Have you ever been at a concert or speaking event where you were absolutely fascinated not by the presenter themselves, but rather by the interpreter who was translating for someone who is deaf or hard of hearing (HOH)?
Take for example this interpreter you see below. She is signing one of Eminem’s fastest rap songs while it is being performed in real time at one of his concerts. She signs so quickly and with such determination to keep up with the rapper, it’s almost hard to avoid recognizing the amount of talent that she is portraying.
But, this isn’t necessarily a talent: It’s a language and a form of communication that is being socially promoted as performance art.
Like oral languages, American Sign Language (ASL) is a beautiful and complex form of communication that takes a high level of dedication to learn. Many of us likely know how to sign a word or two, but could never carry on a conversation using only ASL. This hasn’t stopped some individuals from trying to make up their own signs for the words and, even worse, promote their efforts as inclusive.
One of our classmates, Ly, wrote about this in the blog post Hearing people – your fascination with ASL is a problem. In the post, Ly talks about how social media, specifically TikTok, has become a growing problem in combating ableism. Many TikTok creators have decided to forgo the structural accuracy required for the communication to make sense, and have instead chosen to saturate their material with visually appealing gestures.
Take for example @rosaliee_ospina on TikTok. Ly mentions her in the original blog post, but this girl is such a strong example of ablest culture that it’s hard not to bring her up again. After posting multiple videos in which she incorrectly signs along to the likes of popular songs and being called out for it by the deaf community-who also have reached out and offered to teach her proper ASL only to be blocked-she still had the audacity to say that the ASL community was bullying her and other similar creators for posting their extremely incorrect content.
So, why is she posting this content? If she is signing incorrectly and getting backlash for doing so, why would she keep posting these videos on her account?
She claims that she signs as a way to help her deal with her anxiety.
Now, I should note, I have struggled with Generalized Anxiety Disorder since I was five years old, and I’m not trying to judge how someone might handle their own anxiety in the context of their own life. That being said, for me, attempting to post videos where I have no idea what I am doing to a platform that gets over a billion visitors a day would actually cause me severe anxiety. Even right now, I have anxiety over this very blog; putting your creative work out into the world where it could be critiqued is rather intimidating.
There is a difference, however, that it appears creators like Ospina have yet to realize: Dancing with your hands as a way to manage your anxiety is different than American Sign Language.
It is absolutely fine if you chose to use your hands for dancing, in fact it is one of the various popular ways people participate in dance challenges on TikTok. The video below is an example of a recent dance trend on the platform, and it uses emojis as a way to “translate” what actions people are supposed to do.
Could these types of dance videos get confused with the likes of ASL if you are unfamiliar with the language? Absolutely. But tagging the video as ASL is creating the façade that you know what you’re doing, and therefore you are participating in ablest culture. Frankly, it’s also a form of cultural appropriation to bastardize a language for entertainment purposes as culture is not solely defined by race and geographic location, but mainly by language.
Would we be okay with a content creator butchering Spanish or Mandarin or French on their videos under the pretense they know what they are saying? No. Someone signing incorrectly is no different.
Again, I recognize I am part of this problem as I just called out the fact that I believe interpreters are extremely intriguing to watch, and the way they can flow between signs so effortlessly is absolutely extraordinary. But I respect this language the same way I respect all languages: I may not understand what is being said in the moment, nor do I fully grasp the vast history of the language, but it is insanely cool to me that the world is full of so many different and unique cultures. Me being fascinated with ASL is the same as me being fascinated when someone can switch between Hmong and English in the same sentence; it is the same as me being fascinated by the development of language as a whole from the beginning of human existence. I am a communications major after all.
But, as Ly points out, the difference lies in the respect for the culture. You can respect a culture without making it more appealing to the homogenous masses. You can respect a culture even if you chose not to learn about it. And, finally, you can respect a culture without exploiting it for your own social clout.