Should websites include sign language?

Peter Abrahams

Written By:
Published: 28th May, 2008
Content Copyright © 2008 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.

People who are deaf or have a hearing impairment can have problems access websites and other ICT systems.

Guideline 1 of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) states "Provide equivalent alternatives to auditory and visual content". The guidelines suggest that text is a suitable equivalent for auditory content and should include text of any audio files and captioning of any audio-video file.

Although text is an important aid to people who cannot hear it is not necessarily a complete or optimum solution. The reason is that sign language is their first language and written English is a second language. As I am based in the UK I will write about British Sign Language (BSL) rather than International sign language (ISL) or American Sign Language (ASL) although the basic message is the same.

BSL is different from spoken English in syntax, semantics and cultural nuances. To understand this a little consider BSL poetry which is judged not just by the meaning of the signs but how the gestures are put together to provide a flowing aesthetic performance.

Many in the deaf community are forceful proponents of BSL as an independent language from English. They believe that information should be available to them in BSL. Because written English is their second language they find it much more difficult to understand.

The rest of this article will discuss the pros and cons of including BSL on websites and then suggest some guidelines. I hope this article will be used to discuss this issue in more detail. Comments from all interested parties are very welcome.

  • BSL is easier to understand than written English. People who use BSL will appreciate the effort put in to provide BSL and are likely to return to the site and recommend it.
  • However BSL is a ‘spoken’ language, in the sense that it is linear and you can only see (hear) and comprehend the current phrase. Written English can be and is accessed and comprehended in a more dynamic way with a lot of skipping, skimming and rereading taking place.
  • Producing BSL is time consuming and expensive. It is difficult to see how the vast majority of text on the web could be translated into BSL.
  • If there is spoken English in an audio or audio-video file on a website, BSL will be a more natural medium for the deaf listener than captioning. This is especially true of audio-video where it is easier for a deaf person to listen to the signing whilst watching the video than it is to read the captioning at the same time as watching the video.
  • Signing, and even captioning, can be disconcerting to people who are trying to listen to the speech. Making sites more accessible to one group should not unduly interfere with the usability of the site by other users.
  • Seeing BSL whilst reading written English can help a deaf person improve their ability to read written English, it also helps hearing people learn BSL. A powerful example of the benefits is a set of multi-modal books for children developed by ITV SignPost BSL. The books have written English, spoken English, BSL, and story-pictures all synchronised. The book enables deaf children to share a story with hearing parents, siblings and even friends with vision impairments; this significantly improves understanding of all participants hence improving the communications between the different groups.
  • BSL has to be distributed as a video file, which, by its nature, will be considerably bigger than the equivalent text. There is likely to be a delay between the text being visible and the BSL being available. Thus the benefit of the BSL over the written English has to be worth the wait.
  • As yet there is no best practice guidance for implementing BSL on a website and there are no good technology solutions that are easier to implement and effective for the user.
  • There are specialist companies for creating BSL on websites such as ITV SignPost BSL and see-bsl that can help you add BSL to your site.

So with these conflicting pros and cons what guidance should be given to website providers:

  • It is unlikely that you can justify signing the whole site so you have to decide what areas are most important.
  • If the site is aimed at the deaf community then more signing can be justified. Having said that I have looked at the RNID and a few other deaf association sites and they do not have any signing at all.
  • Any spoken English on the site needs to be available in another format. Captioning is the most inclusive so needs to be provided, however BSL should be strongly considered as well, especially for audio-video.
  • An initial introduction to the site in BSL that explains briefly who the site is for, what it provides and a little of the structure should be included. The idea is that the deaf person can decide quickly and effortlessly if the site is of interest. In fact I often think that a text section with that information is missing from many sites.
  • Any pages that include safety, security or emergency information where it is essential that there is no misunderstanding should be in BSL.
  • If there are pages available in other languages (Welsh, Urdu, Polish for example) then that is a strong indication that the information should also be available in BSL.
  • The web is an excellent medium to include BSL and written English side by side as a way to improve comprehension of written English. If your site has a level of public social responsibility then some of the site should have BSL, daily news bulletins may be the ideal area to concentrate on as they are short and include topical vocabulary.

Finally I would suggest that there is a need for improved technology to make it much easier to integrate BSL in a seamless, flexible and usable way. I contend that extending the DAISY (talking book format) to incorporate BSL could be a way forward. The format has the ability to provide complex navigation and the synchronisation of multiple modes of presentation. Providing paragraph chunks of BSL would enable them to be synchronised with the text.

Please give me your thoughts by adding comments to this article.

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