Saturday, September 1, 2012

"School asks deaf preschooler to change his sign language name"

From The Lookout via Yahoo! News:

Three-and-a-half  year old Hunter Spanjer, who is deaf, signs his name by crossing his forefinger and index finger and moving his hand up and down.

To his family, friends and those who know the Signing Exact English (S.E.E.) language that the Grand Island, Neb., boy uses, that gesture uniquely means "Hunter Spanjer."

But to Hunter's school district, it might mean something else. The district claims that it violates a rule that forbids anything in the school that looks like a weapon, reports KOLN-TV.

And Hunter's parents claim that Grand Island Public Schools administrators have asked them to change their son's sign language name.

"Anybody that I have talked to thinks this is absolutely ridiculous," Hunter's grandmother Janet Logue told the TV station. "This is not threatening in any way."

Hunter's father Brian Spanjer said, "It's a symbol. It's an actual sign, a registered sign, through S.E.E."

The family told KOLN that lawyers from the National Association of the Deaf may push for Hunter's right to sign his name at the school.

Jack Sheard, Grand Island Public Schools spokesperson told KOLN, "We are working with the parents to come to the best solution we can for the child."

One Grand Island resident said she disagrees with the school.

"I find it very difficult to believe that the sign language that shows his name resembles a gun in any way would even enter a child's mind," Fredda Bartenbach said in the news report.


Thanks to my colleague, JH, for bringing this to my attention. Here's my take on this situation.

This is a great example of the problems associated with signing systems as opposed to natural sign languages. Signing Exact English (S.E.E.) is not a language. It is a system, or more precisely a modality, to express English language through manual gestures. It is different from American Sign Language (ASL). S.E.E. was created to supposedly make it easier for deaf people to communicate with hearing people. While S.E.E. adapts some signs from ASL, it uses the same grammar and word order as spoken English. ASL has its own unique grammar and word order. Culturally Deaf people use ASL. Those deaf people who don't advocate Deaf culture and wish to mainstream into hearing society use S.E.E. or other similar manual systems.

So it would seem that if your intention is to sign/communicate English, and if a particular sign is problematic for English speakers, then that sign should probably not be used. If the young boy was using ASL, most likely he would not have been given such a name sign. Here is a cross-cultural example to support this claim. In Japanese Sign Language (JSL), an individual's name is usually expressed using the established signs for the kanji characters that make up her name. For example, the name Yamamoto consists of two kanji, 山 (yama) and 本 (moto). JSL would express the name by signing yama + moto. However some kanji signs are seen as odd, offesnsive or just plain creepy. In these instances, other signs are used, or in the extreme case, the name is fingerspelled. Nobody wants an odd, offensive or creepy name.

A signed name that resembles a gun or violence might fall into such a category.

It should also be noted that name signs are a part of Deaf culture. (Name signs in Japan are different than how their names are expressed through signing kanji). Name signs are unique to the individual. A Deaf person seeing a name sign for the first time would not automatically know the name of the individual. Usually name signs are based upon an individual's physical characteristic or personality trait. (ASL usually incorporates a fingerspelling handshape as well.) A person must be given a name sign by a Deaf person. One cannot make up their own name sign. Receiving a name sign can be seen as recognition and acceptance into the Deaf World. A hearing person cannot make a name sign. So the question here is who gave the young boy the problematic name sign in the first place? A culturally Deaf person would most likely not give another person such a name sign. Often times name signs change in a person's life as physical traits and behaviors change.

So changing the young boy's name sign might not be such a traumatic event after all.

My comments here are based upon the ideal social models of deafness - cultural vs. deficit. In the former ASL in the U.S (or JSL in Japan) would be favored; in the latter S.E.E. in the U.S. (or Signed Japanese in Japan) would be favored. In reality, there is no such clear cut separation as this particular case shows.  I work with Deaf people in Japan who hold clinics and workshops to promote JSL and eradicate Signed Japanese. I have grown to understand this mentality. But my research shows that such a goal is impossible in the realm of deaf communication. The bottom line: there is much diversity in the deaf world just as there is in the hearing world in terms of politics, attitudes and language use.

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