Yosemite cuts sign language interpreters


In an article from Mashable called “Left Speechless”, Claire Trageser describes significant cuts to interpreter services at Yosemite National Park. In short, while the park used to have rangers who were–themselves–certified interpreters and/or fluent in sign language, the park now relies upon contract interpreters to serve the declining number of Deaf visitors.

This is too bad. Mainly because, in my view, the best way to fully serve members of the Deaf community is to create circumstances where professionals know sign language and can communicate directly, rather than relying in interpreters to fill in the language gap. In this sense, the institutional changes as Yosemite are the opposite of progress.

Do you know of any situation where a public or private entity has signing staff instead of hiring out interpreters? I’m sure it’s rare, but it must be out there.


The Cost of Not Having an Interpreter, or the Loss of Alfred Weinrib

Sign language interpreters — most that I know, anyway — place a great deal of emphasis on professional qualifications and excellent skills. So when we see an incident like the fake interpreter at Mandela’s ceremony or the substandard services provided at the Seattle Men’s Chorus performances, we are outraged even when we are not necessarily surprised. Many of us are aware of the daily injuries that Deaf individuals face in the area of language access. We have seen other interpreters provide not-quite-100% access. If we are honest, we know that we have all had moments where we wanted our best to be much better.

To worry about the quality of sign language services implies that a sign language interpreter — or someone getting paid as one — is present. Just as dangerous, if not more so, are the thousands of moments where no interpreter is provided in the first place. The difference is, it is often much more difficult to identify when no interpreter is provided at all. It is difficult to do a survey of an absence. (“Please rate the quality of the interpreter not provided to you on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being unacceptable and 5 being excellent.”) And it is also difficult because these situations are often the result of more institutional problems outside of the interpreting field directly. But these situations still exist, and none more heart-breaking than a story I read today about Alfred.

Alfred Weinrib. You might not know his name. But Winthrop University Hospital, Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, and Good Samaritan Hospital should never forget the name of the man whom they failed to give even basic access to medical counsel by refusing to provide interpreting services. There is at least some indication that the timing of his death may have been different if he would have been able to understand his condition and his medical options. According to the NYPost, the family has filed a lawsuit against several of the medical service providers. You can see part of the actual filing here.

Now, I don’t want to be in the business of rating injustices. Injustice is injustice. But in my mind, if I were thinking about industry-wide priorities, I think a vigorous defense of the right to interpreters in medical situations is near the top. Compared to the media attention around the Mandela memorial service, Mr. Weinrib and his family will probably not attract the attention of international dignitaries, receive newspaper headlines, or be interviewed on national TV. But the situation strikes me as no less urgent. In fact, it is upon us to make this injustice perhaps even more urgent, for the lack of care under medical supervision is a heinous and egregious abuse.

What should interpreters do to respond to situations such as this? What strategies and tactics should our professional organizations use to defend the right to access to interpreters? How can one stand with the Weinrib family through the case?

I don’t have answers. Like any family, we may argue among ourselves about what kind of family we want to be. But when things like this happen, I hope we can muster the solidarity to speak with power against these pathetic abuses of human rights. And I also hope that we can extend this lesson to ourselves, too, and see the need to promote the rights of Deaf individuals in our profession.

Fake Interpreters, No Interpreters: Think it Can’t Happen in the U.S.?

The focus on the unqualified and possibly fraudulent interpreter at Mandela’s service can make it seem as if it’s a problem that exists “over there in Africa”. But here’s a list of cases where Deaf individuals in the U.S. or other countries have been denied interpreters in high stakes situations. The point is, this is not about one interpreter at one memorial service – this is about

Deaf Medical Student in Nebraska Denied Interpreting Services

Deaf Woman Refused Interpreter, Tasered, Put in Jail

Deaf Patient in New Jersey Denied Interpreter Services

British Police Arrest Deaf Man for Signing


Sign Language Interpreter at Mandela’s Memorial Services Was a Fake

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.


Click here or the image above to see the video.