For years, Keith Wann’s deaf father misunderstood why the dog got shot in the movie Old Yeller.
“I’m 8 years old and signing ‘rabbit’ instead of ‘rabies,’ and my father thinks he got shot because he ate a rabbit,” says Wann, who now works as an ASL comedian.
When the FCC founded the National Captioning Institute in 1979, its closed captioning began eliminating these small misunderstandings for both Wann’s father and the estimated 38 million Americans who are either deaf or hard of hearing.
But for those who communicate using American Sign Language (ASL), captions are translations. And as with all translations, inevitably something is still lost. The deaf community, with few exceptions, has not had easy access to content created in its own language–until recently.
With the dawn of Internet video, many ASL musicians, poets, and comedians reach geographically dispersed audiences as easily as their spoken-language counterparts. About 40% of the videos tagged “sign language” on YouTube have been uploaded in the last year, says YouTube trend manager Kevin Allocca. And the rate at which “ASL” is typed in the site’s search box has increased two-fold since 2008.
Captions, in some cases, are provided for hearing people. Windell Smith Jr, who like Wann is a hearing child of deaf parents, has posted a variety of ASL content to his YouTube channel, including interpretations of famous speeches like Steve Jobs’s Stanford commencement speech and Robert Kennedy’s The Mindless Menace of Violence.
“The difference is like reading a book versus watching a movie,” Smith says. “There’s something about hearing it and seeing it that affects you. I’ve gotten emails [from people who saw the Steve Jobs Commencement Address] that say ‘I read the speech several times and couldn’t understand why people liked it so much until I saw your video.’”
It’s a difference in impact that grows even more important when it comes to ASL artforms. While there are many different approaches to ASL poetry, one popular form uses a similar handshape to creatively convey different words. Another builds upon the series of handshapes in the manual alphabet. Often the poet hasn’t thought of words in English at all.
“There are so many deaf kids that are trying to figure out how they’re going to be,” says Smith, who has posted his own ASL poetry on YouTube. “They’re unlikely to stumble upon an ASL poetry performance. But if I put it on YouTube, kids can find it. It might inspire them to contribute to the form.”
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