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January 7, 1998

Experiences With d/Deaf Culture

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JAMA. 1998;279(1):82. doi:10.1001/jama.279.1.82-JMS0107-7-1

No one in my family is deaf (unable to hear) or Deaf (part of Deaf culture). I did not know anyone who was d/Deaf until, as a college senior, I taught at a summer camp where I had learned some basic sign language several years earlier. I had always remembered the signs and wanted to communicate in this way. Unfortunately, American Sign Language (ASL) was not offered at my college, and by the time I entered medical school, I realized that I was going to have to seek out a means of learning ASL.

I spent the summer after my second year of medical school at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC. At the time, Gallaudet represented a quick opportunity to learn ASL. I had little idea what being at Gallaudet would come to mean to me.

Gallaudet University is the only liberal arts college for the d/Deaf in the world. In my 4 weeks there, I learned a new set of customs, rules, and etiquette. Most significantly, I learned that our health care system continues to be a source of difficulty for the d/Deaf community because of a lack of understanding of d/Deaf culture.

Previously, I had learned about many different "minority" cultures, but "deaf culture" was never mentioned. Many people are surprised to learn that ASL is the third most common language in the United States. But sign language is only one part of being Deaf. More important is an understanding of Deaf culture. For example, many deaf individuals do not consider an inability to hear pathological. Deaf people feel threatened when seen as patients to be "cured."

My only regret is that I waited so long to learn about Deaf culture. After my experience at Gallaudet, I designed an elective offered at my medical school to provide other students with information about Deaf culture, the basics of medical sign language, and exposure to the d/Deaf community.

My experience at Gallaudet was only a beginning. I did not and could not come to a complete understanding of the language or culture. However, I have an awareness that I did not have before, and I urge other medical students to make the effort to learn about d/Deaf culture so that we can begin to build a better relationship between it and our own.