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One-handed Sign Language in a Two Handed World

Updated: Feb 9, 2023

In the UK there are 11 million people that are deaf or hard of hearing, but only 151,000 BSL (British Sign Language) users. Today both children and adults have a number of options open to them when it comes to learning the basics of sign language. Grown ups might undertake an adult learning or online course, while for kids signing classes are a fairly common sight in schools, and even baby and toddler signing classes are available today too. All of these should do a good job of teaching the basics of signing to their target audience - including all the letters of the alphabet, commonly used signs and words etc. However, with most signing languages and classes being based around the use of two hands, today the ExpHand team want to look at how children with limb differences can get involved, and how widespread the use of one handed sign language is. Let’s take a look.

Like many things in life, British Sign Language and other signing variants, are designed for a two-handed world, but simple adjustments can make signing with your little arm possible. Do not understate your ability to adjust!

Beccy, a Children's 'Sing and Sign' Instructor assures that “At Sing and Sign, we don’t teach sign language as such, we teach communication. Communicating through sign with your pre-verbal little one is an amazing window into their worlds. It doesn’t actually matter what signs or gestures you use and this makes signing possible for everyone!”.

Options for one handed sign language

Although in this country there is no dedicated one handed sign language, ASL (American Sign Language) is one-handed and can be used to spell words letter by letter via fingerspelling. In addition, as many words have the second hand just mirroring or opposing the action of the primary hand, one-handed versions of signs or gestures can be fairly easy to guess in context, meaning that people with upper limb-differences can learn and use sign language too.

One handed sign language - some things to remember

Even two-handed signers use one handed sign language

Don't forget that lots of two-handed members of the signing community encounter situations where they need to adjust to using one-hand signing at times, as they might when holding a conversation while driving with one hand on the wheel, or while holding a cup of coffee, for example.

There's no need to be 'perfect'

People who speak any given language - even with a high level of fluency or as a native speaker - don't know every word. They don’t have the entire dictionary memorised, and similarly there’s no expectation for someone using sign language (whether one handed sign language or two) to always know the official sign for any given term or object. In both signed and verbal language it's okay to make terms or signs up, that's part of the fun - and if signs need to be changed slightly to accommodate differences, then that’s no problem. Consistency is the key to effective communication, to comprehension, and to making sure that your message is understood!

Getting started with one handed sign language

Would you or a family member like to learn Sign-Language? Below is a useful YouTube channel by Elisabeth Ward, who shares her journey BSL with an upper limb difference...

More useful resources for those affected by a limb difference

The ExpHand blog is home to lots of informative articles regarding the practicalities of life with a limb difference, and how to live it to the fullest - for example why not check out our piece on musical instruments that can be played with one hand, limb difference awareness, limb difference charities, and limb difference at school?

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