Our approach to communication & access at the WOCAL10 African Sign Languages Workshop

By the local workshop organizers at WOCAL 10

(Note: this is a living document that may undergo periodic changes. It was last updated 26 March 2020)

Running a workshop or conference involves countless choices, and these often end up reflecting the values of an organization and its people, sometimes in ways that are not done with enough conscious reflection, or may inadvertently prioritize some people over others. It also requires making choices about which values to prioritize when they do not perfectly align. For this workshop in 2021 and in a new pandemic world online, these choices have multiplied, causing a new landscape with an uneven terrain for access and modes of communication.

In order to bring these issues into greater consciousness and to make the best choices possible, we resolve here to (1) name the values of our workshop with regard to communication and access, and (2) recognize those areas where these values are at risk of not being realized. Finally, (3) we explain how this workshop has tried to address these points.

    • We value African signers and sign languages
    • We value the input of all participants
    • We value direct communication 
    • We value language diversity
    • Language choice: By its very nature, WOCAL is a multi-lingual place, but the conference made a determination in its founding that the conferences languages are (primarily) English and French. Our workshop also accepts and accommodates these languages, but faces an additional challenge with regard to a sign language that can be understood by deaf academics with different national sign languages. Interpretation in multiple SLs is an option, but jeopardizes our value on direct communication and is also exponentially expensive. International Sign is a form of contact-signing that is used by signers lacking a shared sign language. It is increasingly common in deaf academic events. The form of International Sign is not fixed and varies from person to person. International Sign also varies from place to place, and continent-specific features have been identified in recent studies. International Sign has been used in international deaf events in Africa for many years as well. As such, using International Sign (probably influenced by African SLs) seems the most straightforward choice of signed communication for the WOCAL SLs workshop. By virtue of being an ad-hoc form of contact-signing, International Sign comes with a higher risk of miscommunications, especially for signers who do not have much experience with international encounters.
    • Technology: Joining and participating in an online workshop requires expensive equipment and the ability to connect online for many hours a day. This introduces a serious risk that not all participants will be able to access the workshop equally. This includes not only people with economic challenges and/or poor local infrastructure, but is also taxing for those relying on vision for information.
    • Academic training & standards: WOCAL is an academic conference. Competition and meritocratic advancement is part of the academic world. In practice, this is often implemented by excluding people in order to increase the (perceived) overall value of a forum or publication. However, as many linguistics venues have acknowledged, this exclusion risks leaving out members of language communities who have few or no professionally trained linguists. Such exclusions are particularly vexing for deaf people who experience many types of discrimination in a world biased toward spoken languages; see online statements by the World Federation of the Deaf.
    • The workshop will use forms of International Sign as its main mode of communication, to ensure direct communication with deaf and hearing academics.
    • As one of the general WOCAL languages, the workshop will use English as a second language of communication. English will be available in the following ways: (1) captions in English in all pre-recorded presentations, (2) live English-IS interpretation in the Q&A, and (3) live captioning during the workshop (technical delivery TBD)
    • We have chosen to include anyone who submitted an abstract to the workshop in order to include as many individuals as possible and enrich our understanding of sign languages and the experiences of deaf people all over the continent.
    • The entire workshop team has volunteered to commit resources of time and effort to work one-on-one with presenters to make sure they are able to make a pre-recorded presentation no matter their language profile, their technical background, or their access to digital tools and infrastructure.
    • We will have a workshop reception in a dedicated Zoom breakout room on Saturday, June 5, 2021 before the conference begins. This will allow people to meet each other and begin to form the communicative connections that IS is built upon.
    • One action we have not taken at this workshop is to provide IS lessons prior to or during the workshop. This has been done at previous in-person workshops, but due to the organizational constraints of an online conference, we were not able to include it.
    • We ask all participants to join forces in making this event maximally accessible to all, by being patient and supportive to each other and tolerant to any communicative and technical challenges that may come up.