WebAIM - Web Accessibility In Mind

Auditory Disabilities
Deaf Culture

Deafness as a Culture

Deafness is more than a medical condition. Individuals who are deaf do not simply have "diseased ears." They belong to a community—a culture. In this sense, deafness is unique among disability types. The sense of culture is strongest among those for whom sign language is their primary language. It is this linguistic bond, perhaps more than other factors, that binds the community together. In many ways, the social character of the deaf culture can be compared to that of the African-American culture. Just as there is a strong sense of pride among African-Americans in their heritage and society, there is a sense of pride among the deaf, and they enjoy the status of cultural and linguistic minority. Deafness is much more than a physiological phenomenon. It is a way of life. In recent decades, sign language has played an increasingly central role in the cultural unification of the deaf community.

Sign Languages and "Lip Reading"

There are, however, deaf people who do not use sign language. These people have generally been raised in the oral tradition, meaning that they were taught to speak vocally, and to "read the lips" of others. This tradition was more common throughout most of the 20th century. It wasn't until the 1970s that educators began to seriously question this approach, and to encourage the use of sign language as a primary means of communication. Sign language itself was not even recognized as a language by most people in the field, including many of the deaf who used it. Sign language was often thought of as a system of gestures that did not fulfill the complete functionality of a true language. More recent studies have confirmed that not only does sign language have a complete syntax and grammar structure of a true language, but it also activates the same neural pathways and brain activities that all other languages do.

The result of these findings has sparked a heated controversy between the proponents of the oral tradition and the proponents of sign language immersion. Proponents of the oral tradition seek to encourage deaf individuals to be a part of mainstream society. The assumption is that deaf people will be more acceptable and accessible to people who are not deaf if the deaf can carry on "normal" conversations with them. To a certain extent this is true, but the biggest downside to this approach is that lip-reading is an inexact art of intuition and guesswork. Lip-readers are able to reliably understand about 40-60% of what others say, and must fill in the blanks for the rest of the conversation—even after years of training and practice.

When first pondering methods to make audio web content accessible to the deaf, some developers think that the best method would be to make a sign language version of the audio content. There are a couple of problems with this:

  • Not all deaf people understand sign language.
  • Video on the web is often not large enough or clear enough to make sign language understandable.
  • Not everyone speaks the same sign language.

The last point may not be one that you had considered. In the United States, for example, the most common sign language is American Sign Language, or ASL. In Britain, British Sign Language, or BSL, is the most common. In Australia, Australian Sign Language, or Auslan, is the most common. Signed English is another variation, although it is less of a full-featured language and more of a translation of spoken English into a system of signs.

When you branch out to France, Sweden, South America, and Asia, the differences are even more pronounced. Asian sign languages have almost nothing in common with American or European sign languages, and have no common linguistic root. There have been some attempts to make an international version of sign language, known as Gestuno, but this committee-developed system of signing is inferior to the world's richer natural sign languages and has seen only limited use.

Now, the fact that there are many different sign languages around the world is not really a matter of disability access so much as it is a matter of internationalization, but the fact that there are vast differences between the sign languages of those who can read the same spoken language (e.g. English) is very much a matter of disability access. The common thread between those who speak ASL, BSL, and Auslan is not sign language, it is English—even when you take into consideration the regional differences of spelling and some vocabulary words.