to my decision,” […] “My hearing is better than I was hoping for and I can’t wait to share this with my sister.”   


Overall, the decision for whether or not an individual wants an implant or hearing aid should reside with that person. Such lifelong decisions should also be researched and be based on that individual's wants and needs.



Being able to communicate with the Deaf on a day-to-day basis can make a huge impact, even if it is something a simple as taking a food order.


Do’s & Don’ts when engaging with Deaf People 

Do: If you are trying to get the attention of a Deaf person, flash lights or gently tap them, preferably the shoulder  

Don’t: Push, punch, or flag them down by making big hand movements. If they are far away try to ask people to tap them until it gets to the person you are trying to get their attention  

Do: Refer to Deaf individuals as Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Don’t: Refer to the Deaf community as a deaf-mute, mute, deaf and dumb, or hearing impaired 

Do: Use an expressive face or nonverbals (eye contact, facial expressions, gestures) 

Don’t: Over exaggerate your facial expressions or your mouth. Dramatic mouth movements will not help a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person understand you and it can be seen as offensive. If you are unable to effectively communicate, do not give up if you do not know sign language. Try using pen and paper, your phone, or consider learning the language if you encounter the deaf community often.  

Do: Use sign language, if you can, when in the Deaf community or in deaf presence 

Don’t: Stare at Deaf people while they are in a conversation. Though watching someone sign can be interesting, it can be seen as rude. Think of when you might try to take a phone call or have a conversation with someone. It would be rude to listen in on a conversation even if it is public.  

Of course, these are general and depend on the person who is Deaf and the situation.  

The Deaf community is like many of our own; developed around history, beliefs, and can operate on a spectrum. Although it operates on a spectrum I hope that this article will give a better understanding of the Deaf community.  


Benefits of Hearing Aids 

Do’s and Don’ts in Communicating with the Deaf and Hard of Hearing 

National Association of the Deaf 

Identity-first vs. person-first language is an important distinction 

The Deaf Community  

William Stokoe 

Understanding Deafness: Not Everyone Wants to Be 'Fixed' 


About the Author: 

Ja Tavia Stoot is a communication master’s student at Illinois State University. Ja Tavia is originally from La Porte, Texas. She has a passion for health, fitness, and acts of service. Ja Tavia has a background in critical race, gender & sexuality, and marginalized populations studies. This knowledge is used to bring awareness and hopefully inform others. 

The views expressed are Ja Tavia Stoot’s and do not necessarily represent the official views of Marcfirst. 

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