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CODAs: Life and Language in the Contact Zone of Hearing and Deaf Cultures

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Abby Rose

Disability, Identity, and Culture

Prof. Kristen Lindgren

November 28, 2014

CODAs: Life and Language in the Contact Zone of Hearing and Deaf Cultures


Deaf, deaf. Can you tell the difference between the two? 


deaf: a person who is unable to use his or her hearing for the purpose of understanding everyday communication.


Deaf: deaf adults and children who share the use of American Sign Language and Deaf culture-common values, rules for behavior, traditions, and views of themselves and others.


-Gallaudet University, Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center. 


Deafness as an audiological description of a person’s hearing level and Deafness as rich, language-oriented culture go hand in hand, yet in many circumstances they may be considered as separate entities. There are many folks who are deaf, but who do not embrace Deaf culture while there are also folks who are Deaf, but who are hearing - for example, hearing children with deaf parents. “Most hearing people assume that to be deaf is to lack hearing. Many Deaf people experience deafness not as an absence, but as a presence. Deafness is a culture and a life, a language and an aesthetic, a physicality and an intimacy different from all others” (Solomon 62). While the shared experience of deafness is clearly a major unifier in the Deaf community, Deaf culture is strongly formed around the use of sign language; in the United States, American Sign Language (ASL) is the most utilized sign language. 

Although Deaf people may find community in Deaf culture, they inevitably come into constant contact with hearing culture when they turn on the television, go grocery shopping, attend school and work, and even when communicating with their own families. Contact zones, as defined by Mary Louise Pratt, are “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (Pratt 34). Deaf people often experience life as a contact zone where they must navigate through a hearing-centered world. Because Deaf culture is so much more than a shared medical condition, hearing children of Deaf adults, otherwise known as CODAs, can experience and be a part of Deaf culture even though they themselves are not deaf. Viewing Deafness through a cultural lens rather than a medical one, hearing children of deaf parents grow up embodying the contact zone of hearing and Deaf cultures. “CODAs live their hyphenated lives in varying degrees of vacillation, ranging from those who are culturally Deaf, to those who renounce the Deaf-World and its language, culture, and members” (Bauman 314). CODAs’ bilingualism with verbal speech and ASL and biculturalism with hearing culture and Deaf culture fosters a unique experience in the contact zone, complete with its own challenges and benefits.

Language is a primary unifier of all communities, but this is especially true in the Deaf community. “Languages were seen as living in ‘speech communities,’ and these tended to be theorized as discrete, self-defined, coherent entities, held together by a homogeneous competence or grammar shared identically and equally among all the members. … [L]anguage exists as a shared patrimony — as a device, precisely, for imagining community” (Pratt 38). The link between being culturally Deaf and being physically deaf is created through the shared language of sign, which is learned by CODAs as their first language in households that use ASL as their primary communication. “Whether hearing or deaf, children raised in a Deaf family would also be exposed to the social and cultural practices of their parents. [Bauman knows] several CODAs who, even though they are not deaf, are clearly culturally Deaf” (Bauman 313). 

In spaces where there are hearing children who grow up surrounded by deaf culture but who are not taught sign (not necessarily CODAs), the sense of community changes — a longing to learn the language and join the culture is instilled. In her book Train Go Sorry, Leah Cohen details her life growing up at a Deaf school without learning ASL. Cohen says that hearing abilities distanced her from her peers and she "never felt so apart. The privilege of being able to hear paled in comparison to the privilege of being close, of sharing that common experience [of sign language] with the other children” (Cohen). 

For children who do get the opportunity to learn ASL, they are fortunate enough to learn a rich, complex language in addition to spoken English. ASL provides such a strong sense of community in part because uniqueness and linguistic depth. “The writer Lennard Davis, a [CODA] who teaches disability studies, wrote, ‘To this day if I sign “milk,” I feel more milky than if I say the word. Signing is like speech set to dance. … [T]hose who understand can see signing in the finest shade of meaning in a gesture’” (Solomon 55). As shown in Davis’ appreciation of “speech set to dance,” the joys of the hearing/Deaf contact zone are partly manifested in the apprehension of ASL. Although Cohen did not know ASL, she describes her admiration and interest in the language and culture and her draw to learn more: “I played at signing the way other children play dress-up; part of trying on possibilities, practicing for the future, it was laden with excitement and anticipation, even aspiration. I wanted to grow up and be deaf, be a Lexington student, with all the accouterments: hearing aids, speech lessons, fast and clever hands” (Cohen). ‘Speech community,’ then, seems to be quite an accurate description of how Deaf culture has formed and is maintained in the United States, for Deaf and hearing alike. 

In spite of the strong bonds formed over the shared language of ASL, the contact zone can be a site of prejudice against hearing individuals and any form of listening in the Deaf community. Commentator Irene Leigh has written, “'[w]hile I perceive myself as sufficiently competent in Deaf ways and as capable of participating in Deaf culture, I can also communicate adequately with users of spoken English. Because of this, I have at times been labeled as “hearing-mind,” not truly Deaf'” (Solomon 107). In light of these prejudices against “hearing-minded” people, can a CODA ever be fully part of the greater Deaf culture if they can hear? I would presume that since a CODA’s non-deafness is not a choice, there would be less stigma against their hearing abilities than with someone who has, say, a cochlear implant. Although the choice is often out of the child’s hands, there still exists prejudice against people with cochlear implants because they do not experience deafness in the same way as individuals who have been deaf their entire lives; also because cochlear implants are sometimes seen as an attempt to eliminate Deafness. Children with cochlear implants also embody the contact zone between Deaf/hearing cultures, but in a very different way from CODAs. “Children with implants have experienced social difficulties … Some become what William Evans of the University of California has called 'culturally homeless,’ neither hearing nor Deaf” (Solomon 104). So, in spite of the fact that people with cochlear implants are born deaf, the separation they may likely have from ASL sets them apart from the rest of the Deaf community. CODAs, perhaps, are accepted from the beginning as honorary members of Deaf culture since they never had the chance to experience true deafness.

Deaf, deaf. Can you be one without the other? For many CODAs, the answer is a resounding yes. For the hearing children of deaf parents, life in the contact zone is not a gray area, but rather vibrant and colorful, a special experience with its own culture and its own challenges. Language plays a large part in forming all cultures, but Deaf culture in particular. Even if a child is hearing, they can still be culturally Deaf by learning Sign and involving themselves in the Deaf community, either through their parents or by their own volition. The fact that hearing individuals can be a part of Deaf culture by immersing themselves in the community and learning ASL leads to the conclusion that Deaf culture can be valued and explored by other hearing people, too. If hearing culture were to attempt to understand Deaf culture, many of the prejudices in place on both sides of contact zone would be alleviated. CODAs live their lives the contact zone between the hearing and the Deaf, a largely under appreciated, under utilized place that possesses an abundance of opportunity, language, and culture. 



Bauman, H-Dirksen L. "Designing Deaf Babies and the Question of Disability." The Author (2005): 311-15. Web. 27 Apr. 2005.

Cohen, Leah Hager. Train Go Sorry: Inside a Deaf World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1994. Print.

Padden, C., and T. Humphries. "Terminology Describing Deaf Individuals." Terminology Describing Deaf Individuals. Gallaudet University, n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2014.

Pratt, Mary Louise. "Arts of the Contact Zone." Profession (1991): 33-40. Modern Language Association International Bibliography on InfoTrac. Web. 3 Mar. 2011.

Solomon, Andrew. "Deaf." Far from the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. New York: Scribner, 2012. 49-114. Print.