Donna Williams: Paul Whitehouse rubbed the ‘fake’ interpreter controversy in deaf people’s faces

Posted on December 14, 2013



Maybe it’s just me. But I’m not seeing the funny.

At the British Comedy Awards on Thursday night, Paul Whitehouse picked up an award for Best Sketch Show for ‘Harry and Paul’, and congratulations to him.

Where he went wrong was when he arrived on stage, announced that he ‘had brought his signer with him’ and proceeded to give his acceptance while an actor pretended to interpret next to him, fake interpreter style.

Here it is, below.

The gag was apparently the funniest gag of the night.

I’m sorry, but I just lost a little faith in the intelligence of the UK media.

Look what happened when the Today Show pulled this stunt in the USA – when the hosts realised what was happening, they interrupted the show to call for the fake interpreter to be removed, one of them putting his head in his hands, and the show had tweeted an apology within an hour.

Why? Because having someone standing there, pretending to sign, is taking the piss. And not in a good way. Every day deaf people who use sign language have to put up with discrimination and hearing idiots taking the piss.

The people laughing have clearly never had to deal with random hearing people who thought they could sign after a few drinks, and got confused and upset when I had no clue what they were saying – shouldn’t I be able to understand them, they were signing?!

Most deaf people I know have similar stories; meeting random hearing people – drunk and sober – who thought that waving their hands about constituted structured language. That’s not to mention those who just wave their hands about in a mocking manner and laugh in our faces.

As should be obvious by now, sign languages are ‘real’ languages with grammar, structure and syntax. It’s not waving your hands about.

Maybe I’m missing the joke. Clearly, the joke was directed not at sign language and deaf people, but at the lousiness of the ‘signer’ who somehow, incredibly, managed to find himself on a world stage. That’s hilarious, right?

Deaf people in South Africa noticed straight away; they tweeted like heck but nothing was done at the time. It was only afterwards that the scale of the cock-up became clear. And it was a huge cock-up. Huge cock-ups are funny.

Consider it this way; a big speech is being given in sign language, perhaps by David Buxton, the future Prime Minister of the UK.

He’s presenting at an event where all of the attendees are deaf, and have their phones switched off. He has an interpreter voicing over for him, so all the hearing people watching the event on TV can understand what’s going on. The interpreter starts speaking… in gibberish.

Bllaallaaap pappoo gagagagaa ahacka hacka googoo lalalala bllaaa bleeeee poopoo sliffly whagger flagger googoo ga.

For hours. All the while, the hearing people outside, who would really like to know what’s going on, are tweeting but no-one picks up – or if they pick up, they worry about disrupting the event and let it go.

Then when the mistake is realised, some of the deaf population laugh themselves sick. They do mock-up videos and gags with fake interpreters babbling randomly, and taking the piss.

Meanwhile, the English-speaking hearing people try to point out that English is a real language, that the problem of getting quality interpreters is a very real one all over the world, and that there’s not enough recognition and respect for their native language.

OK, I think you’ve got my point now.

Am I making a big deal out of this? You bet I am, because right now in the UK, deaf people are campaigning for better access for deaf people. From several deaf organisations teaming up to lobby the government, to blossoming Facebook groups, to the NDCS campaigning for better services for deaf children.

One of those Facebook groups, Spit the Dummy collects evidence for the need for a BSL Act; some the experiences shared on the group are harrowing, and with the sheer number of videos, it’s clear that these are not isolated incidents; there are serious problems that need to be addressed.

There are plenty of stories in the media about deaf people being denied access to basic services despite the passing of the Equality Act 2010. Some have been covered on this site, like:

I had to tell my father he was going to die
Woman confused in hospital
“I didn’t know what would be done” Deaf actor Matthew Gurney explains how he had an operation without being given an interpreter

There are an estimated 156,000 BSL users in UK, and we need better services and better awareness.

A recent story was about a government minister suggesting that a “junior official might have opted for the cheapest quote” when hiring the interpreter, without checking their qualifications. What a perfect example of a common problem with getting decent interpreters – cost and officals and organisers’ desire to avoid it.

Here in the UK, where we have the Equality Act 2010, I wonder if (long may she reign) the Queen’s funeral would merit a sign language interpreter, or more appropriately, two, to share the load. Would that happen? Currently, I doubt it.

I have to credit the organisers for at least trying to get a sign language interpreter. If he could just have done a decent job of it, he would have done honour to a great man, allowed the deaf people of South Africa to fully access an important and global event, and raised the profile of sign language all over the world – in a positive way.

Instead, he turned it into a joke.

And then Paul Whitehouse rubbed it in our faces.

Here’s what would have made this gag funny:

If Paul Whitehouse had come on stage with a real BSL interpreter, who then proceeded to take the piss out of the ceremony and Paul in BSL (subtitled for all the viewers at home) – none of the attendees would have understood but probably still would have found it funny as hell – and funnier and hopefully thought-provoking later when they realised that the ‘fake interpreter’ was a actually a real one who was laughing at them.

That would have raised awareness – and been genuinely funny.

Just in case you think I have no sense of humour about this, check out this tumblr. Now that’s funny.

Donna Williams is a Contributing Editor for Limping Chicken. She is a Deaf writer and blogger living in Bristol and studying part-time in Cardiff. As well as being a postgrad student, she’s a BSL poet, freelance writer, NDCS Deaf Role Model presenter, and occasional performer. She tweets as@DeafFirefly

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