Rebecca-Anne Withey: Sign language shouldn’t be used for novelty value by people who don’t understand its content

Posted on April 14, 2015

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Rebecca-Anne Withey

As someone who works in signed song – that is, performing songs in sign language – my first priority is always the comprehension of the signs. I take the responsibility of making lyrics accessible verrrrry seriously.

That doesn’t mean they have to look uninteresting, however. Oh no. One of the most beautiful aspects of working with sign language is how creative you can be with it, producing visual pictures and emotive shapes that convey what written lyrics express. To be understood and to also inspire is what I aspire to do with every signed song performance.

So imagine my disappointment when a well known mainstream band decided to employ sign singers (or deaf actors as they call them) for a live performance… I eagerly got in touch and received an email telling me that for the audition video we should not “mouth the words at all…”

They requested an an ’emotive signed performance’ without any lip pattern, something I find highly unnatural as a sign language user.

Who signs with their mouth completely shut?! Several words share the same sign, so by eliminating the lip pattern we can’t clarify which word we mean… How on earth is that accessible signing?

They sent me a link to a video they’d already produced with a signer performing with absolutely no lip pattern at all. There are also no captions. So the actual content of the song is lost. It’s just a straight faced lady signing randomly.

This isn’t the first time this has happened and I can empathise with the deaf artist who may have felt she had no choice but to follow the direction.

I’ve also worked on videos where the director has asked for things from the sign language “make this one bigger” or “do this one slowly”  and despite my attempts to explain why the original sign should be kept simple I’ve been reminded that I’m only the signer after all; the director has full artistic control.

The saddest thing about working in this way is that not only are deaf artists giving up their language, they are handing it over to people who don’t know much about it at all; effectively turning the sign singer into nothing but a puppet.

“Sign this way” “don’t use your mouth” “exaggerate the signs” – all of this direction to make a piece of ‘art’ is taking away what sign language really is. A language.

By breaking it up and playing around with its delivery, we are taking away its power to communicate clearly and comprehensively. Sign language IS beautiful already. Let’s not allow it to be turned into a novelty by those who don’t understand its content.

We need more videos made by either deaf directors or directors with an understanding and knowledge of sign. We need to take back the reins when it comes to signed song performances and remember who we are signing for; the sign language users. If they can’t understand us, what truly is the point?

So it goes without saying that I shan’t be signing up to do this particular job. Sign language is not a novelty or something to be in awe of. I refuse to take it apart all for the sake of having a visual impact. And ultimately, I am most definitely, definitely not a puppet.

Rebecca-Anne Withey is an actress, sign singer and tutor of performing arts. A black country girl at heart, she now resides in Derby where she works in both performance art and holistic therapies. She writes on varied topics close to her heart in the hope that they may serve to inspire others.

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