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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)

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 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

Deafhood (N)


BSLZone: What is Deafhood? (BSL and English Subtitles):https://www.bslzone.co.uk/watch/deaf-world-what-deafhood

The word “Deafhood” was first developed 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.


Oral Education (N)

Oral education, or oralism, focused on teaching deaf children to communicate through speech and lipreading. Sign language was discouraged or actively forbidden. 


A Dutch historical video (date unknown) of teaching speech to young deaf children (click on the picture to see the video):

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oralism#:~:text=Oralism%20is%20the%20education%20of,States%20around%20the%20late%201860s.

Oral History (N)

The personal recollections of people who participated in historical events.


Ownership (N)

Ownership is very important for museums. Who owns the artefacts? Who tells the stories?

A very simplified, very short summary of what's involved:

In the past, explorers travelled to new worlds (new for them), by boat, on foot, or carried by horses, camels, elephants or humans.

The explorers saw many wonderful things there and took some of them home to show them to the people in their own country, in museums and zoos. 'Things' included objects, art, animals, even people. 'Taking' included: receiving as gifts, buying, or stealing.

The stories that the museums told about these 'things' were told from the perspective of the explorers. Dates and locations may have been correct, but many of the stories were not. Slowly, museums changed and added more information. They started to consult the previous 'owners', the people who had made these objects, used them, knew their histories.

Then, two things happened. The previous owners wanted their objects back, to put them on display in their own museums for their own people. And they wanted to tell their own stories, from their perspective. Not as consultants, but as the rightful owners and experts.
Developments that are still ongoing, that have many more sides and and no 'one size fits all' solution.

The same things have been happening, are happening, with respect to the Deaf community. In the past, their history was told by hearing people, from the hearing perspective. Then, Deaf people became involved as consultants. Now some Deaf people want their objects, stories, histories returned to the Deaf community, because Deaf people are the rightful owners and experts.

Again, there is no 'one size fits all' solution.
In theory, on paper, the best solution of course is for Deaf and hearing experts to work together, to teach each other, to learn from each other,  to acknowledge and benefit from each others expertise. In the real world, unfortunately, things may be more complicated.

Further reading: https://www.museumnext.com/article/what-does-it-mean-to-decolonize-a-museum/

Sign Languages (N)

Sign languages, plural, because every country has its own sign language, and some countries have more than one, for example Belgium with Flemish (VGT) and French Belgian Sign Language (LSFB) , and Spain with Spanish (LSE) and Catalan Sign Language (LSC).

Sign languages are natural languages each with its own lexicon and grammar. Sign languages have in common that they use the hands, face and body as 'articulators'. 

Sign language is NOT :

    • universal. There are between 138 and 300 different sign languages being used around the world.
    • a word-by-word translation of a spoken language. In education, teachers sometimes speak and sign at the same time to teach children the spoken language in a visual way. To transmit the exact surface structure of a spoken sentence (instead of its meaning) - for example to sign articles, function words and affixes and suffixes - artificial and usually cumbersome signs have been invented. This is not sign language, but an artificial, and for sign language users unnatural code, usually called 'signed English', 'signed French', etc. 
    •  a letter-by-letter spelling of words with the hands. Letter-by-letter spelling is called fingerspelling and is used for instance for names.