American Sign Language Finds Its Spotlight

But one does not have to be online to witness this upsurge in Deaf content and sign language representation, itself both a part of and distinct from the groundswell of stories about differently abled people that have arisen over the last decade. After years on the margins, the Deaf community is experiencing a series of firsts: a Deaf contestant on the latest season of “The Bachelor”; Marvel’s debut Deaf superhero, Makkari, played by the Tony-nominated actress Lauren Ridloff in “The Eternals,” out later this year; and the record-breaking $25 million sale of the film “CODA,” short for Child of Deaf Adults, to Apple Studios after its rapturous reception at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Even state-by-state coronavirus briefings, which have made minor celebrities of the sign language interpreters relaying life-or-death information to viewers, have shone a light on A.S.L. and the myriad ways Deafness is sidelined. Last fall, in the first case of its kind, the National Association of the Deaf successfully sued the Trump administration for failing to provide an interpreter at its Covid-19 briefings. Meanwhile, less than a week after the inauguration, President Biden’s press secretary announced that an interpreter would be present at all of the administration’s daily press conferences, a first in presidential history. For several years now, these breakthroughs have seemed imminent, a matter not of merit but of opportunity and resources. But it’s no coincidence that they’re all coalescing now, following a time of pandemic, protest and social upheaval that’s provoked frank conversations about access and equity, and also a mass migration to our screens, wherein the visual has supplanted the auditory, imbuing our attempts at understanding each other with a renewed sense of urgency and empathy. All of us, living under circumstances so inhospitable to genuine human connection, have adopted new modes of engagement; from that, there’s emerged a recognition that language need not be the exclusive provenance of sound or even text but of signs, too.

In conversations with many of the Deaf community’s foremost creatives and de facto activists, there’s a sense of both enthusiasm and wariness, a desire to bridge the gap between the Deaf and hearing worlds and an equally strong sense of exhaustion, accumulated over time, at the patience such a merger would require. “Sometimes,” says the 40-year-old Berlin-based visual and sound artist Christine Sun Kim, “hearing people don’t know what to do when they encounter a Deaf person, and we end up having to communicate their way.” The animating spirit of much of Kim’s work, particularly her series “Trauma, LOL,” recently on view at the François Ghebaly gallery in Los Angeles, is a sense of enervation at this cycle, of “having to explain and explain and explain to people who are not Deaf, and who are kind of creating more work for us.” Though art institutions have been more hospitable since Kim was named a TED Fellow in 2013, and included in the Whitney Biennial six years later, she’s often found herself justifying the need for an interpreter or feeling infantilized by curators who imply she’s just lucky to be included. “We have to protest more just to get basic needs met,” she says. “If it were completely up to me, I wouldn’t want to be an activist.”

Over generations of gradual but often arrested progress, the Deaf community has remained self-sufficient, justifiably suspicious of the intercessions of hearing people. As a result, there is a sense of proprietorship about A.S.L., fortified when they see it mocked or commodified. It was only eight years ago that Deaf people watching Nelson Mandela’s memorial service saw their language bastardized by a sign language interpreter whose gestures were convoluted and unintelligible. Now, according to a 2018 report by the Modern Language Association, A.S.L. is the third-most commonly studied non-English language in American higher educational institutions, after Spanish and French, and across the internet one can find scores of instructional videos taught by hearing people, a reliable if bothersome metric by which to gauge the language’s mainstreaming. “Oftentimes, it’s not even accurate — facial expressions, body movements, location, hand shapes, all of that is important when you’re teaching,” says Sutton, who attended Washington, D.C.,’s Gallaudet University, the country’s first and only liberal arts college for the Deaf. “What they end up doing is using our culture and our language for clout.”

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