Hannah Michelle Bussa
Since video-based social media has become popular, the Deaf community has watched more hearing people use American Sign Language (ASL) as an aesthetic. Recently, this has been more prevalent on TikTok.
In response to this, a Deaf TikTok user from Texas, Paris Glass, has started #SignInLine with some of their friends.
“A few of my friends and I had been talking about how to raise more visibility to these issues without giving these hearing people more attention,” Glass said.
So, they decided on #SignInLine.
“We were trying to brainstorm a way to succinctly represent our intentions,” Glass said. “Basically, it’s a rhyming shorthand for ‘if you want to sign, stay in your lane.’”
Another deaf creator, Quinn, explained what they mean by “stay in your lane.”
“ASL and other signed languages are being appropriated, and that isn’t ok,” they said. “We want hearing people to learn, but to learn respectfully.”
“For most cultures, it’s physical things such as fashion, artifacts or methods,” Quinn said. “For the deaf community, it’s language. Our language is unique for sure, but it’s not just one language. There are a few hundred different sign languages.”
When hearing people use sign languages to gain fame or “clout” on platforms such as TikTok, that is appropriation. If hearing people profit off of ASL, through teaching or selling merchandise with ASL, that is also appropriation.
Quinn said, “Keep in mind, sign language and especially ASL is a marginalized language. People like Alexander Graham Bell tried to get rid of it by introducing oralism – an awful practice that involved forcing deaf children to speak and only to listen with what little hearing they had left. This practice is still used today.”
Though the deaf community is vast and nuanced, Deaf culture is deep and rich.
“It encompasses the shared experiences that come with hearing loss,” Glass said.
They described some of these experiences, like gathering in places where the light is at parties or banging on things to get people’s attention.
They said: “But we also all face similar discrimination. We’re passed over for jobs the moment we disclose that we’re Deaf. People refuse to provide interpreters because they don’t want to put in the effort. People try to force us to read lips. They say something funny, and when we ask what it was, they say, ‘I’ll tell you later,’ but never do.”
They also described other microaggressions the deaf community faces, like being mocked for the way they speak, or being told they “don’t look Deaf.” Glass said sharing the many experiences bonds the community together.
“There’s also the fact that many of us are so deprived of language, so when we see each other it’s so exciting because we can communicate how we feel comfortable,” they said. “Our language is part of our culture. The two are inseparable.”
They mentioned the history of Deaf schools, where for a long time there was compulsory oralism – signing was punished because Deaf kids were expected to learn to lipread.
“Deaf people are still attacked and murdered by the police because they see us and assume we’re throwing gang signs,” Glass said. “This is a huge problem in the Black Deaf community.”
For example, a Black Deaf woman in Las Vegas, Dre Hollingsworth, was pulled over by police recently. They made her 11-year-old twins interpret, which is against the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). (This GoFundMe includes more information about this incident).
“So, when a hearing person takes all that history and completely disregards it to use ASL as an aesthetic, it’s insulting,” Glass said.
Glass has faced a lot of pushback after speaking out about this on TikTok. They said their platform was dropped in their lap after one video gained them 20k followers overnight.
“It kept picking up after that, so I figured if I’m going to have this platform, I should use it to educate people,” they said. “I’m extremely privileged. I’m white and I’m late deafened, so people don’t hear a difference in my voice. I feel responsible for using those privileges to educate.”
Quinn pointed out that this has been happening for a while – even before TikTok or Vine and YouTube. However, it has become more prevalent, specifically with hearing people profiting off of ASL, gaining followers using ASL, teaching ASL, selling items with ASL and speaking over the deaf community about ASL.
“It hurts our community because then hearing people will look up to other hearing people learning ASL as language role models,” they said. “Meanwhile there are plenty of native signers who have degrees to teach the language, who have teaching platforms and ways to teach without getting any attention. People often want ASL classes and resources to be free, but would people expect a Spanish class to be free?”
Glass explained that some of these TikTok users have been using ASL as if it was an interpretive dance. They said that others view themselves as saviors helping the Deaf community, but the Deaf community does not want hearing people to sign online for access – they’ve always asked for captions as a means of accessibility.
“These people essentially think their opinions on our accommodations are better than ours,” they said. “Or they have just never interacted with the community at large and therefore have no place showing off our language and modeling it to the public.”