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ASL: the History, Struggles, and Deaf Culture (a primer)

If you didn't already know it,

So, whenever anyone asks something along the lines of:

What language would you like to be fully immersed in?.

I'm like:

jump celebrate

Of all 15 languages I've had at least a small amount of experience with, American Sign Language is by far my favorite. It is emotive and life changing. The history is rich, horrifying, and touching. The culture forming up around it is artistic and powerful! <3

However, whenever anyone follows that up by asking me to explain those things in depth, my mind swims. ASL is HUGE and AMAZING and really really IMPORTANT! But, how to sum that up in just a few words, and as an outsider who is a hearing person just beginning to sign?


This evening I set about piecing together some of what I've been learning about from friends within the Deaf community and Deaf centered Facebook groups. I hope, taken as a whole, people will read this as a small primer on the importance of ASL. And while a D/hh person (thank you Sweilan1!) checked this over for me before I posted it, if there are errors in information or a dispute over framing, the fault is my own.)

To begin, storytelling and poetry are one of the gems of ASL culture. Learning some ASL history brought my viewing experience from a level of "hey, this looks cool" to "OH! Whoa! People used to be isolated and abused for openly using ASL in the past. ASL poetry and storytelling isn't just something cool. It's a legacy of resistance and celebration." ASL Poetry, Caterpillar by Ian Sanborn.

Ok, so the legacy, ready? Here goes:

While there are some humorous takes on communication barriers between deaf or hard of hearing (D/hh) individuals and hearing people, see: Communication barriers--some humor, throughout ASL history, hearing people have used audism to justify creating significant barriers for D/hh people with tragic consequences. See for instance, the Oralist movement and the psychological effects it has had on deaf children.

In light of all of the pressure to conform to hearing society, for D/hh people to see themselves as broken or less than, a concept called Deaf Gain emerged. Deaf Gain acknowledges and celebrates the many contributions D/hh people have given to the world and emphasizes that being D/hh is not anything to be ashamed of. On the contrary, it is something to be celebrated. From the perspective of hearing people, if someone is born D/hh, they are born with "hearing loss". From the perspective of Deaf culture, if someone is born D/hh, they are born with "Deaf Gain". Being D/hh is something to be proud of.

The concept of Deaf Gain comes with a critical interrogation of deafness and disability. Are deaf people disabled by deafness? Or, are they disabled by a society that accommodates hearing people more than D/hh people? For instance, most architecture is designed to accommodate hearing people at the expense of D/hh people. When space is instead designed with D/hh people in mind, D/hh people can more fully participate. Check out the video linked in this discussion for a look at buildings designed for sign language users.. Even more than just the design of a building, , when an entire society is designed in such a way that deaf people are accommodated just as much as hearing people, D/hh people are no longer seen as disabled. For more on that, you can check out The hidden history of Martha's Vineyard Sign Language. While MVSL is not ASL, it is an important part of the history of sign language in the US.

Most of what I learned about Martha's Vineyard, and Deaf struggles through a historical lens I learned a year or two ago when I got my hands on a book called, People of the Eye. It does a phenomenal (and far better) job of explaining the cultural and linguistic challenges hearing people have historically created for deaf and hard of hearing people.

If you've made your way through everything here, I hope you will have come to understand that American Sign Language isn't just a language. It is culture, history, and for some the access or lack thereof is quite literally the difference between life or death. I hope it has helped to convince you that ASL is HUGE and AMAZING and really really IMPORTANT! And also, I hope you'll take a couple of minutes now to revisit Ian Sanborn's Caterpillar.

If anyone is interested in beginning to learn ASL, I highly recommend LifePrint and the corresponding Youtube channel, Bill Vicars. If you are a signer of any level, feel free to join a group of us on Duolingo ASL.

thank you for sharing your knowledge

September 15, 2017



A "Deaf" perspective


I love this. I am involved in animal rescue and work a whole lot with deaf dogs. It's amazing the reactions some people have - from feeling sorry for them to thinking they could never communicate with them. One of my deaf dogs knows over 20 signs, and I often do my own little version of this with people who think deaf dogs are less than hearing dogs - I show off his tricks and although I don't say it, I think "can your hearing dog do THAT? :-)


Did you know there really are some ASL dog-training signs? Please don't take this as any sort of criticism!! I don't think most Deaf people actually know them - but they do exist.

Also, love that you are working with deaf dogs!!


What Deaf people often think when someone says they think ASL is a beautiful langauge


bahahaha! I've seen this one. I love it! (Also, if I'm understandign correctly, the underlying humor is that it is a bit rude of those two to be staring at the that family's conversation?)


Basically, it just means Deaf people think it's kind of funny that they could be discussing the most vulgar topics or something completely mundane and a hearing person thinks it's beautiful. Like in this cartoon, it's kind of funny that the hearing people think the sign for "poop" is beautiful. A Deaf person would ask, "Poop is beautiful???"


itchy feet is the best!


The most hated English word in Deaf culture - never mind.


Hmm, my friend got angry at me the other day when I told them "I'll tell you later." They kept offering suggestions about how to do something. And, I kept being like "I can't do that". They wouldn't stop and we were at a game night so there were other people around. The reason why I couldn't take their suggestion was private and I didn't want everyone knowing. I was also running really late. Now I realize that, they got angry just after I said "I'll tell you later." So, now I wonder if there was a misunderstanding over that. :(

Thank you for posting this picture! My friends have discussed how hearing people often exclude them from the conversation by saying those things.


Maybe next time something like "It's personal so I'll tell you later" or "I'm running late so I'll tell you later" would work better?


Thanks! I wish I had had the signs for that at the time. I made sure to follow up with them two days ago, and better explained the situation. :)


Maybe those signs should be taught at the same time as the "I'll tell you later" signs, the same way many language courses teach the words for "hello" and "goodbye" at the same time? :)


I wish I were optimistic that people would not use the signs in the same way as "I'll tell you later" is frequently used. :(


Thanks for bringing up this topic! I actually don't know ASL myself, but a friend of mine knows it and they can communicate with deaf people. This will probably be interesting for many people, and the history of ASL is very appealing to learn about! :D


Avoid labeling a Deaf or Hard of Hearing person as "hearing impaired". It's considered very rude and offensive.


The Deaf Community considers the Deaf President Now protests to be one of the most important moments in Deaf history.



ASL is really important, thanks for shedding some light on this. :)


Having said how much I appreciate ASL, I decided to do a 1 week ASL challenge. You can join Here. :)


THANK YOU! Your articles here have shed light on this for many people.


Thank you for this, it was very interesting. :)

[deactivated user]

    I'm deaf in my left ear, so this means a lot to me. Thank you. ❤︎


    I really really like ASL!!! I used to know most of it, but now I don't know much of it.

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