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Deaf culture and belonging to the deaf community

Photo: The deaf community has its own culture, traditions and heritage.

Wherever you go in the UK or in the world, you’ll often find a group of deaf people who like to meet up and enjoy time together because of their shared experiences of deafness. This community is called the deaf community.

The deaf community is a small, unique community with a strong identity. Many members are people who have been deaf all their lives and have deaf friends or family. Many members will know each other from deaf schools, clubs or events for deaf people that they have gone to together.

About 5-10% of deaf children have deaf parents. Children who are born into big deaf families, where there are many generations of deaf people using British Sign Language (BSL), might find it easier to fit into the deaf community. Other members of the community may be people who are children of deaf adults (known as CODAs), BSL interpreters or hearing friends of deaf families who enjoy deaf culture and sign language.

There are some deaf people who feel they belong to both deaf and hearing worlds, and some deaf people who don’t feel like they belong to either. Remember, just because you don't come from a deaf family doesn't mean you can't be part of the deaf community. Learning more about deaf culture and going to deaf events might help you to feel more involved with the deaf community.

Like any culture, there are lots of things that make the deaf community unique. For example, members of the deaf community usually get each other’s attention without using their voice or making a noise. They might tap somebody on the shoulder or bang the table, instead of calling or shouting. The deaf community will also show applause by holding jazz hands above their heads, rather than clapping their hands.

Click the buttons below to find out more about other important elements of deaf culture.

Sign names

Sign names are nicknames which are given because it’s faster to use a single sign than to fingerspell full names, or as a token of affection. Having a sign name is an important aspect of deaf culture and helps you to feel part of the community. Sign names should be given by deaf people and usually come from something that identifies the person because of the way they look, their hobbies and interests, or perhaps something that sounds like their name. For example, somebody called Daisy might be given the sign name of a flower. Somebody who has really curly hair might be given a sign name that reflects the curls coming down from their head.

It’s important that sign names are respectful and that, if you’re giving someone a sign name, the person is happy one you've chosen – especially if you’re picking up on a physical feature or habit. Make sure the person you’re giving the sign name to is happy for people to use it, and respect their decision if they don’t like it.

Deaf events

The deaf community organises lots of different events which you might be interested in.

  • Some parts of the UK have deaf clubs where deaf people meet up and socialise. Many deaf clubs have closed down, but sometimes deaf communities gather in public places like pubs or town halls instead, or go to national events together like deaf film festivals, comedy clubs, storytelling events or the theatre.
  • Competitive sport is a big part of the deaf community. There are deaf teams you can join to play football, swimming, tennis and rugby. These sometimes compete on a national or international level, or even at the Deaflympics!
  • Art galleries or historic places will often offer BSL tours of an event or exhibition. These are organised for deaf people by deaf people and are used as a way for deaf people with common interests to get together.
  • Other deaf events to look out for are deaf music festivals or raves, camps and youth events for deaf people to meet at and have fun. The deaf community might also organise more formal meetings to discuss a political or health-related issue, or to organise a political campaign.
  • Some deaf people enjoy meeting deaf people from other countries such as via the European Union of Deaf Youth or the World Federation of the Deaf. International Sign Language is often used at these events, but you don’t always need to know this language to take part.

You can find out more about deaf events in your local area by searching on the internet or social media.

Storytelling

The deaf community is very visual, and storytelling is a big part of deaf culture. Stories and jokes are often passed down from older deaf people to younger members of the community. These days, deaf people are able to share stories on video platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram.

Sometimes, deaf people tell stories using something called the Visual Vernacular (VV). This type of storytelling is unique to the Deaf community and uses elements of physical theatre, poetry and mime to tell a story in a visual way. You often don’t need to know sign language to enjoy watching VV.

Signed songs

Signed songs are songs performed in sign language instead of singing the words using your voice.

Some signed song performers sign the words in the same order as the lyrics, but this can mean the signs don’t make sense as the grammatical structure (word order) of BSL is different to English.

Some signed song performers choose to translate the lyrics into BSL. This will mean the song makes more sense in BSL, but it might mean that the words don’t match the timing of the singing.

Signed songs can be a creative and fun way to engage with music if you don’t want to sing using your voice, and there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy them. If you want to watch signed songs on YouTube, look out for signed songs from deaf performers. Jayne Fletcher is a brilliant signed song performer in the UK.

Cultural appropriation

Cultural appropriation is when someone from a more dominant culture does something that is unique to a smaller community and uses it in an insensitive way. For example, a white person wearing cornrows is a form of cultural appropriation, because cornrows are traditionally a black hairstyle.

Deaf people might feel that their culture is being appropriated if a hearing person who doesn’t have links to the Deaf community uses Deaf culture for personal gain – for example, by performing signed songs on TikTok for ‘likes’. It’s important that BSL teaching is led by deaf teachers because BSL is part of their culture and heritage.