Teaching sign language and ethics

Teaching sign language is a crucial and sensitive issue, concerning hearing people teaching ASL and singing ASL (both cultural appropriation). It's crucial that hearing people are aware of the ethics and cultural sensitivity.

Deaf people are a cultural-linguistic minority. Hearing oppression has been impacting our lives over the past thousands of years in many aspects of life, especially in education and employment. In defense of our language-modality and human rights, we have been long fighting against hearing oppression, audism, linguicism, phonocentrism, cultural appropriation, signoclasm, eugenics, hear-washing, hearing supremacy, hearing colonialism, the infamous Milan of 1880, and so on within this phonocentric society that spans over the past thousands of years.

A language of our Deaf people is the core of our identity, culture, and pride that we highly value. Our language, culture, history, and Deafhood are deeply interweaved, where our language is not external but within us, the Deaf people. Signed language is our identity and psyche.

There has been a long-time consensus in the Deaf world that teaching ASL belongs to the Deaf people, period. While we appreciate hearing people learning ASL (to communicate with Deaf people), but it's not for hearing people teaching, singing, or meddling with it. The signed language is our sacred identity.

The Voices of the Deaf People

How do Deaf people feel when they see a hearing person teaching ASL, running an ASL website, etc.? It generally brings Deaf to a feeling of heart-shrinking, stomach-wrenching, and/or boiling up inside. "Disgusted." This experience cannot be denied nor dismissed.

Video: "ASL Teaching: On Behalf of the Deaf Community" posted by the "ASL Teaching" channel.

Systemic Oppression: "... many of them (hearing instructors) are obtaining ASL teaching jobs traditionally held by Deaf people. Despite the fact many Deaf ASL instructors are masters in ASL, they are often replaced by hearing people, many of whom are not as fluent in ASL and Deaf Culture. ..." -- Video above.

Along with a high rate unemployment and underemployment of deaf people within the systemic hearing oppression and discrimination, a hearing person teaching sign language represents and reinforces a hearing privilege, a systemic power and oppression, an ignorance, an insensitivity, and disrespect. It reduces job opportunities for qualified Deaf, given that ASL teaching positions given are not abundant, if not scarce, compared to plentiful spoken-language/signed-language interpreting jobs out there.

A hearing ASL instructor doesn't get it, no matter how they defend, explain a reason, or rationalize. They just don't get it, period. A hearing privilege is part of their package.

A non-native language instructor teaching French, Spanish, and such languages is not the same as a non-native instructor teaching ASL, any signed language, Native Americans' languages, and such. There is a controversy about a non-native teaching French, Spanish or such. However, for a Caucasian/white non-native teacher teaching any Native Americans or First Nations' languages, it is absolutely unacceptable. Same for Deaf's languages. Because of a long painful history, systemic oppression, and so on.

When a hearing person teaching ASL or acting as a signer for video products (with some exceptions made by only Deaf producers/instructors), it questions their understanding of the ethical and moral practice, Deafhood, Deaf history, Deaf culture, and socio-political issues of the Deaf community, within their position of systemic power of phonocentrism and hearing privilege.

Language, culture, and history are inseparable.

Audism sleepers: "On the first day of the ASL level 1 class at a university, after talking about the syllabus, we reviewed a bit about audism via an interpreter. I knew that the students generally understood audism but I doubted they really looked within themselves deeply. Just before the clock ticked, I asked the ASL students, 'If you were taking a language course of Native Americans/First Nations, such as Cree or Dene, would you expect a white instructor teaching the indigenous language?' Virtually all students shook their head. Apparently, the students were more educated about the history of First Nations and the white oppression. A white teacher teaching an indigenous language is absolutely no-no. Right next, I asked the students, "How many of you have expected a hearing instructor prior to the first day of your ASL 111 last semester? Raise your hands." Many students shyly or slowly raised their hands with a guilty giggle. It was a good learning opportunity for them to see audism of their own what they didn't see themselves despite knowing what audism was." -- Deaf ASL instructor, J.L.

If you're taking an ASL course taught by a qualified Deaf instructor, it's a blessing. They not only teach ASL, but also they encompass Deaf culture, history, Deaf humor, Deaf experience, even language accent, and Deafhood on a cellular level.

Coolism (for the lack of a better term) as part of Cultural Appropriation: Many hearing people made videos of singing ASL, teaching ASL, etc. for attention and gain. Or, they think it's a cool, fun thing to do. They think they are doing benevolent (quite the opposite).


We Deaf people are indeed delighted that hearing people are interested in learning about our language and culture as long as their primary purpose is to communicate with Deaf people. We are always happy that hearing people can talk with us in ASL (or other signed languages) as much as we've learned your written (and sometimes spoken) English (or other languages).

Retrospection with a vigorous honesty is a good step.

"Hearing friends ask me to perform certain words or phrases in BSL and it makes me uncomfortable, I will not enable parroting of this language without an understanding of the deaf community, I encourage people to learn properly, from a deaf teacher." [Ref]

Refer a hearing person to Deaf resources, Deaf instructors, Deaf-run/Deaf-owned businesses, etc.

A common excuse is that it's okay for hearing teachers to teach sign language if there are not enough Deaf teachers. Do ask around, contact deaf organizations, recruit out of state. Contact Gallaudet University's Masters in Sign Language Education department and recruit. Would a hearing ASL teacher readily hand over their position to an available qualified Deaf instructor?

Respect our language, culture, and Deaf people. Practice allyship; be aware of hearing privilege, tokenism, cultural appropriation, audism, etc.).

Posted 2015, updated 2019.

Quotes in the Wild Web

"If you are an interpreter, and ASL student ask for tutoring - you are part of the problem in perpetuating the belief that 'certified' interpreters are better and more qualified in teaching ASL than native Deaf.
You are also part of the issue of not supporting the local Deaf ecosystem. You already have a stream of income. Many Deaf do not. Many of us are under-employed. Tutoring is one of the means of income.
When you get approached, recommend Deaf tutors. Disabuse ASL students of that notion that hearing are better. Direct tutoring traffic to local Deaf. Do your part as an ally." - Bee Vicars