Sign Language

The information presented within this glossary entry is aimed at website owners seeking to learn the ropes of web accessibility. Technical elements are described in layman’s terms, and, as a rule, all topics pertaining to the legalities of web accessibility are presented in as simplified a manner as possible. This guide has no legal bearing, and cannot be relied on in the case of litigation.

Sign language is a comprehensive and expressive means of communication that goes beyond mere spoken words. It primarily operates in a visual-manual realm, incorporating hand gestures, facial expressions, and body language to convey messages. This mode of communication is not just a series of signs, but rather ‌a rich linguistic system with its own unique grammar and syntax, which is distinctly different from that of spoken languages. Each gesture or expression in sign language can represent a word, a concept, or even a complex sentence, allowing for nuanced and effective communication.

Recognized by linguists as a complete and natural language, sign language embodies the depth and complexity found in spoken languages. This recognition underscores its significance not only as a communication tool for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community but also as an important aspect of linguistic diversity and cultural richness. 

Fundamental aspects of sign language

Sign language's structure is fundamentally distinct from spoken languages, characterized by its own grammar and syntax. It operates not in a linear fashion but in a multidimensional one, employing a combination of handshapes, movements, facial expressions, and spatial orientation. This intricate structure enables the simultaneous conveyance of ideas, a feature unique to the grammar of sign language. The depth and complexity of these elements have led linguists to recognize sign language as a complete and natural language, affirming its status as a rich, standalone linguistic system.

Visual cues as the foundation of sign language

The reliance of sign language on visual cues significantly enhances the role of nonverbal communication in human interactions. Facial expressions in sign language are not just supplementary; they are integral to conveying the tone, emotion, and nuances of the message. For example, a raised eyebrow or a specific mouth shape can entirely change the meaning of a sign, much like intonation in spoken languages. Body language also plays a critical role, with the positioning and movement of the body adding context and depth to the conversation.

Moreover, gestures in sign language often encapsulate complex concepts that would require multiple words in spoken languages. These gestures are a powerful tool for expression, transcending the limitations of verbal language. For instance, a single, well-articulated gesture can express a whole range of emotions or ideas, from joy and excitement to complex philosophical concepts.

This visual-based approach in sign language not only serves its primary users but also offers valuable insights into the broader spectrum of human communication. It demonstrates the importance of nonverbal cues in understanding and connecting with one another, transcending verbal and cultural barriers.

Sign language alphabet

Integral to sign language is using manual alphabets, which are employed for fingerspelling. Fingerspelling is a method of spelling out words and names using hand movements that correspond to individual letters of a written alphabet. This aspect of sign language is particularly significant in several scenarios, such as spelling out proper names, technical terms, or any other words for which there is no established sign.

The manual alphabet serves as a bridge between the Deaf and hearing communities, enabling clearer communication, especially in cases where sign language and spoken language overlap. For instance, in American Sign Language (ASL), each letter of the English alphabet has a corresponding hand shape and movement. Similarly, British Sign Language (BSL) uses a two-handed manual alphabet that aligns with the English alphabet.

The ability to fingerspell adds a layer of versatility to sign language, allowing for the inclusion of new and specific vocabulary, thereby enhancing the expressive capacity of the language.

The history and development of sign language

The history of sign language stretches back centuries, with early references to sign communication documented in ancient texts, including those from the time of Socrates. These instances suggest using rudimentary sign communication well before formal development. Additionally, various Indigenous cultures have employed sign systems for intertribal communication, indicating a long-standing presence of non-verbal language forms. 

However, it wasn't until the 18th century that sign language began to develop more formally, particularly in Europe. This era marked a significant shift with the establishment of structured education for the deaf. A notable figure in this development was Charles-Michel de l'Épée in France, who founded the first free school for the deaf in the 1750s and is credited with developing an early form of French Sign Language (LSF). His work laid the foundation for the evolution and standardization of modern sign languages.

The expansion and standardization of sign languages were further propelled by the establishment of schools for the deaf around the world. These institutions played a crucial role in developing and spreading sign languages, such as LSF in France and British Sign Language (BSL) in the United Kingdom. Additionally, the American School for the Deaf (ASD), which was established in 1817, was instrumental in developing American Sign Language (ASL).

Types and variations of sign language

American Sign Language (ASL)

American Sign Language (ASL) is the predominant sign language used by the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities in the United States and many parts of Canada.

In American Sign Language, expression relies heavily on the use of handshapes, movements, and facial expressions. For instance, the sign for "happy" in American Sign Language involves an open hand brushing upwards along the chest, coupled with a cheerful facial expression. 

American Sign Language’s syntax and structure can be quite different from spoken English. A sentence like "I am going to the store" in English might be signed in American Sign Language as "STORE I GO," emphasizing the destination and action without the need for auxiliary verbs or articles.

American Sign Language also utilizes space and movement to convey different meanings. For example, the sign for "ask" changes depending on how the hand moves, which can indicate who is asking whom. The direction of the sign can show whether the subject is asking a question to someone else or being asked a question.

British Sign Language (BSL)

British Sign Language (BSL) is the primary sign language used by the Deaf community in the United Kingdom.

Unlike American Sign Language, British Sign Language uses two hands for its alphabet and much of its vocabulary. The sign for "happy" in British Sign Language involves both hands in front of the body, palms facing inwards, moving in circular motions. This is distinct from the ASL version and demonstrates how the same concept can be expressed differently.

British Sign Language's sentence structure also contrasts with that of American Sign Language. For instance, the British Sign Language structure tends to be more similar to the subject-verb-object order of English. A sentence like "I am going to the store" would be signed more closely to the English order, but with some elements dropped for brevity.

An interesting aspect of British Sign Language is its use of regional dialects. For example, the sign for “birthday” in one region might involve miming the blowing out of candles, while another region might use a different sign, such as tapping the chin with a closed fist.

Other prominent sign languages

  • French Sign Language (LSF): One of the oldest known sign languages, French Sign Language was foundational in the development of many other sign languages, including American Sign Language. It has its own grammar and is used not only in France but also in parts of Canada and the United States
  • Japanese Sign Language (JSL): Japanese Sign Language is characterized by its use of mouthing to accompany signs and its distinct grammatical structure, differing significantly from American Sign Language and British Sign Language
  • Australian Sign Language (Auslan): Auslan has two main dialects and is known for its unique signs, influenced by the country's Indigenous sign languages as well as British and Irish sign languages
  • Mexican Sign Language (LSM): LSM is used in Mexico and has its own set of rules, differing from ASL despite some overlap due to geographical proximity.

Importantnote: Each of these sign languages, along with many others not listed here, has developed over the years, responding to the regional and cultural contexts of their respective Deaf communities. They differ not only in signs and grammar but also in how they incorporate cultural idioms and expressions.

Sign language has gained legal recognition in numerous jurisdictions around the world, signifying a substantial step towards inclusivity and accessibility for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. It has been extensively incorporated into various areas, including:

Live video broadcasts

In many countries, legislation and regulations have been enacted to ensure that televised programs, public events, and emergency broadcasts are accessible to Deaf viewers. This inclusion is not only a matter of linguistic and cultural rights but also a crucial aspect of ensuring that all members of society have equal access to information and entertainment.

Several significant events have contributed to this legal recognition. For instance, the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States in 1990 was a landmark moment. The ADA mandates that public entities and telecommunications companies provide equal access to communication for individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. As a result, live broadcasts, including news conferences and emergency announcements, often feature sign language interpreters to ensure accessibility.

Similarly, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), adopted in 2006, recognizes the importance of sign languages and urges member states to promote and protect the linguistic identity and cultural rights of Deaf individuals. This international framework has inspired legal reforms in various countries to promote the use of sign language in diverse contexts, including broadcasting.

Integration of sign language into educational systems

Another significant aspect of legal recognition is the integration of sign language into educational systems. In many jurisdictions, educational institutions are mandated to provide sign language education and support services for Deaf students. This integration not only facilitates academic success but also fosters inclusivity and social development.

For example, countries like Norway and Finland have made strides in providing sign language education as part of their inclusive education policies. Deaf students have the right to receive education in sign language, and sign language is recognized as a legitimate medium of instruction alongside the national spoken language.

In the United Kingdom, the Children and Families Act 2014 places a duty on local authorities to provide appropriate support for children with special educational needs, including those who are deaf. This support often includes sign language interpreters and specialized educators to ensure that Deaf students can access the curriculum effectively.

Incorporating sign language to enhance workplace Inclusion

In many countries, laws require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for Deaf and hard-of-hearing employees. This may include sign language interpreters, Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) services, and visual alert systems. These accommodations are essential for ensuring that Deaf employees have equal opportunities and can fully participate in the workplace.

Integration of sign language in healthcare settings

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States requires healthcare providers to ensure effective communication with Deaf and hard-of-hearing patients. This typically involves providing qualified sign language interpreters for medical consultations, a crucial measure for patient safety and accurate medical care. Additionally, with the rise of telehealth, these provisions have been extended to include remote interpreting services for virtual appointments. Some regions also focus on training medical staff in basic sign language skills and cultural competency to further improve communication with Deaf patients. Such legal requirements are vital in preventing miscommunication in healthcare settings, which can lead to serious consequences, ensuring that Deaf individuals receive medical information and services in an accessible and understandable manner.

Integration of sign language in government services

Laws in various countries, like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in the United States, mandate government agencies to provide sign language interpretation for Deaf individuals. This ensures accessibility in key areas such as legal proceedings, civic participation, and government interactions. The ADA, for example, requires that Deaf individuals receive interpretation services during public meetings and legal processes, facilitating their full participation in civic life.

Technological advancements have also enabled remote sign language services in government settings, expanding access where in-person interpreters are not available. Additionally, some governments offer sign language training for employees, promoting better understanding and communication with the Deaf community.

Sign language translation for online videos

Like websites, online videos need to conform to web accessibility guidelines to be considered accessible to people with disabilities. The most prominent set of guidelines, and those playing a major role in the shaping of web accessibility policy around the world, are the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG). 

Established by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), WCAG has three conformance levels - Level A, AA, and AAA, with the latter being the optimal and hardest to achieve. Under WCAG Level AAA, sign language translation should be provided to pre-recorded video content. Individuals or organizations looking to conform to WCAG at that level should therefore fulfill this requirement.

Cultural and societal aspects of sign language

Sign language is intricately woven into the fabric of Deaf culture, serving as much more than a mere means of communication. It is a pivotal element in fostering a sense of belonging and identity among its users. Within the Deaf community, sign language stands as a symbol of cultural identity, celebrated through various forms of art, literature, and community events. It acts as a vessel for preserving and sharing stories, traditions, and values across generations, profoundly influencing the social and cultural dynamics within these communities. 

For many Deaf individuals, sign language is at the core of their identity, offering a unique and complete medium for self-expression and connection with others who share similar life experiences.

In the broader societal context, sign language plays a crucial role in advocacy for Deaf rights, central to campaigns advocating for equal access in areas such as education, healthcare, legal services, and employment. These efforts aim to promote not only the use of sign language but also to ensure equitable opportunities and protections for Deaf individuals. 

By facilitating communication, sign language helps break down barriers between the Deaf and hearing communities, fostering a more inclusive society where Deaf individuals can actively participate in all aspects of social, cultural, and civic life.

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