Despite important gains in public awareness and human rights, many people are still proudly ignorant about sign language and deafness. Homophobic comments are increasingly seen as socially unacceptable, regardless of individual beliefs. Anti-semitism is highlighted and denounced in the news. Racial slurs, such as the ones by Don Imus, are viewed as obviously ridiculous But broad social consensus indicates that it is still acceptable to be ignorant about the Deaf community and about sign languages.
The most recent and egregious example comes from Johannesburg, South Africa at the memorial service for the great Nelson Mandela. The sign language interpreter at the ceremony was not only unqualified – he was a complete fake. What’s worse, it seems like this isn’t the first time this interpreter has been hired for public events! The Deaf Federation of South Africa has apparently released a comment saying that the interpreter wasn’t signing anything of meaning in South Africa sign language or American Sign Language. As we often say, interpreters only get recognized when things go wrong – we rarely get recognized for being qualified and doing our job.
This particular event may simply be a product of the overall poor organization of the memorial service, as some news sources have commented upon. But it illustrates the point once again that when society has to make tough decisions about who should have access to information and who shouldn’t, the Deaf and signing community gets excluded. Once again, we see that the pejorative view of sign languages lead people to think that they can just “fake it” without the slightest embarrassment. Once again, we see that ignorance about the field of interpreting leads people to think that interpreting is an irrelevant social “performance”.
Mandela’s own fight for justice should inspire us to push for Deaf rights and demand qualified interpreters.