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ASL, BSL, and Signing in Songs

If you ever need to find a sign-language definition for a word, click here.

If you can't find the right sign, just make one up, but make sure you tell the kids that you made that one up or, better yet, have them make it up.  Just don't let it turn into this.

I just performed a song with my kids using signs.  I asked a friend with a Deaf child to help me sign the song, but she thought that she'd be disowned by the Deaf community if she did.  This controversy was completely foreign to me, so I did some research.

Did you know that in Deaf culture, it is offensive and rude to have hearing children use ASL as they sing a song?  Did you know that deaf people might not be offended, but Deaf people will?  Do you know the difference between "deaf" and "Deaf"?  Well, here's a primer on sign language, song, and the culture of people whose ears work in various degrees of vibration sensitivity.

This controversy was such a shock to me that I'm still reeling from it.  This post took over a week of research to complete and I'm sure I'll still be tweaking it as I get comments and learn more.

Some definitions

 These definitions are from the National Association of the Deaf.

The members of this group have inherited their sign language, use it as a primary means of communication among themselves, and hold a set of beliefs about themselves and their connection to the larger society.  We distinguish them from, for example, those who find themselves losing their hearing because of illness, trauma or age; although these people share the condition of not hearing, they do not have access to the knowledge, beliefs, and practices that make up the culture of Deaf people... Deaf people “have found ways to define and express themselves through their rituals, tales, performances, and everyday social encounters.  The richness of their sign language affords them the possibilities of insight, invention, and irony.”  The relationship Deaf people have with their sign language is a strong one, and “the mistaken belief that ASL is a set of simple gestures with no internal structure has led to the tragic misconception that the relationship of Deaf people to their sign language is a casual one that can be easily severed and replaced.”

 We use the lowercase deaf when referring to the audiological condition of not hearing, and the uppercase Deaf when referring to a particular group of deaf people who share a language – American Sign Language (ASL) – and a culture...
 The lower case of "deaf" therefore refers to those people who kind of have one foot in the Deaf world and one foot in the hearing world.  These could be children who had cochlear implants to give them some hearing after they were born Deaf, or people who lost their hearing over time due to injury or illness.  The difference between Deaf and deaf culture has lead to a very visceral controversy over these implants and the idea of forcing Deaf people to make that "D" lower case and try to assimilate into a hearing world.

Hard of hearing
“Hard-of-hearing” can denote a person with a mild-to-moderate hearing loss.  Or it can denote a deaf person who doesn’t have/want any cultural affiliation with the Deaf community.  Or both.  The HOH dilemma:  in some ways hearing, in some ways deaf, in others, neither.
Can one be hard-of-hearing and ASL-Deaf?  That’s possible, too.  Can one be hard-of-hearing and function as hearing?  Of course.  What about being hard-of-hearing and functioning as a member of both the hearing and Deaf communities?  That’s a delicate tightrope-balancing act, but it too is possible.
As for the political dimension:  HOH people can be allies of the Deaf community.  They can choose to join or to ignore it.  They can participate in the social, cultural, political, and legal life of the community along with culturally-Deaf or live their lives completely within the parameters of the “Hearing world.”  But they may have a more difficult time establishing a satisfying cultural/social identity.
Deaf Life, “For Hearing People Only” (October 1997).
 Other terms
"Hearing Impaired" is a politically correct term that focuses on what the person cannot do rather than simply what they are.  It is considered disrespectful and even rude.  It was in vogue 10 years ago or more.

Deaf-mute, deaf and dumb, and other archaic terms are offensive.  These terms have come to mean "stupid" or "unteachable" in modern language and therefore it should be obvious why these terms are objectionable.  


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