Charlie Swinbourne: Hearing people mocking sign language for comic effect just isn’t funny

Posted on November 5, 2012

When ASL interpreter Lydia Callis shot to fame because of her use of facial expressions while interpreting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Superstorm Sandy press conference last week, many Deaf people felt conflicting emotions.

Firstly, it was a little bizarre to see an interpreter becoming famous for doing something that is completely normal in sign language terms – using your face and body to add meaning and emphasis to the signs you use.

Clearly, what Callis does is completely fascinating – to people who have no knowledge of the norms of sign language.

But there was also a positive side. During a national emergency, the Mayor of New York ensured that Deaf people received vital information by sharing his platform with an interpreter. Can you imagine David Cameron doing the same thing?

If the recognition Callis was receiving as a result helped increase the profile of sign language and Deaf people everywhere, then so much the better.

If you haven’t seen it, here’s Callis in action, below…

But then things went a bit further.

On the popular Chelsea Lately comedy show, a sketch aired that showed an actress who resembled Callis ‘interpreting’ for the show’s host, using contorted facial expressions and gurns while spinning her arms around miming her own signs as the studio audience collapsed in laughter.

Take a look below.

Clearly, hearing people find this kind of thing very funny indeed. Not quite so funny to Deaf people though.

America’s largest Deaf organisation, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) has written an open letter to the producers of a comedy show accusing them of “mocking” American Sign Language (ASL).

In the letter, they point out that ASL is a language in its own right, with it’s own grammar, structure and syntax. They also note that Callis was performing a valuable service by communicating safety information to Deaf people as the storm approached.

Therefore, they say that “the way this woman on your show gestured in an ugly fashion was a totally offensive mockery of American Sign Language.”

So here’s the question. Was it mockery? Or could it be justified on comedic terms, as a riff on what a lot of people were already talking about – Callis’s facial expressions?

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen hearing people inventing their own signs for comedic effect. Here’s a ‘signed’ version of the song Torn that does pretty much the same thing.

Perhaps the sketch on Chelsea Lately could be looked at as being the equivalent of hearing impressionists targeting hearing politicians or celebrities by impersonating them in an exaggerated way, as comedians like Rory Bremner have specialised in (by imitating figures such as Tony Blair on these shores).

Where this differs is that while a hearing person would find humour in the way that, say, an impressionist’s voice and mannerisms matches, or differs from that of the public figure they know so well, in this case, hearing comedians are impersonating a language that they – and their audience – don’t understand.

Further, the sketch is rooted in the belief that Callis exaggerated when she signed Bloomberg’s words. There’s a clear implication of this in the presenter’s introduction when she says: “some might say she editorialised a bit.”

The use of the word “editorialised,” even as a suggestion, gives the impression that Callis – through her facial expressions and body language – added her own opinion to the bare words of New York’s Mayor, as opposed to simply giving Deaf people the information they needed in the best possible way.

But how could they know? I’m assuming that Chelsea Handler herself doesn’t know ASL. The actress who ‘interpreted’ next to her clearly doesn’t either. And I’d guess that the production staff don’t.

So it’s highly likely to be an assumption. The same assumption thousands of people made online on Twitter and other social networking sites, but still just that – an assumption.

Offensive, in my view, to ASL users who thought Callis did a pretty good job.

Offensive, most of all I’d say, to the interpreter, Callis herself.

Update: Callis was also spoofed on Saturday Night Live. Here’s that clip:

Charlie Swinbourne is the editor of Limping Chicken and the magazine British Deaf News, as well as being a journalist and award-winning scriptwriter. He writes for the Guardian and BBC Online, and as a scriptwriter, penned My Song, Coming Out and Four Deaf Yorkshiremen.

The Limping Chicken is supported by Deaf media company Remark!, provider of sign language services Deaf Umbrella, and the RAD Deaf Law Centre.

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