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Is everyone deaf?

The International Day for the Deaf, which was established in 1958 by the World Federation of the Deaf, is celebrated every year on the last Sunday of September. We do not know much about this community of four million people living in Poland and what we know is usually based on stereotypes. In 2015, the scientific conference ‘The deaf community as a linguistic and cultural minority’1 was held in Warsaw. This way of looking at the deaf community, who had been perceived primarily through the prism of their disability until then, was a major innovation in Poland at the time. Nevertheless, deafness has not only a medical dimension, but also a cultural one.

Deaf people have developed a number of phenomena generally considered to be markers of an autonomous culture, such as a distinct language, historical consciousness, art expressing their identity, characteristic customs and their own institutions. All these elements make it possible to define Deaf people as heirs and continuators of a unique tradition called Deaf Culture. This term refers to the community of the Deaf sign language users and is an expression of their sense of identity and belonging to this community. It is worth mentioning that not all people with hearing disabilities feel members of this group. In other words: not every deaf person is Deaf. The term ‘deaf’ indicates physiological conditions and difficulties that deaf people may encounter in social life. 

Who are Deaf people then? They are members of a particular linguistic minority for whom a sign language is their first language, and who see the perceptual conditions considered by the majority as a problem to be remedied as a normal thing or even a value in itself. Being Deaf therefore means accepting this fact, being proud of it and feeling connected to those who share this view. The capital letter in the word ‘Deaf’ is also a declaration of belonging to Deaf Culture and adherence to its values, beliefs and norms. Interestingly - belonging to a Deaf group does not always need to involve a hearing loss or disability. The best examples are the hearing children of deaf parents who are active participants in Deaf Culture and by far the best interpreters of the Polish Sign Language due to their active functioning in both environments. There are also situations where a deaf person does not feel the need to identify with Deaf Culture. Therefore, not every deaf person can be called Deaf, as the capital letter signifies a member of a certain culture, which has its own characteristics and identity constructed around a differently ordered hierarchy of values. For this reason, in order to reflect the internal diversity of the deaf community, the term d/Deaf is sometimes used, which includes people who do not identify with Deaf Culture and those who do. 

The foundation of Deaf culture is a sign language. However, it is important to distinguish between the Polish Sign Language (PSL) and the Sign System (SS) developed by teachers of the Deaf based on the Polish grammar.

SS, also referred to as the signed language, is an artificially created system intended to facilitate the acquisition of Polish by the deaf. In contrast, PSL, like natural sign languages in other countries, was created as a result of spontaneous interactions of deaf persons. It does not involve the mere substitution of words by gestures, but it is characterised by independent vocabulary and distinct grammatical rules. 

This is why people who were born deaf and raised in a deaf environment learn Polish as a foreign language. A grammar that functions in space is the distinguishing feature of the sign language. What happens in a linear and sequential way in the spoken language becomes simultaneous and multi-level in the sign language. Speech has only one dimension - temporal extension - whereas the sign language has four dimensions: three in space and one in time. This gives the sign language an almost ‘cinematic’ character, all the more so as it is not based on the use of hands only. Facial expressions also perform specific linguistic functions: they can be used to express syntactic constructions such as conditional clauses or questions, and they can function as adverbs. 

How did the cultural awakening of deaf people begin? It was initiated by students of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., who, in 1988, following the subsequent election of a hearing president, began a protest. They occupied the campus demanding that the authorities elect a deaf person, which was eventually achieved. These events demonstrated that the deaf community was not powerless or passive. The movement for the empowerment of the deaf, initiated already in the 1970s by sociologist Barbara Kannapell, who founded the organisation Deaf Pride, gained new strength. 

In Poland, the manifestation of such mobilisation was the demonstration of several thousand hearing impaired people in Warsaw on 28 February 2014. One of the main demands of the protesters was a more widespread use of the Polish Sign Language in the public sphere. The same decade saw the creation of institutions referring directly to the idea of Deaf Culture. They are the catalyst and, at the same time, the manifestation of the environment mobilisation. One such organisation is the Social Movement of the Deaf and Their Friends. The idea of Deaf Pride is also referred to by the KOKON Foundation for the Promotion of Deaf Culture, which aims to support the Polish Deaf community in its struggle for the social status and the recognition of its rights2. Marek Mazurek’s Krakow Foundation for the Development of Education of the Deaf ‘Między uszami’, another organisation that defines deafness in socio-cultural terms, plays a similar role. 

Deaf artists play are crucial for the shaping of the Deaf community. The most characteristic form of Deaf Art is highly expressive sign poetry. Using the sign language, which blends seamlessly with the body language, it is possible to express not only contents, but also emotions, which are so important in poetry. Such methods are also employed by the members of ‘Młodzi Migają Muzykę’ [The youth sign music], a group that interprets popular songs in the sign language which has been present on YouTube since 20133. In the USA and Western Europe, an art trend called Deaf Art, which mainly includes visual arts, especially painting and photography, but also film and theatre, is becoming more and more popular. It is the art of Deaf artists related to their experiences. It is primarily characterised by the use of symbols referring to the concept of deafness and the situation of deaf people in society. Hence the popular motif of eyes and hands as important tools of communication for Deaf people. Butterflies are also an important symbol. They have no sense of hearing, which is overlooked, but what we do notice is their beauty, colourfulness, grace and freedom.  

In Poland, deaf artists often work together not only during open-air integrating events, but also in artistic groups such as Nasza Galeria or the GAG Group of Deaf Artists4, which invited the public to one of its exhibitions with the slogan ‘I can see, I cannot hear, I create...’ on a poster. In some works of Polish artists, however, it is difficult to notice specific stylistic or thematic features or unambiguous signs and symbols typical of Deaf Art.   

With the spread of the Internet, Deaf culture has gained new possibilities, including social media and vlogs posted on YouTube which have proven to be extremely helpful in mutual contacts between Deaf people and in expressing their opinions. Short films in the series ‘Głucha Polka Potrafi’ [A deaf Polish woman can do it] are interviews with Deaf women who share their experiences and show what their lives are like. In addition, the channel offers information on workshops and training for Deaf people. Operating since 2013, the online channel of the ‘Między uszami’ Foundation aims to increase the awareness of  the different, but fully-fledged, linguistic and cultural identity of the Deaf among the hearing part of society5. The channel’s themes primarily involve social campaigns and translations into PSL. ‘Halo Ziemia’ [Hello, Earth] is a channel linked with the blog of the same title dealing with social issues6.

The activity of Deaf internet users proves an enormous communicative potential of the sign language. It turns out that it enables its users to express everything and discuss any topic, both in a concrete and abstract way. It can be used for social debates as well as for creating poetry and talking about feelings. In virtual space, Deaf people clearly state what they want in relation to their everyday life and the comfort of equal access to culture. They particularly emphasise the need for subtitles of films or TV programmes, arguing that

‘we are a group of 4 million citizens who are discriminated against. We do not accept social exclusion or the lack of access to information’7

Regardless of the subject matter, each of these channels clearly communicates who deaf people feel they are. This self-definition, which is such an important aspect of Deaf Culture, is accompanied by taking pride in being Deaf and a desire to change the stereotypical thinking of the hearing public about them. 


1,a253.html, Retrieved: 1.09.2020.

2, Retrieved: 6.09.2020.

3, Retrieved: 11.09.2020.

4, Retrieved: 11.09.2020.

5, Retrieved: 7.09.2020.

6, Retrieved: 15.09.2020.

7, Retrieved: 9.09.2020.

Reference literature 

A. Butkiewicz Alina i in., Sytuacja i możliwości aktywizacji Głuchych, Wrocław 2014. 

A. Grabowska (red.), 70 lat Polskiego Związku i 140 lat Ruchu Społecznego Głuchych w Polsce. Wybrane wspomnienia, Warszawa 2016. 

E. Woźnicka (red.), Tożsamość społeczno – kulturowa Głuchych, Łódź 2007. 

About the author

Elżbieta Wiącek – Ph. D. in Arts and Humanities, assistant professor at the Institute of Regional Studies, at present Institute of Intercultural Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. Her main publications (books) include: Mniej uczęszczane ścieżki do raju. O filmach Jima Jarmuscha (2001), Filmowe podróże Abbasa Kiarostamiego (2004) and Semiotyczna mapa Małopolski (ed., 2015). She was a fellow of the Skalny Centre at the University of Rochester, USA, in 2014. In 2013–2014, she took part in the project Nie Bądź Głuchy na Kulturę. Analiza szans i barier dla uczestnictwa Głuchych w życiu kulturalno-artystycznym [Do Not Be Deaf to Culture – an analysis of the opportunities and barriers for the Deaf to participate in a cultural and artistic life] financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage as part of the Cultural Observatory Programme.