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Deaf culture

Why does "Deaf" have a capital letter?

Deaf is written with a capital letter when it refers to Deaf people who use NZSL to communicate.

Deaf culture

Most Deaf people were born deaf or became deaf early in life. They have a strong sense of identity as Deaf people and a shared common language in NZSL. The New Zealand Deaf community is relatively small. Most Deaf people in New Zealand know each other through the schools they attended and the clubs they belong to.

Feelings are expressed quite openly within the Deaf community, and, in Deaf culture, physical contact is quite usual. Hugging is more common than shaking hands, especially when greeting and farewelling.

Deaf culture, ethnicity, and visual descriptions

Deaf culture is not based on family culture or ethnicity. There are some multi generational Deaf families, but not all the people in families with Deaf members are deaf themselves. For this reason, many hearing people also belong to the Deaf community, use NZSL for communication with Deaf people, and identify with the Deaf community.

Only about ten percent of Deaf children have Deaf parents. This is why NZSL users ask about, or identify, family members as Deaf or hearing.

Māori Deaf have a unique dual identity. They belong to both the Māori community and the Deaf community. There is no separate Māori sign language, but there are Māori signs, for Māori concepts. Both Māori and Pākehā Deaf use NZSL as a common community language. Māori Deaf people have developed and continue to develop signs to express concepts relating to Māori culture in New Zealand. This beginner resource does not include examples of these.

Ethnicity is important in how Deaf people identify and describe people in NZSL, along with descriptions of other distinguishing features that a person may have. This helps to build a picture of the person in a way that helps others to recall them more easily, especially when the person who is being discussed is not present. Visual descriptions are so important that they are often used as permanent sign names, much as nicknames in other cultures, for example SHORT-HAIR, BIG-MOUSTACHE, and SKINNY. Physical descriptions rarely cause offence in the Deaf community. It is generally acceptable to describe someone as fat because this uses a visual feature in a way that creates a more friendly and relaxed connection with the person. However, excessive or overly exaggerated signs can cause offence.

Language and culture are interrelated

Aspects of Deaf culture are incorporated into the activities for each unit where this is feasible. For example, Unit 1 introduces ways of communicating with Deaf people in a world that is mostly organised for hearing people. In addition, the video scenes demonstrate how Deaf people integrate language and culture when they interact with each other in everyday situations.

Working with a New Zealand Sign Language interpreter

Interpreters assist Deaf people and hearing people to communicate. It is important for hearing people and Deaf people to speak directly to each other. Do not bring the interpreter into the conversation because this goes against the interpreter’s code of ethical practice. Interpreting is intensive work, so interpreters need regular breaks. For longer meetings, two interpreters take turns to interpret, swapping every 20 minutes or so.

Interpreters need time to transfer your complete message and then for the other person to respond. Turn taking is important. So is good lighting, so that everyone can see each other clearly. You may need to plan for specific lighting needs, for example, if you need to darken a room to show a film or give a presentation using a computer projection. A Deaf person cannot look at a whiteboard and at a interpreter at the same time in the way that hearing people can listen to someone and read information simultaneously.

Using technologies

Deaf people use a range of technologies and equipment, often in particular ways.

In the home, their telephone may have a flashing light instead of a ring tone and so may the doorbells and baby alarms. Alarm clocks may use flashing lights or may vibrate. Mobile phones, with texting and vibrating facilities, help Deaf people to communicate more easily, and these are replacing fax machines.

Deaf people may avoid particular restaurants and other places where flickering or flashing lights are part of the decor because they find visual noise distracting. Areas where it is too dark to see each other comfortably are also avoided.

In the classroom, you would flick the light on and off to get a Deaf student's attention. As well as a school bell ringing, lights could flash to indicate the start and end of lessons.

Specialist communication services

Specialist communication services that Deaf people use include TTY and TRS. TTY stands for Text Telephone. A text telephone has a keyboard with a screen where you can read both your message and the other person’s message. Their popularity is decreasing with the rise of the Internet and mobile texting. With the Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS), an operator types whatever you say so that the person you are calling can read your words on their TTY display. They then type a reply, which the operator reads to you over the phone.

Using space

In the homes of Deaf people, furniture may be organised so that people who are signing can see each other clearly. Open living arrangements are favoured, where the lounge is connected with the dining room or the dining room is connected with the kitchen so that everyone’s movements can be tracked visually. In such a space, it is easier to get someone’s attention and communicate.

Getting together

There are cultural events that are distinctive to the Deaf community. Local Deaf clubs host club nights where Deaf people meet up and socialise. The members of Deaf communities in different parts of New Zealand are often in regular contact with each other. Gatherings include events and celebrations such as weddings, funerals, and birthday parties. There are national cultural events, such as Deaf short film competitions and NZSL storytelling events, where NZSL skills are valued.

Camps provide opportunities for young Deaf New Zealanders and, in some cases, young Deaf people from overseas, to get together, share their cultures with their peers, develop confidence and leadership skills, and enjoy being in a different environment. An international Deaf youth camp is held somewhere in the world every four years. At these camps, Deaf youth leaders and those with the potential to become Deaf community leaders can meet, form new friendships, and develop new skills.


The Deaf community has a strong tradition of storytelling, including jokes, which are frequently passed on from generation to generation. NZSL storytelling events are gatherings, sometimes competitive, where Deaf people can show off their language and storytelling skills. Awards and trophies are given for the best performances, and these are held in awe as symbols of great achievements.

As well as being entertaining, storytelling is a way of transmitting cultural knowledge and beliefs because stories often revolve around Deaf people’s experiences and responses to different situations. It keeps the language alive by using signs in interesting ways to tell complex stories. It is an important way of preserving Deaf history because there was no real way of recording Deaf history in its original language form before the invention of video recording.

Hearing dogs

In 1998, a New Zealand organisation began training dogs and placing them with Deaf people over the age of 18. These dogs cost a lot of money to train, yet they are given to their owners at no cost. Hearing dogs help Deaf people in the home, at work, and when they are out and about. They are allowed to enter public places, including premises where food is served, where dogs are not usually permitted.

Hearing dogs are trained to respond to specific sounds, such as smoke alarms, doorbells, telephone rings, and timers on stoves. Every time a dog hears one of these sounds, it gently paws the owner to attract their attention. It then leads the person to where the sound is coming from. Read more about hearing dogs.

Getting someone’s attention

Deaf cultural behaviours include ways of getting the attention of others without using one’s voice or a noise. Tapping someone on the shoulder is a way to get someone’s attention if they happen to be looking elsewhere. Instead of clapping, Deaf people applaud by waving their hands. These behaviours are sometimes called “visual prompts”.

Sign singing

Sign singing is singing using sign language. Typically, a song is played, and the “singer” expressively performs a sign language version of the lyrics. Sign languages can be used to express extremely nuanced feelings, just as spoken languages can.

Subtitled and captioned movies

Subtitles are straight transcriptions or translations of the dialogue that appears on the screen. Captions commonly include on-screen text specifically designed for hearing-impaired viewers, these include descriptions of sounds and music, for example, "car engine stalls”, “knock on door”, and “dance music plays”. In 2009, around 130 hours of programmes per week across TV1, TV2, and TV3 were captioned. Advertisers can choose to caption television commercials, though very few do.

Find out more about Deaf culture and the Deaf community in New Zealand.

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