The 1981 Festival celebrated the skills and traditions of a cultural minority who, despite their large numbers, frequently pass unnoticed: deaf and hearing-impaired Americans. Recent surveys showed that nearly 14 million Americans had significant hearing loss. But it was not hearing impairment itself that made the deaf a cultural group in their own right: it was language and social interaction - the heart of any community. In recognition of the International Year of Disabled Persons, the 1981 Festival of American Folklife featured a program presenting the folklore and folklife of the deaf.
To be sure, some deaf people chose not to participate in Deaf Culture. These individuals never took up sign communication and mingled very little with deaf social groups, preferring to identify themselves more closely with hearing society. But the great majority of the profoundly deaf - at least 1.5 million people in 1981 - used sign language with one another and cherished it, accepted Deaf Culture and society as a positive value, and shared with their fellows the stories, customs, and pastimes that proclaimed that their way of life is something to be proud of.
No matter where they live or what jobs they hold, no matter what their race, religion, age, or gender, deaf people share similar outlooks and problems living in a hearing world whose messages are garbled and invisible, trying to speak a language never heard, contending daily with stereotypes of the deaf as irrational simpletons to be avoided or, worse yet, to be paternalistically protected. Tales passed from hand to hand in the community powerfully contradict the outside stereotypes. In such stories - and there is a vast repertoire of them - the deaf assert to each other their own strength and resourcefulness and achievements, laugh at situations in which the hearing turn out to be dependent, misunderstanding bumblers, and share rueful chuckles at the "hazards of deafness." Other stories insist that Deaf Culture be recognized and respected.
During the Festival, deaf participants performed their signlore, told stories and jokes emerging from Deaf Culture, and discussed their experiences growing up deaf. American Sign Language was taught in workshops to Festival visitors. Working models of the homemade devices that deaf people have invented to substitute for alarm clocks and doorbells were demonstrated, along with the special technology of deaf culture such as a TTY, a machine that allows deaf people to make phone calls.
A special area for collecting deaf folklore on videotape was available to all deaf visitors to the Festival, and they were invited to come to the Deaf Folklore area and share any jokes, riddles, stories, or puns with Smithsonian researchers.