To write or not to write? deaf and deafblind people writing notes with hearing non-signers

by Annelies Kusters and Sujit Sahasrabudhe

This is a blog based on a book chapter: Kusters, A., & Saharasbudhe, S. (2020). “Interplays of pragmatism and language ideologies: Deaf and deafblind people’s literacy practices in gesture-based interactions”. In A. Kusters, M. Green, E. Moriarty Harrelson, & K. Snoddon (Eds.), Sign language ideologies in practice. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

This post is part of the special issue on sign language ideologies on Acadeafic. See the introduction to the special issue to learn more.

In many places around the world, deaf signers use gestures to communicate with hearing non-signers. The use of gestures can be complemented by writing in various ways: on paper, on a mobile phone, with a finger writing on the hand, arm or on a table, and so on. In this blog we explain how writing can be used in gestured interactions, and also how the use of writing is made sense of in language ideologies about the use of written text. Language ideologies can be described as ideas, thoughts or opinions people have about languages and communication. The blog is based on a project investigating customer interactions and service encounters in Mumbai, India.

In Mumbai, gestures are not merely used with/by deaf people but are common to customer interactions in general. For example, people gesture prices, amounts, sizes and shapes of things, and engage in enactments (enacting how a particular thing is used). Certain gestures, such as those for ‘water’ and ‘toilet’, are widely understood by hearing people. Many of these are integrated in Indian Sign Language too.

While Indian Sign Language can be used by itself, gestures are often used in combination with other modalities such as speaking, mouthing, writing and handling objects. The modality of writing comes with certain possibilities and restrictions. The lack of high-quality bilingual instruction in deaf education impacts the use of written language in deaf-hearing interactions in India. Many Indian deaf people do not feel confident about writing long texts, although they are more comfortable writing words and brief sentences in English and other languages.

When or why do people write?

Many successful gestured interactions with deaf and deafblind people happen without any writing (see film Ishaare or Kusters 2017a for examples). People’s expressions through gestures are not always specific enough, however, and combining gesturing with writing is a possible solution for foreseen or actual problems with understanding. When do people write, then?

Figure 1: Hand with the text ‘Bhiwandi’ and ‘200/-‘
  • To reduce the number of possible interpretations, for example of number gestures, which can easily be misunderstood. For example, a gestured “5” could be understood as 5, 50, 500 pieces/rupees/grams (see Kusters 2017a).
  • To specify names, such as communicating names of locations (this also can be done by mouthing; see Kusters 2017a). For example, when communicating with the driver of an autorickshaw (a cheap kind of taxi), people may write the destination (see Figure 1).
  • When gestures are not understood or only partially understood by either the deaf or the hearing person. The first strategy is typically to repeat or paraphrase the gestures, often adding mouthings (sometimes in more than one language) (see Kusters 2017a). This confirms that people actually prefer and foreground gesturing. In other situations, or as a secondary strategy, people write.

What do such examples look like in real life then? Below we discuss two examples which are included in the ethnographic film “Ishaare: Gestures and Signs in Mumbai” which was created within this project and can be watched online. Both examples are recorded in shops, the first example featuring a deaf sighted woman who remedies a misunderstanding, and the second example featuring a deaf-blind man indicating the best way for him to write.

Figure 2: Ishaare poster

Example One: Reena buys honey

Clip 1: Reena buys honey

Reena goes to an indoor grocery shop and orders a pot of honey by pointing at a pot she sees on the counter – she thinks it is honey but actually it is pickles. When the shop assistant gives her a pot of pickles, Reena gestures that she wants honey but then ceases to explain herself through gesture and quickly asks for a pen to write. She writes “honey” in Marathi language (see Figure 3), and the seller, after reading the paper, asks his assistant to fetch the item. A few minutes later the seller addresses Reena, pointing at another woman in his shop and saying “my sister, sister” (in English), repeating it several times (ceasing to voice, only mouthing his repetitions). Following this, he writes it down (“sister”, see Figure 3). Reena understands and provides a widely used sign/gesture for sister, which the seller then copies.

Figure 3: Paper on writing board with “मध“ [honey, in the Devanagari script used to write Marathi] , “sister”, and “honey”.

Here we see how, in a span of a few minutes, both the deaf and the hearing interlocutor write something when they feel that signing/gesturing and/or speaking/mouthing does not immediately work. In interviews, Reena explained that she is a strong supporter of using gesture with sellers at markets because gesturing/signing is the natural way for deaf people to communicate. She said that deaf people should gesture in the first place and should repeat the gesture when they are not immediately understood. Indeed, in street markets in Mumbai, writing was used significantly less frequently than in indoor shops: hearing market vendors mostly gestured and only in a limited number of cases did they write with a pen or finger on their palm, or showed a calculator. This can be seen in Ishaare in other interactions involving Reena.

However, Reena also explained that a busy and crowded shop environment with counters and items behind glass is a rather different context than vegetable stalls, where it is easy to take things yourself or to point to items. In the former environment, writing (or showing a shopping list to the shopkeeper) is often an important strategy. In the clip, when she arrived in the busy shop, she had already struggled to get and keep the shopkeeper’s attention, impacting her quick decision to write down “honey” rather than to gesture it again. In Ishaare, Reena comments: “I tend to write words only. It is urgent [because of the crowd] and easy to understand for them. They quickly get the item I want, and our time is saved.”

Reena is responding to the social and spatial environment and temporality in ideological ways (deaf people “should gesture”) and in pragmatic ways (“sometimes writing is more efficient”). Time is an important element in choosing to write or not: sometimes writing will save time, while in other situations it’s quicker to point at a product or at an item in a menu. Thus, sometimes people choose the more pragmatic (here, the most quickly and easily understood) means over their preferred or more generally valued means of communication (in Reena’s case, gesturing).       

Example Two: Pradip finger-writes

Clip 2: Pradip finger-writes

Pradip, a deafblind man, arrives at a shop where the counter faces the street. When it is his turn, the seller offers him a pen and turns away to look for paper, not seeing that Pradip shakes his hand holding the pen (i.e., gesturing “no”). Pradip then puts down the pen and tries to call the shopkeeper. The latter returns with a piece of paper (probably based on expectations following an earlier interaction with Pradip), but Pradip takes the man’s hand, removes the paper, and then finger-writes V-I-M in the man’s palm (writing each new character on top of the former). VIM is the brand name of a block of dishwashing soap Pradip wants to buy. The seller, who has his eye gaze trained on his own hand (where Pradip has been writing), nods and turns around to get the block of soap. In a short interview immediately after this interaction, Pradip explains why he refused the paper: “I don’t want to write on paper, but on his hand. Paper creates distance. Our hands must be connected” (also see Kusters 2017b).

Through its use of the body as a writing surface, finger-writing is used by Pradip and his interlocutors to communicate prices, symbols, words and abbreviations. It is fleeting and evanescent (much like speech or signs) and does not leave a permanent mark. One has to read in real-time: his sighted interlocutors watch their hand when Pradip finger-writes, and when people write in Pradip’s hand, he feels it in real-time. After having felt what the other wrote in his palm, Pradip often double-checks by writing in return in the other’s palm. In other contexts, Pradip does write on paper (depending on the seller and the complexity of the order) or makes use of a booklet with names of spices in two languages in three different scripts: English (Braille and Roman script) and Marathi (Devanagari script) (see Ishaare).

How are language ideologies tied up with these practices of writing?

When people make the choice to write or not, they make decisions regarding which modality and language to foreground. Studying these decisions lays bare language ideologies, and also shows that these ideologies are situated and embedded in a complex interplay of factors.

For deaf people who are literate in a print or written language, there are many circumstances in which writing helps with communication. In terms of choosing whether or not to write, people make pragmatic decisions (often in the spur of the moment) based on the following factors:

  • the material environment (in the street/indoors, crowded/quiet spaces, items behind glass or available through touch)
  • the willingness and acquaintedness of the interlocutors and their literacies
  • the preferred products (very specific or not, private or not, regular order or not)
  • the infrastructure available for writing (counter, pen, paper,..)

Yet people are not only being pragmatic. Ideologies of affordances and constraints of writing come to the fore through multimodal language practices. By using writing in limited ways and using more gestures than writing, people reflect an (often implicit) ideology of the way they want writing and gesturing to be balanced.

Furthermore, while writing is ideologically valued as clear, unambigous, and quick, it is not seen as a fail-safe strategy. There are limitations experienced with regard to writing because of the written language competencies of both deaf and hearing people. Often, people are not literate in the same written language (e.g., English versus Hindi). Too much writing, and writing that happens without gesturing, limits understanding. The resource of writing is thus very much valued, yet it is used for very specific purposes and in specific ways and locations in Mumbai, and this is reflected in language ideologies on the use of writing in gestured interactions.


Kusters, A. (2017a). Gesture-based deaf-hearing customer interactions: Mumbaikars’ multimodal and metrolingual strategies. International Journal of Multilingualism 14(3), 283-302

Kusters, A. (2017b). “Our hands must be connected”: Tactile gestures, visual gestures and writing in interactions featuring a deaf blind customer in Mumbai. Social Semiotics 27(4), 394-410

Annelies Kusters is Associate Professor in Sign Language and Intercultural Research at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh. She currently leads a deaf research team focusing on intersectionality and translanguaging in the context of international deaf mobilities: MobileDeaf.

Sujit Sahasrabudhe is an Indian Sign Language teacher and interpreter trainer. Having grown up in India, he currently lives in the UK. Over the past seven years, he has been active as a research assistant in a number of projects on deaf mobilities, deaf people’s communication strategies, and family communication. 

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