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What it means to be Deaf

Understanding the Deaf community to increase cultural awareness

Caity Healy | Lifestyle Editor

Western offers an award-winning English/ASL Interpreting program, has several Deaf teachers and an ASL club — yet, for many, the concept of Deaf culture or the Deaf community is one that is unheard of. For those who haven’t taken any ASL courses, the idea of it contrasting at all from what hearing people grew up around is often not understood.

So, what does it mean to be a part of the Deaf community? To get a grasp of what this term truly means, I had a conversation with Professor Kara Gournaris, an instructor of ASL and American Sign Language Studies coordinator. It comes down to the concept of capital “D” versus lowercase “d”.

“Capital D means to be heavily involved in Deaf culture, to use strong ASL and to live in the Deaf world everyday,” commented Gournaris.

To look at your Deafness and be proud, to get involved with the several Deaf events and to be immersed in this world gives you the title Deaf, with a capital D. Lowercase d, on the other hand, is the opposite.

“Small d means you possibly can speak, you might have a hearing aid or you aren’t involved in the Deaf world — more so just the hearing world,” Gournaris added.

But, Gournaris added that, ultimately, “the Deaf community varies across America. Some are strong Deaf, some aren’t, and some travel between the Deaf and hearing world.”

The hearing and Deaf world differ in many ways. What is acceptable in one culture might not be in the other. For instance, in the Deaf world, “the Deaf are more open and blunt. We cherish communication and connection more, whereas in the hearing world there’s a lot more privacy. The Deaf are close and share everything. We cherish each other,” Gournaris explained. It’s simply a part of the culture to be straightforward and get straight to the point.

There are many other ways the two worlds differ. Take, for example, the setup of an ASL classroom; the chairs and tables are arranged around the room, rather than in rows. This is essential, as in the Deaf world, maintaining eye contact is necessary to communicate. To break eye contact in the Deaf world would be the equivalent as covering your ears while someone is talking in the hearing world — it’s a sign of disrespect. The arrangement also makes it so that it’s easier to see and read someone’s signs; in rows, this can be fairly difficult.

While there are several Deaf teachers at Western, the Deaf community still “is now very small,” Gournaris mentioned

“Awhile ago, we had a large number of Deaf students. Now, overtime that number has slowly diminished. We aren’t sure why,” Gournaris mentioned. She explained that in order for the Deaf community to fully develop, more Deaf people need to be welcomed to Western.

An example of what the Deaf community does look like can be seen through Western’s ASL Club. This spring, club meetings are held every Monday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in RWEC 106. There, participants get to see Deaf culture firsthand, with a mixture of Deaf and hearing people coming together to play games, have conversations and just interact. Led by students, but with involvement from all over, you’ll develop your ASL competency in a fun and interactive way.

Those who identify as “capital ‘D’ Deaf” have certain viewpoints that they continue to stand by and want people to understand about how they should be viewed.

“Deaf people are not disabled. We’re not. We’re bilingual, we’re bicultural. We travel between Deaf and hearing worlds, between ASL and English. We are not disabled,” Gournaris defended, because the term “disabled” insinuates that they are unable to do something. Gournaris wants people to understand that this is false. They don’t want to be viewed as being unable to do something, when in reality, the only thing that Deaf/deaf people cannot do is hear.

For those interested in learning more about the Deaf community, on top of gong to ASL club, Western has many opportunities. For those who don’t know any ASL, they’re welcome to begin with ASL 1 and work their way through the nine-part series. However, many classes that are offered also have interpreters, so anyone of any skill level can elect to take them.

“There are three important classes I’d recommend that anyone can take,” Gournaris mentioned. “In Deaf History, you understand our background and why the Deaf community exists. You’ll become a better ally and supporter. In Deaf Culture, you’ll understand how to become more sensitive to our community, more of a supporter and how to better communicate. And finally, in VGC, Visual Gestural Communication, you learn how to better communicate not only with ASL but be more comfortable using your body and communicating with other people around the country.”

For those interested in learning more, Gournaris urges you to continue expanding your knowledge on the community and becoming involved. With such a small community, it can be difficult to get support. However, she notes that “Deaf people need (hearing allies) to join in. Your support as an ally can help our community progress…to make our community more noticed and help build it up.”

At Western, a school where one is likely to run into someone using ASL frequently, understanding the basics of what the Deaf community looks like can be beneficial; it leads to a greater respect for others and greater cultural awareness. With many options for getting involved, becoming more knowledgeable on the Deaf community at Western is at the fingertips of anyone interested.

Contact the author at chealy16@wou.edu

Photo by: Caity Healy