Deafhood - Brief Introduction

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Deafhood was developed as an English term to counter other negative English terms describing Deaf people. We need a term that opposes the terms that were established by oppressors, such as ‘hearing impaired’ and ‘deafness’. We already have our own signs which we use in our own discourses such as … DEAF-HIS or DEAF-WAY that capture much of what might be seen as Deafhood,
Part A: what is the link between Deafhood and Deaf history?

Deafhood in History

A powerful effect of developing the Deafhood term is that it sets off a whole new set of thought processes. We start to ask, ‘What is Deaf? What does this word actually mean?’ We realize that we have to take into account whatever damage has been done to our idea of ‘Deaf’ by the 120 years of oralist colonization.
Colonialism in history
One country takes over a foreign country or group and imposes its own order, for example, through establishing laws, or promoting a dominant religion or language. There is no ‘Deaf land’ to invade and take over, but the essence of colonialism is:
“an unequal power relationship between two or more groups in which one not only controls and rules over the other, but also endeavours to impose its cultural order onto the subordinate group(s)”
(Merry 1991, in Wrigley 1996:73).

The establishment of the dominant cultural order has happened in a variety of ways, and over a prolonged historical period. Firstly, and importantly, is the establishment of education systems that reflected the dominant cultural order: the first deaf schools (from the late 1700’s to the late 1800’s) were mainly hearing-led by signing but paternalist teachers, who were mostly low ranking deaf teachers/assistants. The way these were structured and run paved the way for the domination of the philosophy of ‘oralism’ and the removal of anything ‘Deaf’ from Deaf education.

Secondly, in local communities in the developing industrial western nations, religious missioners took control of Deaf adult lives. ‘Milan 1880’ is an important symbolic date for spread of oralism!
Thirdly, the classic colonial strategy is adopted of ‘divide and rule’ to enable the ruling cultural order to maintain its hegemony.  They would divide a group into smaller groups, just as Julius Caesar did under the Roman Empire, and let the smaller groups fight with each other. Running parallel to this was the development of a native ‘ruling class’ to rule over the oppressed cultural minority. In deaf education, for example, divisions are created between Deaf and hard of hearing people – those who speak well and those who do not – which are still all too visible in Deaf communities today!

After a century of having all things Deaf denied or denigrated, how can we be sure we are thinking and behaving to our full Deaf potential? One way we can answer this is to find historical evidence of how Deaf people thought before oralism.  Because sign languages could not be recorded, much evidence has been lost, but there are examples showing how in those days, Deaf people did discuss ontological questions such as ‘What is Deaf? Who am I and why am I here on earth? What might my role here on earth be?’ They developed positive, powerful answers and conclusions.

Although examples have been found in the United Kingdom, the focus is on preoralist France to the Paris banquets started by Berthier and colleagues in the 1830s, whose beliefs have been made available to us by the pioneering work of Mottez. Because of space limits, focus is only on the latter.

In the 1830s, Berthier’s group believed in bilingual education, with intense struggles in the Deaf school where the group taught, which even then was moving toward oralism. One strategy was to enlist support from outside the school by holding annual banquets to which the press was invited.  These became so famous that Deaf people travelled from as far as the United States to attend. A key part of the banquets was the sign presentations, which were printed in book form and thus have remained accessible ever since.  The tone of these speeches is truly impressive (cf. Ladd, 2003, pp. 108-112). It is argued that they reveal seven preoralist Deafhood principles, which are as follows:

  1. Deaf people possess a gift of languages so special that sign languages can be used to say things that speech cannot.
  2. The languages are even more special because they can be adapted to cross international boundaries, where spoken languages fail.
  3. Consequently, Deaf people manifest the potential ability to become the world’s first truly global citizens and thus serve as models for the rest of society.
  4. Deaf people were intentionally created on earth (whether by God or Nature) to manifest these qualities, thus the reason for their existence should not be questioned.
  5. Sign languages are a gift offered to hearing people, so that if they joined with Deaf people and learned them, the quality of their lives would be improved. The strongest proponents of this belief would go a far as to state principle number 6.
  6. “Sign languages are an art of the body. Deaf people, the ‘Peoples of the Eye,’ may have developed them, but these skills form part of what constitutes full human beings – people who can use all their senses to communicate. If all the available senses are not used, humans are incomplete beings.”
  7. All Deaf people are fundamentally equal, and those more fortunate are obliged to fight for the others to have the same opportunities. (such as deaf people who never went to school)

After oralism Deaf people lost sight of most of these or no longer used them in public discourse. You could consider which ones are still covert beliefs of values.

The belief in “Nature-ism” implicit in the seven principles became our downfall in the eras of science, industrialization, and colonialism. We were seen only as natural as all the other “savage” races of the earth (that is, not fully human) and fit only to serve the white man, who has ruled the world ever since – with disastrous consequences wherever we look. Now there is a swing toward the “natural” again, toward respect for the riches of the Earth and its earth-valuing people’s who are its true custodians. Thus the time is ripe to begin to open dialogue with them to regain respect for ourselves as men and women “of Nature”.

Part B: the link between Deafhood and Deaf culture?

Deafhood after Colonization, and the Deaf Culture Concept
As research into Deaf culture progressed, it became apparent that it was possible to the Deaf community through the lens of the term Deafhood, and ways were identified in which some Deaf children and adults fought to maintain their ideas about their strongest Deaf selves, to keep their Deafhood alive, whereas others remained mentally colonized (cf. Ladd, 2003).
It seems that many Deaf associations around the world are still mentally colonized. This is partly because they embody traditional Deaf cultures, which is of course valuable. However, they cannot change as swiftly as colonialist organizations can, through simply importing new hearing professionals, because culture is a living, breathing, organic force and can only change slowly. It can speed up if a culture examines itself, learns to understand itself, and makes changes based on what it has found: to study ourselves formally, engage in (Deaf) consciousness-raising workshops, and the like.
If we want to change our present Deaf culture and find the biggest Deafhood self that we can, here are three examples from many:

  1. Many members of Deaf cultures see it as the Deaf way to criticize rather than praise. Those norms were learned from oralism, where Deaf children were criticized every day for innumerable small transgressions, such as signing.
  2. The “crab theory” is also seen as the Deaf way. (The “crab theory” refers to the tendency of some Deaf people to criticize or put down the success of other Deaf people. The analogy is to a bucket of live crabs: Whenever one crab attempts to escape by climbing out of the bucket, the others reach up and pull it back down.) However, it can be argued that this was learned from the process of resistance, of pulling down those “successful” oral Deaf students whom the teachers used a sticks with which to beat the others.
  3. Deaf cultural suspicion or dislike of hearing people can also be attributed to oralism. Deaf children and adults did not know that oralists were not typical of hearing people and that there were thousands out there who wanted to be their friends.

One can continue like this through many different Deaf cultural patterns. How does one break the patterns? One step is to realize that they are patterns. The next step is to draw a line under Deaf culture as it is presently understood and say: “Yes, there are the Deaf traditions we have inherited following colonialisation. We respect them but we must also continue to aim to realize a larger Deaf self.” That larger self can be seen as our search for Deafhood. If we take such a double-headed approach, we can open up new worlds to ourselves, while still being aware of our traditions and know that they still operate on us. In the process, we decide which of those traditions are still valuable to us and should be retained and which should be cast aside. One can try an exercise to get a sense of the difference in scale by imagining what the Deaf world would be like if oralism had never happened:
We would have one hundred years of literate, strong, proud Deaf people. Many Deaf Heads of Schools and Deaf Teachers. Many more Interpreters. Many more hearing people would have been signing and part of the Deaf community. Our relationships with our own parents and other hearing parents of Deaf children would be radically different. There would have been much more BSL and many more Deaf people in film and television, much more Deaf art, Deaf theatre, Deaf poetry, and so forth. This amounts to a totally different world: not just a few Deaf people with better jobs, but whole communities on a different level or existence.
That is what Deafhood could have been. And that is what it still can become!

Part C: The international aspects and variants

Globalism – the International Dimensions of Deafhood.

Let us now return to what Deafhood might mean from an international perspective, that key theme of the Paris banquets. One place we can find a deeper Deafhood is on the international level, for example the WFD Congresses. In Deaf History this was a key theme in 19th century Deafhood scenarios. In the last 10 years there has been an explosion of international activity, made easier by the improvements in transportation and the internet. WFD Congresses have been running since 1951 and Deaflympics since the 1920s or so. But now there are numerous European Deaf cultural festivals, encompassing films, theatre, storytelling and more. Although it is a bit too early to confirm, we may stand on the brink of a Deaf Cultural Renaissance.
At an international level, for maximum communicative effectiveness, signing discourse must be kept visually clear and ‘pure’ as possible, for if one uses too many features that are specific to one’s own national culture, communication breaks down. There are two main sets of examples:
-         Linguistic examples – these are using one’s own country’s fingerspelling and/or using too much of one’s own national sign vocabulary.
-         Ethnocentric examples, the use of names and concepts from one’s own culture which will not be understood outside your country (on a first meeting anyway), also have to be watched for and guarded against.
One is setting aside a high percentage of features which show influence from the national, hearing culture, in search of something with less hearing influence and ‘more Deaf’. Hence the experience is very much a central feature of the whole Deafhood experience, and because of its enormous dimensions, takes on even more resonance and importance.
In these situations and domains, one’s national identity undergoes the beginnings of its recreation, rebirth even, into another, larger, deeper Deaf Identity – a Global Deaf Identity, centering around a trans-national commonality of Deafhood.
This is a hugely powerful experience, especially when in a hall with up to 9.000 other people from all around the world, where International Sign is being used on the stage to convey much of the information. Being in the midst of this experience makes one wish that planeloads of parents of Deaf children, Oralists, Cochlear Implantists, genetic engineers could be forcibly flown in to witness this huge identity which indicates the true size of the Deafhood experience !
There is also another significant aspect to this. Any Deaf person can in theory (and often in practice) go to another country, nearby or far flung, similar to their own or exotically distant, and be taken in by a Deaf family in that country, who through this ease of communication, can bring them inside, not just that country’s Deaf culture, but also its hearing culture, which can then be explained from the inside outwards, thus enabling a much deeper ‘tourist’ experience than is easily available to most hearing people!

In this respect we have a global metalanguage, one of pure genius, and the accompanying wonderful feelings of global citizenship is something millions of people admire in us and aspire to. In such an environment, one can feel one’s Deafhood growing into a larger size, another dimension. What we have yet to do is to appreciate that dimension fully and bring back to our countries the Deafhood lessons that it opens up to us.
Finally, there is the importance of other sets of similarities – Deaf peoples’  existential living situations in audist and Oralist societies, their shared knowledge of similar types of oppression. This also enables them to more quickly relate to each other across international boundaries.
(A cautionary note – Wrigley 1996 and Skutnabb-Kangas 2003 warn about Deaf people’s own colonialism through the USA and via ASL; in other words, Deaf people are not immune from becoming colonialists themselves.)

Tree A
Tree B
Tree C

Deafhoods and Implications for the Future

It is important to realize that Deafhood is not a finite, fixed state, but one that can change, grow, or shrink. It is natural for different groups of Deaf people to interpret Deafhood in different ways, and that debate is healthy. Our overall task is to make sure we understand as many of these as possible so that we can try to and draw on the best of each to improve, develop, or redevelop our national and international communities.
Perhaps even more important, let us imagine Deaf education run according to these values. This is a fascinating challenge because when we come to education Deaf children, we can use intuitive cultural knowledge to shape their development, but we also have to realize that, unlike ourselves, these children can go on to become something we could not be ourselves. We have to imagine what they can become and try to nurture that. In the process, we ourselves grow too. One way that Deafhood ideas can help to speed up this transition period is for both Deaf and hearing people to workshop ideas about what “Deaf” could mean, by being open to whether what a strong Deaf person is saying or doing, is right, or by seeing if they are acting from negative cultural patterns.
Finally, there is the vital importance of Deafhood concepts to the coming theme of genetic engineering, which in effect challenges us by asking “Why should we allow you Deaf people to live? What do you offer to humanity?”
Our ancestors from preoralist Deafhood have shown us how we might answer such questions. Because the Deafhood concept enables us to seek and develop these largest dimensions of Deaf existence, it is in the expansion of those dimensions that many of us, both Deaf and hearing, will learn lessons for creating positive change rather than continuing to obsess about the usual aspects of oppression. It is coming close to the time when Berthier’s unique combination of political and spiritual (ontological) dimensions of Deafhood must be developed once more. Until we provide geneticists – or rather, influence the public – with the largest, most celebratory Deafhood answers we can find, the very existence of all our people will hang in the balance.

Scheme Deafhood


Ladd, P. (2003) Understanding Deaf Culture: In Search of Deafhood, Multilingual Matters: Clevedon.
Merry, S.E., (1991) Law and colonialism. Law and Society Review 25 4, pp. 889–922.
Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (2003). Linguistic Diversity and Biodiversity: The Threat from Killer Languages. In Mair, Christian (ed.). The Politics of English as a World Language. New Horizons in Postcolonial Cultural Studies. Amsterdam & New York: Rodopi, 31-52
Wrigley, O. (1996) The Politics of Deafness, Gallaudet University Press; Washington D.C.