Renee Mickelburgh and Rajeev Syal, The Telegraph (UK), Mar. 21
Political correctness has caught up with sign language for deaf people. Gestures used to depict ethnic and religious minorities and homosexuals are being dropped because they are now deemed offensive.
The abandoned signs include “Jewish”, in which a hand mimes a hooked nose; the sign for “gay”, a flick of a limp wrist; and “Chinese”, in which the index fingertips pull the eyes into a slant. Another dropped sign is that for “Indian”, which is a finger pointing to an imaginary spot in the middle of a forehead.
The signs have been declared off-limits by the makers of Vee-TV, Channel 4’s programme for deaf people, for fear of being accused of racism and homophobia. Caroline O’Neill, a senior researcher at Vee-TV, explained: “We have a sign language monitor on the channel who checks that what we are doing is culturally appropriate.”
Critics labelled the move as silly yesterday, saying that the producers were interfering with “deaf culture”.
Polly Smith, the acting chairperson of the British Council for Disabled People, said that the changes were a form of discrimination.
“The programme makers at Channel 4 are interfering with deaf people’s language, culture and view of society, and that is a form of discrimination,” she said.
However, Ms O’Neill defended the move. She said that the programme, launching its fourth series today, used modern alternative signs that were not offensive.
“Before, [the sign for Jewish] was connected to a stereotypical Jewish nose, but now it’s a hand sign that mimics the shape of the menorah [a ceremonial candlestick used in Judaism],” she said.
The sign for “Indian” is now a mime of the triangular shape of the subcontinent; “Chinese” is the right hand travelling from the signer’s heart across his chest horizontally, then down towards his hip, mimicking the tunic worn in China; and the sign for “gay” is an upright thumb on one hand in the palm of the other, wobbling from side to side.
Producers on the BBC’s programme for deaf viewers, See Hear, have also dropped some signs that are seen as politically incorrect.
A BBC official close to the programme said that certain signs, including the old signs for Jewish, were unacceptable. “There are some signs that are not politically correct, but they tend to have died out because signing changes with the times in the same way that the English language does,” said the official. Katy Davis, who teaches children in sign language, said that the Channel 4 programme’s rush to drop long-established signs might cause confusion among older deaf people who used older signs.
“Many signs that could be deemed as racist are still commonly in use, sometimes by the communities that we are trying so hard not to offend,” said Mrs Davis, who has a deaf brother. “Sometimes deaf people feel that hearing professionals impose their own values on their culture. I would not drop any signs without consulting the deaf community.”
Other signs that have been accused of being politically incorrect — such as the sign for German, which is a fist held to the forehead with a finger pointing straight up, mimicking the shape of a Prussian spiked helmet — are widely used. The sign for disabled, in which a finger on each hand depicts a limping movement, is used by some deaf people.
Specialists in sign language have also pointed out that in China, the sign for a Westerner is a hand depicting a round eye, which has not sparked any criticism from deaf people in Britain.
British Sign Language (BSL) is used by about 70,000 deaf and hearing-impaired people in Britain. It was recognised by the Government last year as one of the country’s indigenous languages.
The row over politically correct sign language is vigorously debated in America, where deaf people have objected to gestures such as squashing one’s nose to denote a black person.
Benci Woll, a lecturer in linguistics at City University, London, who has studied BSL, said that sign language evolved quickly, inevitably leading to debates over which words were permissible. “It is a practical language that has its own regional variations and is not subjected to censorship from an official body that has the right to decide which words are OK to use. A vigorous debate is healthy,” she said.
Steve Day, a deaf comedian from south London, said that while the changes were made with the best intentions, they could create problems. “Making the shape of India seems a bit of a challenge, especially if they expand this idea for other places. New Zealand, for example, would be a bit like doing a shadow puppet of a bird.
“As the polar icecaps melt and coastlines change, we might have to redo the signs in 20 years’ time. We’ll be saying that we should have stuck with the old dot on the head.”
Mr Day believed that the limp-wristed sign for gay was preferable to the new sign.
“It expresses an appreciation of flamboyant gayness that I’m sure doesn’t offend anyone and is more of a celebration than an insult.”
Evelyn Gee, the chairman of the Jewish Deaf Association which published the first guide to Jewish cultural signs in December, said that the preferred sign for “Jewish” was the hand resting against the chin and then making a short movement down in the shape of a beard.
She said that she would be offended if someone put their hand to their nose to sign the word Jewish. “I think that now that this book has been accepted by the Chief Rabbi, people should stick to it.”