The fake sign language interpreter: A need for leadership intervention just like Mandela called it

I thought a lot about the incident at Dr. Mandela’s funeral related to the fake sign language interpreter,  http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/11/world/africa/mandela-memorial-fake-intepreter/?hpt=hp_zite1_featured.  I struggled to find the words to express my sorrow to the Mandela family because this drew attention and continues to draw attention from honoring him, remembering his great deeds, and spending precious time with his family to celebrate his memory.  At the same time it gave me a chuckle (don’t misunderstand, please read on).

Here are my two cents.  First, for those who don’t know who I am. I am a Ghanaian, born and raised and moved to the U.S. when I was a teen.  I can’t believe how time has flown!  I have spent half of my life in the U.S among Hearing people and currently spending time in both Hearing and Deaf communities.

I agree with all the reactions around the globe.  It is wrong for whoever was responsible to have this fake interpreter on stage.  It is also an insult to the Deaf community intellects around the globe; those who have worked so hard and to those that are also working so hard to be part of society.

But before I get into that I want to admit that I laughed when I learned and read about this incident.  The laughter was not because it was funny but rather because in addition to it not being funny, it was not a surprised.  It was not a surprise because a Facebook friend posted in a discussion thread that he, the fake interpreter, could be a pawn in a corrupt system.

The pawn in a corrupt system sentiment is funny to me because I grew up in a similar system and therefore it is not new or unusual.  The pawn in a corrupt system is applicable to nearly all levels in other parts of Africa – sad but true and no offense to the leadership (theirs is a tall order).  It is also so true because the system, infrastructure, and way of life with respect to individuals with disabilities around the world are DIFFERENT.  Therefore, for us in the U.S. and those living in the Western hemisphere to get a small glimpse of what happened and how often it happened, I believe we may need to shift the way we think to evaluate this incident from the pawn in a corrupt system lens.

I tend to ask questions to guide my discussions.  Below are a few questions.  I hope that you can form your own as you read and I am sure there are infinite questions.

Can you imagine living in a system where your very basic needs as an individual with disabilities (per Maslow Hierarchy of Needs) aren’t on the radar of the leadership, even when some of the leadership have family members with disabilities?  This is a form of corruption.  This system is not set up to benefit individuals with disabilities and please know that some leaders in these corrupted countries are trying to fix this, so some credit is due to them.

As a hard of hearing person who grew up in Ghana I am thankful for my family for insisting that I go to school with all Hearing people.  Their insistence was due to the fact that they didn’t know of any other way to give me an education, which in the U.S would normally be through a Deaf institution or one similar to it.  I know how much my mom had to pay to get me to attend the “regular” school – mom and I = puppets in the corrupt system.

My mother had to work with bribery within a corrupt system to get me into the “normal” school system even though Dr. Kwame Nkrumah set up our school system to be free.  I know of other Deaf individuals who don’t and didn’t have the same opportunity that speaks to the pawn in a corrupt system thought.  This is not new and still exist in that there are Ghanaian Deaf individuals who don’t have their basic survival needs met in the same way Deaf people in the U.S have their basic needs met.

Can you imagine living in a system that doesn’t allow you to drive?  I am blessed that my family worked hard to migrate to the U.S where I can do anything, including something as simple as owning a driver’s license.  Well, you made the connection.  If you don’t have education, you can’t read, and therefore can’t drive.

Think about how much a Deaf person in Ghana or other parts of Africa, with the right “connections” (a puppet in a pawn within a corrupt system) would get a driver’s license.  Connect that to the fake interpreter because this deaf person still has to go to the DMV office, try to communicate with the clerk (if an interpreter is given, imagine how the communication would work for both the Deaf applicant and the clerk).  Let your imagination run wild because if you think that the system in the U.S is applicable to the rest of the world, or South Africa, then your analysis falls short of the reality.

Can you imagine living in a system that doesn’t give you full access to education?  Here is an example of a blog discussing education for the deaf, the first deaf school in Ghana, http://www.ghanaweb.com/GhanaHomePage/NewsArchive/artikel.php?ID=294551.  Ask yourselves some questions.

Do you notice in the article that others from other parts of Africa are attending this school and “paying” to go to school?  Where are the funds in the form of tuition from these individuals going?  Where is the leadership in this?  Where is the accountability?

Are individuals with disabilities not people too and only deserving of fake interpreters and possibly fake teachers?  If so, then why is the system not supportive of a simple and basic need for an education, which should give one an ability, not disability, to function as a productive member of society?  Better yet, should we wait to see a fake interpreter in television before we cry foul?

Connect the dots.  If education is offered, are the teachers skilled in communicating with the students?  I know and have friends in the Peace Corps who are working in different parts of the globe teaching.  Most are from the U.S. and use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate at these schools.  Think about it for a minute, they use ASL not Ghanaian Sign Language (GSL) even though the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) http://wfdeaf.org passed a provision to prohibit other languages from trumping native languages outside of the U.S.  This should give you some food for thought about why it is so critical to engage in COLLABORATIVE educational efforts.  Also, imagine if my friends and other Peace Corps members aren’t working at these schools.  Ask yourself how the African teachers, many of whom are not trained to work with the Deaf would transfer knowledge.

KNOWLEDGE TRANSFER is the act of transferring information via CLEAR COMMUNICATION.  Failure to communicate clearly is a handicap to knowledge transfer.  This is why Deaf people around the world are outraged by this fake interpreter.  Most of us had no idea what the fake interpreter was saying and therefore we gained no knowledge of what the leadership said the funeral about Dr. Mandela’s legacy.

Again, this is an analysis not an indictment, a cry foul, or insult.  Rather it is an OPPORTUNITY for our leadership to begin assessing these situations proactively instead of waiting for it to blow up in their faces like it did with the fake interpreter.

Let’s take it another step further and play a little devil’s advocate here.  For the U.S I could imagine if this man was a terrorist posting as a fake interpreter, what would be the consequence of having this fraud next to President Obama?  That thought scares me beyond this argument and it is for another blog.

My action to address the concern related to the Ghana school for the Deaf?  I sent the link to the article and a message to the President of Ghana.  In my message I asked for his help to not close the school.  I also offered to help in any way I can, considering I am Deaf and Hard of Hearing.  I believe the right thing to do is get involved and so I am waiting for President Mahama’s response.  I also believe this an action that Dr. Mandela would take.

Don’t get me wrong and I am not here to criticize or try to say that we should have this conversation through the lens of the victim.  I am not here to blame leadership or cry foul because I believe the rest of the Deaf world around the world already did that and is still going.

I would like to continue to believe that leadership around the world, reading blogs, watching the different television news about this fake interpreter, are open minded, have thick skin, and can take and accept constructive dialogue about issues as Dr. Mandela would.  Therefore, I am writing to point out how we can come together to address this issue.  I am also writing from experience to share and help the education of Deaf and Hard of Hearing CHILDREN.

I also believe Mandela would want me to say something because he said something about apartheid.  I believe Mandela would want something better for all of us including clear communication for the Deaf and other individuals with disabilities.  I hope when we read blogs, including this one, we read it with open mind in the same way we all came together a few days ago, with an open mind and heart, to celebrate Dr. Mandela’s good deeds and memory.

I also am a product of that pawn in the corrupt system of Africa. I am hoping that by coming out to say something, it might offer a different lens into why we must find ways to help individuals with disabilities assimilate into society to make a difference like Dr. Mandela did. So it is not a surprise to me that there was a fake interpreter.  Equally, it isn’t a surprise to see the Western response to it, which is why it is a chuckle to me.

The chuckle part is that even the Western interpreter system still needs work.  Work is a much-needed COLLABORATIVE effort on both sides – Deaf and Hearing.  As an alumni of National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) http://www.ntid.rit.edu/admissions, and employee of Gallaudet University http://www.gallaudet.edu, (I am not speaking on behalf of any of these institutions), I have seen first hand on how some Deaf individuals will go to lengths to exclude Hearing people, criticize their lack of understanding of our needs, bemoan them for being audists, and the list is endless.

I am calling this out not to criticize those that feel this way about the Hearing world.  I am calling it out because I want to understand how we, the some in the Deaf community, to expect Hearing people to KNOW what to do, to WORK with us without involving them through continued education.   To me when some Deaf people behave in this manner of excluding Hearing folks, then it sends the message that we can do everything on our own. Of course, Deaf people can do anything and everything, but there are certain things, and almost all things, that we must all WORK TOGETHER TO ACHIVE.

One of the challenges is that Hearing people, in general, may not know that they need to get a certified interpreter like in the U.S., and on the same token Hearing people in South Africa used a fake interpreter – they don’t know any better.  Those Hearing people who made those mistakes by hiring a fake interpreter are simply behaving in their comfort zone and sphere unless they have a Deaf brother, cousin, aunt or family member to remind them that it is wrong.

It is not right.  It is wrong.  Therefore, one way to get Hearing people to understand is consistent, persistent, and ongoing education through COLLABORATION.  I believe that was Mandela’s message to us.

So if some Deaf folks are vociferating foul about Hearing people being insensitive, how do we expect Hearing people to understand when we don’t include them in our ways?  While this may come to hurt some Deaf folks and I am sorry if it does, but the result of excluding Hearing people is what we are dealing with – a fake interpreter that is stealing the attention from Dr. Mandela’s funeral.  I don’t feel good about it because it isn’t about the sign language, it is about honoring Dr. Nelson Mandela, his leadership, his message to us, and why it is so important to practice proactive and collaborative leadership – everyone of us around the globe is implored to act. 

Should we wait until the water main breaks before we try to find something to stop the leak?  This is theoretical question that speaks to the REACTIVE mode of how some members of the Deaf and Hearing communities operate.  No offense, and if I am wrong I shall learn, but I am speaking from experience here.  Most members of our Deaf and Hearing communities alike are reactive not proactive.  There are countless examples of this around the globe in the media that speak to this.

One example, I don’t have to go off the point to mention about Deaf institutions that are closing around the country in the U.S.  In my opinion, the message is that we, the Deaf community leadership, have failed to work with Hearing community leadership to help them understand why the Deaf institutions are so critical to us, our development, growth, and well being.  The failure is due to actions of reactivity not proactively.  In return, funds are being cut Statewide and Deaf institutions are closing like water from Niagara Falls.  It is a hard pill to swallow even for me but that is the one example of how we cannot wait until a fake sign language interpreter overshadows an important event to act and work together collaboratively.

I am also writing about this so I can be proactive to address some of these issues in my own way.  It is a leadership stance and a choice I am making with the knowledge and understanding that some of my closest friend, Deaf, will not be happy to hear a certain uncomfortable truth.  I believe in the ideals Dr. Mandela imparted on us.

Dr. Mandela got involved, he spoke an uncomfortable truths and against apartheid, some of the truths hurt some leadership who perpetrated apartheid.  But in the long run, we are looking at his message and arriving to this, what Dr. Mandela said is so true!  Dr. Mandela got involved even when it landed him in jail for 27 years!  In jail, he continued his work to send the message that we cannot sit idly around and wait until something happens before we take a leadership stance.

That is why we honored him.  That is why the people around the globe mourns him.  That is why the world is outraged by this shamble of placing a fake interpreter on stage during his funeral.

So my writing about this, if it is offensive to anyone in the Deaf and Hearing communities, I am sorry.  But the one truth is that I am not sure how Hearing people, in their natural setting, will KNOW what to do if we, the Deaf community, don’t engage them in our languages, culture, and way of life.  I know it is 2013 and soon will be 2014 and some might say, “come one!”

But the one truth is that even in 2013, there are interpreter related issues, some of which are insulting to interpreters from some Deaf clients, within the Western culture address to individuals with disabilities.  Take a closer look at the ADA, IDEA, NCLB, and the entire infrastructure in place that were intended to help us.  Great ideas, laws, acts, and initiates but in and of itself, nothing happens unless we both Deaf and Hearing get involved.

For the Deaf, lets ask ourselves, how many of these acts and laws have at least 50% Deaf individuals (leadership) leading the efforts to assimilate these ACTS and LAWS into the Hearing system where Hearing folks are AWARE and KNOWLEDGEABLE to hire the right interpreters, etc?  Not to mention that theses ACT and LAWS are non-existent around the globe.

Are we Deaf implying that Hearing leadership came up with these acts and laws and therefore, they should be the ones to make it work for us without active participation?  I think this fake interpreter should serve as a lesson that the “us versus them” mindset needs to change and stop.  That was the message Dr. Mandela sent when he came out of prison.

Please believe me when I tell you that I share the pains that this fake interpreter snafu has caused to the Deaf and Hearing communities around the world.  I am Hard of Hearing.  The rest of my family are Hearing.  None of them use sign language to communicate.  I don’t mandate that they do and I know some Deaf friend who don’t engage their families because of this.  I encourage them, my family memebrs, to learn but I don’t force it on them because personally I think learning sign language makes one smart.  Just saying and that could be applicable to learning other languages.

The point is that I am ALWAYS teaching my family and Hearing friends about my needs as a Hard of Hearing son, brother, father, uncle and friend.  I am ALWAYS telling them about the dos and don’ts that help me function as part of the family and within society.  I have other Deaf friends who are profoundly Deaf and cannot talk like I do who suffer worse communication situations than I do.  So I am aware and know of where I speak of the ills and pains of being Hard of Hearing.

Do members of my family slip on occasions?  You can bet they do!  But I don’t exclude them when they slip and make mistakes.  I don’t scold them as being audits like I have seen some Deaf do to Hearing people who are trying.  I continue to teach them in ways that helps me be part of everything.  After all I want to be part of everything and don’t expect that on the outset, Hearing people will understand Deafness unless it hits home to them.

I am also a product of sitting around the dinner table where everyone in the family is laughing and when I ask what’s so funny – the response: I’ll tell you later, which leaves me feeling left out.  Instead of waiting for this continue, I took a FUTURE proactive stance to make sure that I ask my family to consider one person speak at a time.  I took the proactive stance to ensure that the dinner table seating arrangement benefits me so I can have conversations with my nieces and often start to teach them the ASL alphabets.

Which to my surprised and inspiration, they already knew some and became engaged in learning more.  Believe me, it wasn’t an easy feat but in a long run, changes have taken place – slowly but surely and I love my family.  Therefore I am not perfect and don’t intend to paint my family as perfect.  I share all the frustrations in the Deaf community about the COMMUNICATION CHALLENGES and bottom line is that I engage my family and my Hearing friends.

So I don’t mean to offend anyone in the Deaf community by calling out the exclusion behaviors of some Deaf people toward Hearing people.  I mean to point out that Hearing people are naturally within their comfort zone to make mistakes that often offend us.  The one way to help minimize or eliminate similar fake interpreter situations is to ENGAGE them in everything we do.  The engagement is what Dr. Mandela was all about.

It is so true that this incident was wrong. At the same time, I think this is a wake up call, an OPPORTUNITY for all of us to get involved, just like Mandela called it.

Get involve in Peace Corps.  Get involve in Deaf education abroad by offering to teach at a Deaf school.  Get involved somehow to help the Deaf around the globe.  Get involved by helping the LEADERSHIP around the glode to understand that this incident has IMPACTED ALL OF US.

Get your leadership to allow sign language to be a required language to learn in ELEMENTARY schools across the globe.  Encourage your school districts and systems to include sign language in its curriculums.  When you see a Deaf person, say hello, ask how you can learn sign language and LEARN IT, USE IT because believe me it will make you smart.

Thank you all, world, for raising awareness and your points of views within the different blogs and media and this petty and insulting debacle to the Mandela family and Deaf community.  They were all refreshing to read and I hope I added some food for thoughts as a hard of hearing person to what we can all do to help prevent future occurrences.

Happy holidays to all and may Dr. Mandela rest in peace, his ideals remain immortal, and for all of us to remember that a system is like a seed.  We can only bear its fruits by planting it, watering it, watching it grow into a tree, and pruning its branches.  Happy holidays around the globe!

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6 thoughts on “The fake sign language interpreter: A need for leadership intervention just like Mandela called it

  1. Indeed Dr. Ammisah. This is useful information since we are looking into getting involved in Africa with Deaf education at the University of Tennessee. We may be in touch with you, among others. Be well!

  2. Dear old friend…come on down to Georgia! Stu and I will give you the southern treatment…Anyhow your post has piqued my interest.
    Like you, I’m the only Deaf person in my family and the last of 9 children. OH YEA–gatherings were great fun, “I’ll tell you the joke/ comment later” was repetitive and annoying. I finally told the family that if they expected me to be a part of the conversation – make sure I’m included. Things definitely changed when I became a mother and was able to SIGN to my kids. It was there and then when my own parents and 8 siblings realized how challenging it has been for me.

    I took 2 courses that touched the subject of the forms of bribery and corruption, in depth -specifically focused on the Palermo Protocol (United Nations Convention in 2000). I was deeply bothered with the fact the “definitions” and terms were nitpicked for a long time with a fine toothed comb – and yet these corruption still happen. I’m not just talking about the signing fasco – I’m looking into the bigger scope, Global Slavery & Human Trafficking. What your mother went through to get you into school was an injustice that should have NOT have happened.
    As for leadership – Hierarchical leadership is more effective. Change MUST start from the top down…BUT the catch is — the “top” must want, desire and foster the change AND be proactive in such efforts. Communication is paramount, absolutely!
    “One cannot not communicate.” Paul Watzlawick

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