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Some functions and uses of literacy in the deaf community

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 December 2008

Madeline Maxwell
Department of Speech CommunicationUniversity of Texas at Austin


Differences in patterns of literacy can be understood in terms of communicative needs as governed by culturally learned notions about the appropriateness of a given communicative mode for a given social activity and by practicality as determined by biological structures and processes. It is through literacy that the deaf person can share in the linguistic experiences of the society at large, since written language is not distorted by the handicapped auditory sense. This study provides the first analysis of the ways writing is used among the deaf and between deaf and hearing communicators. Four groups were consulted and observed: the social community of deaf adults who sign, families in which parents are hearing and at least one child is deaf, families in which parents are deaf and children are hearing or deaf, deaf and hearing schoolteachers. Families with hearing parents use virtually no writing, whereas families with deaf parents and deaf adults in general use writing for several functions. The reading abilities of deaf school leavers seldom exceed fourth grade level; nevertheless, deaf adults use writing daily for exchange of information in the home, in public, on the job, and for communication by means of a telephone adaptation with a keyboard. The uses of literacy are largely conversational, personal, and instrumental. Commercial print in the form of captioned television and movies is also available. Deaf children born to deaf parents are socialized into these uses. Deaf children born to hearing parents are not. Writing which occurs in classrooms with deaf children is largely limited to lesson work, even when teachers are deaf. Literacy programs should take into account the communicative needs of deaf adults and the patterns of literacy use in deaf families. (Literacy, deafness, crosscultural analysis, ethnography of communication)

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1985

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