Writing American Sign Language
The Deaf Community
Descriptions of American Sign Language, its potential writing
systems and the benefits of adopting one of these systems are
in order. First, the Deaf community, the group in question, must
be described. This section will discuss the population of deaf
people in the United States, focusing on those who are Deaf (ASL
users) as well as those who are hearing ASL users. It will consider
two of the challenges facing this community; its language has
not been pervasively considered on par with spoken languages
and that its existence as a cultural group has been questioned.
Which Americans are Deaf?
According to the National Association of the Deaf, twenty-eight
million Americans have some degree of hearing loss and two million
of them are deaf, meaning that they cannot hear and understand
speech even with the best amplification. Around 300,000 of these
two million are Deaf, meaning they are users of American
Sign Language and feel that they belong to a cultural group,
as opposed to those who are deaf, those who have a hearing
disability. Some members of the Deaf community become deaf as
a result of an illness, like maternal rubella, which their mothers
contracted during pregnancy. Some become deaf as young children
from spinal meningitis. Others have some form of genetic deafness,
including those who are born with a hearing loss that progresses
to profound deafness. For many, the cause of deafness is unknown.
There are many deaf people who are not part of the Deaf community
and a few hearing people, with Deaf parents, who are.
Some estimate that the number of sign language users in the
United States, including those who are hearing, is over a million,
although the number of those who use only ASL is probably
quite a bit smaller than a million. In A Journey into the Deaf-World,
Ben Bahan, Robert Hoffmeister, and Harlan Lane (1996: 42) say:
ASL is the language of a sizeable minority.
Estimates range from 500,000 to two million speakers in the U.S.
alone; there are also many speakers in Canada. Compared to data
from the Census Bureau, which counts other language minorities,
ASL is the leading minority language in the U.S. after the "big
four": Spanish, Italian, German and French.
It is used in many schools for the deaf as the language of
education and it is the primary language used at Gallaudet University
in D.C. Yet, Deaf people are still faced with the hearing society
balking at ASL as a language. They are also faced with hearing
people questioning the validity of a Deaf identity and doubting
the existence of a genuine cultural group.
Those who belong to the Deaf community share customs and norms
of behavior, they share a history, they share legends and stories.
They share the struggles of living in a hearing world. Above
all, they share their language.
Those who consider themselves Deaf include people with a wide
range of ability to perceive sound. Their feelings of belonging
to a distinct culture come from their distinct educational history,
and the history of their unique language. American Deaf history,
centering around the interplay of education and sign language
development, originates in France. The Abbé de l'Epée
founded a school for the deaf in Paris in 1755 because he wanted
deaf people to have access to the Bible. Laurent Clerc, one of
the later students of this school, who also became a teacher
there, joined Thomas Gallaudet in 1817 to set up the American
Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. This was a pivotal
moment in Deaf history as Oliver Sacks (1990: 23) writes:
The French sign system imported by Clerc
rapidly amalgamated with the indigenous sign languages here
the deaf generate sign language wherever there are communities
of deaf people; it is for them the easiest and most natural mode
of communication to form a uniquely expressive and powerful
hybrid, American Sign Language (ASL).
The year 1864 saw the creation of the first deaf college,
once the Columbia Institute for the Deaf and the Blind, this
was eventually christened Gallaudet College and is now Gallaudet
University, the only liberal arts college for deaf students in
Because fewer than 10 percent of those who are born deaf are
born into a Deaf family, most people do not join the Deaf community
at birth. Although schools for the deaf (often residential) tend
to stress English education and may focus on oralism, it is this
environment in which deaf children develop their language, American
Sign Language. It is also this setting within which the Deaf
As one deaf writer puts it, "Deaf people share certain similarities
with blind people, for each has suffered the loss of a sense.
But blindness is a handicap of mobility whereas deafness is one
of communication" (Kisor 1990:10). This handicap of communication
can be incredibly isolating. Sign language has had the ability
to bridge this detachment and ASL has become the cherished link
among Deaf people which allows them to function effectively even
with the absence of such an important sense.
Part of the failure to accept ASL as a full language has to do
with the doubt that the Deaf community exists as an independent
cultural group. Traditionally, cultural groups share a geographic
location, or location of origin. Furthermore, most cultures have
traditions including food, music, art, and religion. The Deaf
community is unique in that these usual criteria for the definition
of a culture do not apply and yet its members have a keen sense
of belonging to a distinct cultural group.
Aspects of Deaf Culture
"Deaf people argue that they share their own complex language,
American Sign Language, as well as a culture and a group history"
(Shapiro 1993:85). First and foremost, it is this shared language,
American Sign Language, that binds Deaf people to one another.
There are also deaf people who feel
no connection to a distinct Deaf culture. We distinguish them
from, for example, those who find themselves losing their hearing
because of illness, trauma or age; 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 (Humphries and Padden 1988: 2).
Self-identification with the group is a vital diagnostic factor
in deciding who is part of Deaf culture. Tom Humphries writes,
"Deaf people in countries all over the world who are signed
language users consider themselves to be separate cultural groups
from the societies of hearing, spoken language users among whom
they inevitably live" (1993:3). Deaf people are aware of
a "hearing" culture which most hearing people have
never considered. Most have had no exposure to the multiple effects
on life in the absence of sound.
As one might predict, it is a culture which revolves around the
perspective of life without sound and, further, living in a world
controlled by those who are dependent on sound. Among those who
perpetuate Deaf culture are sign poets, deaf comedians, and other
types of deaf performers. Deaf story telling is vastly different
from hearing story telling. Even Deaf or hearing children of
Deaf parents often write in a distinct style which is less linear
than what is usually considered clear story telling. An example
is Paul Preston's Mother Father Deaf, written by a hearing man,
whose parents are both Deaf, about children of Deaf parents.
He describes the difference in story telling styles exemplifying
his awareness of being bicultural:
I have written this book as much as
possible in the Deaf way not in sign language but in interwoven
stories, fragments of sharply drawn scenes, repetitions for emphasis,
and the use of questions to create dialogue. Deaf storytelling
does not, as one informant explained, "boil down to a punch
line." It is in the telling (1994:10).
Story telling is an essential part of the Deaf community.
Like story telling in hearing communities, a story may be told
over and again with emphasis on the performance. Stories are
carriers of history, but they "take on another burden: they
are a vital means of teaching the wisdom of the group to those
who do not have Deaf families" (Padden 1980: 38). Since
about 90% of those who are Deaf do not have Deaf parents, gathering
with members of the Deaf community to experience and learn these
stories is essential.
Deaf Americans operate under a different set of norms of behavior
from those of hearing Americans. For example, greetings between
deaf people are distinct from those of hearing. If two people
meet who are barely acquaintances, they may hug and kiss, which
could be considered too warm for most Americans. Furthermore,
upon meeting for the first time, it is necessary for two people
to initially establish whom they know in common, often before
names are exchanged. Connections within the community often center
around the residential school.
In the informal dormitory environment
children learn not only sign language but the content of the
culture. In this way, the schools become hubs of the communities
that surround them, preserving for the next generation the culture
of earlier generations (Humphries and Padden 1988: 6).
Only after these connections to or within the Deaf community
are established do two signers exchange names.
Another example is the interpretation of facial expressions.
These non-manual "signs" are codified as part of the
language. To ask a WH-question in ASL, one which could not be
answered with a yes or a no, one must furrow his brow. Asking
questions with such a facial expression in spoken English would
leave the questioned feeling accused or give the impression that
the questioner was upset. This is exemplified by one hearing
person who was immersed in Deaf culture because both her parents
were Deaf. "Later she realized she routinely asked questions
using the standard ASL question format arched, furrowed
eyebrows an expression her husband misinterpreted as accusatory
and angry" (Preston 1994:137). Another norm found in the
Deaf but not the hearing world is walking between two people
having a conversation. Most hearing people would not walk between
two people having a conversation unless it was completely necessary
and they would say, "excuse me." For Deaf people, it
is rude to do anything but walk straight through two signers.
Moving quickly between two signers (when it is necessary to do
so) is not rude and does not disrupt the conversation. Stopping
before walking through a conversation or signing, "excuse
me" is considered rude.
Recently, there has been a surge in the Deaf civil rights movements.
These movements were in full swing in 1988, when students protested
in order to ensure the hiring of a deaf president at Gallaudet
University. The students were proud to be part of a distinct
culture. There were enough strong, positive, Deaf role models
encouraging them not to limit themselves in life. Their confidence
was sufficient to close the campus for a week, sending a clear
message that only a deaf leader would be appropriate for a university
for the deaf. Valuing ASL and the culture -- evaluating it as
language -- was fundamental to this Deaf Pride movement.