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Deaf culture

This page provides an overview of 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 fare-welling.

Deaf culture, ethnicity, and visual descriptions
Deaf culture is not based on family culture or ethnicity.

The New Zealand Deaf community – local navigation of Te Kete Ipurangi.
Scroll down to the subheading "The New Zealand Deaf community" for further information about about Deaf culture and community.

Deaf families 

While some multi-generational Deaf families exist, 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. While there is no separate Māori sign language, 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

Visual descriptions are so important, they are often used as permanent sign names (like 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.

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.

Tips when using an interpreter
It is important for hearing people and Deaf people to speak directly to each other.

Keep the interpreter out of the conversation because asking an interpreter to join in goes against the interpreter’s code of ethical practice. Be aware that 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. Thus, turn-taking is important.

Ensure the the lighting is good 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.

Remember, a Deaf person cannot simultaneously look at a whiteboard and at a interpreter in the way that hearing people can, at the same time, listen to someone and read information.

Using technologies

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

In the home, their telephone, doorbells, and baby alarms may have a flashing light instead of a ring or other sound tone. Alarm clocks may either use flashing lights or vibrate. Mobile phone that have texting and vibrating capabilities help Deaf people to communicate more easily.

Deaf people find visual noise distracting. As a result, they may avoid particular restaurants and other places where flickering or flashing lights are part of the decor. They also avoid areas where it is too dark to see each other comfortably.

In the classroom, if you need to get a Deaf student's attention, you should flick the light on and off. You could use this same approach when the school bell rings. For example, flick the lights to indicate the start or end of lessons.

Specialist communication services

Specialist communication services that Deaf people use include TTY (Text Telephone) and TRS (Telecommunications Relay Services).

TTY 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 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.

Think about how you could arrange your classroom to create a space that fosters inclusive communication between Deaf people, classmates, teacher, and – if present – an interpreter.

Getting together

There are cultural events 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.

Storytelling 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

Hearing Dogs – Hearing Dogs NZ is a National Charity whose aim is to enhance the independence and wellbeing of Deaf people in New Zealand. It provides specially-trained dogs. Hearing dogs are trained to respond to specific sounds, such as smoke alarms, doorbells, telephone rings, and timers on stoves.

In 1998, the organisation began training dogs and placing them with Deaf people over the age of 18. 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.

Getting someone’s attention

Deaf cultural behaviours include ways of getting the attention of others without using one’s voice or a noise.

Visual prompts
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.

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.

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