Deaf Culture | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Deaf Culture

It is the sign of a people's maturity when they begin to study their own history, language and culture.

Deaf Culture

It is the sign of a people's maturity when they begin to study their own history, language and culture. The study of Deaf Culture is a recent discipline; little was known about Canadian Deaf Culture until researchers from within the culture itself began to analyze and document the everyday lives of people who consider themselves to be culturally Deaf - people with their own unique language, history, traditions, perspective and culture. In print, the audiological condition of deafness and the cultural identification with Deaf Culture are often differentiated by using "deaf" to indicate the former and "Deaf" to indicate the latter (see HEARING LOSS).

History of Deaf Culture

There was no formal Deaf Culture or Deaf community in Canada prior to the establishment of residential schools for deaf students. Deaf people were isolated from each other and most received no education. Only a few were able to attend schools in Europe and the United States before the Canadian provinces began to set up their own schools for deaf children. The first school for deaf students in Canada opened on 15 June 1831 and was located at 39, rue d'Auteuil, a street on the Esplanade in Québec. Two years later, a former student of this school - Antoine Caron (1813-47) - became the first deaf person to teach deaf children in Canada. The Catholic Church established two francophone schools in Montréal - the Institution Catholique des Sourds-Muets (for boys) in 1848, and the Institution Catholique des Sourdes-Muettes (for girls) in 1851. Thomas Widd (1839-1906), a deaf Englishman, founded the Protestant Institution for Deaf-Mutes in Montréal in 1870. This school is now known as the Mackay Centre for Deaf Children. The two Catholic schools closed in the mid-1970s. A short distance north of the city of Québec, another school - the Institut des Sourds de Charlesbourg - served deaf students from 1961 to 1988.

The earliest known educational facility for deaf children outside the province of Québec was the School for the Deaf in Halifax, NS, which was co-founded in 1856 by two deaf Scotsmen - William Gray (1806-1881) and George Tait (1828-1904). It closed in 1961 when the new Interprovincial School for the Education of the Deaf opened in Amherst, NS. This facility, which served students from the Atlantic Provinces and Newfoundland, was later known as the Atlantic Provinces Special Education Authority - Resource Centre for the Hearing Impaired. It discontinued its services in 1995. There were three early schools in New Brunswick: the New Brunswick Institution for the Deaf and Dumb (1874-90), which was founded in Saint John by a deaf man named Alfred Henry Abell (1852-d unknown); the Fredericton Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb (1882-1902); and the New Brunswick School for the Deaf in Lancaster (1903-18). The Newfoundland School for the Deaf in St. John's has been in operation since 1964.

The first school for deaf children in Ontario was the Upper Canada Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb in Toronto (1858-64). When it moved to Hamilton, it was renamed the Hamilton Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb (1864-70). By October 1870, the Ontario Institution for the Education and Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb established its permanent facilities in Belleville (this school was renamed the Ontario School for the Deaf in 1913 and the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf in 1974). The school's first deaf teacher was Samuel Thomas Greene (1843-90), who also co-founded the Ontario Deaf-Mute Association (now the Ontario Association of the Deaf) in 1886. In 1963, the province opened its second school (what is known today as the Ernest C. Drury School for the Deaf in Milton), and a third school in 1974 (the Robarts School for the Deaf in London). All three continue to educate deaf students today.

The Manitoba Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb (now the Manitoba School for the Deaf) opened in Winnipeg in 1888. This school was "temporarily" closed during World War II ("temporarily" lasted from 1940 to 1965). Victoria, BC, had two short-lived schools: the British Columbia School for Deaf Mutes (1888-89) and the Victoria School for the Deaf and Dumb (1899-1900). In 1914, a deaf woman - Lucy Jane Gosse (later Elliott) (1889-1994) - sparked a movement that led to the 1922 creation of the British Columbia School for the Deaf in Vancouver. Renamed the Jericho Hill Provincial School for the Deaf in 1955, this school ended its 71-year existence in 1993 when it amalgamated with School District No. 41 of Burnaby. Regina, Sask, was the site of the first (and short-lived) Sask School for the Deaf (1915-1916). Rupert J.D. Williams (1893-1973), a Deaf man, was responsible for the 1931 founding of the Saskatchewan School for the Deaf in Saskatoon. In 1982, this school became known as the R.J.D. Williams Provincial School for the Deaf (the first and so far only school in Canada named for a deaf person). This school closed in 1991. The Alberta School for the Deaf opened in 1955 in Edmonton; in 1995 provincial responsibility for its programs was transferred to the Edmonton Public Schools Board.

Recent Developments in Deaf Education

Recent changes to the education of deaf students in Canada include early intervention programs (see EDUCATION, SPECIAL), integration ("mainstreaming") of deaf students into local schools (either in a self-contained classroom or in classrooms with hearing students), technological devices such as induction loops and FM systems for students who use hearing aids; the introduction into the classroom of various artificial sign systems representing spoken English or French; and, most recently, a bilingual/bicultural approach to the education of deaf students, which includes using American Sign Language (ASL) and written English as the classroom languages and introducing such subjects as Deaf Studies into the school curriculum so the students can gain an appreciation of both Deaf and hearing cultures. A few Canadian provincial schools have adopted a bilingual/bicultural educational philosophy into their programs.

Deaf Organizations

After deaf students finished their educational training, they tended to settle or work in cities close to the residential schools. The desire to socialize with people who shared a common language was one of the key factors in the establishment of Deaf communities. To stay in touch with each other, deaf Canadians formed debating societies, religious organizations, literary societies, athletic clubs and social clubs. These organizations strengthened the bonds among deaf people and the burgeoning Deaf Culture. Today, members of the Deaf community have cultural and athletic interests and activities that are uniquely their own (such as Deaf literature, theatre, mime, folklore, jokes and sports organizations), while also sharing many of the interests of hearing Canadians. The oldest Deaf community organization still active in Canada is the Ontario Association of the Deaf (founded in 1886). Other official organizations that are run by members of the Deaf community include the Canadian Association of the Deaf (founded as the Inter-Provincial Association of the Deaf in 1940), the Canadian Deaf Sports Association (founded as the Federation of Silent Sports of Canada in 1959) and the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf (founded in 1970). Together these three national organizations sponsor a biennial Canadian Deaf Festival.

Sign Languages

Canada does not have its own "Canadian" sign language. Deaf immigrants brought their own sign languages to this country in the 19th century: English immigrants introduced British Sign Language (BSL); French immigrants brought Langue des Signes Française (LSF); and students and teachers who had attended or worked in schools for deaf students in the United States brought what is now known as American Sign Language (ASL). Today, the majority of culturally Deaf anglophone residents in Canada use ASL, which - despite its name - has become a truly "continental" language. BSL has virtually disappeared from use, as has LSF. In francophone areas such as Québec, deaf people prefer their own distinct language, known as Langue des Signes Québécoise (LSQ). Both ASL and LSQ have regional variations ("dialects" or "accents").

From the late 1800s through the 1960s, the use of sign language was forbidden in many classrooms in Canada, because it was believed to impair speech development in deaf children (this has since been shown not to be the case). In the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a major shift in thinking as linguistic research revealed the structure and rules of ASL. Yet, when manual communication reappeared in the classroom, it was usually in the form of one of several artificial manual codes for spoken English or French rather than the language used by the Deaf community.

Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Deaf community has become more adamant about receiving an education in their preferred sign language (ASL or LSQ). In some schools, this struggle has been successful, and a few schools have adopted a bilingual (ASL and English) and bicultural (Deaf and hearing cultures) approach. Likewise, a few legislatures have formally recognized ASL as the language of the anglophone Deaf community in Canada. In 1988, Manitoba became the first province to officially do so, followed by Alberta in 1990. (Alberta added to its provincial resolution that ASL was also recognized as an optional language of classroom instruction.) Ontario was the first (and, so far, only) province to pass a law regarding ASL and LSQ (in 1993): the Ontario Education Act was amended to recognize ASL and LSQ as languages of instruction for deaf students.

Deaf Rights

For many years, deaf Canadians have had to actively fight to obtain or maintain certain human rights and privileges, such as the right to drive an automobile; to serve on juries; to have sign language interpreters present in medical and legal situations; to obtain training in their chosen careers; to keep their own schools open rather than be integrated into schools with hearing students; to be allowed to use sign language in the classroom; to have captioned programs on television; to be viewed culturally (as a linguistic and cultural group of people) rather than pathologically (as people with an audiological condition that needs to be "fixed"). Members of the Deaf community and other individuals (both deaf and hearing) who support Deaf Culture have been involved in public protests and demonstrations to make their concerns known to legislators, educators and the general public. Deaf people want to be recognized as partners in the heritage that is Canada, without having to surrender their precious language and culture.

Deaf Contributions

Deaf people's unique contributions to the Canadian cultural mosaic have recently been documented in Deaf Heritage in Canada (1996), which was researched and written by a Deaf author and sponsored by the Canadian Cultural Society of the Deaf. A few examples selected from these many contributors include Edward T. Payne, who became the first licensed deaf pilot in the world in 1931; Donald J. Kidd, Canada's first deaf person ever to receive a Doctor of Philosophy degree (University of Toronto, 1951); Bertha M. Curtis, who was the first deaf woman known to have received an honorary degree (Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, 1987); Jo-Anne M. Robinson, a deaf athlete who broke several swimming records at the World Games for the Deaf in 1965 and 1969; Archibald and Duncan MacLellan, the first two deaf solicitors in Canada (in the 1860s), and Henry Vlug, who is the first deaf Canadian to hold the titles of both barrister and solicitor, as well as the first to be called to the bar (1986). Dorothy E. Beam is still the only deaf individual known to have received the Order of Ontario medal (in 1987) and Gary L. Malkowski became Canada's first-ever deaf Member of the Provincial Parliament in Ontario in 1990. A Chair of Deafness Studies at the University of Alberta was established in 1987 in honour of David Peikoff, a beloved deaf Canadian who fought for better educational and occupational opportunities for the Deaf community from the 1920s until he moved to the United States in the 1960s.

Like other linguistic cultures, Deaf Culture comprises a diversity of individuals who share a common language, common goals, common interests and common experiences. While maintaining and protecting their unique culture, deaf Canadians also form a vital thread in the cultural tapestry that is Canada.

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