Deaf Power: Two Deaf artists take back their language and culture on Instagram

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Photo credit: Olivia Locher

In 2018, less than 31% of Deaf people were employed full-time. Deaf children in the US are three times more likely to be abused than hearing people.

And the majority of countries, do not recognize sign languages as official.

But in a corner of the internet, Christine Sun Kim — a Deaf sound artist who performed the national anthem in American Sign Language (ASL) at Super Bowl LIV, held exhibitions at the MoMa, and a given Ted Talk — and Chris Tester — a Certified Deaf Interpreter, an actor, and Ph.D. candidate — are tapping the international signing community to share signs and empower Deaf culture with an open source approach and an Instagram account.

Deaf oppression

“The signing community, we're in a weird place right now,” Chris says over a video call interpreted by Beth Staehle, a native ASL user who studied at Gallaudet University — the world’s only liberal arts college for the Deaf. 

“Enrollment in Deaf schools is down,” he says. “A lot of Deaf individuals are mainstreamed into public schools with hearing peers, and so they're likely to be isolated, and family members often don’t learn to sign so they don't really have access to ASL. 

“And there are a lot more Deaf people getting cochlear implants.” More than 60,000 people globally have cochlear implants, and the number grows every year.

While the surgery is a technological and medical advancement that has helped many, it is also a strong example of how the hearing community sees Deafness as a problem to fix. Furthermore, “many patients are being told that learning sign language after getting a cochlear implant will impair their ability to learn English,” Chris says, “but that's not true.”

The Deaf signing community is dwindling, he says. 

“In general, the Deaf community has always been busy protesting, fighting for their rights, fighting for the ability to survive, to protect their language, to get respect, and rightly so,” Christine says. 

In 1880, sign language in schools for the deaf was “banned” at the International Congress for the Education for the Deaf, or the Milan Conference. Deaf schools around the world stopped using sign language. They fired Deaf teachers and hired hearing teachers, and Deaf people around the world lost opportunities. 

Even now, parents may still be led to believe that their children will only be a part of society if they learn how to speak. 

Audism — the belief that those with the ability to hear are superior — has led to discrimination, and today only 41 countries around the world recognize sign language as an official language.

A language in its own right 

ASL is not simply a series of gestures. Nor is it English that uses hand movements. ASL is a complete and complex language that has its own grammar, regional dialects, slang and linguistics properties that can do everything that spoken languages do. 

Many hearing people may be familiar with fingerspelling — the process of spelling out words by using hand shapes — and confuse ASL with a signed version of English. Fingerspelling, however, is a tool only accessible to those who are bilingual in ASL and the spoken language of their country. According to Chris, that’s a privilege many Deaf people do not have. 


The Deaf community may use fingerspelling to spell words that do not have an individual sign in ASL.

However, if a bilingual ASL/English person wanted to talk about their local mayor, for example, they could borrow the English word and fingerspell “M-A-Y-O-R” with their hands, since there is no individual sign for a city’s chief magistrate in ASL. According to a study by the Oregon School for the Deaf, mayor is just one of 170,000 words in English for which ASL does not have an individual sign. 

Chris and Christine are ASL–English bilingual, and they often switch between their two languages to communicate. Christine felt a stronger need for individual signs, though, when she was telling her hearing daughter bedtime stories in ASL. 

“Think of it this way: Would you want to hear someone speak out the letters of each word?” Chris says. “Fingerspelling is kind of like that. And especially for young children who don’t know the letters yet, fingerspelling isn’t the best fit.”

“We want bedtime stories to be visual, creative and fun,” he says. So he and Christine turned to social media to crowdsource signs from the global signing community. 

@TheFamilyVocab takes to the ‘Gram

An account covered in Christine’s mod handwriting shows words varying from psychedelic to institute. Primary colors provide a key for users: Yellow text indicates new signs; red text asks for submissions to an unknown word. Swipe to see a video of Chris or Christine signing the word, and swipe once more for a picture of the word in question.

A contributor from San Francisco sent in their sign for “mayor,” which Chris signs here. Photo credit: The Family Vocab

“The visual foundation of Instagram was really natural for us, being able to incorporate video and photos so easily,” Christine says. 

Chris and Christine post “sign requests” in red when they encounter a word that does not have an individual sign in ASL, like cucumber. Their global audience responds to the call, sending selfie videos that show how they sign the word in their home country. Then the two share it out. 

“Some countries have a more structural approach to developing their language,” Chris says, “and in some it emerges naturally because people talk about a topic a lot. The French Deaf community, for example, has a history and a current practice of sitting down together and figuring out what sign they want to use for famous artists, painters and paintings. I just love that. Like, there are signs for the “Mona Lisa,” Picasso, the Louvre, that the Deaf community in France came together and decided on.”

Tapping into their global signing community, The Family Vocab is able to access some of the 300 sign languages across the world. “Instagram has been a great tool because everybody's on it,” Christine says.

The page has been able to add more obscure and specific words to their daily lexicon, many of which are culturally based. 

They’ve added matzo ball from Israeli Sign Language. Lego from Danish Sign Language. Pho from Vietnamese Sign Language. Kimono from Japanese Sign Language. Camel from Saudi Arabian Sign Language. 

“We also want to have things that come up randomly in life, like pop culture references,” says. 

Words like Instant Pot from Quebec Sign Language, digital from French Sign Language, TikTok from Chinese Sign Language and quarantine and “Coronavirus” from several sign languages have been shared out on The Family Vocab. 

“There is a power in naming things,” Chris says. “Most things are already named in English, so we wanted to offer the name in ASL and have them co-exist.”

Newly invented words, like virus from an ASL user and Zoom from an Indonesia Sign Language user, are also published on the page. 

“Language evolves,” Chris says. “Deaf people are far more global now and becoming a greater part of the mainstream culture. ASL has to evolve to keep up with today's world.”

The open platform invites followers to borrow, expand and contribute. “We’re not gatekeepers,” Christine says. “We’ve always emphasized from the beginning that this is for my kid, and that we’re doing it for fun. And I think that energy behind it has been the reason people are drawn to it.”

The Family Vocab has more than 6,000 international followers.

Deaf clout 

To get so much collaboration, the Deaf community often has to wait for a global Deaf event to gather in person. But in some ways, Chris explains, The Family Vocab’s always accessible digital platform fills that void. 

“It encourages that exchange and contact in a very positive, robust, exciting, prideful way,” he says. “It gives Deaf people clout. Like, ‘Look at us, we're talking about ASL as a language that is legit, that has aesthetics, dimensions and depth.’”

“I've seen a lot of other Instagram and YouTube accounts in which hearing people are trying to teach our language to hearing people,” Christine says. “But Chris and I are Deaf people, culturally Deaf people, who were raised in the Deaf community, and we’re running this account. We are very thoughtful and intentional about the decisions that we make. We're keeping it real and we’re keeping it fun.

“I want people to know that ASL is cool, because ASL is cool,” she says. “It's a huge part of the Deaf community and the signing community, and that's important to acknowledge.” 

Followers of the page agree. One is Brendon Bussy, who teaches at a school for the Deaf in Cape Town, South Africa: “The page is a play space more than a definitive resource, and I like it for that. Language is fluid and creative, and sign language is no different.” 

Deaf visibility is Deaf power

“Whether it's on the internet, TV or magazines, the more you see Deaf people signing, the more awareness there is in general that Deaf people exist,” Christine says. “And visibility is a tool. When there's no visibility, how would people ever then write laws with us in mind?”

“I hope that down the line,” says Chris, “if our hearing followers end up having a family member who's Deaf or they meet a Deaf person, that they can have more awareness and consciousness, and make their Deaf family member feel more included.

Want to amplify Chris and Christine's impact? Share their story with your community. 

“We really just kind of hope to see an attitude change in all communities toward Deaf people and toward sign language,” he says. “That's not our ultimate, ultimate goal, but we hope to see that as a ripple effect, so to speak, over time.”


Verizon is committed to advancing Accessibility in our products, workplace and in society. We provide a range of wireless and FiOS TV products and services for people with disabilities, including: hearing aid-compatible phones, free 411 search, directory assistance exemption, real time text (RTT) support and disability-inclusive customer service support. Verizon is also committed to fostering an inclusive culture in our workplace. For the fifth year in a row, we were named one of the Best Places to Work for Disability Inclusion, earning a score of 100 on the Disability Equality Index (DEI). Through our valued partnerships with organizations such as the National Association of the Deaf, Hearing Loss Association of America and TDI we continue to listen and learn from the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing communities to ensure we build an equitable future where everyone has the opportunity to thrive. For more information, please visit

Verizon acknowledges the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA) and the Telecommunications for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Inc. (TDI) for their work to advance the rights of the Deaf community.

Editor's note: To Beth Staehle, who interpreted the interviews, many thanks. 


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