Deaf News: New York Times article argues signing volunteers abroad can “do harm as well as good”

Posted on February 25, 2013

A New York Times article argues that volunteers who travel abroad using one form of sign language can affect the ability of locals to learn and use their own form of sign language. Do the benefits of helping people abroad outweigh the negatives? Read on and let us know.


American Sign Language is rapidly spreading to mainstream American culture. Millions of Americans watch the ABC Family television series “Switched at Birth,” most of whose characters use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate. The number of people learning ASL has soared — now infants learn ASL from DVDs before they can talk.

As ASL spreads, volunteers with varying levels of ASL travel abroad to help the Deaf (the capital D signifies Deaf culture, not simply a medical condition). A nondenominational church in my hometown of Decatur, Indiana, for example, has led mission trips to Leveque, Haiti, where volunteers visit Deaf families to help paint homes, weed grounds and play with children.

That is noble, and good for Deaf people in the world. But I have found that these volunteers, even the most well-meaning, can often do harm as well as good.

The first issue is that many people who try to learn ASL overestimate their abilities. Slapping together signs does not mean that one knows grammar, syntax and everything else that makes a language. A slightly erroneous movement, a hand shaped incorrectly, or a sign made with the wrong facial expressions can distort the meaning.

Furthermore, ASL is an American language. It is not universal, and it’s not even necessarily used wherever English is spoken. Actually, ASL has more in common with French Sign Language than with British Sign Language. So volunteers who know ASL and venture to other countries may not be able to communicate with the Deaf.

Read the full article here:

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