Charlie Swinbourne: Why we should be outraged over a “dirty” sign language book

Posted on July 3, 2012

The first question many hearing people ask sign language users is often how to sign a swear word.

I still remember my Mum collaring me after a day at primary school because, outside the school gates, one of my friends had fingerspelled S-H-O-T to her, before running away, laughing. My mother’s a sharp woman, and she’d quickly guessed that he’d got the ‘O’ and ‘I’ letters mixed up. She wasn’t best pleased about the results of my amateur attempts at teaching my classmates a little deaf awareness.

In more recent times, many Deafies have become annoyed at the sheer number of hearing people who love showing us the one sign they know. “Bullsh*t.” Clearly, being able to swear without having to actually verbalise a word really gets hearing people excited.

I’m not saying there’s no fun to be had in showing hearing people how to swear in another language – and they get as excited about swearing in Italian or French, I’ve found – but there’s good reason to be wary about showing non-signers how to be rude in visual form.

Firstly, teaching Hearies how to swear as a gimmick doesn’t really get Deaf people anywhere. What most Deafies would like is to be able to have a meaningful conversation in sign language with a Hearie. If swear words are  the only sign language they ever learn, it isn’t good for anything. Except an argument, maybe.

Secondly, and more importantly, teaching swear words and watching them spread, as a matter of fun, throughout a world that can often be ignorant of deafness, can lead to a lack of respect for our language. Especially if these signs are placed in the wrong hands (apologies for the pun).

All of which might go some way towards explaining the online outrage in the Deaf community that was recently reported in this story on The Horn. Except the signs that are being taught go way beyond the typical swear word.

5000 people (including me, earlier today) have now signed a petition protesting against a new book called ‘Super Smutty Sign Language’ that’s due to be published in Autumn 2013 by an ASL amateur called Kristin Henson. The book comes on the back of her hit YouTube channel, where she’s clocked up over 1.5 million views teaching people phrases like “How much for a blow job?” and “Eat sh*t and die.” Those are the more family-friendly examples.

After news that the book would be published, the online Deaf world was quick to respond.

In this blog post, Tavian Robinson (who went on to start the petition) accused Henson’s phrases of being “misogynist, sexist, racist” and of “exploiting ASL for profit.” As The Horn reported, Oscar-winning Deaf actress Marlee Matlin went on to Tweet to Henson: “Your book on dirty signs and YouTube videos are offensive.”

The Horn’s article quotes Henson’s response: “I don’t want to oppress, marginalize or belittle an entire culture. I do want to help spark an interest in ASL and Deaf culture. I want to learn as much as possible, and help bridge the gap between our worlds.”

“Every time I’ve learned anything in a new language, I’ve wanted to share it with people. I want to help other people get excited and passionate about signing, because it’s been so exciting for me to learn it,” Henson said.

“Quite a bit of the humor is in the fact that they just don’t translate. ASL is a conceptual language, and the sentence structure is completely different,” Henson said. “When hearing people see that there are ways to say vulgar things in ASL, I think it helps to make [deaf people] relatable to hearing people, because there’s a common ground.”

However much Henson insists that her main interest is in sparking an interest in sign language and Deaf culture, this seems far less genuine when you take a look at her personal website. Among the “Dirty Signs” merchandise on offer there’s a branded bandana, a coffee mug, and a doogie. All of which makes her seem, in my opinion, more like an opportunist who spotted a business opportunity.

Ultimately, all of us who use sign language would love it if more hearing people could sign too. The idea that their first contact with our beautiful language might be these kinds of phrases, from someone who isn’t an expert in the language, by any stretch, is very hard to take.

What Henson’s doing may make her money, but it isn’t funny. It’s not clever. And it certainly won’t win her any fans in the Deaf world.

There must be some alternative.

‘Mildly Pleasant Signs with Clive Mason,’ anyone?

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned My SongComing Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, training and consultancy Deafworks, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, the National Deaf Children’s Society’s Look, Smile Chat campaign, and the National Theatre’s captioned plays.

The Limping Chicken is the world's most popular Deaf blog, and is edited by Deaf journalist and filmmaker Charlie Swinbourne.  Find out how to write for us by clicking here, how to follow us by clicking here, and read our disclaimer here.

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