Thanks to social media and the internet, the Deaf community has been able to share more of their culture and language. From YouTube to TikTok, videos in ASL have been increasing in volume. While this is a pro, there also lies another problem – hearing people can also upload their American Sign Language (ASL) videos.
@kaytlynasl is a self-proclaimed hearing ASL student of 7 years. She posts TikToks of herself signing and interpreting songs and her follower count, comprised of mostly hearing people with little to no knowledge of ASL, sits around 300k. Her stated goal is that she creates videos for accessibility and wants to uplift the Deaf community. She has a sizeable following and many of her followers comment that they are learning ASL from watching her videos. Katlyn’s song interpretation videos even landed her a gig interpreting at a concert.
Katlyn, in hearing people’s eyes, is amazing at what she does. Her signing is cool and beautiful – but to those in the Deaf community and fluent in ASL? Her signing is a little less than subpar. Her ASL is full of inaccuracies and structural issues; she is very clearly not ready to be out in the field at all. As a matter of fact, she’s just a student and isn’t certified – and her ASL teachers and mentors have discouraged her from uploading. This poses an issue with her hearing audience learning from her – they’re learning butchered ASL that can’t be used in the real world. Those in the Deaf community have requested that she take her videos down because she is spreading misinformation.
Katlyn has ignored all concerns from those in the Deaf community and continued uploading. March 2021, she posted a TikTok namedropping a Deaf creator who reached out to her. She then explained the situation and asked if she should stop uploading, emphasizing her 300k following count. This set off a chain of events as she sent her hearing audience to attack the Deaf creator for giving her feedback and those in the Deaf community felt frustrated at her lack of accountability. The fact that she cared more about the opinions of her hearing audience versus those in the Deaf community that contacted her, emphasized even more that her content was not in the best interest of the Deaf community.
Katlyn has since deleted all videos on her account due to the backlash.
This is not an isolated incident. Hearing people who believe that ASL is trendy tend to use the language in order to gain clout and a following on social media. Why? Because other hearing people put them on a pedestal for knowing even the tiniest bit of ASL.
@rosaliee_ospina is another creator on TikTok that has been criticized for using inaccurate ASL in order to gain a following. In comparison to Katlyn, Rosaliee doesn’t really sign much of anything. In fact, Deaf individuals have pointed out that she’s signing gibberish. If you look closely, you can catch an actual sign or two. There isn’t a semblance of sentence structure or anything – she just slaps the words “ASL” on her videos and hearing people flock to it. She is notorious for blocking any Deaf creator that has reached out to help her learn ASL and openly mocks Deaf people who are concerned about her misrepresentation of ASL.
Katlyn’s comments section on her goodbye video signify what the problem is – hearing people don’t care that ASL is a language and they don’t care about the accuracy.
“Imagine gatekeeping accessibility then non stop complaining about how there isn’t enough inclusion. This a big easy for lack of accessibility GATEKEEPING”
“This is so sad, you guys ruin and cancel everyone for everything. She made such wonderful and accessible content.”
“I’m hearing and I loved your content mainly cuz I’m a beginner at ASL.”
Never mind that it was pointed out that her ASL was inaccurate. Never mind that even her own teachers told her to stop. Never mind that those in the Deaf community said she was spreading misinformation and actually not making accessible content at all. (Also never mind that she isn’t certified and has never graduated from an interpreting program so it’s actually illegal for her to interpret at concerts.)
If it’s entertaining it doesn’t matter. Every year before COVID hit, someone would send me a viral video of a white ASL interpreter interpreting a rap song at a concert. “This is so cool!” they would say. “ASL is such a beautiful language!” another would coo. Hearing people have this inherent idea that ASL is cool. They invite interpreters on TV to entertain them with rap battles, despite having no Deaf people in the audience.
What they don’t understand is that they’re fetishizing the language and othering it. When hearing people exotify ASL, they then ignore that it’s a language used for communication. By using ASL for entertainment, it causes people to take it less seriously and mock it. ASL isn’t meant to be gawked at and it doesn’t exist for the purpose of entertaining hearing communities. The only people that benefit from using ASL for clout are hearing people – Deaf people suffer the consequences.
Now, to clarify: there isn’t anything inherently wrong with a hearing person learning ASL.
Most people in the Deaf community encourage it and you will find that many are happy to support and educate a student. I have been learning ASL and engaged with the Deaf community for almost a decade – and I have never once been mocked for my learning by anyone in the Deaf community. Every day I learn a new sign because language is always evolving. I have learned signs from professionals, random people I encounter in the street, and even junior high students – learning another language is all about gaining the ability to communicate with more people.
But honestly, learning ASL is the bare minimum. Just because you can sign doesn’t mean you understand Deaf culture or Deaf signs. Do you regularly interact with the Deaf community? Do you understand that ASL and English are two separate languages and have completely different structure and rules? Do you know the history and struggles that Deaf people have faced under the oppression of hearing people?
Learning ASL is a somewhat different experience than learning other languages – learning ASL means learning Deaf culture because ASL is steeped in the community’s history. When you chose to ignore the Deaf community’s input on your ASL journey, it signifies that you do not respect Deaf culture.
And quite frankly – the Deaf community is better off without hearing TikTok’ers who make music covers but can’t even manage to correctly sign the ASL for “music” anyway.