A little known fact is that sign language is just as much a fully developed, complex language as spoken ones. Sign language has its own rules and its own varieties. For example, American Sign Language is different from Austrian Sign Language (ÖGS) but even within Austria you can discover regional differences.
Therefore, recognizing how complex sign language is, has taken a lot of time. Austrian Sign Language was only officially recognized as an independent language ten years ago, in September 2005. This was an important step but how much has changed since then for people who are hard of hearing or deaf?
Representation in the media
Paradoxically, to the public sign language is often invisible. While in Austria the national broadcaster ORF does provide a version of the news in Austrian Sign Language, it is still separate from what is broadcast for mainstream audiences. Especially, in TV series or films the argument is often that it costs too much money to have representation of characters who are deaf or hard of hearing. Another excuse is that such inclusion will slow down and ruin the flow of dialogue for other audiences.
However, as the recent double episode “Under the Lake/Before the Flood” of Doctor Who demonstrated, it is not that difficult to have representation. Cass is a strong woman who becomes the captain of the crew after (spoiler alert) the actual captain is killed within the first few minutes. She does a great job as leader and is considered to be an incredibly smart person who just happens to be deaf. When she signs, her interpreter translates simultaneously and whenever other characters speak the interpreter can also be seen signing the translations in the background of the scene. Rather than disturb the flow of the scene, it adds realism to it by having the interpreter sign whenever someone is talking instead of just when Cass is addressed. This is a brilliant example of bridging a gap between people who communicate via spoken and sign language. However, there are still gaps left to bridge.
Real life outside the media
A fact, which is not widely talked about in the media is the issues people who are deaf or hard of hearing face in their everyday lives. For example, as a child, learning to read is far more labour-intensive since spoken languages are often based on sounds. In turn, this not only makes navigating through everyday situations, where everything is only written with letters rather than sign language, more difficult.
While there are existing projects, such as career support courses, this fact paired with the lack of support in the education system leads to a comparatively high number of illiteracy in the community. Subsequently, difficulties to read make it even more challenging to pursue a higher education, which is aimed at those who hear very well or to build a career.
What about the future?
Perhaps having representation of characters who happen to be deaf and hard of hearing and are still presented as three-dimensional personalities that people of the community are, is the first step but it certainly cannot be the only one. For people outside the community of those who are deaf and hard of hearing, it is vital to realize sign language is so much more than a substitution for spoken language. Sign languages are complex, independent languages, which are one of the core parts of the culture and art produced by members of its community. Therefore, it is vital to raise awareness, to have more of that culture and art represented in mainstream media, so it can enrich the perception of the community by other people outside of it.
Are you now interested in learning a bit of Austrian sign language yourself? You can use the learning resources provided by the University of Klagenfurt. If you have any other examples of realistic representation of people who are hard of hearing or deaf in the media or personal experiences, feel free to share them in the comments!
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