Whoa-thinknotnotice_BLACKEDOUT

Click here for a related vlog (in American Sign Language)

The second day after Mandela’s Memorial we were greeted the news that the so-called fake interpreter Thamsanqa Dyantyi/Jyantie is schizophrenic. (His claim and apology is being met with a mixture of belief and doubt.) Whatever sympathy he gleans should be suitable to his illness. This does not excuse the government for hiring him. It has apparently fallen to the Deputy Minister for Women, Children and People with Disabilities to take the heat. Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu explains that Mr Dyantyi “is Xhosa speaking. The English was a bit too much for him.”

That same day, the Deaf community continued to respond to the swell of disappointment and outrage over the lack of real communication access for Deaf people to participate in the Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela. The thoughtfulness of the Deaf world’s formal responses are worthy of careful attention.


‘People of the Eye’ respond with a full range of emotions

  • An elegant news feature from H3TV presents a biography of Nelson Mandela. Presented in international sign language, I learned Mandela’s name sign and a powerful sign for apartheid.
  • South African poet Modiegi Moime renders a beautiful tribute in South African Sign Language.
  • After watching a clip with a CNN anchor, Deaf actress Marlee Matlin explains,

“I can tell he’s thinking to himself,
‘Oh no, how should I do this,
well let’s see what I just did, I’ll do it again!’”

Deaf people have practice tolerating inadequate interpretation. Hearing people often disregard the quality of the interpreter, and many lose patience with this special process of intercultural communication. While “It’s probably safe to say that South Africa’s relationship with its deaf community is historically complex — much more complex than the “fake interpreter!” headlines would make it appear,” as Caitlin Dewey writes, it would be false to assume the problem with providing qualified sign language interpreter only occurs there.

A Certified Deaf Interpreter from the western United States (Utah), Jeff Pollock, makes a compelling argument that Hearing people should also be upset.

“The interpreter does not just work for Deaf people. They work for hearing people as well, [who] want to make sure that their messages are heard by the Deaf community.”

Mr Pollock briefly explains the sign language interpreter certification process in the United States and advocates that these processes of professionalization be taken more seriously.

Don’t move on too quickly…

The first gesture of Mandela-like reconciliation came, interestingly, from the same Deaf South African Parliamentarian who first alerted people to the incompetence of the ‘interpreter’ being televised from the stage.

Yesterday Wilma Neuhoudt tweeted, “Tata Madiba would have understood” while asserting her support for People with Disabilities (PWD).  Her early Tweets correctly used punctuation too, in contrast with every news story I’ve seen to date.Madiba would undestand

Journalists and their editors have been responsible, it seems, in putting ‘fake’ in quotation marks, shifting the focus from the single person—”this male so called interpreter” as Ms. Neuhoudt pinpointed the problem—to highlighting the challenge of people not fluent in a sign language to be able to distinguish quality just by looking.

It is hard to know, from the perspective of the whitewashed west, if there are different cultural values at work, such as factors of relationship or an ethos of inclusion focused on someone(s) other than the audience watching the broadcast. It does, however, seem that Ms. Neuhoudt suggests gender as an issue along with the essential absence of effective communication.

A strong signal for “Hearing” people

Interpreters began monitoring and sharing news reports all over the UK and US.

Interpreters began monitoring and sharing news reports all over the UK and US.

This is more than a “flap over ‘hand flapping’” as it is being sensationalized by an LA Times headline. It is true that Deaf people are embarrassed and even describe feeling “humiliated.” Upon arrival at an interpreting assignment in the US yesterday, a young Deaf consumer barely said hello to me before launching into a detailed description of how upset he feels. Allies of Deaf people and Deaf culture, many of them professional sign language interpreters are also furious.

Confusion about whether the white woman shown signing was part of the service or part of a journalism team at a news station.

Confusion about whether the white woman shown signing was part of the service or part of a journalism team at a news station.

This is the opposite phenomenon to the sensationalized dehumanizing of Lydia Callis’ emergency interpreting during Hurricane Sandy. Then it was all about hearing people’s exposure to the language Deaf people use to communicate, and now it’s all about the show Hearing people will put on while still avoiding real communication.

But the Deaf community has a lot more allies now! Friends who don’t know sign language checked in and shared articles. makesense Exposure to Deaf people and interpreters increases as Hearing people realize there are Deaf people living their lives alongside ours. They are letting us know, loud and clear, that they are watching, and they see.

Deaf people see what “the Hearing” do and fail to do

Sign languages are as complicated as spoken languages. (Braille is a code for written language, not quite the same thing.)

Sign languages are as complicated as spoken languages. (Braille is a code for written language, not quite the same thing.)

Of course Deaf people noticed the failure of communication.  They always do. However they don’t always have the means to let us know they’re watching. In this instance, the failure is so large and so meaningful that—for a few moments, they have us by the ear. Interpreting is not a show. Interpreters do not perform for the sake of a show. Interpreters interpret to enable communication between people who would otherwise not be able to understand each other.