The Question: Should BSL videos have English subtitles for the ‘signing impaired?’

Posted on April 16, 2013



Most deaf people agree that subtitles need to improve, but there is one subtitling issue that is not so black and white.

It’s whether BSL videos ought to be subtitled for people who don’t understand sign language.

Or in other words, should there be subtitles for the, ahem, ‘signing impaired?’

The digital revolution means deaf associations across the land can produce the equivalent of the local TV news for deaf people.

The Gloucester Deaf Association is the epitome of this idea with their excellent BSL news videos. Good local BSL news, broadcast across the internet every month. BSL videos are also a hit on Facebook at the moment with hundreds of people expressing their frustrations and hopes in BSL on the ‘Spit the Dummy’ Facebook group.

Could BSL content be seen as being a bit exclusive though? Aren’t deaf associations the ones who campaign about problems with TV subtitles? What about the ‘signing impaired?’ ‘Hypocrisy’ say some. ‘See how you like it’ say others.

LIMPING-THINKERWe should note here that (after a Facebook outcry!) the term ‘signing impaired’ is a made-up term that is used for humorous effect, and we don’t mean to offend anyone by using it. By ‘signing impaired,’ we simply mean (in an admittedly mischievous way) people who have not learned sign language (fortunately for me, my parents taught me it).

However, in the name of accessibility, if all BSL content were expected to be subtitled then does it follow that any broadcaster in Britain, like BBC Alba for example (exclusively Scottish Gaelic language programming), has a responsibility to provide subtitles in English for my benefit? I am, after all, ‘Gaelic impaired’ but that’s my choice – I could learn Gaelic if I was that interested.

Some would say that you can’t apply that simple linguistic argument to BSL content. The content is normally about issues that affect all deaf people – and not all deaf people can understand sign language. It’s been said that it’s needlessly exclusive not to subtitle BSL content and it would help foster a bigger deaf community if it was.

Deaf kids or those deafened later in life maybe linguistically somewhere along the line between speech and sign. They might watch a BSL video and get some, but not all of it. Maybe subtitles would also help other deaf or hearing people to learn the language. It could be argued that subtitles on BSL videos would be good for the common cause. All for one and one for all.

One downside is that making subtitles without professional equipment can be very time consuming. I’ve done it plenty of times and I can understand why people who create video in BSL don’t always add subtitles.

The amount of time taken to subtitle a video can be many times longer than it takes to film it. Is it really right to guilt-trip a deaf organisation or vlogger into subtitling long into the night – especially if their message was actually directed at the BSL community?

So the question for you, the reader, is this: Should all BSL videos be subtitled? Is it a question of “practice what you preach” for signers? Or do you believe that if the ‘signing impaired’ really want to know what’s being said, they should learn the language? Tell us what you think below.

Andy volunteers for the Peterborough and District Deaf Children’s Society on their website, deaf football coaching and other events as well as working for a hearing loss charity. Contact him on twitter @LC_AndyP (all views expressed are his own).

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