Deaf Awareness

While deaf people share certain experiences, the community is highly diverse. Some consider themselves to be part of the unique cultural and linguistic minority who use sign language as their primary language, while others do not. Deaf people have a wide range of communication preferences, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and additional disabilities that shape their interactions with their environment.

Defining Deaf

What do we mean when we say "deaf"?

The National Deaf Center is using the term deaf in an all-inclusive manner, to include people who may identify as deaf, deafblind, deafdisabled, hard of hearing, late-deafened, and hearing impaired. NDC recognizes that for many individuals, identity is fluid and can change over time or with setting. NDC has chosen to use one term, deaf, with the goal of recognizing experiences that are shared by all members of our diverse communities while also honoring all of our differences.

What is American Sign Language?

Sign languages are complex, natural languages, with their own grammar, vocabulary, and dialects. There is no universal sign language; countries and regions around the world have their own signed languages. In the United States, American Sign Language (ASL) is the most frequently used, but we also have Black American Sign Language (BASL), and Plains Indian Sign Language (PISL).

The National Association of the Deaf explains that in ASL, “the shape, placement, and movement of the hands, as well as facial expressions and body movements, all play important parts in conveying information.” ASL is not a communication code that merely represents English. It is its own distinct language.

What Are Some Unique Features of Deaf Culture?

Values, behaviors, and traditions of deaf culture can include the following:


An emphasis on visual transmission of information. Architectural and interior designs often include excellent lighting, open floor plans, and spatial positioning of furniture that enhances visual sight lines.

Regional Language

Valuing the sign language of the region and supporting sign language use in educational settings, such as bilingual ASL/English programs in the United States.

Social Connections

Maintaining cultural traditions through social activities including athletic events, deaf organizations, and school reunions


A high degree of networking and deep connections within the deaf community.

Technology Use

Creative use of technology to resolve communication issues.


Specific communication norms and behaviors such as consistent eye contact.


Promoting deaf culture through art forms such as painting, drawing, film, folklore, literature, storytelling, and poetry

Ways of Getting Someone's Attention

Using visual strategies to gain a person’s attention, such as the following:

  • Gently tapping a person on the shoulder
  • Waving at the person within their line of sight
  • Flicking a light switch

What is Some Terminology to Avoid?

Some common terms that are generally viewed as offensive within the deaf community include “hearing impaired,” “deaf-mute,” and “deaf and dumb.” These terms have some intrinsic problems, such as a deficit framing that assumes that deafness is negative, but also have contextual issues, where usage of those terms indicates that the user is unfamiliar with the deaf community. While, again, the deaf community is large and diverse and there are varied preferences within that community, it is generally best to avoid these terms.

Do All Deaf People Consider Themselves to be Culturally Deaf?

Though some deaf people fully embrace all aspects of deaf culture and community, others may identify only marginally or not at all. Identity is a highly personal process that is always evolving.

Deaf people may undergo changes in their beliefs and identity as they mature from childhood into adulthood, including how they self-identify in terms of their hearing loss. Some deaf people do not have significant exposure to deaf culture until adolescence or later, and might choose to become part of the deaf community at that time. For this and other reasons, a deaf person’s identity may change over the course of their lives. 

Who is Part of The Deaf Community?

The deaf community includes people who identify as hard of hearing, late-deafened, deafblind, deafdisabled, and more. Some experiences are shared by all members of these diverse communities, while others are more unique. Because of this wide range of experiences, it is important to avoid assumptions and to seek input from each individual deaf person.

Working With Autistic Deaf Students in Postsecondary Settings

Due to the increasing number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs),  professionals who work with deaf students should expand their capacity to support autistic deaf students, especially in transition planning and postsecondary settings. The rate at which children are identified with ASD has increased over the last 20 years, with around 1 in 59 children now being diagnosed with ASDs every year. Deaf people have autism at comparable rates to the general population.

Autistic students experience many of the challenges that deaf students experience during transition and beyond, including insufficient support, falling through the cracks, and fewer job opportunities. These challenges, among others, may result in autistic deaf people not continuing their education or pursuing work opportunities after high school.

Additional Resources

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