The DEAF-WORLD as an Imagined Community

Introduction to the DEAF-WORLD

In the lectures, Professor Thompson said that communities are imagined through practices of boundary creation, and that the signalling of boundaries of membership is more important to communities than the characteristics of members or through the fact of their interaction with one another. Communities serve the function of creating senses of belonging and identity. I would like to examine the DEAF-WORLD of the United States as an imagined community, and to look at the ways in which this community helps to construct the identities of members of the DEAF-WORLD as members of an ethno-linguistic minority, rather than as people who are disabled.

In the United States, many deaf people who use American Sign Language (ASL) as their primary form of communication, who interact with other deaf people who similarly communicate using ASL, and often, marry other such people consider themselves to belong to an ethno-linguistic minority group, the Deaf (Lane 2005). Note that this is written with a capital “D” to denote cultural deafness rather than just biological deafness. They term the circles that they move in the DEAF-WORLD (a gloss of the compound sign in ASL). They have their own culture, Deaf culture, which like other cultures is passed down and recreated through the generations. However, since only about 10% of deaf people are born to deaf parents, Deaf culture and Deaf identities are primarily transmitted through residential schools for the deaf (DEAF-SCHOOL) and through association of the Deaf rather than from parent to child (Nakamura 2006).

Deaf people do not consider themselves to be disabled. The idea espoused in such communities is that Deaf people can function on their own without any assistance from Hearing people, and the only reason they might be considered to be impaired would owe to the inability of many Hearing people to sign. Historically, there has also been a thriving Deaf middle class where Deaf people had their own doctors, lawyers, professors and social workers, all whom were Deaf themselves (Garey and Hott 2007). There is still a large Deaf community in Maryland today where Deaf people live physically alongside other Deaf people, and a four-year liberal arts college for the Deaf, Gallaudet University, where the past two Presidents have been Deaf following the highly successful Deaf President Now protests.

Community: Co-location, Commonality, Identity and Belonging

While contemporary anthropology argues that communities need not involve co-location and interaction with one another, it seems that at least for members of the DEAF-WORLD, there does exist some level of interaction with one another, at least on the local level. Admittedly, though, if we are to speak of the DEAF-WORLD in the United States as a whole, this direct interaction between members would not be possible; insofar as people speak of an American DEAF-WORLD, it is an imagined community they are talking about.

Do Deaf people all share something in common? Well, the use of American Sign Language may have been, and still is, a central part of defining membership in the DEAF-WORLD. In fact, the use of (or lack of proficiency in) ASL is one of the signals of membership in the DEAF-WORLD. The centrality of using American Sign Language to being a fully accepted member of the Deaf Community points to the importance of boundary creation involved in the imagination of the Deaf community.

This creation of boundaries and concomitant hierarchies between “us” and “them” has only heightened in the present day, where Deaf culture and the cultural model of deafness are being increasingly threatened by what Lane (1992) calls the infirmity model of deafness. In this model, deafness is seen as defect and the difficulty in obtaining spoken language is construed as impairment; deaf children are therefore not to be schooled in the Deaf community but rather “fixed” through cochlear implantation (“bionic ears” that stimulate hearing for people whose deafness is related to problems in the cochlear) or oralist methods of education (that is, a pedagogy that emphasises the acquisition of spoken language and lip reading skills amongst deaf children so that they may function in the hearing world. Often, these children grow up identifying as having a hearing defect rather than as culturally Deaf).

In this context, the division between “true” Deaf and those who are “not really deaf” has become even stronger, so much so that even those who both sign and vocalise at the same time and therefore do not use “pure ASL” may be considered to really be “hard of hearing” rather than deaf. On top of that, deaf people who “adopt hearing values [for instance, that spoken languages are superior to Signed Languages] and look down on other deaf people are regarded as traitors” (Lane 1992:17). It seems that the attempt to establish clearer boundaries between the Deaf community and Others may be an attempt to strengthen Deaf identity and senses of belonging in the face of external threats.

In fact, the commonalities that are important for signalling membership in the Deaf community are defined through cultural processes that are historically and geographically specific. A clear case in point is that imagination of the American Deaf community has changed over time, like the imaginations of many other imagined communities like the Malay community (Nagata 2011). As Lane (1992) notes, during previous centuries in the United States, when there was a higher proportion of late-deafened children, late-deafened people were more accepted into the DEAF-WORLD. Using spoken language was a considered to be an acceptable characteristic of a member of the Deaf community, and was even encouraged if the child had already acquired spoken language prior to becoming deaf, through speech therapy classes sanctioned by Deaf educators (Lane 1992:22). Compare this to the present day. Being late-deafened makes one a more marginal member of the Deaf Community. The use of spoken language is frowned upon, and may be cited as an indication that a deaf person is “not deaf enough”.

Regardless, Deaf identity and belonging to an ethno-linguistic minority group only exists in the context of an existing community of deaf signers. If deaf people only ever interacted with hearing people who could not sign, they would likely be seen only as people whose communication is impaired. Basically, the identification of Deaf people as members of an ethno-linguistic minority, and of belonging to such a minority group, rather than conceiving of themselves people with a communication defect, is possible only because there exists a community where people converse primarily in a Sign Language.

I have discussed above how the commonalities which signal membership in the DEAF-WORLD are constructed within a particular socio-historical and geographical context, and how the signalling of membership has changed over time in response to external threats to the Deaf community. This community extends beyond the immediate local world in which members of the community exist, and American Deaf people will probably never meet most members of the Deaf community. Nevertheless, the existence of a community of signers is important if Deaf people are to identify as members of an ethno-linguistic minority rather than as defective members of a hearing world. Hence, for the DEAF-WORLD as well as for other communities, co-location and commonality are less important than the cultural processes of defining which commonalities are important and of creating boundaries in an attempt to create senses of identity and belonging. However, identity can only be constructed in reference to such a community.


Lane, Harlan. 1992. The Mask of Benevolence: Disabling the Deaf Community. 1st ed. New York: Knopf.
Lane, Harlan. 2005. “Ethnicity, Ethics, and the Deaf-World.” Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education 10(3):291-310.
Nagata, Judith. 2011. “A Question of Identity: Different Ways of Being Malay and Muslim in Malaysia.” Pp. 47-57 in Everyday Life in Southeast Asia, edited by K. M. Adams and K. A. Gillogly. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
Nakamura, Karen. 2006. Deaf in Japan: Signing and the Politics of Identity. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


Garey, Diane, and Lawrence R. Hott. 2007. Through Deaf Eyes. Public Broadcasting Service.

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