Outrage in the Deaf community over the ridicule of American Sign Language.

Language for the Eyes

It has only taken decades of advocacy and complaints to the FCC, FEMA, and State governments for public officials to respond to Deaf Americans who rely on sign language for communication.

DeafNation, emphasizing language, culture and pride, expresses “dismay and concern” to Chelsea Handler.

The outburst of public response to professional simultaneous interpretation of a signed language during Hurricane Sandy reveals an astonishing range of exoticism, prejudice, and basic ignorance of a vibrant linguistic culture flourishing despite generations of institutionalized discrimination.

The robust capacity of American Sign Language to communicate in the dimension of sight has apparently blown the minds of sound-centric “hearing people.” None of the media coverage of the emergency interpreting by Lydia Callis gets all of the details right. Most of the mainstream discourse focuses on Ms Callis’ diction, minimizing the essential purpose of emergency access to communication through simultaneous interpretation. This is why the Deaf community is furious. Seth Gerlis explains in a special report from i Deaf News: “Access to communication during an emergency is very important to the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing community.” A petition demanding an apology for an offensive skit by Late Show comedian Chelsea Handler explains, “We are thankful to have her to interpret for us.”

Professional sign language interpreters are also offended. Bill Moody explains:

We don’t want to be stars; we just want Deaf people to know what is going on! But [Lydia Callis] should have had a partner to help her when she got tired, help her with local place names, and show that interpreters work in teams. I do not appreciate the parodies of her interpreting work which have proliferated around the internet. They are meant to be in good fun, but they indicate the kind of bias against a language which uses facial expressions and body movement as a part of its grammar. Our work as interpreters is not funny. It is serious business. Yes, of course, we like to laugh at ourselves and at life, but sign language itself should not be the brunt of jokes.

Insider vs Outsider Humor

I appreciate Bill’s point that sign language itself should not be the object of ridicule, and the Deaf community’s reaction is also justified. It would be different if, for instance, deaf children had reliable exposure to adult ASL role models every single school day and deaf adults had consistent provision of simultaneous interpretation when needed to participate as an equal employee in the workplace. On the other hand, becoming the butt of public humor is a powerful indicator of social acceptance. What if the Lydia moment generates a turning point in the provision of simultaneous interpretation and ASL-based education because hearing people realize they do care about the lives and experiences of the Deaf?

In contrast with Chelsea Handler’s outsider humor, another parody offers insight into some of the subtexts of simultaneous interpretation. The resistance of hearing people to actually use interpreting to establish meaningful relationships with Deaf individuals results in a skewed kind of pair bonding between deaf people and interpreters. Unless and until hearing people begin to realize that there is more to communication than words of information, misunderstandings are bound to continue. In an emergency situation, this could result in the loss of life, health, or valuable property. A spoof by Frank Panda, Armando Riesco, and Shirley Rumierk could be understood as  a cultural critique of the misguided fascination of hearing people with the language of ASL rather than to the potential relationship being enacted with deaf people. Ineffective communication is the usual result of such dismissive behavior, despite the outstanding skills and best intentions of professional interpreters.

Emergency Management Interpreting

Officials charged with public warnings need to comprehend why English-text captioning, note writing, and the use of volunteers who may have learned some sign language is insufficient:  protecting Deaf Americans during disasters requires embedding emergency management interpreters at all levels of operations.

Callis was great, but not because she was so lively and animated. She was great because she was performing a seriously difficult mental task—simultaneously listening and translating on the spot—in a high-pressure, high-stakes situation. Sure, she was expressive, but that’s because she was speaking a visual language. Signers are animated not because they are bubbly and energetic, but because sign language uses face and body movements as part of its grammar.

It is gratifying to see some governors and television stations finally get public warning communication right by hiring professional interpreters and keeping the interpreter onscreen so the Deaf audience can benefit from the emergency communication access to information. The Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and Governor Deval Patrick did Mayor Bloomberg one better by hiring a Certified Deaf Interpreter to generate a localized interpretation (something Ms Callis was unable to do, working alone and being relatively new to the New York City scene). A recent Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) training at Gallaudet University demonstrated how crucial it is in a crisis to use local interpreters who are familiar with the place-specific terminology and references. One of the CERT instructors, Chief John Sollers, told the group how important the experience had been for him, explaining that he had learned a lot and, in particular, emphasizing that using interpreters for emergency communication between First Responders with Deaf people should be a part of routine training: “We  need to practice how we’ll play.”

Providing effective public warnings is the first, most obvious stage of integrating sign language interpreters into the infrastructure of emergency management. The next stage involves recognizing and treating professional sign language interpreters as peers within the community of first responders. Angela Kaufman (ADA Coordinator, City of Los Angeles Department on Disability) and Rick Pope (GEMINI Project) proposed the establishment of sign language interpreter strike teams at FEMA’s Getting Real II: Promising Practices in Inclusive Emergency Management for the Whole Community in 2011.

Moving Forward into an Era of Climate Healing

NBC’s Brian Williams talked with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Williams suggested that a vast public works project was needed and asked, “Is New York the New Amsterdam?” Cuomo did not disagree. He answered, “As I said kiddingly the other day, we having a 100-year-flood every two years now…we have not seen a problem like this, a flood like this, in our generation. It’s a new reality for us and it’s one we are going to have to deal with.

All of these problems are interrelated. We need an ingenious strategy that insists upon linking social justice with the economic infrastructure. Weather has always served a unifying purpose for Americans – it has given us a safe topic upon which to find common ground despite every imaginable kind of social, cultural, and religions difference. Emergency response costs have skyrocketed over the last five years. The rate and severity of natural disasters is absolutely unprecedented. The vulnerability of disenfranchised and minority populations is no longer the only risk to the stability of our society. By making the commitment and dedicating ourselves to extending the reach of emergency preparedness and response to everyone, entirely new career fields can be created – putting Americans back to work and reinvigorating the economy. This is necessary in order to usher in a new equality along with taking up responsibility for minimizing – and eventually reversing – the effects of global warming.