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The Deaf Community Demands More

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The "fake" sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial service developed into a surprising headline story. Beyond the scandal, however, emerged a remarkable tale of advocacy in the digital age. Throughout the event, members of South Africa's deaf community used social media to vent their frustrations regarding the inadequate interpreter and, in doing so, initiated a highly public discussion about the standards for deaf accommodation. 

As world leaders and members of the Mandela family delivered evocative eulogies, deaf viewers and audience members were denied access to the biggest ceremony in South African history. They wanted to know: How was this man hired and then allowed to remain on stage after demonstrating a complete lack of sign language proficiency?

To deaf audience members, this felt like an insult. Deaf South African Parliament member Wilma Newhoudt-Druchen tweeted that the unqualified interpreter should be removed from the stage, and others echoed her demand. Millions of people around globe were witnessing this injustice (once made aware of it), and the outrage spread. 

Though much of the anger was misdirected, one thing was clear: With all the new modes of communicating globally, deaf people will no longer be "silenced."

Deaf advocacy begins within the deaf community. It begins when individuals know their rights and are empowered to exercise those rights without fear. In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 guarantee proper accommodations for deaf/hard-of-hearing individuals in employment, government, and places of public accommodation. The ADA protects the deaf, who require American Sign Language to effectively communicate, by requiring that interpreters be qualified to perform the job for which they were hired.

Unfortunately, both state and federal agencies have neglected to establish consistent standards for interpreters, allowing unlicensed and uncertified individuals to do great disservice to deaf citizens. No matter how well-intentioned a person may be, interpreting is not a game; it's a profession. If an interpreter is not a qualified professional, equal access is not being provided.

Attempts by deaf individuals to bring awareness to this issue have generally been met with denial or further pushback. Most recently, for example, the Seattle Men's Chorus came under fire from deaf patrons who posted open letter online pleading for an ASL interpreter who is able to reflect the high standards of the Chorus.

For years, ASL-fluent attendees voiced their frustration over an interpreter who could not accurately communicate, making a highly anticipated cultural event and, by all reports, a remarkable performance inaccessible to the deaf community. But recently, social media has helped the community finally gain traction for their request for equal access.

While the Mandela memorial interpreter is one visible example, deaf individuals know it was not the first or last time the community has received inadequate accommodation. If you've ever read the (sometimes borderline unintelligible) text on Closed Captioned TV, you'll be familiar with the level of accuracy deaf viewers have come to tolerate.

Thankfully, as deaf citizens are increasingly using Internet platforms to discuss the inequalities they have long endured everywhere -- from movie theaters to police stations -- it appears the days of subpar services are finally coming to an end. Deaf communities are connecting with the bigger world and successfully leveraging their social networks to expose an embarrassing lack of standardization. And it goes both ways, since deaf online communities also make sure to praise the professionals who work hard to get it right.

As deaf allies, the best thing we can do is encourage our deaf friends and family members to know what legal protections they have, and to cheer them on in the tireless pursuit of their rights. If anything, the Mandela interpreter affair demonstrated that people from all walks of life, all around the world, are beginning to take note of issues that have long been central to deaf people.

Today, the possibility for change is in our hands. We can keep discussions like those which followed the Mandela interpreter incident going long after the media frenzy has died down, and we can support agencies like the World Federation of the Deaf in their mission to standardize the quality of communication services. Society is ready for the deaf community to advocate for themselves, not as "disabled" but as equal citizens of the world.