Feb 9, 2024 - Economy

Sign language's struggle for support

The performances during last year's Super Bowl by Justina Miles, the first female deaf performer for the game's halftime show, nearly stole the spotlight from Rihanna.

Why it matters: That moment, however, like others before it, hasn't been enough to change the messy relationship between the business world and the Deaf community.

Zoom out: Attention to the needs of the Deaf shot up alongside the Black Lives Matter movement, during the pandemic and around the time that "CODA" won its best picture Oscar, Rorri Burton, founder and director of Pro Bono ASL, which launched in June 2020, tells Axios.

  • "Everyone wanted to provide interpreters for everything," she says.
  • And then when they realized it was extra work: "'Oh, we've got to pay for this? Never mind, we've got the AI that can do the captioning so that's good enough."

Be smart: Technology — whether it's automatic captioning or cochlear implants — is not a substitute for sign language, Miles says.

  • She spoke to Axios in an interview facilitated with the help of Burton acting as an American Sign Language interpreter.

Between the lines: Miles, who studied nursing, wants to build a nursing school and a space for the Deaf community.

  • She's teaching herself everything she needs to know about starting a business — but she's dreading having to ask professionals for help because she doesn't want to deal with people who don't know how to communicate with deaf people.

What they're saying: "I need to go to the bank to set up an account!" she said. "That's my procrastination."

State of play: The Americans With Disabilities Act requires businesses and nonprofits that serve the public, as well as state and local governments, to provide services like a sign language interpreter "when needed" to communicate with deaf people.

  • Some organizations proactively work with interpreters with the hope of attracting deaf people to events, but what's needed is a deeper engagement with the Deaf community, Burton says.
  • "Since the pandemic, people are more aware and they want to target Deaf audiences ... they think if you put an interpreter, [Deaf people] will come. That might work in a few cases, but overall, that's not going to work and you need to engage."

By the numbers: Roughly 12 million people in the U.S. are deaf or have serious difficulty hearing, according to Cornell's analysis of the 2022 American Community Survey.

  • The U.S. sign language economy alone, which includes sign language interpreting services, video relay services, and Deaf schools and programs, is worth at least $3 billion to $10 billion, research from D.C.-based Gallaudet University has found.

The intrigue: Miles isn't worried about AI taking her job as a deaf performer.

  • "No words can amount" to the stories that are told through ASL, she adds.

What to watch: The use of technology is another way that people in positions of power try to remove and "eradicate" sign language, Miles observes.

  • "The world needs to understand why we didn't want hearing aids in the first place, because our culture is so rich, our language is so beautiful."

Go deeper: Super Bowl broadcasts have mixed history of screen time for sign language performers

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