Monday, March 16, 2009

Is there a Hard of Hearing Culture?

By Shanna Groves

In my soon-to-be-published novel Lip Reader, a church pastor goes out of his way to make sure his deaf congregants understand the music and sermon. He uses sign language while preaching. The music is interpreted through sign and a loud beating drum. Any deaf person visiting this church for the first time would likely feel a connection with the other deaf people there.

Most of us are aware that a Deaf culture exists. Simply visit a state school for the deaf, and observe students and teachers communicating mostly through American Sign Language (ASL). Or sit in on a coffee house "chat" with a local Deaf social group, and notice how quiet the room is while attendees use sign. The Deaf culture is something its participants are proud of, a culture with a shared ASL language and communication style that goes back many years.

Now observe a local meeting of a hearing loss support group. The keynote speaker communicates with both sign language and orally. A man sitting in the back relies on an ASL translator to understand the speaker. A row of people read real-time captions from an overhead screen as a person types what the speaker is saying. Two women sitting up front watch the speaker's lips attentively to catch each word spoken. All of these people, except the sign interpreter and typist, are hard of hearing. Yet they all have different ways of communicating and understanding one another.

Without a shared communication style, can individuals with hearing loss really have their own sense of community or culture? Readers of this blog recently shared their opinions...

"I have total hearing loss in both ears. But because I was adult deafened and am oral and do not use sign language, I am not considered culturally Deaf, rather hard of hearing. Yet I am "deafer" than 95 percent of the students at the local state school for the deaf who have some residual hearing. I am in between cultures. I cannot participate in the hearing community, nor the Deaf community." - Sherry Mason, Missouri

"My husband has hearing loss, and it is very difficult to hear in restaurants and other public places. I think people who don't deal with hearing challenges are unaware of the obstacles they create. Is that cultural?" - Amy Hemingway Smith, Texas

"How about coming up with a definition of 'culture?' And with some parameters for what you mean by 'hard of hearing' people? Do you mean only people with partial hearing loss who use speech (and maybe speechreading) to communicate? I've been assuming you are distinguishing between Deaf people (who use sign language) and hard of hearing people who don't, but not everyone will realize that. Also, I still think that only people who socialize with several oral hard of hearing people at the same time can really answer the question. People who have never done so aren't in a position to know themselves whether or not there is a HOH culture--they won't have seen it in action." -Dana Mulvany, Washington, D.C. (has hearing loss)

The last comment raises a good question. How can a hard of hearing (HOH) culture be defined?
  • A shared communication style. They prefer to speak orally, instead of only using sign language. Lip reading (also known as speechreading) is also a common way to understand one another.
  • A strong reliance on technology. Hearing aids and assistive listening devices are available to help the HOH population understand speech and hear important sounds.
  • A strong reliance on closed captioning. Captions assist with understanding television, movies, and (when available) live presentations. This could also fall under the technology category.
  • Emotional connection. This would include not always feeling connected with the hearing world because of difficulty understanding speech. For those not comfortable with sign language, they may not feel part of the Deaf culture. Emotionally, individuals with hearing loss might feel somewhat isolated from the hearing and/or Deaf "worlds."

Sound Off
If a hard of hearing culture does exist, what do you think defines it? Post your comments below.


About the Author
Shanna Groves considers herself hard of hearing. She is the author of the novel Lip Reader (Outskirts Press, May/June 2009 release) and creator of the Lip Reader Blog.


SpeakUp Librarian said...

What an interesting post. I think the internet is helping people with hearing loss find each other and form connections. Perhaps an online community that offers support and friendship is the closest we can come to a culture. I've heard of the Say What Club but have not joined it. Have you?

Dana said...

I think there can't be a culture to begin with unless people with that condition spend significant time together and create a history and traditions together. For the majority of people with hearing loss, that doesn't happen.

However, for people with hearing loss who do spend a lot of time together, could that be possible? If there *was* a hard of hearing culture, if we could invent it, what would it look like?

(Is it possible that we need a different word other than culture? Something that's the equivalent of the "disability rights perspective" for oral people with hearing loss? Maybe "sub-culture" could be used in the interim.)

What would an ideal "hard of hearing sub-culture" consist of? I think one part of it would be an attitude that everyone does their part to facilitate communication access. Everyone in the "sub-culture" learns and knows how to maximize communication for people with different levels of hearing loss, and takes responsibility to make their own communication to others as accessible as much as possible. We focus on what works, instead of worrying about norms from the outside culture (like what other people would think about using visible assistive listening technology).

We could develop special activities and traditions that are geared towards the needs of people with hearing loss. We've tended to adapt what's done in the greater culture, but we could come up with something brand new to address our needs. A possible example: we could share captioned videos of songs that we really like, and talk about what the lyrics mean to the people in the room. For many of the hard of hearing people present, they might never have seen the lyrics before to songs they had heard and enjoyed, so this would feel very special to be able to learn what they are and what they mean.

What else is, would or could be part of the "ideal" hard of hearing sub-culture?

L.S. said...

I like the suggestion of a "sub culture." I also wonder why there is no mention of "deafened" or "late deafened" in this stimulating post. There used to be some "divisiveness" between the hard of hearing (SHHH, now HLAA) and ALDA perhaps? Yet we are all in this together in my view, so some HOH-LD sub-culture talk makes sense. And/or a disability sub-culture also.
Perhaps Deaf Culture feels threatened now also - to defend itself and protect all the good things those groups have done for themselves and others. Some Deaf and deaf children are electing to have Cochlear Implants for example, and to become oral, so even though it may be too controversial or heretical, perhaps one day we can all belong to a stronger sub-culture for "people with hearing loss" of any sort. We'd perhaps find the resources that everyone with hearing loss needs - from sign language to much more real-time captioning - etc. Not everyone in any culture (e.g. "American") chooses the same "life-style" - we enjoy our regional differences. So that might provide a model for a sub-culture of People With Hearing Loss -- PWHL :-).

Shanna Groves said...

This is a comment forwarded to me from Deaf.Read...

-Shanna Groves

There is a clear division via communications, we would all hope to break down these barriers. What we see at is many attempts to polarize, to deaf people worried the identities they have are not being recognized. SO the way they do is is to attract like -minded to unite via adversity, I feel personally this is self-defeating.

CI people DO seem to be forging a separate are, in many cases via banding together against cultural attacks on them, this is NOT good, ditto the Hard of Hearing, who are more allied to a hearing culture than any deaf one.

Acquired/deafened and CI areas do seem to have a common base in loss terms and issues, but a culture in communicational terms ? no they don't. It's a huge gap, but there are many from all the areas mentioned that sign etc and take part in cultural issues, but they are not 'Deaf' cultural themselves. Timely, you should mention lip-reading there are concerns in Britain this mode has been reduced to next to nothing, few classes are now offered at all, although sign language has NOT Filled the vacuum, so what is happening ? what are we now using ?

Dana said...

I don't think anyone really has the right to decree that a certain group of people cannot create their own culture (or sub-culture). Consider, for example, "black culture" in the United States, or African American Culture (described at One reason that was considered to have been developed is because of the racial discrimination experienced by its members. Because hard of hearing people (and people who function as hard of hearing people) and/or other non-Deaf people with hearing loss do encounter many difficulties in our society, including discrimination, there could certainly be value in having a sub-culture which would help hard of hearing people (or deafened people) navigate such difficulties. Consider also that African-Americans in the USA do not need to speak a language other than English in order to feel part of the African-American culture, but many people have tended to assume that a separate culture had to have its own language.

Culturally deaf *and* hearing people do not necessarily understand the difficulties that hard of hearing people can face throughout their lives. Since I myself grew up with severe hearing loss and I know many other people who did as well, I believe there would have been a great deal of value to us if there *had* been a supportive sub-culture (or similar guidance and role models) available to children, youth and young adults with hearing loss that hearing aids alone can't correct. People who lose part of their hearing later in life but who already have supportive family members and friends probably would have much less of a need to associate with other people with hearing loss, however.

Jen said...

I've been following your blog Shanna and I think you raise some very interesting points, particularly about the idea of a hard of hearing culture. I hope you don't mind but after reading this I decided to discuss this on my own blog here: