The case for learning sign language as an accessibility engineer

A smiling woman signs ‘Correct.’

Once upon a time I was writing a story in my free time with a Deaf 1 character in it (long since condemned to my draft graveyard). My background research suggested knowing a little about ASL (American Sign Language) to get the character right, so I took a 6-week course to get some of the basics. One class in and I was hooked – ASL clicked with my brain in a way that all the other languages I’d tried to learn never did. A year later I was conversant and going to regular Deaf socials. And now, in preparation for CSUN, I’m taking the time to brush up on my ASL again so I can network effectively with Deaf attendees.

Most of us working in accessibility engineering only deal with Deaf people in theory – we know videos need captions, audio recordings need transcripts, and sounds conveying information need an accompanying visual cue. Or else we work with Deaf people in the context of available accommodations, like an interpreter, chat application, or our colleague’s ability to lipread. Personally I think everyone should learn at least a little of their local signed language, but for this post I’d like to lay out how ASL has benefited me as an accessibility engineer, and perhaps how it might benefit you too.

First and foremost, learning ASL means your social network opens up to a whole world of fantastic people. I met my best friend through ASL. She has degenerative hearing and vision loss and a wicked sense of humor, and I look forward to many years swapping recipes and tea recommendations through Facebook and Tactile Sign Language (which is a related but separate endeavor of mine). CSUN’s own 2019 keynote speaker, Johanna Lucht, delivered her entire keynote entirely in ASL. Clearly there are tons of brilliant, awesome people who communicate with ASL, and all of us have a lot to learn from speaking with each other.

And once you’ve started building your network, suddenly once-abstract accessibility concerns become personal. When my Deafblind friend can’t come visit because Brooklyn’s plows have piled snow over every curb cut and she and her guide dog can’t get through them safely, I’ve got something new to raise hell over when I call my city councilwoman. When she reads the closed captions on a Youtube video with her Braille reader, it makes me wonder whether the W3C should revisit standard 1.2.2 and its lack of distinction between closed captions, which are available to her, and open captions, which aren’t. And when you personally know several people who grew up language-deprived for whom written English is far, far less accessible than ASL, you begin to rethink whether standard 1.2.6 Sign Language (Prerecorded) should be a triple-A standard after all.

Learning your local sign language as a hobby is also easier than ever in this day and age. Community colleges everywhere, or in my case, the Sign Language Center in NYC, all offer ASL classes at a fair price, and local meetups with students and Deaf folks are in every major city (and most minor ones) everywhere. Online resources can be tricky to navigate since unfortunately many are made by inexperienced signers (especially song interpretations), but there are still a lot of great places online to supplement your sign language education. For ASL, anything by Dr. Bill Vicars is dynamite, and the Spread the Sign app is great for expanding vocabulary.

Many of us came to this profession with a desire to remove barriers between disabled people and the world. And many of us enjoy self-improving hobbies outside of our working hours, from bodybuilding to baking to ballet. Learning sign language as a hobby is a great way to remove one more of those barriers, as well as learn something new, meet neat people, and become better engineers for your trouble. And finally, if any Deaf folks attending CSUN 2020 read this, come say hi… and please finger spell slowly.

1 “Deaf” with a capital D refers to people who don’t hear that also identify culturally as Deaf, and use a signed language to communicate. This is in contrast to lower case d “deaf,” which refers solely to people who don’t hear, who may or may not be a part of the Deaf community.

Categories: Development


Stomme poes says:

My main reason for learning Dutch Sign Language was, I think, so I could just more easily communicate with other a11y colleagues/a11y-active people even when there wasn’t an interpreter (sorry but typing on a phone just went from really hard to damn-near-impossible now that my beloved Lumia’s software was sunsetted and now I’ve got a Nokia 1. Typing on that is like mashing a keyboard).

Additionally the benefits (IF others around you also know the language) is:
– continue your conversation even when one of you got into the bus (I’ve seen this more than once, always awesome)
– converse in any bar/restaurant/place where the proprietors have a strange belief that people want to listen to their crappy music at full blast instead of having conversations

Also because you learn more about using non-speech communication, which explains why sign-language users tend to more easily communicate with (signing) people coming from other, mutually-exclusive languages .