12 February 2015

Reminder: ASL is a Real, Live Language. We Promise.

In New York City, every time there is a severe weather announcement, the mayor gives a press conference with an ASL interpreter beside him. Immediately thereafter, the lowlier news outlets write condescending posts about the interpreter's strange, wild, or over-the-top expressive signing. [Note: Chances are, you've seen or heard about these kinds of news stories before--remember the collective conniption the media had over Lydia Callis and her interpreting during Hurricane Sandy ? There are many others, more recent than that, too. I won't do these media outlets justice by linking back to their posts here, though if you're so inclined, you'll find the links in some pointed tweets at several culpable news agencies.]

These news stories are problematic for several reasons:

1. They stem from a place of ignorance, one that reveals that journalists are happy to revel in misinformation rather than put in the 5-10 minutes of basic research that would reveal that facial expressions are key to ASL grammar. Different eyebrow movements and mouth shapes denote tone and degree, much like punctuation or inflection in written or spoken English--they are not the result of a weird or quirky signer putting some fun flavor into the mayor's state of emergency address.

2.  They are condescending, representative of the ongoing ableism and audism d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing people have to put up with every day. Consider the news story in which the journalist writes the equivalent of "ha ha ha! Look at that Spanish-speaking person speaking Spanish! He sounds so weird and funny because he's not speaking English!" This, of course, would never be an acceptable "news story" on any mainstream site, because it is quite obviously bigoted and belittling toward Spanish and its native speakers. The fact that the media feels okay about repeatedly presenting the equivalent of an elementary schoolgirl's giggle whenever they see ASL suggests that they do not consider or respect ASL as an actual language, or native signers actual people on par with hearing people who do not have to have their languages mocked in the daily news.

ASL has been recognized by linguists as a language distinct from, and at least as complex as, English since the 1960s. So why is it still that the news media gets such a kick out of mocking it? Part of it has to do with lack of exposure, certainly, but with the internet at our fingertips, this is becoming a rapidly less viable excuse.

To that end, below are some links to information about ASL, ASL-English Bilingualism, and political correctness in the Deaf world. Take a look, and maybe pass it on to a friend/ reporter in need:

What's the deal with ASL? (FAQs)

Bilingualism and the stigma against ASL (implications for deaf education)

Sign without stigma (What happens in communities where both hearing and deaf people use sign language)

On that time everyone freaked out about interpreter Lydia Callis

'Politically correct' terminology and deafness (what is it, and why it matters)

Alexander Graham Bell and the eugenics movement against Deaf people (what better evidence of a thriving language / culture than a deranged man trying to eradicate it?)

Recent coverage of black versus 'mainstream' ASL (the fact that these dialects developed so differently during the period of educational segregation speaks to the fact that ASL is a living language, and one that is distinct from spoken English)


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  3. I've always loved watching signers. I get distracted by them, in a good way, if distraction can be good. And I LOVED watching the ASL signer for the NY mayor who was spoofed on SNL, which was hilarious. It wasn't that I laughed at the signer though. She was cool to watch. I know I have wished many times, watching signers, that I could be that comfortable doing anything in front of people. ASL signers have to be the most fearless public speakers. Inspiring.

  4. Wow. Awesome article. Please do more articles like this in the future. Very informational and knowledgeable. I will expect more from you in the future. For now i will just bookmark your page and surely I'm gonna come back later to read more. Thank you to the writer!



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