Grants:IdeaLab/The SignWriting Team and Written Sign Language Projects

The SignWriting Team and Written Sign Language Projects
Moving forward with written sign language Wikimedia projects using the SignWriting script.
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created on16:26, 5 December 2018 (UTC)

Project idea


What is the problem you're trying to solve?


Sign language users can not freely share in the sum of all knowledge. While it is possible to use w:Sutton SignWriting on Incubator, the editors face unique challenges and unnecessary hardships.

SignWriting is a proven success, with several international standards (2010,2012, 2017). There is still work to be done. There are three main issues that will affect the future of SignWriting. These issues directly affect the Wikimedia projects with sign language and the deaf editors who participate.

What is your solution?


The solution is to create a team to support SignWriting in general and the Wikimedia projects specifically.

For the future of SignWriting, issues of culture, technology, and funding need to be addressed. Meeting our goals will benefit Wikimedia projects, deaf communities, and the SignWriting script.

Project goals


The SignWriting team has two main goals:

  • encourage literacy in sign language with SignWriting
  • improve the Wikimedia projects experience with SignWriting

Using SignWriting to write sign language is real literacy, with all of the associated benefits. In the United States, there are many teachers of SignWriting, but very limited institutional support. The American Sign Language Wikipedia is several years old and contains 50+ articles.

In Brazil, SignWriting is the accepted script, used in 18 Federal Universities and 12 public schools, with a potential user base of 3 million deaf in Brazil. The Brazilian Sign Language Wikipedia is relatively new with only a handful of articles.

Address Cultural Issues


The main goal for the cultural issues is to help people understand. Sign languages are real human languages and they can be written with SignWriting. Empowering deaf communities is to help them help themselves by providing tools and resources specifically aimed at their unique challenges. Developing a writing tradition within any community will take multiple generations to work out.

Literacy with Sign Language


Around the world, there are millions of deaf people whose first language is a sign language. Over one hundred different sign languages have been identified.

Some see deafness as a disability to be cured by drilling into deaf people's heads or yelling into their ears. Others see deafness as part of the natural diversity of humanity.

Humans are creatures of language. We have two language centers of the brain, w:Broca's area for producing language and w:Wernicke's area for comprehending language. For hearing people, these language centers of the brain are wired to the auditory cortex , while in deaf people, these language centers are wired to the visual cortex.

Writing languages is a powerful idea that can work for any human language: spoken or signed. The history of written languages is thousands of years old. While SignWriting is only 44 years old, its history follows the pattern of older scripts. SignWriting was created by w:Valerie Sutton, improved through active use by multiple generations of writers, and has established standards for easy sharing.

Deaf Empowerment


It is all about choice and opportunity. SignWriting offers the unique advantage of literacy in a deaf person's sign language. Literacy benefits every aspect of education and intellectual development.

Future Generations


Except for Brazil, SignWriting is not an established part of general deaf education in most countries. A real foundation for SignWriting within any language takes multiple generations to create. The foundation includes childhood education, general reading material, and knowledgeable teachers.

SignWriting is a project about priming the pump. As we've seen in Brazil and elsewhere, once a certain level of SignWriting adoption is achieved, the spread and acceptance of SignWriting continues to build naturally. Future generations will be directly affected by the efforts we do today. Many of the fruits of our efforts will not be realized during our lifetimes.

Address Technical Issues


SignWriting has a long history of development with our advancements building on the successes of the past. As we move forward, there are decisions to make and additional integration required.

1974-1986 SignWriting is written exclusively by hand
1981-1984 Publishing efforts with stencils and wax transfers
1986-1995 Computer encoding with keyboarding
2002 Advanced sorting with printed dictionaries
2004 Drag-and-drop user interface
2006 ISO 15924 script code "Sgnw"
2010 International SignWriting Alphabet 2010 (ISWA 2010)
2012 Formal SignWriting in ASCII (FSW) script encoding
2014 SignWriting Keyboard on Wikimedia Incubator
2015 Sutton SignWriting Block added to Unicode Standard
2017 SignWriting in Unicode (SWU) script encoding

Character Standard


The Center for Sutton Movement Writing endorses two compatible text encodings for SignWriting, but neither is part of the Unicode standard

  • 2012 - Formal SignWriting in ASCII (FSW)
  • 2017 - SignWriting in Unicode (SWU)

The sign language Wikipedias on Incubator use the 2012 standard of Formal SignWriting in ASCII (FSW).

In 2015, a partial text encoding for SignWriting was added to the Unicode standard. This standard is documented throughout the Wikimedia projects, but it is not used by the SignWriting community.

In 2017, the text encoding called SignWriting in Unicode (SWU) was released. This text encoding is isomorphic with Formal SignWriting in ASCII (FSW). Each sign is written as a word using a design that overwrites the Sutton SignWriting Block (U+1D800 - U+1D9FF) and uses Plane 4 for the Sutton SignWriting symbols. These characters use the Unicode code space, but are not part of the Unicode Standard. This text encoding is human readable with a production ready one-dimensional font. For full readability with current technology, an SVG wrapper is still required.

Two-Dimensional Font


A two-dimensional font prototype has been available since 2014. A production ready two-dimensional font is planned that leverages the 2017 standard of SignWriting in Unicode (SWU).

Incubator Workaround


It is possible to use SignWriting on Incubator for the test wikis of sign language. Since a production ready two-dimensional font is not available yet, Incubator uses a gadget for SignWriting. Incubator uses the character encoding Formal SignWriting in ASCII (FSW) to record sign language and for page titles.

Wikimedia Cloud VPS


SignWriting has an open project on Wikimedia Cloud VPS involving several instances. The main instance is the SignWriting Server that is available at This site is a mirror of the SignPuddle Online dictionaries and provides advanced searching and server side image creation. The SignWriting Server project has been deprecated, but it will be maintained as long as it is required for the sign language Wikipedias on Incubator.

MediaWiki Software


The major improvement needed for MediaWiki software is support for vertical writing mode. This has been documented on phabricator:T353.

Production Standards


There are three sign language Wikipedia projects on Incubator with content: American Sign Language, Tunisian Sign Language, and Brazilian Sign Language. Before any of these sign language can be moved to a top-level subdomain (such as for ASL) there are several issues specific for SignWriting to be addressed.

The first issue is character encoding. There are two options that exist today: Formal SignWriting in ASCII (FSW) and SignWriting in Unicode (SWU). The first option uses ASCII character as a lite markup, but this solution is only semi-human readable and overwhelming for large text segments. The second option uses Unicode character that are not part of the Unicode standard, but it is human readable with an existing one-dimensional font and future two-dimensional font. Ideally, SignWriting would use a fully approved version of the Unicode standard, but this does not currently exist and discussions with the Unicode Technical Committee (UTC) have broken down.

The second issue is the SignWriting pre-processing. Without a true two-dimensional font and without proper mediawiki integration, SignWriting requires JavaScript to properly display signs and to properly layout text.

For any sign language Wikipedia to be promoted to a top-level subdomain, these issues need to be addressed and choices need to be made.

Address Financial Issues


SignWriting is a trademarked name, but the writing system is free to use for any purpose. SignWriting is a project that requires supervision, support, and continued development. Many of these activities can be done by volunteers, but sustained improvement and real progress require financial support to continue.

Non-Profit Support


SignWriting is an unusual topic and outside of most people's experience. The communities that benefit most from SignWriting are often marginalized and underserved. Raising money to support SignWriting has always been problematic.

In 2018, the Center for Sutton Movement Writing lost a major source of funding leaving the non-profit seriously underfunded for 2019 and beyond. Despite our best efforts, we have been unable to replace this funding and this jeopardizes our mission.

We believe in our mission and we will continue to support the SignWriting script and the associated websites as long as possible, but it is unfortunate that we are experiences our greatest real-world successes while struggling financially to support these efforts.

Developer Support


Developer support for SignWriting has mainly come through the Center for Sutton Movement Writing non-profit. Creating a sustainable funding method for SignWriting is problematic because the communities involved are marginalized both economically and culturally.

Get involved


About the idea creator


Steve Slevinski - sign language user, friend of the deaf, and SignWriting Evangelist.

My involvement with the Wikimedia movement has always focused on SignWriting and the promotion of sign language projects with text.

I have attended two Wikimedia events: one in the Netherlands 2013 and one in California 2016.

I administer the SignWriting project on Wikimedia Cloud VPS.

I developed the core technology that allows Incubator to use SignWriting for the various Wikimedia project.

I have written two grants to the Wikimedia foundation. The first for the creation of a two-dimensional font. The second for Wikipedia education and training in Brazil. The first grant for font development received a good bit of support, even making it into the second round, but was not chosen for funding either time is was submitted. The second grant for training in Brazil was never submitted to Wikimedia, but the training took place in 2017 with funding from the Center for Sutton Movement Writing and the Federal University of Maranhão (UFMA). Participants in this event started the Brazilian Sign Language Wikipedia on Incubator.

For the past 14 years, I've been working full-time with Valerie Sutton through the Center for Sutton Movement Writing. Starting in 2019, I will be switching to part-time work due to financial difficulties with the non-profit. There is still work to be done, but funding efforts are problematic. I've tried writing grants and even started a Patreon campaign, but nothing has been able to significantly reduce the funding deficit for 2019 and beyond.

I believe in SignWriting. It benefits deaf communities and the Wikimedia projects. If you believe in our mission too, join the SignWriting team and our efforts to move forward.



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