How Sign Language is Driving a Multi-Billion Dollar Inclusive Economy

Our beautiful, inclusive sign language economy is here, its contributions - benefitting all of society - are undeniable.

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Credit: Streetcar 82 Brewing Co.
Credit: Streetcar 82 Brewing Co.

Each year on September 23rd, the world celebrates the International Day of Sign Languages. This is an opportune time to highlight the thriving, but overlooked, sign language economy that delivers significant financial, social, and employment opportunities in cities and communities throughout the United States. This sign language economy has been built through human capital, entrepreneurialism, commerce, and innovation, and is worth billions of dollars.

What exactly is the sign language economy? 

Like most economies, the sign language economy originally existed largely for the benefit of a specific population, in this case, deaf people. Its value, which is centered on economic, educational and social opportunities that involve or require the use of signed languages, including American Sign Language, Black American Sign Language, and Native American Sign Language, has been self-created by and for deaf people. The growth of this economy, alongside the advancement of civil rights for deaf people and people with disabilities through federal legislation, including the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, has accelerated the expansion of telecommunication access, and communication access in education, employment, and public accommodations. It has also spurred many game-changing deaf-led technological innovations that still lead the world today, including the creation of technology we now call “texting” more than 60 years ago, and video relay interpreting technology which is the modern-day standard for communication access between hearing and deaf people globally. This sign language economy creates employment opportunities for deaf and hearing people in nearly every sector of industry and commerce. As opportunities have continued to grow, so have deaf people’s access and contributions to organizations at their executive level (leadership level), to entrepreneurial opportunities, and to greater civic engagement in our communities and government. These contributions benefit all of society. 

In the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area alone, the sign language economy has delivered the first U.S. signing Starbucks, a Chase Bank branch where most staff sign, a Target store with deaf and signing employees, Apple’s deaf-friendly retail store at Carnegie Library; a deaf-owned and operated pizza restaurant, Mozzeria, and a deaf-owned brewpub, Streetcar 82 Brewing Co. In the Union Market district adjacent to the Gallaudet University campus, stores like Trader Joe’s have deaf employees working in many roles, including cashiers and management. Each of these businesses is not only employing deaf people, but also smartly growing their business by making their consumer experience far more inclusive. By embracing sign language, deaf employees, and the spending power of deaf consumers, these and many other businesses like them throughout the country are stimulating economic growth far beyond their own neighborhoods.

Gallaudet University is a key engine of the sign language economy

Gallaudet, located in the northeast quadrant of Washington, D.C., is the only university in the world where students live and learn bilingually in American Sign Language (ASL) and English. Our more than 22,000 alumni are builders and drivers of this economy. They have founded many of these businesses. They have started and run bilingual ASL/English schools, built publishing and commercial businesses based on ASL, created ASL courses in community education and at other colleges and universities, delivered direct services in ASL-based mental health and chemical dependency programs, administered sign language interpreting services in a myriad of settings, and provided direct services in ASL in every imaginable field, including law, restaurants, social work, healthcare, financial planning, and tax preparation. 

“A fair chance, in the race of life”

Gallaudet was founded in 1864, in the midst of the Civil War, through a charter created by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln. At the time, our leaders in Congress and President Lincoln’s party strongly believed in the importance of education as the key to having “…a fair chance, in the race of life.” 

Our diverse community has created a robust and beautiful ecosystem, interacting with one another and others through visual and tactile languages known collectively as signed languages 

This charter, inconspicuously signed into law, has served an incomparable role in empowering deaf and signing people to contribute significantly both in the U.S. and throughout the world through social, political, and economic contributions. Gallaudet University and its allied educational programs, including the birth to grade 12 Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center, that also teaches using ASL and English, have built a quintessentially American enterprise. Our diverse community has created a robust and beautiful ecosystem, interacting with one another and others through visual and tactile languages known collectively as signed languages. And like most economies, when stimulated, it enriches all our lives – for deaf and hearing people alike. 

While Gallaudet did not build the sign language economy alone, we have served a central role in its creation and continue to do so in its evolution. The vibrancy and visibility of sign language on our campus due to our visual language immersion model of learning paved the way for the discovery that ASL was a language in its own right. In the early 1960s, Gallaudet faculty members Drs. William C. Stokoe (hearing), Dorothy Casterline and Carl Croneberg (both deaf), proved that ASL was a full-fledged language with its own grammar and syntax. Prior to this, from the late 1800s to the mid 20th century, sign language was considered at best little more than a pantomime of speech and, in many cases, was banned from classrooms altogether. 

By the 1990s, with the popularity of sign language growing and the increased demand from families who wanted to learn to sign and professionals who could sign in various fields, Gallaudet University was instrumental in recognizing the opportunity to prepare students to be ASL teachers. As demand and opportunities grew, Gallaudet created the first master’s degree program in 2002 to specifically train graduates to be qualified sign language instructors. By 2012, this evolved into a new Master of Arts in Sign Language Education (MASLED) program that is the largest producer of highly qualified sign language teachers in the world. 

ASL is the third most popular language taught in higher education

In 2014, Gallaudet commissioned Hanover Research to conduct an independent valuation of the industry of teaching ASL in higher education. Hanover’s study estimated this industry to be worth $43 million. This data validated Gallaudet University’s contribution to the American economy. We knew then, and we know now, the vast impact of our signing marketplace. Today, six decades after Stokoe, Casterline and Croneberg’s seminal work, ASL is the third most popular language taught in higher education today and is increasingly being offered in high schools across the United States. 

Since the Hanover study, Gallaudet faculty and our signing allies have gathered the first-ever compilation of data estimating the value of the broader ASL-based economy. Our initial estimate is that our U.S. sign language economy is worth at least $3 billion and possibly as much as $10 billion. This includes sign language interpreting services (~$1.4 billion); the Federal Communications Commission investment in video relay services (~$500 million); the operation of many deaf schools and programs throughout the U.S. (~$575 million); postsecondary and vocational rehabilitation transition services (~$313 million); video relay interpreting services (~$250 million); early sign language acquisition education at the state and federal level (~$114 million); K-12 public education American Sign Language classes (~$37 million); and baby signing classes and materials (~$25 million). Other critical economic drivers include sign language education at mainstream schools (~$7.8 billion) and business revenue created by hundreds of deaf-owned and operated businesses and nonprofits throughout the U.S.

Oscar-winning CODA showed the world: sign language is having a moment

As the Oscar-winning CODA film recently showed the world, with more than 40 percent of its screen time dedicated to actors using ASL, the most ever in a mainstream cinema film, sign language is having a moment – one that transcends far beyond theaters and classrooms to the nation’s GDP. Together our university and the broader deaf community have built a powerful economic engine. Unicorn or decacorn, our beautiful sign language economy is here, its contributions are undeniable, and the smart investor can be nothing but bullish on its future. 

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