"What if they look at me and think I am weird or I am so different or afraid to communicate with me?" said Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actress, when she was cast the film Wonderstruck (2017). Although the movie was a success, it is true that many deaf people live under the constant pressure to live life like those without disabilities. Thus, it is not strange to imagine that there is a community formed of deaf people. Deaf culture is a whole other world that stays hidden under the shadow of the hearing world. This unique culture offers a new take on life. The deaf are in need of understanding much more than they do of sympathy.
It is easy to ignore things that happen around you that you deem irrelevant to your life. This is especially true when these things are different and unfamiliar. Deaf culture is an example of this and something that can be easily overlooked or misinterpreted. Mainstream media portrays deafness as a deficiency that prevents deaf people from pursuing literature, music, and art. Instead of accepting them as who they are, the media treats them as subjects that need to be fixed . “The media treats deaf people as unfortunate beings who want to hear normally,” said Kim Sue Jin, a researcher at the Seoul Institute. She added: “I am proud to be Deaf.”
Misunderstandings Can Hurt
With the development of technology, the media plays a central role in forming the general perception of various communities, including the deaf. Rather than directly hearing from the deaf and hard of hearing1 individuals, the media often promotes unrelated people speaking on their behalf. According to Lee Sun Young (’17, Biotechnology) from the Korea University Disabled Association (KUDA), “The media shapes a certain perception of deaf people.” Furthermore, she says “most people tend to [have] a stereotypical perception of a disability rather than judging an individual’s character.” This perception usually focuses on how heartbreaking it is to be deaf, thus the common use of words such as “brave” and “challenge” when discussing a deaf person who has achieved notable accomplishments. However, these words denigrate people who have worked hard to earn their reputation.
▲ Logo of KUDA. Provided by KUDA Facebook Page
One of the most famous deaf people is Marlee Martin, who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Children of a Lesser God (1986). She is portrayed to be a hero and hope for the disabled performers as she overcame her “obstacle.” One of the many mistakes the media make when discussing disabled individuals is its choice of words. The fact that the lack of hearing is considered to be an obstacle to overcome demeans the talents of people like Martin. Although it may be unintended, these words and associated misconceptions are negative stereotypes that can hurt. They only put more emphasis on the differences rather than embracing the diversity of people.
In extreme cases, stereotypes can lead to discrimination. According to Britannica , audism is a belief that the ability to hear makes one superior to those who cannot. This term was first used in 1975 in an article written by Tom L. Humphries. This discrimination, however, can come from both hearing and deaf people. Deaf people lowering themselves is a serious issue. It shows how they can lack confidence as a member of society. Audism usually takes the form of a subtle discriminating attitude such as jumping in to help deaf people communicate or to make phone calls. Judging someone because of something they lack is a cruel and an unfair assessment.
To be Like a Deaf Person
Unfair assessments also occur due to fixed stereotypes about how deaf people should look or act. Stereotypes tend to shape the public’s view of a minority group. As they strengthen, a concrete, consistent image of the group emerges and locks people into that image. Stereotypes exist for all minority groups, including the deaf community. If deaf people don’t act as they are supposed to according to the stereotype, rude comments like “Do you really have hard time hearing?” or “You don’t seem deaf” often arise.
Deaf Youtuber, Hamonthly, states in her videos that the fact that she wears make-up and can speak the Korean language somehow makes her appear to not be deaf. Diversity in the deaf community must be acknowledged just like any other social group and deaf individuals should not be seen as a uniform body.
Welfare Policies for the Deaf Community
The diverse range of individuals in the deaf community requires different kinds of help. In the past, disabilities were a personal issue to be taken care of. Therefore, the nation lacked welfare policies as a whole and those few that existed were weak. Fortunately, perceptions of the deaf are currently changing, with disabilities becoming a social and institutional issue. As a result, numerous systems have been implemented, yet they still have a long way to go in terms of basic human rights.
▲ Barrier-free Film Festival Poster. Provided by KUDA Facebook Page
To break down the barriers the disabled people encounter when utilizing various services, many organizations employ a “barrier-free agenda.” The barrier-free movement aims to make both physical and systemic changes in order to create a city where the disabled can live conveniently. The concept was first used in a report about barrier-free design at the 1974 United Nations (UN) Expert Group Meeting. Initially, it was an architectural term that meant to eliminate barriers in buildings for the disabled population. Now the term has expanded to encompass both physical and systematic barriers that complicate the social life of disabled people.
Various barrier-free initiatives have been introduced in numerous places in Korea. At Korea University (KU), KUDA held the Barrier-Free Film Festival for the first time on May 23. It meant that KU was the first college in Korea to hold this type of film festival. Lee, the VicePresident of KUDA explains that barrierfree movies are different from ordinary movies in that they provide auditory and visual narration for visually and auditory impaired audience members, respectively. A significant number of people gathered in Hana Square, indicating the festival’s great success.
Another initiative KUDA has been working on is the provision of subtitles for videos played during the IpsilentiJaya Hamsung and annual Ko-Yeon games. During this year’s Ipsilenti, subtitles were displayed for the first time and Lee said this generated considerable praise from KU students. She emphasized that any system that is convenient for the disabled is even more convenient for others, which makes this issue relevant to the nondisabled as well.
Other organizations are also offering barrier-free services. Barrier-free movies, musicals, and plays have premiered across the nation. The movies Along with the Gods and 1987 were the first movies in 2018 to offer barrier-free versions in theatres. It is hoped that other barrier-free services will continuously be introduced so everyone can equally enjoy public services and entertainment.
The Use of Hearing Aids
The public tends to simplify the experiences of deaf people by centering their thoughts around people without disabilities. With the help of hearing aids, they think the deaf and the hard of hearing population will have no problem in their daily lives. They are also oblivious to the exorbitant amount of money that is required for the purchase and maintenance of hearing aids.
To hear sounds, hard of hearing and deaf people mostly use one of two methods: hearing aids and cochlear implants. Hearing aids are like glasses; they amplify surrounding noise to help the person hear. Surgical cochlear implants on the other hand provide electrical stimulation to the auditory nerves so that the brain can interpretsound signals. People who cannot hear through hearing aids usually use this method. However, it is important to note that not all deaf people want hearing aids and therefore assuming that they would want to hear is a stereotype.
Hearing aids normally cost several million won and cochlear implants even more—up to 10 million won – and hearing aids may only function for about five to ten years. After that, they must continuously spend two to three million won on maintenance. Those who received cochlear implants also have to receive auditory training to really start hearing. To worsen the problem, many people, especially children, are unaware of how delicate hearing aids are and accidentally cause damage by touching them. Damage aside, this can also be painful to the user because hearing aids are very sound-sensitive. As can be seen, the use of hearing aids is not a simple issue.
Education about hearing aids should be provided both within the family and at an institutional level to prevent unwanted damage. Moreover, for the members of the deaf community who need hearing aids, alleviating their financial burden should be prioritized. Fortunately, starting this November, health insurance will cover the cost of cochlear implant surgery. The government and related organizations should work together to continue the good work.
Translation and Stenography Services
However, it is important to note that not all deaf people want to use hearing aids. Some people in the deaf community feel comfortable in their current state and prefer translation services. Translation services are largely divided into two types: letter translation and sign language translation. According to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs’’ 2014 Report on Disability, eighty percent of registered hearing-impaired citizens use spoken language as their first language and not Korean Sign Language (KSL). Kim Sue Jin (The Seoul Institute) states that only six percent of the two hundred fifty thousand Deaf people in Korea use KSL as their first language and many are not fluent in it.
However, the current policies tend to only focus on expanding sign language translation services. Kim states that the current support provided for the deaf may seem reasonable on the surface but lacks consideration towards the practical needs of the deaf. By only expanding the support for sign language translation, the government is providing assistance they think deaf people need. Kim hopes that letter translation services are expanded since not many deaf people are completely comfortable with sign language but adds that this does not mean sign language translation is unneeded. The needs are different and support system must vary accordingly. The most important aspect of welfare policies is how much they help the people directly involved; the current policies do not seem to be successful in this regard.
Kim also emphasized that sign language is a language indigenous to the Deaf community and culture, pointing out that it is a huge stereotype to consider sign language as a language of the hearing-impaired. These seemingly similar two groups “carry different culture, identity and characteristics” and it is important to understand the differences first. (The specific differences between deaf, Deaf, and hearing-impaired are discussed in the latter part of the article.)
In KU, professional stenographers are employed to help people with hearing difficulties. However, Lee states that they are only available for students who are categorized as having severe hearing difficulties. Furthermore, peers who major in engineering or natural sciences have a harder time utilizing stenography services because the content is hard to understand if the stenographer did not major in or does not have exclusive knowledge in that field. To limit the service even more, stenography services are not provided for English-mediated courses due to the absence of professional English stenographers. Lee hopes that stenography services are expanded so that a larger range of students can utilize them in more classes.
Overall, translation services should also be expanded. They are increasing annually, but the attitudes towards translation services are still far from ideal. Many professors and students do not approve of translation services because they feel that the translation distracts the instructor and other students. Numerous times in hospitals and banks, deaf people are not able to receive translation services and have a hard time communicating with others.
The needs of deaf and hearingimpaired people vary. Therefore, providing personalized help would be the best option but currently this is unrealistic in Korean society. For now, society should work towards expanding the welfare system so that more people can be guaranteed equality. Kim asserts that the welfare policies should be geared towards creating an environment where people who have difficulties hearing can live comfortably and not towards forcing them to be as similar as possible to hearing people. After all, it is a difference and not an abnormality.
Stepping into Deaf Culture
Culture by definition is “the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time” according to the Cambridge Dictionary. Despite the popular belief that deaf people cannot enjoy cultural activities, they have developed their own rich culture. In order to understand Deaf culture, one needs to understand the differences between Deaf and deaf. Deaf with a capital D is used to identify one as a member of the Deaf community, whereas deaf is just a representation of those who have hearing disabilities. The members of Deaf culture do not consider themselves to have a disability. Deaf culture is merely one of the many diverse cultures in the world.
Other than the physical differences between deaf and hearing people, there are diverse cultural differences as well. First of all, facial expressions are a critical part of conscious communication in Deaf culture, while it is more of a subconscious factor in the hearing world. In addition, deaf people often think more in pictures than words. This is called visual thinking, which many people who use verbal language lack. Just as a picture is worth a thousand words, sign language can be a more effective way of communication.
▲ American Sign Language
Accepting sign language as a main language of communication is the first step towards becoming part of Deaf culture. Although many may doubt the fact that sign language can express emotions, it is a fully functioning language. The Deaf community has a strong storytelling tradition and they pass on their stories just like folk tales. Sign language is also capable of poetry. Sign language poetry can use rhythm and rhyme repetition to add meaning and emphasis. Perhaps it delivers poetry more artistically through the use of active gestures and facial expressions than reading written work out loud.
Theoretically, many hearing people can comprehend how sign language works as theatre or poetry. However, it comes as a surprise when they hear that deaf people can also enjoy music. Researcher Kim said, “There are different levels of hearing loss, so it is wrong to think hearing loss means people cannot hear anything.” In 1995, Heather Whitestone amazed the audience when she danced on stage in the Miss American Pageant. She is a living proof that deaf people can feel music through vibrations. However, there are more ways deaf people can appreciate music. For example, they watch music videos or read lyrics and use Hearing Aid and Cochlear Implant (CI) to hear music. Therefore, it is wrong to assume there is limitation to enjoying the emotions and vibe of the music.
Values underpin culture, so understanding them is key to understanding Deaf culture. This particular culture is more physical, while hearing culture is less comfortable with physical contact. However, the most important value is to make eye contact with people since they strongly rely on vision. In order to get the attention of a deaf person, tapping, waving, and making eye contact are crucial. Most conversations are very direct and open while, in verbal conversations, people tend to beat around the bush. With intimacy such a strong cultural value, it is easy to understand why Deaf people greet each other like family.
Deaf Culture in Korea
As each nation has its own unique culture, Deaf culture varies between countries. There are similarities, of course, but the general atmosphere may differ. Compared to the United States of America (U.S.), Korean Deaf culture is less talked about. Despite globalization, our monocultural nation is yet to accept cultural integration, which explains why Deaf culture is relatively invisible. Other reasons are the superiority felt by people who are not deaf and the lack of understanding regarding sign language and the Deaf community.
To discuss Deaf culture, it is important to first differentiate hearing impairment and deafness. Hearing impairment, translated as chung-gak-jang-ae , has a medical meaning related to auditory disorders. However, deafness, called nong in Korea, carries a sociocultural meaning and does not view it as something that should be overcome. An author with physical disabilities, Kim Won-young states in his book In Defense of the Disqualified (2018) that hearing impairment indicates the lack of hearing abilities whereas deafness implies the existence of Deaf culture. However, the distinction between the two words is not understood by the majority of the public and therefore is a topic that requires further education.
One of the main places that Deaf culture has a strong presence is the church and schools for the deaf. In school, information exchange occurs within a relatively narrow age range while in church it occurs across all ages. Church has implications beyond its religious function for the Deaf community. It is a place for socialization, a medium that effectively connects the Deaf community together and naturally sustains its culture. At school, the protection of this unique culture may depend on the teachers’ understanding of it. Nevertheless, schools and the church both serve as critical grounds for Deaf culture preservation. Furthermore “to protect Deaf culture from a legal perspective,” said lawyer Kim YeWon, “the Korean Sign Language act was enacted in 2016.”
▲ Lawyer Kim Yewon. Provided by Lawyer Kim Yewon
The Importance of Understanding Deaf Culture
Deaf culture is important for numerous reasons. By having a culture or community, deaf people have a place to belong. They can make connections with others who truly accept them for who they are. It helps them build their own identity and helps acknowledge their differences from the majority of the world. Moreover, not only does this culture help deaf individuals, but also enriches the perspective of a hearing individual. When Dr. Oliver Sacks experienced Deaf culture, he said he was completely astonished. In his book Seeing Voices (1999) he said, “I had never before seen an entire community of the deaf.” He further explained his astonishment by saying, “I realized Sign might indeed be a complete language – a language equally suitable for making love or speeches, for flirtation or mathematics.”
In only the rarest cases are all family members deaf. Usually, parents of deaf children are not deaf and vice versa. Parents who are able to hear tend to impose mainstream culture on their children and encourage them to embrace it. As a result, the deaf child feels confusion in their identity and is more likely to display a negative attitude towards Deaf culture. This phenomenon is important because it is directly related to a child’s sense of selfesteem. Therefore, parents should respect Deaf culture and should not perceive it as something inferior. To achieve this, social changes are needed in the first place.
If respect for both cultures is achieved, the social adaptability of the Deaf community is likely to increase the possibility of a successful integration. The public will develop a love for diversity and embrace various minorities. In this way, the overall happiness of society increases, benefitting both the general public and minority groups.
Many deaf people, especially those who have been deaf since birth, have asserted that deafness is not something to pity. Some feel comfortable in their state of silence and do not feel as though they lack anything. Currently, Korea is far from displaying the necessary appreciation and recognition of the Deaf community. The public does not seem to acknowledge them as a new cultural group but rather views them as unlucky people who have not been granted the gift of hearing. For human rights to be guaranteed and an integrated society to be created, it is time to put some effort into understanding various minority groups; the Deaf community is definitely one of them.
Effort is Necessary
Every first step takes significant effort. It may seem difficult to grasp the concept of living as a deaf person because it is not something that everyone can experience in their everyday lives. However, once the concept becomes more familiar, the walls that exist in modern society will slowly fall down. This will allow people to be more open-minded with regards to those who act or talk differently. Accepting Deaf culture on its own terms rather than categorizing it as a disabled culture is an important distinction that needs to be made. Once this idea is embraced, the glass ceiling for disabled people may break.
In order to achieve this, serious steps need to be taken. Policies have to be introduced and those who have experienced unfair treatment need to be heard. Isolation will not lead to change. Although coming face-to-face with the social stereotypes is not a pleasant experience change is only likely to happen with action. Change needs to come from within both the hearing and deaf communities. The former needs to change their attitude, while the latter needs to ensure that their voices are recognized. With efforts from both sides, people will slowly realize that prejudice is not going to get either side anywhere.
▲ Love in Sign Language
1 From the University of Washington: “Hard of hearing refers to a hearing loss where there may be enough residual hearing that an auditory device provides adequate assistance to process speech.” (It is an alternative for the phrase “hearing impaired.”)