Cultural Appropriation of Sign Language


* Cultural appropriation is not an exclusive phenomenon of Sign Language and Deaf culture. This is a guide on cultural appropriation of Sign Language for hearing people.

Cultural appropriation could be defined as a situation in which a person or group of hearing people use Sign Language without having full knowledge of it or without fully appreciating it.

In general, all definitions of cultural appropriation emphasise the fact that a dominant or majority culture adopts elements of a dominated or minority culture (Cambridge Dictionary, Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners and Oxford English Dictionary). Normally, the dominated culture has been systematically oppressed by the dominant culture. In this case, the dominant culture is the phonocentric society and the dominated culture is the Deaf culture.

Interview on cultural appropriation of Sign Language in the program See Hear from the British television channel BBC with Paddy Ladd, a prestigious academic and researcher at the University of Bristol, and Jephta Asamoah, winner of the Student of the Year Award in the United Kingdom in 2018 (English subtitles).


El escritor Greg Tate, persona negra con gorro de ala, bigote, bufanda de cuadros y gabardina
Greg Tate

Everything but the burden

The American writer Greg Tate published a book in 2003 called Everything But the Burden, in a clear allusion to the cultural appropriation of black culture by white people. Everything but the burden is what his mother said to Greg in reference to the fact that white people are taking all kinds of elements of black culture without living their suffering.

In the same way, hearing people are taking Sign Language for various interests while preserving their privileges and without suffering Deaf people’s marginalisation that continues to occur in all aspects nowadays. These hearing privileges are not only auditory based privileges, but also access to jobs and Sign Language-related certifications, for job requirement purposes, that are denied to Deaf people due to not having had the same opportunities and benefits as them.


Cultural appropriation of Sign Language has been increasing in recent years with the expansion of Internet and social networks. In some cases, it is tolerated but in others it is stirring up controversy and generating backlash from some Deaf activists. Not all cases are the same, so the reaction is not always the same. What does this depend on?

Richard A. Rogers, a researcher at Northern Arizona University, proposed four factors that explain the seriousness of cultural appropriation:


That is, whether or not you are aware that you are carrying out an action of cultural appropriation. For example, it is very different doing it in order to reap benefits such as financial, digital reputation, etc., even if the intention is good, as opposed to doing it because Deaf people wants you to.


Reflect on whether the action you are taking in any other way promotes equality between Deaf and hearing people. For example, do you limit yourself to teaching Sign Language without promoting Deaf people’s empowerment? Is there a purpose more than just for showing "exoticism" or the beauty of Sign Language?


Do you think Deaf people can make their own choices regarding your intention? For example, if you teach Sign Language on your social networks, a Deaf person may not be able to achieve the same level of impact because they might not have the same oral skills that you use to address your followers. That is, maybe they can't choose to do what you do because they don't have your hearing privileges.


The degree of mastery you have of Sign Language will generate more or less discomfort within Deaf people. For example, you probably wouldn’t dare to sing in Spanish on your social networks if you knew that your language proficiency was poor, even more so if you’d never sang in your own language.

Source: Rogers, R. A. (2006). From cultural exchange to transculturation: A review and reconceptualization of cultural appropriation. Communication Theory, 16(4), 474-503.


You trivialise the historical oppression of Sign Language

Sign language seems fashionable now and that can be good. Nevertheless, it is necessary to remember that it has been historically oppressed by oralism and it has even been the object of linguistic genocide. In recent years, Deaf communities around the world have been making an enormous effort to value the richness and complexity of Sign Language, so you should not take it lightly and express yourself in Sign Language on your social media any which way.

You show your passion for Sign Language, but you keep your privileges

Sign Language is a language for everyone. Anyone can learn it and Deaf people are delighted by it. However, they are not so thrilled with the idea of their cultural legacy being used by hearing people only for their benefit. For example, hearing people occupy jobs that could be filled by Deaf people who do not have or haven’t had hearing privileges*. As legitimate and beneficial as this situation is, this should not be an obstacle to brag about with songs poorly signed by your hearing students from your Sign Language classes. Have you considered sharing your time and space with Deaf people themselves?

* If you are not clear on the concept of hearing privilege, re-read about writer Greg Tate above.

You prioritise your privileges over the feelings of Deaf people

Hearing people have been defending many arguments, saying that they are not being culturally appropriative: that they have freedom of expression, that Sign Language belongs to everyone, that union is better than the division, that it is good for Deaf people, etc. Of course, there is no law that prohibits you from using Sign Language the way you want, but realise that, deep down, they are the same arguments that were used in the past and are still used to legitimise oralism and the oppression of Sign Language: that your purpose and reasoning are superior to any need and feeling of Deaf people. If your intention is genuine but there are Deaf people who resent it, why do you do it?

You perpetuate stereotypes of Sign Language

Having an excellent command of Sign Language implies mastering its rules to their full potential: its phonology, its pragmatics, its lexical variety, the classifiers, the simultaneity, the sign space, the visual metaphor, the signed rhythm or the concordant gaze, among many other aspects. Not all Deaf people have this degree of proficiency, precisely because Sign Language was subjected to oppression and was not formally taught in school as oral languages ​​were, but even so, it is extremely easy to identify the naturalness in which one can sign just as the accent with which one speaks. See if you are making it clear that Sign Language is not mere aesthetics and if you are not trivializing its complexity as a language.


Ignorance: your intention is good, but you don't know that you are committing an act of cultural appropriation which can annoy Deaf people.

Indifference: You know it can upset some Deaf people, but you don't care because you deeply believe that you are doing the right thing. So, simply, negative comments do not affect you.

Minimisation: You try to downplay it, arguing that there are Deaf people who like what you do or that their reactions are exaggerated.

Ridicule: You show your superiority by responding with humorous or ironic comments about how "absurd" some Deaf people are being about cultural appropriation.

Hearingsplaining: You are so offended by the accusation of cultural appropriation that, instead of trying to understand what is happening, you go straight to explaining the superiority of your arguments (even with some condescension or contempt).

Cyberaudism: You attack with contempt or name-calling or allow other hearing people to do it for you (cyberaudism is a term coined by K. Crom Saunders in 2016 from Columbia University Chicago).


It is one of the most frequent attitudes that can be found among hearing people. Many of those find it difficult to identify with it, but Deaf people tend to quickly perceive it with discomfort. We are even starting to give it a name: HEARINGSPLANING.

Hearingsplaining is considered a form of audism. It is a neologism derived from the word mansplaining which, according to the Merriam Webster dictionary, was first used in 2008 in the sense of "to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic". Mansplaining has spread to other areas than women such as whitesplaining or rightsplaining (the right explains)

Hearingsplaining is when hearing people explain issues about Deaf culture and Deaf life, when they really do not understand how it really is. I’d like to expand that to also so say these hearing people also disregard and disrespect the Deaf Community’s opinion and input (Tracy Stine, 2020)

6 examples of hearingsplaining

You explain something about the Deaf community or Sign Language without being asked.

You explain things that should be unique to Deaf people, for example, about their social integration.

You try to convince a Deaf person of what they should like or think, ignoring their feelings and life experiences.

You condescendingly insist a Deaf person is wrong

You support your arguments with what another Deaf person has told you.

You reuse a string of somewhat convoluted academic arguments.


Maybe this scheme will help you clarify things


To understand how to avoid causing harm when you participate in another culture, you need to be open to the possibility that the people of that culture will have a different perspective than you

(Maisha Z. Johnson, 2015)

English translation by Ixone Sáenz Paraíso | Follow her on Twitter