For years, Keith Wann’s deaf father misunderstood why the dog got shot in the movie Old Yeller.
"I’m 8 years old and signing ‘rabbit’ instead of ‘rabies,' and my father thinks he got shot because he ate a rabbit," says Wann, who now works as an ASL comedian.
When the FCC founded the National Captioning Institute in 1979, its closed captioning began eliminating these small misunderstandings for both Wann’s father and the estimated 38 million Americans who are either deaf or hard of hearing.
But for those who communicate using American Sign Language (ASL), captions are translations. And as with all translations, inevitably something is still lost. The deaf community, with few exceptions, has not had easy access to content created in its own language—until recently.
With the dawn of Internet video, many ASL musicians, poets, and comedians reach geographically dispersed audiences as easily as their spoken-language counterparts. About 40% of the videos tagged "sign language" on YouTube have been uploaded in the last year, says YouTube trend manager Kevin Allocca. And the rate at which "ASL" is typed in the site’s search box has increased two-fold since 2008.
Captions, in some cases, are provided for hearing people. Windell Smith Jr, who like Wann is a hearing child of deaf parents, has posted a variety of ASL content to his YouTube channel, including interpretations of famous speeches like Steve Jobs’s Stanford commencement speech and Robert Kennedy’s The Mindless Menace of Violence.
"The difference is like reading a book versus watching a movie," Smith says. "There’s something about hearing it and seeing it that affects you. I’ve gotten emails [from people who saw the Steve Jobs Commencement Address] that say ‘I read the speech several times and couldn’t understand why people liked it so much until I saw your video.'"
It’s a difference in impact that grows even more important when it comes to ASL artforms. While there are many different approaches to ASL poetry, one popular form uses a similar handshape to creatively convey different words. Another builds upon the series of handshapes in the manual alphabet. Often the poet hasn’t thought of words in English at all.
"There are so many deaf kids that are trying to figure out how they’re going to be," says Smith, who has posted his own ASL poetry on YouTube. "They’re unlikely to stumble upon an ASL poetry performance. But if I put it on YouTube, kids can find it. It might inspire them to contribute to the form."
To some extent, the same applies to ASL music—but not the ASL music you’ve most likely seen online.
The most popular sign language music videos on the Internet are by ASL students rather than native speakers—and, if you ask someone fluent in ASL, they would probably say they’re terrible. One rendition of Cee Lo Green’s "F*** You" in sign language garnered more than 3 million views on YouTube, but doesn’t use correct ASL structure.
"Everyone did music in the beginning. Which is like, 'hey, look at me, I can sign,'" says Wann, whose repertoire includes a skit in which he pretends to be an interpreter for Vanilla Ice. "We’re looking at you, and it’s terrible. More and more deaf people are saying, 'this is what it should look like.'"
The Deaf Professional Arts Network (D-PAN) is an organization that promotes deaf performers, including musicians. It’s helped create (with permission) ASL music videos for popular songs from artists like Christina Aguilera, John Mayer, and the White Stripes.
"I saw firsthand that there were many deaf and hard of hearing people who loved music but were not getting all that music had to offer, especially lyrics," says D-PAN’s deaf founder, the hip-hop artist Sean Forbes.
Forbes says he was drawn to hip hop at an early age because it was easier to "feel" the bass, the kick drum and the percussively delivered lyrics than it was to pick out the high-pitched lyrics of other genres. He now makes it his career.
"It’s what you see that sets me apart," he says. "I can tell you without a doubt that if my videos weren’t on the Internet I wouldn’t have the visibility that I have today."
More than visibility, many ASL performers say they’re excited about access. Smith describes some of the ways he accesses Internet videos as a hearing person that go beyond cat videos: things like how-to videos, lectures, and moments from history. With such a low barrier to upload, he envisions a similar diversity of Internet video content that speaks directly to the deaf community.
"My goal is to make YouTube as interesting for the ASL community as it is for me," he says.