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American Sign Language: "Parkinson's Disease"

An ASL teacher writes:

Dear Dr. Bill,

Like most people, I try never to use words, signs or non-manual markers that could cause offense.

My question is about one that I see fairly often; most recently this morning in a medical setting. It was used by both the medical interpreter and by the wife of a patient who has Parkinson's.

It is used to mean: Parkinson's Disease.

It is done by hand shapes we would use to sign 'blah/lethargic' and then making them 'tremble.' To me, the action is 'miming' someone who is shaking involuntarily, due to a neurological disorder.

Are you familiar with that sign?

Personally, I neither like nor use it. I spell the term out.

Is there another commonly used sign for Parkinson's Disease?

How do you sign it?


- Lyn
[Name and wording may have been changed to protect the person's privacy.]



Dear ________,

I consider "Parkinson's Disease" to be a "context-dependent interlocution evolutionary" sign or the portmanteau I've coined: an "interlocutionary."

By that I mean, the sign we use to convey the meaning of "Parkinson's Disease" will literally change over the course of an interlocution (conversation, discussion, or dialogue). At the beginning of a conversation how we sign "Parkinson's Disease" will depend on the context and the amount of familiarity our audience, client, or conversation partner has with the term.

If the watcher [signer who is listening with his/her eyes] doesn't know the English term "Parkinson's Disease" he or she may still be familiar with the "effects of the disease." Thus I would recommend the following process or "evolution":

Stage 1:  P-A-R-K-I-N-S-O-N-'S D-I-S-E-A-S-E: The concept is initially spelled out with an accompanying Yes/No facial expression to establish topicalization. If understanding of the term is affirmed by the watcher (via a head nod or other signal) the signer can then establish an abbreviation.  [If the watcher doesn't understand the term, then jump to stage 3.]

Stage 2:  PD: The concept is abbreviated to "PD" and this abbreviation is used for the remainder of the conversation.

Stage 3. DEPICTIVE SIGN: "shaking of limp/loose hands.": If topicalization of the fingerspelled Parkinson's Disease fails, (if you spelled Parkinson's Disease out with a "YES/NO" facial expression meaning "Do you know the meaning of the term [Parkinson's Disease] that I'm fingerspelling? Yes or no?" -- and the person gave you a negative quizzical look instead of a nod of understanding), it would be appropriate to then do a sign depicting (showing) what the disease looks like. If this results in a nod of understanding you could then spell out the whole term again and then spell PD to establish that for the rest of this conversation "PD" means "Parkinson's Disease" which means "that shaking condition."

Stage 4:  If the watcher is unfamiliar with the condition indicated by the depictive version of Parkinson's then it is time to explain the term using a sentence or two -- just as the term would need to be explained to any speaker of any language if they didn't already know the term.

Stage 5: Once the watcher has been familiarized with the term we then work our way toward the most efficient version of the sign which (arguably) is to do the letters "PD."

Thus doing a depictive sign representing those effects of Parkinson's is appropriate and often effective within the framework I outlined.  It can be appropriate in other contexts as well (use with non-bilingual individuals).  Yet as your gut instinct tells you -- some people abuse or overuse the depictive version of the sign and thus break the bounds of propriety.
- Bill


Dr. Bill,

Your answer to my question is outstanding; it is very clear in every respect. Thank you (again).  I hope you publish your response to me because it has good value for a lot of people who use ASL.

I am accustomed to spelling Parkinson's Disease out and once I've confirmed that the topic is understood I use PD from that point forward. I did not, however, [fully] appreciate the reason for using the sign that shows 'the effects of the disease.' I now understand why, given a certain contexts, that sign would be appropriate.

However in a hospital setting where the wife of a patient with PD and the professional interpreter are both clearly familiar with the 'effects of the disease,' it seems that using P-D in the presence of the patient with PD would be more considerate of the patient.  (My opinion - but I realize that everyone has opinions about everything and I never assume that mine trumps all the the others.)   :)

- Lyn
[Name and wording may have been changed to protect the person's privacy.]



Right!  (Slamming my hand onto the table) (heh)
In the situation you describe -- the use of the depictive sign would be insensitive (at a minimum) and could be outright insulting.
Interestingly, in this same vein, I'm seeing "AU" spreading in use to mean "Autism Spectrum Disorder."

- Bill





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