By Joanna Chin | Staff Writer

A four year research study launched in 2007 and conducted across six southern states with over 100 Black interviewees arrived at a surprising conclusion: there is no universal sign language. 

Not only does linguistic diversity within deaf and hard of hearing communities exist, but like their spoken counterparts, these sign languages are culturally contextualized, always evolving, and shaped by issues of access and education. 

A Brief History of Black ASL

Black American Sign Language (Black ASL) represents one example of this diversity, emerging from a history of racial segregation. While the first deaf school in the U.S. was established in 1817 in Hartford, Connecticut, Black deaf children did not have access to schooling adapted to their needs until the late 1850s. 

In the post-Civil War era, since deaf schools were largely segregated, the social and geographic isolation resulted in Black deaf communities developing a dialect distinct from the “standard ASL” white deaf children learned. 

Their approaches to signing — hand movements deaf people use to communicate — were embedded with cultural associations. Black communities emphasized a larger use of signing space, two-handed movements, and a greater degree of emoting. 

Child sitting in room waving
Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com

Similar to the development of AAVE, the generational transmission of Black ASL connected people otherwise experiencing marginalization in their society and gave them the opportunity to take ownership of the ways they communicated with others. 

When the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 instituted school integration, Black deaf children had to navigate a linguistic space where their normal way of communicating was no longer mainstream. Within classrooms where there would often be a white teacher teaching “standard” ASL, Black ASL was shunted to the side as a lesser form.

Communication Barriers and Resistance

Black deaf folks suddenly faced a challenging reality, equally as present today: code-switching. Just as Black hearing people tend to adjust their speech when moving through white-dominant spaces, Black ASL users often adapt their signing to meet their recipients’ needs if they don’t share their cultural understanding or context.

The question of interpretation brings added complications as white hearing interpreters make up close to 90% of the workforce

Thus, when Black deaf folks communicate to access resources such as housing, public benefits, education, or even just to express themselves in spaces where they are the minority, there is the danger that their words will be mediated by people who lack insight into the particularities of the dialect they are using and may misinterpret their meanings. 

And yet rather than fading into obscurity, Black ASL continues to be relevant today. New generations have taken on the mantle of spotlighting the histories interwoven with the language and bringing to the stage a larger conversation on the intersections of race, culture, and disability rights. 

man smiling
Photo by Kindel Media on Pexels.com

Signing into #BlackLivesMatter 

Any dialogue about the experiences of Black deaf folks must engage the reality that they experience the impact of both racial discrimination and audism.

Audism is a system of oppression based on hearing ability. It is a subset of ableism. 

Rather than a fully realized sense of unity within Black movements for racial justice, the needs of Black deaf people were and are often overlooked in civil rights movements. Thankfully, there are folks who continue to advocate for increased acknowledgement and awareness of the particular ways that Black deaf folks experience racism. 

Community advocate Michael Hagan is one such example. He points out that the experiences of Black deaf persons with police are intensified by the fact that their signing can be perceived as aggressive or resistant. Individuals can’t hear what police want them to do, and this miscommunication can have fatal results when racial bias is involved. 

See CBS News for more information.

The American with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) outlines the right to an interpreter, visual aids, and real-time captioners, but police trainings often fall short of ensuring that police are proficient in this process and can ensure that the rights of deaf people are honored. 

In addition to addressing policing, other Black deaf leaders and influencers are engaging issues of advocacy for Black deaf people who are incarcerated. Deaf prisoners are levied high fees for the technology they need to make calls to friends and family. 

Still others promote the necessity of interpreters at protests to ensure the inclusion and safety of Black deaf folks.

People in crowd wearing mask and man gesturing with hand
Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

Awareness and Access 

The global pandemic presents both challenges and opportunities for Black deaf folks in ongoing efforts toward equity. While masking policies have impeded lip reading and restricted some forms of communication, the mass move to virtual platforms has provided outlets such as vlogs and online discussion panels for deaf people to share their stories, needs, and demands for change. 

Woman sitting typing on computer
Photo by Uriel Mont on Pexels.com

Not only has this cultivated rich grounds for community and networking, but it has also brought to the forefront the need to recognize these linguistic communities and make space for them. 

Many youth are resistant to code-switching, preferring to remain their authentic selves as a form of power and a stance of solidarity with their linguistic communities. This decision is neither right nor wrong, but it is an intentional and measured choice. 

The push toward inclusion for Black deaf folks has greater implications for other localized dialects of ASL as well, many of which originate in immigrant and Indigenous communities. 

As Carolyn McCaskill, contributor to the four year study of Black deaf schools, declares, “We are individuals with different needs, just as they are. We do not want to be fixed. We are not one size fits all. We are diverse and have different needs.”

A few ways to learn about and support Black deaf communities: 

One thought on “Black ASL and the persistent power of localized language

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