streamers, deaf, hard-of-hearing, silent streams, tiktok
Deaf content creators have found a way to express themselves on streaming platforms and build an audience in the process. Photos: courtesy of Fengli Zhao, courtesy of Ruolan Zhang, and Robert Paul

Inside the Fantastically Silent World of Deaf Streamers

Silent streams are attracting millions of viewers on social media around the world, but accessibility on the internet remains a sticky point.

You’ve entered the livestream. Stickers and comments flood the screen as questions from eager fans come in. But there are no bombastic sound effects or karaoke sing-offs. In this stream, silence reigns—and visuals are queen.

“To my knowledge, I’m probably known as the first deaf streamer [in China],” Ruolan Zhang, who began streaming on the Chinese platform Yingke in 2015, told VICE World News.

Every night until about 4 a.m., Zhang goes live on Douyin, the Chinese and original version of TikTok. Her followers stay up late due to insomnia, while Zhang, 28, stays up late to host silent streams. Curious fans shower her with compliments and questions, wondering if they too can achieve her glossy it-girl aesthetic. “What shade of lipstick are you wearing?” and “Where did you get the fit?” are her most frequently asked questions. It’s a routine she’s had for the past seven years, which, in turn, has helped her make a living. 

Advertisement
Growing up, Ruolan Zhang learned how to lip-read and taught herself Chinese Sign Language. Photo courtesy of Ruolan Zhang

Growing up, Ruolan Zhang learned how to lip-read and taught herself Chinese Sign Language. Photo courtesy of Ruolan Zhang

Zhang lost her hearing gradually after unknowingly taking now-banned medications as a child. She uses self-taught Chinese Sign Language and a portable writing tablet to communicate with her fans. Now, with over 820,000 fans, she attributes her success partly to the pandemic, which has kept many at home—and in need of online entertainment.

“Deaf friends may not have the easiest time finding work, so they’ve started, one after the other, to invest in or devote themselves to the world of livestreaming,” said Zhang, who is based in the southwestern Chinese city of Chengdu.

Other deaf and hard-of-hearing livestreamers around the globe have in recent years done the same, using a combination of digital writing tablets, sign language, or oral language to engage with eager fans online.

Fengli Zhao, who was born deaf, said silent livestreaming brings about a sense of tranquility as he and his followers chat about life and the bigger picture. 

“[My fans are] full of positivity,” the 28-year-old streamer said. He learned how to sign early on from his mother, who is also deaf. 

“Fans feel that the ambiance of a silent livestream brings them peace and joy. This can help heal the state of their hearts,” the Beijing-based creator said.

Those mental health benefits came into play when Zhao found himself looking for new ways to make connections without face-to-face contact in April. In maintaining its stringent “zero-COVID policy,” China’s citywide lockdowns kept millions inside their homes for weeks on end. 

Advertisement

“I stayed in for nearly a month,” he said.

It was then that Zhao began posting more consistently online, eventually tapping into silent streams in which he not only teaches Chinese Sign Language but also shares his love for photography, art, camping, cooking, and working out with his 40,200 followers.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for deaf livestreamers around the globe is the sheer lack of awareness outside of certain online communities. 

Earlier this year, users on TikTok and Twitter were quick to call out Swedish YouTuber PewDiePie for his response video to deaf content creator Scarlet Watters, who uses both sign language and spoken English in her videos. In the duet, the YouTuber appeared to mock Scarlett Watters by waving his hands around as if he was trying to speak ASL. He later issued a statement saying it was an “honest mistake.” 

And a common misconception is that a person who speaks American Sign Language (ASL) or International Sign Language (ISL) can understand other sign languages. But there are over 300 different types of sign language spoken around the globe, and accents can also vary based on region, according to the Department of Linguistics at Gallaudet University, a private research university for deaf and hard-of-hearing students in Washington, D.C. Some internet users on Tandem, a community language learning app, mistakenly declare fluency in sign language and “emoji” speak, which further indicates a need for increased awareness of sign language. 
With tens of thousands of users participating in silent streams on apps like Bigo Live —Asia isn’t the only region where deaf and hard-of-hearing creators make their voices known. Deaf streamers in the U.S. are also finding ways to make silent streams on Twitch more inclusive for all audiences. 

Advertisement

“There’s a mix of hearing people who are curious about how deaf people play games, and there are deaf and hard-of-hearing people [in my channel],” said Christopher Robinson, a Chicago native who was born deaf. The 34-year-old created the @DeafGamersTV Twitch channel to boost deaf awareness. “Since I’ve always wanted to have a good vibe, a positive and respectful community, I’ve been able to do just that.”

In a silent co-stream last month, Robinson and Philadelphia-based Brandon Chan chatted with other gamers during an event organized by the video game company Ubisoft, using both ASL and English text in the chat bar to communicate. Robinson also shared Ubisoft’s BSL (British Sign Language) and ASL translations on screen using OBS Studio, software that allows a streamer to share multiple windows at a time. The streaming event, which garnered over a million combined views on YouTube and Twitch, gave viewers a chance to watch the event in 20 languages, including German Sign Language, ASL, BSL, and ISL.

“​​I do a mix of signing and typing because I’ve also met deaf or hard-of-hearing people from different countries, and they may not understand ASL,” Robinson said of his streams. “So, I sign and type so that no one is left out.”

Advertisement

Rikki Poynter, a deaf YouTuber and accessibility consultant, said silent streams may appeal to other viewers besides those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. 

“There are hearing people who get overstimulated by too much noise or any noise, so I can see why they’d like the quiet streams,” Poynter said.

From Pakistan to the Philippines, thousands of deaf and hard-of-hearing streamers have also found community online via the Bigo Live livestreaming app, where they can stream solo or join multi-streams. The multi-streams allow for several people to stream at the same time, with sub-groups typically based on location or common interests. As part of its plans, Bigo Live—headquartered in Singapore—will soon offer a feature that allows users to include captions in English, Bangla, Chinese, Arabic, and more.

 

For years, content creators on YouTube and TikTok alike have expressed frustration as many media companies have failed to include proper caption tools during livestreams. Though Google was one of the first to pave the way for video captions in the early 2000s with manual captions, it wasn’t until October 2021 that YouTube rolled out its livestream auto-caption feature, which finally gave users the opportunity to auto-caption streams without having a minimum of 1,000 subscribers. 

Advertisement

People and developers may forget that disabled people exist in the gaming community.

A few weeks ago, YouTube—owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet—also announced users would be able to suggest edits for automatic captions for videos. The feature, still in beta mode, is currently only available for a select group of users using English-language captions. 

“Our goal is to improve automatic captions and make videos more accessible for all viewers. This test will roll out to a small percentage of videos,” a Google employee said in a YouTube community thread. 

Despite the obvious interest in silent streams and similar content, another concern, Robinson said, is that many video game and film trailers are initially released without captions. 

“My biggest goal is to educate [people in] the gaming space,” he said. “People and developers may forget that disabled people exist in the gaming community.”

Live auto-captions on online platforms can be helpful for obvious reasons, but they typically rely on speech-recognition technology, which creators and experts say is often hit or miss. 

“Experiences vary from streamer to streamer,” said Poynter, who has long advocated for proper closed captioning on social media. “Sometimes, the captions are decent because of the person’s voice clarity, and the equipment and settings they use are really good and high quality—so the live auto-captions may deliver the proper words.” 

Advertisement

In other cases, Poynter says auto-captions may cause unnecessary drama by adding in inappropriate words or other wonky interpretations that aren’t visible to the streamer. Still, deaf and hard-of-hearing creators see captions as an easy way to provide accessibility for all audiences. 

“The important thing is to just keep it simple, especially when captioning your content,” Robinson said. “Don’t use any fancy text that’s just gonna be difficult to read. Readability is the key.”

Besides navigating sites or platforms that lack basic accessibility, there’s another, more sinister challenge facing deaf content creators—online scammers who pretend to be deaf. As she shares her story with her followers, Zhang, who earns about a thousand dollars a month livestreaming, says her content has been met with opposition by people who don’t believe she is actually deaf.

The skepticism online may not be completely unfounded. Zhang said she knew of people who pretended to be deaf to gain favor with fans and earn their trust and money. 

Deafened by the War on ISIS

In one exposé video on Douyin, cops in Jiangsu pulled over a man who instantly pretended to be deaf to gain sympathy from them. One of the officers noticed, and later verified, that the man had exchanged and listened to multiple voice messages with his wife via WeChat. In September, another user on the platform called out a livestreamer whom he believed was pretending to be deaf. These incidents aren’t exclusive to China—scammers and con artists have also pretended to be deaf in Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere to gain donations from people in public settings. 

Advertisement

“So, because these people [who cheat others] have existed in the past, we do face skeptical fans online,” Zhang said. “But I patiently explain [my story] to them with clear proof in order to dispel their apprehensions.”

In trying to con internet users, these types of scammers may end up deterring deaf and hard-of-hearing content creators who genuinely want to share their stories with online communities. 

“Except for hearing, we can do everything.”

“Deaf people, especially oral deaf people, have enough of a difficult time dealing with people accusing us of faking if we’re speaking,” Poynter said. “So, this essentially adds on to that.” 

Still, deaf and hard-of-hearing content creators are keen to focus on what people within their communities can achieve—despite internet users’ quick or false assumptions. 

“Except for hearing, we can do everything,” he said. “I never thought about [breaking boundaries] because I don’t pay attention to those things. Firstly, we have to learn how to be self-confident, realizing that we, ourselves, are not perfect. Why should we care what others think?” 

Robinson and other deaf streamers participating in silent streams ultimately hope that their content reminds viewers to put things in perspective. 

“There’s still a lot to be done to break down barriers in almost any industry,” he said. “People need to remember that deaf and hard-of-hearing people exist. We don’t just exist in movies or TV shows—or whatever. We are real, and we want to be part of the community.”