The COVID Zoom Boom Is Reshaping Sign Language

Sarah Katz:

People who use American Sign Language to communicate are no strangers to video chatting. The technology—which has been around since 1927, when AT&T experimented with the first rudimentary videophones—allows deaf people to converse with signs over the airwaves. But after the coronavirus pandemic began confining people to their homes early last year, the use of platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Google Meet exploded. This increased reliance on videoconferencing has inevitably transformed the way deaf people communicate.

One adaptation arises as a result of a video meeting’s limited frame size. “The signing space is expansive,” says Michael Skyer, a senior lecturer of deaf education at the Rochester Institute of Technology. “Even if many signs are produced easily or normally in the ‘Zoom screen’ dimensions, many are not.” The sign for “body,” for example, is usually produced by making a “B” hand shape and moving it from the shoulders to the hips. But to fit the reduced signing space demanded by videoconferencing, many signers have been ending it at the chest.