27 Sep Top 3 Reasons to Learn American Sign Language for the Workplace

The origins of Sign Language

In the late 1600’s, Jonathan Lambert travelled from Kent, England to Chilmark in Martha’s Vineyard, an island part of Massachusetts, United States. According to records, Lambert was deaf, as were the children he had after arrival into the town. They are known to be the first genetically deaf people of the island. Chilmark was a relatively small and remote town of the island, secluded from the other towns and its people. Due to the isolation, the people of the island married and reproduced with one another, thus spreading the hereditary deafness among the town with almost 1 in 25 people being hearing impaired by mid-19th century. It was said that Lambert brought with him the sign language of his hometown, Kent, to the US soil, which gave way to a unique sign language development for the residents of Chilmark as they didn’t see deafness as a disability and rather viewed it similar to having a skill necessary to make a successful living in the world. Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language wasn’t recognized as a foreign language by the citizens of the island but rather as a ‘life skill’ that was taught from childhood to all, deaf or not, to communicate effectively though it wasn’t part of formal education curriculum in the area (Cari Romm, The Life and Death of Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language, The Atlantic, 2015).

In 1814, Dr. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, a minister from Connecticut, wished to educate his niece with hearing impairment because he believed her to be smart yet had no method to express it. With the help of the community, he raised enough money to travel to Europe, a place that had history of the hearing impaired, while America was home to only a few thousand Deaf people. When in Europe, he met the successor, Abbe Sicard, and two accomplished teachers, Laurent Clerc and Jean Massieu, of the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes in France. He started learning the teaching methods of the institute while taking French Sign Language classes from Clerc.

When Gallaudet was preparing to head back to the United States, he asked Clerc to accompany him as he would be a great asset to his plan of opening the first school for the Deaf in the country. In 1817, the duo launched the American School for the Deaf, welcoming students from across the region. With the help of the unique sign language brought in by the students from Martha’s Vineyard, French Sign Language and other various ‘signs’ used by students in their homes, Gallaudet and Clerc created the American Sign Language and changed the life of hearing impaired citizens forever (Start ASL, 2016).

The Provincial Review of ASL/Deaf Studies and Interpretation Education in BC (Gordon and Hardy, 2009) states that communication is not just an essential part of one’s daily life but is also the key to building relationships. ASL plays a vital role in easing communication for the Deaf community and bridging the gap of communication. Here are 3 main reasons why learning ASL is essential in the workplace.

  1. Adapting to the Growing Popularity of ASL

The article 8 Reasons You Benefit from Knowing Sign Language (DeafFriendly) stated that as of 2013, the United States alone had almost 36 million citizens that were Deaf/hard of hearing, a number that grew to 37.5 million by 2014 (National Institute of Health). By 2015, the world had over 360 million people with disabling hearing loss, as estimated by the World Health Organization. While not all hearing impaired people use sign language (some use lip-reading or printed text), individuals who communicate via sign language have an advantage for professional and personal opportunities and improved communication with their peers.

Individuals learning ASL as their second language are also inclined to benefits such as:

  • increase in phonological awareness
  • improved word recognition

(Melvin, S. The Effects of Learning American Sign Language on College Students’ Spatial Cognition, 2013).

Charles Miller, author of ‘Transforming e-Assessment in American Sign Language’ (2007), concluded that what was once known as a combination of vague gestures and action has been categorized as a world language for more than half a century. ASL is not only the most used sign language in the world but it is also the fourth most used language in the United States, right after English, Spanish and French (Charles, 2007). In 2010, despite the study of foreign languages dropping significantly as a course for graduate schools throughout the United States, there was a 16% increase in the students learning ASL. Professors of ASL cited reasons such as a rise in acceptance of ASL as a university requirement and its effectiveness as employment qualifications for the rise (New York Times).

  1. ASL Across Industries – The New Must-Have Skill

The last 20-30 years have seen a huge change in terms of how society views hearing and speech disabilities, and with the approval of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, an increasing number of people are becoming part of the workforce (Supported Employment for People who are Deaf, 1999). The rise in Deaf people joining the labor market has led to many institutions making their workspace more ‘disabled friendly’, either by employing interpreters or by training their employees in American Sign Language, thus empowering and providing more opportunities for their workforce.

The following industries represent a small but important fraction of the workplaces that are high in importance for ASL employee training:

  • Hospitality: Employees of this industry engage with clients from diverse backgrounds on a daily basis. Effective communication is crucial to provide excellent service. Knowledge of ASL will drastically enhance satisfaction among hearing impaired clients.
  • Healthcare & Emergency Services: Proficiency in ASL is essential to enhance relationships between hearing impaired patients and healthcare professionals. Understanding patients’ needs and providing the best care is vital to their wellbeing.
  • Retail: Retail employees are required to answer queries, anticipate needs and build rapport with customers to effectively generate sales. Communication is key to ease the process and function profitably and create customer satisfaction.
  • Education: More and more schools are accommodating students with special needs. However, apart from special needs establishments, most schools assign a teacher with the required training to support the students. While it is an excellent effort, the student is still disconnected from his or her peers as well as the subject teachers with the specialized knowledge. ASL training for teachers in schools will remove the communication barrier between hearing impaired students and their peers.
  1. Small Gestures Create a Big Impact

The Washington Post (February, 2016) reported a story involving a ‘Good Samaritan’ that took the internet by storm; a Starbucks Barista learnt Sign Language to easily communicate with a hearing impaired customer. Ibby Piracha, the customer, visited the café 2-3 times a week and engaged by typing out the order on his phone but was pleasantly surprised on one of his visits when the barista signed to him asking for his order. Ibby posted the story on social media to share information about the ‘Hearing Community Supporting the Deaf Community’ initiative.

The Lemon Tree Hotel Group in India experienced a pleasant change in their workforce after Rahul Pandit, the President and Executive Director of the company, began an initiative to hire Employee’s with Disability (EWD). To make the program more successful, the senior managers and many staff members were trained in Sign Language, to communicate with their disabled colleagues with ease (Reported by the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality, 2013).


In a similar manner to many nations across the world, Dubai (UAE) has launched an initiative to make the city more ‘disabled friendly’ by 2020.

“The Dh10 million study, titled ‘A Friendly Environment for Persons with Disabilities According to Universal Design Principles and Standards’ will set the precedent for the 2020 plan to transform Dubai into a ‘barrier free city’ for people with disabilities. (Emirates, 2016)”.

The hospitality industry socially engages with people on a minute-by-minute basis therefore emphasizing the need for all members of the industry to have the skills to cater to customers from all walks of life. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the hospitality industry is required to provide effective communication services (be it an interpreter or staff trained in Sign Language) to Deaf consumers as their right and failure to do so can lead to severe consequences.

Arabian Industry (2016) reported that the Amwaj Rotana Hotel in Dubai started an initiative to train employees to cater to guest with special needs and help serve them better. The first part of the training included staff from housekeeping, front office, laundry and the health center, and, in time, will expand to other departments. Apart from basic etiquette and handling emergency situations, the training also included American Sign Language courses to improve communication between employees and customers.

Looking to improve communication at your workplace with ASL training solutions? Learn more.


About the Author:
Colette A. is our ASL Senior Associate & Arabic Instructor. She pioneers and manages our ASL-related projects and has even published an ASL textbook.

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