Learning from the Deaf Community, One Lesson at a Time

May Christin
Wed, 08 Feb 2023

As I was interning at Kota Kita, I got the chance to meet new friends from Gerkatin Solo, a deaf youth community. It was through three sessions of public discussions on how to build a more disability-inclusive city.


5 min read

“Do you know how to give applause in sign language?” 

That was how my colleague at Kota Kita opened the discussion organized with Gerkatin Solo and Ruang Atas as part of an initiative to empower the participation of Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing youths in Solo through creative approaches.

She then held both hands in the air and rotated her opened palms a few times. It reminded me of a scene from a Japanese series, First Love, where a family celebrated the wedding of the main character’s sister, who was deaf. 

It was one thing to watch the scene from a series, but witnessing the crowd's applause in sign language for the first time made it more apparent to me how visually oriented the culture of the deaf community is. It seemed so vibrant and exciting. Learning sign language for applause was the first lesson I gained from the discussion, but there’s more.


Learning another culture

I was nervous about making mistakes when interacting with the Deaf community. This seems to be a common occurrence¹. But my first interaction with my new friends and advice from members of the Indonesian Association for the Welfare of the Deaf (Gerkatin) and  The Indonesian Sign Language Center (Pusbisindo), who were in the sessions, soon changed that concern.

Laura Lesmana Wijaya, M. A,  the head of Pusbisindo, shared during one of the sessions that the best way to tackle the awkward feeling when communicating with Deaf people is simply by asking politely – just like any other social interaction. It reminded me of my first time as an Indonesian speaker conversing with Japanese people a while back. We were speaking in English, a language we both could grasp. The same is true with sign language² as it is with Japanese. They are both only languages I haven’t yet understood. Bima, a new friend from Gerkatin Solo, also encouraged us not to be afraid of making mistakes. While it may be confusing which method of communication is preferred by each Deaf person, we can always ask them by writing the questions, or if they are comfortable with lip reading in the absence of an interpreter.  

I noticed another cool thing — every Deaf person identifies themselves using a unique naming system! Not only did they spell their name, but they'd also sign their name in sign language. But not everyone is given a name right away. Hearing person(s) will be given a name in sign language by their Deaf friends when they are seen as part of the community because names in sign language are created and used exclusively by members of Deaf culture³. Galih from Gerkatin Solo explained that the name could be based on someone's visual outlook, be it the most prominent or a unique visual feature. When I wrote this post, I was given a sign language name based on the shape of my very short bangs!

Some other examples of Deaf culture, according to Laura from PUSBISINDO, include the need to maintain space while conversing, constant eye contact, and using distinct facial expressions. While hearing persons can call someone far away by yelling, Laura taught us to make grand gestures like waving our hands or switching the lights on and off in the room to catch a Deaf person's attention.


A systemic misconception and discrimination

While learning about Deaf culture has been an exciting experience for me, it can’t be ignored in a world where ableism is still profoundly ingrained; these differences often lead to misunderstanding and difficulties at a systemic level for the Deaf community. One shared story among the discussion participants was their educational experience.

One of the participants, Puput, said she was initially excited about attending university. Still, that excitement quickly turned to sadness when she had to deal with hurtful comments from the selection officer. The discrimination did not end there. When Puput started classes, she and other Deaf students struggled to understand the lessons because they were taught in a complex Indonesian language. They had to rely on a live captioner to translate the spoken lesson, which is usually highly inaccurate. So Puput and her friends had to come up with a solution. They tried to teach their hearing friends sign language little by little, formed a group of friends to teach them after class, and advocated for the issues to lecturers and university officials. Their effort finally led to the university creating a more accommodating environment for disabled students by facilitating learning assistance known as PLD (Pusat Pelayanan Difabel).

What Puput and other deaf students did is important because it shows how advocating our needs can change the discriminatory status quo. But relying on the discriminated group to advocate for their needs was not enough because building a more inclusive environment is supposed to be the responsibility of all.


What can we do?

Laura from PUSBISINDO said the first crucial step hearing persons can take is learning sign language. It’s also important to understand that there are a lot of variations of sign language. In Indonesia, BISINDO is the preferred sign language used by the deaf community, compared to SIBI, because BISINDO is the sign language that develops naturally in the deaf community. I’m planning to take the class from PUSBISINDO — in case you also want to start! 

There are other ways to support the Deaf community in ensuring access and participation in public spheres. It could be as simple as recommending to our neighborhood meeting that people with disabilities be included in neighborhood events⁴ and providing sign language translators or Juru Bahasa Isyarat (JBI) for events. 


More inclusive spaces for a better city, please!

I was previously unfamiliar with the experience of deaf persons before participating in the discussions, but now, I have become more aware of the challenges faced by the Deaf community in urban settings. These meetings are valuable because they allow me to form friendships and teach me more about the city I live in. Bima from Gerkatin Solo also said that discussions between the Deaf community and hearing persons are a great learning and sharing opportunity. 

From this experience, I can see that inclusive spaces where diverse citizens can interact and learn with one another are vital. These spaces can raise awareness of the experiences and rights of Deaf persons and, hopefully, will lead to more inclusive policies by the government that address the current challenges and discrimination faced by the Deaf culture.

I look forward to more space for interactions, where everyone can gather, share, and exchange knowledge and experiences as citizens of our city. Here’s hoping that Solo will have more spaces for people to meet without barriers and without being discriminated against based on identities or disabilities.



  1. Emily Ladau, a disability rights activist, in her Demystifying Disability book, explained it further,  “It’s pretty common for the mere mention of the word disability to evoke fear, confusion, and an endless stream of misconceptions. And often, people don’t realize their own biases.”

  2. It’s amazing to learn how there are so many variations in the world. There are at least 300 distinct sign languages worldwide. The legal recognition of national sign languages. World Federation of the Deaf https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/2022-09/Conducting%20Research%20with%20the%20Deaf%20Community.pdf  

  3. Name Signs, What's That About? https://www.huffpost.com/entry/name-signs-whats-that-abo_b_7301910

  4. Ipung, SIGAB, “Maybe around you, there are friends with disabilities, and you can start greeting them. You can start by participating in your community’s decision-making process (and build awareness of disability needs). To help mainstream disability perspectives, you can also start by inviting children or youth with disabilities to participate in neighborhood events.”, at Kreasi Public Discussion, on November 2022.