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Deaf Studies Terms

Words and phrases used in Deaf Studies, the Deaf world.

Agency, Deaf Agency (N)

"In social science, agency is defined as the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.

By contrast, structure are those factors of influence (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, ability, customs, etc.) that determine or limit an agent and their decisions. The influences from structure and agency are debated—it is unclear to what extent a person's actions are constrained by social systems.

One's agency is one's independent capability or ability to act on one's will. This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one's experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into.

Disagreement on the extent of one's agency often causes conflict between parties, e.g. parents and children."

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_(sociology)

"Deaf people have always had a sense of their history as it was being passed down in stories told by generations of students walking in the hallways of their residential schools and by others who congregated in their clubs, ran associations, attended religious services, and played in sporting events.

With these activities, the deaf community exhibited hallmarks of agency — an effort to maintain their social, cultural, and political autonomy amid intense pressure to conform as hearing, speaking people."

BRIAN H. GREENWALD AND JOSEPH J. MURRAY, in: Sign Language Studies, Volume 17, Number 1, Fall 2016

Audism (N)

Audism is the notion that one is superior based on one's ability to hear or to behave in the manner of one who hears, or that life without hearing is futile and miserable, or an attitude based on pathological thinking which results in a negative stigma toward anyone who does not hear.

 (N)Tom L. Humphries coined the term in his doctoral dissertation in 1975, but it did not start to catch on until Harlan Lane used it in his own writings. Humphries originally applied audism to individual attitudes and practices; whereas Lane broadened the term to include oppression of deaf people.

from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audism

Sorenson: Watch the video to learn more about audism and how to prevent it. (ASL, English subtitles)

Critical Disability Studies

Critical Disability Studies focuses on how disability is constructed, viewed, and understood culturally, politically, economically, and socially.

People with disabilities are centered and their experiences in the world create the context for discussion.

Emerging approximately 30 years ago, Critical Disability Studies uses a critical lens similar to fields such as Gender Studies, Chicano Studies, and Queer Studies to interrogate truths and uncover subjugated knowledge.

source: Texas Center for Disability Studies

Cultural Appropriation (N)

Appropriation refers to taking something that doesn't belong to you or your culture. In the case of cultural appropriation, it is an exchange that happens when a dominant group takes or "borrows" something from a minority group that has historically been exploited or oppressed.

In this sense, appropriation involves a lack of understanding of or appreciation for the historical context that influences what is being taken.

source: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cultural-appropriation-5070458

Cultural appropriation of Sign Language

Cultural appropriation of Sign Language could be defined as a situation in which a person or group of hearing people use Sign Language without having full knowledge of it or without fully appreciating it.
Interview on cultural appropriation of Sign Language in the program See Hear from the British television channel BBC with Paddy Ladd, a prestigious academic and researcher at the University of Bristol, and Jephta Asamoah, winner of the Student of the Year Award in the United Kingdom in 2018 (English subtitles).

Cultural Model of Deafness

"This term focuses on the shared experiences, histories and, more importantly, the central role that sign language has within the Deaf community. It is this key characteristic that differentiates Deaf and “hearing” people. In the Deaf community we see the two separate cultures as the “hearing world” and “Deaf community”.

The Deaf community is international. What binds Deaf people, despite their different national sign languages, is their shared visual communication, history, cultural activities, and the need for a Deaf “space” where people come together.

The Deaf Cultural Model rejects the “medical definition of deafness” as either a loss or impairment. This is comparable with the Social Model of disability and Disabled people’s rejection of the Medical Model.  Where the Deaf community sometimes depart from the Social Model is around the term “impairment”. For the majority of culturally Deaf people there is no “impairment nor hearing loss”. What makes the British Sign Language (BSL) Deaf community unique has been its campaign to be recognised as a linguistic minority. For the BSL Deaf community the capital “D” is used in a political sense to demonstrate their campaign for cultural and linguistic recognition.

For many members of the Deaf community their shared history is both personal and social. Deaf people will have gone to the same school, in many cases boarding schools where most of their younger lives will have been spent together, and then met again at their Deaf clubs, Deaf social events, reunions and other more personal events.

One of the first things a Deaf person will often ask on meeting, before asking your name, is what school or Deaf club you go to. Making this connection is an important part of any greeting, as it will then help an individual to understand what shared history or people in common you may have."

Source: https://www.inclusionlondon.org.uk/disability-in-london/cultural-model-of-deafness/the-cultural-model-of-deafness/

Deaf - big D, versus deaf - little d

"In the field of Deaf Studies, the use of an upper case ‘D’ in the word ‘Deaf’ denotes membership of a Deaf community and use of an indigenous signed language as a primary or preferred language.

Use of the lower case ‘d’ in the word ‘deaf’ refers to people who have a medically determined hearing loss, but who may not consider themselves to be a member of the Deaf community, and who may not use an indigenous signed language.

A typical example of a ‘deaf’ person is an adult with an acquired hearing loss.

A typical example of a ‘Deaf’ person is a prelingually deaf child who, through use of an indigenous signed language, shared linguistic and cultural values with other signed language users."


Signed Languages in Education in Europe – a preliminary exploration

 Lorraine LEESON, Centre for Deaf Studies, School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Science. Trinity College Dublin, 2006

Deaf and Dumb

Offensive term. Do not use, see Words to use and avoid.

Deaf Community (N)

"The Deaf Community can refer to a group of people who share the same interests, experiences and language. You do not have to be physically deaf to be part of the Deaf Community. You can be a parent of a deaf child, be a hearing child of deaf parents or you can simply be involved with deaf people.

For someone to be accepted by the Deaf Community, they are usually able to use and understand Irish Sign Language (ISL) and go to Deaf events. The Deaf Community do not see being deaf as ‘a problem’ and demonstrate positive attitudes to being deaf. Members of the community also work for equal access across all aspects of life (Irish Deaf Society’s A Guide for Parents of Deaf Children, 2011)." 

Quoted from: Conama, John Bosco , “Hidden Histories Catalogue,” Deaf Lives Ireland

Source: https://s3.amazonaws.com/omeka-net/4321/archive/files/350961b935e55ead8e2141e6d59cc1e0.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAI3ATG3OSQLO5HGKA&Expires=1605744000&Signature=J0Ipy6Vn%2FNO4fBmecx9xpbIUxq4%3D

Deaf Culture (N)

Deaf culture is the set of social beliefs, behaviors, art, literary traditions, history, values, and shared institutions of communities that are influenced by deafness and which use sign languages as the main means of communication.

When used as a cultural label especially within the culture, the word deaf is often written with a capital D and referred to as "big D Deaf" in speech and sign. When used as a label for the audiological condition, it is written with a lower case d.

From: Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deaf_culture



Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deaf_culture

Deaf Gain (N)

Deafness is often seen as an economic burden to society, but in addition to the well-documented research on visual-processing and visual attentiveness including enhancements in spatial cognition, facial recognition, peripheral processing, and speed in detecting images, deafness can be and is an economic advantage. 

Diversity in cognitive, creative, linguistic and cultural platforms can generate new inventions and new ways of thinking. (Bauman & Murray 2014) 

Deaf Museum? (N)

"Deaf Museum" probably is an old-fashioned name, but I think most people will understand what it means:

a museum about things to do with deaf history, deaf people, deaf education, deaf politics, deaf art, deaf sports, sign language, etc.. So we named our project "Deaf Museums".

A more correct and up-to-date name for a Deaf Museum is what the Museum in Trondheim (NO) now calls itself: Norwegian Museum of Deaf History and Culture


Offensive term. Do not use, see Words to use and avoid.

Deafhood (N)

See Hear:

The word “Deafhood” was first used by Paddy Ladd in 1993.

Understanding the concept of colonization is an integral part of the Deafhood philosophy. The term “Deafness”, and others like it, are seen as arising from the colonization process. Hence there was a need to develop a Deaf-centered term, “Deafhood”.

Deafhood includes:

    • The total sum of all positive meanings of the word “Deaf” — past, present and future
    • All the largest meanings of what Sign Language Peoples have been, are, and can become. Including:
      • all that Deaf people have created in this world
      • all that they created which has been lost to sight (because of colonialism)
      • all that they might create in future

According to Ladd, Deafhood requires deaf people to evaluate and liberate themselves from the oppression they have faced historically from the majority hearing society. To this process of self-liberation, Ladd writes:

"...I found myself and others coining a new label of 'Deafhood.' Deafhood is not, however, a 'static' medical condition like 'deafness.' Instead, it represents a process - the struggle by each deaf child, deaf family and Ddaf adult to explain to themselves and each other their own existence in the world. In sharing their lives with each other as a community, and enacting those explanations rather than writing books about them, deaf people are engaged in a daily praxis, a continuing internal and external dialogue." (Ladd, 2003:3)

Difability (N)

Disability and disabled are outdated terms, literally meaning individual inability and unable, which are both inaccurate and insulting. Difability is a portmanteau that more accurately and politely describes people with biological, cognitive difability like deafness, autism and cerebal palsy.  

Heritage (N)

 Valued objects and qualities such as historic buildings and cultural traditions that have been passed down from previous generations.

Cultural Heritage: historic buildings, monuments and collections of information on how people lived such as photos, paintings, stories, newspapers and books.

Natural Heritage: mountains, rivers, and any landscape.