Why sign-language interpreting is critical to video accessibility and inclusivity

Phil Masella 06 Dec 2022 4 mins
Sign language localization blog
Article after article about video accessibility refers to the use of captions for deaf or hard-of-hearing viewers – while not mentioning sign-language interpreting at all. If you think about it, that seems odd. If either captions or subtitles for the d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing (SDH) are always sufficient for accessibility, why is there a thriving sign-language interpreting industry for streamed events? Why have both Zoom and Microsoft recently added a specialized view for sign language interpreting to their platforms? Both already offer live captioning options, either automated or mediated by human beings. Yet both clearly feel that a commitment to inclusivity demands more – and we agree, for two reasons.
1. Inclusivity demands respect for native languages
Nobody knows how many sign languages there are, but a conservative estimate is more than 200, with many claiming more than 300. Though not all deaf or hard-of-hearing people learn a sign language, many have one as their native language – the language they learned first and use by default. When we expect them to read subtitles in English, Chinese or any other language, they're doing so in a second language.
2. Signing can be more accessible than subtitles
Even when a deaf viewer isn't a native signer, they may be better served by a sign-language interpreter than by subtitles. Many non-native signers are still more fluent in sign language than they are in reading written languages.
This is why it's puzzling when guidance for making video accessible ignores sign language. Any video, whether being broadcast live or not, will be more inclusive and accessible if it has been localized to include sign language as an option along with subtitling. This makes life easier for all signers, native or not.

Considerations for adding sign language to video content

At its simplest, a signing-accessible video has a picture-in-picture (PIP) interpreter embedded in the video, signing in the relevant language for your target audience. But there's a lot that goes into doing this effectively.
Which language?
Sign languages differ from one another as much as spoken languages do, but their differences have little to do with the relationships between spoken languages. For example, while American and British English are essentially the same language, American Sign Language (ASL) and British Sign Language (BSL) are completely different from each other. ASL is part of the French Sign Language family, which also includes Quebec Sign Language (LSQ) and Italian Sign Language (LIS), among others. But there are also real differences between the members of the same family, or they wouldn't count as different sign languages to start with.
This does mean that you need to choose your target language or languages carefully. There's no 'lingua franca' for sign language the way English is for spoken language. International Sign (IS) is a pidgin language used mostly in international meetings involving Deaf leaders, and varies depending on the international region. Expecting people to understand IS is a bit like expecting them to understand Esperanto, which is based only on Indo-European languages and is far from a truly international language.
It's important for the PIP signer – in particular their arm and hand movements and facial expressions – to be clearly visible. To achieve this you have to pay close attention to: 
  • The colour contrast between their skin tone, solid-colour clothing and solid-colour background
  • The lighting
  • The size of the PIP frame – which has to be big enough without obscuring important content in the main video. We recommend a 1:5 or 1:6 ratio, and naturally it helps if signing is considered when the video is first created, so that space for the PIP frame is allowed for. 

Fluency and glossaries
Like any translator, a sign-language interpreter will work with particular source and target languages. You want them to be fluent in both, with a particular focus on their fluency in the target language – which in this case will be the sign language. This is especially important in sign-language interpreting because the pool of native signers is relatively small, and there are many non-native signers whose signing is influenced by the spoken word in ways that, while understandable to native signers, would not come across as a good-quality, fluent translation.
Then there's domain expertise. Again, as with any translation, you'll need someone with the relevant vocabulary – whether that be for IT, finance, legal, medical or any other field. A common issue faced as the demand for sign-language interpretation grows is that there are concepts that don't (yet) have agreed signs. A good interpreter, faced with a new term that they have to use a lot, will fingerspell it out at the first occurrence and also flag it with a sign, which they'll then use for later occurrences. But for consistency across your own videos and within your industry at large, you want to ensure that different interpreters use the same signs for the same concepts and that one interpreter's choice isn't imposed on everyone without due consideration.
This requires a commitment to working with the native signing community – reflecting the full diversity of the community and all regions for the relevant language – to develop new signs and document them in an agreed visual glossary.
Quality assurance
Besides fluency and terminology, there are many other contributors to the overall quality of a sign-language interpretation. Fluency doesn't guarantee that an interpreter has the necessary attention to detail to avoid grammatical mistakes or errors of omission, for example. Or, just as a translator might get the tone of voice wrong, a signer may use the wrong register or make presentation or delivery choices that distract from the video's communication goals or are at odds with the image your business wants to convey.
With sign language there's also the issue of physical fatigue if the video is long, which may cause the interpreter to start making unconscious errors. They believe they're keeping up, but actually they're missing content or not forming signs fully and clearly. You may need to schedule the recording over multiple sessions to avoid this.
Number of interpreters
If a video includes multiple speakers, it's preferable to have multiple interpreters, though it will depend on the specifics because trained interpreters are taught to use role-shifting – the equivalent of using different voices – so they can interpret for more than one speaker.

Keeping it simple

These are just some of the considerations when localizing video for audiences who prefer to use sign language. While there's a lot to get right, it doesn't have to be complicated if you work with people who know what they're doing. If inclusivity and accessibility are important to your business, now is a good time to start exploring the value of video localization through sign-language interpreting – and we can help make it easy for you.
Phil Masella RWS

Phil Masella

Marketing Manager - Enterprise Internalization Group
Phil Masella has over 25 years of marketing experience related to manufacturing software, satellite communications, content management and more recently, language services and technology. He also has a passion for B2B marketing and global communications in general.
Phil helps RWS's Enterprise Internalization Group (EIG) market new and innovative products and services within its large enterprise-class accounts. The deployment of these solutions enables EIG customers to provide accessible and inclusive content to their worldwide audiences.
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