January 29, 2023—I recently learned about the unique dialects and regional differences within American Sign Language (ASL), and that theatrical productions are seeking interpreters who can utilize these cultural nuances when translating performances for diverse, deaf audiences.
This is an important frontier for those of us working to bring Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Access to performing arts spaces.
In the news report, it noted that some theater productions hire a Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL) to work with interpreters specializing in making scripts accessible to deaf audiences. However, ASL, like standard English, is filled with distinctions. For example, there is both Black American Sign Language (BASL), as well as many forms of Spanish Sign Language (SSL), depending upon the country of origin. These forms are more reflective of the experiences of people of color who use sign language.
In the wake of “Dear White American Theater,” and the efforts to foster and facilitate the creation of anti-racists theater systems, there also has been a push to recognize the challenges faced by all marginalized communities when it comes to accessing the arts. An estimated 11 million Americans are deaf and about 10-percent of that group are people of color. According to the article, the interpreting field is white-dominated and there are not enough people of color trained to fill these positions.
I believe it is important for our performing arts community to take a closer look at this issue. Let’s include within our EDI&A plans the action steps and support necessary for facilitating more training opportunities and scholarships for those people of color with the aspiration and potential to become DASLs. Let’s also keep in mind that interpreters are needed to provide access to all forms of the performing arts, including music and dance.
Looking at the total experience we want our audiences to have, what is missing in our organizations that may prevent some of our guests from having a joyful and comfortable experience? I believe stationing sign language interpreters in our lobbies who can offer services to our deaf guests—from ticket pick-up to restroom directions—becomes another measure of welcome and a reflection of how much we value their patronage.
As always, I want to know what the readers of Arts & Culture Connections are thinking: What steps do you think our arts community can take to make our offerings accessible to deaf communities of color? I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below.
PS: To learn more about BASL, I urge you to check out the documentary, “Signing Black America,” at this link. The documentary was created as part of the “Talking Black in America” project developed by the North Carolina State University’s Linguistics department. The five-part series aired on PBS last year.