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  • Writer's pictureAnn Yebei

What is “Deaf Identity”?

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

Deaf Living Post #2: Deaf Culture


Identity is a complex concept. It involves how one perceives themselves, experiences themselves, presents themselves; is perceived, relates to by larger social contexts, and is expected to relate back. Identity is both a personal and public- dare I say, political- matter. The theory of intersectionality speaks of people holding various identities within themselves; some advantageous and others marginalized, and that for lasting change to happen the simultaneous influences of identities on each other have to be addressed.

For example, I am a black female who has recently completed her Master of Science in Education in America. My racial/ethnic identity is as a Person of Color, this- according to the theory- is a disadvantageous identity to have in America. On the other hand, my possession of a degree of higher learning lends me benefits not only socially, but economically as well.

In this way, intersectionality is visible in my life. If I experienced discrimination in the workplace where promotions or pay were denied to me, both my academic and racial identities come into play alongside my gender, sexuality, and religious practice- whatever is relevant in the situation of interest. Tackling my pay on its own (Classism, Socioeconomic Status) would be inefficient when my gender (Female) and my academic, or work, qualifications (Educationalism) may have a say in what is happening.

Then where does the deaf identity lie? In the image above of examples of identities and where they lie in power dynamics, it shows disability as a disadvantage to the individual (Ableism). Does this imply that it is inherently bad?

No. It simply implies that there are elements of inaccessibility and minority experiences which place it in a position of less power, influence, and value in the larger social context. The same can be said for other identities in more oppressed spaces of the diagram (e.g., being non-binary, being a Person of Indigenous/Non-European background, being old, etc.).

The Deaf Identity

Then what is “the deaf identity”? I’ll share my bit first before citing some lovely people.

To have a “deaf identity” is to first identify as a deaf person. Deafness includes partial to complete hearing loss, in my books, and the terms “hard of hearing” come into play here. Hence the DHH (deaf/hard of hearing) community are the only ones with the moral, and ethical, grounds to speak of the deaf identity experiences arising from holding such identities.

In this space, experiences in society are different than for those who are hearing. Remember that identity permeates, and exceeds, personal actions. It involves values, life expectations, and one’s consequential lifestyle choices and options. Being a deaf person means I have certain boundaries, or social expectations or etiquette, that may not need to be mentioned in a hearing social context. This context can be a learning environment. A workplace. A hangout. Leisure events. And so forth.

In 1996, Neil S. Glickman and Michael A. Harvey published of a categorization of four deaf identities on which a research I’ll share below was built upon. I will air out that it seems the authors are hearing, and the reason I'm sharing their voices here, is their explicit transparency as hearing people exploring a minority culture phenomenon. They claim to build their work on the narrative of the Deaf- by the Deaf themselves- and larger comparative studies of minority identity and cultural developments found in other parts of society.

The four culturally Deaf identities shared are as follows:

“(1) Hearing identity or culturally hearing, which means that the individual identifies with the hearing culture only (and perceives deafness as a disability).

(2) Marginal identity or culturally marginal, which means that the individual identifies with neither the hearing culture nor the Deaf culture.

(3) Deaf identity or immersion, which means that the person identifies with Deaf culture and has a negative view of the hearing culture (and perceives deafness as a culture).

(4) Bicultural identity, which means that the individual identifies with both the hearing and Deaf cultures” (Chapman & Dammeyer, 2017, p.1).

Using the categories mentioned, in 2014, Madeleine Chapman and Jesper Dammeyer started collecting data from 742 people in Denmark with hearing loss to study the relationship between deaf identity and psychological well-being. Is one’s life outcome influenced by the self-identity they bear?

In brief? Yes.

The experiences with others in your social group (acceptance/discrimination), the experiences of secondary disabilities, and so forth, influence one’s sense of well-being over a lifetime. Their research found that those “with a deaf, hearing or bicultural identity had significantly higher levels of psychological well-being than those with a marginal identity” (Chapman & Dammeyer, 2017, p.1).

Perhaps I’ll write a blog about this research article’s topic on identity and wellness in the future so we can dive deeper into such works, and their possible implications in practice- since I also find this interesting. But let’s just take note of the deaf identities they used to structure their research for now. Deaf. Hearing. Marginal. And Mixed or Bicultural.

Lastly, if you go to the National Deaf Center on Postsecondary Outcomes (NDC), on their website, this is what they say about what “deaf” means to them:

“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” [bold edits added by me].

I share all these different stances about deafness, deaf identity, and labelling, to show you that it isn’t black-and-white. There isn’t a one-size fits all.

Respect, honestly, is the only transferable thing from one person to the next. That and being willing to listen and be taught something new.

Did that land?

Presentations and Validations (or the lack of)

As with any identity, the deaf community is diverse. Extremely diverse. Remember intersectionality, pick any bag of traits, and just throw in DHH and- bam! - I can promise you they exist in multitudes. As a result, there is no “way” to look deaf- or a “look” for a deaf person. To believe so is stereotypical, marginalizing, and degrading.

Unfortunately, representation challenges exist in the smaller microcosm of the DHH community as they do in the larger society. People of Color who are also DHH will struggle more with being represented and heard compared to their lighter fellows. People in the LBGTQIA+ community who are deaf have one more barriers to overcome to find a space of their own- or to create one. And what the DHH community themselves present to the general population- forget mainstream (hearing) media- could also be biased because of internalized ableism, internalized audism, any -ism you can think of, and politics.

We’re not flawless either.

I’ll share something thing that the Danish research reminded me to point out. Have you ever noticed that in some places, the "d" in deaf is capitalized, while in others it’s not? The general rule of thumb- which some people don’t… care about, honestly, and it’s extremely divisive to others- is that big "d" "Deaf" is related to those who are culturally deaf- so the immersive identity in Glickman’s research- only.

Small "d" "deaf" on the other hand covers everything else- both the medical and non-cultural (i.e. hearing culture) parts separate from the cultural deaf experience (i.e. supporting sign language fluency, Deaf representation in different fields of mastery, Deaf schooling, and social experiences; promoting Deaf alternatives, or parallel interventions, to hearing families with deaf children instead of only offering medical interventions alone, etc.).

Big "D" Deafness is a noun (plus some). Small "d" deafness is an adjective. Big Deafness is for those accepting of their hearing differences and don’t view it as a loss and more as a cultural gain/element. Small deafness is for those who view it through the medical model and do view it as a loss or impairment. And so forth.

This means that you’re Big Deaf. Or you’re half-assing it. It’s quite point-blank with terms.

“Why say you’re Marginal? Aren’t you just being indecisive or in denial? Pick one- are you Hearing or Deaf?”

That’s how I hear d/Deaf conversations end up sometimes and, trust me, it can get heated. My bit is that I am Bicultural, and we don't need to set a hard line on labelling- especially never for other people. I have a Cochlear Implant- courtesy of my parents' decision- and I can’t undo that. I’ve accepted it into my lifestyle without denying my Deaf identity, and grew into the bicultural space I am currently loving.

Hence, the Mixed child in the DHH family.

Hi. We exist and we’re valid.

Validation for different experiences of deafness is lacking at times. In the hearing community, with particular attention to medical and media industries, terms like "hearing impaired," "hearing challenged," "handicapped," and the like, are disempowering. Only in light of the social theory of disability, which describes disability in a neutral tone, are disabilities natural states of being which are considered to be "disabled" only because the context is inaccessible. The person is not the problem. Society is. In this light, "handicapped," "disabled," and “hearing challenged” no longer bear negative undertones. “Hearing impaired,” however, I’d argue has no back door.

Saying I am “hearing impaired” insinuates that I am “broken” or have something in need of fixing. Can you hear how insulting and disempowering that is?

(I acknowledge this can also be neutralized as the other terms above- give me a moment to finish my train of thought!)

I won’t deny that I have a Cochlear Implant (CI), and that it has enabled access to hearing culture for me, however, this isn’t the only valid presentation of a DHH individual. It isn’t the “best” way to exist- a belief that is deeply rooted in audism. Those without CIs or hearing aids are just as deaf as I am, and I am just as deaf as them.

If this is too hard to understand, let me put it this way: If I throw my CI out the window, or some fool grabs it off my head and breaks it, can I hear?

I’m as deaf as I was before the incident and will continue to be- no matter the medical interventions to make me “normal”.

Just expand the definition of normal. Now that’s an idea!

Conclusions and Reminders

It’s important to learn about cultures outside of our own. This opens your worldview, expands your understanding of self, other, and the world. You learn that cultures are a way of life, and that it can be found at the individual, group, social, national, and international levels.

Respecting platforms of DHH creators, children, innovators, youth, leaders, elders, academics, and advocates allows for said communities and their cultures to live on, be engaged with, and have integrity. Respecting a person’s deaf identity is respecting their entire personhood and the experiences that come with that particular identity (amongst many others).

No one person’s experiences, or identities, are better or worse than another’s. One may be more marginalized or more empowered at Ground Zero, and one may become empowered or disempowered, but personal value is stable- not dependent on the traits a person carries.

Every deaf person is irreplaceable, and I welcome you to learn more about our cultures and communities and empower yourself to be able to make connections and memories with us.


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