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Ready! set! sign!! A review of software designed to teach American sign language.

Ready! Set! Sign!! (RSS) offers beginning sign language students--and others wishing to refresh their skills--the opportunity to take a comprehensive course in American Sign Language (ASL), with outstanding instructors, from the comfort of their own homes. RSS is easy to follow and self-paced; and, just as many sign language instructors advise students to meet people in the deaf community, RSS takes students on a video tour through deaf history, enabling them to meet important historical figures, learn about critical events in the deaf community and hear divergent opinions on controversial matters. It is an excellent means of learning or brushing up on basic signs, grammatical indicators and cultural issues in the deaf community.

This Windows-based set of five CDs contains a total of 24 lessons, each containing introductory remarks, new signs, practice opportunities, and a "cultural moment" that discusses deaf culture and issues in the deaf community. RSS contains a number of options for use by both teachers and students. Sign language teachers will find an impressive array of options for monitoring student progress. Students will find flexible learning options designed to suit a variety of learning styles.

The first lesson seeks to build student confidence by teaching signs that are familiar to many people, simply because they are natural gestures, such as waving to say "hello." My only concern is that by referring to these signs as "signs you already know" and beginning the videotape with a completely signed conversation (with no voice) between two people, some brand new signers may get scared off. My initial response was to double check that this was indeed a course for new signers. After this short opening scene, however, any doubts are cleared up. The teaching is solid, effective and clear. The instructors are encouraging and fun.

RSS does an exceptional job of explaining sign derivation and meaning. Introductions of new signs are preceded by a brief picture or drama that mimics, explains or otherwise relates to the sign about to be taught. For example, the sign for "who" is preceded by a mouth shaped according to the appropriate lip configuration of an individual speaking the word "who." This is followed by an instructor showing how a straight index finger circling the mouth is the sign for "whom." The majority of signs are taught in a similarly explanatory manner; thus, they make sense. However, it is sometimes unclear which sign explanations indicate actual historic derivation and which are offered as memory enhancers. Also, it must be stated that while most of these visual "sound bytes" are extremely helpful, there are several that are downright corny and shamelessly melodramatic. However, the levity lightens the mood of the lessons (with instructors sometimes rolling their eyes at each other!), and the occasional rolled eye is a small price to pay for the solid gold competence of these instructors.

In addition to learning basic signs, finger spelling and counting, students learn important ASL grammatical rules and techniques. They learn, for example, how to use facial expression to convey meaning and to use plurals, classifiers, size, placement, speed, intensity, duration and directionality.

The cultural moments are varied and extremely helpful. They discuss issues such as myths and facts about deaf people, the physiological aspects of hearing impairment, historical developments, civil rights issues, educational options, language acquisition, and assistive and adaptive technologies.

The first cultural moment (discussing myths and facts about deaf people) actually had me cheering out loud! While demonstrating respect for personal choice, RSS instructors explain some of the limitations of speech reading (often referred to as "lip reading" by some). Sometimes hearing people assume that speech reading is a sufficiently viable communications solution. As the RSS instructors so beautifully explain, this simply is not the case--yet confusion based on this misunderstanding often leads to frustration and anger. With this clarification alone, RSS has provided a great public service.

One cultural moment contained some incorrect information about the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The instructor states, "Under the ADA, any postsecondary program receiving federal funding is obligated to make reasonable accommodations to include students with disabilities." There are two problems with this sentence (1) the phrase "receiving federal funding" and (2) the term "reasonable accommodations." Receipt of federal funding is irrelevant under ADA; rather, its importance lies with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. In fact, Title III of ADA, which covers the activities of privately-operated places of public accommodation such as schools, restaurants, medical offices, stores, and theaters, was needed because places of public accommodation not receiving federal funding were, prior to ADA, legally permitted to discriminate against people with disabilities (28 CFR Part 36). Title II of ADA covers activities of state and local governments (including public education), also regardless of federal funding (36 CFR Part 35).

Additionally, the term "reasonable accommodation" refers to Title I, the employment section of ADA--not to Titles II or III. The provision of sign language interpreters for deaf students is covered under both the auxiliary aids and services section of Title III (28 CFR 36.303) and the communications section of Title II (28 CFR 35.160), both of which require covered entities to provide "effective communication" to individuals with hearing, speech or vision impairments. (For further information about the Americans with Disabilities Act, readers may contact the U.S. Depart of Justice ADA Information Line at 1-800-514-0301 (Voice) or 1-800-514-0383 (TTY) or the U.S. Department of Justice ADA Homepage at adahom1.htm).

While I would have hoped for a cultural moment discussing the legitimacy of ASL as its own distinct language, the communication decisions made for the production of RSS perhaps say it all. In general, the instructors either sign or speak their lessons; they do not use simultaneous communication (signing and speaking at the same time). In doing so, they treat both ASL and English as their own distinct languages, and thus teach by example.

There is no need to fret, however. One does not need to know any sign language or have any hearing in order to follow these lessons. Below the box where the instructors are busy signing or speaking their lessons is an optional box with closed captions. At any time, students may click to open the box and see a text version of the lesson. This helps both new signers (when the instructors are signing) and deaf and hard of hearing people (when the instructors are speaking). RSS is thus designed with a broad range of students in mind: hearing, hard of hearing and deaf.

One suggestion for future updates would be more spoken descriptions of the signs, which would enable individuals with low vision to follow along with an equal level of ease. For example, sometimes the instructor will say, "put your hand like this," and visually demonstrate with his hand. The student must be able to see the instructor's hand in order to learn the sign. Also, the instructors' voices appear, in some situations, to be dubbed--sound and lip movement are not always synchronized exactly. This may present some confusion for individuals who rely on speech reading. However, the captions resolve the problem.

Overall, RSS is an outstanding learning tool. I recommend it highly.

RSS was developed under a Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) grant from the United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research. The purpose of the SBIR program is to stimulate technological innovation in the private sector, strengthen the role of small business in meeting federal research or research and development needs, increase the commercial application of Department of Education supported research results, and improve the return on investment from federally-funded research for economic and social benefits to the Nation. (1) Additional information about the SBIR program can be found on the World Wide Web at http:// about.html.

Dr. Martin Noretsky utilized a combination of multimedia technologies, relevant learning theories and research about the effectiveness of iconicity (visual aids) to create this CD-ROM based instruction of American Sign Language.

For quality performance, RSS recommends the following minimum computer requirements: a Windows-based PC platform, Pentium 166MMX, 8x CD-ROM, display at 800 x 600 pixels, and a sound card and speakers.


Featuring Daniel Burch, Sharon O'Brien and Mary Lou Novitsky. Designed and Produced by Martin Noretsky. Available for $59.95 at the following address:

RSS, LLC P.O. Box 6676 Arlington, VA 22206


(1.) U.S. Department of Education, Small Business Innovation Research Program, Phase I Program Announcement, May 15, 2002.


Throughout 2002, the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) has conducted a variety of public meetings across the country in order to receive input on the implementation of the Rehabilitation Act. Consistently, consumers who are deaf or hard of hearing voiced their frustration with the lack of interpreters available to them during their rehabilitation process.

RSA recognizes that rehabilitation programs that promote informed choice and result in high-quality employment are committed to making their programs accessible. The shortage of qualified interpreters limits deaf consumers' ability to obtain important information and successfully achieve their goals. While the software described in this review is, by no means, a panacea, it does highlight one promising resource. The product, developed with the assistance of the United States Department of Education, can help beginners and professionals alike sharpen their interpreting skills.

Ms. Gracer is a program specialist with the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. She began to learn American Sign Language 16 years ago.
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Author:Gracer, Bonnie L.
Publication:American Rehabilitation
Article Type:Product/Service Evaluation
Date:Sep 22, 2003
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