Social media has revolutionized the way people communicate – including people in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities.
For everyone else, social media offered an opportunity to keep in touch with distant relatives or friends and track their major life events, but for the Deaf community, the advent of social media was literally life changing.
Social media created a platform for this community to communicate with each other and hearing individuals, share their lives, and even teach American Sign Language (ASL). Unfortunately, with that growing trend came a new trend toward fake sign language.
At a time when the Deaf community can build connection with the hearing community, fake sign language influencers threaten to undo all this progress.
Historic Challenges for the Deaf Community
According to the National Center for Health Statistics, there are about one million “functionally deaf” people in the US and millions more have experienced some hearing loss.
Like other disabilities, recognition and access has been recent and hard-won for the Deaf community. In the early 1800s, there were only a few thousand deaf Americans and no standard sign language existed at the time. The community created its own sign systems, which are now known as Old American Sign Language, but it wasn’t standardized across communities.
Then, in 1880, sign language was banned in schools for the Deaf after a conference of deaf educators called the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf. During the conference, deaf educators argued that oral education was better than sign education, leading to a ban and a significant decline in quality of life and opportunity for Deaf students.
Finally, in 1970, William Stokoe, a linguistics professor at Gallaudet College, declare sign language a true language and created systems to preserve American Sign Language.
The conference was a setback in history for the Deaf community and an act of oppression. The community has made steady progress since, though technology was slow to adapt. Advances like TTY – a type of teletypewriter – didn’t hit the mainstream until the late 1980s.
Fast-forward about a decade and the Deaf community has texting, instant messaging, and social media, creating the first period of time that comes close to true accessibility. With a smartphone, apps, gestural skills, and high-speed typing, Deaf people can communicate more effectively than ever before.
Yet the rise of fake sign language threatens to set that back and create yet another divide between hearing and Deaf communities.
Fake Sign Language Trends on Social Media
With the growth of a vibrant Deaf community on social media – particularly TikTok – the rise of ASL content drew in unqualified influencers looking to piggyback on the trend. In particular, sign language set to music is becoming a hot trend on the platform, leading incorrect ASL content to spread like wildfire.
Many signs are close, so when an influencer uses them incorrectly, it’s practically gibberish to a Deaf person. Though it may appear the same to someone who has the benefit of sound and other context clues, the wrong hand shape, moving hands in the wrong direction, or other subtle differences can be enough to make a sign unintelligible or completely different than intended.
Worse yet, when influencers in the Deaf community try to correct these influencers, they’re blocked or accused of “gatekeeping.” It’s already difficult for Deaf people to communicate with the hearing community, so while these influencers may be trying to show support, doing so incorrectly is misguided at best.
And on a larger scale, the spread of incorrect ASL causes devastating harm to the Deaf community and widens the gap between hearing and Deaf individuals. In the past, “fake interpreters” have prevented Deaf people from accessing critical information during crises.
Who Can Teach ASL?
Hearing people have a desire to learn ASL, but who should teach it has been a subject of debate long before social media. Along with taking opportunities away from Deaf people, hearing people teaching ASL without the proper training may not know they’re making mistakes and don’t have the qualifications to teach.
ASL is an integral part of the Deaf community. It’s essential for hearing individuals to look for Deaf creators and learn from them, rather than any influencer they enjoy. It’s not a trend – it’s daily accessibility for a huge community of people.
National Association of the Deaf’s Official Stance
The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) has an official stance on the teaching of sign language on social media. It asserts that education on social media platforms needs to be done by “members of the Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Late-Deafened, and Hard of Hearing communities who are heritage signers.”
According to the NAD, it’s vital to recognize and respect the expertise of heritage signers who teach and to prioritize their knowledge and expertise. Without the same level of cultural and linguistic understanding of sign language as heritage signers, influencers hopping on the trend lack the knowledge, experience, and nuances to teach ASL in a culturally appropriate and linguistically accurate manner.
The Bottom Line
Deaf creators are booming on social media, but they often struggle to gain the same popularity as hearing creators. They want people to learn ASL, but they want that to go along with supporting the Deaf community on social media, amplifying heritage signers, and advocating for equal access to resources and opportunities.