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Sign language is not performance art [Commentary]

In the midst of the misery of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the media fell in love with then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's sign language interpreter, Lydia Callis, who captivated audiences with her expressive renderings of Mr. Bloomberg's humdrum press conferences.

"A bright light during dark days: Bloomberg's sign language star," swooned National Public Radio. New York Magazine praised her as "a legitimate reason to smile" in difficult times. And Saturday Night Live, in a sign she had truly arrived, impersonated her during an opening skit.

Deaf Americans were excited about Ms. Callis for a different reason: They understood what the mayor was saying.

Ms. Callis' meteoric rise to fame took us by surprise. When we — a deaf professor at Gallaudet University who uses interpreters on a regular basis, and a lawyer who regularly represents deaf individuals — watched Ms. Callis interpret Mr. Bloomberg's press conferences, she appeared to be a competent interpreter. But there was nothing particularly unusual about how she did her job. Surely, we thought, the media's interest in sign language would fade.

Instead, "celebrity sign language interpreter" turned into a hot new trend.

In June 2013, Slate ran a piece about Holly Maniatty, a Vermont farm girl with a flair for interpreting racy rap lyrics. A clip of Ms. Maniatty interpreting for Wu-Tang Clan at a concert went viral; Jimmy Kimmel brought Ms. Maniatty to his studio this month to compete in a "sign language rap battle" with Wiz Khalifa.

In December 2013, sign language was again in the limelight — and the subject of another Saturday Night Live spoof — when a man with apparently no knowledge of South African Sign Language was hired to interpret Nelson Mandela's memorial service.

A month later, the Wall Street Journal profiled Travis Painter, a Washington, D.C.-based interpreter who conveys wonky policy jargon into American Sign Language for the District's highly educated deaf workforce.

The reporters behind these stories may be well-intentioned. But really, they're reinforcing damaging stereotypes.

One major misconception is that American Sign Language is not a real language, but rather a combination of gestures, pantomime and exaggerated facial expressions. Although linguists have recognized for decades that signed languages are every bit as grammatically complex and linguistically rich as spoken languages, this insight has not reached the masses — even the more educated masses.

The subtle subtext of the media's approach has been to introduce its readers to American Sign Language as an oddity, more in the vein of a story about Cirque du Soleil than as a window into a sophisticated means of interpersonal expression. Wall Street Journal reporter Elizabeth Williamson delights in describing how Mr. Painter interprets "fiscal cliff" and "kick the can down the road" from English to American Sign Language. Would its readers be equally interested in a story about an interpreter translating arcane Washington bureaucratese into Spanish? We suspect not.

The media have also reinforced the perception that a deaf person's opinion is not as valuable as a hearing person's. Take, for instance, that Wall Street Journal article again. In a 1,000-word feature story, Ms. Williamson quotes no deaf people. On the Journal's website, you can listen to a five-minute radio interview with Ms. Williamson about the challenges of sign language interpreting, but because the Journal didn't transcribe the interview, it is completely inaccessible to deaf readers.

In December 2012, the New York Times quoted several deaf scientists, including this op-ed's co-author, in an article about new signs for specialized scientific terms, but rather than ask a deaf person to demonstrate the new signs on its website, it hired a hearing American Sign Language interpreter. When the New York Times covered Joshua George, a top-ranked wheelchair racer, the newspaper's accompanying video content showed him training on specialized equipment as he prepared for the Paralympic Games. It would have been absurdly insensitive to post a video of track and field star Usain Bolt demonstrating how Joshua George exercises. Why, then, is it acceptable to employ hearing people to showcase new technical signs that have been independently developed by deaf professionals?

For many, these omissions are painful reminders that, more than two decades after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there is still much work to be done before deaf Americans are treated as equal participants in our society.

We welcome the media's interest in American Sign Language interpreters. They bridge the linguistic divide between the hearing world and the deaf world. And in doing so, they perform a valuable service. But if the media approach American Sign Language as entertaining performance art, they are perpetuating a fallacy. And if the media believe that interviewing celebrity sign language interpreters obviates the need to communicate with deaf individuals, then this new trend is not just surprising; it's distressing.

Caroline Solomon is a deaf professor at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C., and her co-author and brother, Jeffrey Archer Miller, is a lawyer who regularly represents deaf individuals through his work at Callegary & Steedman in Baltimore. Their emails are caroline.solomon@gallaudet.edu and jeff@callegarysteedman.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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