Category Archives: BSL

‘We never meant any disrespect’ – Poem and background

The text of the article is available in BSL here; I was having some issues setting up to film and so got a friend to be my cameraman with a bribe of coffee. Further issues ensued with phone; apologies for the cutouts in the signed article, but thankfully I’d managed to fix the phone by the time I got to signing the poem. Whew!

This week is Deaf Awareness week, and coincidentally, I’ve just finished composing a poem inspired by THAT interpreter, the surrounding events and a recent oh-so-funny advert by the one and only LiveLens.

Some background to this poem; Thamsanqa Jantje is the ‘interpreter’ who royally messed up Mandela’s funeral service. Signing gibberish, he hallucinated or bluffed (depending on your point of view) his way through the entire event. On being exposed as a fake, he claimed that he’d been seeing angels and was receiving treatment for schizophrenia, before checking back into a psychiatric unit.

It got worse when it turned out that a man accused of murder – by necklacing; putting a tyre around someone’s neck and setting it on fire – as part of a mob, but escaped trial due to mental incompetence, had been allowed to stand in touching distance of various world leaders. The organisers had a lot of explaining to do.

And the world laughed. Oh, not everyone, to be sure. There was a heck of a fuss. But comedians couldn’t resist poking fun in ever so side-splittingly hilarious ways, and just type ‘fake sign language interpreter funny’ into youtube. I had to stop after three pages of results, it was too depressing.

LiveLens are the advertising start-up who have used Jantje to make an advert. And they snuck him out of said psychiatric unit to do it.

There are so many things wrong with all of this on so many levels, but LiveLens appear to be blithely – or cheerfully – unaware of the level of hurt and offence that they have caused.

As well as defending their actions on twitter, LiveLens issued a statement on their Facebook page:

“We never thought our video ad would gather so much interest from people.There is absolutely no disrespect meant at deaf people or anyone! The interpreter was “starring” before on SNL, Jay Leno and others. Its also ok to give people a 2nd chance. Thamsanqa is mentally ill and admitted several times he made a mistake that day. Should he be banned for life? Please share your thoughts”

Here is my deconstruction, and my response:

“We never thought our video ad would gather so much interest from people.”

Then why do it?

“There is absolutely no disrespect meant at deaf people or anyone!”

Again: then why do it?

LiveLens CMO Sefi Shaked said it himself: “[with] every campaign, some people think something is disrespectful… We are expecting an argument.” No disrespect intended, huh?

“The interpreter was “starring” before on SNL, Jay Leno and others.”

No, he wasn’t. He was being mercilessly sent up by actors in SNL, Jay Leno and others. The quality and sensitivity of the sketches involved were variable, but that’s a separate issue.

“Its (sic) also OK to give people a second chance.”

Yes it is, providing the people who get given the second chance are seen to use it well, showing understanding of the consequences of their actions and respectful gratitude. Otherwise, they just look like piss-takers. Case in point.

“Thamsanqa is mentally ill and admitted several times he made a mistake that day.”

About him being mentally ill. Didn’t LiveLens sneak him out of a psychiatric unit for a day to film the ad? A recovering schizophrenic with self-confessed hallucinations and violent tendencies? And offer him lots of money? Can anyone at LiveLens explain that thought process in a way that doesn’t make them seem like they were shamelessly exploiting a mentally ill man and the situation he found himself in?

And yes. He apologised for his performance and then went on to say his interpreting was the best in the world. He also cheerfully said he was the “great fake”. Then, in an interview with Betabeat regarding the ad, he said he wasn’t sorry or ashamed at all as he’d raised awareness for an important cause. Yep. He seems sorry.

If the cause was highlighting the importance of checking your interpreters’ qualifications BEFORE you put them on the world stage, job done.

If the cause was raising awareness of sign language in a positive light; fail. You want to raise awareness of sign language and the deaf community? Get a qualified interpreter and let the world see the beauty and flow of real sign language, honouring a world leader.

“Should he be banished for life?”

Honestly? Perhaps not, in a free world and all that, but by the same token a little respect wouldn’t go amiss and not parading around the farce he caused for amusement and – worst of all – profit. He’s profiting from being the interpreter who bluffed his way through a globally-televised funeral. LiveLens is helping him. That’s pretty far from banishment, and having seen that video, banishment would almost be too kind now.

“Please share your thoughts.”

I shall.

But for this, simply venting on my blog doesn’t seem enough.

So, I composed a poem. This was composed in English, so in signing it, I’ll follow the English structure, effectively SSE. One day I may attempt a full BSL translation, happy to collaborate with anyone up for the challenge! For now, here it is.

Oh, and – if you want to see interpreting done properly, check out http://www.realinterpreter.com.

PS: Further inspiration came from Terp Life, two words; balloon animal.

Without further ado, here’s the poem, with a signed translation.

We never meant any disrespect

We never meant any disrespect.
OK, so the interpreter was a fake,
But you have to admit it’s pretty funny,
right?

Hilarious.
The funeral of an elder statesman
a polar figure
reformed terrorist
or wrongly imprisoned freedom fighter?
A man who, merely by taking a walk
changed the world.
Then changed it some more.
Madiba.
Loved by many.

And his funeral
a worthy occasion
world leaders paying tribute,
a massive stage,
a mourning throng,
spotlit by glittering lenses
beaming to satellites,
a fittingly global connection.
What a chance
for signs to shine
to be part of the Rainbow
honouring the man
who showed that where there is rain
there can be light.

And his funeral
All inclusive; black, white, hearing, deaf, everyone
honouring a man who fought exclusion
betrayed
turned to farce
by a modern day Judas
who with spurious translations
segregated
sealed off
shut out an entire community.
This snake in plain sight
essentially
took a shit
a stupendous steaming turd
that landed on the stage with an almighty splat
that only those with receptive eyes could see.
SPLAT.
It hit the screens
it smeared down
and was left there til the end.
And then it hit the fan.
And the world laughed.
In surprise, in shock, in horror.
But it laughed.

We never meant any disrespect.
OK, so the interpreter was a fake,
But you have to admit it’s pretty funny,
right?

Sure. Funny in the same way
that if the whole thing had been conducted in Afrikaans
and was translated thus:

Walla walla walla
Rocking horse goes up and down
knife and fork
touch my face, pat my tummy
here is a balloon animal
kill the boer, kill them all
a breakdancing pineapple
hand me the scissors
I have no shame
a donkey farts in a tower
touch my face, pat my tummy
the bagpipes go wheedle wheedle wheedle
a rocking horse fucking a breakdancing pineapple
a menage a trois with the balloon animal
knife and fork
touch my face, pat my tummy

For hours.
Wouldn’t that have been hysterical?

Imagine the uproar
when English users finally broke through
and the shambles exposed.
Can you imagine?
And if then the world laughed
and took to the internet
spoofing English
spouting gibberish in a mockery
dancing around blabbering
for the craic
even professional comedians join in the fun
with lazy kicks at the wounded.
Then corporate opportunists
colluding with avaricious delusionists
for advertising gimmicks

And then said

We never meant any disrespect.
OK, the interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral was a joke,
but you’ve got to admit it’s pretty funny,
right?

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This Saturday, I’m going to be a ‘book’ and I can’t wait!

The Human Library is a project, now a global movement, that seeks to challenge stereotypes and encourage dialogue. The idea is simple; a ‘reader’ can go into the Human Library, browse a catalogue and borrow a ‘book’, the twist is that the ‘book’ is a living, breathing individual with a story to tell.

All the ‘books’ are volunteers, drawn from as wide a background as possible, reflecting various cultural, religious and ethnic identities as well as differing viewpoints, in short, people who can be misrepresented and misunderstood.

I think it’s a brilliant idea; a safe environment in which people can ask their books things they may have wanted to know but never had the opportunity. What could be a safer and more calming environment than a library? The metaphor is extended as far as it will go, and I love it, from the rules for the ‘reader’: “the book has the right to be returned in the same condition in which it was lent” to creating a ‘catalogue reference’.

The project was created for the Roskilde Festival in Copenhagen, Denmark in 2000 by a group called Stop the Violence, and seeing its success and realising its potential, they set about promoting it around the world. Skip forward thirteen years and the Human Library has been put on in over 30 countries; the list is truly dizzying.

And on 16th and 17th November, the Human Library is coming to Bristol! It’s being run by Wunderbar, it’ll be held at the Parlour Showrooms opposite College Green, and yours truly is going to be a ‘book’! I got lucky; a BSL interpreter friend let me know about the project and offered to interpret should I be chosen. I applied, explaining that as a deaf person (with a punk hairdo, no less) I often felt that there are a lot of misperceptions and a lot of barriers for deaf people out there that hearing people are just not aware of. I wanted to bring it out into the open, try and raise awareness in my own way. It must have been a good enough pitch as I got in!

The preparation workshop was an eye-opener, I suspect as much for them as it was for me. I loved the enthusiasm, the organisers created a very easy-going atmosphere, and it’s possibly the widest variety of people I’ve ever shared a room with. This Human Library should be good, and I’m not just saying that!

That friend came good and so Kyra Pollitt will be my interpreter for my ‘book in translation’, a phrase she came up with and I’ve shamelessly borrowed, as you’ll see in my catalogue reference. It feels good to be part of a global project to challenge prejudices and it’s great to be flying the flag for the deaf community!

However, remember when I said it may have been an eye-opener for them as much as it was for me? It seems that the organisers fell into the trap that many have fallen into before; simply not considering what they would do if a deaf person came to the project. Another example of deafness as the ‘invisible disability’… To give them credit, once the oversight was realised, the organisers were more than happy to do all they could to fix it, and I think this is something they’ll take forward into any future Human Libraries – making sure that deaf people, so often an excluded minority – are catered for. For the time being, they’ve done something creative with their funds and are prepared to negotiate for a couple of hours of general terping for the event.

So I’m putting a shout out – if there are any terps out there who have an hour or two free this weekend who’d like to be part of this project, please contact Ilana at Wunderbar at ilana@wunderbar.org.uk. Please. Pretty please. If it helps, think of it as a birthday present to me! (Genuinely, it was my birthday yesterday.) Please, please, please.

Ahem. At time of writing, there’s no access for my fellow deaf human to take part in a project I’m involved in and yes I do find it a little incongruous, I think it’s the first time it’s happened. However, as I’ve said, the organisers are learning fast and I think they’ll be taking this forward into future events; certainly I want to go to any future Human Libraries as a ‘reader’. It’s such a cool project and deserves wider recognition!

In the meantime, if you’re up for an interesting conversation that will almost certainly challenge one of your worldviews, rock on down to the Parlour Showrooms this weekend!

In a way, I’d like to think I’ve already fulfilled my purpose as a ‘book’ in that by my presence I’ve spread a little awareness and made people think, and the Human Library has gained a new dimension. If I can do that this weekend, just make people aware and make them think about deaf people and our place in society, I’ll consider this entire project worthwhile.

For the curious, here’s my catalogue reference:

Title: I’m not deaf, just ignoring you… oh wait, I am deaf.

Date and place of publication: 1983, Surrey

Dedications: Kyra Pollitt, the translator for this ‘book in translation’

Synopsis: People often think I’m ignoring them, but I feel I am the one who is ignored. There are an estimated 9 million (one in seven) hard of hearing or deaf people in the UK, yet access and awareness are a constant uphill battle, for even the simplest things. I’m a poet, writer, traveller, performer; I just want the same freedom as hearing people to enjoy and live my life, however random it may be.

Notes: This is a 3D book in translation, featuring British Sign Language. Please do not be alarmed if it makes sudden movements.

Please handle the book binding carefully: it features a textured blue mohican.

There it is, wonder how many ‘readers’ I can tempt? 🙂

Wunderbar’s creative director Ilana Mitchell kindly agreed to answer a few questions, to give an extra insight into the project and the motivations behind it.

How did you / Wunderbar get involved in the Human Library?

I saw a Human Library in Canada when I was visiting in 2010, and was really inspired by the project. At that event I met a “Book” who was Québécois who had taught himself about 10 languages and worked as a translator during many wars and conflicts.

When I came home I researched the project and found out more about how it started, and its aims to create a space for challenging stereotypes, a space for asking difficult questions. This and its playfulness all fitted really well with Wunderbar’s aims.

What elements attracted you to the project most?

I love how simple the concept is and at the same time its pretty powerful. Every time we’ve done it the workshops have been very inspiring. The Books all get to make friends and support each other – somehow the safety in the space to be open about yourself and whatever stereotype you might fit with allows for some great camaraderie. And I think it boosts the confidence of the Books both to be part of the project and beyond.

The other bit I like is the catalogue and the readers’ reviews – you’ll get to see these on Saturday. Each time a Book is read is a personal experience, shared between Book and Reader. Through the writing in the catalogues and the reviews these get shared more widely, and they are so often really warm and friendly, it’s like the conversations continue on paper.

Am I the first deaf person to be involved in the Human Library in the UK and has my involvement changed how Wunderbar will approach future installations of the Human Library?

I don’t know in the UK, but first for us. Though in our last festival in 2011 we did a very challenging project which attempted to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We learnt a lot about how hard it is to be truly accessible. I had lots of assumptions I had never considered as such – like English being a second language to people for whom BSL is a first, or how strong regional dialects are.

Sadly, the artist we worked with on the UDHR project died earlier this year, though not before the UN accepted and now host on their website an official BSL translation. I’m really keen to build on both that project and now since meeting with you, working out how best to go forward to make all our projects as accessible as possible.

I’m looking forward to having further conversations with you, and hopefully others. I’d like to think that in coming from both the deaf and the hearing side we can make good arguments for how to best work together to bridge the gaps, that we can help each other understand the difficulties and challenges we face and come up with some positive suggestions which we can share more widely.

I mentioned the challenge of funding when we met – this is a dull subject but one it’s important to tackle. Human Library is full of volunteer books, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have costs. As very enthusiastic arts practitioners, we’ll always squeeze far more out of a budget than is actually really practically covered in costs. It’s both admirable and naive: that make do / make happen attitude is in many ways a privilege of those who can function most “normally” in society. To make access equitable needs money not to be an object – which is easier said than done.

I very much hope you agree and are up for this quest! I think that’s important for all our projects, not just Human Library, and everyone else’s too!

Big thanks to Ilana for her insightful and great answers – I didn’t realise Wunderbar had been involved in the translation of Universal Declaration of Human Rights into BSL, fabulous stuff! Brilliant to be involved with them and definitely will be keeping in touch – that’s a quest well worth going on!

Now… who’s coming to the Human Library? Spread the word! 🙂

A poem in remembrance of the CDS.

They really did it. The University of Bristol really did it. They really shut the Centre for Deaf Studies.

And I haven’t had any reply to my email in which I accused them of academic vandalism.

It is academic vandalism. It’s a crying tragedy. What does a Centre have to do to stay open? Win funding? The CDS did that. Produce graduates with a reasonable prospect of future employment in their chosen discipline? The CDS did that. Conduct ground-breaking research and change perspectives? The CDS did that. Win worldwide prestige for the University? The CDS did all that and more.

The University crippled the Centre by closing down the undergraduate programmes ‘for academic reasons’ then said the Centre wasn’t getting enough income to be viable. This seems somewhat like shooting someone in the leg and then telling them they deserve to get eaten by the big angry bear because they’re not running away fast enough.

In these times of austerity and recession, one could perhaps understand a venerable organisation like the University of Bristol wanting to tighten their belts. Times are tough, after all.

Imagine my surprise then, when I walked into the main entrance of the building that housed the CDS a couple of months ago. I saw something. My step slowed. I turned to look at it fully. My mouth dropped open. The object of my disbelieving attention?

A great big poster advertising the new ‘Priory Road Redevelopment’. It showed a big shiny building with lots of expensive-looking detail. Lots of glass, some fancy landscaping. What?

To recap, they’re shutting the CDS due to lack of money, then they’re building a great big new fancy complex on the site.

I fear I cannot write what I think about that, it might turn the screen blue.

However, what I did do was compose a poem. I had been invited to perform at the CDS Ball on 22nd June (and a big kudos here to the third year students who organised it on top of their studies – go you!) and I wanted to create a poem that a) honoured the CDS and b) expressed the outrage that shutting it is.

It took me a while, but finally, inspiration struck me. The address of the Centre was Priory Road. Priory is an old word meaning religious house, a place for monks or nuns to study, pray, write, etc. But long ago, disaster fell when Henry VIII decided that a) He could come up with a better church than the one in Rome and b) look at all that money the religious houses had. In the “dissolution of the monasteries” most of the religious houses in England were closed and ransacked, with the wealth going to the Crown. Funnily enough, this dissolution was also preceded by cynical rule-changing, with dubious reports and ‘fact-finding’ that led to only one inevitable conclusion.

Perfect. It also occurred to me that an old word for a servant of the king or higher noble used to be ‘squire’. Ahem. Other things that were in my head were the maze-like structure of the CDS, who the monks and nuns might worship, the CDS library (which I really hope the University of Bristol will at least try to preserve), the reams of writings produced in one form or another, the students, the other deaf studies institutions that sprung up after the CDS, in fact there are various references and in-jokes scattered around, I’m not going to give you all the clues, you’ll have to watch it and see for yourself!

Here, with thanks to Amy Claridge for filming, and more kudos to her and the other organisers, is ‘The Priory’, complete with a brief introduction to the poem. I’ve subtitled the intro, but I have no English translation for the poem as yet. Give me time.

Wherever we go, we shall always remember the CDS.

The Birds!

Well, well, well. It’s been a bit of a hiatus on the blog, but I do have some good excuses. For example, from 23rd April to 10th May I was in rehearsals for a play called The Birds. There, that’s a good excuse isn’t it? I mentioned it on here once or twice, but on 11th and 12th May we did it. We really did it. We put on an absolutely bonkers show with feathers, sequins and dance routines and got the audience on their feet every time!

I loved my costume. I can honestly say that, before this, the last time I wore a dress was 12 years ago. It was my mothers’… actually let’s not worry about which birthday it was, only know that it was a special birthday request from my mother. That’s what it usually takes to get me into a dress.

So imagine my trepidation when it was revealed I was not only going to be wearing a dress, it was going to be a flowing, ruffled tasteful ivory creation. Hmm. But, designed by Steve Denton and made by Bryony Tofton, it was fantastic! Because what went over it was a brilliant waistcoat made of sequins and feathers. And a crown.

Because I’m Eryr Euraid, baby, Queen of the Birds! For those who don’t speak Welsh, Eryr Euraid means ‘Golden Eagle’ and you’d better damn well do as I say, or it’s the mountain goat treatment for you. Look at those poor lickle goats.

And yes, I did watch this to help me get in character, as I was supposed to be the permanently angry / annoyed / regal Eryr Euraid and I was having trouble channelling this. Apparently I’m ‘too nice’ and ‘looked like you’re enjoying yourself too much’. For the record, that was meant to be an evil smile. These aren’t bad things to have said about one, I suppose, but not when you’re threatening to rip two of the other characters into tiny, little pieces.

This was my first real play, and I loved it. I loved being part of it and the camaraderie of the cast. It was also bloody hard work. I’m not just talking about the long days / weeks doing things over and over again in slightly different ways, or the fact that I can recall “peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, where’s the peck of pickled peppers peter piper picked?”, “there’s a chip shop in space that sells space ship shaped chips” and “I’m not a pheasant plucker…”

The rest of the cast were hearing. Imagine it, three long weeks spending every waking moment with hearing people. I had interpreters for the rehearsals but I was staying in a hotel with the other non-local cast. No terps for the communal evening meals in various restaurants. The only thing that saved my sanity was the fact that all of them can fingerspell and sign a little bit, and the ones who for various reasons can’t, were willing to repeat things almost to infinity. Thank goodness for that.

But even so, after three weeks solid of near-constant lip-reading, I was starting to crack up. I was starting to remember why I’d rejected the hearing world when I realised there was an alternative. It’s because the hearing world is noisy. Noisy, noisy, noisy. And they rely so much on the noise. Chatter, chatter, chatter. Every damn day.

Towards the end, as I was starting to lose my grip on reality, I couldn’t help reflecting that I really was in the company of birds. Imagine it. You’re sat at a table in a forest, alone. All around you, in the branches, every bird in the forest is singing or chattering at the top of their voice, and waitresses are banging and scraping things. It’s a cacophony of endless, meaningless noise, drowning your hearing-aids. And occasionally, one of those birds will fly up to you, tell what they’re all chattering about, a couple more might fly up and for a while you’re included in the conversation. But in order to understand these birds, you have to focus on their beaks with 100% concentration. If you lose concentration, which is entirely possible after a long day, or the conversation wanders away from you, the birds fly away again. And you end up reading the news on your phone. Which I did a lot, because frankly I didn’t have the energy to lip-read constantly after a week of rehearsals, never mind three. I even started writing a poem on this theme – the being surrounded by birds, I mean, not the news on my phone.

Let me make clear that I love the cast. They’re a bunch of amazing, cool, talented people, and they can and do fingerspell and make the effort to sign and / or patiently repeat things. Some even learned new signs from me, and tried their very best to remember them. The only thing I could have wished for is perhaps more awareness of how little I actually understand of what’s being said around me, which if there’s no terp and I’m tired, is very little indeed. The rule of thumb is – if you’re not looking directly at me within a distance of about 6 feet, I haven’t understood what you’ve said. So all that chattering to each other, amongst each other; my lip-reading skills are decent, but they’re not THAT good.

Sanity issues aside, I did have a great time. It was a brilliant ride, and I’d love to do it again. It did no harm to my ego that in my first scene of the play, every Bird character had to bow and scrape to me. Who am I kidding? I loved that! Everyone should have a chance to be Queen for a day – and I did it for three weeks! Bow to me, peasants!

Overall, we adapted to each other very well, and we also came up with visual cues for me throughout the play. Case in point, my first scene, I had to come on while another Bird was singing beautifully. The two human characters were supposed to clap, thus attracting the attention of the chorus, at which point we’d chase them around before beating them up. Problem – we anticipated that the audience might clap too, and they did, every time. Kudos to you, Nightingale! Solution: Nightingale (who also answers to Andria) would smile and nod politely through the audience applause, then when the humans clapped, she would bow towards them. At which point I would notice them, and give the signal to attack. That’s because I’m the Queen, baby, did I mention? Don’t cross the Euraid!

And the director, Cheryl Martin, had the really cool idea to have the Birds as my chorus. This meant that as I signed my lines, the Birds had to say them, in harmony, hence my ‘chorus’. We even made a tape of the chorus doing their creepiest, meanest voices for the lines so that when it was played during the play, it would seem as if the voices of the chorus were coming from everywhere. I thought it was a great way to integrate my signs into the play, and illustrate Eryr’s authority, and I loved the idea of being followed around by a group of loyal servants whose only jobs were to bow to my every whim and voice everything I signed in creepy, birdy voices. I wonder if I could get my interpreters to do that…

Furthermore, every performance was BSL terped by Erika James, and had captions on screens all around the stage. I’m not sure what else we could have done to make this play accessible. And yet, how many deaf people came? Very few indeed. I won’t lie, I was disappointed. It’s at this point I’d like to thank Rosie and Ellie for coming all the way from London and Birmingham respectively to see the play – thank you! And thanks for the drinks, which really I should have been buying for you after you’d made that effort, and I’m glad you enjoyed the play! As for the one who said “oh, but if I’d known you were going to be wearing a dress…” what does that have to do with anything? I’M IN A PLAY YOU PEASANT! I digress.

We had amazing people working on the play, too, for example Ange Thompson who, as stage manager, was called upon to track down such things as a big fluffy penguin toy, a scroll, and some hearing-aid batteries (mea culpa). She was also in charge of my cues – and this was another brilliant thing – there were little boxes with two lights at eye level at each of the stage entrances, the green light meant get ready and red meant go. This was how I knew when it was time for me to regally enter the stage, and Ange, as well as looking after the captions, operating the chorus voices and various cues, was also in charge of cuing me. And she did it very well, bringing a new meaning to multi-tasking!

There are so many people who were involved in this, I’m afraid to start naming them all in case I leave any out! But I think you all did a great job, and this was a great opportunity and experience, and I’m really glad I was able to be a part of it. I love you guys.

Long Live The Birds!