The book “Super Smutty Sign Language” by Kristin Henson has angered and caused protest amongst many members of the deaf community.
An online petition has received over 3,600 signatures asking that the book “Super Smutty Sign Language” not be printed because many claim that the book promotes disrespectful attitudes to Deaf culture and American Sign Language (ASL).
The book is written by Kristin Henson, a self-proclaimed ASL amateur from Philadelphia. The book comes after a series of YouTube videos where Henson teaches viewers how to sign vulgar phrases, such as, “How much for a blow job?” and “I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.”
After word got out that St. Martin’s Press would be publishing Henson’s book, many in the deaf community spoke up online about their displeasure with Henson’s lack of knowledge of ASL and insensitivity to deaf culture. Deaf rights activist Tavian Robinson wrote a blog post about the book and started the online petition.
“It isn’t just about her signing skills. It is about a person exploiting a language and culture that does not belong to her for profit while demonstrating extreme cultural insensitivity,” Robinson said in a comment on his blog.
The petition calls for the book to not be published because of Henson’s poor ASL skills, where many of her signs are incorrect. It also claims that many of the phrases signed by Henson are sexist, racist, ableist and exploit the native language of deaf people for profit.
Oscar-winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin even weighed in on the controversy through Twitter when she tweeted at Henson, “Your book on dirty signs and YouTube videos are offensive. You shouldn’t purport to know sign.”
UT student Lisa Guerra, who is deaf, believes that it is not right for Henson to be profiting from teaching dirty signs and that Henson can be used as a teaching tool for those who are ignorant of Deaf culture and ASL.
“American Sign Language deserves better recognition as a meaningful language than being used for poor humor that offends many,” Guerra said. “As a deaf person, I get asked to show dirty signs often, but making videos and making a profit from it?”
Henson sells t-shirts, coffee mugs and bandanas on her website featuring “dirty” signs which has also upset some in the deaf community who see her as trying to turn a profit from their language and culture.
“Every time I’ve learned anything in a new language, I’ve wanted to share it with people. I want to help other people get excited and passionate about signing, because it’s been so exciting for me to learn it,” Henson said.
Henson says that she was first introduced to ASL while attending Rochester Institute of Technology to pursue her degree. She met several deaf friends and started picking up bits and pieces of the language, her first signs being dirty words and phrases.
Addressing the concerns about her sometimes incorrect signing on YouTube videos, Henson says that she is trying to show a hearing person’s attempt at common English idioms in ASL.
“Quite a bit of the humor is in the fact that they just don’t translate. ASL is a conceptual language, and the sentence structure is completely different,” Henson said. “When hearing people see that there are ways to say vulgar things in ASL, I think it helps to make [deaf people] relatable to hearing people, because there’s a common ground.”
Henson says that her book is currently in the writing stage so she plans to work with native signers to make sure her grammar is correct. She has also been taking ASL classes to improve her signing skills.
“I don’t want to oppress, marginalize or belittle an entire culture. I do want to help spark an interest in ASL and Deaf culture. I want to learn as much as possible, and help bridge the gap between our worlds,” Henson said.