Language as a Bridge to Inclusion

    by Brein McNamara
    December 21, 2008

    Deaf people can participate in citizen journalism through written language tools. Given this, why do I believe that using American Sign Language videos are an essential tool to provide them access to journalism? For those who are confronted by the ‘digital divide’ there are often seemingly hidden elements that cause their lack of access.

    With any technology or system, there are built-in usability assumptions, including those that are taken for granted so much that they are not even acknowledged. For deaf people, most digital technology remains accessible to them as sound is rarely used as a primary interface element. Yet they still have issues with technology. This harkens back to one often unacknowledged element for access – language.

    Computer users require both conversational literacy and technology literacy. Without such, the mere use of a computer is confusing and daunting. While modern computers do have an astonishing number of language modes, not all languages are covered. Nor does this help when the text is on an un-translated website.


    Thus those who use English as a second language, the barrier is in attempting to grasp first the language, then the technological meaning behind the language, and then finally the technology itself. All that needs to be done before even attempting to peruse and comprehend information presented in a secondary language.

    For such secondary language users, one good solution is as simple as providing them with information in their own primary language. This does not only provide the benefit of increasing comprehension, but the simple fact that it exists removes the perceived barrier. Using a person’s primary language also increases comfort and sense of connection towards the material. This is especially true when considering languages that are poorly served otherwise. The lack of primary language material often increases its personal importance to the user.

    Deaf people can be considered part of this group of secondary language users, but their inclusion is oddly expressed. Most Deaf Americans have grown up with exposure to English, but this is a limited exposure. By definition an auditory system is restrictive towards those who do not have full access to it. And written English does not provide the same level of exposure to the language as the constant conversational interactions expressed in speech. This, combined with educational system that was historically poor in confronting their language barriers, has kept a significant percentage of Deaf people using English as an incompletely understood secondary language.


    The same solution of providing primary language use should also work for Deaf people. Yet there is an additional problem in that the primary language of American Sign Language has no written equivalent. It is solely a visual language, which means providing communication in this language requires video. A task that is more complex than providing alternative language access within the same medium of writing. This is the challenge I wish to confront. Can it truly be possible to provide the same level of participation and access that citizen journalism entails within the medium of video? Even more critically, can this access be provided when there already exist barriers to using these tools?

    Tagged: deaf digital divide language

    2 responses to “Language as a Bridge to Inclusion”

    1. Jessica Mayberry says:

      Hi Brein, I remember discussing this with you in Las Vegas at the winners’ conference. Your post is a fascinating glimpse into how a non-verbal language works. we are exploring the same things at Video Volunteers — how do we make the internet meaningful for communities in India who don’t have literacy, English, or even a common language amongst themselves. (India has something like 20 official languages.) I hope we can share our research/explorations with each other. One thing that could be interesting for the work you do with the deaf community would be to set up a series of ‘video diary exchanges.’ get five or six deaf volunteers who all have web cams to start recording with their web answers to certain short questions. keep the videos less than 60 seconds. post them all online or in a newsletter with links. a bit like how the news challenge got us all to respond to certain questions on the email about who we were, what are projects were, etc. it helped me get to know everyone well and might work with your community too.

    2. Julia Carris says:

      As an interpreter for the Deaf, I routinely watch Deaf video-blogs or “vlogs”. Deaf people tend to be comfortable with technology and there is a wealth of deaf websites where users post issues related to anything from sports and current events to Deaf Culture. Start with joeybaer.com and deafread.com. Unfortunately you might not understand the vlogs without knowing ASL, but you can see they already have a very active online presense to keep each other informed. At least here in the US anyhow…

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »
    MediaShift Newsletters »

    Follow us on Social Media