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.