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Scottish Finger-Signing Gets Its Own Documentary

We often read about the struggle to document and preserve endangered spoken and written languages.  But what about disappearing sign languages? Deaf people all over the world have their own regional languages and methods of communicating, some of which are also vanishing.

For example, a new documentary by the Highland Council’s Deaf Communication Project aims to capture Scottish Highland finger-spelling before it is completely replaced by standard sign language. As project manager Jenny Liddell explained to the BBC:

“Older deaf people don’t use as many signs, but instead use their fingers to spell out individual letters. It sounds like a slow way to communicate, but in fact it’s amazingly fast and beautiful to watch, and its part of our heritage.”

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GPs Urged to Use More Sign Language Services

Concerns were raised about the lack of sign language services provided by doctor’s surgeries in the UK at the Deaf Day 2009 event in London on the 4th April. People attending the event signed a petition which demands that surgeries use online software called Sign Translate.

SignTranslate is currently a free service for GPs in England, thanks to funding from Sign Health, the health care charity for deaf people.

It is essential that the NHS provide services which mean it can cater for all. Translation services are essential for good communication between the doctor and their patient. Foreign immigrants also often require translation services within the medical environment as the communication must be clear at all times. The patient will feel more comfortable communicating in their preferred or first language.

This free BSL service from SignTranslate was set up in June 2008 and will be free until June 2009. After June 2009 the GPs surgeries will have to pay for this service. Many other companies also provide sign language services at a reasonable cost.

Teaching Deaf Children

There is a long-standing debate in the deaf community over the best way to educate deaf children. Should they be taught with other deaf children, in classes that emphasize sign language? Or should they be “main-streamed” into classrooms with hearing children, taught spoken language as much as possible and encouraged to take advantage of new technologies like cochlear implants?

Now, some sign language advocates in Indiana fear that budget shortfalls will determine the answer to that question. For example, Naomi S. Horton, executive director of Hear Indiana, which supports educating deaf children in mainstream classrooms, told the New York Times that:

“Kids in the mainstream save society, taxpayers, a significant amount of money in the short-term and in the long-term when it comes to being integrated into the hearing world,” though she added “There is a financial benefit, but at the end of the day it has to be a parent’s choice.”

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Native Americans Gather for Plains Indian Sign Language Conference

From August 12th to August 15th, Native Americans from several different Plains Indian tribes will gather at the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Montana to create a record of a language that is rapidly going extinct: Plains Indian Sign Language, also known as “hand talk.”  Although today it is used by only a few deaf Native Americans, before Europeans arrived in America it was widely used by both the deaf and hearing alike, and was the primary form of communication between tribes that did not share a language. It was also used for story-telling and rituals.

Over time, use of the language declined, replaced by spoken English for hearing tribe members and American Sign Language for deaf children.  According to Wikipedia, in 1885 over 110,000 Native Americans used the language regularly. Now, nobody is even sure how many people understand it, just that the number is tiny. According to the Billings Gazette, conference organizers hope that about 30 sign-talkers will attend the conference.

Ron Garritson, a sign talker who helped do fieldwork for the conference, told the Billings Gazette:

“Being able to carry on a fluent conversation, you’re running pretty short on who can do it. Most were either deaf or had grandparents who were deaf, and they learned the sign talk that way.”

The conference will bring together fluent Plains Indian signers for  the first time in 80 years. The last gathering of Plains Indian sign-talkers was in 1930. Tribal elders were filmed telling stories in hand talk, while a narrator translated the signs into spoken English. The focus of this conference will be on using the language to communicate, but of course linguists and anthropologists will be on hand to record participants signing and create a more complete record of this vanishing language.

Lady Gaga Wants To Learn Sign Language

Lady Gaga has been branded as the new “Queen of Pop Music” and a music phenomenon of her generation with a string of hits: “just dance” , “bad romance”, “poker face “and more recently “Judas”. Since 2005 she has sold more than 6 million albums worldwide.

However, underneath the surface gloss, glamour and eccentricity, there beats the heart of a true philanthropist who has contributed to various charities and humanitarian works as well as campaigning for gay rights in America and the fight against HIV. The last year, Lady Gaga held a benefit concert to aid in the reconstruction of Haiti after the devastating earthquake claimed an estimated quarter of a million lives.

More recently, Lady Gaga has expressed a desire to learn sign language so she can communicate with her deaf fans. A source told The Sun newspaper :

“Now she wants to make sure her deaf fans feel included too. Once she’s mastered sign language she’ll be able to respond to the videos that are online, and include signing in future live tours.”

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Cornell Develops Sign-Language Mobile Phones

These days, almost everyone has a mobile phone. But what about people who are deaf or hearing-impaired?

Until now, deaf people have been able to able to use cell phones in a limited fashion, for texting only. Texting is a valuable communication option, and providers like T-Mobile have long offered “data-only” plans aimed at the hearing-impaired for phones like the Sidekick that have keyboards specially designed for typing and texting.

However, researchers at Cornell University have developed a new type of cell phone that enables deaf users to go beyond texting and actually hold live conversations with other people.

The phones use videoconferencing to allow deaf people to converse in sign language. Your phone may be able to take and send a video message, but unless you’re one of the 25 Seattle residents currently using the phone, you can’t do live videoconferencing like this. The phones have been optimized to transmit clear, easy-to-see video using limited bandwidth.

The software on the phones has also been written to maximize battery life, which can be sucked dry rather quickly by data usage.

In an article on Physorg.com, Sheila Hemami, Cornell professor of electrical and computer engineering who supervises the project in cooperation with Eve Riskin and Richard Ladner of the University of Washington, explained that the devices  are important because “We completely take cell phones for granted. Deaf people can text, but if texting were so fabulous, cell phones would never develop. There is a reason that we like to use our cell phones. People prefer to talk.”

Parents of teenagers may disagree with that last statement. However, if this device makes into large-scale production, it will offer deaf people something they have never had before when it comes to using a cell phone-the ability to choose the way they communicate with others.

Deaf Puppy Joins Deaf Family, Learns Sign Language

With her floppy ears, black spots and one blue eye, you’d think Alice the springer spaniel would have no problem finding a home.   However, the adorable pup was actually neglected and cast off by a breeder after it was discovered that she was born deaf.

The Blue Cross took her in, but was afraid that it would be hard to find her a “forever home” because of her special needs.

Fortunately, Marie Williams and her partner Mark Morgan saw Alice’s profile on the Blue Cross website. Williams and Morgan are both deaf, and they decided that Alice was meant to join their family. Read more

Automatic Sign Language

We’ve all seen TV shows and movies make use of subtitles for the hearing impaired. However, for many deaf people, it takes more effort to decode the English words used in the subtitles than it would to understand the material if it were presented in their native tongue: sign language.

In an attempt to address this issue, the NHK Science & Technology Research Laboratories just released some interesting new technology: a system that automatically translates spoken language into  sign language using an animated virtual avatar.

As the researchers who developed the system explained to Akihabara News, “Subtitles are fine for people who understand Japanese, and who lost their hearing at some point. Meanwhile, people who are deaf from birth learn sign language first, naturally they study Japanese after that, but they find that sign language is easier to understand than subtitles, so we are conducting research in sign language.” Read more

Deaf Hip-Hop Singer Snags Recording Contract

Deaf hip-hop artist Sean Forbes just signed a recording contract with Web Entertainment and BMI, according to the Detroit Free Press.  Forbes is the co-founder of the Deaf Professional Arts Network also known as D-Pan, which makes sign-language remakes of popular music videos. Founded in 2006, the network helps people who are hearing-impaired connect with today’s popular music through remaking videos like Fort Minor’s “Where Did You Go?” Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” and John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change.”  All of D-Pan’s videos feature deaf or hard-of-hearing performers.

While Forbes started out covering other artists’ material, he also plays drums and writes his own music, rapping and signing simultaneously.  He lost 90% of his hearing as a baby, but grew up listening to hip-hop nonetheless. His first single is called “I’m Deaf.” Sorenson Communications, which provides videophone services, plans to use it as “video hold music” for users of its services. The single comes out on Tuesday, May 18th.

According to Charlie Feldman, BMI’s vice president for writer-publisher relations, Forbes is:

“rapping and signing, and he’s spitting pretty impressively, to put it in the vernacular.”

This summer, Forbes is planning to tour bookstores and colleges with collaborator Jake Bass, and his also trying to find musical acts with a similarly light-hearted vibe to open for.

In the Detroit Free Press, Forbes described what the deal means for him and for the hearing-impaired community as a whole:

“D-Pan opened the door for deaf people with music videos, and that opened the door for people with original material like myself,” says Forbes. “I hope this helps create opportunities for more people. … “I hope it shows everybody that deaf people can do anything.”

You can watch Forbes’ videos and get more information about his music on his website.