Listen to me on KTRS/St. Louis every Friday, 3-6pm CT

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Hand Jive

My favorite story of the week is the fake sign language interpreter at the Nelson Mandela memorial, especially the fact that the guy had also done it a year ago at another event attended by current South African President Zuma. There must not have been any deaf people in that audience, because no one noticed that the guy was just making meaningless random gestures -- so he was invited back to do it for a global audience this week.

Until recently, I wasn't aware that there were different sign languages around the world. My niece, Isabel -- who has no hearing impairment -- has been studying American sign language in high school and plans to attend a college where she can make it her concentration. When she visited us at Thanksgiving, I asked why it was called "American" sign language, and she explained that there is no such thing as an internationally standard sign language, just as there is no internationally standard spoken language. The signs differ based on nationality and culture, to the point that they can even differ between nations that use the same words (e.g. England and Australia don't use the same signs as Americans).

I mentioned this on the air yesterday, and a woman who has a deaf child called to offer an example. In American sign language, to make the sign for "green," you make the symbol for the letter g and shake it. But in Spanish, "green" is "verde," so using the letter g wouldn't make any sense.

Another listener then said, "Well, at least we know one sign that's universal -- the middle finger." But it's not. When I was in England many years ago, I went to a pub with a friend. To order a couple of lagers (as they called them), I got the bartender's attention by raising two fingers. My friend immediately grabbed my arm and pulled it down, explaining that, because I had done it with the back of my hand facing forward, I had just told the bartender to fuck off. On the other hand, this did get the bartender to walk towards me, where he could hear me apologize and ask for the beers.

Perhaps someone should check the tape of the bogus interpreter again. He might have been ordering drinks for everyone in attendance.

Updated 8:38am...from the South African newspaper The Star:
The man who has been blasted on social networks and accused of providing “fake” sign language interpretation at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service says he suffered a schizophrenic episode.

Thamsanqa Jantjie said his schizophrenia, for which he takes medication, has not only left many people angry and accusing him of being an impostor, but it was also the reason he was medically boarded a few years ago, resulting in him having to rely on a social grant now.

He doesn’t know whether it was the magnitude of what he was doing or the happiness he felt throughout the day that might have triggered the attack while on stage. Suddenly he lost concentration, and started hearing voices and hallucinating. Afterwards, it all went downhill and he just signed things that didn’t make sense.

“There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation. I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very sorry, it’s the situation I found myself in.”

Jantjie said that although he was having an episode and continued seeing things and hearing loud voices in his head, things that impaired his ability to hear well and interpret what was being said, he couldn’t leave, so he stayed on and continued to sign things that didn’t make sense.

“Life is unfair. This illness is unfair. Anyone who doesn’t understand this illness will think that I’m just making this up,” he said.