Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

CGSL Sign Language Identity Panel: Diversity | Joseph Hill, PhD


– [Voiceover] Thank you
very much for inviting me to speak today. For many years I’ve been
involved in a research project involving Black ASL. There is a lot of variety within Black Deaf ASL users across America. And we specifically focused in the region of the southern states. Historically during
the segregation period, which was a time where
schools, businesses, and education were all segregated. And that included where
you resided, as well. And that impacted language. So I focused on Deaf people, specifically Black Deaf ASL users that were segregated from White ASL users, and we wanted to study their language. We specifically focused on
Black Deaf senior citizens who used ASL, who experienced segregation at that time. And we wanted to compare that to young, Black ASL users, and if they’re language
was similar or different. Today I won’t be focusing
in depth on that topic, but I will be talking
a little bit about that to understand what my
presentation is about. In 2007 I joined this research project and we’ve been working on
it up until current day. And throughout the time that I researched, published, and disseminated our works we were thinking about Black ASL users, but we were thinking about the field of sign language linguistics research and Black ASL users, and we know that linguistics was, ASL was really the
research started in 1965 with William Stokoe, and we found that ASL
was truly a language. And from then the research started, and many different research
topics have focused on a variety of different
fields within ASL research. And I wanted to focus a little bit more about Deaf identity and what Deaf culture meant. And it led to a frame of what it means to be a Deaf person. What does it mean to be
a culturally identify as a Deaf person? I’m sure some of you are familiar with the word Deafhood, and that was kind of response to the capital D Deaf identity. Deafness is often focused
on the clinical aspect of or the audiology aspect of
just being able to hear, but we wanted to focus on
the culture of deaf people. How we lived and how we identified. The history, the values
we have as a culture, and that’s Deafhood. Another concept became very popular, which is Deaf Gain. The idea that a Deaf person, we have technology, we have
all this great information. It’s not just for Deaf people, but it’s for everyone. For example, closed-captioning. That’s a really great way
for people to have access to information, but there are hearing people who use closed-captioning, as well. They can use it to improve
their comprehension of English and learn new words. And there are elderly
people in the community who are losing their hearing, who benefit from the use
of closed-captioning. Another scenario is if
you were to go to a bar and it’s very noisy and loud, but you want to watch TV, you can benefit from
the use of captioning, which is a Deaf Gain. But does the idea of being Deaf and having a Deaf culture identity include everyone? When we think about Deaf people, do we think about diversity? We tend to focus in on
a specific population and we don’t include
others which should be considered, as well. Like I said before, the idea of being a Deaf
person who identifies culturally as Deaf
doesn’t include everyone. This book was published in 1983, and the reason this book
was published was not just to talk about Black Deaf ASL and Black Deaf culture, but I think it was a
very strong response of years of frustration, historic oppression. I’ll give you an example. The National Association for the Deaf is an organization that involves Deaf people politically, culturally, talks about different
issues they may experience. The organization was
established in the early 1900s. NAD was an organization that
the Black Deaf community wanted to be involved with. We wanted to have a place in society and issues that we could talk about. And Deaf Black ASL users
were not included in NAD. And fast-forward to present day, Deaf Black ASL users are included in NAD and we talk about different topics, but often times the Deaf
Black membership issues are ignored, put on the back burner, and not addressed as much as other issues. In 1980 we decided to
form our own association which is the National Black Deaf Alliance, excuse me, Advocates, which is the NBDA. From that this book was published. There was so much that was still not known about the issues that affect
the Black Deaf community. So research was done and
literature was published. So this includes very
important information about education, politics, and culture, and it briefly mention
the sign languages used by the Black Deaf community. People within that
community use a different type of sign language to
communicate with each other, and others who are not members noticed and wanted to know a
little bit more about it. A lot of people question
why it looks different, what linguistically is different about it, so we went ahead and published this to
disseminate that information. People are aware of the differences in Black Deaf ASL, and those differences were
founded as early as 1965. I mentioned William Stokoe. He published a sign
language dictionary of ASL, which is called the DASL, and he had one essay and it was written by one of his Deaf assistants, and this Deaf assistant was
by the name of Croneberg. At the time he noticed that sign language used by the Deaf black community in the southern states was different. No research was done, but there was documentation that there was a difference between the ASL used in the Black Deaf community and the general Deaf population. No research had been
done, even up until 1977. There were few works
published about Black Deaf ASL throughout the 1970s. In the 1980s there was
not much research done. And again, and again,
little bits of information were published, but not a
lot of research was produced. In the general ASL community, there was so much linguistic
research and publications for ASL used within
the general population. So in this we thought
that it was a big step for our community to focus specifically on the ASL used in the southern states. (murmurs in background) And more people were
replicating this study in the South to find more data. So what we’re finding is a lot of the data is very similar to the research that has been done previously. So we focus on the geographic
and social barriers that seem to create a difference between the two signing communities. And in this book we
focus on eight different features of the language. We focus on phonology. So we focus on two-handed
signs versus one-handed signs. We focus on signing space, whether it be the forehead
or lower chin area, and we notice some variation within that. We also notice variation within the size of the signing space. Use of repetition, role shifting, mouthing, and so forth. We found six major linguistic differences and we hope to continue to
find more with research. Now that we’ve published this works, our work is not done. We still have much more that
has yet to be uncovered. So we’re going to focus on
both of these categories today. The geographic factors
and the social factors. In the South and back in the 1950s, schools were segregated. Even Deaf schools. So there was definitely a different with the social factors in
the signing communities. After Brown versus the Board of Education, schools were integrated and the Black Deaf community was able to attend schools with
the White Deaf children. A lot of people have reported being a Black Deaf ASL user going
into a White Deaf school and feeling ridiculed or uncomfortable using their sign language
because it was different, and so they abandoned their own language to use the language that
everyone else was using. Again, when they were in
their own communities, comfortable with other
Black Deaf ASL users, they would maintain the
use of their own language and the differences that we have found in our research linguistically. (murmurs in background) And this is an image of
us to show how the role in transmission of ASL happened
within the Deaf schools. So you notice that in the different years, language had transmitted to
the West and in other states, but the Black Deaf ASL users
have a very different history. We’re gonna focus
specifically in the South because that’s where we noticed
most of the differences. The first Deaf school
was established in 1817, and the first Deaf
Black residential school was not founded until after 1865. This was after the Civil War and when all Black
people were emancipated, and so we do need to recognize that the history doesn’t include all Deaf people the same way. There were a lot of
differences historically. (murmurs in background) Okay. So we’re not only going to focus on the discourse of ASL
and the language itself, we are going to focus on other areas, social factors, cultural factors, as well, because those are just as important. They’re important for us to think about and it’s important for us to think about how people interact with one another. If you meet a person for the first time and they speak the same language as you, you know that you’ll
be able to communicate. But how do you know if you
really understand them? We make a lot of assumptions based on the way someone looks,
the way they’re dressed, and their attitudes. We make assumptions about their beliefs, how they view the world, and so forth. And we also have to take into account our personal biases and
our beliefs will affect how we view the other person
and them how they view us. I thought a lot about that and how my identity is shown whether it’s intentional or unintentional, and how that will affect how I interact with that other person socially. (murmurs in background) Okay. So we’re going to look at
cultural and social customs, how people show or hide their memberships to other communities, how people view each other, and how people interpret their
relationships with others. So again, we’re not just going to focus specifically on language. There’s more to interactions than that, so we focus on all of this
when we’re communicating. So we focus on identities, how we can connect with each other. We also take into consideration another person’s credentials. So for example, I’m a professor. Somebody might not know that I have a PhD and I teach at another university, but once they do find out, they may accept me. If I tell them, is it something
that’s easily believable? These are all things
that we need to consider. And it also includes
communication practice, which I think is very important. I’d like to provide an example that explains why this is important and why it’s important to
recognize all identities and not just Deafness. I’m gonna give you an example
about a friend of mine who is a Black Deaf woman. She’s very social. People love her. She’s very well liked. She was with another friend of hers who is a White Deaf ASL user, and they were just chatting, and she happened to show apparently some Black behaviors or some Black Deaf
tendencies or expressions, and her White friend
noticed that and said, “Oh, wow. “You’re really good at acting Black.” So what does that mean? (laughter) So she is a member of the Deaf community, but because she was including other cultural identities, specifically her Black identity, it was a shock for her friend. Why is it that her
Deafness is not recognized as much as her membership
in the Black community? So, many studies focus on Deaf people, but they don’t focus on other cultural or other identities that
may be just as important as their Deafness. So to look at somebody and recognize that that person is Deaf, she’s
Black, she’s a woman, and those things all come into play in how she views the world, people view her, how they
interact, and so forth. That brings us to intersectionality. So I’ll give you an example of myself. I’m a Black Deaf man. If another person were to approach me and they happened to be a White Deaf man, for others who don’t know us, if we ask them who’s the professor? They would normally assume
my White Deaf friend, which is interesting, even though we both
have the same background and we’re both Deaf, but I think a lot of assumptions are made. And again, we can’t control
how people perceive us. Doesn’t matter what I do. I can try my best to
control as much as I can through what I wear or how I communicate my language and my culture, but people will still make assumptions based on what they see. So this idea of intersectionality
is very important. It should be included within research, within discussions, discussions of Linguistics and Language and Deaf study. I think this is a crucial point. So again, to talk about
the Deaf community. There are really wonderful
things that are being studied and we are benefiting greatly from them. I think what I’d like to ask is for the Deaf community
to try to think about the sample size or the
populations that they choose, and how they might best
represent diversity, and be honest in your work. If we’re focusing on
researching the Deaf population, it’s most often that we’re
choosing participants that are White, and they might not be diverse and they don’t represent
the population of everyone. And we can’t use that
research to generalize to the whole Deaf community. In the field of Sign
Language Linguistic research, in Deaf Culture research often times other minority groups such
as the Black community, Asian community, Spanish
community, other religions, are not considered, and those are important factors that could explain the data more clearly, but just focusing on the
fact that someone is Deaf is not enough to generalize that to the entire population of Deaf people. I’ve also have noticed that
in the field of research there’s often that stigma to let other community members
research specific topics, but I think it’s very
important that we don’t exclude certain populations
from our research. I focus on Black ASL. Our research team is
comprised of four people. When all of our research was completed we had some of the
research team interested in other fields, some retiring, and I was the one left focusing
primarily on this topic. I’m not the only person
who can do this research. There are other linguists out there, but are there other Black
Deaf linguists out there? No, there’s not. I’m the only one. There are others who focus on education and other topics, but there are about 14 of us and I can’t assume that
they’ll continue this research. So in our research we
need to use what we found and the diversity to generalize
that other information, and I think it’s important to include other researchers because it would be an important contribution to our field. Thank you.

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