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Considerations for Mediating with People Who Are Culturally Deaf

This document is a publication of the Consortium for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE). Funding for this document was provided to CADRE, a project of Direction Service, through Cooperative Agreement CFDA H326D98002 from the Office of Special Education Programs, United States Department of Education.

Thanks to Ellen Yamshon for her substantial insights and editorial contributions;
Philip Moses, Melissa Mueller and Marshall Peter for their editorial assistance
and expertise; Lynne Rossi for technical editing; Tom Kelly for layout and
design; and Aimee Taylor for administrative support.

Historically, mediation has not been an effective
venue for dispute resolution for Deaf [1]
people because of linguistic inaccessibility and cultural non-recognition.
Like other linguistic minority groups who experience and resolve conflict
in a manner consistent with their social and communicative norms Deaf people
have some unique perspectives. The following article illuminates some of
these perspectives and explains how mediators can address these differences
when working with Deaf people, in order to make mediation a more linguistically
and culturally respectful and responsive endeavor.

The American Deaf Community: An In-depth

Bound together by a common language, American
Sign Language (ASL), the Deaf community in the United States views itself
as a cultural and linguistic minority. Through friendships, marriages, clubs,
formal organizations, shared experiences and culture, the Deaf in America
have created a community. While most hearing people see deafness as a disability,
Deaf people don’t view themselves as disabled. As I. King Jordan, the president
of Gallaudet University (the only University for the Deaf in the world) put
it: “Deaf people can do anything anyone else can–except hear.”
Affiliation with the Deaf community is based not on a physical location or
ethnicity but on a shared language and shared experiences.

In America today, 90% of all deaf children
are born to hearing parents. [2] Many
hearing people have never met a deaf person unless they have a deaf family
member. Because of the obvious barriers that learning English without the
benefit of hearing presents, many deaf children have poor communication with
their parents and hearing family members. Associating with other Deaf people
thus becomes desirable and is the means by which Deaf culture is transmitted.
People in the Deaf community believe that ASL is “the most accessible
and primary language” for Deaf individuals and typically view English
as a second language. [3] For this reason residential schools
play a significant role in Deaf culture. At these schools values, traditions,
acceptable behavior, and other aspects of Deaf culture are learned through
interaction and instruction. These schools have a place of high value and
esteem in the culture: when Deaf people meet each other for the first time,
it is typical for them to introduce themselves not only by giving their name
but also by identifying what residential school they attended.

According to Carol Padden, a Deaf activist
and scholar, membership in the Deaf community is based on four points of entry:
political involvement, social identity, language use and audiological profile. [4] Taking a leadership role to advance
political issues related to deafness and Deaf culture evidences political
. This includes large and small scale activism such as lobbying
state governments to accept ASL for foreign language credit at colleges and
universities, or working with the local residential school to adopt a bilingual/bicultural
philosophy of education. Social identity means that a person identifies
herself or himself as culturally Deaf and participates in the life of the
Deaf community. Supporting Deaf clubs, attending sporting events at Deaf
schools, and providing leadership in Deaf organizations are examples of the
social aspects of the Deaf community. Linguistic access to the Deaf
community is limited to the use of American Sign Language. Because language
and culture are so tightly

linked, this is a central requirement for an individual’s
involvement in the Deaf community. Baker and Padden explain the importance
of ASL by recognizing that “at the heart of every community is its language.
This language embodies the thoughts and experiences of its users, and they,
in turn, learn about their own culture and share in it together through their
language. Thus, Deaf people learn about their own culture and share their
experiences with each other through American Sign Language.” [5] Finally, some degree
of hearing loss is the audiological requirement for full participation
in the Deaf community. However, degrees of hearing loss, audio grams, and
specifics about frequencies and decibels are not descriptions of value to
the Deaf community at large; it is the experience of being Deaf – not the
condition of being audiologically deaf that is significant.

Figure 1. Avenues of Membership in the Deaf Community

While hearing people play important roles
in the Deaf world, they can never become “core” members of the Deaf
community. Growing up with Deaf parents, having a Deaf sibling, working as
an interpreter, or teaching at the Deaf school are some ways that hearing
people gain access to the Deaf community. In general, hearing people’s proximity
to the Deaf community depends on the degrees to which they (hearing people)
are informed and sensitized about Deaf people (see figure 2).

Figure 2.

Characteristics of the Deaf community include
the high value placed on interpersonal relationships, the prevalence of reciprocity,
affiliations with Deaf schools, and clubs and national organizations of/for
the Deaf. Because Deaf people spend so much time in the “hearing world”
– at work, with family, and in day-to-day living – relationships with other
Deaf people are particularly valuable. It is common for calendars to be marked
months in advance of upcoming social events in the Deaf community, and time
with Deaf friends locally and around the country is cherished. These kinds
of gatherings happen in homes, at schools, in Deaf clubs and at larger scale
events like the annual World Deaf Timberfest and the World Deaf Games (the
Olympics of the Deaf).

As is true for any minority group, the Deaf
community has a shared heritage that is the foundation of its literature,
culture, traditions, values, and organizations (e.g., Deaf clubs, the National
Association of the Deaf, the American Athletic Association of the Deaf, the
National Fraternal Society of the Deaf, as well as other local, state, national
and international associations and groups). Within the Deaf community there
is a sense of pride in affiliating with these organizations, and a high value
is placed on ensuring that Deaf people comprise the leadership of these associations.
Just as it would be unusual for a white person to preside over the United
Negro College Fund, it would be unlikely that a hearing person would lead
the National Association of the Deaf.

While some cultural differences between the
hearing majority and the Deaf community are obvious, other differences are
more subtle. One of the most common and unifying experiences Deaf adults
describe (much to the surprise of most hearing people) is the realization
of their own deafness. This “breakthrough” experience occurs when
one’s identity as a Deaf person and a member of the Deaf community becomes
clear. So many deaf people are raised by hearing parents or thinking of themselves
as “hearing impaired” that they don’t become aware of their cultural
identity until later in life. When one recognizes the implications of being
Deaf, and therefore the importance of ASL and shared experiences with other
Deaf people, there is a freedom that comes with this new perspective. “The
essence of Deafness is not the lack of hearing, but the community and culture
based on ASL. Deaf culture represents not a denial but an affirmation.” [6] Part
of the collective identity of the Deaf community is a strong commitment to
cohesion. Because the use of ASL has been threatened for more than a century
by those who would rather see deaf children educated through oralism (the
use of spoken English, rather than ASL), the Deaf community has had to band
together to create a unified front in the face of those who would invalidate
or endanger their language. Unlike the hearing majority in the United States,
who seeks autonomy and independence and makes decisions based on what is most
useful for the individual, the Deaf community values collectivism–considering
community needs more than individual needs, seeking group success rather than
personal gain.

When hearing parents of a new baby first
learn about their child’s deafness, they are typically informed about the
baby’s condition from a medical perspective, and they see their new child
as imperfect and lacking. [7] There
is in fact a grieving process associated with a parent learning that their
child is deaf.
However, most of those parents do not seek out Deaf adults
and do not know about the existence of the Deaf community. Because parents
of deaf children get their information from the medical community and not
Deaf adults or organizations, deafness has historically been viewed from a
pathological perspective as something to be fixed. The state of having diminished
hearing has been seen as a deficiency, as if a person with a hearing loss
were broken. Since deafness in the Deaf community is not seen as an inadequacy,
Dolnick explains that “talk of cures and breakthroughs and technological
wizardry is both inappropriate and offensive–as if doctors and newspapers
joyously announced advances in genetic engineering that might someday make
it possible to turn black skin white.” [9]

The stigma associated with being deaf combined
with external attempts to discontinue the use of ASL and otherwise undermine
Deaf people’s linguistic and cultural integrity are strongly suggestive of
oppression. In his groundbreaking work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,
Freire, a Brazilian sociologist, identified some common characteristics of
oppressed people: ambivalence, self-deprecation, distrust of oneself/peers,
horizontal violence, passivity/adaptation/fatalism, emotional dependence,
and fear of freedom or backlash. These responses and patterns of action,
however subtle, will have a direct impact on mediations when a Deaf person
is involved in a dispute with a hearing person. Recognizing these characteristics
of the oppressed and the oppressor is an important step in balancing the power
between Deaf and hearing participants. [10]

Mediating with Deaf Participants

When mediation involves Deaf participants,
their language and culture must be a primary consideration in shaping the
process and structure of the mediation. To that end, we suggest five guidelines
for mediators:

Ensure that the mediation process honors and accommodates Deaf people’s linguistic
needs and differences.

Recognizing that Deaf people often have limited
English comprehension, it is best to be sensitive about using written English
in mediation. Whether it’s making use of intake forms, mediation agreements,
or flip charts, it is important that language is accessible for all clients,
not just those with advanced English skills. Additionally, it is helpful
to consider and limit the use of euphemisms, idioms, and metaphors. Not only
are these phrases more difficult to interpret, but they are also often culturally
based and not relevant to the lives and experiences of Deaf people. However,
since language ability differs from person to person, no assumption should
be made that a linguistic approach that worked well with one Deaf person will
be successful for all Deaf people.

If there are materials to be read, participants
should be allowed adequate time to read them thoroughly without talking or
receiving an explanation until they are finished reading. Hearing people
are accustomed to reading and listening at the same time. For example, a
hearing person can look at an Agreement to Mediate contract and simultaneously
listen to the mediator’s description of that contract without difficulty.
However, when someone accesses information visually, he or she cannot take
in both sets of information (the written contract and its signed description)
at the same time.

When working with participants who use a
different language, it is also extremely important to define concepts and
terms to ensure accurate comprehension. Any opportunity to clarify meaning,
check with the participants’ perspectives, and restate essential ideas should
be utilized.

Recognize the cultural values that will influence both the Deaf and hearing
parties’ behavior, response and understanding of the mediation process.

Mediation is a foreign concept for
most Deaf individuals. In fact, mediation is likely to be viewed as an extreme
measure, as another method of oppression (the outcome of which will automatically
favor the hearing person), or at least as a culturally unfamiliar way to manage
a conflict. Therefore the “normalization” of mediation is an important
concept. By explaining the process of mediation (addressing any fears of
an oppressive procedure), placing mediation within a continuum of dispute
resolution alternatives, and validating clients’ reasons for being part of
a mediation, mediators can ease Deaf participants uncomfort and thus heighten
the likelihood of an effective and egalitarian process.

Mediators should learn about and be attentive
to Deaf cultural norms [see the Additional Resources at the end of
this paper]. Some of the most significant cultural cues are related to eye
contact and body language. Eye contact is a necessary part of visual communication
with Deaf participants. When a mediator or hearing participant is addressing
a Deaf participant, he or she should consciously maintain eye contact. Likewise,
when a Deaf person is talking, it is respectful to watch him or her rather
than the interpreter.

As visually oriented people, Deaf individuals
have a heightened awareness of body language, and tend to notice inconsistencies
in words and actions. Therefore, mediators should be attentive to their physical
habits and gestures. If a mediator covers her mouth while thinking or speaking,
for example, it may seem to a Deaf person that she is trying to hide something.
Mediators should also be aware of their attending habits. A mediator’s habit
of nodding to show that she is listening to a participant may easily be misconstrued
as a sign that the mediator is agreeing.

Because Deaf individuals are typically more
group-focused (as opposed to individual-focused) in their behaviors, a Deaf
participant is prone to feel isolated during the process of mediation. While
many hearing participants are often grateful for the one-on-one nature of
mediation and perceive it to be best for the sake of autonomy and anonymity,
a Deaf person is more likely to feel disadvantaged as a result of the individual-focused
mediation process. For this reason, it is important that the mediator be
aware of the group-centered orientation that embeds the Deaf individual in
social and interpersonal networks that transcend self-dependence and the Deaf
culture’s value of interdependence above individualism. The presence of mutually
agreed-to third parties in an initial mediation session can be one mechanism
for accommodating the group-centered orientation.

Lastly, because the Deaf community is so
small and its members are often intimately connected with one another, it
is wise to thoroughly review the confidentiality policy with both parties
to avoid future disagreements or misunderstandings about the control of information.

3. Collaborate with interpreters to improve
communication during the mediation.

Mediators must take steps to ensure
that, when necessary or requested, sign language interpreters are present
at all stages of the mediation, from intake interviews to closing statements.
(This right is guaranteed under the Americans with Disabilities Act.) Mediators
who don’t have experience working with or locating sign language interpreters
can often get resource information (i.e.; names of interpreters or interpreting
agencies) from the Disabilities Commission in their state. [See the Additional
section of this paper.]

It is important that the mediator(s) and
interpreter(s) meet together before the first mediated session in order to
discuss their roles and to ensure that the interpreter understands the mediation
process. Similarly, the mediator will benefit from a clear description of
the interpreting process so that she can become more familiar with issues
like lag time, simultaneous and consecutive interpretations, and clarification

The physical setting will also require attention.
Because the interpreter needs to be visible to the Deaf participant at all
times, he or she will probably be positioned slightly behind the mediator
or hearing participant, although the interpreter’s position may need to change
during the course of the mediation. Other considerations include the size
of the room, the lighting, and whether or not there are any visually distracting
features, such as people walking past an open door or a flickering light bulb.

Finally, the sign language interpreter and
mediator should be sensitive to potential confusion about their roles on the
part of the participants. Just as it is possible for the participant who
is Deaf to view the hearing mediator as allied with the hearing participant
by virtue of the fact that they both communicate verbally, it is also possible
that the hearing participant might perceive the sign language interpreter
as affiliated with the Deaf participant. The interpreter’s role, her neutrality
and ethical guidelines, should be explained at the beginning of the mediation.
To further reduce possible misunderstandings, it should be clarified that
the interpreter is not here for the Deaf participant, but to ensure
communication access for all participants. To emphasize the fact that
the interpreter is not biased toward individuals or outcomes, the interpreter
should enter and leave the mediation with the mediator; they should carry
themselves with a similar demeanor and attempt to model themselves as a cohesive

4. Emphasize ground rules and strategies that
will lead to a more fair procedure.

A fair process is critically important in
mediation. The mediator is primarily responsible for ensuring that ground
rules are followed and people are behaving respectfully. One consideration
that should be emphasized when working with a Deaf participant (or any party
who is using an interpreter) is the need for turn-taking. While interruptions
are not desirable, some amount of interrupting or talking-over is expected
in a typical mediation. People jump in to correct each other, ask a question,
or emphasize a particular point. However, when the Deaf participant is receiving
all of his information through an interpreter, it is impossible for a single
interpreter to simultaneously hear and interpret the words of more than one
person. Because of this, the protocol for turn taking should be that no one
speaks while anyone else is talking.

Caucusing is another procedure that should
be carefully evaluated when mediating with Deaf individuals. Some Deaf people’s
lives are riddled with experiences of being isolated – experiences like eating
dinner with their hearing family and being excluded from conversation, or
missing a supervisor’s informal feedback to a co-worker. Further, as Cripps
and Pizzacalla explain, an examination of deaf education shows “(a) that
most, if not all, of the [educational] decisions were made by hearing people,
with little or no input from the Deaf community and (b) that there is a strong
tendency for the same mistakes to be repeated time and time again.” [11] Because
of this history of exclusion, Deaf people will be more sensitive to being
asked to leave while the hearing person caucuses with the mediator and are
likely to feel embarrassed about the need for individual attention if/when
asked to meet in private with the mediator. Therefore, it is up to the mediator
to thoroughly explain the role of caucusing to the participants at the beginning
of the session, to try to minimize the need for caucusing, and to consider
meeting with the Deaf person first if caucusing is required.

It is common in mediation to use techniques
like paraphrasing, restating, reframing, and reinterpreting. When the participants
in mediation are from different cultures or use different languages, it is
even more important to use these clarification tools. The opportunity for
misunderstanding is amplified by the use of an interpreter and the realities
of a bilingual setting. Whenever possible the mediator should take the time
to restate and clarify, or have one of the participants paraphrase what they
heard so that the participants can be more certain that they fully understand
each other.

Understand how being a linguistic minority affects the Deaf party’s participation
in and expectations of mediation.

Regardless of how empowered an individual
seems, she is coming to the table as a Deaf person and may experience disadvantage
based on her historic experience of and exposure to painful and limiting stereotypes.
Mediators must therefore be sensitive to and aware of characteristics of oppressed
and oppressor behaviors in order to facilitate a balanced mediation. Understanding
theories of oppression in relation to the mediation setting is thus an important
requirement for mediators working with culturally Deaf individuals. While
the hearing participant may or may not be responsible for directly oppressing
the Deaf participant, society enforces the idea that people with disabilities
should be discounted. [12] For this reason, it may be necessary
for the mediator to assist the hearing participant in recognizing the Deaf
participant as a valuable and contributing member of society.

The mediator should actively try to ensure
that power differentials are considered and addressed. A model that promotes
a high degree of fairness and emphasizes autonomy and choice is recommended.
For example, Bush and Folger’s model of Transformative Mediation suggests

…mediation can give people a sense of their power
to solve problems for themselves, even with limited resources, and a sense
of control over their lives—it can empower people. Another aspect of the
reasoning [is] that mediation can “humanize” people to each other,
helping them to look beyond their assumptions and see each other as real persons
with real human concerns and needs, even in the midst of a disagreement—it
can evoke recognition. [13]


By considering the effects of language, culture,
and power, the mediator can structure a mediation that is fair, respectful,
and inclusive of the needs of Deaf people. But perhaps most important is
the attitude of the mediator: “a good mediator must have a very good
attitude regardless of whether or not they can sign. Having a good attitude
means understanding [and respecting] the cultural values of the Deaf community.” [14] A mediator who is working with Deaf
individuals for the first time should seek to familiarize herself with the
unique experiences, values, and needs of the Deaf community. The mediator,
as steward of the process, is charged with structuring a mediation that accommodates
Deaf participants. While the task may seem daunting, having an open mind
and a commitment to learning will be handsomely rewarded as the mediator is
introduced to a new culture and way of experiencing the world.

[1] In keeping
with recent conventions accepted by members of the Deaf community and many
professionals in the field of deafness, “Deaf” with a capital “D”
is used when discussing individuals who are members of the Deaf community
and consider themselves to be culturally Deaf; “deaf” with a lower
case “d” is used to describe an audiological condition.

[2] Rainer,
J., Altschuler, K., & Kallman, F. (Eds.). (1963). Family and mental
health problems in a deaf population.
New York: Columbia University.

[3] Cripps,
J., & Pizzacalla, H. (1995). Conflict resolution program for the culturally
deaf. Proceedings of the 1995 Conflict Resolution Symposium at Carlton
Ottawa, ON: Carlton University Press.

[4] Baker,
C., & Padden, C. (1978). American Sign Language: A look at its structure,
history, and community.
Silver Spring, MD: Linstok Press. (Figure 1 depicts
the avenues of membership.)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Dolnick,
E. (1993, September). Deafness as culture. Atlantic, 37 (12).

[7] Sloman,
L., Springer, S. & Vachon, M.L. (1993). Disordered communication and
grieving in deaf member families. Family Process 32 (2) 171-183.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Freire,
P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Continuum Publishing

[11] Ibid.,

[12] Smart,
J. ( 2001). Disability, society and the individual. Gaithersburg,
MD: Aspen.

[13] Bush,
R. B., & Folger, J. P. (1994). The promise of mediation: Responding
to conflict through empowerment and recognition.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

[14] Ibid.,

Additional Resources


Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID)

333 Commerce Street

Alexandria, VA 22314

(707) 838-0030

This national association is the primary certifying and training organization
of professional sign language interpreters in the United States.

On their web site one can access:

The professional sign language interpreters Code of Ethics

Answers to frequently asked questions

Standard practice papers about professional sign language interpreting

Information about the payment and hiring of sign language interpreters

A searchable database to locate certified interpreters in a
specific state or city

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

An amendment of the Civil Rights Act, the ADA was signed into law in 1991.
This statute outlines the requirements of accommodating individuals with disabilities.
Information can be found on the Department of Justice web site:

This site outlines information about:

Technical assistance

Requirements of the ADA


Specific questions can be addressed by calling (800)
514-0301. Information about mediating disputes pertaining to the ADA can be
found at:

ADA Mediation Guidelines

This site hosts the full text of the mediation guidelines as well as comprehensive
links about the guidelines. Completed in January 2000, these guidelines propose
specific strategies and requirements for mediating with people who are protected
by the ADA. Deaf individuals are included in this population.

This page on the web site has a wealth of current articles and
publications about the ADA mediation guidelines. Specific disabilities, questions,
and cases are considered and discussed. These articles change periodically.

Mediation & Dispute Resolution

The Consortium for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education (CADRE)

PO box 51360

Eugene, OR 97405

(541) 686-5060

(800) 695-0285 (NICHCY(

CADRE is the National Center on Dispute Resolution in Special Education.
CADRE’s major emphasis is on encouraging the use of mediation as a strategy
for resolving disagreements between parents and schools about children’s educational
programs and support services.

CADRE published a major resource on making mediation accessible to families
and individuals of different backgrounds, Keys to Access: Encouraging the
Use of Mediation by Families from Diverse Backgrounds.
This document offers
practical recommendations that school personnel, early intervention service
providers, mediation providers, and families can use to develop the knowledge,
positive attitudes, skills and strengths necessary for genuine collaboration.
The document can be found at:

Information about Deaf Culture and
Deafness-Related Organizations

The National Association of the Deaf

814 Thayer Avenue

Silver Spring, MD 20910

(301) 587-1788

Established in 1880, NAD is the oldest and largest constituency
organization safeguarding the accessibility and civil rights of 28 million
deaf and hard of hearing Americans in education, employment, health care,
and telecommunications.

On their web site one can access information about:

Deaf culture and community

Legal rights and requirements for working with Deaf people

American Sign Language

The National Informatiob Clearinghouse on Children who are Deaf-Blind (DB-Link)

Teaching Research

Western Oregon University

345 North Monmouth Avenue

Monmouth, OR 97361

(800) 438-9376

(800) 854-7013 tty

DB-LINK is a federally funded information and referral service that identifies,
coordinates, and disseminates (at no cost) information related to children
and youth who are deaf-blind (ages 0 to 21 years).

On their web site one can access information about:

DB Link Publications

DB Link Databases

Internet & State-based

Research to Practice


Annette Leonard

Annette Leonard holds a B.S. in American Sign Language/English Interpretation and an M.A. in Conflict Resolution. An RID certified sign language interpreter, Annette has previously worked on a federally funded research project focusing on the transition skills of Deaf adolescents and young adults, and served as the Director of Disability Services… MORE >


Debi Duren

Debi Duren is currently a Deaf full-time adjunct instructor at Western Oregon University in the ASL/English Interpretation Program and in the general American Sign Language (ASL) classes. Debi has been coordinating and teaching ASL 1-8 and comparative linguistics for 12 years. MORE >


John Reiman

John W. Reiman, Ph.D., brings a blend of training and professional experience across the disciplines of dispute resolution, counseling, special education, and vocational rehabilitation. His continuing work as a human services practitioner (fifteen years), a teaching and research professor (Gallaudet University, Oregon State University, and Western Oregon University respectively, fourteen… MORE >

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