Last year in our series on overlooked languages, we took a quick tour of the history of sign language, and learned that there are more than 130 forms of sign language used globally. As the entertainment industry as a whole strives to become more representative of all the richness of our society, we would like to do our bit as well, by championing the sign language champions making an appearance on our screens.
According to WHO, around five percent of the world population has disabling hearing loss. That’s about 360 million people, 32 million of which are children, which is why deaf representation is so important: who wants to grow up in a world where we don’t see people like ourselves on our TV screens?
Of those 360 million, around 70 million Deaf people use sign language as their first language. And within that number, the Ethnologue estimates that the most widely spoken languages are: Brazilian Sign Language (3 million), Indo-Pakistani Sign Language (2.7 million) and ASL (500,000).
In terms of the reach of these languages, ASL has the widest, being spoken to varying degrees in the United States, Canada, Guatemala, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, Chad, Gabon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Mauritania, Kenya, Madagascar and Zimbabwe. There are also vastly more ASL resources available online than there appear to be for other sign languages, which perhaps contributes to how widely it is spoken.
One last thing about ASL, which we think is fairly amazing; ASL can be taken as a foreign language credit in many academic institutions across North America. So consider that the next time you question if sign language is a true foreign language
Putting names to faces
… and praising the use of sign language on our screens.
Heroes character Dr. Emma Coolridge, played by Deanne Bray, could see sound waves as waves of light, and would often wear earphones to hide the fact that she was deaf. Not for shame, of course, because Emma is a strong, vibrant, well-loved character, but to avoid that look:
The 2006 film Babel centred around a theme of non-verbal communication, and actress Rinko Kikuchi spent a year learning Japanese Sign Language for the role of Chieko Wataya, an effort that was recognised with an Oscar nomination.
Switched At Birth is credited by the National Association of the Deaf as being “a phenomenal and groundbreaking first in television history,” for their tackling of both Deaf and autism stereotypes. There are at least four main characters who are Deaf as well as numerous supporting cast, and as an example of that TV first, an episode was aired almost entirely in ASL.
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William Peterson’s portrayal of Gil Grissom in CSI was a sensitive look at the experience of degenerative hearing loss, with the character being fluent in ASL to communicate with his deaf mother, as well as facing his own fears with the disease. Grissom made the choice to have corrective surgery rather than follow his mother’s path, but it wasn’t a one-episode show stopper; the ‘theme’ of his hearing loss was present there throughout the series.
And our final example is the far too short-lived Eileen Leahy on Supernatural, played by the brilliant Shoshannah Stern, depicting a strong, self-sufficient woman who could hold her own, who just happened to be deaf. A true Wayward Daughter if we ever saw one…
Finally, in the news
…because making information accessible is crucial to inclusivity.
A number of Saudi Arabian TV channels now air their news segments with sign language interpretation, serving the Deaf community there of more than 720,000.
During the news briefing for Cyclone Debbie in Queensland earlier this year, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk was upstaged by the dramatic sign language interpretation of Mark Cave, turning him into something of a social media legend in a matter of hours after the broadcast.
In short, sign language is an important language worthy of recognition, and deserves far more attention than it’s currently getting!