Last year I decided to take an extra class on the side – it was something I had always been interested in but never made time for – Sign Language. I would always think to myself, “why the hell isn’t Sign Language mandatory?” Truly, I still think it should be.

What I ended up learning was more about Sign Language culture than how to communicate in ASL. I was overwhelmed by the politics that existed in the Sign Language community within London. My instructor was telling us how he’s been fighting non-stop to keep the only ASL school here open. There’s still an ongoing threat to shut down the school despite the high number of Deaf-identified folks. Well, why is that?

My teacher was the funniest, light-hearted man. But I could tell that even he was frustrated at this point. He would always talk about the ‘othering’ that happened with people in his community. There is so much stigma against Deaf communities. Whether it be trying to “fix” deaf children or the ASL etiquette that isn’t followed by those who even attempt to learn. Like holding eye contact while signing, so important.

American Sign Language isn’t word-for-signal. What I mean by that is a sentence in English doesn’t correspond to the same hand signals in that particular order. This is similar to French. For example, “I see it,” you say “je la vois.”
Grammar = facial expressions. I can’t even express how important facial expressions are. My teacher stressed the movement of eyebrows. It’s interesting that if there’s a dash between words it’s one sign but there’s a specific facial expression for the dash.

turtleislandLast summer, I was involved in a Language Revitalization Project with the Oneida Nation of the Thames. Onedia, as listed by UNESCO, is an endangered language, with only 60 speakers left – most of them being elders. On the reserve, we worked on trying to think of innovative ways to get community members – especially children – to learn the language. I worked on creating audio-ebooks. What I found really interesting was that while on the reserve, I would interact with a family that would communicate with Sign language. What they had done, too, was create signs to represent certain symbols in Onedia which did not exist in our Western culture.

On that topic, I also wanted to share this article I found that talks about the difference between ASL and Black ASL – how culture, race, and language are intersectional.


Overall, how do we, as a community, create a solid allyship with the Deaf community? I want to hear your thoughts.

2 thoughts on “The Politics of Sign Language

  1. I think this is a great topic because there is a lot of people that don’t recognize sign language as an actual language and the culture that comes along with it. There is still a lot of stigmas attached to being deaf, many people still associate it as having a disability.I think a blog post like this is very important to raise awareness and interest into the different sign languages and the cultures associated with each.


  2. I took an ASL course that taught the basic conversations, at the time I was not an anthropology student, but this information of the different sign languages has made me think about everything I learned in the course. This site has defiantly offered knowledge and a new positionality in understanding sign that is not just in English, but the different styles of English.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s