Sign Languages are Academic

by Octavian E. Robinson and Jonathan Henner

This blog is based on the chapter, Henner, J., and Robinson, O. (2021) “Signs of Oppression in the Academy: The Case of Signed Languages,”, in Clements, G., and Petray, M.J. (eds.) Linguistic Discrimination in US Higher Education: Power, Prejudice, Impacts, and Remedies. Routledge Press.

This blog discusses perceptions of signed languages in academia as well as how spoken language and writing has been used to oppress people who neither use spoken language well, nor write well according to social expectations.  

To help us think about oppression in languaging, or how people use languages in communication, we use two different frameworks, raciolinguistics, which examines the role of race in shaping language attitudes, and DisCrit, which examines the intersections of disability and race. Here, as scholars situated in the United States, our discussion will use ASL and English as examples but can be generalized to other spoken and signed languages.


ASL is popular in higher education institutions the United States, as evidenced by the number of ASL course offerings. Although universities profit from selling ASL courses, signed languages and their users, especially signers who are disabled and people of color, do not feel welcome. Researchers of signed languages, hearing and deaf, feel like their research is not that important within the larger field of linguistics or the academy because signed language research is still viewed as a novelty rather than as serious academic scholarship (Hochgesang, 2019).  Society treats signed languages as less important because of their relationship with disability. Understanding this relationship also requires conversations that cannot be separated from race.

And for some, there is resistance to the idea that there are ways to language outside of speech and writing.

Signed languages reminds us that not all languages must be coded into writing. However, the absence of an associated writing system contributes to negative attitudes about signed languages. While some spoken languages do not have a written component, the absence of writing in signed languages has been used by universities to justify refusal to accept signed languages toward degree requirements or offer credit-bearing sign language courses. Scholars who publish in signed languages in journals such as the Deaf Studies Digital Journal or Journal of American Sign Languages and Literatures often find their work does not count for publication credit for tenure and promotion.

While signed languages are a vital element of human language in general, many linguists still do not know much about signed language linguistics. Introductory courses in linguistics and materials used in those courses often do not include instruction and analysis about signed languages. The lack of discussion about signed languages in linguistics introductory courses is an example of further oppression of signed languages. Researcher bias, covert or overt, intentional or not, manifests in multiple ways. Some examples of this bias include the omission of signed languages from discussions of multilingualism and assessments; signed language linguists having to invest substantial portions of their paper explaining basics of signed language linguistics; attitudes about the supremacy of spoken languages, especially those possessing written systems have created a hostile environment for signed languages and signers within the academy. This does influence medicalized language used to talk about deaf children in education.

Raciolinguistics and DisCrit

Raciolinguistics and Critical Disability (DisCrit) lenses were developed by scholars of color writing about systems of oppression regarding language and/or disability.  We recognize, as Annamma et al (2013) write, that “ability and race [and language] are assembled” in ways that make it impossible or at least difficult to make generalizations about how various members of the signed language community are perceived by either abled or speech users.

Language is entangled with racial perspectives. Language cannot be viewed as a separate entity from the speaker/signer. And judgments about a person’s language use are centered in ideals of whiteness and white language. Non-white people are harmed because their language is not perceived as standard or acceptable.

The theory of raciolinguistics in this paper describes how deaf language use, particularly signed language, is refracted through beliefs of how deaf language should be ideally and how deaf academics have internalized this through conceptions of academic signed languages.

In the United States, signed languages are negatively racialized. Baynton’s (1996) work demonstrates how anti-blackness and anti-Indigeneity contributed to negative attitudes about signed languages. In sum, there was a belief that signed languages were an evolutionary throwback that white people had transcended whereas other non-white people had not yet evolved and were naturally using sign languages. This ideology resulted in the perception of signed languages being the realm of nonwhite deaf people.

The history of racial relations in the United States meant Black deaf children were not given the same educational opportunities as white deaf children. As a result of educational and social segregation, Black deaf people developed their own signed language, Black ASL (Hill, 2012). The result of racial structures in the United States and ideologies about racialized language use meant Black deaf people not only needed to perform whiteness and hearingness, but also perform whiteness in their signing when within spaces dominated by white people, for example, the academy. That meant they had to sign more white among other signing deaf people who did not think Black ASL was real or good ASL. In the States, that means that Black deaf people are often judged for using Black ASL by both white deaf people and disadvantaged by biased productions of signed language assessments that inherently favor performances of whiteness and hearingness.

Educators in the United States also focuses too much on making sure that deaf people have good speech and what they think are good writing skills. Using spoken and written English becomes markers of whiteness and abilities in the context of U.S. educational history and restrictions on literacy as well as able-bodied productivity. Educators of the deaf supported these ideologies by pursuing a variety of deaf education measures that circumvented natural signed languages such as cued speech, signed systems that followed English syntax, visual phonics, and other oral methods. We argue that using medical and educational interventions are often a way to prop up white supremacy because forced adherence to spoken and written languages standards codifies whiteness in the deaf communities.

Here, we introduce DisCrit and its application to raciolinguistic theory. The understanding of racialized bodies as not-normal is inseparable from understanding bodies as disabled. Since the norm is based on white, able-bodied, middle-class men there are quite a few deviations. The more one deviates from this standard, the more they fail. Disability is an exponential multiplier of failure because it indicates that one does not have the ability to be normal or that one may have failed attempts to make them normal (e.g. implantation, speech and listening therapy). Negatively racialized features are also one marker of such deviations. Those features are often framed as disability or such framing is used to justify the negative racialization of a person. For example, IQ tests often mark black people as less intelligent, which is used to justify the subjugation of black people in the workforce and in society at general. IQ tests are designed and measured with white biases, which skews the results.

Deaf people who do not respond well to listening and spoken language therapies, or who choose not to accept medical and technological interventions that would better allow them to exhibit performative hearingness are regularly reminded that they have been unable to achieve normalcy. Deaf people who do not succeed at performative hearingness are reminded they are costly to society. Deaf academics are acutely aware of the costs and efforts of our accommodations. We are frequently reminded of these expenses. Signing deaf academics try to downplay their clear deviation from the norm by adjusting their language to make it as close to an idealized white form of English (performative hearingness). One such adjustment is to make their signing more “academic” and therefore, less foreign or racialized. In this last point, DisCrit aligns with Raciolinguistics because performative hearingness meets performative whiteness and because disability and race intersect in ways that are inseparable.  


The concept of academic language was popularized by Jim Cummins, a bilingual theorist, who inserted himself in the deaf education debate. The idea of academic language, especially as part of the linguistic interdependence theory, later became a popular concept in bilingual (ASL/Print English) frameworks. Because of attitudes that signed languages could not transfer to print language knowledges, generations of deaf scholars have grown up within systems where English forms, sign systems and print/writing, were privileged over natural signed languages.

Academic Language

Scholars of color have shown that academic language is one way to establish performative whiteness while creating an educational system designed to punish people of color for failing to speak and write white. White teachers cannot distance their interpretation of the languages used by their students from their own whiteness and their own beliefs about how language sounds and looks in action (Flores and Rosa, 2015). Because whiteness is the standard on which academic language rests, whiteness trickles into any subject that requires academic spoken and written languages.

The language of deaf people is racialized and policed like members of communities who use languages that are not standard English. Thus, deaf people are expected to show proficiency in using academic English. This is part of performative hearingness. In parallel, for deaf users of ASL, adhering to performative hearingness, and accordingly performative whiteness means using academic ASL in order to show that they belong in the University environment.

As a recent concept, academic ASL is still not well defined. Here, we refer to the concept as devised by Garate and subsequent scholars attempting to define academic ASL. According to Garate, academic ASL is what happens in the classroom, in K-12 and postsecondary settings,  in contrast to social ASL which is used in non-academic conversations (Garate, 2007). Rather than possessing defined features, academic ASL seems to be when hearing people can recognize ASL as having specific features such as fingerspelling, more constrained facial expressions, and grammar constructs more closely aligned to sign systems. This only happens in the few places where hearing people regularly interact with deaf people – the classroom. In fact, academic ASL seems to align with English. For example, the increased use of fingerspelling. The higher regulation of facial grammar. In other words, academic ASL diminishes the expressiveness and joy of ASL. For deaf academics compelled to engage in performative hearingness, the only option is to ensure their ASL explicitly has these features and they can be recognized by hearing people (e.g. interpreters). Deaf academics cannot language how they want to language, otherwise they would not be seen as academics and instead be seen as deaf interlopers in the academy.

Signed languages are reminders that intellectual, scientific, and academic attempts to intervene in the cure, rehabilitation, and normalization of deaf bodies have failed. Deaf people’s joyful use of signed languages is not only a rejection of speech, itself, but also the idea that speech is a necessary component of being a human being. The signing academic refusing to act as a hearing person is resistance. First, it refutes the narratives of deaf education and medical professionals that deaf bodies that sign are broken and incapable. Second, signing academics show that speech is not necessary for success in the hearing world. We reject the premise that deaf people must conform to the expectations of a hearing workplace and environment to be successful in academia. Justice hinges on the acceptance of signed languages, and all dialects thereof, as languages of academia for and by deaf people.

Select References:

Annamma, S.A., Boele, A.L., Moore, B. A., & Klinger J. (2013). Challenging the ideology of normal in schools. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17 (12), 1278-1294.

Flores, N. & Rosa, J. (2015). Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education. Harvard Educational Review, 85 (2), 149-171.

Garate, M. (2007). A case study of an in-service professional development model on bilingual deaf education: Changes in teachers’ stated beliefs and classroom practices. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Gallaudet University.

Octavian E. Robinson earned his PhD in history from the Ohio State University and is Associate Professor in Deaf Studies at Gallaudet University. He is a historian-by-training, disability studies scholar by fortune. While he dabbles in a variety of fields, all of his work is grounded in questions of belonging driven by his interest in the histories of marginalized populations within the United States during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. At the center of his work are questions of Disability Justice. He’s on Twitter as @DeafHistorian

Jonathan Henner is Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His work thus far has taken three strands: a) he examines how different factors impact the development of language and cognitive skills in deaf and hard of hearing children; b) he looks at how to best asses and measure the language skills of deaf and hard of hearing populations, and c) he examines the experiences that deaf academics have in academia and how scientists interact with deaf people. He’s on Twitter as @jmhenner

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