Pythons are deaf, so are some Pythonistas

Friday 23 May 2014

I had coffee the other day with Nathan Kohn. He goes by the nickname en_zyme, and it’s easy to see why. He relishes the role of bringing pairs of people together to see what kind of new reaction can result.

This time, it was to meet Jonathan Henner, a doctoral student of his at Boston University. The topic was how to include deaf people in the Python community.

The discussion was wide-ranging, and I’m sure I’ve forgotten interesting tangents, but I got this jumble of notes:

Accommodating the deaf at Python community gatherings is a challenge because it means getting either an ASL interpreter, or a CART provider to close-caption presentations live. This presents a few hurdles:

  • Neither solution is best for all deaf people. Some prefer ASL, but ASL doesn’t have a large technical vocabulary. CART has the advantage that it also helps those that are a little hard of hearing, or too far back in the room, or even with speakers who have an accent. But some deaf people find CART to be like reading a second language.
  • ASL interpreters and CART providers cost real money, and need space and special equipment.
  • For international gatherings, such as PyCon 2015 in Montreal, there’s the language question. Montreal may have more LSF interpreters.
  • For project nights, which involve small-group interactions, we talked about having the communication over IRC, even among people sitting together.

Programming is a good career for the deaf, since it is heavily textual, but they may have a hard time accessing the curriculum for it. Jonathan is exploring the possibility of creating classes in ASL, since that is many deaf people’s first language. A common misconception is that ASL is simply English spoken with the hands, but it is not.

We talked a bit about the overlap between the deaf and autistic worlds. The Walden school near Boston specializes in deaf students with other mental or emotional impairments, including autism. Jonathan made a claim that made me think: that deafness and autism are the two disabilities that have their own sub-culture. I don’t know if that is true, I’m sure people with other disabilities will disagree, but it’s interesting to discuss.

There were a lot of avenues to explore, I’m not sure what will come of it all. It would be great to broaden Python’s reach into another community of people who haven’t had full access to tech.

Has anyone had any experience doing this? Thoughts?


Alexander Walters 8:38 PM on 23 May 2014

I can say that the blind have their own subculture. They do have their own writing systems (both a direct lexicographical translation from English, and a shorthand system) and entertainments (though even that is becoming generalized thanks to Audible). I would say that amputee soldiers are their own subculture inside a subculture of veterans.

Any trait that more than 2 people have in common defines a subculture - its human nature; we associate with that which is like us.

I don't want to diminish the very distinctive subculture the deaf have from the hearing, but it is a little bit of a stretch to say that they are one of only 2 groups of those with disabilities that have their own culture.

As for interpreters, I don't know about in Boston, but in Buffalo, we have not-for-profit options available that are much more reasonably cost than commercial interpreters. I do not know many details about them, due to not being involved in that portion of the event that was being planned, but I know that is an option to look into.

Greg Ward 10:44 PM on 23 May 2014

Oddly enough, Quebec has its own sign language (just to make things more complicated).

en zyme 5:50 AM on 27 May 2014


thanks for the shout out. the more i learn about Deaf culture, the more intrigued i am by the nature and import of non-auditory based communication. perhaps by exploring notions of mathematics in ASL some new insights will turn up. something along the lines François Viète (16c algebraic notation), and Grothendieck (20c diagram chasing). no promises, just a hunch, that something interesting will be gleaned.

so now i'm thinking a little out of the box: does non-verbal, even non-language, computer programming exist? what would it be like? anybody doing work on it? (Python would be my pref as launchpad, tho there must be lots of other contenders, too)

small but important correction to Ned's post. Jon is a friend, a colleague, and a collaborator, but not my student, per se. His Ph.D. adviser is Bob Hoffmeister, Director of the Center for the Study of Communication and the Deaf, author of "Journey into the Deaf World", and a sailor.

en zyme

Kevin Edwards 9:05 PM on 29 May 2014

I recently read about Skype using Microsoft's real-time voip transcription that might be usable. The speakers could also be asked to provide a written version of their speech. Even the non-deaf might find that to be valuable as a reference, too. And, as you said, people could type or text their questions while they are thinking of them, before they ask them. Plus, maybe the question wouldn't need to be repeated then, as it is sometimes with poor acoustics.

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