Deafness and culture

The Deaf community is diverse and representative of the broader community in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, beliefs, occupation, and world views. Despite the diagnostic term, ‘deaf’ referring solely to someone who can’t hear, the Deaf community itself is not a group defined solely by medical terminology or disability.

Think of the Deaf community more as a linguistic or cultural group, with their own unique language, cultural norms and shared experience. Many Deaf people are proud of their language and their heritage.

People learn Auslan at different times in their life span. Approximately 10% of Deaf children are born to Deaf parents, where Auslan is the primary language at home. Many more children learn Auslan with their parents, at school or later in life through social networks or sport. Regardless of being an Auslan user or not, Deaf and hard of hearing people share the common experience of being deaf. This shared experience is unifying, brings people together and promotes a deep social connection.

The experience of being deaf brings a shared history of overcoming barriers to inclusion and communication. Many deaf people experience discrimination, exclusion and lack of access during their education, in their workplace or when accessing services in the community. Some examples include:

  • Lack of Auslan interpreters in education, at public events or to access services.
  • Barriers accessing critical health and community information that is freely available on the radio, TV and on the Internet.
  • Where interpreters are provided, a nationwide shortage compounds difficulty securing availability.
  • Lack of visual information, hearing loops or alternative ways to access announcements in public spaces.

Intersection with Hospitals and health settings are critical points in time for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing. There is often a level of anxiety around communication in addition to the stress or concern for their immediate health issues. For many deaf patients, a lack of accessibility and interpreters makes it next to impossible to understand proposed treatment options, ask questions and, ultimately, give informed consent to the care they need. Additionally for many, English is a second language, which can present additional barriers to accessing printed information. If you imagine being in a hospital in a foreign country where you don't speak the language, simple interactions will be stressful.

People who are Deaf and hard of hearing have long been advocating for access and visibility, which ultimately benefits society and leads to greater inclusion and participation. Captioning at the cinema is one example, the use of text messaging instead of voice calls, the National Relay Service, NRS to support phone calls and the increasing provision of Auslan interpreters at press conferences are all positive steps to inclusion.

Key messages:

  • Medically ‘deaf’ denotes the absence of hearing, but many Deaf people who use Auslan feel a strong identity as members of a linguistic and cultural minority, with rich traditions, history and cultural norms.
  • Deaf people learn Auslan at different points in their life, individuals will all have a unique experience.
  • Difficulty communicating can feel similar to the experience of being in a foreign country where you don't speak the language.