Deaf and HOH people are tweaking ASL to communicate on Zoom

American Sign Language is getting a bit of a facelift.

Michael Skyer / Scientific American

All language evolves and American Sign Language (ASL) is no exception. Senior lecturer of deaf education at the Rochester Institute of Technology Michael Skyer recently detailed to Scientific American how ASL is transforming thanks to our pandemic-fueled reliance on video conferencing. With signals so reliant on not just hand movements, but body language as well, ASL has had to adapt to our new, remote-working (and socializing) reality.

Adjusting for Zoom — While some signs are just flat out being substitutes since they hinge on pointing at another individual, most issues come down to how the framing of a webcam has limited the way certain signs can be communicated by deaf and hard of hearing people. An example Skyer uses is the word “body” in which the hands typically go midway down the torso but now stop at the chest in order to fit onto the screen.

Framing also affects how one perceives the direction of signs which is crucial for grammatical correctness. Future tense signs often move away from the speaker while past tense signs move towards them. Skyer has resolved any confusion here in his lessons by angling to the side to accurately convey his meaning.

“ASL is defined by how it is used,” Ph.D. candidate Skyer told Scientific American. “How it is used is not static, and the Zoom changes show us this. Words, concepts, and pragmatics [the use of language in social contexts] themselves evolve and shift given new mediums of expression.”

Technology is also adapting — After mounting pressure to do so, Zoom recently announced it will roll out its live caption feature to free users. While other video platforms provide this feature, Zoom has had the most notable success during the pandemic. It’s a glaring accessibility oversight that shouldn’t have taken so long to correct, pawning off the responsibility on the deaf and hard of hearing community to come up with solutions instead. We do love the ASL's ingenuity, though... and the new sign for Zoom you can see below.