How the Internet changed the world for the deaf?

How has the Internet changed the lives of deaf and hard of hearing individuals? Join us for the next film in the 'Fun facts in Polish sign Language' series."

We all know that the Internet has changed the world. But what impact does the Internet have on the deaf community? That’s what I’ll talk about today.

Remote Communication in Sign Language

The first thing is communication. Communication among distant deaf individuals. For hearing people, communication over a distance has not been a problem for many years. Telephones have been around since the early 20th century, though they were very expensive at the time, and it took several more decades before they became widespread. And what about the deaf?

In some countries, there were popular landline phones with video calling functionality – so a deaf person could make a call and communicate in sign language. However, it was only with the advent of the Internet that video communication truly became widespread. Now, thanks to widespread Internet access via mobile phones, at any moment, one can make a call using video chat and talk to other deaf individuals, regardless of their location – of course, provided they have access to the Internet. Previously, this communication was limited to those deaf individuals who were nearby – in the family, at school, in the dormitory, or in the workplace.

Writing Letters and Text Messages by Deaf Individuals

Of course, for a long time, one could also write letters, but we know very well that for many deaf individuals, writing and reading with understanding is very difficult, so it was not a practical form of communication for all deaf individuals. See an excerpt from the conversation between Tomasz Smakowski and Professor Bogdan Szczepankowski:

– There was a time in my life when I was the director of the school for the eaf – that’s where I retired from, about… 18 years ago. So back then, communication between children and parents wasn’t through SMS yet, because mobile phones weren’t as popular yet, but through fax.
We specifically had a fax machine installed in the school. There was a government program called “Fax for the Deaf and Mute,” where anyone could apply to be granted a fax machine and they would receive it for some small amount of money. So, parents and children of the deaf had fax machines at home. And interestingly enough – of course, there were both hearing parents, and there were also deaf parents. Who communicated better with each other via fax? What do you think?
– [Tomasz Smakowski]: I suspect it was the deaf.
– Certainly. Only because… well: hearing parents wrote those faxes in Polish, in the Polish language. The child would take out and receive the fax, and come – most often to me, as the fax was in the secretary’s office – to tell them what was written there. Because it was written in grammatical Polish. But as for the child of deaf parents, they corresponded via fax quite casually and without any issues. However, if a hearing parent got hold of such a fax, he probably wouldn’t necessarily know what it was about. Because it was written in sign language grammar. Polish… I mean, not Polish, I apologize. Polish words in sign language grammar. Something opposite to the Language-Visual System. And it was written like that, deaf to deaf, so they understood each other perfectly in both directions. These faxes went back and forth without any problem of understanding. But precisely in those hearing-deaf contacts, it failed because of those differences in grammar. And these texts written – generally because of this – are difficult for deaf people to understand because they are written in a different grammar.

How do deaf individuals from different countries communicate with each other?

The ability to send each other video messages or engage in live conversations has also paved the way for free-flowing discussions among deaf individuals from different countries. And while individual sign languages differ from one another, this difference is much smaller than in the case of phonetic languages. Thanks to this, deaf individuals from different countries are able to communicate with each other.

There is also an international sign, which is developing rapidly thanks to video conversations. There is also a more frequent borrowing of sign language signs from different languages, which contributes to the continuous development of regional sign languages.

Online groups for the deaf and hard of hearing community

The Internet also hosts groups on social media that bring together individuals with similar interests. Thanks to this, many groups for deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals have emerged. In these groups, practically all topics are discussed. A deaf person can upload a video in sign language, and other deaf individuals can respond in the comments also in the form of video in sign language, or reply in a way characteristic of the deaf, ignoring the grammatical rules of a specific language – yet everyone in the group will understand such a comment and no one will criticize spelling mistakes.

Knowledge acquisition by deaf individuals

The internet has also changed the way knowledge is acquired. Before the first schools for the deaf were established, deaf individuals often received no education and were frequently illiterate. They had no opportunity to learn from books, for example. Over time, deaf individuals started to create their own small communities, especially in schools for the deaf, clubs, workplaces designed for the deaf, or in churches. By meeting there, they could exchange information with each other.

And what about now? On the internet, we can find many contents written in simple language, making it understandable for many deaf individuals. Also, an increasing number of films have subtitles or translations into sign language. There are also more and more films made by deaf individuals, in sign language, without spoken language, or with subtitles. The internet has become a place for sharing knowledge.

Courses and training in sign languages

In addition to materials created by deaf individuals privately, there is an increasing number of official online courses for the deaf in sign language or publicly available with sign language translation. 

Education for the deaf and hard of hearing during the pandemic

When in March 2020, due to the global pandemic, the world came to a halt, many activities moved to the internet. Whenever possible, people worked from home. Schools and universities taught through the internet.

Could distance learning be possible without the internet? Certainly, to some extent, over the phone – but only for those who can hear well. But what about the deaf and hard of hearing? The internet proved indispensable during the pandemic.

To this day, many meetings, conferences, take place via video calls, making it easy and practical to include a sign language interpreter. Also, more and more video conferencing programs, such as ZOOM, have the capability to generate live captions from participants’ speech. Of course, the quality of these captions depends on various factors, such as whether the speaker articulates clearly. But even now, such captions are a great help for people with hearing impairments.

Remote work

The internet also offers the possibility of permanent remote work, not just during the pandemic. If someone’s job revolves around working on a computer, there’s a good chance that this work can be done remotely. If communication in such work with other colleagues or clients is only in writing, and the deaf employee has mastered the grammar of written language, those collaborating with the deaf person may not even be aware that this person cannot hear.

Learning sign language

The internet also provides greater and often free access to videos teaching sign language. Thanks to this, hearing individuals can try their hand at learning sign language. Some of these individuals may decide that they want to learn more about sign language than what is available in videos, and they may opt for a professional sign language course. Over time, these individuals may become sign language interpreters. And there is still a shortage of good interpreters, so we hope that their numbers will grow.

As we can see, the internet has changed the world not only for hearing individuals but also for the deaf. Today, it’s hard to imagine life without the internet. After all, you’re also watching this film on the internet – if it weren’t for the internet, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to share various interesting stories with you. I hope you enjoyed this film. Or maybe something was missing? In what other matters does the internet help you? Let us know in the comments.

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