Fact Sheet: What is Deaf Culture?

Deaf people feel positive about being Deaf

Deaf people see being Deaf as a difference. Being Deaf is a way of life.

It is a dual identity of being Deaf and having a disability – because society disables them by not providing full access.

The Deaf community is quite unique, with its own language, values, rules for behaviour and traditions. Deaf people see themselves as a distinct group within a country and their first language is sign language – in Aotearoa New Zealand, it’s New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL).

Deaf identify with other Deaf people because of shared experiences –

communication barriers, issues, different needs and goals. As a group of people who respond to things visually, Deaf customs include various forms of artistic expression, such as signed poetry, story-telling and visual arts.

Visual communication points:

  • Deaf people ask for attention by waving, stamping, touching or tapping one another, or switching lights on and off
  • In conversation, eye contact is very important and people need sufficient personal space for arm movements
  • Deaf people can’t interrupt conversations the way hearing people can. They need to see what is being said, so they can only pay attention to one person at a time. Deaf people wait until the person who is signing stops, before the next person signs
  • Dim light makes it hard to see facial expressions and NZSL
  • At meetings sit in a semi-circle, so everyone can see each other

Differences between Deaf and deaf:

The word Deaf (spelt with a capital “D”) denotes a unique community. The use of sign language as one’s first language is the principle characteristic of people who identify with this community.

With a small “d”, deaf refers to hearing loss – eg “he is deaf”. The majority of people with hearing loss do not use sign language, as they generally become deaf late in life or are born with mild hearing loss. They most likely speak fluently and understand spoken language (possibly with the help of a hearing aid or surgery) and, for the most part, are integrated into hearing society.

Many of these people have special communication, health and mental health needs that are different from people within the general population, but these needs are also different from Deaf people’s.

Deaf culture develops through:

  • Sharing a common language – NZSL
  • Sharing visual learning styles and life experiences
  • Having friends and contacts within the Deaf community
  • Attending Deaf schools and belonging to Deaf societies or clubs
  • Sharing experiences of being part of a minority group

People who are Deaf:

  • See being Deaf as a difference, as an identity
  • Are proud to be Deaf
  • Use NZSL
  • Communicate visually
  • Associate with other Deaf people/are involved in the Deaf community
  • Come from all walks of life – new immigrants, Deaf blind, young, elderly, LGBTQIA+, Māori Deaf (who make up 40% of the community) and Deaf with additional disabilities. All are united through their shared experience of seeing the world.

Deaf Clubs:

Deaf clubs operate throughout the country, providing a place where Deaf people can pursue common interests. Have a look at our Deaf Ecosystem page on our website to find a Deaf Club near you!

Send this to a friend