SignWriting List Archive 1
October 1997 - May 1998

 Search by Date Search by Subject
 Search Archive 2 Search Archive 3

April 19, 1998

SUBJECT: SignWriting Report April 19, 1998

From the desk of
Valerie Sutton
La Jolla, California

Dear List Members:
This week the DAC presented a "roundtable discussion" on SignWriting at a conference entitled "The Impact of Deafness on Cognition" held in San Diego, on April 13th and 14th. It went very well! Most importantly, individuals spoke with us about starting to use SignWriting in the school systems. Later, in another message, I will be writing more to you about the SignWriting Literacy Project.

By the way, I met several people who are members of the SignWriting Email List! It was great putting faces with names...I was very happy to meet you all :-)

In this message, I would like to share with you my personal perspective about this week. I used to attend a lot of conferences back in the 1980's, so this was almost like a "deja vu" for me, except that people's responses to SignWriting were quite different. I was pleasantly surprised! I realize now that times are changing, and I am glad to see it. Let me explain...

Back in 1974, when I first started SignWriting, it was a very new concept. I believed that signed languages could be written languages, and I told people that, wherever I went. I envisioned books, literature and newspapers written in the movements of signed languages, read by Deaf children and Deaf adults. Even though SignWriting, at that time, was very new, and of course, it was not perfect (smile), it was my dream to someday empower people with their own pens and their own thoughts, writing in their own languages.

Part of the reason I saw the value in writing signed languages, was that I had recently learned to speak Danish as my second language (I lived in Denmark at the time), and I could hardly imagine trying to write Danish with an "English gloss". There is just no way it could be done, without destroying Danish and giving a total misimpression to the reader.

I was also a dancer and a movement notator, and I could record body movement, such as dance. At that time we already had six-year olds reading DanceWriting. It seemed a shame not to try to write signs, if it could be done...

However, the idea of writing signed languages was 25 years ahead of its time, and it met with much resistance. I would ask people..."Why shouldn't people native to signed languages have a way to record their native language?" ...and although some people were openminded, most of the time, the response was negative, in fact, sometimes it was downright hostile.

What were some of people's fears? There were many. Some people were fearful that reading and writing signs would isolate Deaf people further, making it impossible to learn to read and write words. Actually just the opposite is true, but I received mail that was close to "hate mail" about this. Other people were fearful that we were changing or destroying signed languages, or inventing a new language. Actually just the opposite is true. We are recording and preserving signed languages just as they are signed, so that future generations can treasure them, remember them, and learn them.

I realized, back then, that new ideas are often first met with hostility. So I tried to keep philosophic about it - and keep positive - and keep working. As more and more Deaf people worked with SignWriting, there were important developments and improvements. And as it became easier to read, of course the support grew. So it has been a fascinating journey, and I feel very fortunate to be alive to see this new era of growing acceptance.

Now with the SignWriting Web Site and the Email List, I have been able to reach people on a regular basis, even though I have been too ill to travel for a decade. But this April, the conference came to my hometown...and so did a lot of other wonderful people and experiences. As you know, Ingvild Roald, from Norway, traveled all the way from the other side of the world to present a paper at the conference. And Janice Gangel-Vasquez, who has done research on SignWriting literacy in Nicaragua, also attended.

On Easter Sunday evening, we had a special DAC meeting at my home in La Jolla. Liz Mendoza and Gina Schweitzer, from Network Interpreting Services, interpreted for the meeting. Our Deaf staff members, and other guests, discussed how we would present SignWriting at the conference.

Then, the day after Easter, Janice, Ingvild and I got up at dawn and drove to the hotel (here in San Diego) to share breakfast with the conference attendees. The presentations were very enjoyable and enlightening. And I saw many old friends - I even saw one of my first students of SignWriting in the USA, who had learned the "old system" with me in 1979 at NTID!

On Tuesday, April 14th, Janice and I presented our "roundtable discussion" on SignWriting. What is a roundtable discussion? Different presenters stood at round tables with copies of their papers, and others walked by the tables and discussed the research with the authors. It was informal but a great way to communicate directly with individuals.

What did SignWriting achieve at this conference? I had a chance to talk with individuals - I taught people the basic symbols and taught them to read sentences - and I gave them 4 or 5 handouts to show others back home. The response was very positive, and several people told me that they now plan to teach and use SignWriting in the future.

At the end of the week, I was reviewing the conference in my mind, and I realized that there was not one negative confrontation. I can honestly say that this is the first conference where everyone was positive. I spoke to others about this later, and they too confirmed they noticed a difference. One person told me they noticed about six months ago, that people have started to consider writing signs and are starting to see the value in it.

How nice! the way...if you would like to have copies of the handouts I gave people at the conference, just write to me, and I will be happy to mail a packet to you.

And please feel free to respond to this or any other message - your input is always valued :-)

With all good wishes -