Little-known insights about sign language and Deaf culture.
Hearing people have always challenged the ability, language, and even worth of Deaf people. Here are 10 debunked myths that hearing people have held about Deaf people for over 2,000 years.
[For the purposes of this article, we’ll use a capital “D”when referring to the Deaf community or a Deaf person.]
1) Deaf People Can’t Excel in Life Without Hearing
All of the skepticism you’ll read about in this article ties back to the idea that you can’t excel in school, work, relationships, or everyday life without hearing.
Of all the ways Deaf people have proven hearing people wrong, this is the most critical one, because it debunks thousand-year old myths about how Deaf people are inferior to hearing people.
The Deaf today have their own language, their own communities, and according to Deaf professor Flavia Fleischer, they have their own culture – a culture that offers them the tools they need to survive and flourish:
While much Deaf progress has been made in recent centuries, let’s go back in time to Greek history.
2) Deaf People are Senseless, Incapable of Reason, and a Burden to Society
People love quoting the philosopher Aristotle. Here are just a few of his famous quotes you might see on social media:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
“The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.”
“All men by nature desire knowledge.“
There’s one quote, however, that you’ll never see. It’s a claim that changed the timeline of Deaf history, a myth that became accepted for centuries without challenge, and a reason for the discrimination (and even genocide) of many Deaf and mute people in ancient times.
“Those who are born deafall become senseless and incapable of reason.”
This wasn’t just a quote; it was a narrative that perpetuated the lie that if you were Deaf, you were hopeless. This is one of the greatest philosophers of all time, someone who argued passionately about the pursuits of education and excellence for everyone. Everyone, except the Deaf.
A Greek doctor, Galen, backed Aristotle’s claims, suggesting that since speech and hearing happened in the same area of the brain, if one was Deaf, he or she would also be mute, and vice versa.
The non-existence of Deaf institutions made it harder for Deaf people to defend themselves. They had no sign languages, no Deaf schools, and no Deaf communities. Most citizens of Greece believed that the Deaf were “burdens to society,” and better off dead.
It took over 2000 years to hammer away at this myth. Gradual progress, century after century, revealed that the Deaf could learn to communicate orally and naturally via sign languages, and that they could in fact read and write by receiving an education at home or in Deaf schools.
Progress accelerated over the last 200 years thanks to legislative, educational, and technological reform. The Deaf now have their own communities, culture, values, and a variety of communication methods and medical options available to them.
In many ways, Deaf people have proven historians and philosophers wrong about their ability to reason and coexist with hearing people. They don’t burden society; they benefit society.
They’ve shown that if given the tools to compensate for their lack of hearing – such as sign language – they too can equally survive and flourish just like the rest of us.
3) Deaf People Can’t Become Educated
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was a kid genius who graduated first in his class at Yale at the age of 17. He wanted to help his neighbor’s nine-year-old Deaf daughter, Alice Cogswell, earn an education.
His neighbor, a prominent physician in Hartford, Connecticut, paid for Gallaudet to travel to Europe and bring back learning methods for Deaf students in order to educate Alice.
In England, Gallaudet studied oral communication taught to the Deaf but wasn’t happy with the results. He then studied sign language and visual teaching from the director of the French Institute for the Deaf in Paris.
Gallaudet felt this method was the best and most natural way for Deaf people to communicate and comprehend. But before he could finish mastering sign language, he ran out of money and had to return to the US. He recruited a teaching assistant, Laurent Clerc, to join him in starting a sign language school in America.
How American Sign Language Was Invented
In New England in 1817, with money from investors and the government, Gallaudet and Clerc founded the American School for the Deaf. Clerc mostly taught French Sign Language, but as the school attracted more students from all over America, unique home-signs were added in. The fusion became known as American Sign Language.
The creation of ASL made the education of the Deaf in America easier and much more effective. Today, there are dozens of residential and day schools for Deaf students, and Deaf universities such as Gallaudet University.
There is also the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, where Deaf and hearing teachers educate Deaf students through natural language and visual learning.
At Gallaudet University, Deaf students have access to internships and can choose from an array of bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate, and specialist degrees. They also have the opportunity to connect with other Deaf students who come from over 25 countries to attend.
4) Deaf People Can’t Play and Win in Sports
Modern sports have changed to accommodate Deaf athletes. In swimming or track, instead of hearing the signal to start, Deaf athletes look for a flashing light or a waving flag. In baseball, the umpire yells and signs outs, strikes, and balls.
Deaf athletes have proven they can compete and win in amateur sports, Deaf-only leagues, and pro sports at the highest levels.
In sports, the most critical senses are vision, touch, and hearing. So it would seem as if Deaf people have only two-thirds of the active senses of hearing people, and therefore are at a competitive disadvantage.
This can be proven wrong for two reasons:
Deaf athletes can heighten their senses of touch and vision to concentrate deeper and longer than hearing athletes.
For everyone else, hearing can be a weakness if it makes us focus on the wrong sounds.
How Deaf Athletes Have A Competitive Advantage Over Hearing Athletes
Winning, in any individual or team sport, boils down not to the physical or external, but to the mental and internal faculties. Most professional coaches, players, and trainers believe that the difference between great performance and average or poor performance boils down to concentration.
“The outer game is played on an external arena to overcome external obstacles to reach an external goal. The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions. The Inner Game is a proven method to overcome the self-imposed obstacles that prevent an individual or team from accessing their full potential.”
Hearing can backfire on athletes when they pay attention to a smack-talking opponent, or to the cheering and booing fans in the stands. When the mind wanders, they start to judge themselves, their teammates, their opponents, and that leads to panic and mistakes.
Undisciplined athletes are always at risk of self-sabotage because their vision and hearing could run their minds amok at any given moment. The Deaf, on the other hand, have been found to have heightened senses, such as vision, that work to their advantage.
The Deaf athlete almost automatically falls into deep focus, allowing herself to read hand signals and facial expressions, keep her eye on the ball, and anticipate plays as they occur with split-second decision making and instinctive reactions.
She’s already in a mode of deep focus because most of her day consists of reading nonverbal cues. Yes, it’s harder at first for a Deaf person to learn a game, to play it on a regular basis, and to integrate with her hearing peers, but once she figures out the basic skills and develops good practice habits, the rest is mental training.
And because Deaf people are always mentally training, they can surpass hearing athletes who constantly struggle to stay out of their own heads.
Notable Deaf Athletes And Accomplishments
Derrick Coleman, a Super Bowl winning fullback of the Seattle Seahawks
Tamika Catchings, a 10-time WNBA all-star who once posted a quadruple-double
Carl Morris, an 8-ball pool world champion
Luther Hayden Taylor, a winning pitcher for the New York Giants, whose entire team learned sign language to communicate with him
James Kyte, a NHL hockey player
Carlo Orlandi, an Olympic, gold winning boxer
Ashley Fiolek, the youngest female American National Motocross champion
Brad Minns, tennis player, coach, and fitness trainer
William Hoy, the first Deaf baseball player who helped pioneer umpire hand signals to “hear” calls
5) Deaf People Can’t Drive
In the 1920s, a number of states rejected Deaf people from earning driver’s licenses, saying that it was unsafe for them to be on the road. The National Association of the Deaf and its state committees helped debunk this myth.
A number of studies later also showed that Deaf drivers weren’t any more accident-prone than hearing drivers. Just as in competitive sports, Deaf drivers heighten their senses of vision and touch and find different ways to gain an advantage.
Especially where public transportation is limited, driving is an essential skill to get to work, school, the grocery store, etc. The benefits of driving may be obvious to most, but unless they’re taken away from you, it’s easy to take them for granted.
Deaf people don’t take them for granted, because while all 50 states allow the Deaf to earn a driver’s license, at least 30 countries still deny them.
6) Deaf People Can’t Get Good Jobs or Operate Businesses
Aristotle was right that “the roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet.” As Deaf people’s education rates are on the rise, so is their employment and business ownership.
The most common Deaf professions are in manufacturing, retail, medical, professional services, and construction.
Traditional Deaf jobs in communication and education, such as sign language interpreters, translators, and career counseling, are also prevalent.
Jobs in loud environments such as concerts, nightclubs, and airport runways are also suited for Deaf individuals, as are internet jobs: blogging, digital marketing, and private teaching or tutoring.
Deaf Business Owners
It’s not just Deaf employees; Deaf employers and business owners are also on the rise.
Advancements in legislation and technology in the last three decades have led to a rise in Deaf-owned businesses. There are over 1000 Deaf-owned businesses according to the NTID at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Deaf communication services are standardized in our major telecom infrastructure, giving the Deaf more normalcy in business.
As the Deaf community breaks through more and more barriers, their collective belief that they can do anything gets stronger.
“There are so many disabled people – not just deaf people – who have so many setbacks in life that they don’t have any confidence left. And they start withdrawing into themselves, and become a hermit in some cases. I think that’s a really sad thing. I want to go out there and say ‘I can’t hear a damn thing but look what I’ve gone and done. And if I’ve done it, so can you.’”
7) Deaf People Can’t Talk on the Phone
In the 1960s, several new telecommunication applications were invented and distributed that helped the Deaf communicate. Text messaging, as we know it today, started out in the form of teletypewriters connecting with telecommunication relay services.
The operators of relay services enable text messaging, and now video messaging, so that Deaf people can use their phones for everyday use.
Fast internet and video technology are also making it increasingly easier for Deaf people to communicate using sign language.
8) Deaf People Can’t Make Their Own Choices
From Aristotle’s time to present day, a central theme of the Deaf struggle is freedom of choice, specifically Deaf people’s ability to carefully make pragmatic decisions. Countless examples show that when Deaf people try to make their own decisions, hearing people convince them otherwise.
For example, in 1880 an international Deaf convention was held, governed by a majority of hearing people. (At this point, sign language was an increasingly common and effective way to educate Deaf students).
At the convention, the minority of Deaf people in attendance voted on keeping sign language and visual teaching as a primary method of education. However, they were trumped by the majority of hearing people who voted on using oralism, or speech-only, communication.
Deaf people were and still are fully capable of thinking for themselves and making their own decisions. Today, Deaf individuals have the right to choose whether or not to use sign language, hearing aids, cochlear implants, or lipreading to communicate and comprehend.
9) Deaf People Can’t Appreciate Music
Conventional wisdom suggests that Deaf people can’t sing or appreciate music like hearing people. After all, music is almost entirely made up of sounds.
Enter Mandy Harvey, a contestant on America’s Got Talent. She became fluent in sign language after losing her hearing at the age of 18. Instead of calling her music career quits, she listened to the voice in her head that told her to find new ways to make music happen.
Eventually, she discovered that if she took her shoes off, she could use muscle memory with digital tuners and feel the vibration of the floor to measure tempo. She still managed to sing her heart out in front of a national audience.
Here’s a video of her winning the Golden Buzzer.
10) Deaf People Can’t Make Friends or Have Relationships
It may have been difficult before the digital era to meet like-minded Deaf people for professional networking, friendships, or dating, but the internet has changed the game altogether.
There are countless apps, social networks, and blogs where Deaf people can meet others like them from anywhere in the world. Here are just a few of the most popular:
Deaf people have faced an incredible amount of challenges, and they still continue to. However, they’ve made more progress than we credit them for in their ways of communicating and interacting, in their accomplishments and contributions to society, and in bringing people from all over the world together to build Deaf community and culture.
Keep scrolling for more interesting facts and quotes about American Sign Language and Deaf culture.
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Socrates advocated sign language for the Deaf and mute.
Aristotle signing “no” and Socrates signing “yes.”
The three most common stigmas prevalent among Deaf people is that they believe hearing people view them as stupid, weird, or unworthy of their time.
“Deaf gain” is a real thing. Shifting perspectives from losing hearing to gaining Deaf alters the mindset and turns a medical issue into a blessing in disguise.
Just as hearing people listen to words or “voices” in their heads while reasoning, completely Deaf people get ideas by seeing sign language.
There is a difference between subtitles vs. closed captioning. Subtitles simply show the words or dialogue that the characters speak. Closed captions encompass all the important background sounds, including song lyrics, falling objects, door creaks, etc.
Ever wonder what the difference between “Deaf” and “hard-of-hearing” is? Deafness and hearing levels vary, so if you hear someone say a person is Deaf, hard-of-hearing, or Deaf plus, it’s not because they’re being politically correct. They’re being accurate and specific.
The exact number of people who use ASL is unknown, but research shows it’s somewhere between 500,000 and 2,000,000.
Sign language is the fastest growing language searched on Google since 2013.
Sign language ranks as the fifth most popular language to learn overall. The top five languages are: English, Spanish, French, Korean, and American Sign Language.
Even babies can use sign language! Babies can learn signs before they can learn words. There are claims that using baby sign language accelerates speaking, reading, and writing skills.
Learning sign language allows you to appreciate Deaf culture. Sign language opens the door to a whole new level of discovery and appreciation of Deaf culture: their music, art, history, comedy, poetry, etc.
If you want to become a more successful overall communicator and be able to pick up on social signals better, learning sign language will help you better understand body language – a huge component of communication.
13. The difference between hearing aids and cochlear implants is that hearing aids amplify sound so it’s picked up by damaged parts of the ear, while cochlear implants directly hit the auditory nerve.
14. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 helped improve Deaf lifestyle. It bridged the gap in communication so that those unable to speak or hear can still communicate with others as “functionally equivalent” as the rest of us. In the last 20 years, this Act has led to a rise in voice, text, and video relay services so that no matter your level of hearing loss, you can communicate however you want – through oral communication or manual language.