Deaf culture is very different from hearing culture

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This week I extend last week’s conversation with Tammy Estes, owner of Estes Consultant of Travel based in Augusta. Tammy has been a great help to me in understanding “deaf culture;” how deaf and hard of hearing (HoH) people communicate within the “deaf culture” and with the “hearing culture.”

Tammy and I both worked at the Maine Department of Corrections in 2013-2014, Tammy with computer systems, me with department communications.

At one point I was tasked with producing an American Sign Language (ASL) orientation video for new Maine prisoners. Meryl Troop with the Maine Center on Deafness, who “signs” in that video, is not deaf, but I learned much from her about deaf/HoH communications.

Ms. Troop was first to explain ASL is not just for deaf people. It’s used by HoH individuals and by families and friends who hear fine but need to communicate with deaf/HoH family and friends.

While producing that ASL Corrections video I thought back to the mid-1980s and a deaf young lady — I will call her Anne — in my smoking cessation class. She was a Gallaudet University student, the Washington, DC-based university for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Anne read my lips during classes, and she could also speak well. That’s how she and I communicated.

Anne was my last encounter with a deaf person until 2013 at Maine’s Department of Corrections when I met Tammy Estes.

During our phone interview for last week’s column, I told Tammy of my surprise when Meryl Troop told me a deaf person speaking American Sign Language is not translating English (or another language) through ASL. ASL is its own language like English or French.

Tammy said ASL is “really more than” a language. “It’s a culture. There is a deaf culture,” she said, “very different than the hearing culture. The hearing don’t really think they have a culture. And to us they do,” Tammy laughed a bit.

Tammy once told me — I’m paraphrasing — she wished people would stop treating deaf people as individuals “who needed to be fixed.” I asked Tammy if she could talk about what she meant.

After pausing a few moments, Tammy said, “That’s a really hard subject to talk about. I grew up with parents who were hearing. I went to mainstream schools. I had teachers who really didn’t understand my deafness, [and] I didn’t know American Sign Language.”

Tammy spoke of her “wonderful” mother as “the one person I could rely on and trust,” while growing up with “a lot of people who wanted me to be this [or] that; teachers [and friends who] didn’t understand. I love[d] who I was, but it was really painful for me at the same time. That just carried over into my working life, working with hearing folks that didn’t really understand.”

Attending and graduating Gallaudet University was “a wonderful experience,” Tammy said. “There were other people there who spoke in American Sign Language, people who couldn’t speak at all, people who could speak but were hard of hearing. I really felt like I belonged.”

I never thought of hearing and deaf cultures until Tammy mentioned them. She uses a cochlear implant and speaks perfectly; she can also communicate with ASL and lip reading. So, I asked, which culture does Tammy identify with? She says the answer is complicated.

“I’ve spent a lot of my lifetime in-between. I didn’t really know where I belonged for the longest time. If I had to choose, it would be the deaf culture. They’re so wonderfully nice. I’m not saying anything negative about the hearing culture. They have their own different set of rules. The deaf culture really are warm, very nice people,” said Tammy Estes.

Meryl Troop in Maine Department of Corrections ASL Orientation Video

Tammy Estes: Estes Consultant of Travel

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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