There are better and worse ways to accept constructive criticism

Idaho and the Odd Case of the Gibberish Hands

The mural in Idaho bears the words “ask,” “understand,” “listen,” and “look.”
If only those involved had started by taking their own advice.

The comments started appearing on Idaho Falls Downtown Development Corporation’s Facebook post pretty quickly after they proudly announced their new mural. They stated that the mural was about, “communication, specifically the beauty of American Sign Language.” Unfortunately, the mural depicted hands that were engaging in something that was not quite ASL, and it quickly emerged that the artist was not Deaf or an ASL user herself.

“Sad that no one stopped and thought ‘maybe we should not include a language we don’t know and that belongs to a group of extraordinary marginalized people’ before completion of this project,” commented one woman on that Facebook post. There were several amusing attempts to figure out what the giant hands were in fact saying. (There was widespread agreement that the last one, that was meant to depict the sign for “look,” was actually closest to “where.”)

Deaf people are very familiar with ASL being viewed as something “pretty” or “fun” or “inspiring,” divorced from its context as a living language. We see a lot of that in what music videos tend to be most popular (spoiler: it’s the ones by non-fluent hearing people), and the occasional freak-outs about “expressive” ASL interpreters. (Such as during Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Sandy, and Hurricane Matthew.)

One great thing about social media is that it offers the opportunity to address these issues. And the Idaho Falls Downtown Development Corporation really got lambasted on Facebook.

At first, they were defensive, posting a really pretty ludicrous artist’s statement, and asking that people review it “for clarity.” It read, in part:

The subject matter of American Sign Language and communication in general was my choice of subject for a mural meant to represent groups represented by the ACLU, such as the Deaf Community. I did consult a friend who teaches ASL for the signs and did supplemental research. That being said, it’s a complex challenge to show hands in movement especially without the context of a face. I appreciate your feedback about the signs. I hope that you can connect with the meaning of the mural, which is this:

It’s sometimes hard to listen to what seems unsavory, see something that seems wrong, understand something new, and ask about something you’d rather not know. However, that’s the only way that we can grow. We can’t assume the worst intent. The world, and people, are more beautiful and forgiving than that. That’s why communication and understanding are so important.

Even if the artist had the best intent, execution matters, too. Communication and understanding are definitely important! It might have been a good idea to communicate with and understand the Deaf community’s perspective on something that was meant to represent and honor them before the mural got too far along in the planning stages. Nobody doubts that it’s complex to show hands in movement especially without the context of a face. That’s something to fold into the design.

As the outcry continued, Idaho Falls Downtown Development Corporation switched tactics. They edited their original post to say:

In response to this Facebook post, allies and members of the Deaf Community expressed concern about the sensitivity of the piece. Our project team and the local Idaho Falls Committee have reviewed these comments and we are seeking first to understand. Know that we are listening. We are proactively reaching out to members of the Deaf Community and advocates and inviting them to participate in a conversation about the best way to proceed.

Our goal with creating this work in Idaho Falls was to give an artist a platform from which to express an idea important to the artist and relevant to the work of the ACLU. We know that actions speak louder than words, and we do intend to act. But, before anything, we want to say we are sorry for our insensitivity. Regardless of our good intentions, we have offended beloved members of both the hearing and the Deaf Communities, and we regret that.

We want to thank our fellow community members for expressing these valid concerns and sharing their stories. Thank you in advance for your patience as we handle these concerns with care.

It remains to be seen, of course, how exactly these concerns are “carefully handled.” This might well go the route of waiting things out rather than actually changing anything. But they did take responsibility, and they did apologize, even managing to avoid the dreaded “sorry if you were offended” construction. They’re reaching out to the Deaf Community and advocates. So, kudos to them. It’s awesome to see these kinds of realizations dawn and see the progress that is made when you really do ask, listen, look, and understand.

The entire mural. Artist: Kelly Sheridan.
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