2014-09 EllaThumbs1 from The Deafhood Foundation on Vimeo.

translation / summary of Ella’s Thumbs #1 October 2014

Ella’s Thumbs will be a part of the Deafhood Foundation e-newsletter. For each e-newsletter, I will discuss one THUMBS-UP and one THUMBS-down topic that affect Deaf people and Sign Language. Reasons and explanations will be given for each selected topic. The intention of this part is not to degrade or to promote, but to share information, raise awareness and/or encourage reflective dialogues among members of the community.

DISCLAIMER: The contents of this segment are entirely mine and not the Deafhood Foundation’s. The Foundation is providing me space in this e-newsletter as it always supports Deaf-centered discourses.

The topics:

THUMBS-UP – the ASL 1-10 Number Stories – the recent rage on Facebook
THUMBS-DOWN – the business of Signing Songs – not all of them get “thumbs down” from me, tho. Those that do are videos and actions by people like Tina and Paul. To cap this example, Tina is an interpreter in a mainstreamed setting. Paul, her finance, doesn’t know sign but is learning some from her. They videotaped themselves practicing a signed song, they plan to do for their upcoming wedding, while driving. This video went viral and as a result, they set up fundraising to make more videos of signed songs as well as teaching some signs.

THUMBS-UP: The ASL 1-10 Number Stories

This has been considered a genre of ASL literature for a long time. It works by taking the handshapes of the cardinal numbers in ASL, in this instance between 1 and 10, and by matching signs with the handshapes to create a flowing story that is sensible with a plot within those constraints. The hardest parts are usually the signs with handshapes for numbers 6 and 7 as there are quite limited number of signs with those hand shapes. Signs can be slightly modified but can’t go too far where it looks strange or doesn’t make sense. Yes, it can be challenging! it’s also fun. A lot of entertainment doing this. Some of the stories popping in Facebook have been really awesome. For me, seeing all those stories on Facebook has been an immensely enriching experience.

One great bonus with these ASL 1-10 stories is due to its constraints, it is a good way for the narrator to focus on telling the story without any undue influence from English. This will be a challenge that helps us all to appreciate ASL more. This challenge going viral on Facebook has been true delight!

You can see collections of the stories from Facebook in these two places: 1) the Facebook page called “ASL 1-10 Stories” and 2) the youTube account for ASLized.org.

THUMBS-DOWN: The idea of signing songs

The idea of “music” among Deaf people is (word? sticky? mixed? uncomfortable?). It may be assumed that it’s because of “lack of hearing” that makes Deaf people at a disadvantage when it comes to hearing music. Not, it’s not that. It’s beyond that. It’s related to the idea of culture. Paddy Ladd has mentioned somewhere, maybe in his book, that music is often a good way for people from different cultures to reach out to each other and to appreciate each other. That’s one positive aspect. Yet, there can be some dangers. For example, if members of a majority or dominant culture are drawn or fascinated with music from a minority or sub culture, appropriation can happen where the dominant culture takes the other culture’s music and takes over the marketing and production and reap profits off it. It would be better and more appropriate if the sub or minority culture create and control the marketing and production of their music to others. This should gain respect from the majority as well.

Now, among Deaf people, many of us may think it pretty weird that because we don’t hear, we would want to dabble in production and marketing of our music, that is if we do have any. Some of us may claim that “silence is golden” and that we really don’t need music to exist. That may be how some of our dialogues may appear.

However, let’s take a look at what “music” actually is. Does it require “good hearing”? Apparently not. And apparently it’s not a requirement to “hear” music.

Last May, I had the opportunity to go to Rochester, NY, to join a small group of people (Deaf artists) in a filming and discussion project hosted by the Deaf Cultural Centre of Toronto, Canada, as part of a grant they received related to the idea of “Sign Music.” It was a wonderful gathering and we had some good discussions. We realized more and more that music is not related to hearing, but it’s more of a matter of rhythm, that comes from deep inside us, that inspires and moves us. Some express the inspiration through the ears and mouth. Some express with “beats” with the body, such as dancing. There are other ways as well.

Also, apparently different cultures have different measurements and expectations of music. For example, a culture may have three strings on a guitar-like instrument, with an established set of pitches. Other culture(s) may use four strings and a different set of pitches, while yet others use five strings and so forth. There is also the different preferences and tendencies for “beats” for rhythm. Some may go 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3. Others go 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, all evenly emphasized. Sometimes they go 1-2 with strong emphasis, then 3-4 with softer emphasis. It may also go 1 with stronger emphasis, but 2-3-4 softer. Those are cultural and passed down throughout generations. This means it applies to Deaf culture as well. And of course we do have those examples in some of our artistic endeavors and folklore. Yes, there are a lot of potential for more, especially if we recognize the oppression we experience and become more free to create new ideas and possibilities.

We explored with some of that in Rochester. It was an exciting time.

The problem currently as we notice in a lot of our social media, such as Tina and Paul, and some done by Deaf people as well, is that songs/music from the “hearing” culture is the focus as attempts of translations into ASL are done on the songs. The background instrumental music is “hearing”. The lyrics of the song is from the “hearing” culture. In short, everything is “hearing” but superimposed with ASL signs. There is practically nothing cultural or relevant for Deaf people.

Also, what is the purpose of doing this “song signing”? Is it to satisfy Deaf people’s access or curiosity about the contents of the songs? Or is it to show how “beautiful” ASL can be when done simultaneously with the songs?
The latter is dangerous. How will the ASL be evaluated? Who says if the ASL is acceptable, makes sense, is an appropriate equivalent to the lyrics in the song? Is the mood, nuance, affect of the signing comparable to those in the song? So often, examples of these signed songs are hands waving in the air with some signs not stringed together in a sensible way, along with different facial expressions with unclear meaning or grammatical use. Naive non-signers watch them and the rhythm of the hand moving and facial expressions appear to match the one in the song and claim it is awesome and beautiful. What qualifications do those people have to evaluate the performance? Even those who can hear and know some ASL are biased and drawn to the heard part and have no idea of what it truly appears to one who totally watches the show without hearing or knowing the words. Most of not all of the time, those performances do not make sense nor is culturally appropriate for those people. Yet, if we protest or criticize them, we are criticized instead, and are called haters, jealous, practicing rejection, are narrow minded, etc. This is not right.

And what’s more, if these performers get paid for the presentation, where does the money go? Typically, to themselves, for more production of same senseless, culturally irrelevant stuff while many of us struggle to get our language and cultural acknowledged and respected. Our Deaf children are mostly denied ASL in their education. This kind of performance do not really help solve this deeply serious problem affecting our Deaf children and their families.

That’s why I am giving this kind of ASL use THUMBS-DOWN.

However, I am totally for Deaf-cultural centered creative ways of expressing music – Sign Music. Yes I am for it.

Look forward to continuing this kind of discussion and exploration and creating.

Thank you for watching. Till the next time!