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Introduction to American Deaf Culture by Thomas K. Holcomb (review)

From: Sign Language Studies
Volume 14, Number 3, Spring 2014
pp. 406-410 | 10.1353/sls.2014.0007

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In fifteen chapters comprising 386 pages, the author, Thomas K. Holcomb, presents a comprehensive exploration of American Deaf culture. The introductory chapter provides an overview of the book, includes a summary of the author’s credentials, and explains how he strives to portray a balanced perspective of the diverse constituencies of the Deaf community.

Chapter 2 addresses the crux of this book: the definition of culture and how it applies to Deaf people and their community. The author emphasizes the relationship between culture and language, and what he has to say could not be more true for Deaf people and their signed languages. Holcomb delves further into his topic by comparing and contrasting American culture, more specifically, middle-class, white, hearing Americans, with Deaf American culture. This juxtaposition of cultures is beneficial in particular for people familiar with one or the other, as Holcomb shares specific characteristics of American culture, such as individualism and independence, which are in stark contrast to Deaf American culture, with its emphasis on collectivism and interdependence.

The third chapter explores demographic data, deaf people’s back-grounds and experiences, membership in the community, and labels used to describe Deaf and hearing people, including the disability label, which is often erroneously attributed to Deaf people and their culture; it closes with a proposal to describe Deaf people and Deaf culture as a linguistic minority. Chapter 4 focuses on the journey of cultural awareness, which comprises several stages on the way to achieving a positive sense of self and Deaf identity. Chapters 5 and 6 explore early definitions of Deaf culture and current attempts to reframe it as the Deaf experience based on values stemming from a visual orientation.

Chapter 7 focuses on American Sign Language (ASL), clarifying misconceptions and presenting linguistic information about focal ASL vocabulary, which is strongly associated with cultural values. For instance, ASL has only one sign for music, song, sing, and concert—yet more than a dozen signs for different types of deaf and hearing people. Bilingualism and the history of ASL are briefly touched upon, including prescriptive and descriptive perspectives of the language.

Literature and the arts, pivotal areas of cultural awareness, as well as appreciation of and expression by Deaf people are covered in chapters 8 and 9. Literature of the Deaf community comes in many forms, including written English literature and signed ASL literature. Holcomb mentions periodicals, books, autobiographies, and special-interest books that discuss specific themes and/or experiences such as being black and Deaf, Deaf gay and lesbian, Deaf Native American, and more. Deaf art, called De’VIA (Deaf View/Image Art), tends to fall into two categories: resistance art and affirmation art, The book displays more than twenty such images. In addition, the book’s valuable companion website, www.americandeafculture.com, has links to more than ten videos that the author himself signs, expanding on the information discussed in the book. For example, Holcomb demonstrates signs, linguistic information, and poetry that he himself has produced and also shares (with their permission) classic and contemporary literature by other Deaf artists and performers.

Representing a departure from analyzing culture and language, chapter 10 focuses on culturally acceptable behavior within the Deaf community. Leave taking, persistence in contact, letting others know of your destination, reporting back, detailed introductions, and name signs are examples of unique cultural behaviors associated with Deaf people and Deaf culture. Holcomb does not stop here but ventures in more unfamiliar territory, discussing unwritten rules when it comes to qualifying for board positions or athletic events designed for Deaf people (and not for deaf people?), expectations associated with signing (or speaking) in front of nonsigners (or nonspeakers), as well as speaking skills within the Deaf community. Privacy, attention-getting techniques, detailed descriptions, as well as directness and openness are also discussed as social behaviors typically associated with Deaf people. Finally, Deaf people’s desire to have children like them is also explored.

Chapter 11 considers the vibrancy of the Deaf community by presenting different solutions Deaf people have created for “effective living” based on successful strategies that have evolved over more than two centuries and been passed down from generation to generation. These include social...



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