MIKE GULLIVER

Deaf geographies, and other worlds.

Bad-quality signing, and why the hearing world loves it.

(Note, in the 5 minutes since I posted this, another clearly-pro voice has popped up… so this is obviously one of the issues where people don’t agree. Important for me to state that.

Also important for me to point out though, that my writing is in response to the kind of ‘give you the feels’ tone that the Buzzfeed article adopts.

Sure, if everyone started doing the kind of thing that Julie Owens did, then it might push social attitudes… it would certainly create debate, which isn’t in itself bad – see my comment below about how good discussion can come from inauspicious beginnings below.

Isn’t it something then, that someone is doing something?

Clearly, this is an attempt to raise awareness, and empower. But when the awareness raising plays with the same representative structures that have created the disempowerment, then all they do – I think – is reinforce them.

If you want another example, see the outrage in the US community about the ‘sign singing’ of a particular hearing couple… and the confusion that has come from some arguing that ‘surely, this is just raising awareness of ASL, and others arguing that ‘no, it’s actually raping our language’).

— original post —

Seen the Auslan-week video from Tuesday? It’s worth watching. By the way, sorry if you’re Deaf… the signing is so sketchy as to be hard to understand, and there are are no captions (ironically, probably because it’s ‘sign language’ so none are considered necessary).

Am I too damning? Is this not good exposure for Auslan… for Sign Language more generally?

It’s exposure – but, I think, only in the same way that celebrity tat about René Zellweger’s face has led to discussions about feminism and well-being.

Why does that video, and the quality of the sign language that it demonstrates, bother me so much?

Three reasons spring to mind straight off – responses to reasoning that I hear repeated in the hearing world.

First, low-quality signing reinforces the idea that sign language isn’t (in itself) quite a real language. Sorry sign language linguists, I know… Stokoe and all, and BSL recognition in March 2003, but from what I hear around me, your everyday citizen still has reservations.

The clearest indication of this is the assumption by hearing people that ‘once deafness is gone, sign language won’t be needed any more’. That doesn’t sound like ‘sign language is a proper language’ to me, that sounds like ‘when we’ve eliminated the need for it, people won’t use it any more’.

That’s the same attitude that people had towards Welsh.

There’s a considerable step between thinking that signing is ‘good enough for communication’ and thinking that it’s a full, natural language that is the equal of anything else out there. Run a test… try telling the next hearing person who thinks that “sign language is cool and all” to imagine a world in which everyone, including hearing people, signed. They’ll immediately start worrying about whether it’s really good enough for everything they want to say.

Typically, hearing people think that signing is OK for children, for people with learning disabilities, it’s a performance tool… it can supplement speech. But stand on its own? No. Fundamentally, they don’t believe that sign language as it is is enough. Low-quality signing reinforces that by demonstrating the fact. QED.

Second, low-quality signing reinforces a (very odd) idea in the hearing world that hearing people can pretty much work out what’s being said in sign language because the ‘signs are quite obvious’. No really, people do actually believe that, and I think they believe it because they see signing that is like an uncomfortable dictionary in action. Signing, like that in the video above, provides words along with the signs… There’s no challenge there, nothing to make people sit up and notice that they are completely unable to follow.

Low-quality signing is also more palatable for those (particularly stiff, Western) hearing people who are deeply uncomfortable around real signing. Real signing can offend stiff frozen faces, and stiff bodies. It forces people to live their language rather than detach from it. People don’t like that.

Again, run a test… try getting a middle-aged professional (sorry to stereotype, I’m nearly a middle-aged professional if it helps) who doesn’t know sign language to sign cat (whiskers etc…), and then embody the cat and sign the actions of washing… they’ll be fine as long as the first part is a discrete sign, devoid of any ‘play acting’, but I bet they struggle with the second – which, interestingly, goes back to the first point… that what sign language is isn’t ‘language’, but ‘acting’ (and that’s childish).

Thirdly, low-quality signing reinforces the idea for both hearing and Deaf worlds that the best that can be done is done for Deaf people, and that any kind of sloppy, carefree, half-baked delivery is better than nothing. I’m not dismissing the time it probably took Julie Owens time to learn that signing, and I’m being uncharitable, and it’s all very selfish and demanding of me to be so determined… But ask a child in a school reliant upon a level 1 or 2 CSW, or a Deaf person at the mercy of an unqualified interpreter, how that same charitable attitude to ‘letting people try’ is affecting their life.

And in those situations, it’s always the Deaf people who have to do the work.

If you want a test on this point, think what the effect would have been simply for Julie to switch off her voice for that signed speech. The signing may not have changed, but at least it would have plunged the audience into a situation of incomprehension that might have had elicited something more significant in their response than just a well-meant round of staged, hand-waved applause.

… This morning’s rant was deliberately inflammatory, and was brought to you by a lack of caffeine.

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This entry was posted on October 23, 2014 by in Musings.
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