10 Things Writers Need to Know About American Sign Language and Deaf Culture

I love the movie Jerry Maguire – except for one scene that always makes me want to throw something.  It’s the one where Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) and Jerry (Tom Cruise) see two deaf people signing, and Dorothy says, “My favorite aunt is hearing impaired. He just said ‘You complete me’.”

What a sweet scene, right?  The line even appears later in Jerry’s big winning-Dorothy-back speech at the end.

But here’s the problem: anyone who actually knows about Deaf culture or American Sign Language doesn’t buy it.  If Dorothy’s aunt really taught her that much sign language, then she surely also taught her that many deaf people (and certainly the vast majority of ASL users) find the term “hearing impaired” offensive.  Also, what the deaf actor, Anthony Natale, signs would be rendered word-for-word as “You make me feel complete” – and it’s highly unlikely that even a skilled, experienced interpreter would come up with such a graceful interpretation as “You complete me” on the spot, let alone a character who had only learned a few signs from her aunt.  Though the moment is no doubt lovely to those who don’t know any better, to those who do it’s another example of the pervasive sentimentalization of sign language.

There is so very much that TV, movies, and books get wrong about American Sign Language and Deaf Culture.  Even with the presence of shows like ABC Family’s Switched at Birth, which gets so very much right, myths and generalizations abound.  Here are the top ten things I wish those writers knew:

1) American Sign Language is a real language with its own grammar and syntax.

It has nothing to do with English, and it is a language perfectly attuned to the eye instead of the ear.  Whereas concepts in a spoken language present themselves linearly, sign languages can make use of space to show the interrelation between several concepts at once, with an eye-pleasing efficiency.  Click here for an example.

2) Deaf Culture exists!

It’s the set of beliefs, behaviors, and adaptations unique to deaf signers, and is the foundation of the Deaf community.  American Sign Language is the most precious and powerful symbol of American Deaf Culture.

3) Just say “deaf” – or, if you are referring to culture instead of hearing ability or lack thereof, say “Deaf”.

While some people may identify as “hard of hearing”, terms such as “hearing impaired”, “deaf and dumb”, and “deaf mute” are offensive and inaccurate.  A Deaf person is not broken or impaired; he or she simply uses a different language and is a member of a different cultural group.

4) Reading lips is not a terribly effective way to communicate.

First of all, the correct term is “speechreading”, because when one is doing it, one is looking at far more than just the lips – the facial muscles, expression, and context play a big part in understanding.   Speechreading is a difficult and exhausting skill that takes years to master – and hearing people are usually better at it than deaf people are.  (One Deaf friend jokes that the only sentence she can speechread is “Can you read lips?”)  Even the most skilled speechreader working under the best circumstances of lighting and positioning has to make use of significant guesswork to follow a conversation.

5) If there is a deaf person in a scene, and the other people in that scene are not signing or, in the case of speechreaders, speaking directly to that person, that deaf person won’t know what’s going on!

The fact is that 90% of deaf kids have hearing parents, and an astonishing number of them report being left out of family communication all or most of the time.  Glossing over the vital importance of access to communication and this all-too-common experience of deaf characters by pretending that communication is somehow happening when it clearly isn’t perpetuates misunderstandings among hearing readers and viewers.

6) Sign language is NOT universal, any more than spoken languages are.

American Sign Language is the sign language used throughout the United States and most of Canada.  Because the first deaf educator in the U.S., Laurent Clerc, came from France, ASL is most closely related to French Sign Language, though the two languages have diverged greatly over the past 200 years.  There are many sign languages in the world, such as Chinese Sign Language, British Sign Language, and Kenyan Sign Language.  There is such a thing as International Sign, which is a limited set of signs, supplemented by gestures, used at international conferences and gatherings.  (Please note the absence of the word “language” in the name – that is because International Sign is a constructed communication method, much like Esperanto, used in very limited settings.  It is not a full-fledged language.)

7) It takes years of training to become an American Sign Language interpreter.

This one is close to my heart.  Just because someone can sign, that doesn’t mean he or she can interpret.  Interpreting is a whole separate set of skills that involves taking in and understanding the message in the source language, processing it and finding the best match in the target language, and producing an equivalent message in the target language.  It doesn’t happen instantaneously, and it is a hard-won skill.  In addition, certified interpreters are bound by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Code of Professional Conduct, which requires confidentiality of all assignment-related information, impartiality, and other standards that protect hearing and deaf consumers alike.

8) When portraying the use of American Sign Language in print, please, for the love of God, don’t gloss.

Glossing, a tool that is often used in ASL textbooks and courses to help students remember ASL syntax, uses the words that most closely align to ASL signs and puts them in ASL order.  Words in gloss are always written in the present tense and in capital letters.  For example, the gloss of the ASL translation of the English sentence, “Where is your car?” would look like this:


Glossing can be a valuable tool, but it is extremely limited because it does not show use of space or nonmanual signals (for example, eyebrow and mouth movements and body shifts, all of which serve a grammatical function in ASL).

Worse, when glossing appears in fiction, it gives an incomplete picture of the language and makes deaf characters sound primitive and limited in communication.  What’s wrong with using standard dialogue conventions and replacing “said” with “signed”?:

“Where is your car?” she signed.

9)  Not all deaf people want cochlear implants or hearing aids.

In fact, most culturally Deaf people are not terribly interested in how much or how little they or the people around them can hear; they are more interested in the thousand other things they can do to get on with their lives and everyday interests.  There was a time when getting a cochlear implant meant spitting in the eye of the Deaf community; now, as the limitations of the technology have become clearer, it is seen more as an individual choice.  The major concern of the Deaf community in relation to cochlear implants is the fact that so many hearing parents (and remember, 90% of deaf children have hearing parents) rush to implant their young children without educating themselves about the limits of the technology, the resources of the Deaf community, and the many educational options available.  See the National Association of the Deaf Position Paper on Cochlear Implants for more information.

10) Where’s the Deaf perspective?

If you are going to include a deaf character in your writing, you MUST educate yourself about the rich culture and history of this fascinating, resilient community.  Two must-see documentaries to get you started:

Through Deaf Eyes.  DVD.  PBS Home Video, 2007.  120 minutes.

A beautifully accurate and entertaining look at 200 years of Deaf history, told from the perspective of the people who lived it.

Audism Unveiled. DVD. DawnSignPress, 2008. 57 minutes.

Sheds light on Deaf people’s everyday experiences of discrimination in their families, communities, and the wider political world.  “Audism”, or the idea that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear, was a term coined by a Deaf scholar in the 1970s, and is the lens through which this affecting documentary presents the Deaf experience.

Author’s note:

Before I posted this, the WordPress language checker alerted me to “possible bias language” at the use of “hearing impaired” above.  There is hope for the world!

Find more posts like this at Kathy’s ASL interpreting, storytelling, and resource website, StoriesByHand.com.

This entry was posted in American Sign Language, On Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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