Editor’s Note: Lilit Marcus is a CODA (Child of Deaf Adults), author, and travel editor at CNN.com. Deaf with a capital D is often used to specify the active, proud Deaf community, as opposed to the lowercase-d deaf which simply indicates a person with hearing loss.The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
This week, a video of American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter Amber Galloway Gallego working alongside rapper Twista, described by The Root as “the fastest rapping MC in the world,” went viral.
Thousands of people shared the video of Gallego’s interpreting and praised her for her speed and accuracy.
While I’m sure anybody would be thrilled to have total strangers congratulating them on their work performance, I have just one question for the folks going wild over Gallego’s interpreting – do you understand anything the signer is saying? If the answer is no, I want you to think before you share that video, especially if you’re doing it to feel more engaged with the Deaf community.
Gallego, who is hard of hearing herself, is known as an interpreter who works often with rap and hip-hop musicians, and a self-professed ally in the Deaf community, but she’s hardly the first interpreter to go viral. There’s clearly just something about these videos that fascinates or excites people.
But when you treat other languages like fun, exotic modes of performance instead of like utilities, you are praising people who interpret for the deaf – while ignoring the deaf. Too many hearing people see signing as performance art instead of a living, breathing language that many people use to communicate basic thoughts and needs every single day.
Centering hearing people in Deaf experiences and presenting ASL as amusement for hearing concert-goers instead of as a mode of communication for the Deaf does a huge disservice to interpreters and their profession. For the dozens of profiles and hot takes written about Gallego, there are no such accompanying stories about discrimination, lack of access, and other real-time issues facing the deaf community.
I’m the child of one Deaf parent and one hard-of-hearing one, so ASL was my first language. People like me are called CODAs–Children of Deaf Adults–and have an active online and in real life organization that feels like a big family. I am always happy to talk to people about my experiences growing up and about the language that I love so much. And although well-intentioned hearing people tell often me how “beautiful” sign language is, I don’t feel like it’s a compliment.
Sign language interpreters do not exist for the amusement of hearing people. They exist to translate for deaf and hard of hearing people. That’s it. Period.
Think about it this way: if I praised a Swahili translator for how cool her voice sounded while speaking Swahili – which I don’t understand a word of–would that be a helpful comment? If I then said that online in a way that got picked up across social media, would I be contributing positively to a conversation about the real-life issues faced by people who speak Swahili? It’s a form of digital tourism, the equivalent of going to a place, taking a picture, and then leaving without having a single conversation with a resident.
“Hearing people’s obsession with interpreters’ performances, from news conferences to concerts” is just one of the ways in which “the mainstream accepts, and even loves, sign language, as long as it is sanitized of actual Deaf people,” Deaf novelist Sara Novic, the author of Girl at War, told me. “It’s an easy way for the mainstream to consume a cool and different culture while still keeping their stigmas about deafness and disability (and thus, their own superiority) intact. And it is so pervasive. I can’t tell you how many times people with whom I’ve had productive conversations about Deaf culture and ableism then suddenly turn up on my Facebook feed thrilled about a video of a hearing person signing a song. But that’s how deep this stigma runs – even allies can’t see that representation of our culture by hearing people isn’t, in fact, representation.”
So many fundamental misunderstandings about American Sign Language (and other signed languages around the world, for that matter) spring out of the fact that people simply do not treat it like a language. Many people believe that they cannot be hurtful or offensive if they say something complimentary – for example, a high school teacher who believes it’s not racist to say “all Asian kids are good at math,” since it’s a positive thing to be good at math. But stereotypes are still stereotypes, even when they’re disguised as compliments.
If you’re staring at an ASL interpreter instead of the play or musician he or she is interpreting for, you’re not learning to sign by osmosis – you’re just staring. Watching a signer communicate and thinking you’ll learn ASL along the way is sort of like walking into a library and thinking you’ll absorb all the information in the books just by looking at their covers. When people tell me they recently attended a live program that had an interpreter and that they loved watching him or her perform, I ask what new vocabulary words they picked up. Invariably, the answer is none.
Seeing ASL as something cool to watch instead of as a vital service also gives us a peek into why we still have so much work to do in this country around accessibility. Too often, “accessibility” becomes a catch-all term, with people believing it refers to one specific set of accommodations. I’ve personally witnessed festival and event organizers boast of the accommodations they’ve made for accessibility because they installed wheelchair ramps, only to see zero captioned movies or ASL interpreters. Those two needs are not the same, and lumping them all into one category doesn’t help. As long as we continue to praise interpreters for being fun enjoyment for hearing people, we will not put Deaf communities and their needs above the value of potentially having a video of an event go viral.