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I’ve heard it all. Hearing impaired, hard of hearing, deaf-mute, “people who use sign language,” deaf. There are so many terms flying around used to describe a person with deafness I don’t blame hearing people for being utterly confused as to which label to use. In my experience, the most common label I tend to overhear by hearing individuals is “hearing impaired.” I think this is probably because hearing people are trying to avoid referring to a total state of deafness, as implied by the term “deaf,” and instead using what they believe to be a milder phrase that simply hints at a lower decibel of hearing ability.
As well-meaning as these people are, “hearing impaired” is NOT the correct way to refer to individuals with deafness. The proper label for these individuals is simply, “deaf.” Contrary to conventional wisdom (or rather, the Hearing Perspective), many deaf people fully embrace their deafness and the beautiful sign language and culture it gives them access to. This celebration of sign language and culture has led to a new “term” for deafness: Deaf. The word “Deaf,” with a capital “D,” refers to a deaf individual who identifies primarily with Deaf culture. These individuals do not view their deafness as a medical condition, but a cultural identity.
So what’s the difference between the terms “hearing impaired” and “deaf?” Or primarily, why do Deaf people prefer the label “deaf?” It’s all about language and the subtle connotations words give. “Hearing impaired” implies a loss, using negative language to frame the concept of deafness. In addition, the word “impaired” has a very negative meaning. According to Merriam-Webster, the primary definition of “impaired” is “being in a less than perfect or whole condition.” This word focuses on what deaf people lack. “Deaf,” however, merely conveys a state of being, which includes deafness. The word “deaf” has come to be associated with sign language and Deaf culture, which means using this label references what deaf people have. To put it simply: the former term negatively frames the state of deafness, while the latter term positively frames the state of deafness.
Let’s clear it up once and for all – the correct way to refer to people with deafness is “deaf.”
The world is buzzing with news of the “fake” sign language interpreter at the Mandela Memorial service, who awkwardly gestured for nearly four hours without producing any coherent information while world leaders gave speeches commemorating the death of Nelson Mandela. The Deaf community is outraged, demanding an explanation for this grossly-under qualified interpreter that denied them an opportunity to participate in this momentous moment in history and poorly represented Deaf culture and the interpreting profession as a whole. Today, the interpreter’s name has been revealed as Thamsanqa Jantjie, who explained his poor performance by claiming to have been struck by a schizophrenic episode during his interpretation on stage. While this would be a legitimate excuse were it true, schizophrenia hardly explains the multiple unethical components that led to and came after this scandalous event. Our analysis paints a different portrait of this unacceptable lapse of ethics and provides our seven problems with the Nelson Mandela interpreter:
1. Jantjie’s initial self-report of his (nonsensical) performance was positive.
In an interview with Johannesburg’s Talk Radio 702, Jantjie defended his interpretation. When asked if he was happy with his performance at the Mandela Memorial, Jantjie responded, “Absolutely, absolutely. I think that I’ve been a champion of sign language.” In addition, he expressed confusion that people were complaining about his interpretation, stating “he could not understand why people were complaining now, rather than after other events.” Later, in his AP interview, Jantjie “insisted… that he was doing proper sign-language interpretation of the speeches of world leaders.”
2. Jantjie’s weak English skills.
Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu, deputy minister of women, children and people with disabilities, stated, “For you to be able to interpret, you must understand the language that’s being spoken at the podium. He is Xhosa-speaking as his first language; the English was a bit too much for him. So, yes, he could not translate from English to sign language.”
3. Jantjie should have been teamed with a second interpreter.
Another question that surfaces is why Thamsanqa Jantjie was not interpreting with a team or second interpreter. Because of the incredible amount of stamina interpreting requires from both the mind and body, standard South African interpreting protocol requires that lengthy interpreting jobs are performed by multiple interpreters, alternating every twenty minutes. However, Jantjie remained on stage for the entire ceremony, which lasted over three hours. The general purpose of this standard is to maintain the concentration level of the working interpreter by allowing the interpreter to take frequent breaks. This protocol also insures that if one of the interpreters is suddenly rendered unable to interpret, another interpreter is available and ready to take their place. If the agency responsible for providing interpreters for the Mandala Memorial had followed this basic interpreting protocol and sent Thamsanqa Jantjie with a team, the other interpreter could have immediately taken over at the onset of Jantjie’s schizophrenic episode, and the Deaf community would not have been deprived the opportunity to participate in this momentous occasion in history.
4. Jantjie received complaints from previous jobs.
In an interview Jantjie asserted he “has previously interpreted at many events without anyone complaining.” However, the Deaf Federation of South Africa claims they filed a complaint with the ANC after Jantjie’s poor interpretation at previous events. Videos have surfaced of Jantjie interpreting a song at the ANC’s Mangaung policy conference, where he “pumped his arms up and down” and often merely made gestures that imitated the performer’s.
5. Complaints of Jantjie’s incompetence began at the start of the interpretation.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Jantjie stated that “his hallucinations began while he was interpreting.” This statement implies that there should have been a segment of coherent interpreting, albeit brief, before Jantjie’s hallucinations rendered his “interpretation” incomprehensible. Yet all reports of the incident indicate Jantijie’s interpretation was nonsensical from the moment he raised his hands. There is no evidence that indicates a sudden plummet in his performance at the beginning of the ceremony, which would be expected if Jantjie was overcome by hallucinations while interpreting.
6. Agency that hired Jantjie “vanished.”
Several issues are arising related to the agency that provided Thamsanqa Jantjie as an interpreter. Jantjie maintains that he was employed by SA Interpreters, an agency that was hired by ANC for the Mandela Memorial. The Deputy Minister of Women, Children and People with Disabilities Hendrietta Bogopane-Zulu has stated that “the translation company offered sub-standard services [and] the rate they paid the translator was far below the normal levels.” Efforts to contact SA Interpreters has been unsuccessful, and the agency appears to have disappeared. Oddly, the address and phone number Jantjie supplied in an interview both turned out to be false. According to MSN News, “AP journalists who visited the address of the company that Jantjie provided found a different company there, whose managers said they knew nothing about SA Interpreters.” It is suspected this agency has been supplying unqualified interpreters for a lengthy amount of time. Bogopane-Zulu contends, “We managed to get hold of them, and then we spoke to them wanting some answers and they vanished into thin air. It’s a clear indication that over the years they have managed to get away with this.”
7. Schizophrenia episode questionable.
A University College London medical expert has weighed in on the controversy, claiming the gestures produced by Jantjie did not look like they were caused by schizophrenia. Jo Atkinson, clinical psychologist and researcher at the Center for Deafness, Cognition and Language attests, “The disruption of sign language in people with schizophrenia takes many forms, but this does not look like anything I have seen in signers with psychosis.”
While the Mandela Memorial interpreter incident was a tragedy to the many Deaf people who attended the event and expected to be provided with accurate interpretation, this event has drawn international attention to the issue of qualified sign language interpreters. Thamsanqa Jantjie is a painful reminder of the importance of qualified, certified interpreters in South Africa, the U.S., and around the world.
Have you ever noticed that sometimes the word “deaf” is capitalized, while other times it is not? If you are largely in hearing circles, it is likely you have never seen “Deaf” capitalized. But if you have spent any amount of time in the Deaf community, you most certainly will be accustomed to seeing this word used in both its uppercase and lowercase forms. Why is the word “deaf” sometimes capitalized and sometimes not? Secondly, does it really matter? Keep reading and we’ll answer these questions.
As insignificant as the capitalization of “deaf” might seem, this capitalization drastically changes the meaning of the word “deaf.” Lowercase “deaf” is generally used by hearing people as a label for individuals who cannot hear. Uppercase “Deaf” is used within the Deaf community to refer to a deaf person who identifies primarily with Deaf culture. Still unclear about the difference? Here’s the explanation for the development of these two different definitions.
The reason why hearing individuals and the Deaf community view deafness so differently is that each of these groups use a different paradigm when evaluating deafness. Hearing people view deafness from a medical perspective, seeing deafness as nothing more than the inability to hear. They view deafness through a negative paradigm, declaring something has been lost. The Deaf community, however, views deafness from a cultural perspective. Being Deaf means a person acquires sign language and belongs to a specific cultural community. The Deaf community uses a positive paradigm when evaluating deafness, asserting that something has been gained.
Some of you more observant readers might argue that members of the Deaf community sometimes use the lowercase word “deaf” to refer to certain individuals. The word “deaf” can be properly used, when referring to deaf individuals who do not identify with the Deaf community. Uppercase “Deaf” is only used when referring to deaf individuals who consider themselves members of the Deaf community.
Now that you know uppercase “Deaf” and lowercase “deaf” have different definitions, you will better understand the different mindsets of the people who use these words. For more information on this topic, visit this article by the National Associate of the Deaf.
If you need an interpreter for your “Deaf” or “deaf” client, contact us at CLIP Interpreting to schedule a certified interpreter from San Diego!
Is sign language universal? This is a question that is often answered falsely. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people unaffiliated with the Deaf community mistakenly assume that sign language is a universal language. However, nothing could be further from the truth. There are at least two hundred identified sign languages used across the world today, and this number is steadily growing. Here in the United States, American Sign Language (ASL) is the predominant sign language used. Some other more prominent sign languages used throughout the world include Mexican Sign Language (LSM), French Sign Language (LSF), and Australian sign language, known as Auslan. While every sign language does share the communication medium of sight in the same way that all spoken languages share the medium of sound, each of these sign languages possesses its own unique hand shapes and structures. There are a limited number of hand shapes used to construct each sign language, and these hand shapes are typically unique to the sign language itself. Grammar and sentence structure varies among sign languages as well.
The assumption that sign language is a universal language is largely based on another common misconception: that sign language is a language largely based on gestures and pantomime. For now, let’s focus on ASL. In order to test the gestural nature of ASL, linguists have evaluated ASL for iconicity. Iconicity is a measure of the similarity between a sign and its meaning. Linguists would produce a sign for an individual with no knowledge of ASL, then ask the individual to guess the meaning of the sign. Overall, only 40% of ASL has been labeled as iconic in nature.
Not only are there a plethora of individual sign languages, but there is high regional variation inside each sign language itself. For example, San Diegan signers and New York signers use completely different signs for basic words like “rude” and “dog.” This regional variation presents a challenge for sign language interpreters, who must be well-versed in regional signs beyond their own. San Diego interpreters must be familiar with regional signs from across the United States.
The next time you see someone signing, remember that the particular sign language they are using is only one of over two hundred sign languages used across the world!