Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Reacting to the 'Fake Interpreter' Story

There are so many things we take for granted. The ability to attend or tune in to an occasion like Nelson Mandela’s memorial service -- and be able to hear what’s going on -- is one of those things. Something that seems so simple isn’t that easy for millions of people.

The media and many in the general public are having a field day with the news about the 'fake interpreter' at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Many are shocked this could even happen. When I first read about the situation on Twitter, I thought it was a hoax. It just doesn't seem possible -- someone with improper skills on the national stage with world leaders?

The Limping Chicken, a UK-based website, was my first source for information on the story: 'Fake Sign Language Interpreter Mars Nelson Mandela Service for Deaf People Worldwide'.

How ironic is it that a story like this is sharing the spotlight with someone who was focused on equality and human rights? 

And I think it's sad that so many people are reacting to the news by making jokes on social media and news outlets. It’s a little difficult not to be offended by all the jokes people are putting out there.

You see, American Sign Language is my second language. I lost my hearing when I was five and rely on ASL in many situations. Rolling my eyes or gritting my teeth at occasional public mockery, being stared at and standing up for my rights has been part of my life ever since I can remember. But I’ve never seen anything on this scale before. A producer on NBC’s Today Show even crept on camera Wednesday morning, making fake sign gestures.

Unfortunately, behavior like this is nothing new. I’ve had people gesture “fake signs” at me and fall over themselves laughing.There was the English teacher who did not want the sign language interpreter on the stage at my high school graduation because she would “ruin it for everyone.” But over the years, I’ve learned to let things go and keep moving forward. (Although I admit many of these situations make great writing material.)

Why are so many people so quick to make fun of things like this or try to deny people their rights? Is it because they’re uncomfortable or uneducated, or are they just engineered not to care? I hope it’s the former, because that’s easier to fix.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Nelson Mandela

Sign language is not universal. There’s American Sign Language, British Sign Language, French Sign Language, and so on. So far, no one has deciphered what -- if any -- language the unidentified man on stage is using. He appears to be repeating a few gestures over and over again. It makes a mockery of the true professionals -- trained interpreters who have studied and practiced their craft for years.

(UPDATE: that's what I get for staying off Twitter while blogging. @braamjordaan Tweeted that the name of the fraud SASL interpreter is Thami Jantjie.)

Ideally, the on-stage interpreter would have been using South African Sign Language so deaf or hard of hearing attendees could understand the speeches. In the past 24 hours, I’ve learned a lot about the general inaccessibility deaf people experience in South Africa. (Read the Washington Post WorldView blog: Is South Africa's 'Fake' Sign Language Interpreter a Legacy of Apartheid? )

I’m sure this story will fade into the background over the next few days -- something new will come along to grab the public’s attention. I’ll still be here -- sitting in the front row at church and the theater, setting up my Captiview system at the theater, watching the tiny ZVRS interpreter on my phone screen -- and writing about the ins and outs of life as a deaf person in a hearing world. But trust me, I don't take any of them for granted. And I hope you think twice before you poke fun at someone who's different than you.  

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