American Sign Language (ASL) is the third-most commonly used language in the United States, but unfortunately, persistent myths about ASL and other sign languages are common.
Some of these misconceptions are annoying or frustrating for people with hearing disabilities — other myths may be outright harmful, particularly when they influence public policy or organizational attitudes towards inclusive hiring. Below, we’ll try to provide some clarity.
For more information on sign language, we recommend reading the resources available from the National Association of the Deaf.
1. “If you don’t speak sign language, you can communicate just as effectively by writing notes.”
ASL and many other sign languages have distinct grammar, syntax, dialects, and idioms. They’re true languages, and people who speak sign language may be much more comfortable signing than reading.
For example, in ASL, word order is flexible, and contextual clues enable speakers to determine the meaning of a sentence. An ASL speaker might sign “hungry, I,” which would translate to “I am hungry" in spoken English; they might also sign “I hungry,” or “I hungry I" to add emphasis.
These grammatical constructions don’t directly correspond with spoken English sentences, and a natural ASL speaker might be able to communicate much more fluently by signing. While written English may be an effective way to communicate with many ASL speakers, writing notes is generally much slower, and miscommunications may occur.
2. “People who speak sign language can also read lips.”
Some people with hearing disabilities can read lips, but studies indicate that only 30% to 45% of the English language is discernible through lip reading. To have natural conversations with sign language speakers, you can’t rely on lip reading alone.
Of course, it’s important to note that no single accommodation will work for every Deaf or hard-of-hearing (DHH) person. Some people may prefer spoken English, some may prefer direct sign language, and some may prefer to use an interpreter. If you’re having a conversation with a DHH person, it’s important to know and respect their preferences.
3. “There’s only a few types of sign language, and they’re all similar.”
Many countries officially recognize national sign languages, but these languages may have little in common with one another. For example, British Sign Language (BSL) isn’t even in the same language family as ASL — while speakers of both languages may understand written English, they may not be able to communicate with one another through sign language.
Within a single sign language, regional dialects (and “accents") vary. An ASL speaker from the Southern United States may use different terms than a speaker from the Northeast. The important takeaway is that there’s no “right" or “wrong" way to speak sign language, and providing ASL resources won’t accommodate every DHH person.
4. “When interpreting, it’s important to speak to the interpreter first.”
This myth can be especially frustrating for sign language speakers. When interpreters are present, speak directly to the intended audience — don’t try to directly involve the interpreter in the conversation.
For instance, in a medical setting, saying something like “ask him if he has any allergies" unintentionally excludes the patient from the conversation. Many ASL speakers will understand the context of the situation, and they may feel alienated. You’re also creating more work for the interpreter.
Other quick tips for using an interpreter:
- Use a normal rate of speech. Don’t try to speak louder; many people who use sign language can hear some sounds, but if the person asks for an interpreter, use the interpreter.
- Maintain eye contact. Generally, eye contact is important in Deaf culture, as sign language uses facial cues and body language for context.
- Provide the interpreter any written materials in advance.
5. “Sign language isn’t an important aspect of digital accessibility.”
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.1 contains a single success criterion (SC) related to sign language, WCAG 2.1 SC 1.2.6, “Sign Language (Prerecorded):”
This is a Level AAA criterion, which means it’s not necessary for earning Level AA conformance (learn more about WCAG conformance levels).
However, the purpose of web accessibility is to improve online experiences for as many people as possible, and offering sign language interpretations — along with captions and transcripts — can help your organization reach more people. If you have employees who natively speak sign language, providing interpretations for presentations and internal videos can aid in comprehension, improve productivity, and promote inclusivity.
Make sure your online resources are accessible
The Bureau of Internet Accessibility provides resources to help you create better — and more inclusive — digital products. Get started by reading The Ultimate Guide to Web Accessibility or contact us about custom options for earning (and maintaining) digital compliance.