What is American Sign Language?

Published September 19, 2022

Click here to learn more about International Week of Deaf People 2022, which is this week, September 19th - 25th. Today's focus for this event, led by the World Federation of the Deaf, is on Sign Languages in Education. 

With more than 500,000 speakers in America and Canada, American Sign Language (ASL) is the most popular sign language in the USA. If you’re hiring or working with a D/deaf colleague, there is a chance you may need to hire an ASL interpreter at some point. 

American Sign Language

As the predominant sign language for D/deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the United States, ASL is the primary means of communication for thousands of people. If you’re asked to provide an interpreter for a D/deaf employee in the U.S., it’s most likely to be an ASL interpreter rather than any other language.

Sign language uses a mixture of hand signals and facial expressions for the speaker to communicate with. It’s considered a full and complete language in its own right, although its grammatical structure is a little different. ASL follows a Subject-Verb-Object structure, so ‘The cat sat on the mat’ would become almost Cat-Sat-Mat. Some sign languages follow a different order, such as Hawai’i Sign Language (HSL), which follows a Subject-Object-Verb pattern, such as Cat-Mat-Sat.

ASL in the workplace

Some employees will require an ASL interpreter in the workplace, but it will differ as to whether they’ll need an interpreter all the time or only for specific occasions. Some of the times your D/deaf employee might request an interpreter are meetings, Zoom conferences, or events. In some cases, remote interpreters may be appropriate. It's best to work closely with staff to identify what is best to effectively communicate. 

In situations where an interpreter cannot be secured, it may be appropriate to use staff who are fluent in ASL. However, it is important to note that, family members or colleagues with bias should never be used to interpret − this is especially true for law enforcement. Interpreters must be qualified and properly trained for the occasion, so one should not assume that someone who speaks some sign language is a reasonable accommodation. In any case, communicate any constraints with the person to find out what they are comfortable with − but note, denying a reasonable accommodation for an interpreter for arbitrary reasons is never appropriate − see our article on undue hardship

ASL can help bring employees together, so offering some ASL or D/deaf Awareness training may be helpful to your whole team. It’s well worth considering next time you’re planning a team-building day.

What does ADA say about ASL?

The Americans with Disabilities Act says that you must provide reasonable accommodation for any employee disclosing their disability to you unless doing so would create an undue burden. Interpreters are covered under ‘auxiliary aids and services,’ and are considered reasonable accommodations. However, there are certain circumstances where you may refuse, including costs the company cannot meet (note: these costs are based on the budget of the entire organization). 

It’s worth noting that there are many types of interpreters, so it might be worth checking whether or not your employee can use a cheaper or alternative form of interpretation. Don’t assume that your employee can understand other forms of interpretation than the one they’ve requested, so remember to discuss this with them first.

American Sign Language is the primary means of communication for hundreds of thousands of D/deaf Americans, so understanding the ADA’s rules regarding interpreters is essential.

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