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The Importance of Early Exposure to American Sign Language with Deaf Children

Learning Tips   |  Thursday, November 3, 2016

By Jillian Winn

Around 8,000 children are born deaf or hard of hearing each year in the United States.1 95% of those children are born into hearing families.18 This means a few things – the majority of hard of hearing children are born into families that do not use sign language and their parents do not have previous experience with raising and educating a deaf child. The options and information may be overwhelming for parents, but just like raising any child, each child and family is different and there isn’t a “one size fits all” plan to execute. Luckily there is research to help serve as a guide.

The Gift of Language

The greatest gift you can give to a child is language. Children need language.1, 27 Babies are capable of learning any language, and multiple languages, from birth.6, 13

The key is early exposure and full access to a natural language.10 A natural language is a language that has developed naturally through use and includes all of the linguistic levels – phonology, morphology, lexicon, syntax, and discourse. English and American Sign Language (ASL) are both full, natural languages.

Our brains are built to process language the same, whether it is signed or spoken.1, 22 So it doesn’t matter if a child has access to early spoken language or early sign language, it matters more that they have full access to language (the ability to receive communication input). For some children, this will mean English, for some this will mean American Sign Language, and for others it may mean both.

Taking Advantage of the “Critical Period”

Some researchers believe a “critical period” exists for language acquisition. The hypothesis is that during this period, it is much easier to learn languages and if exposure to language begins after this period, then it may be impossible to become fluent in that language. At birth, babies have the ability to learn any language, but around 8-10 months, they lose their ability to discriminate sounds in other languages (sounds not relevant to the baby’s own language).13, 14 The critical period extends through infancy and different researchers believe this critical period ends at different points between 5 years old and puberty.15 Many professionals who work with deaf children assume that there is a critical period for spoken language, but not sign language, but research shows that is simply not true.8 The critical period extends to all language learning, including sign language.

There are many advantages to early language learning.

  • Early first language acquisition contributes to native-like fluency as an adult.16
  • Early first language acquisition supports more effective second language learning. 16

On the other hand, there are several negative effects to late language exposure.

  • A lack of early first language acquisition impairs the ability to learn language throughout life and decreases language proficiency for any language in adulthood. 16
  • Late exposure to language effects linguistic processing and cognitive development.19
  • Late language development can delay cognitive reasoning, such as the Theory of Mind, which allows children to distinguish between what they know and what others know, to understand others may think differently than themselves, and to have the ability to guess other’s actions.20, 34
  • If input is delayed by as little as 4-6 years, long-lasting effects can be observed in language production, comprehension, and processing.21

There are several reasons why early exposure is critical to language acquisition. Children simply have more time to learn language when they are exposed earlier in life, and have a less stressful learning environment with less distractions where they can practice.

  • Babies benefit from learning language through “motherese,” when learning either sign or speech. Motherese, also called child-directed signing or speech (CDS), is modified speaking or signing directed for the baby. In speech, motherese includes using a higher pitch and exaggerated stress and intonation patterns. When signing or speaking, motherese includes shorter statements, frequent repetitions, and frequent directives.19
  • Another important aspect of motherese in signing is the use of eye gaze and joint attention to make sure the baby understands what you are talking about (by looking at the subject) and that you are in their line of sight and they can see you when you are signing. These techniques help children learn language and also important attention and turn-based lessons. When children are in school, the classroom can be a distracting environment and a teacher or interpreter is often signing to many children and cannot provide one-on-one attention to help with language acquisition.19
  • Babies are able to “practice” language in the form of babbling. At first English babbling is just playing with making sounds and over time those sounds become more English-like and eventually they begin to say their first words. ASL babbling lets babies practice playing with handshapes, location, and movement until they begin to produce their first signs.19
  • Babies have the time to leisurely learn language before having additional pressures, such as needing to produce language on demand, or the expectation that they are learning new content and curriculum, not just language acquisition.19

The important take away to learn from the “critical period” hypothesis, is that early access to language is important. However, other researchers prefer to call this period the “optimal period” or “sensitive period”8 because, although perhaps less efficiently, language learning still occurs after this period.16 If you have already missed this period, you should not be discouraged to start language acquisition. Late detection of hearing loss is one of the biggest barriers to early language acquisition. Late language exposed signers can still become strong signers with great signing skills. Where researchers find the biggest difference between early and late learners is when they are under stress, like when they have to recall information quickly and when taking a test. Now is always a good time to start learning language.

Advantages of Sign Language Use

Babies and young children don’t learn language by simply copying adults, explicit instruction, or training. They learn language by building a system of grammar based on the input they receive, which is why it is critical they have full access to communication input.

In order to have full access to a language, the child must have the ability to receive the communication input. Since children who are hard of hearing have trouble hearing spoken language, they are often not able to fully access it as a communication input. American Sign Language is the language of the deaf and is a fully accessible language that does not require hearing for input.

Babies are born interested in and looking for language, and not just speech, but spoken or signed language. This indicates babies are equally interested and able to learn either spoken or signed language. They are able to detect patterns in visual language, even with no previous language exposure. They also seem to recognize the same kind of structured patterns found in spoken language in ASL and prefer ASL (a full, natural language) over non-linguistic pantomime gesturing.13

Research has found many advantages to learning sign language, including:

  • Early first language learning helps facilitate, and may even be necessary, for learning a second language later in life.19
  • Early exposed signers have better academic performance compared to late exposed deaf in a variety of areas,33 including better performance on:
    • tests of English syntax25, 33
    • reading tasks5, 32
    • written language tasks31
    • vocabulary26
    • overall academic achievement17, 29
  • Even moderate fluency in ASL benefits English literacy for Deaf children.30
  • Kids who understand more sign language, understand more English.35
  • Kids who produce more sign language, produce more English.35
  • Strong adult signers have better ASL narrative comprehension, and also higher English reading scores.7
  • The experience of “speaking” two languages (like ASL and English) on a regular basis has broad implications for cognitive ability, enhancing executive control functions and protecting the brain across the life span.2, 9, 11
  • Bilingualism may protect against age-related cognitive decline.4 With all else being equal, one study found the age of dementia onset for bilinguals was 4 years later than it was for monolinguals.3

Common Concerns – As hearing parents, we don’t know ASL well.

Some hearing parents may be concerned their own signing skills are not good enough to model as a communication input for their children. Learning ASL and using it with your child is a great way to communicate with them, increase bonding, and help them learn ASL, but there are several factors involved.

  • The deaf students who perform best academically usually are the ones whose parents have effectively communicated with them from an early age.12
  • It was found children are able to surpass the level of their input - so parents’ ASL may be grammatically inconsistent, but the child is still able to regularize inconsistent input and produce ASL that is more native-like than their parents’ signing.28
  • Children are shaped by more than just their parents. The culture and peer groups children are exposed to play an important role.24 So finding playgroups or preschools where they can interact with other hard of hearing peers is helpful.
  • Being exposed to a diverse set of signers, of different ages and abilities, is also helpful. Anyone from siblings, extended family members, friends, peers, and community members help shape the child’s learning environment and language acquisition, and help them to practice both receptive and expressive signing skills.

Common Concerns – Is it too difficult for young children to learn two languages (English and ASL) at once? Maybe we should just focus on one language to start.

There is a misconceived fear that teaching babies more than one language too early may cause language delays or language confusion or that the child may never be as competent in either of the languages as a monolingual child is in one. In fact, research shows babies know that they are acquiring two distinct languages and are able to learn them without language delay or language confusion. Bilingual babies are able to reach the classic language milestones on a similar timetable as monolingual babies, such as when they say their first word, when they can say their first fifty words, and when they say their first two-word combinations. There are a few differences though. For example, when counting the child’s first fifty words, the tally would come from a total of words produced in both languages. Young children may also show a language preference and use one of their languages more, however, this is not a delay in language learning, it simply shows a preference, which could change over time, and is often related to the child’s primary sociolinguistic group (for example, the language used by peer groups in school, or if one parent is home all day using one language with a baby, it will often be preferred over a second language that is used when the rest of the family is home only at night). It doesn’t make sense to take away any language to focus on just one. Early exposure of both languages is what is best for the child and will help the child to reach fullest mastery in each of the languages.23


The key to learning language and becoming fluent is early exposure and full access to a natural language.10 Babies are capable of learning any language, and multiple languages, from birth.6, 13 Research shows there are many benefits to learning ASL, and the sooner you can start, the better. There are both linguistic and cognitive advantages to being bilingual. Learning both ASL and English from an early age will help the child to reach fluency in both languages. The best time to start learning language is now.


  1. Bavelier, D., Newport, E.L., & Supalla, T. (2003, January 01). Children Need Natural Languages, Signed or Spoken. The Dana Foundation. Retrieved from
  2. Bialystok, E., & Craik, F.I.M. (2010). Cognitive and Linguistic Processing in the Bilingual Mind. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 19-23.
  3. Bialystok, E., Craik, F.I.M., & Freedman, M. (2007). Bilingualism as a protection against the onset of symptoms of dementia. Neuropsychologia, 45, 459-464.
  4. Bialystok, E., Craik, F.I.M., Klein, R., & Viswanathan, M. (2004). Bilingualism, aging, and cognitive control: Evidence from the Simon task. Psychology and Aging, 19, 290-303.
  5. Brasel, K. & Quigley, S. (1977, March). Influence of Certain Language and Communication Environments in Early Childhood on the Development of Language in Deaf Individuals. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 20, 95-107.
  6. Brentari, D. (Ed.). (2010). Sign languages. Cambridge University Press.
  7. Chamberlain, C., & Mayberry, R. (2008, July 1). American Sign Language syntactic and narrative comprehension in skilled and less skilled readers: Bilingual and bimodal evidence for the linguistic basis of reading. Applied Psycholinguistics, 29(3), 367-388.
  8. Chen Pichler, D. (2016, Fall). Why sign with deaf babies?  [Video Lecture]. Gallaudet University: PST 375 Language Learning by Eye or by Ear.
  9. Chen Pichler, D. (2016, Fall). Bilingualism: Unimodal and Bimodal [Video Lecture]. Gallaudet University: PST 375 Language Learning by Eye or by Ear.
  10. Davidson, L.S., Geers, A.E., & Nicholas, J.G. (2014, July). The effects of audibility and novel word learning ability on vocabulary level in children with cochlear implants. Cochlear Implants Int., 15(4), 211-221.
  11. De Houwer, A. (2009). An introduction to bilingual development. Tonawanda, New York: Multilingual Matters.
  12. Deaf Education: A new philosophy. Research findings at NTID. Retrieved 10-10-2016 from
  13. Krentz, U.C., & Corina, D.P. (2008, January). Preference for language in early infancy: the human language bias is not speech specific. Developmental Science, 11(1), 1-9.
  14. Kuhl, P. (2010, October). Patricia Kuhl: The linguistic genius of babies [Video file]. TED. Retrieved from
  15. Lenneberg, E.H. (1967). Biological Foundations of Language. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
  16. Mayberry, R.I. (2010). Early language acquisition and adult language ability: What sign language reveals about the critical period for language. In Marschark, M. & P.E. Spencer (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language, and Education Volume 2 (pp. 281-291). New York: Oxford University Press.
  17. Meadow, K. (1966). The effects of early manual communication and family climate on the deaf child’s early development. Doctoral dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
  18. Mitchell, R.E., & Karchmer, M.A. (2004, Winter). Chasing the Mythical Ten Percent: Parental Hearing Status of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students in the United States. Sign Language Studies, 4(2), 138-163.
  19. Morford, J.P., & Mayberry, R.I. (2000). A reexamination of “Early Exposure” and its implications for language acquisition by eye. In Chamberlain, C., Morford, J.P., & R.I. Mayberry (Eds.), Language acquisition by eye (pp. 110-127). New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
  20. Morgan, G. & Kegl, J. (2006, August). Nicaraguan Sign Language and Theory of Mind: the issue of critical periods and abilities. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 47(8), 811-819.
  21. Newport, E. L., & Supalla, T. (1980). The structuring of language: Clues from the acquisition of signed and spoken language. Signed and spoken language: Biological constraints on linguistic form. Weinheim/Deerfield Beach, FL/Basel: Dahlem Konferenzen. Verlag Chemie.
  22. Orfanidou, E., Adam, R., Morgan, G., & McQueen, J. M. (2010). Recognition of signed and spoken language: Different sensory inputs, the same segmentation procedure. Journal of Memory and Language, 62(3), 272-283.
  23. Petitto, L. A., & Holowka, S. (2002). Evaluating attributions of delay and confusion in young bilinguals: Special insights from infants acquiring a signed and a spoken language. Sign Language Studies, 3(1), 4-33.
  24. Pinker, S. (2003, February). Steven Pinker: Human Nature and the blank slate [Video file]. TED. Retrieved from
  25. Quigley, S. P., Montanelli, D. S., & Wilbur, R. B. (1976). Some aspects of the verb system in the language of deaf students. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 19 (3), 536-550.
  26. Quigley, S. P., & Frisina, D. R. (1961). Institutionalization and psycho-educational development of deaf children. Council for Exceptional Children.
  27. Schick, B., de Villiers, J., de Villiers, P., & Hoffmeister, B. (2002). Theory of mind: Language and cognition in deaf children. The ASHA Leader, 22, 6-7.
  28. Singleton, J. L., & Newport, E. L. (2004). When learners surpass their models: The acquisition of American Sign Language from inconsistent input. Cognitive psychology, 49(4), 370-407.
  29. Stevenson, E. (1964). A study of the educational achievement of deaf children of deaf parents. California News, 80(14.3).
  30. Strong, M., & Prinz, P. M. (1997). A study of the relationship between American Sign Language and English literacy. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 2(1), 37-46.
  31. Stuckless, E. R., & Birch, J. W. (1966). The influence of early manual communication on the linguistic development of deaf children: I. American Annals of the Deaf.
  32. Vernon, M., & Koh, S. (1970). Early manual communication and deaf children's achievement. American Annals of the Deaf, 115(5), 527-36.
  33. Wilbur, R. B. (2000). The use of ASL to support the development of English and literacy. Journal of deaf studies and deaf education, 5(1), 81-104.
  34. Woolfe, T., Want, S. C., & Siegal, M. (2002). Signposts to development: Theory of mind in deaf children. Child development, 73(3), 768-778.
  35. Woolfe, T., Herman, R., Roy, P., & Woll, B. (2010). Early vocabulary development in deaf native signers: A British Sign Language adaptation of the communicative development inventories. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 51(3), 322-331.


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Living Loud: Lou Ferrigno – The Incredible Hulk of acting, bodybuilding, fitness training, and motivational speaking

Living Loud: Lou Ferrigno – The Incredible Hulk of acting, bodybuilding, fitness training, and motivational speaking

Deaf Culture   |  Monday, October 24, 2016

By Marta Belsky

This article is by Marta Belsky. Marta is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users.

This article is part of our "Living Loud" series, which highlights famous people who are deaf or hard of hearing and their impact in the world.

Lou Ferrigno is an actor, retired professional bodybuilder, fitness trainer, motivational speaker, and deputy sheriff.1 He is most well-known for portraying The Incredible Hulk, but has been in over 35 movies and 65 television shows,4 won the bodybuilding titles of Mr. America and Mr. Universe (twice), and is a Guinness Book world record holder.1

Growing Up: Challenged by Hearing Loss

Lou Ferrigno as a child
Lou Ferrigno as a child. (Photo Credit: Lou Ferrigno Website)
Louis Jude “Lou” Ferrigno was born in Brooklyn, New York on November 9, 1951. Soon after he was born he suffered from a series of ear infections, which caused him to lose 75% of his hearing.1 This hearing loss was not diagnosed until Ferrigno was 3 years old and he began wearing hearing aids at age 4. The hearing aids only helped improve his hearing marginally. He learned to understand what others were saying by lipreading. He said because “aids weren’t as advanced in those days, I developed very defective speech. That was harder to deal with than the hearing loss, because people assumed I was dumb when they heard me talk. I had difficulty making myself understood. That’s why I didn’t talk much, just enough to get what I needed.” 3

He went to public school and said his dad “made sure that at home I spoke the best I could, and he never gave me special attention. He treated me as though I was normal and my brother and sister accepted me that way. Dad was determined that I be normal, even if I wasn’t. That’s why I had to work twice as hard at everything.” 3

He couldn’t hear when he was in class, but was too shy to ask any of his teachers if he could sit up front where he could hear and didn’t let anyone know about the problem. He tried to isolate himself from his classmates. 3 “They used to call me ‘deaf Louie,’ ‘deaf mute,’ because of my hearing and because of the way I sounded.”5 He was teased and bullied, sometimes resulting in schoolyard fights that he would lose.7

Getting Pumped Up: Inspired and Determined to Be Strong

He was skinny, small, and introverted.5 He turned to comic books for comfort. “I felt devastated and emotionally insecure. I would just read the comics and it would give me inspiration and hope.”7 Superman and The Incredible Hulk were his favorites. After pretending to be Superman by putting on a red blanket as a cape and jumping off of the second story of his apartment, he hit the cement hard and decided Superman wasn’t his favorite anymore.5 He thought of the Hulk as “the green Santa Claus” because of his instinct to protect the good.7 Ferrigno also liked the Hulk because he was obsessed with the feeling of being powerful.5 “I wanted to be so strong, so invincible so I could command the same power the Hulk does... and that’s how that connection began.”7 He then made it his mission to be strong as well.

Lou Ferrigno at bodybuilding competition
Lou Ferrigno at a bodybuilding competition with Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Photo Credit: Lou Ferrigno Website)
At age 13 Ferrigno started weight training. Bodybuilder and Hercules star, Steve Reeves, was one of his role models.1 Before he could afford his own set of barbells, he made one out of a broomstick and cement weights.2 Ferrigno won his first major bodybuilding titles as Mr. America and Mr. Universe in 1973, at the age of 21. His Mr. Universe title was, and still is to this day, a Guinness Book World record for the youngest person to win the Mr. Universe title. Ferrigno competed for the Mr. Olympia competition in 1974 and got second place.1

Ferrigno worked throughout his early bodybuilding career as a sheet metal worker in a Brooklyn factory. He did not enjoy this dangerous work. He left after a friend and co-worker accidentally cut off his hand. Ferrigno left the competition circuit for a period that included a brief stint as a defensive lineman for the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League. However, he had never played football and was cut after two games.1

Living a Childhood Dream: Becoming The Incredible Hulk

In 1977 television producers started to seek the right person to portray the larger-than-life comic book superhero, “The Incredible Hulk.” They were interested in Ferrigno for the part because he was the biggest professional bodybuilder at that time with his 6’5”, 285 lb. frame. When Ferrigno heard about the role he said, “It’s mine,” and wanted the part more than anything.5 He auditioned for the part of the green-skinned Goliath and he won it over another well-known bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger.1

The Incredible Hulk turning over a car.
The Incredible Hulk turning over a car. (Photo Credit: CBS, The Incredible Hulk, Season 2: Episode 3 "Ricky" [Originally Aired: October 6, 1978])
Ferrigno was a hulk in real life as well. He has told the story of moving a parked car out of its spot and onto the street so he could make room to park his Volkswagen.2 Another account happened while on set of The Incredible Hulk, where Ferrigno worked long, 16 hour days. He was supposed to flip a car with the aid of a steel cable lift, but it had broken. He was exhausted and annoyed about still being on set at 4 a.m. and didn’t want to wait for a new cable. He told them to start shooting and tilted the car up off the road and pushed it down the embankment, and that was a wrap for that shoot!7

Ferrigno continued playing the Hulk role until 1981. The Incredible Hulk was a huge ratings success and spawned several TV movies after the initial TV series completed. 1

After playing The Incredible Hulk for 5 years, Ferrigno went on to be in over 35 movies and 65 television shows. He followed in the steps of his role model Steve Reeves and starred in Hercules (1983). He has played himself in Surge of Power (2004), I Love You, Man (2009), and the CBS sitcom The King of Queens (2002-2007). He was a competitor on reality TV show The Celebrity Apprentice (2012), where he raised $50,000 for his charity, the Muscular Dystrophy Association. He has also been in multiple documentaries, including Pumping Iron (1977) and Stand Tall (1997). He has performed as the Hulk in 6 TV shows and voiced the Hulk in the movies The Incredible Hulk (2008), The Avengers (2012), and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).4

Today: Still Focused on Health, Conquering Challenges, and Being a Real-Life Hero

Ferrigno family
The Ferrigno Family: "The First Family of Bodybuilding" (Photo Credit: Lou Ferrigno Website)
Ferrigno is married to psychotherapist Carla Green, who also was his manager. She later became a personal trainer herself. They live in California and have three children – Shanna, Lou Jr., and Brent. Fitness has always been a family activity and now that their children are grown up, they are also involved in the health and fitness industry. They call themselves “The First Family of Bodybuilding.” Ferrigno has been a personal trainer for Michael Jackson, Mickey Rourke, Chuck Norris, and others. He continues to do private training, as does his children Lou Jr. and Shanna. Ferrigno believes the key to health is a balance between mind, body, and spirit. Together, he and his daughter Shanna started Ferrigno FIT – a brand and community focused on healthy living.1, 8

Ferrigno continues to be a motivational speaker and has been a spokesperson for the Better Hearing Institute for 25 years and a supporter of the Starkey Hearing Foundation. He tells others to try being the best of themselves in life, no matter what problems they might face along the way.2 He says his hearing loss presented him with a challenge in life and his journey has been filled with ups and downs, but you can’t be a quitter. “I believe the maxim that you only get out of life what you put into it. I found my courage to persevere because I don’t believe in defeat. I am a survivor, and I love challenges. I always say either yes or no, never maybe. And I don’t use the word hope. I either do it, or I don’t do it; I don’t hope to do it.”3

"I don’t use the word hope. I either do it, or I don’t do it; I don’t hope to do it."

  - Lou Ferrigno

Ferrigno on duty
Lou Ferrigno, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Deputy. (Photo Credit: Lou Ferrigno Website)
Ferrigno has joined forces with several law enforcement agencies, including becoming a reserve sheriff deputy for Los Angeles County, California in 2006, a volunteer member of the sheriff posse for Maricopa County, Arizona in 2010, and a reserve peace officer for the San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s office in 2012. Ferrigno has dedicated 20 hours a month to the San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s office since 2012. It’s not an honorary post. Ferrigno attended the police academy in southern California, is certified, and has police authority. Ferrigno said, “I'm very happy to be a real-life hero, protecting life and property.”6


  1. About Ferrigno. Ferrigno Ferrigno. Retrieved 10/17/2016 from
  2. Borrelli, Anthony. (2010, April 22). ‘Hulk” motivates SUNY Cortland students: Strongman speaks to audience of 400 about his career, making most of what you have. Cortland Standard. Retrieved 10/17/2016 from
  3. Ferrigno, Ferrigno. (1981, February 9). No Longer Silenced by Hearing Loss, the Hulk Debuts in a Speaking Role. People Magazine. Retrieved 10/17/2016 from
  4. Filmography. Ferrigno Ferrigno. Retrieved 10/17/2016 from
  5. Ferrigno Ferrigno. Oprah: Where are they now? Retrieved 10/17/2016 from
  6. (2014, November 21). Ferrigno Ferrigno: Volunteer reserve SLO County sheriff's deputy. KSBY NBC 6. Retrieved 10/17/2016 from
  7. Pioneers of Television: Ferrigno Ferrigno. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Retrieved 10/17/2016 from
  8. ‘The Incredible Hulk’ Ferrigno Ferrigno on Marriage and Family [video]. Huffington Post. Retrieved 10/17/2016 from

Top Graphic Photo Source: Demolition Man. (2013, September 24). Lou Ferrigno: The Incredible Legend [Video]. YouTube. Retrieved 10/17/2016 from


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About the Author

Marta Belsky Marta Belsky is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users. Marta is on the Lansing Community College Interpreter Training Program Advisory Board and has also been a board member for the Michigan Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Michigan Chapter of American Sign Language Teachers Association.

More about Marta  |  Articles by Marta

Interpreter Q & A: Wearing a Brace While Interpreting

Interpreter Q & A: Wearing a Brace While Interpreting

Interpreter Tips   |  Thursday, October 13, 2016

By Brenda Cartwright

This article is by Brenda Cartwright. Brenda is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher, and well known presenter. Brenda is the author of the Dear Reality column in the VIEWS publication from Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) and the book Encounters With Reality: 1001 Interpreter Scenarios. She will be contributing blog articles for Signing Savvy on interpreting, Deaf culture, and answering a series of "Dear BC" interpreter questions.

This article is part of our "Dear BC, Interpreter Q & A” series, which answers questions on interpreting and Deaf culture from multiple perspectives.

Dear BC,

I am currently wearing a brace on my wrist for Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Today during a break the Deaf client came up to me and asked me to remove my brace because she found it distracting and it affected my clarity. She also said it made her feel guilty for having to make me work. What do you think I should have done?

Painfully Compromised

An Experienced Interpreter's Perspective:

Our primary function as interpreters is to facilitate communication. If your client feels that your brace was truly affecting her access to equal communication, then you have several choices:

  • You could have removed the brace.
  • You could have not removed the brace and offered to reschedule for another day with another interpreter.
  • You could have offered to call the referral agency to try to find a replacement for yourself for the remainder of the assignment.
  • Or you could both make the best of the situation.

You are the only person who knows your limits, and she is the only person who knows if she is satisfied. We as interpreters have to make sure that we are doing what is best not only for our clients (and our profession), but also for ourselves. It may mean admitting to yourself that you’re not at 100 percent right now and taking some time off until you recover.

Experienced Deaf Consumer's Perspective:

Over the past 25 years, I have had several interpreters who wore braces due to Carpal Tunnel or other injuries in their arms or shoulders. My response was that I judged these interpreters on the accuracy of the information. If that was there, then I would have no problem with it. However, if the interpreter’s expressions or movements indicated that he/she was in pain or having difficulty keeping up, I would also have said something. I would ask for a replacement until he/she is able to do the job fully again. I am acutely aware that interpreters are human beings and are not easily replaced. I try to show understanding and compassion by trying to work with the interpreter. In the long run, this effort pays off because a good and healthy interpreter is worth it.

What's your perspective? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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About the Author

Brenda CartwrightBrenda Cartwright is a seasoned interpreter, a master teacher, well known presenter, and author of several best selling sign language and interpreting textbooks from the RID Press. For the last 30 years Brenda has been the Chair of the Sign Language Interpreter Program at Lansing Community College in Lansing, Michigan.

More about BC  |  Articles by BC

Avoiding Stereotypes with Gender when Teaching Sign Language

Teaching Tips   |  Wednesday, October 5, 2016

By John Miller

We are constantly posting tips, facts, and learning resources related to sign language and Deaf culture on our Signing Savvy Facebook Page and Twitter @SigningSavvy. Occasionally we get questions about our posts and explain them further with a followup article. This article expands on one of our Parent/Teacher Quick Tip of the Day posts from Facebook, which is also often tied to our Sign of the Day.

Each day I look at Signing Savvy’s Sign of the Day and reflect on what might be a good tip or antidote to share related to that sign or topic. As an educator and administrator, my tips are often geared towards parents and teachers. When the Sign of the Day was BEAUTIFUL, I started thinking about a lesson I once did with my students about different descriptive words.  This lesson simply consisted of an activity where students would take adjectives written on index cards like strong, pretty, colorful, beautiful, smart, kind, interesting and associate them with pictures of people, animals or places.  The students would then have to use them in a complete sentence.

One student in particular was sure that only girls could be beautiful. The discussion led me to teaching a lesson about “girl words” and “boy words” (the student’s title, not mine). It was amazing to me how these young children who couldn’t hear and were just learning the language, had already developed a sense of what was “the norm” as far as words used to describe the different sexes.

Think of how often you hear the word beautiful used for little girls, but very seldom with little boys. Think of how often you hear the word tough or strong used for little boys, yet not for girls. As a father, I can say I want my daughter to be just as strong as she is beautiful, and I want my son to be tough just as much as I want him to have a gentleness about him.

The lesson also led us to discuss the signs for man and woman, and girl and boy etc… and how the location of the signs on the face/head can be thought of as sexist as well. In ASL, masculine roles such as boy, father, uncle and grandfather are located at the top portion of the head, while female roles, (girl, mother, grandmother) are signed at the bottom portion of the face.  This has been pointed out over the years by many as being sexiest and feeds the perception of men being the superior race to women.

It can be interesting yet important to have discussions on gender and to address stereotypes that can be found in sign language as well as life. Be careful as you address your students or children not to fall into this trap. Boys can be beautiful, sweet and kind just the same as girls can be smart and athletic and tough!


Here are some commercials that tackle gender stereotypes. These are great examples to check out and share with your students (the content of each video varies and would be appropriate for different age groups depending on the age and maturity of your students). Watching a video(s) with your students is a good way to start a lesson and engage a comprehensive discussion on gender stereotypes.

Pantene Advertisement: Labels Against Women

This video is great to make students think about language and how words and labels are sometimes unfairly assigned based on gender. (Caption Note: There are no captions in this video, however, there is no talking in it, only written messages and background music.)

Always Commercial: Like a Girl

This video makes you think about the meaning behind sayings and how they can create unhealthy gender stereotypes. (Caption Note: Remember to turn the captions on for this video.)

Verizon Commercial: Inspire Her Mind

This video focuses on the words adults use when talking to girls and the messages they send. The video says instead of just telling a girl she is pretty, “Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant too.” (Caption Note: Remember to turn the captions on for this video.)

Time Magazine: One Login Campaign: #ILookLikeAnEngineer

This Time Magazine article: Female Engineers Are Using the Hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer To Tear Down Gender Stereotypes talks about a campaign that aims to redefine “what an engineer should look like.”

These videos would all be great resources to start discussions in your classroom about gender stereotypes. Good Luck! 

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Living Loud: Charles Jules Henry Nicolle - First Deaf Nobel Award Recipient

Deaf Culture   |  Wednesday, September 28, 2016

By Marta Belsky

This article is by Marta Belsky. Marta is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users.

This article is part of our "Living Loud" series, which highlights famous people who are deaf or hard of hearing and their impact in the world.

Charles Jules Henry Nicolle was the first deaf Nobel Prize recipient. The Nobel Prize is awarded annually in Stockholm, Sweden and is widely regarded as the most prestigious award available in the fields of literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics. Nicolle received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1928.

Charles Nicolle
Charles Nicolle at his microscope - the most famous photo of him. (Photo Credit: Henri Roussel [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Nicolle was born hearing, in Rouen, France, on September 21, 1866. His father was a physician, and so, in spite of a wide range of interests including history, literature, and philosophy, he followed his father’s footsteps and also became a doctor. His choice became a challenge as he experienced a progressive hearing loss, and by the age of 20 was deaf.

Nicolle became the Director of Pasteur Institute in Tunis, Tunisia in 1902. North Africa was a good place to study infectious diseases, including brucellosis, diphtheria, leprosy, malaria, measles, Mediterranean spotted fever, relapsing fever, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, and typhus.

Typhus had been highly communicable and a frequently fatal disease. It devastated armies during wars and prisoners living under unsanitary conditions, it affected displaced populations suffering from famine, floods, and other natural disasters, and in general, it was a disease of poverty. Dr. Nicolle studied this disease for seven years, and discovered that lice were responsible for transmitting the disease. The discovery came about after he observed typhus patients spread the disease to others both inside and outside of the hospital, even their clothes seemed to spread the disease. The patients were no longer infectious after they had a hot bath and clean clothes. Controlling and eliminating lice meant controlling and eliminating typhus. For this life-saving discovery, Dr. Nicolle won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1928.

"The disclosure of a new fact, the leap forward, the conquest over yesterday’s ignorance, is an act not of reason but of imagination, of intuition."

  - Charles Nicolle

Nicolle died in 1936 at the age of 69 in Tunis, where he was still a bacteriologist and Director of the Pasteur Institute. Both of his two sons, Marcelle and Pierre, followed in his footsteps and became well-known physicians. Nicolle has been honored on postage stamps in France, Tunis, and Guyana. He forever changed biomedical science and his discoveries helped to save millions of lives.

Charles Nicolle Postage Stamps
Charles Nicolle Postage Stamps from France, Tunisia (1952), and Guyana.
(Photo Credits: The Postage Stamp Collection Modern Medicine Foundations, Truman G. Blocker, Jr. History of Medicine Collections, Moody Medical Library, UTMB Health, Nobel Stamps)


  1. Schultz, M. and Morens, D. (2009, September). Charles-Jules-Henri Nicolle. Emerging Infectious Disease, 15(9). Retrieved 8/16/2016 from
  2. Charles Nicolle. Wikipedia. Retrieved 8/16/2016 from
  3. Nobel Prize. Wikipedia. Retrieved 8/16/2016 from


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About the Author

Marta Belsky Marta Belsky is a third generation ASL user. She has been teaching ASL for 30 years and enjoys sharing her native language with new users. Marta is on the Lansing Community College Interpreter Training Program Advisory Board and has also been a board member for the Michigan Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and the Michigan Chapter of American Sign Language Teachers Association.

More about Marta  |  Articles by Marta

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