Sign language interpreters and their advocates descended on Ethics Alarms in indignation aftert my March post about “showboating sign language interpreters for deaf audience members.” It took until December for my commentary to reach this passionate interest group, but when it did, I was called many names, including “ablist,” and had to put up with comments like this one from the ironically named “Danny Who Knows About Stuff”:
I would take this “ethics” person seriously if he/she seemed to know anything about the ethics that guide sign language interpreting. And, I suppose it would be helpful if the person understood anything about linguistics, sign language, Deaf culture, or audience response theory. This article is more about the individual than than the issue. In short, this person is no more an ethicist that is Donald Trump.
How I love the quote around “ethics.”
Danny was pretty typical. See, I don’t need to know about any of Danny’s “stuff” as a director of a play or musical. All I need to know is whether a feature of the performance detracts from it by foiling the focus that the staging was designed to facilitate. Every competent director knows that. The needs of the signer and the signer’s much, much smaller audience cannot be permitted to wag the dog, or make the dog trip on its tongue. or perish of neglect.
“Danny Who Knows About Stuff” became “Danny Who Is Banned From Ethics Alarms,” in case you didn’t guess.
If I had already experienced what I experienced yesterday with a “professional” signer, that March post would have been much tougher. I directed an staged reading of “A Christmas Carol” with a cast of 30 terrific actors for a single free performance for D.C.’s Martin Luther King Library, and was told that the library would be sending a signer. Now, a signer for your usual staged reading is like having a signer for an oil painting. It makes no sense. In readings, the actors mostly read. Presumably the deaf can read “A Christmas Carol” themselves. You could say they would want to see the performers, but in readings the performers’ acting mostly consists of vocal expression, which the deaf audience can’t hear, and facial expressions, which they won’t see if they are watching the signer. As it happens, I don’t do staged readings like that; there is a lot of movement and staging, so a signer makes some sense.
But they didn’t know how I would stage it.
By the time we got to the final rehearsal, I had forgotten about the alleged signer, who was supposed to at least attend one rehearsal so I could fit her onto the stage where she would be seen and not get in the way. She arrived, for the first time, 15 minutes before the performance, and immediately announced that she didn’t know whether she would be signing or not. That’s helpful. She also complained that the script was very well adapted for signing (Why, thank-you!) and that the show, at 90 minutes, was impossibly long for a single signer to do: she was waiting to see if a second signer was coming, as she had assumed. Now, nobody warned me that I had to make room for two signers in the small performing space, neither of whom would deign to attend a rehearsal. ( Her complaint about length was also nonsense. I have had single signers for many shows longer than 90 minutes, and they didn’t collapse from exhaustion or finger cramps.)
I told her that I wouldn’t leave the performance in limbo: was she going to sign, or not? Apparently “not”; the words “Marley was dead, to begin with” sounded out from the narrator, and the signer sat scowling but motionless in the first row of the audience.
That, it seemed was that. The reading was going spectacularly well and was about halfway over—we were at Nephew Fred’s Christmas party, courtesy of the Ghost of Christmas Present—when to my horror the signer, apparently because she now felt that she could handle the remaining 45 minute of the play, launched herself out of her front row seat and began furiously signing in the midst the actors involved in the scene!
This mandated that I also go into the performing space–which directors must never do– to whisper in her ear, “You can’t be here—there’s a platform for you at the back of the stage!” to which she replied, “No, I have to be near the actors,” and continued to sign…for no one, we later determined, for no deaf patrons were present.
Apparently many signers are under the delusion that it’s appropriate to place themselves on the stage in the scene, as the photo above suggests. Not in one of my shows, and not in the show of any director with an ounce of artistic integrity.
After briefly considering and reluctantly rejecting the option of putting the woman in a headlock and ushering her outside, I spotted a painted wooden cube, placed it to the side out of the performing area, went back to the signer, took her by the arm and said, with the tone in my voice, familiar to long time associates, that suggests that the next option will be mayhem, “You’re sitting there!”
And there she sat, alternately signing, making facial expressions that duplicated what the actors were doing, but better, and sulking.
After the performance concluded with a rousing ovation, a cast-led singalong of “Joy to the World!” and a mass “Merry Christmas!” I looked around for the signer to convey my professional assessment of her conduct, but she had grabbed her broom and flown away.
I know she was just one signer, and not the designated role mode for her creed, but while extreme, her attitude and conduct were far closer to the rule as I have observed sign language interpreters at theatrical performances, than the exception.
- …arrogant. Her entire attitude was that she was in charge, and would brook no interference with her mission, or half-mission,
- …irresponsible and incompetent. She had an obligation to attend a rehearsal for the quality of her own portion of the performance, and for the benefit of her audience. She didn’t. As well as…
- …unfair. She disrupted the performance without compunction, placing her own priorities and those of her perceived stakeholders above the interests of everyone else,
- …disrespectful. She showed absolute disdain for all the artists involved as well as the hearing audience, and
- …unprofessional, as indicated by all of the above, as well as her ridiculous decision to start signing in the middle of the show.
I can’t think of a better example of the rationalization known here as The Saint’s Excuse. Because signers provide a needed service for the deaf, they assume that this relieves them of the universal ethical obligation to be decent and fair to everyone else. The Golden Rule, last I checked, does not have an exemption for sign language interpreters. I wonder where they got the idea that it did.
Go ahead, Ilk Of Danny Who Knows About Stuff: Tell me that I’m a bigot and “don’t understand linguistics, sign language, Deaf culture, or audience response theory.”
I dare you.