15 December 2012

Late to the Party: Some Thoughts about Sign Language Interpreters in the News

Lydia Callis interprets for Mayor Bloomberg
during Hurricane Sandy updates

It's been over a month since the country had a psychotic breakdown upon seeing sign language featured in the mainstream media during Mayor Bloomberg's Hurricane Sandy speeches.  Now that things have calmed down, a lot of friends have asked me what I think and why I haven't written about it, to which I can only answer I guess I'm just not sure.

I'm all for exposure of the public to ASL and Deaf culture, and I'm glad that Lydia Callis made on mainstream TV rather than being relegated to that little box in the corner, or worse, cut from the frame completely. Especially in a time of emergency, it was great that Deaf and hard of hearing people had access to information they needed to keep themselves and their families safe during the storm.

However, I can't say I wasn't surprised by the crazed, and often unkind, reactions of the general public to what was, essentially, just a good ASL interpreter with good grammar. The reason why it bothered me is because so many of the fake Twitter and Tumblr accounts, and comedians like Chelsea Handler, mocked American Sign Language-- a language with a long history of oppression by the hearing majority-- without knowing a single thing about it. Similar insensitivity in dealing with another minority group's language or dialect would've been met with outrage; if I suddenly began to mock someone speaking Japanese because I didn't understand Japanese and thought it "sounded funny" I'd be labeled a racist.  The frenzy surrounding ASL was nothing different, just uninformed people producing uninformed commentary.

American Sign Language employs facial expressions as markers of grammar: Eyebrow movements are used to differentiate between WH and yes/ no questions, and pressing one's lips together or puffing out one's cheeks is used to highlight the speed or magnitude with which something occured.  Thus, any commentary the public made on Lydia Callis's "silly" facial expressions was either rude in the way that racism is rude, or patronizing, in the way that one couldn't possibly comprehend that sign language has grammar. You'd never see a comedian joking about a writer using a semicolon really well. Why? Because it's not a funny joke.

To read more about the use of facial expressions and body language in ASL, check out The Atlantic's article, or read Marlee Matlin's take on why the Lydia Callis jokes just weren't funny (remember, she's been mocking herself for years, on Seinfeld, Family Guy and My Name is Earl, so give her a read before you dismiss her as an angry celeb.)

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't heard about this until now, and just watched the Chelsea Handler skit. I thought her comments about the video of the interpreter were basically a misinterpretation of the woman's body language. To her, the facial expressions and the hand gestures looked like "attitude" - an ignorance that can be easily rectified. However, the impression done by the other comedian showed a much deeper disrespect and dehumanization (and was also an example of extremely low-grade comedy).