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April 4, 2004

Signing ban falls on deaf ears

From: Sydney Morning Herald - Sydney,New South Wales,Australia - Apr 4, 2004

By Daniel Dasey
April 4, 2004
The Sun-Herald

Australia's deaf community has rejected international calls to ban sign language gestures critics say are offensive to Jewish, Asian, gay and disabled people.

With television authorities in Britain last week stopping the use of a range of deaf signs - including making slanty eyes to indicate an Asian person - local signers defended their use.

They claimed the hearing community often misunderstood sign language and had no right to demand changes.

The makers of Vee-TV, a British program for the deaf, last week revealed they had declared a host of signs off-limits amid fears they would be accused of racism and homophobia.

The barred signs include making a hooked nose to depict a Jewish person, making a limp wrist to signify a gay person and pointing to a spot on the forehead to indicate an Indian person.

Instead alternative signs, such as drawing the triangular shape of the sub-continent to depict an Indian, must be used.

Australia's version of sign language, Auslan, grew out of British sign language and shares many gestures, including some of those under fire in Britain.

Rebecca Ladd, executive director of client and community services for the NSW Deaf Society, said while some more politically correct versions of signs had emerged, some of the signs in question were in wide use.

"Deaf people describe things as they see them," she said. "It's not about being racist or putting people down or anything like that.

"They describe things by their visual characteristics, which [may] happen to be slanting eyes."

Ms Ladd said to avoid offence deaf people might spell out a word rather than using a symbol but that hearing people did not have a right to impose their views on the deaf.

Auslan dictionary compiler, Dr Trevor Johnson from Renwick College at the Royal Institute for Deaf and Blind Children, said he doubted signs used by the deaf would offend most people.

"Sometimes people think something is offensive when it's actually not and that's when political correctness becomes a bit silly," he said.

"I know from contact with deaf people around the world that some of the people they think might be offended by these signs aren't in fact offended at all."

But Jeremy Jones, president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, said he found the hooked nose gesture offensive and believed it should be discontinued.

A spokesman for the Australian Association of the Deaf was not available for comment.

Copyright © 2004. The Sydney Morning Herald.