Academics
Areas of Study

The Problem for Deaf America

Deaf America refers to the unique spaces in the United States of America in which approximately one million deaf* people from all races, ethnicities, religions, socioeconomic classes, and political persuasions use American Sign Language (ASL) as the primary language of communication**. Deaf America comprises over one hundred K-12 schools and programs and countless voluntary organizations and associations, bound together by the common experience of being deaf and using sign language to communicate.

This is Deaf America.

At the same time, deaf people are among the most marginalized Americans whose ways of life are constantly under threat. Enrollment at deaf institutions and membership of deaf organizations are rapidly declining. The future of the Deaf community – Deaf America – is often said to be at a “crossroads.”*** Why?

As commonly portrayed, deaf people are deprived from access to civic spaces. And that they are insular, divided, powerless, uninformed, and apathetic. Yet, what is unsaid is that these are not so much unique developments that threaten the well-being of deaf people and the future of “Deaf America” as worrisome trends in the country affecting the quality of life for all Americans and the health of American democracy.

The problem in context: Democracy in America

More than 175 years later today, the evidence is clear that American democracy is decaying. The worrisome trends include:

Inaccessibility. “Civic deserts” are on the rise in the country. About 60% of rural youth and 30% of urban and suburban Americans have few to no opportunities to “meet, discuss issues, or address problems.” (Brookings)

Self-Righteousness. The majority of Americans consider themselves to be morally virtuous while believing the overall state of moral values in the US is getting worse. (Tappin, 2017; Pew Research/Gibson and Sutherland)

Insularity. Americans are increasingly living in “epistemic bubbles” and “echo chambers” where they do not hear or trust outside voices, inhabit different worlds in daily life, and “fear and loathe” people in the outgroup. (Nguyen, 2018/Pew Research/Iyengar and Westwood, 2015)

Fragmentation. Organizations and networks that develop trust and networks and connect people across diverse groups which supported the civil rights movement and “make democracy work” are collapsing. (Putnam, 2000)

Hopelessness. More than half of young Americans say they feel powerless and hopeless about the state of politics. (Citation needed)

Civic Illiteracy. Only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government and nearly a third cannot name a single branch of government. (Annenberg Public Policy Center)

Disengagement. In 2020, roughly one in four unregistered voters and 40% of unregistered voters ages 18-24 reported that they had not registered because they didn’t know how to, had forgotten, didn’t have time, were too busy, or had recently moved. (Knight Foundation)

American democracy is in crisis and deaf people are paying the price. The problem is not that deaf people do not hear and speak, but that they do not have the opportunity to listen, talk, learn, and engage across differences in a divided and fragmented country.

The Solution

Research indicates practical ways to improve the health of American democracy. In fact, Deaf America is uniquely positioned to make American democracy work.

If democracy relies on relationship-building, truth-finding, and power-sharing, Deaf America’s racial, linguistic, cultural, political diversity is an untapped resource. Communities and democracies that do not foster disagreement, debate, and civic engagement are more vulnerable to bigotry, orthodoxy, and autocratic leadership, and less likely to produce minority achievement, bridge differences, bring out better arguments, better ideas, and better policies to combat complex problems.

It is fundamental that deaf Americans have the resources and opportunities to disagree, debate, and engage with people who look, think, feel, and talk differently from them. This not only advances their personal well-being and the health of Deaf America, but that of fellow citizens and American democracy.


*Generally, “deaf” is used to reflect the physical condition of having hearing loss, whereas “Deaf” is used to indicate people who are a culturally unique, socio-linguistic minority, often with a shared community and sign language. When referring to “deaf” in this document, we intend to be inclusive of all people with hearing loss; deaf, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing, late-deafened, deafblind, deafdisabled, and the broader “deaf experience.”

** https://www.gallaudet.edu/office-of-international-affairs/demographics/deaf-employment-reports

***Fernandes and Myers, 2010; Pray and Jordan, 2010

Contact Us

Center for Democracy in Deaf America (CDDA)

Hall Memorial Building S400

202-250-2405

(202) 651-5000

Monday
Closed
Tuesday
Closed
Wednesday
Closed
Thursday
Closed
Friday
Closed
Saturday
Closed
Sunday
Closed
Select what best describes your relationship to Gallaudet University so we can effectively route your email.
By submitting this form, I opt in to receive select information and deaf resources from Gallaudet University via email.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.