U.S. Fulbright

Walking in the Shoes of a Deaf Italian: A Deaf American in Italy

December 14, 2016

Sheila Xu, 2016-2017, Italy, attending her first visit at the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a Fulbright event

Italy is one of the top vacation destinations in the world. The whole country is an outdoor museum, steeped in ancient history and customs. The food and weather are world-renowned. Even spoken Italian has a musical rhythm to it. One would think moving to Italy would be la dolce vita, or “living the sweet life”.

However, living in Italy on a Fulbright grant as a deaf person (Cochlear Implant user with both oral and sign language skills) certainly has its own trials and tribulations. I came to discover that the experiences and perspectives of a typical deaf Italian and American are very different. One notable difference is our languages. In the United States, American Sign Language (ASL) is the language of deaf Americans. But almost nobody in Italy knew ASL! So, it was time for me to learn Italian Sign Language, or Lingua dei Segni Italiana (LIS), so I could communicate with deaf Italians. In fact, I am proud to say I am now able to give a presentation in LIS to an audience of LIS signers when giving seminars about the American Deaf culture and its people.


Sheila Xu, 2016-2017, Italy, interacting with one of the deaf employees of Bar Senza Nome, telling her about the owners and the history of Italy’s first deaf bar, while using LIS to communicate. Note how the bar has papers to help non-signers to learn few signs to order their drinks.

Another difference is the level of accommodations for the deaf in each country. I was dismayed to find out my Italian counterparts did not have access to the wide array of services for the deaf I normally experience in the United States. For example, there are no free 24/7 phone call relay services for the deaf in Italy. Sign language interpreters in legal, medical or public settings are not mandatory, which often brought up challenges for me since my LIS skills are much more advanced than my spoken/listening Italian skills.


Sheila Xu, 206-2017, Italy, with President Petrucci from the Italian National Deaf Association or Ente Nazionale Sordi (ENS). This organization plays an important role in the lives of deaf Italians, such as hosting social events, promoting LIS, and advocating for the rights of deaf Italians.

Nonetheless, I find my deaf Italian counterparts are warm, funny, intelligent, and expressive, just like any other human beings. Despite our origins, we are united by our common deaf experiences and use of sign language. They now see me as part of their community, for which I am honored. For my Fulbright project, I am traveling to various sites in Italy to meet, interview and learn the stories of struggle and success of deaf Italian entrepreneurs. I also want to further examine and understand Italy in its context for its deaf entrepreneurs. For example, I hope to answer the question: What about Italy specifically fostered or hindered the development of successful deaf entrepreneurs? I hope to produce a film of dynamic, engaging and visual compiled stories for interested audiences. I want to show deaf Italian entrepreneurs are inspiring figures and encourage additional aspiring deaf entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams and create their own opportunities.

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  • Reply Mettersi nei panni di un sordo italiano - Lingua Dei Segni August 22, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    […] il 2016  /2017 ha vissuto in Italia per la sua prima volta e ha fatto un reportage sulle differenze socio/culturali, vantaggi e svantaggi di vita tra sordi Americani e Sordi […]

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