Deaf Ethnicity, Deafhood and Deaf Ethnosexuality

Photo:D for Diversity

D for Diversity


Photo:Thank you message from WFD

Thank you message from WFD

Markku Jokinen, WFD President

Christmas Lecture; 19th December 2009 (15 people)

By John Walker

The Christmas Lecture aimed to raise money for the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD), an international organisation advocating for the human rights of deaf people and sign language users. £120 was raised on the day.

Deaf Ethnicity (Lane 2007)

Lane accepts that Deaf people, who use sign language and participate in a community, could be defined as an ethnic group. The term ethic should not be confused with race: the latter classifies a common group against a physical characteristic whereas the former identifies with a group's cultural and linguistic features.

The Deaf community shares a common language, promotes cultural norms and exists in community spaces. It is expected for an individual to demonstrate certain characteristics of the ethnic group in order to be accepted; it results with clear boundaries of what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. It is possible for a deaf person to not be part of the Deaf community.

The Disability Discrimination Act (1995/2005) does not distinguish between a deaf person who cannot sign and a Deaf person who can. All deaf people are classified in a group of interest or contact (Wilson) that is defined by medical classifications.

Lane raises a point that if the Deaf community continue with identify with disability legislation, the community as we know it will gradually come to an end. This beckons new legislation for the protection of sign language peoples (Jokinen), only then will the Deaf community grow from strength to strength; money needs to be invested in language planning and cultural promotions, which are not covered by disability legislation.

Deafhood (Ladd 2003)

Ladd's book provides a forum for a discourse on Deafhood. To embark on this journey, it will require us to learn about the history, politics, sociology and anthropology of Deaf people. Only from the realisation of how these studies impact our everyday lives, can we appreciate what Ladd is trying to achieve. In a way, Ladd has created a word, Deafhood, to define something he sees but it is up to the community(ies) to embrace it (or not).

The act of colonialism is well understood, we may draw conclusions from our memories of apartheid in South Africa or slaves working in Jamaican plantations or as servants in the UK. It is the consequences of colonialism that is of interest here. 

In pre-colonialism, the African tribes had their own cultures, religion, community structures, medicine and language. In an act of war, other nations (such as the English, French, Dutch, Italian) have invaded these villages and persuaded them to convert and adopt foreign cultures, medicine and religion, and discard their own identities.

Colonialism created a situation where white man held assumed power structures over the larger black population, the hierarchies of society were based on race. In modern days, the empires or colonisers have withdrawn from these countries and left behind the structures of power. Instead of returning to their tribal ways, they have assumed the same power structures; little had changed to improve the quality of people's lives, countries were faced with a new coloniser. The ex-colonisers have left a legacy and the people struggled to establish their a new national identity, in turn have entered a post-colonial existence.

This process is synonymous with the experience of Deaf people. The establishment of Deaf schools in 1760 brought about over 100 years of Deaf people who became professionals in their own right, many working as teachers. The Parisian Banquets gathered these professionals to debate on current affairs, which later became open to the public. Deaf people set their own rules and were respected members of society in their own right. 

In 1889, the Royal Commission on the Blind and Deaf & Dumb, led by Dr. A. G. Bell, decreed that sign language should be removed from education in favour for the German 'pure oral method'. Some schools held out until post 1922 before sign language was abandoned (see Brighton Institution/Beeson comment). The colonisation of deaf people were slowly and surely successful, sign language was removed from education and replaced with lipreading and speech therapy.

The 1970s period of liberation was the beginning of the end to colonisation, especially when Conrad (1979) investigated that 65% of deaf children left school with a reading age of nearly 9 years old. Education responded by promoting the use of several signed systems during the '70s, including Cued Speech, Paget Gorman, SEE and MaKaTon; they adapted knowledge from BSL to create an artificial system of learning English. It was clear that the pure oral method was a failure. Hamilton Lodge School, in Walpole Road, embraced BSL when Headmistress Duffy took over from Headmistress Moore in 1995. Ovingdean Hall School, which was originally a school using the combined method (Brighton Institution), declined to use BSL in classes right up to present day.

In the lecture, we attempted an experiment on Gramsci's Culture Capital and how it affects deaf people. Four people were given a different persona: a hearing person who only uses English; a deaf person who only uses English; a Deaf person who only uses BSL; and a Deaf person who is bilingual and bicultural. Each were given a pile of chocolate money and were asked, "which product would you like to buy?" The first list included items such as tickets to the Opera, the last night of the Proms, the entire works of Shakespeare, and Swan Lake (hearing Art). The second list included items such as John Smith comedy show, entire works of Dorothy Miles, and a Deafinitely Theatre performance (Deaf Art). The amount spent by each person was different: The hearing person and the bi-bi Deaf person spent the most amount of money. It indicates that Art, sport and leisure favours the hearing person, it supports hearing people's mental and physical health. But at close second, bilingual/bicultural Deaf people find themselves able to switch between the two worlds, with a foundation in both.

The deaf-English only person spent the least. Hearing and bilingual-bicultural Deaf people are the most adept to function in society today, whereas a deaf person, who are neglected from learning BSL, are disenfranchised from society and the Deaf community. The intention of mainstreaming and inclusion into society has not resulted with independent and socially adept individuals, instead it has promoted a subaltern existence (a person devoid of power and automony, and without the political means to change their situation). Deafhood challenges the subaltern and the systems that promote the subaltern identity.

Deaf Ethnosexuality (adapted from Nagel 2003)

We must first accept that Deaf people are an ethnic group (which should not be confused with the physical categorisations of race, or deafness for that matter) where ethnic boundaries are defined by language, culture and community space (Lane 2007).

Human sexuality, beyond the physical parameters, is a socially constructed activity. What is defined as a family in one ethnic group maybe different in another: some countries encourage monogamy (relationship between two people) and others polygamy (relationship between more than two, ie. a husband with several wives), these cultural rules are not related to the physiology of sex but to the ethnosexual boundaries created in a given community.

Deaf Ethnosexuality brings about a question of whether the Deaf community asserts rules on who Deaf young people should form relationships with. The centre of the Deaf community are families which have several generations of Deaf people, where the culture is passed down from generation to generation. What are the expectations from these families to keep 'Deafism' in the family? Do these families feel it is their responsibility to uphold the Deaf identity?

Equally, what are the ambitions of hearing parents of deaf offspring? Do they inspire their sons and daughters to form relationships with hearing people? What would happen if the son, say, decides to marry a Deaf woman who uses BSL; how would the family react?

Nagel also describes four situations where the ethnosexual boundaries are crossed:

  • Ethnosexual settlers: where Deaf people have moved out of their community and settled in the hearing world.
  • Ethnosexual sojourners: where Deaf people have moved out of their community intermittently, to explore the hearing world, only to return to the Deaf community later on.
  • Ethnosexual adventurers: where Deaf or hearing people may explore casual relationships with members of the other communities.
  • Ethnosexual invaders: where one community invades the other by using means of sexual abuse.

It is possible to state that the above four situations are true for the relationship between the Deaf community and hearing society. 

The Ryan Report in Ireland as well as reports from America and Italy have identified systematic abuse in these countries, especially in schools for deaf children. Unfortunately, they have been viewed as individual cases but we have yet to explore how the systematic abuse has affected the Deaf community. It needs to be understood and accepted that Deaf people are part of a collective community before we can start this discourse.

The boundaries across nations is different between Deaf and hearing people. Hearing people are more inclined to form relationships in the local vicinity where the same dialects and cultures are shared. Alternatively, the Deaf community have a means of communication across nations, where a lingua franca is used to establish a contact language - the opportunities for Deaf people to form relationships across national boundaries is greater than for hearing people. Two Deaf people from different countries forming a relationship is more possible than a Deaf person forming a relationship with a hearing person on their street. Deaf people have their own perception of space, geographical boundaries and communities of contact.


The period of Modernism has influenced people's presumptions on equality, especially in the case of disabled people. It is assumed that to promote equality, individuals must denounce any form of segregation and exclusion. It implies that all are one and the same, and we all must endeavour to become unified under one nation, one language.

The period of Post-Modernism criticises this stance: we live in a polycentric existence where a single city can host diverse ethnic identities. Those identities should be embraced and its diversity contributes to our national identity; we are enriched from this experience. A discourse between women, for example, has improved our understanding of ethics, research, and helping professions (to state a few). What can we learn from Deaf people that will provide us all with an enriched understanding of humanity?

A discourse about Deaf people is also a discourse on language, culture and identity. Some Deaf people in the Brighton and Hove City have become vulnerable since the closure of Brighton Deaf Club, the absence of a community has affected their health and wellbeing. Recent investigations on access to GP services, secondary care and prevention of illness have discovered a marked difference in the Deaf community compared to society - this could be influenced by the continue disenfranchising of sign language peoples.

The Our Space project has explored different resources, this website being one of them, where Deaf people can have a stronger identity in the South East Coastal Communities.

£120 was donated to WFD, acknowledge on page 8 of the WFD bulletin.

This page was added on 22/04/2010.

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