Deaf Deaf Same

By Phoebe Tay

This article is part of our focus on Cultural Shift and Human Rights. For more on this theme, click here.

By Phoebe Tay

You may be scratching your head wondering why the title is as it is, and how I came up with it.

In October, I was a delegate at the 2nd International World Federation of the Deaf Conference in Sydney, and the experience was nothing short of incredible. The theme of the Conference was: Equality for Deaf People. 644 delegates from 67 countries were present at the conference. That was the most fascinating bit!

For the very first time in my life, I experienced the Deaf Community becoming united at an international level. There, I felt right at home. I learnt so much from the different presentations and from mingling with different people. It was great to chat with several of the overseas delegates from Korea, Singapore, Kenya, Taiwan and Japan. I also enjoyed catching up with some friends from Brisbane I hadn’t seen in a long while as well as getting to know some familiar faces and friends from Melbourne better. I believe I will remember this moment for the rest of my life.

Journey down memory lane

I first understood the notion of “Deaf culture” in my last year of university in Brisbane in 2007, and for the seven years since I’ve spent most of my waking moments navigating my way in the Australian Deaf community and trying to find my place in it when I moved to Melbourne. Growing up in Singapore, I hadn’t had any contact with people who were culturally Deaf. There were a few deaf Singaporeans in my school but at that time, we perceived ourselves as being hearing impaired and were taught that oralism was the way to go.

If you are sharp enough, you will notice that I typed the lowercase “d” for “deaf” in my earlier sentence but capitalised it in the first two sentences. The reason for this is a shift in perception on how I perceived my deafness as well as other Deaf individuals. During my formative years, I had perceived deafness to be disabling but after discovering Deaf culture in Brisbane and Melbourne, I am proud to identity myself as Deaf because it reflects my identity, just as I tell people I’m Singaporean when they ask me what country I come from. The concept of being DEAF was very empowering.

In 2011, I had the opportunity to travel to the Philippines with some friends to be immersed in the Filipino Deaf community for two and a half weeks. I also met some Deaf Koreans and other Asian Deaf when I visited Seoul during the Deaf Asian-Pacific Games, where Deaf people and officials from over 30 Asia-Pacific countries gathered in 2012. Those experiences were eye-openers because Korea, the Philippines and Australia have very distinct cultures – differences in beliefs, values and behaviour all set them apart from one another.  Apart from these experiences, I did not know the Deaf community in any other context.

Deaf Deaf Same

At the Deaf Conference, I attended one presentation after another. There was so much information to take in and process that by the time the closing ceremony rolled around, I felt my brain would explode. One message appeared to be repeatedly advocated at different intervals throughout the conference: sign language education is a fundamental human right for Deaf people in order to achieve equality in life. I gleaned something new from every presentation. But, the one presentation that had the greatest impact on me was “Deaf Equality and the possibilities and limits of ‘DEAF DEAF SAME’:  Perspectives from Ghana and India” presented by Deaf anthropologists, Annelies Kusters (Germany) and Michele Friedner (United States).

Ever heard of Martha’s Vineyard, an island located off the coast of Massachusetts in the U.S.? It is a place where Deaf utopia existed around the 1600s. Everyone on the island during that period communicated in sign language – both Deaf and hearing people. One generation after another was born with hearing loss. However, the Deaf population began to shrink as Deaf children were schooled on the mainland and settled there, leading to the inevitable extinction of the Martha’s Vineyard Deaf community.

There is an Akan village in eastern Ghana, named Adamorobe, which in some respects is similar to Martha’s Vineyard. However, there is also a vast contrast between the two. As Annelies pointed out, Adamorobe has “otherness”. There is “sameness” where the Deaf Adamorobes and Deaf tourists share one thing in common – Deaf identity. Yet it an African village, as well as a Deaf one. Deaf people in Adomorobe do not share Western perspectives and attitudes. It was much to my surprise to learn that they feel rather exploited when Deaf and hearing tourists visit and take photographs of them and the village to bring back to show their families and friends in their home countries. As an avid traveller, I have never given a second thought when taking shots of people and sights of the places I’ve visited. Adomorobe sign language is also very different to Western sign languages and would be difficult to grasp for Western visitors. Added to that, Deaf people in Adomorobe are disappointed by the empty promises made by foreigners to show them around in their home countries, which never happens.

This was the biggest learning point for me because it hit me there and then, that differing cultural expectations and perspectives are the root causes for most cross-cultural conflicts. What is perfectly acceptable in one culture may be offensive to another because of differences in worldview – upbringing, values, beliefs and social norms of behaviour. From this, I learnt that it is important never to assume that I know where a particular individual is coming from because more often than not, they perceive things from a different standpoint. There are different ways of being Deaf. Every Deaf person has a unique journey and a personal story to share. Within the international Deaf community there is a diversity of cultures and, therefore, it is important to foster an understanding of difference and allow our own assumptions and judgments to be challenged – just as I allowed my understanding of being “Deaf” to be challenged when I moved to Australia. I’m glad I kept an open-mind because it was life-changing for me. Instead of seeing limitations, what I see now are endless possibilities.

As someone aspiring to establish a career in human rights and humanitarian aid in the future, I believe that this learning point is priceless because it will be a skill that I will need to cultivate in order to work in this challenging field. It was great to see many of the presenters at the conference sharing my passion for human rights for Deaf people around the world.

To finish, I’d like to quote Sherrie Beaver, a fellow delegate at the conference, in her blog post “Sherrie: Deaf and loving it”:

”The concept of “DEAF DEAF SAME” is rather powerful, because we, within the Deaf community, share the same identity. This is why I was and still am amazed at experiencing the Deaf community uniting as a whole on an international level. So many different languages, sign languages, nationalities, cultures, etc – yet we’re all the same and we manage to create new friendships no matter where we are from.“

I know and I agree.

To read other articles Phoebe has written, feel free to visit her blog at She would like to express her heartfelt thanks and sincere appreciation to Deaf Services Queensland for selecting her to be one of five grant recipients in Australia for a grant of $1,500 to cover conference expenses, flights and accommodation.