Sign language users get creative despite Covid

With the world in the throes of the COVID pandemic over the past year and a half, most of us have learned to communicate in new ways. Whether it’s participating in digital work chats, ‘going to’ school in virtual classrooms, or chatting with friends and family, many of us have had our fill of video conferencing.

Yet we have developed ways to conduct our daily activities glued to our computer screens, and we have also adapted to communication by wearing masks.

But for the deaf community, wearing masks and videoconferencing posed their own unique challenges.

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“The regulations on wearing masks make communication more difficult,” Stefan Palm-Ziesenitz, president of the Hamburg Association of the Deaf, told DW. “Even when wearing masks, deaf people are able to communicate with each other about everyday issues using sign language.”

“But communication with hearing people when wearing masks is next to impossible,” said Palm-Ziesenitz, who is almost 50 and has been unable to hear since birth.

He asks those who can hear to remove their masks before speaking so that he can read their lips and see their facial expressions. He noted that Hamburg has an ordinance which allows people speaking with hearing impaired people in public to remove their masks for the duration of the conversation, provided there is sufficient physical distance.

The pandemic alters the signature

The rise of pandemic videoconferencing has also had an impact on sign languages ​​themselves.

According to a February 2021 article in Scientific American titled “The COVID Zoom Boom is Reshaping Sign Language,” the signs are being changed to accommodate the limitations of video communication.

While sign language users can benefit from video conferencing because they can see each other, the small window size can limit expression. “The signing space is vast,” Michael Skyer, senior lecturer in deaf education at the Rochester Institute of Technology, told Scientific American. “Even though many signs are produced easily or normally in the dimensions of the Zoom screen, many are not,” said Skyer, himself deaf.

One example is the sign for “body” in American Sign Language (ASL), the article notes, which normally involves a long movement from shoulders to hips. The reduced signature space in the video windows forced some signers to end it at chest level.

New signs are emerging

Additionally, small signs with nuanced movements using only the fingers are more difficult to convey and view on small screens.

Likewise, frontal movements are difficult to decipher head-on. This has led some signers to adjust their body position to three quarters of the screen so that their gestures can be seen partially from the side.

New signs have also appeared in ASL, such as “Zoom”.

Sign languages, like any other language, are always evolving, adapting to specific circumstances and times.

And there is also no sign language, but hundreds across the world. International Sign Language helps facilitate communication between deaf people at world conferences, for example, but is considered rudimentary.

Ultimately, different signs are used in different countries and regions. Americans who know ASL may not understand British Sign Language, for example.

A long way to go

In Germany, German Sign Language was not legally recognized until 2002 in the Disability Equality Act.

This year alone, in March, it was listed on UNESCO’s National Inventory of Intangible Cultural Heritage, with UNESCO’s German website stating that it “successfully mediates between deaf and deaf people. hearing and guarantees equal participation in social, cultural or political life, regardless of the technical means of communication. “

Still, Palm-Ziesenitz said the gap between theory and reality remains wide. Some people in general society are more accepting of the deaf community, he said, but others are lagging behind.

“Many people [in Germany] who can hear are interested in learning German Sign Language [DGS] and sign language schools and courses have become very popular, ”he said.

On the other hand, he lamented that German TV stations, for example, often struggle to provide sign language interpretations in their programs.

According to the German Commission for UNESCO, German Sign Language is used by more than 80,000 deaf people, as well as by children of deaf parents, for example, or those with cochlear implants.

Everyone is a stage

“A lot of people think of sign language as a simplified form of expression – like when you want to communicate ‘swimming’, for example, that you just do swimming strokes,” said Kristina Larissa Funkhauser, a singer at opera, at DW.

“There is the idea that you can only convey things in a limited way in sign language. But it’s the opposite: you can express anything, every abstract subject, any minor and major emotion. . “

Right before the pandemic hit, Funkhauser faced vocal health issues and decided to expand her 20-year singing career and study sign language to become a performer.

Currently, while continuing her studies in sign language interpretation, she is performing in the musical Fiddler on the Roof at Theater Hagen in western Germany.

Funkhauser believed she was well equipped to pursue sign language studies.

“Sign language is very sensual,” she said. “And it’s something that’s close to home for me because I gesticulate a lot when I speak.”

In fact, she says, she has to tame herself when communicating in sign language.

“Facial expressions have a grammatical function in sign language. I often raise my eyebrows in everyday communication. But in sign language, that gesture can also mean I’m asking a question… so I have to be careful, ”she noted.

In fact, performing music in sign language is an art in itself, whether it’s opera, rock or pop. Take, for example, Laura Schwengber, who has performed the music of German artists such as Xavier Naidoo, Peter Maffay, Nena and Silbermond, among others. She even performed signed heavy metal music at the famous Wacken Open Air festival in Germany.

Daily communication

Outside of the cultural circuit, communication between people who cannot hear and those who can in day-to-day life can be improved, Palm-Ziesenitz said.

He was born in the 1960s to hearing parents and is currently an editor for a production company that creates films online in sign language.

“I communicated with my parents at the time in spoken language. In the 60s, when I was born, my parents were told that learning the spoken language would be the best thing for deaf people,” he said. Explain.

“Sign language was considered a ‘monkey’s tongue’ at the time,” he recalls. “My parents spoke very slowly so I could read their lips.”

He didn’t learn sign language until he was 16.

His contemporary advice for hearing people who communicate with people who cannot hear: “Look them straight in the eye. Good lighting is essential. Speak slowly in short sentences. And write things down on paper when the going gets tough. “

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