Snapchat and TikTok Might Be Great Education Platforms

No more boring lectures

  • Snapchat’s ASL lens teaches you to use American Sign Language
  • Viral social platforms might be ideal ways to teach accessibility and more
  • Some worry that it’s more about publicity than education
Someone using sign language while participating on a video call on a laptop.

Suriuawaut Suriya / Getty Images

Snapchat wants to help you learn American Sign Language (ASL).

The new ASL Alphabet Lens lets people practice the ASL alphabet, learn to sign their name, and play games. It is based on technology from Signall, which uses AR and cameras to read and translate sign language. But is Snapchat—or TikTok, or similar—a good platform for education? Or is this just using deaf awareness as a PR stunt, kind of like greenwashing but for accessibility?

"It doesn't seem like a serious attempt to teach anything beyond the kind of tokenism you get on [Apple's] Fitness+," deaf designer and author Graham Bower told Lifewire in an interview. 

Teaching Moment

Not everyone is as cynical. Several respondents to Lifewire's request for comment pointed out that the reach of Snapchat and TikTok makes these platforms good for education—if you can reach even a small percentage of users, that's a good thing. 

"In regards to Snapchat, there isn't a downside to teaching ASL to more people and normalizing the use of ASL. The main concern is if Snapchat is consulting the deaf community on their program and ensuring that proper sign is being taught," disability advocate Ceasarae Galvan told Lifewire via email. 

Screenshots of the American Sign Language filter on Snapchat.


And Snapchat is consulting the deaf community. The team at Snap calls itself the "Deafengers," which may be a crime against English but is led entirely by team members who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. The idea behind this lens is not necessarily to teach everybody to sign, but to raise awareness and make it easier for signers to communicate online. 

Radical Accessibility

I follow accessibility issues closely, from a technology point of view, and it seems like it has taken off over the last few years and entered into mainstream awareness. Even this year's Best Picture Oscar winner has a predominantly deaf cast. But the cause of this wave of accessibility might be quite familiar.

"Accessibility is hot right now because of the pandemic," deaf accessibility consultant Meryl Evans told Lifewire via email. "Companies were forced to do more business digitally and saw they were locking out a large number of people—those with disabilities. A Forrester survey found 80 percent of companies are working to achieve digital accessibility."

Digital communication is well-suited to accessibility because you always have a camera and a computer as part of the setup. Technologies like Signall's AR sign-language translation can work in one direction, and automatically-generated subtitles work in the other direction. And because it is live communication and not, say, those often-wonky auto-generated subtitles on YouTube videos, any glitches in translation can often be overcome through context or asking again. 

Someone using sign language to communicate via video chat on a tablet.

Motortion / Getty Images

With this background, it makes a lot of sense for platforms like Snapchat to familiarize us with things like sign language. It might not be a university-level education, but it's way more immediate and may be the perfect way to promote signing.

"The algorithm is incredible on TikTok," says Galvan. "It places disabled creators in front of people who actually want to hear them and support them, making it easier to find a community. We are speaking out against oppressive systems and barriers to access and demanding change, and social media has given us the platform to do so."

We think of TikTok and Snapchat as social or entertainment platforms, but their reach, immediacy, and younger demographic make them ideal places to plant pedagogical seeds. Educational resources can be packaged in all kinds of ways, including viral videos or fun Snapchat lenses. And when TikTok's famous algorithm gets involved, as Galvan says, suddenly receptive viewers will be swept up into a more diverse world of creators.

"I honestly can't see any downsides to gamifying ASL," Daivat Dholakia, VP at medical regulatory specialist Essenvia, told Lifewire via email. "The more people know it, the more accessible the world becomes. I think, in general, Gen-Z and beyond are more focused on accessibility. It's a generation with a lot of fierce empathy and drive for change, which may be the reason for the accessibility 'trend.'"

If it is a trend, then it's a welcome one. But it could just as well be a new normal for online communication, which is good news all around.

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