When the news broke regarding the “fake interpreter” at Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Service, I was asked by a member of my own on-line Pagan group (which is made up of both Deaf and hearing, signing and non-signing members) whether the information being shared was in fact real. I responded by stating that the allegations of fraud were indeed true and the situation was currently being investigated.
(photograph of alleged “fake interpreter” standing next to South African government official, “interpreting” his words)
Another member then asked if this meant that the signing was bogus, as in “not correct.” To this I responded with my own thoughts on the matter, which I share below:
Both the interpreter and the signing were bogus. While there may have been a few actual signs conveyed, such signs did not relate to what was being said, and for the most part this supposed “interpreter” was just flapping his hands around.
He has since been identified and is now claiming he was having a schizophrenic episode which resulted in such behavior. In another words, all of this can be attributed to mental illness. Sorry, but I’m not buying it. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe in mental illness, but I don’t think that’s what is truly behind this whole situation.
Frankly, I think he was actually hired to do this job (otherwise, what was he doing up there to begin with?) and the government fully assumed that he had the necessary qualifications, without actually checking his credentials. Interestingly, this is not the first time a complaint has been filed with the South African government regarding its use of non-qualified individuals as interpreters. In fact, such charges have been brought against this same individual in the past by representatives of the Deaf Community and the interpreting profession. The government refused to answer to those charges…so now it’s blown up in their face and this is the result.
However, sad but true, the use of non-qualified individuals as interpreters happens on a daily basis…even right here in the USA. It may not happen on quite the same international scale as this event; nevertheless, I have often seen so-called “interpreters” hired to provide such services who could barely sign their way out of a paper bag. It may be that they have deaf family members or took a single sign language class… and suddenly they are considered qualified by individuals who know nothing about sign language and interpreting, and thus are really in no position to be hiring such individuals to begin with.
But as long as sign language, interpreting and the Deaf Community do not receive the recognition they have earned and the respect they deserve, this is going to continue to happen.
In response to this, one of the group members made the following comment:
So sad.. Oddly, art therapists in Indiana are facing the same issues. Since there is no legislature for licensure for registered art therapists in this state, anyone can claim to be an art therapist. I am not a fan of bureaucracy for its own sake, but I am a fan of having standards of competency.
The Deaf Community generally dislikes it when hearing people (particularly those who have limited knowledge of and experience with Deaf people) do a “comparison rap” between a Deaf issue and something they see as being a similar situation. I know y’all do it in the spirit of solidarity and I do appreciate the effort, but we tend to react by feeling like “you have to be Deaf to understand.” It’s the struggle of comparing apples and oranges, and in a lot of cases, those “Deaf to understand” feelings are justifiable.
It is not that I cannot appreciate the frustration that art therapists must feel at not receiving the recognition and respect that they rightly deserve, but I am not sure that making this comparison is appropriate, and especially not at this particular time. I know this individual meant well… but I have to admit that I squirmed a bit at the comment.
This isn’t just about professions. It goes much further than that. It’s about oppression. It is about how society views Deaf People in general, about how we are basically looked down upon as “second class citizens” whose language and communication needs are not seen as being relevant to the bigger picture.
Deaf people are being wounded by this incident. They see this as a slap in the face not only to their need for access, but also to their culture, their language, their whole essence of being.
As Deaf Advocate Trudy Suggs said on her Facebook page:
“I told someone yesterday that the fake interpreter thing reminds me of the Saturn fiasco, where uncertified interpreter (signer?) Holly Daniel faked being deaf for several years before she landed a $75,000 national TV and print ad campaign as a “real deaf person.” She also faked having cancer and a few other things. Her sister alleged Holly had mental illness issues. (All the stories are at trudysuggs.com.)
Sure enough, news reports now claim Thami Janjite has schizophrenia.
The Saturn fiasco happened in 1997. It’s 2013. And interpreters wonder why deaf people continue to feel disempowered? This is why: there are so many Hollys and Thamis out there…unfortunately.”
Mind you, I have been fortunate to know and work with many excellent interpreters over the years who would never dream of doing such a thing as either Holly or Thami have done. Many of them have become my friends, some of them are Friends of the Crossroads. To those individuals, I say “thank you.” But for every DeeLayne, Darren, or Dave out there…I have met others who frankly could barely sign their way out of a paper bag, let alone provide interpreting services.
As I discuss this whole fake interpreter issue with others, one thing becomes clear – this is a far more complex situation than just someone faking a profession for which they do not have the appropriate credentials. Much like the layers of an onion, various levels of concern can and have been identified – issues of national security and background checks, issues of mental illness, issues of creditability and accountability, issues of competence, issues of language barriers, issues of accessibility, issues of humor vs. offensiveness, issues of cultural appropriation, issues of recognition and respect.
And for me personally and for many members of the Deaf Community, this whole thing frustrates us and hurts us… on so many levels. As we struggle to deal with these issues and the ensuing emotions they generate, we ask that individuals be patient, sensitive, and to the extent possible…understanding. And most importantly, that everyone be respectful of the Deaf Community’s feelings…many of which have been brought to the surface by this incident. As Trudy pointed out:
It is important to recognize that Thami Janjite was first exposed by accomplished South African leaders such as animator and World Federation of the Deaf board member Bram Jordaan, and South African Parliament member Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen–both deaf. What this means, to me, is that we should keep this of, for, by deaf people.
One of the other things that has been hard about this brouhaha is not just the incident in and of itself, but how it has been handled by the media, and how many people have chosen to respond to it. It is hard to read the comments left by people at various websites reporting on this issue…some of which accuse the Deaf Community of just exploiting Mandela’s death for their own personal gain; or which make tactless, insensitive jokes about the whole thing and then accuse us Deafies of having no sense of humor. Admittedly, as a friend of mine pointed out…most of these folks just like to make jokes out of anything and everything, even when they know it’s in bad form and poor taste.
But it still doesn’t make me feel any better.
And when Fox News and even the Today Show jump on the bandwagon by doing parody sketches of a “horrible fake interpreter” waving his hands and inventing signs…well, that was stepping on my last nerve. It’s one thing when Fox News does it – we can all expect that kind of crap from them. But the Today Show??? Granted, they did issue an apology shortly afterwards, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. C’mon, NBC…you should know better.
But that’s the name of the game, folks…and frankly, it pisses me off. It seems every time interpreting lands in the news, the media thinks it’s fine and dandy to pick up on it not as a newsworthy item, but as an opportunity for comic relief…that the whole idea of making a mockery of the interpreting profession by waving your hands about is acceptable, not offensive. We saw it with Lydia Callis, and we are seeing it again now. It seems it doesn’t matter whether you’re a skilled professional or a fake – the interpreting profession is just seen as a joke, period. And then when we in the Deaf/Signing Community respond and try to express our feelings on the situation, we get told that those who are insulted by it should lighten up and get a sense of humor..or even get a life.
My sense of humor is perfectly intact, thankyouverymuch. But I do have to wonder about your level of sensitivity and tact.
Remember, folks…I live with this 24/7. This is my life we are talking about here. This is my culture, this is my language. And as my Spirit Sistah Crystal herself commented:
“The Today Show making a mockery is certainly a larger issue than a few jerks online.”
And for me personally, it becomes a difficult issue to deal with at times…because it leaves me sorta split in the middle on how to best deal with such situations.
It’s hard for me as a Deaf Pagan…because for me a large part of being a Deaf Pagan is the combination of my identity as a Deaf person with my spirituality as a Pagan. This is how I practice my path.
So when I am out there educating and explaining, and advocating, and building bridges, and helping people to understand more about Deaf Culture and/or about Paganism…
I’m doing ministry. I’m ministering.
It doesn’t matter if the people to whom I am ministering are Pagan or not, or even if they know that I am. This is still an integral part of my spiritual practice…because I cannot and will not separate the two.
And yet when these sorts of things occur, it gets kinda frustrating, and isolating, and lonely, and sad, and painful, and emotional…because when things like this come up I feel these complex issues do separate me. They kinda split me in half. I know I can go into the Deaf Community and they get it, and they can provide support…but they can’t always provide the magick and the healing, and the spiritualness that gets me through days like this. But where can I find that same comparable understanding and support within the Pagan Community? I’m not saying it doesn’t exist…but it does seem more challenging to locate it.
It’s not that the Pagan Community doesn’t care, or doesn’t want to help. I have discussed these feelings with hearing, non-signing Pagan friends of mine, and as one of them said:
“I want so badly to help – I just don’t know how.”
You are helping now… by reading this blog post. You’re helping by listening as I rant.
You can continue to help by sharing this blog post with anyone and everyone you know. By discussing it with others. By standing up and saying “This kind of behavior cannot and should not be tolerated.” By recognizing and respecting – even if you cannot fully understand – how this incident impacts on the Deaf Community.
You can continue to help by demonstrating recognition and respect for all professions and all professionals, and demanding the highest level of competence from such, and requesting that those providing services have the appropriate credentials and the necessary skills to do so.
You can continue to help by fighting oppression in all of its forms, wherever and whenever it occurs.
And if you can send a little healing energy to me and my fellow members of the Deaf and Interpreting Communities, it would be much appreciated.