Joseph C. Hill, professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, spoke on the stigma surrounding sign language and the discrimination that follows on Friday evening. The University of Michigan Linguistics Department hosted the event, drawing an audience of about 200 students and professors.

The talk, titled “Black, Deaf and Disabled: Navigating the Institutional, Ideological and Linguistic Barriers with Intersectional Identities in the United States,” was presented by Hill in American Sign Language, with a translator communicating the talk to audience members who do not know ASL. 

Hill spoke about research that confirmed a variation in Black and White American Sign Language and the need to increase the number of Black deaf students in ASL classes. He also commented on a lack of awareness on what makes Black ASL unique. 

“We need interpreting and deaf education to understand how they connect with the Black deaf community because this is a part of American history as well,” Hill said. “Also, people see Black Deaf ASL and recognize it, but they don’t necessarily understand what makes it and how exactly it is different and unique from the other language variations that are out there.”

Hill also commented on the myth that American Sign Language is universally understood.

“A lot of people here think that oh, American Sign Language must be universal,” Hill said. “No, it’s not. Gestures and movements might be, but the actual features of the language are not.”

Hill discussed intersectionality as it applies to sign language, adding that different identities impact differences in language.

“You have to consider the intersectionality of individuals as a factor for language variation,” Hill said. “Often it’s not just one identity but several that come into play and you don’t even have to pick a primary or prioritize any one of those languages.”

Hill said audism, a form of discrimination against deaf people, affects the daily lives of those with hearing loss.

“It is a type of marginalization or oppression,” Hill said. “It means things like no closed captioning, or when I show up there is no interpreter. It impacts your earning potential and your educational opportunities, as well.” 

Hill said some parents of deaf children are advised against teaching their children sign language due to the stigma against it. He spoke about how this impacts deaf children’s growth and essential development. 

“When they’re not being taught sign language, it’s language deprivation,” Hill said. “It is connected with their health, it is their social connection, it is their comprehensive development that is being impacted.”

During his lecture, Hill showed the audience a video addressing the opinions of older and younger generations in regards to differences between Black and White ASL. Hill highlighted the contrast between the viewpoints of the two generations.

“You’ll see the elder group talking about their language and they do notice the differences between White and Black ASL,” Hill said. “But there’s no pride in their language, whereas the younger group sees it as a connection to their culture or their identity and their social group. The older group seemed to have a more minor view of their own language whereas the younger group is more positive.”

Rackham student Kate Sherwood said it is essential for people to realize the differences between Black and White ASL to avoid the misconception that Black ASL doesn’t exist. 

“If you don’t acknowledge the difference in White ASL and Black ASL, you’re going to assume that White ASL is the only thing there is, which is false,” Sherwood said. “It would also result in a lot of marginalization of Black ASL speakers.”

Rackham student Rachel Weissler agreed about the importance of recognizing the variations in forms of ASL.

“It is important that we understand that there is diversity in speech and that race is a big part of that,” Weissler said. “… By calling something Black ASL and White ASL, we are able to acknowledge that different people come from different walks of life and are going to have variations in the way that they produce ASL.”

Hill ended the lecture by saying though the Black community has fought hard against discrimination, systemic oppression is still prevalent.

“Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech titled ‘Where Do We Go From Here’ and the point of the speech was that there’s been a lot of work,” Hill said. “Black people have gotten together and they’ve protested and fought against the system. They were leading change. But we are still facing barriers, we are still encountering systemic oppression. We really need to right the system in order to create opportunities.”

Reporter Navya Gupta can be reached at

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