Radio Inspire

How To Learn Sign Language

Improving Learning Resources and Community for Deaf Sign Language Users through Deaf Awareness


[applause] (Sarah Jessica Leivers)
Hi, can you hear me? Cool. Okay, all right. Cool. As you’ve just been informed,
my name is Sarah Jessica Leivers, and why I’m interested
in giving this talk: firstly, I recently-ish
made a career change into what I’m doing now,
web development. I’ve been involved in the
Deaf community for quite a while, so that’s sort of
two overlapping interests, really. I’ve never met
a Deaf developer in person. I have met a few online,
but I’m still hoping to meet one face to face soon. I just thought I’d also share
what this talk isn’t. I’m not an academic,
I’m not a researcher, I’m not presenting
any methodology, and I’m certainly not suggesting
I know best practice, but I am sharing
some stories and some ideas based on my experiences
and interests. The sharp-eyed among you will have noticed
major abstract revision, and the original abstract
was quite grandiose for what I could possibly cover
in half an hour. I do hope, though, that you will
leave with an understanding of what you could do
to help Deaf developers, or would-be Deaf developers,
feel more welcome and included in your local Python
and wider programming communities. Almost 14 years ago,
I went to a sixth form college to study my A levels. A levels are the
single-subject exams that most students
in England and Wales sit to gain entry to University. Most people take three to five
of these; they’re hard. On top of these subjects
we were taking, we were required to take
an enrichment class. This was supposed to be
a course in something completely separate
to what we were studying. The idea was to show universities
how well-rounded we were as students. My fellow students and I bemoaned
the fact that we had to do this. After all, it was extra work,
an extra class, and attendance took up our time and it had nothing to do
with what we wanted to do with our lives after all, did it? There were lots of courses
we could choose from. They included pottery,
life drawing, jewelry making; there were lots of sporty options
that I definitely wasn’t interested in. And I remember
I selected the four least — well, the four least
unappealing from the list, because I didn’t want to do any,
and I was soon notified that I’d been enrolled on
Introduction to British Sign Language. Since attendance was compulsory,
I went along to my first class and waited along with my classmates
for the teacher to arrive. The teacher arrived,
and I could only describe her appearance
as a little old lady. She was not what I was expecting
at all, but the thing that I wasn’t expecting most
was that she was Deaf herself. I remember thinking, like,
“How is she supposed to teach us “if she’s Deaf
and we can’t understand her?” At the time, I had no
real knowledge about deafness, and I didn’t know
any sign language. I remember, a student
who arrived late for the class walked in while the teacher
was writing on the whiteboard with her back to us. The latecomer walked in
and started explaining quite loudly how she couldn’t find the room,
how she got lost. Of course, the teacher
didn’t turn around, and we all uttered
in unison, “She’s Deaf,” to which the classmate actually
started then apologizing quite loudly
to the teacher’s back. I was so Deaf unaware at the time
that that late student could have been me. I probably would have done
something equally as silly, really. People like her, I would say,
aren’t trying to be rude or exclusive — or, people like me at the time
aren’t trying to be rude or exclusive, we’re just so used to hearing
in a hearing world that we never actually
give a thought to what we’d do if we actually
met a Deaf person. And you might be wondering
how did she teach us, actually. And I’ll try and strain
my brain back to remember because it was so long ago,
and she basically just taught us by full immersion. We sort of picked up signs. I don’t know. I don’t want to say
“through osmosis.” It was a bit more structured
than that, but yeah. Maybe a sign language class
has to be experienced in person. I can’t begin
to describe how it was. Okay. This is some information
about sign language. Before that first enrichment class,
I never really gave a thought to what sign language might be, but I did think it would be close
to English in what it actually is. Just like there are many
spoken languages in the world, there are also many different
sign languages. Most people — most hearing people
I tell that to are shocked. They assume that sign language
is the same all over the world and that Deaf people from all over
communicate with each other easily using one universal sign language. The thing is,
they’re at least half right. Although spoken languages
in different countries can be markedly different,
Deaf signers don’t usually have the same communication barriers when using their native
sign languages with each other. British and American English
are I’d say at least 99% the same, proven by the fact that you’re having
no problem following me so far — I hope. But you’ll be very surprised
to hear that British and American Sign Language
is very different. The two languages have
completely different alphabets. The American Sign Language
alphabet uses one hand, whereas the British Sign Language
alphabet uses both. What surprises people more, because it goes further than that,
is that in BSL, there are also — British Sign Language, by the way,
BSL, — there are also regional signs which can be thought of
a bit like regional dialects in a spoken language. For example, “holiday,”
as in a vacation, in the north of England is signed like this
in the north, seriously, whereas, in the south,
it’s signed like this. “Holiday” — sorry, because this is
“lazy” in the north of England, whereas in the south,
this is “lazy.” I should actually move to the side
so you can perhaps see. So “holiday,” “lazy;” in the south it’s “holiday,” “lazy.” I remember almost 14 years ago
when I was first learning BSL I was horrified at the thought
of these regional signs and by the thoughts
of the examiners for the BSL exams who would come from
anywhere in the country and ask me questions
using their regional signs. However, I soon found that these
regional signs were not a barrier. I found this because sign language
isn’t just understood using the signs. It also relies heavily
on body language and facial expression,
as well as lip patterns. This meant that regional signs
weren’t a barrier to me. I found I understood them
instantly a lot of the time, and even borrowed a few of them
from different parts of the country. Just as spoken language relies on
nonverbal feedback from a listener, particularly in a one-to-one
conversation setting, sign language users give feedback through
facial expression and body language to show that they’re following
what is being signed. From what I’ve seen, this practice
seems to help Deaf people from different parts of the world
communicate much more easily than hearing people using
spoken and written languages. Just two weeks ago,
I saw two people in London communicating well
with their native sign languages. One person was British,
using British Sign Language, and the other was from Spain,
using their own local sign language. Okay. Since it’s the final day
of the conference, I thought it would be nice to get in
some last-minute networking. So if you want to turn
to the person next to you, maybe, and ask who they are. As you can see on the screen, here is the British Sign Language
alphabet and some questions. So, to get the
sentence structure right, you put the topic
of what you’re talking about first and put the question at the end
most of the time. So if you want to turn
to the person next to you and say, “name,” “you,” “what?” And then you can reply
saying “name,” “me,” and then you can find your —
how to spell your name. (audience member)
Are the hands from my perspective? (Sarah Jessica Leivers)
They’re from your perspective. But that’s a good question,
because the question signs are from the perspective
of the person watching. And then you can ask,
“work,” “where,” “do” — which is also the same sign
as “make” — “do,” “what?” Okay. Okay. I also wanted to talk
about diversity. As we all know, diversity brings
massive advantages to businesses and communities, especially when
trying to solve problems. As it’s been said, the best way
to solve a difficult problem generally is to get
a diverse group of people with diverse intellects
working on it. Computer programming
is full of solving problems. It’s one of the main reasons
why I and many others enjoy it. It’s finding creative solutions
to technical and logical challenges. And we all know that there are
many groups of people who are underrepresented
in our industry and communities. One particular shame,
in my opinion, when it comes to the underrepresentation
of Deaf sign languages users in programming is that they
could actually have a mind wired to give
an over-average ability to solve logical problems,
and could therefore be an extra-valuable asset
to any team or community. So what, you know?
This is something I find fascinating. And somebody at DCAL at UCL in London I’ve been talking to, something I’ve spoken
to him a lot about. So, I’m definitely
not a neurologist. So here’s my understanding
I have from him in layman’s terms. “Our brains have
a finite number of neurons. “They’re precious,
and none will be wasted. “When someone is born deaf,
those neurons that would otherwise “have been used up
in audio processing “will be commandeered
by other parts of the brain. “This rewiring can enable
different parts of the brain “to form connections with
and speak to each other, “these connections lacking
in an average brain. “People with parts of the brain
which have connections “not observed in others
are seen as having advantages: “potentially superior ability
with visual processing, “certain kinds of memory recall
and logical problem solving — “skills required
in computer programming.” And from that passage
as well as some of my references, who you can’t see
on your screen, include… …Barnaby Lamb from UCL DCAL, and also a paper by Hamilton, 2011. Okay. Learning resources. It can be difficult for anyone
to change career, even though it’s commonplace
for people to do so nowadays. I transitioned into this career
in my mid to late 20s, and did other things before.
I’ve often thought about what a Deaf sign language user
might do to change career. I use learning resources,
including blog posts and online videos to learn from. Many of the videos, especially
the paid video learning providers, are captioned. However, the quality
of the captions isn’t always great, and I’ve spotted many mistakes
when captioning technical language. And just as an aside, I’ve actually,
since I’ve been at the conference, noticed some mistakes
in some of the talks as well, which is unfortunate. A couple of weeks ago
when I was in London, I called some on-site
learning providers to see if they could serve
a Deaf user, just out of interest, because I knew what the answer
was probably going to be. Only one provider
of part-time courses told me it was very likely
that they would be able to provide an interpreter
free of charge. I asked if the interpreter
had experience interpreting
programming courses before and had all the suitable technical
vocabulary in sign language. But the person I spoke to
couldn’t assure me of this because they had used
sign language interpreters to interpret
during various classes before, but never a programming class. Also, coding boot camps
are a popular way for people to change career nowadays. I contacted a few boot camps
about whether they would be able to provide for a Deaf
sign language user, and out of the people I contacted, only one got back to me
and said that it’d be unsuitable since pair programming
with other students is central to the
learning experience. In London, I know many Deaf people
who pursue a variety of careers. One Deaf friend in particular,
Robert, isn’t a programmer, but he has a very technical job.
He’s very successful, and he has his own bespoke furniture
design and manufacturing business. He uses computer aided design,
and then programs — cutting and 3D printing machines
to produce his creations. I asked him recently how he
acquired his technical skills. He explained to me
that after leaving school, he got an apprenticeship
at a London museum making museum displays,
which is how he started, but to get to where he is today,
he’s mostly self-taught by using a problem-based
learning approach, referring to online
learning resources, and occasionally finding
knowledgeable people to help when he’s particularly
stuck on something. As you’re aware,
I’m speaking at a Python conference. You might wonder why that is:
because Python would be a good language for a Deaf sign language user
to start coding in. I personally think so, and this is
a quote from a Deaf programmer I had online contact with,
and this person thinks so, too. Another Deaf programmer
I had communication with recently suggested another reason
why Python might be good for Deaf sign language users
to use while learning to program, and that is that there are
lots of visual libraries available in Python that connect
as a way into programming, and Python could be picked up
on the side. I recently went out for pizza
with a Deaf friend in London. The waiter at the restaurant
had very poor Deaf awareness. It was obvious to me
that he was embarrassed, didn’t want to look
at my friend as he talked, and was all fidgety
and moved around more while he was talking
than he probably would have done with a table of hearing people. I think this was
out of embarrassment. Unfortunately,
this kind of experience, from what my Deaf friends
tell me, isn’t unusual. Why aren’t more people Deaf aware? I asked some of my hearing friends
about how Deaf aware they are. None of them had any Deaf friends, and they knew very little
about deafness and Deaf culture. It seems that hearing people
don’t mean to be exclusive, but they don’t know how to be
embracive of Deaf people either. They often don’t want to cause
an offense or embarrassment, so instead of making an effort
when they see a Deaf person at a meeting or party,
they steer clear, and in so doing, they can actually
cause the offense and embarrassment that they are trying to avoid. Like these gloves. Two students at the University
of Washington, I think it was, just won the Lemelson-MIT prize
for the invention of gloves that transcribe ASL to speech. As well-meaning as this project was,
I know that Deaf people have reacted
to this invention angrily. Trying to sort of explain
the sentiment behind this, I know I’m going to fall short
with this example, but I’ll try and give it anyway. It’s being like me ordering a dress,
say, from an online shop, only to find
that I ordered a dress that’s a couple of sizes
too small for me. Then I contact the shop
to organize an exchange, only to be told, “No, madam, “that dress is perfectly sized
and fits women shaped to wear it. “It is not a couple of sizes too small,
it is that you are too fat.” Putting this sentiment aside, I don’t see how these gloves
would ever allow for a conversation, because my obvious question is: how is the hearing person
going to reply anyway? A while ago, I asked the leader
of a local meetup that I attend what she would do if a Deaf person
turned up to a meeting one time. She admitted that she
wouldn’t have a clue. So here are some communication tips for meetups, and… …basically generally any time
you might meet a Deaf person. I’m going to do what I don’t like doing,
which is reading from slides. Make sure you have the person’s
attention before you start speaking. Try to use a place
with good lighting so the person
can see your face clearly. Face the person and speak clearly, using plain language
in a normal way. Do not exaggerate
your lip patterns. This is extremely unhelpful
for someone trying to lip read. However, that is something
that a lot of hearing people do, genuinely thinking
they’re being helpful. Check whether the person
has understood. If they haven’t,
try explaining a different way, just as you would do normally. If you can’t sign,
you can use gestures to accompany what you say, many of which we actually use
when communicating with hearing people, such as “please take a seat,”
or “would you like a drink?” Do not shout.
Just as when you shout at a hearing person,
it’s aggressive. If the person is a hearing aid user,
then it can also be uncomfortable. The most important thing
is to make an effort. Remember that Deaf people
are the experts when communicating with you. There are always many tactics to try
when an interpreter isn’t available. Some tips particularly for meetups
and conferences and such. If possible, have both
sign language interpretation and closed captioning
at conferences and meetups, too. After each talk, attendees
usually gather for tea and snacks, and also socialize and discuss
the presentation they’ve just heard. It can be difficult
for a Deaf person to participate in these conversations
with hearing peers. Organizers should cultivate
awareness to ask speakers, experts, open source contributors
to spend time talking to Deaf attendees
during these times. At meetups where there are
practical sessions, organizers should enable mentors
to sit with Deaf participants. Remember that mentors don’t
have to be organizers or speakers, that they should be someone
matched appropriately depending on the skills
of the participant. If possible, share slides
and notes with Deaf attendees prior to the talks to make it
easier to follow what is being said. Deaf people who are in attendance
at conferences and meetups is currently low. People can be proactive
by inviting Deaf persons to talk and give talks
to a Deaf user audience, perhaps as a Birds of a Feather talk. And these are actually — those were actually tips
I was actually given by Deaf people who are programmers. I found this quote online. It was actually within an article
about those gloves that I showed you earlier,
and I just think it’s extremely sad. This is Alex Lu. He says that
“hearing people reject the idea “that signed languages
are valid and complex. “When we gesture, they refuse
to try to understand us. “When we whip out the pen and paper,
they complain it takes too long. “They shoot down each and every vehicle
we send in trying to get a message across “with some flimsy excuse
to cover their insecurity. “But their one and only preferred
option is a non-negotiable for us. “Eventually, we run out of options,
or more likely, they run out of patience. “We go and find an interpreter.
Or we just give up.” I think that’s quite sad, so should we,
like, not be that kind of person? Lastly, I just wanted to close on —
this is not a tick box exercise. It should be approached
with the right heart. And this is a quote
by a Deaf Pythonista I’ve had the privilege
of contact with, Ian Smith, and I really like
how he sums this up really well. I was just also asked by someone
who I got to read my talk for me. He actually asked something
I’d overlooked. “Say if I do want to learn to sign,
if I want to take the next step “and learn some sign language
for myself, what should I do?” And this took me back a moment
because me starting was so long ago. And after some thought,
I think the best way to start off would be by looking on Youtube. There are plenty of instructory
tutorials available on there in all the different sign languages.
I recently followed one in ASL, because I didn’t know any —
I still don’t know any — and I noticed that from the
instructory video I saw, some of the question signs
are different. I think what is “what” in British
might be “where” in American. I’m not sure. I can’t remember.
See, I don’t know. Also, I’d recommend finding
what courses are in your area if you’d actually like to go
and attend a course in person. I think Google is going to be
your best bet for this. Sadly, where I learnt to sign
now only teaches Makaton. They’ve really cut back on the
sign language courses that they offer. So, yes, I think that’s
everything I need — well, everything I’d like to share
right now. I’ll be around after if anyone wants to come
and talk to me. Be cool. [applause] (session chair)
Thank you very much. And this is last session,
so thank you for being here at Pycon, and thank you again to Sarah
for this great talk. So I think we’ll be moving down
to the main hall now. Let’s thank Sarah again. [applause]

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