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How to sign “Black Lives Matter” – and what the movement means to the deaf community

Medical Pharmaceutical Translations • Jun 19, 2020 12:00:00 AM

When a recent, important term is translated into another language, it can be fascinating to see what word(s) speakers of that second language have chosen. But when it comes to translating “Black Lives Matter” into American Sign Language, it turns out that the question goes beyond linguistic fascination.

An LA Times article by Sonja Sharp covers everything from the question of using the sign for “Important” or “Cherish” for “Matter”, to what it means to be a black deaf person in America. Sharp points out that ½ to 1/3 of people killed by US police every year are disabled (and a majority of them are people of color). Since deaf people use their hands to communicate and may not be able to understand police officers’ orders, they’re at a high risk, and well aware of it.

Sharp also explores the fact that, just as there are a myriad of dialects in spoken American English, there are also some differences among speakers of American Sign Language, including a sign language used by many African Americans.

Most sign language interpreters are white, which leaves some deaf people of color feeling alienated, since their true “voice” isn’t being expressed. Rorri Burton, an African American interpreter highlighted in the article, has made the community proud and pleasantly surprised by interpreting in this vernacular, including using a “B” sign that’s not acceptable for white signers to use.

Read on to learn more about translating “Black Lives Matter” into American Sign Language, and the complex issues of representation behind it.

Sign language interpreter Rorri Burton

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