Channel 4 drops racist sign language

It has changed signs used to depict "Indian", "Jewish", "Chinese" and "gay" to make it politically correct, reports Nabanita Sircar.

india Updated: Mar 31, 2004 20:44 IST

India is now a triangle. Political correctness has caught up with sign language for deaf people. Sign language used to depict ethnic and religious minorities and homosexuals are being changed as they are now feared to be racist and homophobic.

The signs dropped include "Indian" which has been gestured by a finger pointing to an imaginary spot in the middle of a forehead; "Jewish" in which a hand imitates a hooked nose; "Chinese" in which the index fingertips pull the eyes to a slant and "gay" which is depicted by the flick of a limp wrist.

Concerned that the gestures could be deemed offensive, the makers of Vee-TV, Channel 4's programme for deaf people, which is launching its fourth series this week, have dropped the signs. Caroline O'Neill, a senior researcher at Vee-TV, explained: "We have a sign language monitor on the channel who checks that what we are doing is culturally appropriate."

The sign for "Indian" is now a mime of the triangular shape of the subcontinent; "Chinese" is the right hand travelling from the signer's heart across his chest horizontally, then down towards his hip, mimicking the tunic worn in China; and "gay" is an upright thumb on one hand in the palm of the other, wobbling from side to side.

The move has angered critics who see it as an interference and a form of discrimination. Polly Smith, the acting chairperson of the British Council for Disabled People, said:"The programme makers at Channel 4 are interfering with deaf people's language, culture and view of society, and that is a form of discrimination."

But O'Neill defended the move. She explained:"Before, [the sign for Jewish] was connected to a stereotypical Jewish nose, but now it's a hand sign that mimics the shape of the menorah [a ceremonial candlestick used in Judaism]," she said.

Channel 4 is not alone in making such alterations. Producers on the BBC's programme for deaf viewers, See Hear, have also dropped some signs that are seen as politically incorrect.

Those who teach deaf children say such changes might cause confusion among older deaf people trying to communicate with younger ones. Political correctness could mean many other signs may, in time, be seen as offensive. British Sign Language (BSL) is used by about 70,000 deaf and hearing-impaired people in Britain. It was recognised by the Government last year as one of the country's indigenous languages.

Benci Woll, a lecturer in linguistics at City University, London, who has studied BSL, welcomed a healthy debate and said:"It is a practical language that has its own regional variations and is not subjected to censorship from an official body that has the right to decide which words are okto use. A vigorous debate is healthy."

Steve Day, a deaf comedian from south London, said that while the changes were made with the best intentions, they could create problems. "Making the shape of India seems a bit of a challenge, especially if they expand this idea for other places. New Zealand, for example, would be a bit like doing a shadow puppet of a bird."

"As the polar icecaps melt and coastlines change, we might have to redo the signs in 20 years' time. We'll be saying that we should have stuck with the old dot on the head," he said in The Daily Telegraph.

First Published: Mar 22, 2004 21:46 IST