Writing Signed Languages
In Support of Adopting an ASL Writing System

Amy Rosenberg
Master's Thesis, University of Kansas
Department of Linguistics, 1999

...back to Table of Contents....
Introduction Chapter 5, Part 1 Appendix B
Chapter 1 Chapter 5, Part 2 Appendix C
Chapter 2 Chapter 6 Appendix D & E
Chapter 3 Summary & Bibliography Appendix F
Chapter 4 Appendix A Appendix G

Part II:
Writing American Sign Language

Chapter 3:
The Deaf Community

Descriptions of American Sign Language, its potential writing systems and the benefits of adopting one of these systems are in order. First, the Deaf community, the group in question, must be described. This section will discuss the population of deaf people in the United States, focusing on those who are Deaf (ASL users) as well as those who are hearing ASL users. It will consider two of the challenges facing this community; its language has not been pervasively considered on par with spoken languages and that its existence as a cultural group has been questioned.

Which Americans are Deaf?
According to the National Association of the Deaf, twenty-eight million Americans have some degree of hearing loss and two million of them are deaf, meaning that they cannot hear and understand speech even with the best amplification. Around 300,000 of these two million are Deaf, meaning they are users of American Sign Language and feel that they belong to a cultural group, as opposed to those who are deaf, those who have a hearing disability. Some members of the Deaf community become deaf as a result of an illness, like maternal rubella, which their mothers contracted during pregnancy. Some become deaf as young children from spinal meningitis. Others have some form of genetic deafness, including those who are born with a hearing loss that progresses to profound deafness. For many, the cause of deafness is unknown. There are many deaf people who are not part of the Deaf community and a few hearing people, with Deaf parents, who are.

Some estimate that the number of sign language users in the United States, including those who are hearing, is over a million, although the number of those who use only ASL is probably quite a bit smaller than a million. In A Journey into the Deaf-World, Ben Bahan, Robert Hoffmeister, and Harlan Lane (1996: 42) say:

ASL is the language of a sizeable minority. Estimates range from 500,000 to two million speakers in the U.S. alone; there are also many speakers in Canada. Compared to data from the Census Bureau, which counts other language minorities, ASL is the leading minority language in the U.S. after the "big four": Spanish, Italian, German and French.

It is used in many schools for the deaf as the language of education and it is the primary language used at Gallaudet University in D.C. Yet, Deaf people are still faced with the hearing society balking at ASL as a language. They are also faced with hearing people questioning the validity of a Deaf identity and doubting the existence of a genuine cultural group.

Those who belong to the Deaf community share customs and norms of behavior, they share a history, they share legends and stories. They share the struggles of living in a hearing world. Above all, they share their language.

Educational History
Those who consider themselves Deaf include people with a wide range of ability to perceive sound. Their feelings of belonging to a distinct culture come from their distinct educational history, and the history of their unique language. American Deaf history, centering around the interplay of education and sign language development, originates in France. The Abbé de l'Epée founded a school for the deaf in Paris in 1755 because he wanted deaf people to have access to the Bible. Laurent Clerc, one of the later students of this school, who also became a teacher there, joined Thomas Gallaudet in 1817 to set up the American Asylum for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut. This was a pivotal moment in Deaf history as Oliver Sacks (1990: 23) writes:

The French sign system imported by Clerc rapidly amalgamated with the indigenous sign languages here ­ the deaf generate sign language wherever there are communities of deaf people; it is for them the easiest and most natural mode of communication ­ to form a uniquely expressive and powerful hybrid, American Sign Language (ASL).

The year 1864 saw the creation of the first deaf college, once the Columbia Institute for the Deaf and the Blind, this was eventually christened Gallaudet College and is now Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts college for deaf students in the world.

Because fewer than 10 percent of those who are born deaf are born into a Deaf family, most people do not join the Deaf community at birth. Although schools for the deaf (often residential) tend to stress English education and may focus on oralism, it is this environment in which deaf children develop their language, American Sign Language. It is also this setting within which the Deaf culture forms.

As one deaf writer puts it, "Deaf people share certain similarities with blind people, for each has suffered the loss of a sense. But blindness is a handicap of mobility whereas deafness is one of communication" (Kisor 1990:10). This handicap of communication can be incredibly isolating. Sign language has had the ability to bridge this detachment and ASL has become the cherished link among Deaf people which allows them to function effectively even with the absence of such an important sense.

Part of the failure to accept ASL as a full language has to do with the doubt that the Deaf community exists as an independent cultural group. Traditionally, cultural groups share a geographic location, or location of origin. Furthermore, most cultures have traditions including food, music, art, and religion. The Deaf community is unique in that these usual criteria for the definition of a culture do not apply and yet its members have a keen sense of belonging to a distinct cultural group.

Aspects of Deaf Culture
"Deaf people argue that they share their own complex language, American Sign Language, as well as a culture and a group history" (Shapiro 1993:85). First and foremost, it is this shared language, American Sign Language, that binds Deaf people to one another.

There are also deaf people who feel no connection to a distinct Deaf culture. We distinguish them from, for example, those who find themselves losing their hearing because of illness, trauma or age; although these people share the condition of not hearing, they do not have access to the knowledge, beliefs, and practices that make up the culture of Deaf people (Humphries and Padden 1988: 2).

Self-identification with the group is a vital diagnostic factor in deciding who is part of Deaf culture. Tom Humphries writes, "Deaf people in countries all over the world who are signed language users consider themselves to be separate cultural groups from the societies of hearing, spoken language users among whom they inevitably live" (1993:3). Deaf people are aware of a "hearing" culture which most hearing people have never considered. Most have had no exposure to the multiple effects on life in the absence of sound.

As one might predict, it is a culture which revolves around the perspective of life without sound and, further, living in a world controlled by those who are dependent on sound. Among those who perpetuate Deaf culture are sign poets, deaf comedians, and other types of deaf performers. Deaf story telling is vastly different from hearing story telling. Even Deaf or hearing children of Deaf parents often write in a distinct style which is less linear than what is usually considered clear story telling. An example is Paul Preston's Mother Father Deaf, written by a hearing man, whose parents are both Deaf, about children of Deaf parents. He describes the difference in story telling styles exemplifying his awareness of being bicultural:

I have written this book as much as possible in the Deaf way ­ not in sign language but in interwoven stories, fragments of sharply drawn scenes, repetitions for emphasis, and the use of questions to create dialogue. Deaf storytelling does not, as one informant explained, "boil down to a punch line." It is in the telling (1994:10).

Story telling is an essential part of the Deaf community. Like story telling in hearing communities, a story may be told over and again with emphasis on the performance. Stories are carriers of history, but they "take on another burden: they are a vital means of teaching the wisdom of the group to those who do not have Deaf families" (Padden 1980: 38). Since about 90% of those who are Deaf do not have Deaf parents, gathering with members of the Deaf community to experience and learn these stories is essential.

Deaf Americans operate under a different set of norms of behavior from those of hearing Americans. For example, greetings between deaf people are distinct from those of hearing. If two people meet who are barely acquaintances, they may hug and kiss, which could be considered too warm for most Americans. Furthermore, upon meeting for the first time, it is necessary for two people to initially establish whom they know in common, often before names are exchanged. Connections within the community often center around the residential school.

In the informal dormitory environment children learn not only sign language but the content of the culture. In this way, the schools become hubs of the communities that surround them, preserving for the next generation the culture of earlier generations (Humphries and Padden 1988: 6).

Only after these connections to or within the Deaf community are established do two signers exchange names.

Another example is the interpretation of facial expressions. These non-manual "signs" are codified as part of the language. To ask a WH-question in ASL, one which could not be answered with a yes or a no, one must furrow his brow. Asking questions with such a facial expression in spoken English would leave the questioned feeling accused or give the impression that the questioner was upset. This is exemplified by one hearing person who was immersed in Deaf culture because both her parents were Deaf. "Later she realized she routinely asked questions using the standard ASL question format ­ arched, furrowed eyebrows ­ an expression her husband misinterpreted as accusatory and angry" (Preston 1994:137). Another norm found in the Deaf but not the hearing world is walking between two people having a conversation. Most hearing people would not walk between two people having a conversation unless it was completely necessary and they would say, "excuse me." For Deaf people, it is rude to do anything but walk straight through two signers. Moving quickly between two signers (when it is necessary to do so) is not rude and does not disrupt the conversation. Stopping before walking through a conversation or signing, "excuse me" is considered rude.

Recently, there has been a surge in the Deaf civil rights movements. These movements were in full swing in 1988, when students protested in order to ensure the hiring of a deaf president at Gallaudet University. The students were proud to be part of a distinct culture. There were enough strong, positive, Deaf role models encouraging them not to limit themselves in life. Their confidence was sufficient to close the campus for a week, sending a clear message that only a deaf leader would be appropriate for a university for the deaf. Valuing ASL and the culture -- evaluating it as language -- was fundamental to this Deaf Pride movement.

...back to Table of Contents....
Introduction Chapter 5, Part 1 Appendix B
Chapter 1 Chapter 5, Part 2 Appendix C
Chapter 2 Chapter 6 Appendix D & E
Chapter 3 Summary & Bibliography Appendix F
Chapter 4 Appendix A Appendix G

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Amy Rosenberg