I came across a bundle of websites that is like a city full of British Sign Language (BSL). And it all seems to come from the University of Bristol, Centre for Deaf Studies (CDS). They managed to create a great signing experience in their site, in just about every page you care to look at. If you are thinking about using (video’s of) sign language on your website, you simply must check these out:

Deafresource: To find out about the Deaf community sign language and Deaf studies. Deafresource

Deafstation: News and information service for BSL users. Deafstation provides a daily news programme in BSL. Deafstation

Signstation: Learn about British Sign Language (BSL)? Signstation has video, interactive exercises, pictures, graphics and explanations about BSL and Deaf people at work. Signstation I would have to check how they did everything, but it is clear that a team of people with good technological skills (flash, shockwave, scripting, streaming video, etc) and good web design skills is working on these sites. They did require me to download and install a more recent shockwave player, but I guess I was due for upgrading and it’s free anyway 🙂

For any community of Deaf people sites like these can be extremely valuable, is my belief. The power of the internet can be put to use to share and enjoy without interference (by the hearing cultural majority or otherwise). But it takes skill to get the websites suited to a primarily signing audience. I think the CDS did a good job here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if these sites are already playing a large role in UK Deaf society.

Please put aside any cultural integration reservations for the length of this post and while browsing through the links. I once attended a lecture from one of Bristol’s senior researchers, Paddy Ladd, at the International Conference for the Education of the Deaf in Maastricht, 2005. It was the most memorable event of the entire conference. Mr. Ladd unleashed his anger, frustration and fears on the unsuspecting audience. He was angry about the history of abuse associated to the conference in question (at the first edition in 1880 deaf education was all but limited to oral methods for almost a century). He feared that developments in cochlear implementation would cause doctors and people in deaf education to regress into methods treating deafness as a curable medical condition. And he warned against cultural genocide taking place should sign language teaching suffer, even going so far as comparing the withholding of sign language as primary language from CI kids to child abduction. It was a great speech, arousing much passion and support from Deaf attendees. Next day the British association for the education of the Deaf (or something like that) distanced itself from Paddy Ladd’s views. His speech dominated discussions afterward.

It is not my place to take part in discussions on educational methods or the impact of CI, nor am I an expert judge on the value of Deaf sign language subculture in comparison to a potentially fuller social integration of individuals. But I will say that these websites constitute a fine part of the world wide web. They are examples of how you can make video work on the web. It would be a shame if they were exterminated.

Update 8 Mar ’07: I was so impressed I forgot the news sparking my interest: CDS launched the worlds first sign language dictionary for mobile phones at www.mobilesign.org. Again it is a very well designed service. Two important things: it is simple enough to use with a small screen, and download size of (video) files is fairly small (and thus affordable in pay-per-bit environment like the mobile internet). Unfortunately, prior scientific work on how to reduce bit rates without harming sign language understandability were not applied as far as I can tell:
* Cavender et al. (2005). MobileASL: Intelligibility of Sign Language Video as Constrained by Mobile Phone Technology (pdf); * Parish et al. (1990). Intelligent Temporal Subsampling of American Sign Language Using Event Boundaries (pdf)
* Sperling et al. (1985). Intelligible encoding of ASL image sequences at extremely low information rates. (Might have been used? ACM, DOI). ‘

Update 9 Mar ’07: Tim Tolkt is pretty good at integrating sign video’s (in flash) as well.