Closed Captions and Sign Language: Not a Substitute for one Another.

One of the main challenges for us in the deaf community is when we ask for closed captions and, instead, they give us sign language interpreters. Then, when we ask for a sign language interpreter, they give us closed captions. This is what I would describe as inaccessibility. Closed captions and sign language are not a substitute for one another. Here’s a perfect example of an English phrase to ASL from HandSpeak:

English speaker: “Brainstorming is by far the most widely used tool to simulate creative thing.”

Closed Caption: “Brainstorming is by far the most widely used tool to simulate creative thing.”

ASL: “Think creative idea how have list one brainstorming that since most use that.”

Notice that the English speaker’s spoken words are exactly as the closed captions. On the other hand, the ASL is different. Closed captions are defined as the written version of spoken words. Sign language is defined as a visual language commonly used by people who are deaf and hard of hearing. There are approximately 300 sign languages globally, which means that every country and region has its own sign language and dialects. Sign language is not a universal language. In the United States, we have American Sign Language (ASL), Black American Sign Language (BASL), Pidgin Signed English (PSE), and Signing Exact English (SEE); there may or may not be other ones, but these are the most common ones I know.

ASL has its own syntax and grammar. ASL is a visual language to an American English speaker. PSE is a mixture of ASL and English; it is generally utilized by people who use English as their primary language.

Now, let me show you an example of ASL to English from Handspeak.

ASL: “Street very traffic you walk careful.”

English translation: “Be careful when you walk across that busy street.”

My interpretation to English: There is a lot of traffic on the street. Walk carefully or, the street is very busy, walk carefully.

Do you notice how my interpretation is different from the English translation? Interpreting ASL into English is not an effortless task. I am not fluent in ASL, but I am fluent in English. I know ASL, but I do not use it often. I use PSE. The aforementioned is what I am comfortable with and comprehend the best. I sometimes have difficulties understanding ASL, mainly when communicating with people who are culturally deaf and write in ASL. (And yes! Deaf people know how to write. Some write in ASL, not English). If someone writes in ASL, it might seem rough, as in hard to read and understand.

Let me show you an example of PSE.

PSE: I go bathroom.

English: I am going to the bathroom.

ASL: Bathroom I go.

Now, can you imagine a deaf person or ASL interpreter signing ASL (or PSE) at the same time when they are voicing out in English what they are signing so that EVERYONE can understand? When I say “EVERYONE,” I mean hearing, deaf, and hard of hearing people.

Not so long ago, I was sitting in a Zoom call watching an ASL interpreter interpreting for hours. In my mind, I do not know how she does what she does. I often ask interpreters how they are able to listen to what the speaker is saying, understand the message, and then translate it in that exact moment. I am even more fascinated by how they can translate a deaf or hard of hearing person signing ASL to English in real-time (that is not a simple task. I tried it. Would I do it again? NO!)

I constantly inform people that it is essential to ask the person with a hearing disability what is the best way to accommodate them. You can’t just decide or let others determine what you both think may work for them, because you both don’t know what works for them. Accommodation does not work that way. Those who have met me may notice that sometimes I prefer ASL interpreters; other times, I would rather have closed captions, FM systems, exchange notes, or read lips. Sometimes I may need 2-3 resources at the same time. I use different accessibility resources depending on the environment I am in and whom I am speaking to because both play a massive role in how I can comprehend and access a conversation. When people provide the opposite of what I request, they prevent me from having full access to the conversation. For example, if I go to a concert, I may request an FM system, open captions, priority seating, and a PSE interpreter. It may sound a lot, but it is not. And do I need them all? Yes.

I advocate for closed captions and open captions because I believe it is more universal and beneficial to everyone. A lot of people with hearing disabilities do not use sign language. That is one of the main reasons why I created Comunify, the app that helps deaf people enjoy group conversation without wondering who is saying what. According to the World Health Organization, there are over 1.5 billion people currently experience some degree of hearing loss. Some people who have hearing loss do not even know they have them. I was one of them. When we miss out on what is being spoken, we do not always know if we are missing out on conversations or simply misunderstanding them.

If I could leave you with some notes, remember, the person with a disability is the one that knows their needs. You cannot just decide their communication method. Always ask the person with a hearing disability what is the best way to accommodate or communicate with them. What works for me does not work for everyone.


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