The Deaf Community: History & Culture

Instructor: Sharon Linde
Almost everyone has had a direct experience with a deaf person, either personally or in a public setting. Although deaf people were once shunned by the hearing world, many parts of the world now enjoy a thriving deaf community.

History of the Deaf

Because of their inability to hear, the deaf were at one time discriminated against and sometimes even persecuted. Thankfully, people now understand that the inability to hear doesn't have any impact on intelligence or abilities. In fact, those in the deaf community often say their lack of ability to hear isn't a disability at all; it just makes them have to communicate a different way. Although today's deaf culture is rich and thriving and most deaf people are able to live a full life on an equal par with hearing people, it wasn't always that way.

Around 1000 B.C., the Torah, the Jewish scripture that dictated law, had some laws that protected the deaf, but it did not allow them participate in certain rituals. Because the deaf could not communicate, they were thought to be uneducable. Early Christians even looked at deafness as a sin and sign of God's anger.

Things Begin to Change

Thankfully, these beliefs and practices began to change. In the 1500's, physician Geronimo Cardano developed a code of symbols for his deaf son. At the same time, a Benedictine monk found he was able to teach deaf people to speak. In 1690, both developments inspired a man named Juan Palbo Bonet to write a book of alphabetic signs for the deaf.

This sign language alphabet from 1690 was a first step in helping deaf people to speak and read
sign language

Around the same time, in the province of Massachusetts, there was a community with about a 25% rate of deafness due to hereditary conditions who began using a form of sign language to communicate with each other. Despite these developments, people still thought the deaf couldn't be taught because they couldn't speak, so they remained largely uneducated.

Introducing Education to the Deaf

That began changing in the 1700's when a French priest named Charles De L'Eppe opened a free public school for the deaf, the first of its kind. Again, the use of hand signs and finger movements were used to communicate to the children. Eventually De L'Eppe went on to publish a French sign language dictionary.

Other educational institutions in Europe began using lip-reading methods to educate deaf students. Schools also began teaching speech using a technique of feeling the throat of a person speaking and attempting to reproduce the movements and sounds.

It wasn't until 1864, however, that deaf education was introduced to the United States by Thomas Gallaudet. Gallaudet went to Europe and met with Roche Sicard, the author of the first sign language book. Sicard sent a colleague back to the United States with Gallaudet where they founded the American School for the Deaf. Located in Hartford, Connecticut, the school was sign-based, meaning all children and teachers used sign language. Soon sign-based deaf schools begin to open across the country.

Thomas Gallaudet introduced sign-based schools to the United States
Thomas Gallaudet

Deaf education today is much different than it was 150 years ago. Though some children continue to attend special schools for deaf students, families of deaf children have choices today about what their child's education will look like. Some deaf children attend regular education classes and have accommodations, such as an interpreter. Some spend part of the day in a regular education classroom and the rest in a deaf education room. Other parents choose to home school their deaf children. Thanks to a better understanding of how to communicate with the deaf community and legislation that guarantees all children receive a fair education, children with hearing problems are able to attend school and get an education.

The Deaf Community

Like all communities, the deaf community passes on its culture - its language, its norms and societal rules - from one generation to the next. But since many deaf children are born to hearing parents, the deaf community largely relies on the education system, and most deaf children are first introduced to deaf culture at school. In fact, the culture of deaf people is so strong that 90% of deaf people marry within the deaf community.

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