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British Sign Language and Accessibility


Over the past couple of weeks I’ve had a lot of hits from people looking for online learning materials to support a new term of CACDAP courses in British Sign Language (tap BSL into the search box if you’re looking for links to video resources). As a result I’ve been thinking about the BSL resources found online more generally. On Tuesday I was at AbilityNet’s ‘Accessibility 2.0: a million flower’s bloom’ conference. An early tip was Australian presenter Lisa Herrod (@ScenarioGirl), a consultant from Scenario Seven, and expert in User Experience for Deaf users. Her talk ‘Understanding Deafness: History, Language and the Web’ blew this subject wide open.

Lisa’s presentation and slides are now available via AbilityNet. A transcript will become available soon.

Lisa’s presentation was a timely reminder of the ways in which Deaf people are often overlooked in internet practice and research:

people tend to group deaf, Deaf and Hearing Impaired users into one big group of people who “just can’t hear. Most of us know someone that has diminished hearing through age or industrial damage, noise etc. But few of us understand Deafness from a cultural, linguistic perspective, i.e. from the perspective of those Deaf who use sign language as a first language and may not be fluent in English as a second language.

British Sign Language is the first language for approximately 50,000 Deaf people in the UK. This gestural language is wholly different to spoken and written English. Lisa highlighted how developments from texting through to video conferencing have had a huge and positive  impact on distance communications for the Deaf community. In this sense Web 2.0 provides powerful tools for Deaf people to come together. However, Lisa also showed how internet resources can cause problems for Sign Language users due to an over-reliance on large amounts of complicated text; text that assumes a fluent native speaker.  In short, Web 2.0 is effective for Signed collaboration, but the textual basis of content is still a problem.

So far, these observations have clear intersects with accessibility issues for foreign language speakers and people with print impairments such as dyslexia. However, a specific barrier unique to Deaf people online can come in the form of video captioning. In discussion, Lisa identified a vital distinction between captioning and subtitling. Captioning reports speech directly into text, whereas Subtitling is more interpretive and intended for quick and easy understanding.  Where a person with dyslexia might watch and listen to a video rather than read a text, with dubbed versions available to French or Chinese viewers, interpretive subtitling allows a Deaf person to understand and take in visual content.

Another powerful message from Lisa’s presentation relates to the global status of BSL more specifically.  Early in her talk Lisa refuted a common popular misconception that Deaf people across the world have the same signed language.  Spoken English and American English are nearly identical, but British Sign Language and American Sign Language (ASL) are very different. In fact, ASL has more in common with French Sign Language due to a shared linguistic ancestry stemming from the 1800s. As with the development of any language, Sign Languages have grown out of small communities and expanded simultaneously from disparate beginnings. This history forcefully underlines the difference between ASL and BSL, but what does it mean for the web?

BSL speakers are a linguistic minority online. American English is a dominant internet language, and in my experience, American Sign Language also dominate searches and resources. BSL is from the same family of languages as Auslan (Australian Sign Language) and New Zealand Sign Language, but the American orientation of internet culture made it difficult for me as a BSL beginner to find resources relevant to the UK beyond established portals and communities. In these terms, British Sign Language must be prioritised online at every level.  Other accessibility concerns may be solved or mediated with international expertise. But the national and linguistic independence of British Deaf culture means that accessible video/text and BSL materials must be prioritised in the UK.

Time for me to sign up for BSL Level 2.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 25/09/2009 11:56 am

    Good post. My knowledge in this area is very low, but felt a lot more clued up by the end. Thought captioning/signing distinction was interesting, never considered the difference before. Thanks @slewth!

    PS Waiting the macro-blog post!

    • slewth permalink
      15/10/2009 3:26 pm

      Thanks Warren! Macro-post being held up by red-tape. Hopefully coming soon!

  2. 25/09/2009 12:16 pm

    Interesting point about making sure the web reflects local Deaf culture.

    Most assistive facilities for Deaf people on the web are not culturally specific to them, eg transcripts of audio, captioning of video.

    Sign language is, though and, as you point out, locally specific as well.

    I’ve seen web versions of news videocasts using the sign language interpreter-in-a-corner model. While I agree that it would be ideal for a British site visitor to get a BSL terp-in-a-corner, and an Australian an Auslan one, etc – how could we make that happen?

    In what other contexts do you – or could you – employ SL on the web?

    • 15/10/2009 3:24 pm

      It’s an excellent question Ricky, thanks for your comment. It seems to me that there are several ways that Sign Language could be better mobilised on the web.

      Cloning Lisa Herrod would seem like an obvious first step! I’m being a bit flippant, but I think there’s a straightforward issue relating to general ignorance amongst commissioners, developers and general pubic (me) of the issues faced by British Deaf people online.

      You specify interpreting, and I think there should be stronger support for this, particularly for centrally provided services (local government, independent news etc) with the resources and responsibility to deliver discrimination compliant material.

      From this point, funding and skills become bigger issues.

      Signing avatars were mentioned as a potential way forward at Accessibility 2.0 – unfortunately, as one Deaf delegate observed, avatars still lack the facial expressions that are central to meaning for many signs. As a result, we are still some distance from services that can automatically convert text-to-BSL or text-to-Auslan in the way that (for example) the automatic podcasting ‘Odigio’ button on this blog offers English ‘text-to-speech’.

      More ideally (or idealisitically?), BSL could be more widely available – my university offers free foreign language tuition to Post Graduate students, but does not extend this to BSL. The status of the BSL as a modern language in education as a whole could be better recognised and I think this would have a huge knock on effect.

      What I’d really like to see is more crowd-based approach to interpreting. Lots of people in the UK means to make video (by webcam, phone, camera etc), some of those people can interpret. If interpreters were able to ‘donate’ signing interpretation to those asking for it (with some quality assurance built in) BSL content could begin to approach a wiki model. This could be voluntary, paid and/or tax deductible depending on the organisation or individual requesting assistance. Maybe this is pie in the sky.

      In short, I’ve outlined options that consitute social change or (near-magical) technological silver-bullets. I’m aware that the situation could be different in Australia, but I’d really like to know your thoughts.

  3. 16/10/2009 4:33 am

    In the short term, I think greater use of captioning will be of great benefit to Deaf web users. Embedding recorded video with options to display audio content in captions shouldn’t be too hard, or too costly. Given that commercial DVDs with subtitles in various languages have become a de facto standard, this doesn’t seem like a huge step.

    In ‘live’ content, the increasing proliferation of webcams will be in itself a boon for deaf people using live video chat, although I imagine that will remain desktop-based until someone figures out a way to sign while using a videophone. But there might also be some as yet unexpected refinements in that technology that suit Deaf users.

    There’s a TV channel here that broadcasts ethnically specialised programs (reflecting Australia’s multiculturalism). SBS was for a while the only outlet to screen programs with captions in English for programs with audio in other languages. This is TV that Deaf can people can thus enjoy, so for a while – until closed captioning became widespread – there was a mini-generation of Deaf people who had a very broad socio-geographic view of the world and an unusually detailed knowledge of foreign films. Which is only to say that there are sometimes surprising spin-off developments.

    It’s hard to see as-you-need-it, on-the-fly spoken-word-to-sign-language translation becoming widely available any time soon, although ‘live captioning’ is getting better and may be viable. If they do develop, the web will be the most likely platform for it.

    And right there, you’ve got one of the dichotomies we have to work with: should the alternative format be part of the content, or should the content be rendered accessible by the use of assistive hardware and software? Server-side or client-side? Content-based or user-based? Whose responsibility is it?

    You follow that through and you end up with the big questions like should accessibility be legislated and enforced? Just how? Who bears the cost?

    I think those questions are the same the world over.


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