Characteristics of the Deaf

  1. A shared language. In the case of Deaf people, this means Sign Language. In a matter of hours, “Core Deaf” from different countries/nationalities can be conversing and sharing at a highly proficient level in sign language!

  1. Common Identity of the group’s individuals. The Deaf share this common identity world wide, and the result is a common worldview worldwide.

  1. Deaf perceive themselves as a People Group. We don’t see racial divisions among the Deaf. It’s Deaf first and last.

  1. Cultural Deaf (Core Deaf) perceive themselves as Deaf, not as a deaf American or deaf Italian.

“Little d” deaf references a disability, while “big D” Deaf references an ethno-linguistic group, with the ethnicity being defined by the common identity of deafness.

  1. Unique ethno-linguistic group. Important for us to believe that the Deaf are a unique ethno-linguistic group. To think otherwise will result in difficulties in your work and understanding of the Deaf. It has the potential also to result in Deaf Southern Baptists backing away from what they perceive to be the position of the IMB that the Deaf is indeed a People Group.

  1. Hearing missionaries must earn the trust of the Deaf, earning the right to be heard.

Sign Language Commonalities

Ex: facial “expression.” The face indicates a question, comma, period, exclamation point, etc. The Non-Manual Marker must be at the beginning of the sentence, not the end.

Ex: “C” shape designates “cup” or “glass” and when brought to the mouth, indicates “drink” or “drinking”.

The Deaf as an Ethno-Linguistic People Group

Four basic elements are foundational to understanding the Deaf as a people group: their language, their social interaction, their educational identity, and their political structure.

Those four elements are given but a thumbnail sketch below. The following graphic offers a visual of these four distinct characteristics that are found within Deaf communities around the world.

Deaf Ethnographic Worldview


One of the key elements that identify the Deaf as a people group is that of the use of signed language. The Deaf individuals that have signed language as their heart language will fit into the category often referred to as the “Core” Deaf.

These individuals depend heavily on the national signed language and not on any blend of their language with the national, or access, language of the country. Although their ability to read and understand the access language of the country may vary, their language is not related to it.

Knowledge of the majority language may offer a little more accessibility to information but it has little or nothing to do with the dynamic found among those who share the national signed language. The use of the national signed language is the first pillar that supports the concept of the Deaf People Group.


Directly related to the linguistic identity of the Deaf People Group is the cultural element of social interaction.

The uniqueness of Deaf culture is obvious even to the casual observer but nowhere is it more identifiable than within the social structure of the community.

Deaf Clubs: The gathering that goes on in Deaf clubs on a regular basis, in countries all around the globe, and the coinciding structures associated with the Deaf clubs involve a dynamic that is only exchanged between those who are part of the Core Deaf People Group.

Deaf adults nearly always marry other Deaf although the percentage of Deaf children who have Deaf parents is relatively small.

Still there is the more than just a natural affinity of those who share this language and social foundation.


The Core Deaf, making up the 30 million Deaf worldwide and constituting the Deaf People Group, typically have attended a residential Deaf school somewhere in the country where they grew up.

The common experiences of classroom, dormitory, and almost always, an oppressive system of oralism, builds some sort of bond between Deaf adults who are part of the core group.


As in most people groups the political (social) dynamic is a key part of the foundation for their core values.

Politics in the Deaf community is centered on leadership within that core group.

Typically this has nothing to do with how much or how little hearing loss there is.

An individual may be totally deaf when it comes to their auditory senses but not an accepted part of the Deaf community, and its political structure, because of a reliance on oralism instead of signed language.

The politically involved Deaf person will feel out of place in most hearing settings where there a total political vacuum exists for him/her.

                        Worldview — the 4 circles of the ethnographic core

Deaf Ethnographic Worldview

                People Profile

Ethnographic Core: Typically these are Deaf people who are part of the Deaf community due to their use of the national/local sign language and embracing the core values of Deaf culture.

The Deaf community has its own social structure.

Their sense of identity is not in their nationality (country of birth) but in their language, culture, and those core values.

Usually they have attended a Deaf school, are involved with the activities of the Deaf community and its political structure, and may, or may not, have Deaf family members (i.e. parents, children, siblings, etc.).

Distinguishing Characteristics

Use of national/local sign language

Ties to a strong community network,

Illiteracy or functional illiteracy

Multiple tribal leadership (clans related to the clubs they are affiliated with—political network), sports

The Deaf marry other Deaf,

Common suspicion and distrust, even fear, of the majority population,

Commonly a lower economic status.

Misunderstanding of Deaf Culture

Hearing people often misunderstand Deaf Culture.

A strategy to reach the Deaf requires an understanding of the uniqueness of Deaf people, their language and their culture.

Due to these misunderstandings, a strategy for adequately engaging the Deaf and helping provide the fertile soil for Church Planting among them is never employed.

Bridges and Barriers


High group mentality,

Social independence,

Relational focus (not so tied to materialism),

An intricate and effective “grapevine” for relaying information within an area, country, or region,

Shared language (20-25%) and culture,

Deaf children,

A strong dependence on communication through “story-telling” (storying),

Universal interest in theatre/drama,

Folklore, etc. that has emphasis on biblical stories,

Strong need for group/social functions and adequate space for those functions.


High group mentality (also a bridge) in decision making,

Suspicion of hearing people,

Open to any and every way of thinking in many respects,

Mostly functionally illiterate (poor or no reading skills),

Often quite promiscuous with wild living and drinking,

Suspicion of religion, religious institutions, and religious people

(little or no contact with the church, or distorted view of the church, for all of their life),

: Interpreters,

National Deaf union leadership,

Deaf club presidents,

Deaf political/social organizations,

Deaf school directors,

Deaf educational leaders,

Hearing people who work in conjunction with the Deaf

and Deaf education,


Church leaders with a pathological view of Deaf people,

Baptist Union leaders and structures (often can be barriers),

Religious Characteristics

Usually there is no dominant religion, practically speaking, among the Deaf people. Only a small number of Deaf people have any ties to the dominant religion of the majority populations (Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Islam, etc.).

Few if any evangelical churches exist and those that do exist almost always are not Deaf churches, but interpreted ministries.

Thus there are few indigenous works and Deaf people who have ties with interpreted ministries are relegated to being “objects of ministry” without opportunity to participate, lead, and have vision.

Often cults are appealing to Deaf people when they have offered hope from the oppression/hopelessness they have experienced.

Heart Language
: The Deaf have learned to adapt to the hearing culture in which they live for survival, but do not always understand or adopt other parts of the culture. This includes religion.

If the gospel is to be understood and believed, especially by those in the core of Deaf culture, it must be presented in their heart language – Sign Language.

Compiled and edited by Orville Boyd Jenkins, December 2002
Last updated 27 February 2003