Archive for the ‘Deafness’ Category

As a Deaf person, an ASL teacher, a former instructor in an Interpreter Training Program, and an occasional Deaf Interpreter myself, I feel the need to speak out about something that really bothers me:

Over the past year or so I have seen an increased amount of attention given to sign language on the social network. Time and time again I see posts popping up on my Facebook feed and on other social sites showing yet another video or another article of someone signing – usually it’s a hearing person signing a song.

Such posts are often accompanied by comments discussing how “amazing” these signers are, how “inspirational” their actions are, how “beautiful” sign language is…

How “everyone should learn sign language and be able to communicate”, and this statement and that statement.

What is interesting and yet exasperating is that the majority of these posts are being made by hearing people who in reality don’t know much about ASL, Interpreting, or Deaf Culture –

And yet consider themselves perfectly qualified to be posting such videos and making such comments.


Stop it right now.

The Deaf Community does not need you posting videos of people signing music, and telling us how awesome it is.

Especially if you yourself don’t know sign language well enough to determine if the individual did a good job or not.

I just had this happen to me recently. A hearing friend posted a video of a young male high school student standing in front of an audience of people at a sports event, signing the Star Spangled Banner. She captioned it describing him as an “Amazing young man!”

Sadly, this “amazing young man” did a poor job of interpreting our national anthem. I shared the video with three colleagues of mine who like myself are ASL instructors skilled in the language, and experienced in teaching it (all four of us currently or formerly taught in Interpreter Training Programs.) We all gave him a low score. Frankly, he barely passed – we gave him a D for his performance. It was agreed that he should have never been doing this, and signing the national anthem in public should be left to the experts who know what they are doing. (And just as it is a challenge to sing it, it’s also a challenge to interpret it.)

Now to those who are thinking “He was merely trying to sign a song, why are you being so hard on him?” – allow me to respond:

No, he wasn’t attempting to sign a song; he was trying to INTERPRET a song.

Yes, there is a difference.

A signer is merely someone who knows sign language, whether their skills be rudimentary or fluent. But an interpreter must have the knowledge and skills necessary to accurately convey another person’s message. They are not merely signing; they are providing information by converting that message into a different language so it can be better understood by the target audience.

Any time that you are attempting to express a message that is NOT YOUR OWN WORDS, you are interpreting. Whether you are signing the National Anthem or the Pledge of Allegiance; a song by Lizzo or a poem by Lynn Crosbie; any time you try your hand (no pun intended) at signing a speech, a snippet, or a soliloquy…

you are interpreting.

And yes… if you’re going to interpret something – especially in front of an audience – you had better know what you’re doing. After all, the role of an interpreter is to facilitate communication and convey all auditory and signed communication so that both hearing and Deaf individuals may fully interact.

As Lilet Marcus says in her excellent article which appeared on the CNN website last August:

Sign language interpreters do not exist for the amusement of hearing people. They exist to translate for deaf and hard of hearing people. That’s it. Period.

“But he was just trying!” you argue. “He’s still learning, he’s practicing, he’s trying to develop his skills. Give him a chance – with time and practice he will get better!”

That’s my point, folks…


He still needs to work on developing his skills in signing. He needs to continue studying ASL – increasing his vocabulary, learning about the Five Parameters of ASL, understanding the grammar and syntax of ASL and how it differs from English, developing more fluency with his conversational skills. Then – and only then – can he start thinking about interpreting; let alone interpreting music.

Bluntly speaking, this young man came across as exactly what he is – a Beginning Level sign student attempting something for which he is not qualified to do.

I brought this fact to the friend’s attention, and she became a bit defensive. She argued that while recognizing that he might need to work on his technique, she was more impressed with his emotion, and could tell he was doing this from the heart. She insisted that we should give him a chance, and he would improve with time.

Certainly we should give this guy a chance to improve his skills. I hope he continues to study ASL, that his skills do improve over time, and he does pursue his goal of becoming a sign language interpreter.

But he’s not ready to stand in front of a public audience and attempt interpreting. He’s still got a long way to go yet before he’s at that level. It takes many years of study and practice before one has the skills necessary to attempt interpreting, let alone musical interpreting. Those individuals you see at concerts, providing interpretation of the songs, have probably been signing for a minimum of five years, and hold national certification from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). 

Interpreting is about providing access for those who rely on such for comprehension of what is going on around them. It is not for displaying sign language for hearing people to ooohhh and aaahhh over.

And if you can’t do a good job at it, then don’t be getting up in front of crowds of people, making a mediocre attempt at it. I don’t care where your heart is at – if your hands are not able to convey the message accurately, then you’re not doing Deaf people any favors. All you’re doing is insulting our language, and offending our community.

“But Gin – there are many sign language classes that do require their students to perform a song as part of their course requirement!”

Yes, unfortunately there are a lot of sign language teachers out there who unfortunately do make this part of their course requirement. I know – I used to be one of them. But I have come a long way in my understanding of ASL Instruction since then, and now I know better.

This is not to say that we don’t use “interpreting” as part of our teaching methodologies – we do. But there is a big difference between requiring a student to interpret a quote from Shakespeare in the classroom, to be seen ONLY by the instructor and fellow students for the purpose of discussion and feedback…

and attempting to sign our national anthem at a public venue.

But this is what beginning students often do – they get excited about learning sign language, and then decide that they will try signing a song; either in real-life in front of an audience, or more commonly as a video that then gets posted on the internet for public viewing. Indeed, YouTube is cluttered with mediocre videos made by such individuals, who decide to show off their inadequate skills by signing the latest Billboard hit…

…To the accolades of hearing people – the majority of whom know little if anything about ASL or Interpreting, but who nevertheless tell you how amazing you are and what an awesome job you did.

Let’s get honest here, folks:

These music videos are not being created and posted for the purpose of providing Equal Communication Access for Deaf people.

The individuals making them have probably spent little if any time actually interacting with the Deaf Community. They may know one or two deaf people, and utilize such as justification for what they are doing. But having a Deaf friend or having hung out with the Deaf students at your school is a far cry from having in-depth interaction with the Deaf Community itself, having in-depth conversations with a wide range of Deaf people from various backgrounds (Deaf Professionals, Deaf Grassroots, Deaf Seniors, DeafBlind, etc.), and developing an in-depth understanding of Deaf Culture and Deaf Perspectives.

These videos are not being created for Deaf people. They are being created by and for hearing people and their entertainment.

Hearing people’s obsession with interpreters’ performances, from news conferences to concerts is just one of the ways in which “the mainstream accepts, and even loves, sign language, as long as it is sanitized of actual Deaf people,” says Deaf novelist Sara Novic, the author of Girl at War.

“It’s an easy way for the mainstream to consume a cool and different culture while still keeping their stigmas about deafness and disability (and thus, their own superiority) intact. And it is so pervasive.

I can’t tell you how many times people with whom I’ve had productive conversations about Deaf culture and ableism then suddenly turn up on my Facebook feed thrilled about a video of a hearing person signing a song.

But that’s how deep this stigma runs — even allies can’t see that representation of our culture by hearing people isn’t, in fact, representation.”

Hearing people who still view sign language as “performance art” – as amusement for their obsessed pleasure rather than as a living, breathing language utilized by the Deaf Community. Hearing people who have forgotten – if indeed they ever understood in the first place – that ASL is a language of the Deaf, for the Deaf, by the Deaf.

So perhaps instead of criticizing Deaf people who express their concerns about sign language videos made by individuals who do not have adequate skills, and which get posted by those who do not have the expertise to determine if such video performances are indeed worthy of such…

One needs to be recognizing and listening to such feedback, and respecting the viewpoints of the Deaf Community and its allies.

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