Conversations with Myself: Let the words of my mouth (hands) . . .

SASL Alphabet

We (in South Africa) are currently mourning the loss of our icon and global hero Nelson Mandela who has been laid to rest this week. I was determined not to write anything about Nelson Mandela because there has been so much media coverage, tweets, Facebook posts etc and just about every blogger on the planet has had something to say/to share/to vent about the life and/or death of our global icon.

The content of my blog for this week changed three times before I even started putting pen to paper. The reason for this has been due to the very public embarrassment we, as a country, have experienced as a result of the “fake” Sign Language interpreter who stood next to the likes of President Obama and fumbled his way through what was supposed to be interpreting the messages for the Deaf audience.

I have become very passionate about the Deaf because only when I learned SA Sign Language (SASL), I was made aware of how severely disadvantaged the Deaf are when it comes to access to information. Many Deaf people have had very basic schooling (some never went to school at all) and because of the lack of reading and/or writing skills rely heavily on others to share information with them. The people who have the knowledge and information are usually the ones who are not able to communicate via Sign Language which means the Deaf are mostly excluded when information is shared. Adverts, public announcements, documentaries etc on television mean absolutely nothing to the Deaf person without a qualified Sign Language interpreter. Publishing information in print media means absolutely nothing if you can’t read or only have basic language/reading skills. Printed information is usually targeted at the literate and not the semi literate or illiterate.

Chapter 2, Section 16(1) and (2) of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 guarantees freedom of expression and opinion. Section 5(a)(iii) of the Constitution places the responsibility to promote the development, usage and recognition of Sign Language as the first language of Deaf South Africans, with the Pan South African Language Board (PANSALB). The Deaf community has been represented on the Board since its inception, and PANSALB employs Deaf persons to help effect the mandate. It is therefore important that we collectively, as a country, take a critical look at ourselves with regards progress made in achieving this Constitutional obligation.

South Africa ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and its Optional Protocol without reservation in 2007

The Convention obliges States Parties to take specific measures that will promote the rights of persons with disabilities, including the right to equal access to information and communication and freedom of expression and opinion through freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis with others and through all forms of communication of their choice. Such measures could include, among others,

• the provision of professional sign language interpreters (Article 9);
• by providing information intended for the general public to persons with disabilities in accessible formats (Article 2);
• accepting and facilitating the use of sign languages (Article 21);
• recognising and supporting specific cultural and linguistic identity, including Sign Languages and Deaf culture.

You can therefore imagine my utter disgust and sheer frustration when I witnessed this Sign Language interpreter who had no idea what he was doing, being seen not only by those in the audience and those watching at home (nationally) but feeds going through to international audiences around the world. An historic moment that will never be repeated again, being missed out on by our Deaf community, all because the Sign Language interpreter did not know what he was doing.

I will not go into detail regarding this because I am sure you must have seen or heard the media coverage regarding this by now. For those who don’t know what I am referring to, click on the following link and you will see what I am talking about.

The video viewed by 769,792 people on YouTube

After the event, when they eventually managed to track down the “fake” interpreter, he claimed he suffered a schizophrenic attack while he was interpreting and he felt “trapped” because there was nobody at hand to take over to replace him so he did the best he could in a bad situation. He claims that the attack was brought on either by the fact that he was so overwhelmed by the task at hand, or because he was so happy about being entrusted with this duty. He said the attack caused him to see angels and hear loud voices – these voices drowned out what the speakers were actually saying and therefore his signing did not make sense.

What enraged me about this, was our government’s reaction to this very embarrassing situation. We have a cabinet Minister and Deputy Minister in Parliament who are supposed to deal specifically with matters affecting women, children and people with disabilities. The Minister in this department, whenever her department is in hot water, she delegates the responsibility of dealing with the fallout to her Deputy Minister who, in my opinion, is just her puppet.

Without voicing my opinion in my own words (because I’m too enraged about this whole fiasco to even structure my thoughts in a plausible manner), I will share bullet points of what the Deputy Minister has said to the media in various interviews regarding the appointment of this “fake” sign language interpreter and will leave you to form your own opinion about this whole saga.

Our Deputy Minister had this to say (Mail & Guardian newspaper: 13 December 2013, pg13) . . .
• No single government department is responsible for the fiasco and South Africans have no need to be embarrassed. “I’m not sure, unless there is something that I’m missing – I don’t think as a country we need to first jump and say that we are embarrassed”. [This was her first official comment]
• “I don’t think we should be because as a country, a mistake happened while we were trying”.

The Deputy Minister defended the “fake” interpreter saying many factors had counted against him, including:-
• The fact that there are more than 100 dialects of local sign language
• As an IsiXhosa speaker, his inability to follow English, and the lack of relief interpreter leaving him on duty for four hours instead of the maximum recommended 30-minute stint.
• The “fake” interpreter was only intended as translator for the audience in the stadium and should not have appeared in the television coverage. The government has ensured that other sign language interpreters were available for the television broadcast.
• The attempt to provide live translation for Deaf people is a victory of which Mandela would have been proud.

Regarding the service provider: SA Interpreters the Deputy Minister said:
• The company does not exist, according to registration records.
• Government did track down the owners of the company – initially “they vanished”. “We managed to get hold of them, we spoke to them wanting some answer, and they vanished into clear air”. “Over the years they (“fake” interpreters’ employers) have managed to get away with this . . . offering sub-standard interpretation services”.

In other reports the same Deputy Minister was quoted saying . . .
• “It was bad. Was he fake? No. Does he have the training? He only has the introduction to the training. That’s like a lot of people in South Africa”.
• Asked if anyone did understand his gestures, she said only: “we will find someone who understands him, who requested his services, but we’re not going to do it now”.

Arguing that Sign Language had more than 100 dialects, making it impossible to be understood by everyone, the Deputy Minister was quoted saying:
“Unless there’s something I’m missing, I don’t think we as a country should say we are embarrassed. The issue of Sign Language has always been about where you live, what school you go to and what language you speak”.

Pressed on whether South Africa should be embarrassed, she insisted:
“I don’t think it’s the right choice of word, I don’t think he was just picked up from the street. He went to a school for the Deaf; I went to a school for the Deaf”.
• “His first language is Xhosa, one of the eleven official languages in South Africa”.
• “He was not able to translate from English to Xhosa to Sign Language. He started well and then in the middle he got tired and lost concentration. That did not mean he is a bad Sign Language interpreter”.

The Deputy Minister denied that he had been a security risk and declined to comment on his state of mind. “I don’t think it will get us anywhere to get into his health, his violence, his Schizophrenia. I don’t think other service providers or journalists there on the day had their health profiles discussed”.

The Deputy Minister continued . . . “will we invite him to big national events in the future? It’s not for me to stand here and say yes or no”.

One journalist asked if he would be “brought to justice”. The Deputy Minister responded: “Why? What crime has he committed? Why should he be brought to justice? Yes, he did not sign as well as expected, but what crime has he committed?

The Deputy Minister reiterated that Sign Language in South Africa lacked a universal standard and was the subject of disagreement among academics. “There is a battle between Black and White Sign Language people, urban and rural. Whose slang takes priority? What unit should be used to measure it?
Video: The sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial says he suffered a schizophrenic attack. An expert explains why it’s unlikely that this caused his erratic signing. Watch:

And to end this post:

Journalists have been able to uncover the following cases pending against the “fake” interpreter . . . He stands accused of:

• Theft (1995)
• Housebreaking (1997)
• Malicious Damage to Property (1998)
• Rape (1998)
• Murder, Kidnapping (2003)

Additional historical information available from the Department of Women, Children and People with Disabilities in Parliament:
Many Deaf learners in special schools are not taught in Sign Language due to the lack of Sign Language skills of educators. Many Deaf children are not attending school due to the lack of Sign Language medium schools closer to home. The majority of Deaf South Africans therefore speaks a variety of sign language dialects, often not understood by formally trained South African Sign Language (SASL) interpreters. The current outrage over the quality of sign language interpretation at the memorial service is therefore an everyday experience for the majority of Deaf South Africans, even when qualified interpreters are available.

There is currently only 7 SASL interpreters accredited with the South African Translators Institute (SATI), and the challenges brought about by the lack of a universal South African Sign Language and disunity within the Deaf sector, are further delaying progress in accrediting many of the interpreters trained at universities as well as through organisations such as Sign Language Education and Development (SLED).

It is important to note that these accredited SASL interpreters are not necessarily proficient in all the eleven official languages, and the quality of interpreting from a language one is not fully proficient in, to SASL, is therefore also compromised.

What do you have to say about all this? Please feel free to share your thoughts.

One thought on “Conversations with Myself: Let the words of my mouth (hands) . . .

  1. I have been surfing online more than 4 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours. It is pretty worth enough for me. Personally, if all webmasters and bloggers made good content as you did, the web will be a lot more useful than ever before.


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