Teaching sign language and ethics

Teaching sign language is a very important and sensitive issue. So is awareness. Historically, a rule and ethics in the Deaf world that teaching sign language in formal and informal settings belongs to Deaf instructors.

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

To help you see a real life analogy that might be familiar to most people.

Scenario: "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 have they really looked within themselves? 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 unthinkable, period. 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."

In our Deaf history, in defense of our language-modality and human rights, we have been painfully affected and been deeply impacted by hearing oppression over the past hundreds of years in many aspects of life, especially education and employment. And, we have been fighting against hearing oppression, audism, linguicism, phonocentrism, signoclasm, eugenics, cultural appropriation, hear-washing, hearing supremacy, hearing-based colonialism, 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, and history are deeply interweaved, where our language is not external but within us, the Deaf people.

When a hearing person teaches ASL (whether with a paid and unpaid position of teaching ASL, running an ASL website, etc.), it generally brings Deaf to a feeling of heart-shrinking, stomach-wrenching, and/or boiling up inside. This experience cannot be denied.

It questions a hearing ASL instructor's understanding of the ethical and moral practice of sign language teaching, Deaf history, Deaf culture, and socio-political issues of the Deaf community, within their position of systemic power of phonocentrism and hearing privilege.

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

In short, a hearing instructor teaching ASL is a parallel to white people teaching languages and cultures of the First Nations or Native Americans. That's inarguably unacceptable. 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.

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.

We 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 only. But, it's not their place to teach sign language to others in a public scene. Let qualified Deaf instructors do their jobs.


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]

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 availble qualified Deaf instructor?

Respect our language, culture, and Deaf people. Practice allyship (not hearing privilege, tokenism, cultural appropriation, etc.).

Posted 2015, updated 2019.

Related posts: qualifications that students look for in ASL instructors.