A Role for Sign Language Interpreters: Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People

September 18, 2012

Lynette Taylor explores the vital steps that sign language interpreters can take to protect ASL.

As a coda when I left home to go to college, I never dreamed that I was leaving my mother tongue. It never dawned on me that there wouldn’t be deaf people where I was going and that ASL would be nowhere in sight. Never were my eyes so lonely.

Much like an immigrant leaving their homeland, I had to go in search of my motherland. Luckily, I had a map. One given me by my mother that not only taught me the way to ASLand but also how to travel. She taught me that when you meet the community, you come bearing gifts, whatever they may be; in my case it was interpreting. It was through volunteer interpreting that I found my way back home. But I couldn’t have done it without a map.

What Role, if any, Interpreters Have to Play in the Preservation of ASL?

The question itself raises brows among my Deaf friends and colleagues. When I mention language preservation and interpreters in the same sentence I see their discomfort, a concern that this discussion could usher in the next wave of experts, of  well intended “linguistic rescuers” and do even more damage, becoming yet one more blotch on the ‘structural canvas of colonization’.[i]  Given the Deaf community’s history in the struggle for linguistic rights, it’s a valid concern, one I share.

Uphold the Purity of the Language of Signs

RID’s founding elders understood that once sign language became commerce a shift would occur not only between the language and the indigenous holders of the language, but also between the Deaf community and its interpreters. In an attempt to safeguard the linguistic sovereignty of the Deaf community and preserve the language of the community, they included tenet 11 in the original 1965 code of ethics to address our moral and ethical responsibility to the preservation of the language and the well being of the Deaf community.  “The interpreter shall seek to uphold the dignity and purity of the language of signs. He shall also maintain a readiness to learn and accept new signs, if these are necessary to understanding.”[ii]

I propose we create a new code of ethics for RID, one that acknowledges the vision of our elders and supports the efforts of WFD and NAD and the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, (CPRD).   By making the ‘linguistic human rights of deaf people’ the canvas of our field, we have a chance to, in the words of Veditz, “love and protect our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift god gave to deaf people.”

Deaf Angel/The Other’s Perspective

When your language is the dominant language, or the language of power, it’s everywhere, like the air you breathe, and is easy to take for granted. But when it’s not, you are often reminded just how fragile the thread of language can be.

It was sheer serendipity that the language found my mother. A visiting physician from Chicago happened to pass through the small mining town where my mother lived. He had heard about the meningitis outbreak and came to see how people in the town fared. Someone told him about my mother, that she had gone deaf from spinal meningitis, so he went to visit her. When he met my grandparents he told them about Illinois School for the Deaf. He told them there was even a special college she could go to one day, Gallaudet. For my grandparents, college was never even a dream, both of them had to quit school and go to work by the time they were eight years old. It took everything they had to save enough money for the train ticket to send my mother to school. The year was 1930. 

The Road Not Taken

That same day, the physician also visited another family with a deaf daughter. Unlike my grandparents, they didn’t send their daughter to the school for the Deaf but kept her home, isolated and locked in the upstairs attic for years. Every year when we visited, my mother would drag me to their house so I could interpret her pleas as she tried to convince them that sign language would help their daughter.

When they died fifty years later, the deaf woman came down from the attic. She emerged as a feral woman/child language-less. That memory seared itself in my language. My mother was acutely aware how it easily could have been her who ended up language/ less.  She told the story of the ‘doctor who saved her’ so often that we ended up calling him the “deaf angel”. Even though he didn’t know sign language, he led my mother not only to her language, but to life. That is what language does, gives life, like the air we breathe.

It’s a haunting experience to think that someone else could take away your right to language, to self, to human rights but stories like these still happen.

ASL is at its Zenith

When sign language classes are offered everywhere, You Tube is saturated with signed songs, the internet with Baby and me signing websites, why even Paul McCartney has stars signing in his music video (sizzling controversy fanning the flames)[iii]. The very idea of American Sign language endangerment seems absurd. If anything, ASL is at its zenith. How can it be an endangered language when it’s so prolific and accessible?

It is indeed accessible to hearing people, but ironically, for the deaf child, the way to the language is paved with obstacles that begin shortly after birth. The moment the audiogram hits the fan raging ideologies begin to scribe their path onto the life and body of the deaf child. Parents find themselves being ethically judged, and with no elders to guide them, or maps of their own, they are lost.

Maps are political. The cartographers who draw those borders and create nations do so with an ideological and political framework. While we have no “land” to speak of, ASL is our home, wherever it lives and it crosses all borders.

Nettle and Romaine in their book, Vanishing Voices[iv] talk about the main forces that cause languages to die: an enduring social network ceases to be, loss by population, a shift is forced.

We have over the past 15 years seen a dramatic shift in all of these areas. Deaf schools are in danger of closing, Deaf clubs and public gathering places are no longer as prevalent as before, Deaf social service agencies are diminishing, Deafness is considered a low incidence disability add to that current medical trends in cochlear implants, biotechnology and genetic counseling and these numbers decrease even more. Current trends in education cause a forced shift in where a child goes to school and an IEP dictates the child’s language of instruction. No longer can a child find his way to a community of others like himself without a lot of guidance and help.

More than 80 % of the students entering Gallaudet come from mainstream educational settings. Not only are the languaculture transmission power sites in decline, (Deaf schools, Deaf clubs, Deaf agencies) but so are the public gathering places that foster a rich linguistic environment.

As the demand for interpreters in the classroom increases, the less likely it is that those interpreters will have cultural and linguistic fluency.[v] Having little or no contact with the Deaf community they cannot help the Deaf student find their way to the wisdom embedded in the community and the language. They have no map. With the absence of standardized language interpreters create their own esoteric system for communication, which Ted Supalla predicted could lead to the creation of “1,000,001 Anne Sullivans”. (PCRID Community Forum 2011) Where will this map lead? Those deaf children will be bound to their individual interpreter because only they will be able to understand them.

Who are the Language Cartographers?

Language transmission isn’t the only hurdle Deaf children face. Linguistic racism is another. Hunter, a three year old deaf pre-schooler finds his name sign, (hunter,) the subject of controversy. He “has been prohibited from signing his own name because school administrators believe the gesture he uses looks too much like a gun”.[vi]

By banning it they sent a message to the public that is reductive and racist, sign language is not only a mime, but a dangerous mime at that. What is not pointed out however, is that the English word Hunter, is just as reflexive as the sign. I guess the message is loud and clear, as long as the hunter is English then it’s safe.

While many say the proliferation and visibility of ASL on the internet and in the media is a good thing there is a price to be paid for language living in a virtual space. Rico Peterson has pointed out some of the dangers in his article on Street Leverage . Once the people are separated from the language, then the “trope of universal ownership implicitly releases the reading public from any empathetic burden of taking the perspective of the other.”[vii] It becomes easy to become disengaged from the responsibilities of the well being of a community if you are cut off from it.

Once sign language became a language for profit it became a resource to be mined (both from within and without). Like all cultural resources, it could be exported, deployed and uprooted from its native soil into the land of commerce, where its value lay in the profit it could make in the market, not in the happiness and soul it could bring to a community.

The amputation of the language from the deaf body has led us down an ethically complicated path. (On the day that I am writing this, Bobby Beth Scoggins plea to ACT NOW TO SAVE DEAF SCHOOLS had a total of 5,207 hits, while the signsong “Womanizer” performed by a hearing person, had 267,520 hits. ASL as entertainment is a burgeoning business, but concern for the Deaf body in which it lives doesn’t seem as popular.)

With the heart of the language no longer at the center of the community, it puts at risk not only the life of the language, but also the life of the community.

What Can We Do? 

If we revisit each of the stories, they are stories about getting lost and finding our way. About having maps.  About making maps. About the price of being lost. To draw a map, you must have travelled the land. Our place in this story of preservation is about providing a map to lead people home. Leading deaf children to their elders, leading hearing parents to a thriving community that welcomes them and leading ourselves to a more compassionate place.  We are all constrained by the conditions of the canvas. And yes, the gesso our colonialist narrative is written on is one of audism, pathology, and linguistic racism but if we repaint the canvas and let the Deaf community be the language cartographers, there will be a new narrative, perhaps a nation without borders.

Language Belongs to the Indigenous

But to achieve that we all must help. We must begin by recognizing that the language belongs to the indigenous people. We must visit those lands so we can help lead others there. We must commit to creating physical gathering spaces so that languaculture can thrive. This is the primary purpose of Community Forums to provide the arena for languaculture transmission and for community to build.

In your local communities make gatherings that include everyone. There are many of you out there already doing amazing things to keep ties to the community. Educational interpreters in Oklahoma have regular potluck dinners with all the deaf students and their families. They invite the Deaf community to join them. They are building micro communities. We can do this everywhere.

Linguistic and Cultural Fluency

Be as linguistically and culturally fluent as you can be. You may be the legend on the map that takes them home.

Set up ASL only classes during your local RID meetings. Invite Deaf people in to teach about sewing, cars, painting, linguistics, computers, whatever they wish to teach about and you all will have the experience of learning not only a new skill set but also a new semantic domain. Swap skills, then you offer to teach something the community wants to learn.

Set up bartering systems where you skill -swap with members of the deaf community and your community of interpreters. You all begin to know each other in a deeper way than a service exchange.

Have salons conducted in ASL. Invite groups of people in for discussions on current topics. Invite hearing parents to join so they begin to find their way to the Deaf community.

We Must be Patient With Each Other, but We Must Also Hurry

Invite elders and community members to your RID meetings. While many of us have grown up in deaf households, we do not know what it means to be Deaf and can’t impart the lessons of navigating the hearing waters that is so vital for the future of the community’s survival. Record the stories. They are leaving us. We need them for our children.

We need to revisit the foundation of RID and place safeguards that ensure our commitment to the linguistic human rights of deaf people. So let’s hand the brush back to the Deaf community and a new world we paint.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light. 
 – Dylan Thomas



[i] Kroskrity, Paul V. “Facing the Rhetoric of Language Endangerment:Voicing the Consequences of Linguistic Racism.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 21.2 (2011): 179-92. Print.

[ii] The original code of ethics can be found in Dennis Cokely’s seminal article, Exploring Ethics, A case for Revising the Code of Ethics (http://www.online-conference.net/downloads/sdp_free/ethics_keynote.pdf)

[iii] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f4dzzv81X9

[iv] Nettle, Daniel, and Suzanne Romaine. Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.

[v] http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/01/vanquished-native-voices-—-a-sign-language-interpreting-crisis/

[vii] Kroskrity ibid

Thomas, Dylan. “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” – Poets.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Sept. 2012. <http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15377>.

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42 Comments on "A Role for Sign Language Interpreters: Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People"

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Lynette Taylor,

Your article on “Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People” is moving. I would like to contact you through email.

Chris Wixtrom

Dear Lynette, thank you for this very important statement I read avidly. A language is considered endangered when there are too few NATIVE speakers around. According to the WFD conference on Sign Languages as Endangered Languages 2011 (http://www.wfdeaf.org/news/conference-summary-sign-languages-as-endangered-languages), there are still too many misconceptions about signed languages to put SL on the UNESCO map. I think that we can act as multipliers toward both communities and address these misconceptions. I have just met hearing translators at a conference who struggle to “save” African Sign Languages by translating the Bible into it – I have not seen the work but the… Read more »
Lynnette Taylor
Oya, Thank you for your response. Part of the struggle many languages face is their secular survival. While we can thank those translators who have learned language to translate it for the bible, for the recording of a language, (my Aunt is one of those hearing African language interpreters- she translates the bible into Swahili. We have had these discussions for years,) it does present the danger of effacing the original culture and story of a people. Michael Brown in his book, Who Owns Native Culture, gives an interesting example of Australian aboriginal people whose dreamscapes kept getting taken and… Read more »

Thanks, Oya, for the reminder/link to last year’s WFD meeting in Norway. The problem is world-wide.

Lori Johnson

Lynette, this is so beautifully written and so very true. When my parents come back to Arizona this fall I am going to do weekly video sessions with them to gather up all the stories they have. My father from his experiences as an athlete in various World Games for the Deaf and both parents about their experiences in school. Thank you for writing this piece. You are a gift to us all.


YES, yes, get those stories on tape/DVD now while you can!!


Bill, documenting oral stories involves many problematic decisions one might not think of before they come up during or after the work process. Do you think it makes sense to put together a helpful list of issues and suggestions for dealing with them? Who of us has already been doing this and could give advice? Oya

Lynnette Taylor

Oh Lori,
Yes! get the stories. Deaf schools and WGD are the “power sites” of language transmission that I am talking about. Someone just told me a story about growing up in a mainstream program and not finding their Deaf identity until they went to WGD. When they saw all these amazing athletes, coaches and people from all over the world inhabiting their full DEAF identity, they found their way to being Deaf by following the coaches around, learning to sign more fluently and truly inhabiting their body.

Maybe we should find a site to host the stories…A thought…

Lynnette Taylor

Bill Moody did a beautiful job of recording Lillian Beard’s stories. She was a coda and a founder of RID. If not for Bill we wouldn’t have this treasure trove of history. Just a Pair of Hands is distributed by TreeHouse Video. Thank you Bill for taking the time to make this for all of us.

Jeffrey Palmer

This article is excellent. Notice that the author doesn’t authorize interpreters to be the gatekeepers of the proverbial “good” ASL. Unfortunately, this is often the response practitioners have to the realization that ASL’s landscape is rapidly changing. A response, we must understand, is wrought with attitudes about language that only perpetuate the imbalance of power between hearing interpreters and deaf consumers. Instead, this article suggests, and more strongly believes, that if we are more inclusive in our practices, inviting the deaf community back into the spaces we occupy, the landscape will flourish once again. Beautiful.

Lynnette Taylor

Thank you-


Respectfully please may I ask: where do the Hard of Hearing people fit in? I have noticed a shift in ASL not from D/deaf but from people who are hard of hearing and only use sign language when they meet someone that knows sign language or are required to attend a function with Deaf friends are in attendance.

Lynnette Taylor
An excellent question. Hard of Hearing people have always been part of our landscape. Growing up there were some visitors to our house who were very ASL, some who signed and talked, some who gestured and spoke, the whole array of a community. We learned to communicate differently respecting the individual’s preference for communication. In my time everyone was part of the community. But that is also because we had a focus on community. We had those public spaces that brought us together. But for a language to keep intact, for those who wish to visit it, there must be… Read more »
Lynnette-Amazing article, thank you for taking the time to write about this important topic and sharing it with the Street Leverage readers. I had a few questions/comments in regards to the article. I have noticed that interpreters cite professionalism as reason why they shouldn’t or don’t interact with the Deaf community. The main concern is that something will be said about an assignment or you will be asked to compromise the integrity of the confidential assignment. Is this something you think is a valid arguement? I have also seen this field compared to professions such as medical and legal fields… Read more »
Lynnette Taylor
Sarah, Great points for discussion. To answer your questions fully would be another article in itself. I will do my best, to answer and be brief 😉 I teach ethics at LaGuardia Community College and have taught there for more than ten years. Every year I ask my students to interview interpreters and the deaf community asking these questions, “what is an interpreter?” “What is a professional interpreter?” What attributes do you think are most important in an interpreter? For the first five years, the answers were predictable and not so far apart. Things like, fluent in two languages, able… Read more »
Elizabeth Morgan
Lynette– Your post is a beautiful love song and tribute to the language I came to love, accidentally but forever, at nineteen. I had no Deaf family growing up, but Deaf people volunteered to become my family, and I became part of theirs. Deaf friends taught me how to remodel my house, how to balance my checkbook and how to navigate the difficult college landscape. I learned things in ASL first that I later had to find English for. What a gift they gave me in sharing their language! It is their gift of language that I strive to repay… Read more »
Jeffrey Palmer

This was a small pilot study we did about regional variation in the VRS setting. Your concerns are very real. *sigh*

Palmer, J. L., Reynolds, W., & Minor, R. (2012). “You want WHAT on Your Pizza!?”: Videophone and Video-Relay Service as Potential Influences on the Lexical Standardization of American Sign Language. Sign Langauge Studies, 12(2), 371-397.

Lud van der Garde

Dear Lynette,
Thank you for your beautifully painted article; take off the “A” from ASL and the same holds true for sign languages almost everywhere in the world! New ways of finding/ showing one’s way in the languaculure maps are essential for continued existence and the all-important relation between the Deaf community and Sign language. With your permission I Ill try and translate your article in Ditch so that more people can think about what you said

Lynnette Taylor

Thank you! If you wish to translate it, please feel free to do so.


Done! I hope I managed to keep your beautiful prose intact in the translation (bearing languaculture in mind)..
Let’s see where this Dutch seedling will grow…

Lynette, Wow, what a powerful article, thank you. I come from a non-signing household and entered the field much later than most. As a hearing individual with no background in Deafness I lack the same insight many of the participants in this dialogue embody naturally, and innately. For others in the field who share my background the link to the experiences and perspectives you have shared are those who were raised in Deaf households and have firsthand experience and visibility to the ramifications of these dynamics. Thank you for helping me to deepen my understanding of the importance of connection… Read more »

Dear Amy, I had written an article in the leading German SL journal DAS ZEICHEN about Coda/non-Coda conflict, whenever I get to it I can post a summary here or somewhere else. If you happen to read German just contact me oyaatamanATgmail.com. The German journal is really good and includes the discourse of the ASL and English-speaking professionals but unfortunately I don’t see it the other way around.. It should also be interesting to get this year’s EFSLI conference proceedings (European SL Interpreters) since the conference was about power and the profession. Oya

Lynnette Taylor
Amy, Thank you for wanting to have the conversation. I think we need to have as many discussions as we can in our community.I am not a non coda, so I don’t know what you experience and vice versa, a guided sharing of perspectives is always helpful. There are so many people out there doing amazing work. Betty Colonomos has been working with and teaching coda interpreters for years and can share many insights that I can’t. The sharing of stories is very important. If you are going to CIT maybe we could arrange a casual group conversation with coda… Read more »
Lynnette’s suggestion of gathering over coffee is exactly the type of thing that helps bring us non-CODAs together with CODAs. I have been fortunate enough to have had no trouble interacting with CODA interpreters, quite the opposite. The more we can prioritize our interactions with each other and with our friends and family in the Deaf community, the stronger our network can become (see pictures of natural spiderwebs compared with spiderwebs knit together by spiders hopped up on caffeine)… (ironically?) through group consumption of caffeine. The fact is that the people who would come together to discuss this (and come… Read more »
As a linguist, I find myself generally unmoved by arguments that appeal to linguistic purity (you’ll notice I’m not writing this in Anglo-Saxon, and none of us, not even the most ideologically-driven Deafhood activist, signs like John Hotchkiss), or by ideas of language ownership (can any of us seriously content that English is owned by the inhabitants of Great Britain?). Political cartography, by the same token, is only part of the process. There are other maps which simply record the facts on the ground, and not facts as they are asserted by the cartographer. We privilege, for good or for… Read more »
Lynnette Taylor
Dan, Thanks for your comments .I am not a linguist so am responding as an interpreter. I am glad you raised the issue about the “purity ” of the language that was used in tenet 11. I am not advocating for purity- that can be a dangerous path. I think if I were to interpret that tenet into today’s language it would be something like, ‘interpreters use natural language which is informed by the norms, values and customs of the Deaf community.’ I think we would have to include, ‘language is living and evolving like communities and culture ( as… Read more »
Lynnette Taylor
Thank you for sharing your beautiful story. Send the person who helped you balance your checkbook my way- All the points you raise are important. Advocating for the use of CDIs, working with CDIs, creating an economic market that supports people is one way to keep languages alive. It is one of the things that Nettle and Romaine point out, but it can’t simply be individuals, it must be economic conditions that support language communities. Deaf agencies and residential schools for the Deaf do this, but this is a changing reality, so we need to think about new ways to… Read more »

Dear Lynette,

Thank you for this eloquently written and moving plea. Especially enjoyed all your “visual metaphors” (e.g., drawing maps, body being separated from head, handing the paintbrush back). They created little mental movie clips that indelibly etched your images in my mind. You are a gift to our profession and world.


Love it- so nice to read like minded interpreters! Yes, let’s do it. Maine RID, did you see this?

Stephanie Merchant

I just wanted to comment on the quality of your writing.

Outstanding. Your passion is evident.

Lynette and like-minded readers, Beautiful!!! Awesome!! Great suggestions!! My co-author and I will add them to our upcoming book publication, to sequel “Alone in the Mainstream” (2004) with due credit of course!!! Another piece of the puzzle that we all seem to forget and it is understandably so because they are also the 100,001 Anne Sullivan’s (love that!!) — “Teachers of the Deaf”. They work with kids in the mainstream, but they have minimal real authority. I know this does vary from locale to locale but my conversations with thse people tells me that by and large they also see… Read more »
Lynnette Taylor
Gina, Yes, well Deaf education in America is like walking into a Kafka novel. I agree, we need to include everyone in the conversation because what is happening is we are all making decisions about best practice with blinders on, we don’t have the whole picture. We need to start looking at the whole picture, not just the pieces of it. If we were to have a summit that talked about current research in minority languages and cultures, research of best practices in Education, Bi lingual Education and Interpreters experiences in the classroom interpreting, Interpreter Education Practices, deaf students experiences,… Read more »
Susan Leitson

Lynette, I was getting big goose bumps reading your essay. wow! very powerful and moving. I hope more folks in the business get the message. it’s a reminder to all of us to do all we can to preserve our linguistic heritage. Kudos to you for a fantastic piece of writing! Susan



Lynnette Taylor


SO nice to hear from you. SF is always in my heart and I still call it home. Yes, mom passed away recently. Life is not as bright without her. She was a force of nature and a poet of life.
Thanks for reaching out. Makes my heart happy-
ILY Lynnette

As an ASL interpreter at a Finnish university studying minority language practices in multilingual contexts, it’s exciting to see an article such as this one (thank you, Lynnette!) tackling questions that (signed and spoken) minority language communities face with respect to language practices, ideologies, and identities. There is much that minority (spoken and signed) language communities can learn from each other. I’m working on a research team that is investigating similar discourses that circulate within indigenous spoken language communities in Northern Finland, Wales, Ireland, and Corsica where questions such as these arise: 1. What counts as a language? 2. Who… Read more »
Lynnette Taylor
Sarah, Thanks for these valuable contributions! Yes, I agree with Hill about the dangers of the endangered language rhetoric. It not only allows us to romanticize and become passive about the loss, it also becomes ammunition for those who wish to see the language die. Case in point: I was in a conversation with a publisher who said, ‘why would you publish Sign Language materials when my friend who is an authority on speech pathology, tells me the language is dying’. An excellent example of how the rhetoric can become ammunition. ASL is very alive and strong as are many… Read more »

[…] A Role for Sign Language Interpreters: Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People From http://www.streetleverage.com – Today, 7:46 PM As a coda when I left home to go to college, I never dreamed that I was leaving my mother tongue. It never dawned on me that there wouldn’t be deaf people where I was going and that ASL would be nowhere in sight. […]


[…] last couple posts and this current post have been inspired by an article written for Street Leverage by the incredible Lynnette Taylor, a strong advocate for the Deaf and […]



Excellent article which I’ll re-read again (time limit now.) I agree with the many points presented, about preserving linguistic rights of folks using ASL. More work needs to be done to save, protect, & empower our ASL. I have an adult deaf blind son, living independently, & ASL is his native language, & also his young son’s language as well. We’ve battled with “hearing systems” for years who try to Lord it over the Deaf and make them lip-read & speak, so annoying.

I like the Dylan Thomas quote you used at the end of your article.

Elizabeth Fausnaugh
I felt like I really connected with your article. while I’m not a CODA, I’m married to a deaf person and I feel an emptiness when I’m away from the language for any length of time. I’m so accustomed to it in fact that I look for interpreters and I feel like I can’t “hear” the tv without closed captioning. I currently work as an educational interpreter. There are many skilled interpreters I work with, but they are not fully immersed in the culture and cannot give those language/cultural tips that the deaf students need. Your perspective was refreshing and… Read more »

[…] providing and using sign language interpreting services. After re-reading the powerful article, A Role for Sign Language Interpreters: Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People, by Lynette Taylor, I am reminded that as the public gains exposure to ASL, the language is in […]

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