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Category: Deaf Culture

Deaf American Divisions on A.G. Bell

America, as usual, appears to have unique powers of division. In this case America is divided into Deaf America and deaf America, into oralists and manualists (?), into those who respect Alexander Graham Bell and those who reject and denounce his legacy. Bell, whose wife and mother were deaf, devoted much of his life to improve the teaching of speech to deaf and hard of hearing children. As such, he was hardly a champion of sign language, see the following excerpt from Through Deaf Eyes:

In 1884, Bell published a paper “Upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race,” in which he warned of a “great calamity” facing the nation: deaf people were forming clubs, socializing with one another and, consequently, marrying other deaf people. The creation of a “deaf race” that yearly would grow larger and more insular was underway. Bell noted that “a special language adapted for the use of such a race” already was in existence, “a language as different from English as French or German or Russian.” Some eugenicists called for legislation outlawing intermarriage by deaf people, but Bell rejected such a ban as impractical. Instead he proposed the following steps: “(1) Determine the causes that promote intermarriages among the deaf and dumb; and (2) remove them. The causes he sought to remove were sign language, deaf teachers, and residential schools. His solution was the creation of special day schools taught by hearing teachers who would enforce a ban on sign language.

It is hard to imagine a more ruthless approach to the ‘problem’ of a more or less isolated American Deaf subculture. Let me just state my position clearly: I would have been against it. No. Lucky for me I am Dutch and not American and therefore I do not feel called upon to state my position. I feel free to rise above the divide. Oralism existed here too, but I dare say it was less extreme, and the opposition was therefore less extreme too. Needless to say, the advocates of (also) using sign language are on top at the moment and oralism in its extreme form has all but vanished. Within this context, the following video was recently put online. It is a good illustration of the strong emotions felt by the victims of oralism.

Source: Daveynin: “Scene parody plot: Hilter is angry; his final defeat against sign language has now pushed him over the edge.”

Did Phuprate sign ‘I am deaf’ or ‘fuck off’?

There is a crazy story evolving about a deaf man, by the name of Shaun Phuprate, who landed in jail for gesturing ‘fuck you’ at the police. But did he really?

Sunderland Echo: Signing row lands deaf man in court. “A DEAF man arrested after police mistook sign language for an obscene gesture has lost his court battle for compensation. Shaun Phuprate, of Town End Farm, was handcuffed and hauled before magistrates for making a two-finger salute at officers in Sunderland. The now 26-year-old insisted he was making the sign for “I am deaf” and had not been rude.” There is also a BSL video translation from SignPost 

Palm back v-signPalm back v-sign

The ‘palm-back v-sign’ (source Morris, 1979; the finger)

The policemen believed they saw a ‘Palm-back v-sign’, which is a cockney variant of giving the finger. As such it constituted an insult and, together with other misconduct, enough to land Phuprate (and his brother) in jail for the night. Initially when the case came before court in 2002 the defense claimed Phuprate was merely signing ‘I am Deaf’, which the judge accepted.

the BSL sign for “I am deaf�?

Phuprate signing (BSL) ‘Iam deaf’ ? (source)

Afterwards, the brothers Phuprate launched a wrongful arrest claim, but recently jurors at Newcastle County Court found it was “more probable than not” officers believed Shaun had made an obscene hand gesture (and mouthed an insult and was drunk). Therefore the arrest was not wrongful. Nice to see how the policemen’s perception of insults is what matters in court. I am quite convinced that officers are human beings like most others, and I am also quite convinced that human beings can be oversensitive to insulting gestures. But I think we may well have another case of someone trying to pretend his insulting gesture was an innocent movement. The two gestures seem too far apart for a mix-up in the first place.

Strangely enough, in the initial hearing it was also stated that “[Phuprate] cannot possibly have understood any caution that was given or the reasons for his arrest”. Just because he was deaf he cannot understand anything? And elsewhere it says that Shaun could not have sworn since he was born deaf and ‘without speech’. As if oral education of the deaf never existed?

In this case I believe the cops can probably be trusted to have made the proper decisions about what they saw or chose to see. But unless you were there, we will never know what Phuprate really did. Ps. It appears that UK courts are more sensitive to people insulting cops than Dutch courts.

Bristol has best signing on web

I came across a bundle of websites that is like a city full of British Sign Language (BSL). And it all seems to come from the University of Bristol, Centre for Deaf Studies (CDS). They managed to create a great signing experience in their site, in just about every page you care to look at. If you are thinking about using (video’s of) sign language on your website, you simply must check these out:

Deafresource: To find out about the Deaf community sign language and Deaf studies. Deafresource

Deafstation: News and information service for BSL users. Deafstation provides a daily news programme in BSL. Deafstation

Signstation: Learn about British Sign Language (BSL)? Signstation has video, interactive exercises, pictures, graphics and explanations about BSL and Deaf people at work. Signstation I would have to check how they did everything, but it is clear that a team of people with good technological skills (flash, shockwave, scripting, streaming video, etc) and good web design skills is working on these sites. They did require me to download and install a more recent shockwave player, but I guess I was due for upgrading and it’s free anyway 🙂

For any community of Deaf people sites like these can be extremely valuable, is my belief. The power of the internet can be put to use to share and enjoy without interference (by the hearing cultural majority or otherwise). But it takes skill to get the websites suited to a primarily signing audience. I think the CDS did a good job here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these sites are already playing a large role in UK Deaf society.

Please put aside any cultural integration reservations for the length of this post and while browsing through the links. I once attended a lecture from one of Bristol’s senior researchers, Paddy Ladd, at the International Conference for the Education of the Deaf in Maastricht, 2005. It was the most memorable event of the entire conference. Mr. Ladd unleashed his anger, frustration and fears on the unsuspecting audience. He was angry about the history of abuse associated to the conference in question (at the first edition in 1880 deaf education was all but limited to oral methods for almost a century). He feared that developments in cochlear implementation would cause doctors and people in deaf education to regress into methods treating deafness as a curable medical condition. And he warned against cultural genocide taking place should sign language teaching suffer, even going so far as comparing the withholding of sign language as primary language from CI kids to child abduction. It was a great speech, arousing much passion and support from Deaf attendees. Next day the British association for the education of the Deaf (or something like that) distanced itself from Paddy Ladd’s views. His speech dominated discussions afterward.

It is not my place to take part in discussions on educational methods or the impact of CI, nor am I an expert judge on the value of Deaf sign language subculture in comparison to a potentially fuller social integration of individuals. But I will say that these websites constitute a fine part of the world wide web. They are examples of how you can make video work on the web. It would be a shame if they were exterminated.

Update 8 Mar ’07: I was so impressed I forgot the news sparking my interest: CDS launched the worlds first sign language dictionary for mobile phones at Again it is a very well designed service. Two important things: it is simple enough to use with a small screen, and download size of (video) files is fairly small (and thus affordable in pay-per-bit environment like the mobile internet). Unfortunately, prior scientific work on how to reduce bit rates without harming sign language understandability were not applied as far as I can tell:
* Cavender et al. (2005). MobileASL: Intelligibility of Sign Language Video as Constrained by Mobile Phone Technology (pdf); * Parish et al. (1990). Intelligent Temporal Subsampling of American Sign Language Using Event Boundaries (pdf)
* Sperling et al. (1985). Intelligible encoding of ASL image sequences at extremely low information rates. (Might have been used? ACM, DOI). ‘

Update 9 Mar ’07: Tim Tolkt is pretty good at integrating sign video’s (in flash) as well.

Balkenende on & AnnieS

To track news of local Deaf communities and sign language check and AnnieS. Both are up-to-date, usefull and well designed (nice and clean). has an rss-feed, which AnnieS lacks. However, for links to other organisations see Dovenschap.

Now, AnnieS is also producing and broadcasting TV items quite regularly. And they do it very well I must say. They use .wvx files for Windows media player, which most people have anyway. The image and sound quality is good. Everything is subtitled and/or interpreted. Did you know we have elections coming up? Well if you are Deaf and considering voting, check out their interview with Dutch PM Jan Peter Balkenende (video).

Or check the interview with the chairman of Dovenschap, Benny Elferink, for voting counsel. Nice to know AnnieS TV is there if you ever just want to check some footage of signed conversations in NGT (or SLN).

What is PM Balkenende signing to you? (source) also posts about the events surrounding Balkenende. They have a very active group of responders (comments).

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