Category Archives: Sign Language

‘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.

SAVE THE CENTRE FOR DEAF STUDIES!

It has been a while. Let’s skip right past the part where I say I’m sorry for not posting for so long (I am) and promise to write up my experiences in Nepal and USA (I will, but in the meantime here’s a snippet from the Limping Chicken) and explain the delay is due to the worst jet lag I’ve ever had in my life and a residual malaise that I’ve found hard to shift (when you read the full write up, you’ll see why) and get right to why I’ve finally been moved to get back on my blog.

It has been an amazing week. It started with the CDS Ball in Bristol on Saturday, where I performed a poem, then went to Birmingham on Sunday for InteGreat Theatre’s big hurrah, where I performed a poem, then back to Bristol on Mon only to bounce back again on Weds for meeting and prep for Thursday’s Deaf Explorer Unconference where I was due to present a summary of my trip and perform a poem, then last but not least, BSL Pride day on Saturday where, with the madly talented Jason Sharpe, I was due to perform – you’ve guessed it – a poem.

The CDS Ball, though. Talk about bittersweet. Lovely to see everyone, and pay our respects to the Centre for Deaf Studies and celebrate the fact it’s been around for 35 years. If that sounds somewhat contradictory, it was. Yay, 35 years! Aw, this is the last year of undergraduates.

The CDS undergraduate programme was axed in 2010. This did not pass without comment. There were protests, local news coverage, letters, general outrage. All to no avail. This year will mark the last group of undergraduates to pass through the CDS. So the third years took it upon themselves to organise a Ball in honour of the CDS and all it represents, and I have to give them lots of kudos for rolling up their sleeves and organising it all, I can only imagine the stress. And on top of exams too! KUDOS. *bows*

It was at the M Shed no less, MC’d by Matt Jenkins and featuring a few special guests from the history of the CDS. It was surreal. Everyone was dressed in their finest, including myself, I’d picked out a black velvet jacket, a proper dress shirt, and borrowed some cufflinks from my father. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but the stone in my ring matched my navy blue bowtie. Well you didn’t expect me to wear a dress, did you…?

We even managed to raise a few laughs for Gavin Lilley’s stand-up comedy and the slightly anarchic raffle (where I won a sweatshirt – go, me!) and the golden girls’ speeches – and I hope I don’t get lynched for calling them that, but it was inspiring to see them all on stage and equally depressing to know why we were all there.

Yes, depressing. The Centre for Deaf Studies scored a lot of firsts, from the first use of the term ‘Deaf Studies’, to the first textbook in BSL, which is still in use today; it was at the forefront of research into Deaf Studies, developing that unique field of sociological research, joining up with other areas of sociology, providing safe haven for deaf and hearing academics and students alike. They gathered a brilliant dedicated interpreting team and having a degree from the Uni of Bristol is / was a great start for any would-be terp or academic.

I myself have been a research subject; I was lucky enough to be part of Dr Rachel Sutton-Spence’s Metaphor in Creative Sign Language Project for several years, and I credit my involvement with this project for my development as a poet, both in skills and confidence. I had the opportunity to hang out with some great, talented BSL poets and help with poetry festivals and in return all I had to do was sign a few consent forms and allow Dr Sutton-Spence and her keen research fellows Dr Kaneko and Dr West to film my performances and the occasional informal discussion / interview so they could write papers to their hearts’ desire. For me, it was a fantastic deal. I owe the CDS a lot.

Not to mention the fun I’ve had helping with the interpreting student’s roleplays. As well as giving me a chance to flex my acting muscles, it was fun to see their reactions to the scenarios (given to me by the tutor, so don’t blame me) and also an interesting insight into what goes into a terp’s training. Everybody starts somewhere, including BSL terps. Bless. They’re so cute. I’m going to miss that.

And now tomorrow, there is a meeting. On the 5th July, 2013, it will be decided whether or not to completely and permanently shut down the CDS.

The University of Bristol is insane. It’s like they don’t know what they’re throwing away.

Help them see the light.

There’s still a day in which to send your strongest objections via email to:

Professor Eric Thomas, Vice Chancellor, via his exec assistant:  jami.west@bristol.ac.uk

and

Mr Denis Burn, Chair of Council: denis.burn@bristol.ac.uk and also via  Clerk to Council: hugh.martin@bristol.ac.uk

Advice from savedeafstudies.org.uk updates: http://www.savedeafstudies.org.uk/?p=468 

Tell them:

1.     we want the subsidy the Vice Chancellor announced in December – honour the promise!

2.     we want an independent review of the finances

3.     we want a proper impact assessment – the decision affects the Deaf community and the hearing community

Please write now!

For my part, this is what I have sent, with a tiny little bit borrowed from Dr Emery’s letter at the end:

For the attention of Professor Eric Thomas, Vice Chancellor of the University of Bristol, and Mr Denis Burn, Chair of Council of same.

My name is Donna Williams (BA, MA) and I wish to register my surprise, dismay and extreme disappointment at the prospect that the Centre for Deaf Studies may be permanently and completely shut down. I hold degrees in Deaf Studies with Philosophy and Ethics and Social Philosophy, and it was my hope that one day I would be able to do a cross-departmental Phd between the Centre for Deaf Studies and the Centre for Ethics in Medicine, both of which are highly-renowned academic centres that the University of Bristol should be proud to own, and should, in my view, defend to the last.  The Centre for Deaf Studies has been at the forefront of exciting sociological research of the highest order, research that has contributed to changes in perception of sign language and deaf people. The work of the Centre for Deaf Studies over the last 35 years has been invaluable, both in terms of research and in terms of producing high-quality graduates with good prospects of employment, and the international regard in which it is held is well-deserved. Closing the Centre for Deaf Studies would be an act of academic vandalism.

I cannot believe that the University of Bristol would let such a valuable asset, one that it should proudly boast of, die. Furthermore, it is my understanding that a subsidy of £100,000 was offered in order to keep the CDS open, which was then withdrawn. This only serves to further my disbelief. Why has the University of Bristol not honoured this promise?

I urge the University of Bristol in the strongest possible terms to give a great deal of consideration to any decisions relating to the Centre for Deaf Studies, including an impact assessment; decisions relating to the Centre for Deaf Studies will affect the Deaf community and the wider hearing community as a whole. I also urge you to begin an independent review of the finances so that the Centre for Deaf Studies may demonstrate its financial worth as well as its academic worth.

I appeal to you to rethink your plans to close the Centre for Deaf Studies. Please commit to your original promise not to close the Centre and to offer a subsidy.  That would enable the Centre to focus on developing a top quality institution of research into sign language and Deaf culture, and sign language Interpreting.

It is not too late to put research into the rights of Deaf people ahead of the economics of the current ‘austerity’ climate. In the long term the University will be a great beneficiary.

Please don’t throw away a Centre for learning that is held in such high regard across the world. It should be possible to work out a solution with political will and commitment. If the University is prepared to give the Centre a long term plan, there is no doubt it can continue to be a pioneering Centre for Deaf studies related research.

Yours Sincerely,

Donna Williams, BA, MA

Get writing!

Today, I am a Deaf adult.

Recently, I’ve been reading a new blog over at Becoming Deaf, written by Indi, whose experiences I can identify with. She even has her own ‘things not to say to deaf people’ list, and I suspect she’s been much gentler in her responses than I was in my own lists… I digress. As well as discussing the issue of speech, which I may well take up in a future post, she blogged about being ‘Somewhere Between Deaf and Hearing’ and throws open a question about how people have come to accept their identity. I’ve also been reading Melissa Mostyn-Thomas’ musings over at her Journal on ‘Writing, BSL, my Deaf identity and me’, and with all the stuff I’ve been reading for my dissertation, I’ve got identity themes swirling around.

Identity is a fluid, complex subject at the best of times. Today, I identify as a Deaf adult. With or without the capital ‘D’, I’m deaf. Functionally, I’m missing an average of 90 – 95dB, which makes me profoundly deaf. In non-technical terms, I’d be hard put to it to notice a pneumatic drill or a low-flying aircraft without my hearing-aids. Well, I’d still be able to see them, but you get my drift. I’m D/deaf.

But I didn’t always see myself this way.

A little while ago, someone called me ‘hearing impaired’ to my face. Right to my face. I’ll admit it, I blinked. I looked across to the interpreter to see if I’d lip-read them correctly, but they chickened out and signed ‘deaf people’. Aha, a bit of cultural interpreting there, I fancy, but I know what I saw.

I should say at this point, I am not in any way criticising the phenomenon of cultural interpreting, it is a commonplace, even necessary part of translation; languages are so different that colloquial phrases are often ‘lost in translation’ and culturally sensitive interpreting keeps the meaning. When this person said ‘hearing impaired’ they did mean deaf people in general. It just took me by surprise.

Nobody has called me ‘broken’ to my face in years. Besides, the interpreter in question probably (correctly) guessed that signing ‘hearing impaired’ would get some reaction that the hearing person I was talking to would notice, be it anything from a raised eyebrow to slamming down my pen and screaming “they said what?!”

Then I had a dilemma. To correct or not to correct? “Excuse me, please don’t call me deficient”. In the end, I decided to let it lie. Then I wondered why it was even a big deal. Really, it’s just a phrase. Hearing people often think they’re being politically correct when they use it. It’s used in an official capacity, and is almost commonplace. Why did I even have an urge to correct her in the first place?

I think ‘Hearing Impaired’ came about as an attempt to be a) PC and b) to cover all hearing losses from hard-of-hearing right the way through to profoundly deaf whilst being suitably vague as to not reveal level of actual deafness, in one fell swoop.

The problem with that is, ‘hearing impaired’ effectively says ‘hearing damaged’ (the sign it translates to) ‘hearing deficient’ ‘hearing broken’ ‘a hearing person who HAS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THEIR HEARING’ ‘hearing abnormal’. Not really the image one wants when one is trying to present deafness as just another spectrum within the bounds of ‘normal’ (See Georges Canguilhem’s book for a fascinating discussion on ‘The Normal and The Pathological’).

To me, my deafness is not what holds me back. What holds me back is society’s inability and sometimes even unwillingness to adapt to it. If there were visual display systems everywhere as a matter of course and all children taught basic sign language (studies have shown that sign language at a young age can improve language uptake, so why not use that instead of bloody phonics?) then the lives of many deaf / HoH / ‘hearing impaired’ people would be improved. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me at all (iffy legs notwithstanding). Plus, ‘deaf’ is, to me anyway, a neutral, factual term, whilst ‘hearing impaired’ says ‘broken hearing person’.

The thing is that until I was about 19, I did see myself as hearing impaired. I’d been told I was hearing impaired all my life, been complimented on my speech, been told that I ‘didn’t need to sign’, congratulated for not doing so, told I was doing ever so well, congratulated for even being able to talk, constantly told that being hearing impaired wasn’t going to hold me back at all because I was so clever. Honestly, there are a few people I’d like to take aside now and have a word with them about messing with kids’ heads.

The problem with the above was that I was still struggling. I was falling behind in school and I couldn’t cope in social situations at all. I can hear voices, certainly well enough to mimic words and be complimented on how well I can do so, but only if the voice is clear, with no distractions, and I can only make sense of the voice if I can see the lips, or have other visual clues such as, say, subtitles. Otherwise it’s just random noise. I can’t understand people if there’s any background noise and group conversations are just impossible, it’s like trying to watch multi-player tennis with an invisible ball.

My point being, I was a very unhappy teenager. Whilst I wasn’t officially diagnosed until 20 or so, I’m willing to bet I was severely clinically depressed from about 13 / 14 onwards. Adults kept telling me I had such a good voice and I was going to do ever so well, and yet I wasn’t.

I struggled socially, had only one good friend, rarely understood anything going on round me, was mocked by my peers and occasionally by teachers, teased to death, pushed around, and didn’t do as well in my exams as I knew I should be doing. The school’s own tests in year 7 (for non-UK, the first year of high school), which weren’t based on the curriculum but on aptitude, put me in the top 3% of the entire year. Literally, I was one of the dozen or so smartest out of 300-odd kids. Why was I still getting ‘D’s and ‘C’s? I just couldn’t understand it at all. I started to think it was my own fault for not trying hard enough. Looking back, the answers are obvious now. Heck only knows how much social information and curriculum I was missing.

What got me through was science fiction and books. I’ve always liked reading; curling up and losing myself in a book, creating a whole other world in my head. I credit my love of reading for my English skills; I certainly didn’t get them from school. By the time I was 14, I was reading Terry Pratchett and Isaac Asimov. Sci-fi shows such as Babylon 5, Space Precinct, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek TNG, DS9 & Voyager, Farscape, Stargate, any sci-fi show that was subtitled, I watched faithfully. Despite not understanding much of ‘real life’ going on round me, my vocabulary was way ahead of most of my peers. So why wasn’t I doing better in school? You’ve no idea how much I used to beat myself up over this.

As Indi says: “For most of my life, I felt like a broken hearing person… my conversations were mostly guessing games and hard work… People get tired of being asked to repeat themselves all the time, and it really doesn’t take long before you start to internalize that you’re just not trying hard enough, that your communication needs are an inconvenience, that there’s something wrong with you.”

Replace the word ‘people’ with ‘moody teenagers who can sense weakness like sharks sense blood’ and you have my pre-Uni education in a nutshell. Leaving school at 18, I was a shy, socially awkward, nervous hearing-impaired wreck.

My life only began to change when I started Uni, started learning sign language, and started to see myself as ‘D/deaf’. A Deaf person who knew their legal rights, a Deaf person who could adapt to different situations, a Deaf person who could have a conversation in the noisiest, rowdiest places, up to and including next to the speakers in nightclubs. A Deaf person with friends. Friends, plural!

In short, a Deaf person who wasn’t embarrassed, ashamed or afraid to ask for or even demand help.

Is it any wonder I still flinch when someone calls me ‘hearing impaired’? It gives me flashbacks to a time when I really thought it was my own fault for not trying hard enough or not being good enough at lip-reading, at fitting in with a world that for the most part has no idea what it’s like to be deaf.

That’s not to say that I’ve found total acceptance in the signing Deaf world. I was lucky at Uni, but in the years since then I’ve done things like make the mistake of making a joke based on an English pun in front of a Deaf person that I didn’t know well. After I had to explain the joke, which had fallen totally flat, they gave me a look of vague disgust, signed “good English”, and then ignored me for the rest of the night. That hurt. So does being called ‘half-hearing’, ‘oral’, and a sign that translates roughly to ‘speaks well’, but not in a nice way.

Thankfully, I’ve not had to put up with too much of that, and on the rare occasion that it happens, I’ve learned to ignore it, or even make a joke of it. And the truth is, despite all this, I’ve found far more understanding and acceptance within the D/deaf world than I have in the hearing world. Even so, when I picture myself in terms of the hearing and Deaf worlds, I usually see myself in the middle of a Venn diagram, not fully part of either world, yet part of both.

Today, I am a confident Deaf adult. I get on stage and perform sign language poetry, sign songs and occasionally plays. I do presentations for the NDCS. I write, whether it’s short plays or blog posts or a potentially controversial dissertation. I try to educate people on how to communicate with me, how to help me, and what it’s like to be deaf. It’s taken me ten years to get here. It’s taken counselling, some medication, support of friends and family and a lot of hard work.

Here I am.

My name is Donna Williams, aka DeafFirefly, and I am Deaf.

Addendum: And I would like to thank everyone at the University of Central Lancashire, 03-06. I really don’t know where I would be today if I hadn’t chosen to study Deaf Studies and Philosophy there, if the other D/deaf students hadn’t accepted me so quickly, and taught me to sign. Choosing to study there was the single most important decision I ever made. It changed my life.

Signs of madness, hope and coolness!

Signs of various kinds are brightening the world at the moment, let me tell you all about them!

I’m in a play! It’s called ‘The Birds’ and it’s based on the Ancient Greek comedy of the same name by Aristophanes. I’m not sure how much I can reveal, but the rehearsals have been brilliant, and the play is mad and funny. How many plays have you seen where the cast burst into song whilst transforming into other creatures? None? Then come to this!

It’s completely bonkers and a good laugh, but it doesn’t pull any punches in its’ analogies between the ‘Birds’ and the political situation today. I don’t have many lines but I’ll have a certain… regal… air. Bow to me! The cast are great, and I can vouch for their comedic talents. Have I whetted your curiosity yet? Then come on down to The Sherman Theatre on 11th and 12th May! All BSL terped of course, plenty of signs of madness to be seen! And I don’t just mean the terp… 🙂

The theatre blurb says to expect the unexpected as Disability Arts Cymru’s Unusual Stage School present their unique version of Aristophanes’s Greek comedy The Birds, directed by Cheryl Martin.

Expect the unexpected all right!

‘Signs of Hope: Deafhearing Family Life’ tells the story of a narrative inquiry with three deafhearing families. For many people, deafness represents loss and silence. For others, being deaf is a genetic quirk; an opportunity for learning, spiritual adventure and reward. (Yes, I lifted that from the official blog). The author, Dr Donna West, spent time – a lot of time – with three families, and this book is the result. What makes this book unique is the poetic and performative narratives at the heart of it; she has effectively communicated the families’ and individuals’ hopes and fears in an artistic, nuanced way.

I had the opportunity to attend a seminar Dr West gave about her research a while ago, and as part of it she showed us a poem that one of the deaf children, referred to as Bella, had written / created. It was a powerful analogy between penguins and a particular experience of deafness – you’ll have to read the book if you want that to make sense! But it inspired me to create a sign language poem based what I’d read, entitled ‘Bella’s Penguins’, that’s how expressive it was. This book may be well worth a read not only for its study of the experiences of a deaf/hearing family, but also for how these experiences have been described and narrated.

It will be launched at the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol on the 25th April, see the official blog for more info! All welcome, BSL terps laid on.

And lastly, after being blown away by the leader of the United States being able to sign (and his wife!) my inner geek is geeking out at a video that looks like it’s gonna go viral – it’s up to 1.9 million hits so far! What video?

Sir Paul ‘needs no introduction’ McCartney has only gone and produced a video of Natalie ‘Star Wars’ Portman and Johnny ‘that’s Captain Jack Sparrow’ Depp signing his song ‘My Valentine’.

Signing!

True, it’s American Sign Language, not British (and that sign is not ‘tampon’, it’s ASL, and it’s the correct ASL sign for ‘appear’. Forgive me for giggling though!) but the actors used are themselves American, so maybe if this video gets popular enough, Sir McCartney will come back to his roots and do a BSL version with some Brit celebs, though how he’s going to top Natalie ‘just call me the Black Swan’ Portman and Johnny ‘cool is my middle name’ Depp I’ve no idea. Love to see him try though!

Natalie Portman definitely has a natural style, I’d love to know if she’s signed before rehearsing for this video, and how much rehearsing it took. Johnny Depp has a certain moody stare that will no doubt set some hearts fluttering but whilst his hands aren’t as fluid as Portmans’, he still carries it off in style (is there anything he can’t carry off in style?).

Love it!

Signs of madness, hope and coolness indeed – I always knew signs could express anything, but it’s time the world knew it too. Go Sir McCartney!

Shit people say… to Sign Language Interpreters

In the midst of my preparations for – or rather avoiding my preparations for – Signing Hands Across the Water, I’ve been collecting some information for this post for a little while now.

When my ‘shit hearing people say… to deaf people’ blog became a surprise hit, I pondered on other possible themes for the meme (ooh, poetry, and I wasn’t even trying) and a chance comment by a Sign Language Interpreter made me think… what DO people say to Sign Language Interpreters?

So I asked a few terps, all of whom shall remain anonymous, and wow. Seriously, wow. I’m assured that most people are not like this, but as the saying goes, there’s always one…

“How long did it take you to learn Braille?”
It’s depressing and fascinating how many terps gave an example linked to Braille, from “do you speak Braille?” to “I’ve always wanted to learn Braille.” What is this obsession with Braille???

*Let’s see if the interpreter can interpret THIS… Insert silly word that is usually easy to interpret*
Grow up.

*Let’s see if the interpreter can interpret THIS… Insert rude word that then gets a laugh – at terp*
No, really, grow up.

“Who do I look at, you or them?”
Sigh.

“Oh no, don’t interpret that!”… the answer is usually “I just did.”
Sign Language Interpreters usually interpret simultaneously. You cannot call things back. And also – Booyah!

“They look a bit angry don’t they?” (Of someone who is just signing)
Do they look angry? Does their face look angry? Believe me, you’ll KNOW when they’re angry.

“Are you the signer?”
Sign Language Interpreter.

“Are you the sign lady?”
No, they’re the Sign Language Interpreter.

“Are you the madam interpreter?”
They’re not a dominatrix! Notice the lack of studded whips and fluffy handcuffs. They’re a SIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETER.

“Are you the sign gesture person?”
Nearly, but not quite. It’s SIGN LANGUAGE INTERPRETER.

“Are you the hand waver?”
Oh, for the love of…

“Excuse me, do you mind not interpreting this? This is a private conversation.” (while on the phone and speaking loudly enough to hear)
Excuse you, if the deaf person was hearing, they’d hear your little tiff with your soon-to-be-ex, just like every other hearing person in the vicinity, in fact I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but a few people are listening. Why shouldn’t the deaf person have the same access to this salacious gossip? Now leave the poor terp alone.

*When asked for more prep (since they had hardly provided any at all)*
“Oh, why? You’re not going to be miming that as well, are you?”
Words fail me. Or should I say mimes…?

“Oh, you work with deaf people? Oh, that’s so nice / wonderful / kind of you.”
Yeah…

“Hi, we need an interpreter, we have someone who is hearing-challenged…”
Deaf. I’m deaf.

“Oh, I used to know someone who was stone deaf.”
And your point is?

“Where’s the interrupter?”
We’ve gone over this.

“Oh how terrible it must be to be deaf… but I’d rather be deaf than blind.”
That remark would be random at the best of times.

“Do they always use hand signals?”
No, sometimes we use flashing lights, vibrations and touch. Or sometimes we use the medium of dance. Get down, baby!

Speaking of dance…

“Did you train at a dance school?”
Look, it was a sarcastic comment, OK? We don’t really communicate in dance. Except under special circumstances involving nightclubs and hot non-signing people.

“If you lose your job, you can become a tictac man!” *laughs*
I actually had to have this one explained to me; apparently at the horse races, the guys taking bets can communicate odds at some distance with special hand signals to each other. Oh, I see. Ha ha ha.

“If you lose your job, you can get a job as a plane marshal! You know, the ones with the orange flags?” *laughs*
Ha, bloody ha.

“Can I get one like you?”
Get one what? Can you clarify exactly what you mean, before someone calls the police?

“That must be almost as difficult as doing foreign language interpreting.”
Erm, simultaneously interpreting from one language to another, something that’s usually only attempted at the UN, and Sign Language Interpreters do it every day… Almost as difficult, yeah.

“How brave that poor deaf person is.”
I know. Just this morning, I rescued a hamster from a house fire.

“How long have they been suffering from deafness?”
OK, that’s enough, I think I’ve seen enough now.

Or have I? If you’re a Sign Language Interpreter, for your sins, and you have some strange / weird / just plain stupid thing some random person has said to you about interpreting that I’ve missed, don’t keep it to yourself. Get it off your chest in the comments below!

You never know, as well as giving us all a good laugh, we might make a few people think. But let’s do it for the laugh 🙂