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June 9, 2007

Video, Email Are Boons to the Deaf

From: Wall Street Journal - Jun 9, 2007

Internet and Texting Open
'A Fourth Dimension'
Of Real-Time Conversation

By SHEFALI ANAND
June 9, 2007; Page A1

In a short video on YouTube, Jon Thompson acts out the comic adventures of a boy getting a motorbike for Christmas and taking his first ride. He runs over a cat, gets his shoelace caught in the wheel and terrifies an elderly couple who are wearing Coke-bottle glasses.

He tells the story without speaking a word, because his primary language is American Sign Language, or ASL. Mr. Thompson has been deaf since he was two years old.

ASL is much more expressive than written English, said Mr. Thompson, 28, in an email interview. It's "the only way I can express the full thrill of stories."

His video, "An Idiot Boy and a Motorbike," is a hit. Dressed in a black T-shirt, the ponytailed Mr. Thompson stands in front of a blank wall, gesticulating. At one point, he leans back, pulls back his hair and creates the appearance of being whipped by the wind.

The video has been seen more than 46,000 times on YouTube and has elicited dozens of flattering comments like this one: "Lol! My favorite part is Superman underwear, sooo cute!"

Mr. Thompson is on the leading edge of a phenomenon that is transforming personal expression among the deaf. In recent months, there has been a boom in sign-language video-blogs, or vlogs. They range from the online diaries of people like Chelsea Lydell, a 17-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., who vlogs about her faith and personal life, to the San Diego Deaf Surfers Club, which posts sign-language interviews on surfing topics.

A key catalyst: Widespread campus protests last year at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., a liberal-arts school for the deaf. Students successfully opposed the appointment of a new president, Jane Fernandes, using online videos to rally support. Their concerns centered on the selection process and on her record as provost.

In an email interview, Dr. Fernandes said some students opposed her because she wasn't "deaf enough," partly because she had learned ASL only as an adult. Because of online videos, she said, viewpoints like these "spread like wildfire."

Gallaudet ended up choosing another president, Robert Davila -- and, in January, he started his own vlog. One recent post: He interviewed a Gallaudet student who captained the winning ice-hockey team at the Winter Deaflympics.

In an email, Dr. Davila said his experience with video so far has been "way beyond anything I envisioned." It's "the medium of the future for deaf people."

The increasing ease of posting video online, as well as growing access to technologies like BlackBerry and Sidekick email devices and cellphone text-messaging, has "opened the fourth dimension to the deaf -- time," said Bobbie Beth Scoggins of the National Association of the Deaf. Previously, she explained, it was all but impossible for deaf people to hold a real-time conversation with one another, unless they were all present in the same room.

Sidekicks are all the rage, said Ms. Lydell, the California vlogger. Deaf people will use them "even when they're sitting next to each other" if they want to have a private conversation. "It's the deaf version of whispering," she said in an email interview.

But video holds particular importance to the deaf community because it lets people communicate in American Sign Language, which many consider to be their primary language. ASL doesn't have a written counterpart, and it's different from English.

Mr. Thompson said in his email that ASL is "like painting a picture" with your hands. Growing up deaf in an all-hearing family, he originally used a different system, called Signing Exact English, which involves spelling or signing words in English-language syntax. "I was having a hard time expressing my sense of humor," he said.

For reasons like this, vlogs are growing in popularity. Tayler Mayer, who co-founded a Web site called DeafRead.com that aggregates deaf-related blogs and vlogs, says the number of sites that he tracks has jumped from a dozen last summer to about 330 today. Last month, he started a new Web site for video only, deafvideo.tv.

Vlog topics vary from job-hunting and education, to debates about issues of unique importance to the deaf community, such as cochlear implants, an electronic device that can help deaf people hear certain sounds. Some people oppose implants, arguing they wrongly imply that deafness is a disability requiring a "cure," rather than accepting that deaf people constitute a unique subculture.

Among the vlogs tracked by deafvideo.tv is the one by the San Diego Deaf Surfers Club. Jon-Lenois Savage and three friends formed the club a few years ago to help explain the unwritten rules of surfing to fellow deaf surfers -- for instance, who has the right of way when two people want to ride the same wave. (The surfer who is closest to the upcoming wave has the right of way.)

"Many of us have a passion for surfing, but it's hard to find someone to surf with who speaks the same language," Mr. Savage said in a phone interview via an interpreter. He started posting videos last year, hoping to expand the club, and now has 20 new surfing buddies.

Many of the most widely viewed videos involve storytelling or comedy. "Comedic storytelling is when ASL truly comes alive," said Jared Evans, a co-founder of DeafRead.com.

For instance there's filmmaker Gary Brooks, who posts videos of himself dancing in silence while "singing" songs in sign language that he has dreamed up. Among them is a video he has headlined "Worst Deaf Song." A rough translation:

I love vlogs vlogs vlogs,

I want to discuss discuss discuss -- ow! (pretends to hurt his finger by signing "discuss" too hard)

I love vlogs!

"My hope is to work in Broadway theater, or in Hollywood," Mr. Brooks said in a telephone interview via an interpreter.

Another unusual clip is "Deaf Ninja" by Austin Andrews, a 29-year-old sign-language interpreter. The video, which was filmed in front of wood-paneling -- giving it a made-in-the-basement look -- tells the story of a ninja under attack.

In the video, Deaf Ninja emerges from the mist, wearing an old-fashioned contraption known as a hearing-aid box strapped to his chest. Suddenly surrounded by a weapon-wielding gang, he whips off the device's earpieces and uses them as weapons to defeat his foes.

Rather than solely rely on conventional sign language -- that is, signs representing concepts -- Mr. Andrews incorporates body language to suggest slow motion or a shift in storytelling perspective. For instance, sometimes Mr. Andrews acts the role of the ninja himself. Other times, he in effect "zooms out" to offer a wide-angle view by portraying the ninja jumping and kicking in the palm of his hand, "let your fingers do the walking" style.

Mr. Andrews, who isn't deaf, has a term for all this: "cinematic sign language." Inspired by the viewer response to "Deaf Ninja," he says he has just posted "Deaf Ninja 2."

Write to Shefali Anand at shefali.anand@wsj.com

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