Rethinking the ASL Therapy Sign (2006)

Feeling nostalgic after reviewing our archives. Here’s a throwback video by our (much younger!) Sharon, sharing thoughts about a new sign for “counseling”, 13 years ago in 2006. We are happy to see that use of this new sign that we suggested has slowly spread over the years, and more people have opted to use this sign over the traditional power-imbalanced one. Deaf Counseling Center has always believed that our counselors and clients are equal as humans, and just happen to be sitting in different chairs. The open hands sign for counseling reflects this perfectly!

Transcript: Hi, I’m Sharon Duchesneau. I want to discuss language today. Language, words, and signs sometimes have deeper meanings within them, including those that can demonstrate power. I think it is important to take a look at this. For example, both the English words “fireman” and “policeman” contain “man”, which focuses on men and suggests that men in those professions are more important. When this was recognized a while ago, we started using the words “firefighter” and “police officer” instead. Luckily for us, some ASL signs don’t always acknowledge any gender. The sign for “police” (shows C-handshape over heart), for example, is missing a gender marker, as is the sign for “firefighter” (shows B-handshape moving on forehead). That makes it nice, but some ASL signs do show power imbalance.

After traveling to different countries such as Australia, Germany, and New Zealand, I noticed one particular sign (shows sign – both palms up, and hands moving forward and backward alternately), which is the sign for “counseling”. I like this sign! The reason I like it is because it shows the dynamics of two people talking, relating with each other, and establishing a two-way rapport. This contrasts with the traditional sign for “counseling”, which suggests a one-way direction, with the counselor constantly giving advice, and everything directed and focused on fixing the client. In my work with different people – families, children and individuals – I always feel like I get something out of these relationships as well, and the new sign for “counseling” reflects this. Another sign for “therapy” (shows T-handshape on open palm) suggests “helping” the client, which again conveys the idea of the relationship being one-way. The three traditional signs for “counseling”, “help”, and “therapy” don’t quite show the more balanced rapport that the new sign for “counseling” does.

Even though I’m not a linguist, when I think about the origins of the traditional signs for “counseling” and “therapy”, I imagine that years ago, the people who first worked in the mental health field with Deaf people were hearing professionals, who viewed their work as “helping”, and who came up with the traditional sign for “counseling” which includes the concept of helping Deaf people. I’m just guessing here. I do wonder if now is the time for us to consider tossing out the old signs for “counseling” and “therapy” and replace them with the new sign. What do you think? Thank you.

(video description: Sharon is sitting in an armchair and signing. A plant and French door are behind her.)


https://www.signingsavvy.com/sign/THERAPY/707/1 Old therapy signs

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