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History, Culture and Social Experience of the Black Deaf Community

History, Culture and Social Experience of the Black Deaf Community

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This research looks to gain a deeper understanding of the Black Deaf community by examining their history, culture, and social experiences. Black Deaf history has been neglected for decades and it still is to this day. While there have been a diverse number of books, research studies, films and articles on Deaf life, hardly any have looked into the experiences of Black Deaf individuals.

I think that by studying the history of the Black Deaf community, we will gain a better understanding of the human diversity and the broadness of the term “disabled”.

Keywords: African American, Black American sign language (BASL), deaf, oppressed

Description and definition of the culture or group

Black deaf individuals belong to a very particular social group in our communities. Black deaf culture is formed by two minority groups: Deaf and African American. Black Deaf individuals frequently deal with double prejudice against them with regards to their race and communication barriers (Ogunyipe, B. 2011). Black deaf individuals play a double minority role in society but based on a research completed by Anderson & Grace, “87% of Black Deaf adolescents identified as Black first and 13% identified as Deaf first” (Anderson & Grace, 1991). The 87% of them expressed that they consider and identify themselves as black first because the color of their skin is more visible than their hearing and communication problems. One of the participants stated, “You see, I am black first. My deafness is not noticed until I speak or use my hands to communicate” (Anderson & Grace, 1991).

History of the oppression they have experienced

The discrimination of black deaf people started back at the beginning of the segregation era (19th– 20th centuries) were black deaf people were not welcomed or acknowledged as part of the deaf community nor the African American community (“Black Deaf Culture Through the Lens of Black Deaf History”, n.d).  “Organizations, such as The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, The Congress of Racial Equality, The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee” (Janken, n.d, p.1) worked together to advocate for the civil and human rights of the African American community ( Janken, K. R., n.d). The limitations and social injustices that the black deaf community suffered did not concern any of these advocacy organizations. In fact, “the black deaf community had no communication access with these organizations and their leaders” (Ogunyipe, B. 2011).

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A year later after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, the National Association of the Deaf, allowed black deaf individuals to form part of their organization in 1965.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 aimed to put an end to segregation and discrimination against sex, race, color, religion, or nationality. Later on, in 1999 it expanded and included disabled Americans, elderly people and women as part of the Civil Rights Act (“The Civil Rights Act of 1964”, 2010). For over 100 years, black deaf individuals were separated from the white deaf community and forced to attend separate educational programs. These programs were offered on different campuses or in isolated buildings separated from white individuals with hearing problems. “This separation contributed to the development of a Black American Sign Language (BASL)” (Ogunyipe, B., 2011).

In 2014, Amy Stretten interviewed a black deaf woman named Sheena Cobb. Cobb referred to the difference between the American Sign Language (ASL) and the Black American Sign Language (BASL). She stated that BASL tends to be more expressive and dramatic than ASL. Black deaf individuals use “more two-handed signs, in different positions, in a larger signing space and with more repetition than with mainstream ASL signs” (Stretten, A. 2014).  Although it is noted that black sign language varies from white sign language on the lexical morphology and phonology level, there is no available literature to prove the differences between them and the impact on educational success (McCaskill, 2005).

History of social justice efforts on their behalf

As a result of being denied membership in current deaf organizations, black deaf associations were formed in the 1950s, in large cities with considerable amounts of black deaf individuals such as Baltimore, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago and Washington (Ogunyipe, B. 2011).

During the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) convention in 1980, some of the black deaf community leaders filed a list of requests and concerns with regards to their human rights. Some of these issues were, the deficiency of “attentiveness to the concerns of Black Deaf Americans and the lack of representation of black deaf individuals” (Ogunyipe, B. 2011). They presented a request for the NAD to communicate better with the Black Deaf community, encourage the involvement of minority groups within the Deaf organizations, and recruit more Black Deaf children in NAD Youth Leadership Camps (Ogunyipe, B. 2011).

In 1981, the Howard University in Washington held the first black deaf community conference, named “Black Deaf Experience”. The objectives of this conference was to better inform the community about being part of two minority groups: black and deaf in America, identify and analyze the social, economical, educational, religious, political, and health issues of the Black deaf community, and develop strategies and problem-solving techniques that their members can take back to their communities (“National Black Deaf Advocates,” n.d).

The National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA) founded in 1982, was the first organization to advocate for the black deaf community. The “NBDA advocates for the civil rights and equal opportunities to education, employment, and social services for the black deaf” (“National Black Deaf Advocates”, n.d) and individuals with Hard of Hearing (“National Black Deaf Advocates”, n.d).

“The National Black Deaf Advocates has over 30 local chapters and sponsors leadership training programs for deserving high school and college students, a Miss black deaf America pageant, leadership opportunities at the local and national levels, workshops at regional and national conferences, and a scholarship program for Black Deaf college students” (“National Black Deaf Advocates, n.d”).  In 1987, the NBDA founded the first National Alliance of Black Interpreters (NAOBI). Their mission is to encourage excellency and acceptance within the African Americans in the Sign Language interpreting career, in a multi-cultural, multi-lingual environment (“National Alliance of Black Interpreters”, 2019). In 1997 the NBDA celebrated its 15th anniversary at the National Conference, “Black Deaf Leadership In the 21st Century: Preparing the Way”, in Washington. The National Black Deaf Advocates conduct annual regional and national conferences dedicated to enlarging and empowering their community. (“Black Deaf Culture”, n.d)

Progress and setbacks

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the black community a sense of hope that they would be able to form part of the American way of life, just as the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 later did for the hearing-impaired community (Rittenhouse, Johnson, Overton, Freeman, & Jaussi, 1991). “Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a law that ensures that individuals with disabilities will not be excluded from programs that receive federal financial assistance, such as public schools” (“Laws impacting students who are deaf or hard of hearing”, 2015). In 1975, President Gerald Ford passed “the Education for All Handicapped Children Act”, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that “students who are deaf or hard of hearing must receive free and appropriate education with the needed accommodations “(“Laws impacting students who are deaf or hard of hearing”, 2015). In 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed “The Americans with Disabilities Act which ensures deaf children have access to state and local governments, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications” (“Laws impacting students who are deaf or hard of hearing”, 2015).


“A major source of controversy between Deaf people and those who support a “social/cultural” view of deafness as “a life to be lived” and those who see deafness within a “medical model and as a condition to be cured” has been over the cochlear implantation of young deaf children” (Hyde, M. & Des Power, 2006, pg. 103). Studies shows that there are considerably differences of cochlear implantation among “groups of children who are potential candidates for implants based on race, presence of an additional disability, and socioeconomic status (SES)” (Hyde, M. & Des Power, 2006, pg.103).

In a study made by (Stern, Yueh, Lewis, Norton & Sie, 2005), they discovered that the relative rate of cochlear implantation in “White and Asian American children was five times higher than Hispanic children and 10 times higher than African American children” (Stern et al., 2005, pg. 104). There has been no proof of race or culture being the main factor behind the cochlear implantation rates, but rather the child’s family socioeconomic status (SES) and access to governmental resources and financial support (Stern et al., 2005).

For over decades, there has been discrepancies in the rate of implantation within minority groups based on their race, language, socioeconomic status, and individuals with additional disabilities. “White deaf children are more likely to be implanted than those of other races” (Hyde, M. & Des Power, 2006, pg.103) compared to Black, Hispanic and Asian.  Also, individuals from higher socioeconomic statuses have higher possibilities to receive hearing implants than those from lower statuses. (Stern et al., 2005).

Status quo of this group

The National Black Deaf Advocates and Gallaudet University Archives have partnered together to develop an archives committee to further develop and expand the NBDA Archives program (“Black deaf history”, n.d). One of the NBDA’s biggest concern is to enhance “the educational and economic advancement of Black Deaf and hard of hearing people” (“Black deaf history”, n.d).  They support and encourage educational growth by giving scholarships to deserving undergraduate and graduate black deaf students with financial needs. The NBDA currently counts with two support programs for youth and young adults in the black deaf community: “Collegiate Black Deaf Student Leadership Institute and Youth Empowerment Summit (Y.E.S!)” (“Black deaf history”, n.d).

The Collegiate Black Deaf Student Leadership Institute was established in 2005 as “an intensive one-week leadership training opportunity for minority college students”. The purpose of the CBDSLI’s is to “develop and practice leadership skills, and to prepare the next generation of Black deaf and hard of hearing leaders to serve in diverse deaf & world communities”. Youth Empowerment Summit (Y.E.S.) was founded in 1997 to “offer one-week educational leadership training and challenging activities for Black Deaf and hard of hearing youth. This program applies to youths between the ages of 13 to 17 from home schooled and deaf institutions” (“College & Youth”, n.d).



Projections on the future of the social justice movement plus a listing of three local resources and the services they offer, for a potential client from this group.

The oldest and biggest resource for the black deaf community is the National Black Deaf Advocates. The NBDA offers annual conferences and counts with more than 30 active chapters nationwide (“National Black Deaf Advocates”, n.d). Another well-known organization is, the National Alliance of Black Interpreters established in 1999 , its mission is to educate and prepare African-American interpreters to advocate for deaf and hard of hearing people in a non-threatening supportive environment (“National Alliance of Black Interpreters”, n.d).

Unfortunately, there are no local resources for black deaf individuals in the Hattiesburg area, however, there are available options in nearby cities and/or online resources.

Alabama Black Deaf Advocates

Alabama Black Deaf Advocates is a nonprofit organization focused on providing human services for black deaf people. It was founded in 2014, Alabama Black Deaf Advocates is headquartered in Bessemer, AL (“Black Deaf Advocates”, 2019).

Chapter #32

Year Established: 2006

Contact Person: LaShawn Washington

Facebook: Alabama Black Deaf Advocates

Mailing Address: Alabama Black Deaf Advocates
P.O. Box 899
Bessemer, AL 35021-0899



American Association of the Deaf Blind

The American Association of the Deaf Blind provides resources to deaf-blind people to ensure that they accomplish “their maximum potential through increased independence, productivity, and integration into the community” (“American Association of the Deaf Blind”, 2019). Some of the activities they do include, completing research on the benefits of technology for dead blind people and ways to make it attainable and affordable for all deaf-blind, improve interpreting services for the deaf-blind community, and provide free trainings and workshops (“American Association of the Deaf Blind”, 2019).

Contact information:

Year Established: 1937

Mailing Address: 248 RAINBOW DRIVE #14864

Livingston, TX  77399-2048

Facebook: AADB1937

The National Association of the Deaf (NAD)

“The National Association of the Deaf was founded in 1880 and it is run by deaf people who advocate for deaf rights. Their mission is to preserve, protect and promote the civil, human and linguistic rights of deaf and hard of hearing people in the United States” (“National Association of the Deaf”, 2019).

Contact information:

Established: 1880

Facebook: National Association of the Deaf-NAD

Mailing Address: 8630 Fenton St, Ste 820

Silver Spring, MD 20910

Although there is not much information about the black deaf community and the social injustices, limitations, challenges, and discrimination they suffer, there is a few books and articles written about the black deaf culture and what it means to be a part of two minority groups (“Black Deaf Culture Through the Lens of Black Deaf History”, n.d).


–          Sounds Like Home, by Mary Herring Wright.  The author talks about her experience of growing up as a black deaf woman in the South.

–          Black and Deaf in America, Are We That Different? by Ernest Hairston and Linwood Smith. The books talk about some of the problems of the Black Deaf community, including undereducation and underemployment (Anderson, G. B., & Dunn, L. M. 2016).

–          Deaf, Dumb and Black: An Account of the Life of a Family, by Mary Miller-Hall.


  • Anderson, G. B., & Dunn, L. M. (2016). Assessing black deaf history: 1980s to the present. Sign Language Studies, 17(1), 71–77.
  • Anderson, Glenn B. and Cynthia S. Grace (1991). “Black deaf adolescents: A diverse and underserved population.” The Volta Review 93.5: 73-86.
  • Berke, J. (2018). Segregation in Deaf Schools. Retrieved from
  • Black deaf culture through the lens of black deaf history. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  • Borum, V. (2012). Perceptions of communication choice and usage among African American hearing parents: Afrocentric cultural implications for African American deaf and hard of hearing children. American Annals of the Deaf157(1), 7–15.
  • Center, C., & Gallaudet University. (2015). Retrieved from
  • Foster, S., & Kinuthia, W. (2003). Deaf persons of Asian American, Hispanic American, and African American backgrounds: A study of intraindividual diversity and identity. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education8(3), 271–290.
  • Editors. (2010) Civil Rights Act of 1964. Retrieved from
  • History – NAOBI-DC. (2019). Retrieved from
  • Hyde M., Des Power (2006) Some ethical dimensions of cochlear implantation for deaf children and their families. The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, Volume 11, Issue 1, Winter 2006, Pages 102–111,
  • Janken, Kenneth R. (n.d) “The Civil Rights Movement: 1919-1960s.” Freedom’s Story, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. Retrieved from:
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  • Myers, C., Clark, M. D., Musyoka, M., Anderson, M. L., Gilbert, G. L., Agyen, S., & Hauser, P. C. (2010). Black deaf individuals’ reading skills: Influence of ASL, culture, family characteristics, reading experience, and education. American Annals of the Deaf155(4), 449–457.
  • Ogunyipe, Benro. (2016) “Black deaf culture through the lens of black deaf history.” Described and Captioned Media Program, (n.d).
  • Rittenhouse, R.K., Johnson, C., Overton, B., Freeman, S., & Jaussi, K. (1991). The Black and Deaf Movements in America Since 1960: Parallelism and an agenda for the future. American Annals of the Deaf 136(5), 392-400. doi:10.1353/aad.2012.0403.
  • Sellers, F. S. (2012, September 17). Sign language that African Americans use is different from that of whites. Retrieved from
  • Shawn S. Nelson Schmitt, Irene W. Leigh, Examining a sample of black deaf individuals on the deaf acculturation scale. The Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, Volume 20, Issue 3, July 2015, Pages 283–295,
  • Stern, R. E., Yueh, B., Lewis, C., Norton, S., & Sie, K. Y. (2005). Recent epidemiology of pediatric cochlear implantation in the United States: Disparity among children of different ethnicity and socio-economic status. Layrngoscope, 115, 125–131.
  • Stretten, A. (2017). ASL and Black ASL: Yes, there’s a difference. Retrieved from
  • Welcome to NBDA. (n.d.). Retrieved from


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