How Zoom is changing American Sign Language

As the pandemic has driven adoption and (over)use of videoconferencing software like Zoom, it's required changes in American Sign Language. From Scientific American:

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[…]

Signers communicating through video must also consider how they angle their bodies so as to convey what they mean clearly. If two people face each other in an in-person interaction, each can easily see whether the other's hands are moving toward them or away from them. This can be crucial for grammatical reasons; for example, signs representing future tense are usually made with a forward motion away from the signer's body, whereas past tense signs move the opposite way. Such nuances can be difficult to detect on a video screen. Skyer is deaf and teaches in American Sign Language in a bilingual ASL-English environment, in which a teacher typically signs in ASL and also shares content in written English. When using videoconferencing in class, he says, he sometimes has to sign with his body turned to present himself in three-quarters view, so that signs normally seen head-on are easier to understand.

Images: Michael Skyer