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ASL Access: Sign Language Videos for Public Libraries
David Johnson, Column Editor
ASL Access: Sign Language Videos for Public Libraries
[Ed.: "EASI Access to Library Technology," a regular feature of Library Hi Tech News, examines new technology, information sources and services, and other news of interest to librarians concerned with providing quality services to their patrons with disabilities. EASI (Equal Access to Software and Information), in affiliation with the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE), is concerned with new and emerging technologies for computer users with disabilities.]
American Sign Language
ASL Access, the main focus of this month's EASI Access column, is a nonprofit organization that was started in 1997 with the goal of placing American sign language (ASL) videos and CD-ROMs in public libraries. Since many people are unaware of the differences between the various sign systems used by deaf people, it is probably a good idea to first say something about what ASL is and how it differs from signed English and cued speech. ASL is a visual language using hand and arm movements where spoken languages use sounds produced by the tongue, palate and teeth. Facial expressions and other body movements also play a role. ASL is descended from the French sign language introduced to the USA in the early 1800s by Thomas H. Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc, but thanks to natural language development it now differs significantly from French sign language. It is not a representation of American spoken English. ASL is used in parts of Canada and the Caribbean, and also in parts of Africa (thanks to an African American graduate of Gallaudet University who started a number of schools for the deaf in Africa), but other sign languages are used in other countries. Many countries have a variety of local sign languages, which may not be mutually intelligible.
Signed English is English represented by alphabetic signs (also called fingerspelling). Cued speech is a system in which lip-reading is supplemented by hand signs that serve to lessen ambiguities that result when different sounds are produced having similar lip positions. Both systems, therefore, are aimed at allowing deaf people to use and understand spoken language.
It is natural to assume that ASL is to deaf people as Braille is to blind people, but in fact ASL and Braille play quite different roles. ASL is a distinct language, not a code for transmitting English or other spoken languages. Blind advocates of Braille see it as an essential means of access to the general culture, while deaf advocates of ASL see it as the medium of a distinct deaf culture. Consequently, they often identify themselves as advocates of bilingualism and multiculturalism.
One similarity between Braille and ASL is that it is good for children to learn them early for the sake of fluency. At the age when hearing children soak up spoken language, deaf children can soak up sign language just as naturally, if they are exposed to it. Moreover, a number of studies have shown that early exposure to sign language is beneficial to the cognitive development of deaf children. But since most deaf children have hearing parents, this exposure is not always available, even when a child's hearing loss is recognized early.
To achieve its goal of placing ASL videos in public libraries, ASL Access (www.aslaccess.org) has created a collection of over 225 videos, all reviewed by volunteers familiar with ASL and selected to appeal to a variety of audiences, such as adult ASL users, children learning ASL, hearing parents of deaf children who want to learn to communicate with their children, and other non-deaf people who want to learn ASL. Libraries interested in acquiring the collection complete an application form asking their reasons for seeking the collection, how they plan to market it, and whether they have funding. ASL Access will help libraries interested in acquiring this collection to obtain funding from foundations and other sources such as local deaf groups or library friends groups. Once funding is found, ASL Access will itself order the videos, which come from over 45 different companies. ASL Access will also help to publicize the existence of the collection. It supplies a free guidebook describing the contents of the collection for customers, and free full-color publicity flyers.
The total cost of the collection, when it is obtained via ASL Access, is about $7,000. ASL Access has negotiated a discount from Library Video Company (www.libraryvideo.com) for approximately 200 videos.
The collection is described on the ASL Access Web site. Its over 225 videos and CD-ROMs include 60 ASL translations of children's stories, 60 instructional titles about ASL, and a wide variety of other titles, including original ASL literature, history, biography, training materials for ASL interpreters, health information, how-to videos, and videos on parenting issues.
Beginning in 1999, ASL Access video collections have been funded at four libraries. The first collection, at the Martin Luther King Memorial Library in Washington, DC, was paid for by the founders of ASL Access, Christine and Roger Wixtrom, and named after Alice L. Hagemeyer, a retired librarian at the DC Public Library who is currently active in promoting library access for all people in connection with hearing loss and sign language.
The second ASL Access collection is at the Fairfax County Public Library in Northern Virginia, and was funded by the Crestar Foundation. According to Christine Wixtrom, nearly half its videos went out on loan almost immediately after opening. The two most recent collections opened in January 2000, one at the Morris County Library in Whippany, New Jersey, and the St John's County Public Library in St Augustine, Florida. The New Jersey collection is described on the Morris County Library Deaf Resource Center Web page, www.gti.net/mocolib1/deaf.html Both received funding from the Higgs Family Foundation, with additional funding for the Morris County collection coming from the Northwest New Jersey Association of the Deaf.
According to Christine Wixtrom, several other libraries are working now on finding funding from either private or public sources to receive the collection.
ASL Access may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to 4217 Adrienne Drive, Alexandria, VA 22309.
Other Sign Language Resources
ASL involves rapid and fluid hand movements, which tend to look jerky and broken when presented via the Internet. It looks much better (and is more intelligible to those who understand the language) when presented on videotape, CD-ROMs, or DVDs. When the National Association of the Deaf tested on-line ASL video beginning in the fall of 1998, the result, according to a March 2000 press release from the NAD president, was that "the low speed version was completely unreadable," and even the high-speed version using Quicktime, while better, was "difficult to understand" (Pollard, 2000).
In June 2000 it was announced that the America Online Foundation would sponsor a new effort by NAD to produce instructional on-line streaming ASL video (see http://nad.policy.net/proactive/newsroom/release.vtml?id=18560 and http://www.aolfoundation.org/newsroom/pr060700.html). Presumably, digital compression and high-speed links will eventually allow satisfactory ASL video to go over the Internet.
Among the Web sites currently featuring ASL are several on-line dictionaries. One is www.handspeak.com, which features .gif images of a young woman demonstrating some dozens of signs. For many words, signs are included from multiple languages, so the viewer can compare ASL to Japanese Sign or South African Sign. The site also includes several brief stories, such as a rendition of Aesop's fable of the gnat and the bull. (The gnat landed to rest on the bull's horn, then asked permission to leave, to which the bull responded that he had not even known the gnat was there; moral, we are often less important in others' eyes than we think. This story is told using 37 .gif images.) The signs appear quite jumpy on my screen, so I would not be surprised if ASL users find them a bit hard to understand.
A similar on-line dictionary, called the ASL Browser, is on the Web site of the Michigan State University Communication Technology Lab (http://commtechlab.msu.edu/sites/aslweb). This dictionary uses Quicktime. The Personal Communicator CD-ROM sold by the MSU Comm Tech Lab for $56.45 contains the complete on-line dictionary, along with other material for deaf children.
Another informative site is Cindy's Homepage on ASL and Deaf Culture, at www.aslinfo.com The ASL Access Web site also contains information on ASL, as well as many reviews of ASL videos. And there is a page of sign language links on the Deaf World Web at www.deafworldweb.org/pub/s/signlang.html
One way to overcome the problem of Internet jumpiness is to use avatars (virtual reality representations of human figures) for signing over the Internet (see Wideman and Sims, 1998, and www.signingavatar.com). Unlike video, avatars do not have to be pre-recorded, so they could be used for real-time communication, as well as for presenting Web site content. Seamless Solutions sells a Talking Avatar CD-ROM that can read the content of Talking Avatar-enabled Web sites in ASL. It offers avatars in a choice of races, plus a bipedal signing lizard-man. The Signing Avatar vocabulary includes 3,500 signs and 30 facial expressions, with fingerspelling for any terminology not covered in ASL.
For librarians with an interest in learning Spanish sign language, another informative Web site is www.epcc.edu/community/NMIP/faqs.htm The National Multicultural Interpreter Project at El Paso Community College was funded by the US Department of Education to train sign language interpreters to communicate with deaf Hispanics. Instead of training interpreters in Spanish sign language, however, this trilingual program trains interpreters in ASL, English, and Spanish. The reason is that there are different sign languages in different Spanish-speaking countries, and deaf education in those countries has tended to be oralist (i.e. based on signed Spanish). According to the NMIP Web site, there is only limited training available in the USA in LSM (Lenguaje de Signos Mexicanos): "There are some limited training materials, a few workshops are being presented in various states, and EPCC will be offering one course of Mexican Sign Language each year."
David Johnson is an Abstractor/ Information Specialist at the National Rehabilitation Information Center (NARIC). Readers with questions, comments, or suggestions may e-mail him at DJohnson@kra.com
Pollard, L. (2000), "Web video testing project: March 2000 update", http://nad.policy.net/proactive/newsroom/release.vtml?id=17480
Wideman, C. and Sims, E. (1998), "Signing avatars," http://www.dinf.org/csun_98/csun98_027.htm