Bringing the World into the Classroom

by Doug Bowen-Bailey
In the past month, the profession of sign language interpreting has been before the world in an unprecedented way.  Because of the lack of quality interpreting services at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, deaf people and interpreters around the globe have had an opportunity to bring forward concerns and perspectives about what access means for people who use signed languages.
This presents an excellent opportunity for interpreter educators to help our students and colleagues think about what role do interpreters play in fostering change, what type of relationships and alliances are necessary, and what type of role-space should our profession inhabit.
As an interpreter and educator who came to this field with a degree in African Studies (like most of you, I am sure), this discussion has meant the intersection of many strands of my life.  I wrote a commentary for my local newspaper and provided them with an ASL version of the article for inclusion on their web site.  (To my knowledge, it was the first time they had an article published in a bilingual format and will be a precedent that I hope will be continued.)
In my writing, signing, and editing of that article, I went through a number of other resources from deaf people and interpreters sharing perspectives.  I am offering my list here as potential resources to be incorporated into your teaching for discussion about the ways that the interpreting and deaf communities can work together to make the world a more accessible and welcoming place for all of us.

Resources on Interpreting Services for the Nelson Mandela Memorial

Here is my article:

The painful irony of the ‘fake interpreter’ at Mandela’s memorial

A Note on the ASL Version:

I received input on both the English and ASL versions of this article from a number of people from deaf and interpreting perspectives.  The ASL version is not as polished as I would have liked, and I think that is a challenge for our field how to have the integrity of editing and revision be as high when we are working in a signed language as when we are working in a spoken language.  I humbly acknowledge that I did not achieve that goal in this effort.  

The Written Version

A luta continua.
This Portuguese phrase, which translates as “the struggle continues,” was in popular use during the efforts in southern Africa to end colonialism and white-minority rule. In the face of arrests, defeat and death, it was a defiant statement of optimism that all the sacrifice would one day be worth it.
Recently, the world celebrated the gains and mourned the loss in the passing of Nelson Mandela. His life is a great example of commitment to liberation and freedom.
Yet his memorial service also brought reminders that the struggle still continues. In the midst of all of the tributes to Mandela as a champion of human rights, an injustice was perpetrated. The person on stage with the purpose of interpreting the speeches into South African sign language simply waved his hands in visual gibberish.
For me, as a sign language interpreter who came to the field as a hearing person with a degree in African studies, this caused many emotions. Within interpreting and deaf communities, this situation has been a cause of uproar. The irony of Mandela’s memorial being tainted by an interpreter who did not provide any access is painful.
Mandela certainly would have seen it as an outrage. As president, he was a force behind South Africa becoming one of the first nations to sign on to the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. This commitment was a part of Mandela’s broader effort to steer South Africa in the direction of being a more just society; and so a step backward, as what happened for the deaf communities of South Africa (and the world), would be a call to arms for Mandela.
Yet in my conversations with interpreters and deaf people about this, outrage has not been the universal response. Many people saw it as humorous. In one high-profile example, on Dec. 11, the Today show briefly showed a man in a circle on the screen who appeared to be acting as an incompetent interpreter before the show’s hosts shut down the prank. London’s Daily Mail reported, “The tasteless gag elicited an apology tweet from Today almost immediately.”
People’s taste in humor certainly can vary, yet what people who are in the language majority don’t realize is how pervasive this lack of access really is. Kelby Brick, a deaf lawyer in Maryland, wrote in the Baltimore Sun, “Unfortunately, what happened merely highlighted what has become the norm for deaf people all over the world — including in America.” Far too often, deaf people and other linguistic minorities are denied communication at vital times in their lives: school, medical appointments, business transactions, funerals and the list goes on. The reasons are multifaceted. There is a shortage of qualified interpreters to meet the need, and many areas do not have established standards for interpreting quality. (This is the case in South Africa where there are no legal standards, but the same is true in Minnesota for areas such as business or religious settings.) Moreover, as the profession has grown, some interpreter-referral agencies, particularly those without experience with sign languages, have found increased profit margins by sending out less-qualified (and less-expensive) interpreters.
Regardless of reasons, the reality is that we still have a long way to go to reach the ideal for which Mandela spoke during his trial by the South African apartheid regime before he was sentenced to his prison term: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
To the benefit of the world, Mandela was able to live his life in pursuit of this ideal. Yet at the marking of his death, the “fake interpreter” reminds us that the struggle does indeed continue so that all may have equal opportunities. To achieve this will take more than deaf people fighting for their rights or interpreters advocating for access and justice. It will take all of us — in the United States, in South Africa and around the globe — to realize that any people being disempowered diminishes us all.
When we embrace that ideal we can begin to experience the truth of another slogan of the South African liberation movement: Amandla awethu. The power is ours.

Published on The Duluth News Tribune January 7, 2014