The Shape of ASL


My daughter is involved in her high school’s plays and musicals.  I’m deaf, and still attend and catch what I can; usually I am able to piece together quite a lot between attending several shows and reading the script.  Recently, the director started providing ASL interpreters for one performance per run.  This is wonderful and a great example of how access can be win-win-win; the interpreters made the show accessible for me, brought in additional deaf attendees who would not have otherwise bought a ticket, and delighted the hearing audience as well.

Several hearing people came up to me after the show to say how fantastic the interpreters were.  They mentioned things like inclusivity (I agree, so important!), professionalism (awesome!) and what a great job the interpreters did.

That last one always gives me pause.  These are hearing people who don’t know American Sign Language at all.  What are they judging the performance of the interpreters on?

Their grammar?  Their use of space?  Their fluency?  How can people who don’t know any ASL judge these things?

The answer is: they can’t.  There are elements of ASL that non-signing hearing people (a group that used to include me – I became deaf as a teenager) just find cool.  There’s the apparent lack of inhibition in their facial expressions and body language, there’s the beauty of the dancing fingers.  There’s the little added frisson of reacting approvingly to something that is seen as “other” and “abnormal” – that’s good, right?  Being nice to disabled people?

It’s hard to criticize this impulse – saying that ASL is awesome and they love it is certainly better than the alternative, right?

It is.

At the same time, this view is limiting and problematic.  It creates situations where deaf creators – those who are actually fluent in ASL – are pushed aside for those who provide the “pretty” version of ASL that hearing non-signers find so attractive.

The 2018 Best Picture winner, “The Shape of Water,” featured a hearing actress who plays a woman who can hear but who cannot speak, and who has been using ASL her whole life.  The sign language is halting and amateurish, but the people who are judging it are not judging her ASL on its linguistic merits.  They’re judging her ASL on its appearance, more akin to dance than language.

I recently had a conversation in the comments of a Facebook post with a person who said she loved ASL but she would only do the hand movements – she refused to “do the over the top facial expressions.”  She was just uncomfortable with it.   I asked her if it helped to just think of the expressions as grammar, and she reiterated that she is “an emotionally reserved person,” unable and unwilling to use “big facial expressions.”

I said,

I get what you’re saying, so sorry if this is repetitive, but can you separate it from “emotion”? It’s just plain information without emotion attached to it. It’s like, the letter “H” in British Sign Language is the same as the sign for “clean” in ASL – the same motion has different meanings. So raising your eyebrows or widening your eyes means one thing in “hearing nonverbal communication” and another thing in ASL. The same motion means different things in different languages. Does that make sense?

She agreed that it did!

But this attitude – not universal among non-signing people, but common – that ASL is worthy when it is pretty and constrained, but alarming when it is more expressive and “ugly,” contributes to a situation where native deaf signers are marginalized.  Non-signers don’t get to claim that they love a language and then demonstrate that what they value is a sanitized, agrammatical version of it.  ASL-Lite is not a language, and valuing it over ASL – and over deaf talent – is a disservice.