Deaf culture + history 101 — Chattanooga, TN

Make sure to watch the interview below with local Sonibert Wood. | NOOGAtoday

Local actress, improv performer + artist Sonibert Wood would love to play Lucille Ball or — better yet — have her own show.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Sonibert grew up in Florida before moving to Chattanooga for love, a fact that she jokingly expressed mortification about. 

Meet Sonibert Wood

She said she grew up in a loud Hispanic household, so her family didn’t pick up on the fact that she was hard of hearing until she was in school. 

Check out this Youtube video to see the entire interview with Sonibert. 

Deaf History Month 

Deaf History Month runs from March 13-April 15 to celebrate three turning points in deaf education. 

  • Dr. Shirley Jeanne Allen is the first deaf, Black woman in the United States to earn a doctoral degree. She became deaf after getting typhoid fever. 
  • Robert R. Davila, Ph.D., is a Mexican American who became deaf after getting spinal meningitis at age 8. He went on to excel in higher education, attending California School for the Deaf in Berkeley, and ultimately became a powerful disability rights advocate. He also served in President George H.W. Bush’s administration. 
  • Eugene Hairston was the first deaf, Black boxer, known as “Silent Hairston.” He became deaf after having spinal meningitis as a child. 

Sonibert said that society’s understanding and respect for members of the Deaf community have evolved from the time she was a child. Now there are Deaf people in just about every industry, she said. 

“We can do anything except hear,” she said. “And now, if we want to learn something, we can find a way.”

But, there’s still some work to do. Discrimination against deaf people still exists. 

“We are still fighting … And we are just going to keep going,” she said. “There’s always a barrier that we have to break through and it’s how we face it.”

Deaf culture

Chloé here, and I’ve had the privilege in the past couple of years to make new friends who are Deaf, (thanks to my partner, who is the interpreter in the video with Sonibert) and the main thing I’ve learned is that I was shamefully unaware of Deaf culture. 

Sonibert identifies as “hard-of-hearing with Deaf culture in her heart.”

She has immersed herself in the community + its culture. But another person who is hard of hearing or deaf, who spends most of their time with hearing people and doesn’t have the culture’s habits, may not be seen as culturally Deaf. 

Examples of Deaf Culture

Touch. In Deaf culture, it’s acceptable to touch/tap someone to get their attention, even if you don’t know them well. (Sonibert mentions this in her interview.)

Collectivism. While hearing American society is generally individualistic, in Deaf culture, there’s more focus on collectivism. The community has a close-knit bond, and upon first meeting, it’s common for two people to try to figure out if they have mutual friends. 

Being straight-forward. Because Deaf people think visually, physical details are often noted, and it’s not uncommon for a Deaf person to comment about something like someone having gained weight. In the hearing world, this might seem rude. It’s not in Deaf culture. 

What’s the difference? Deaf vs. deaf? Culturally, Deaf is capitalized if referring to the culture itself. It’s lowercase if referring to the physical state. 

I was also uneducated on basic information. For example:

  • To the Deaf community, hearing loss is not a disability. 

So, saying something like, “Were you afraid your kids would be deaf?” would likely be offensive or at least uninformed. 

  • ASL is not a universal sign language. There are more than 60 sign languages recognized and used around the world. 
  • American Sign Language “is a complete, natural language that has the same linguistic properties as spoken languages, with grammar that differs from English.”
  • It’s different from signing exact English, which isn’t considered a part of Deaf culture because that type of communication was created by a hearing person. 

By the numbers 

According to 2017 numbers, which were the most recent — and only statistics — we could find.

  • 15.3% of Tennesseans over age 18 have hearing loss. 
  • That’s 768,493 in the state. 
  • 42,746 in Hamilton County have hearing loss. 

(Library Services for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing)

Communication tips 

I expressed to Sonibert that even though I’m taking ASL and know some signs, I would feel intimidated to try to talk to her for fear of making a mistake or somehow inadvertently offending her. 

And, according to this report, that’s a usual thing for a hearing person to feel.

Still, when I watched myself asking that question and listened to her response — which could not have been more gracious and encouraging — I felt my privilege. I’m not the person who the world looks at differently but I’m so concerned with my own perfectionism or ego that I’d forego trying? That’s what leads to misunderstandings and disconnects between cultures. 

So, don’t be afraid to try these tips if you encounter someone who is deaf or hard of hearing. The general consensus is that they will be appreciative that you tried. 

✅ Write. It’s fine to write to communicate. (Don’t assume they can read your lips.)

✅ Don’t be afraid to slow down and actually understand. It can feel uncomfortable to ask someone to repeat themselves or to not immediately comprehend each other, but a Deaf person values facetime. Take the time to ask for and give clarification if you don’t understand. 

✅ If a Deaf person is speaking through an interpreter, look at the Deaf person — not the interpreter. It may be awkward because the Deaf person will be looking at the interpreter, but you should maintain eye contact with who you are speaking to. 

Local Deaf resources