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Nelson Mandela's Sign Language Interpreter

Remember the controversy that erupted over the sign language "interpreter" at Nelson Mandela's funeral? Apparently the hand gestures and arm motions he was making did not belong to a recognized sign language, and that's what caused the furor. The Deaf community was displeased to say the very least, and I can't blame them.

But how did something like this happen? Without knowing exactly what kinds of arrangements were made for the funeral I can only surmise that someone thought it would be a nice touch to have a sign language interpreter on hand, someone else came up with a name, they contacted the man, he agreed to provide the service and the rest is well, history. There was just one little problem with their good intention; it seems, from what happened, that none of the people responsible for this arrangement actually knew sign language. So they were basically not qualified to evaluate the competency of the translator. Unfortunately for them and everyone else involved, there were people in the audience that day that did know sign language and they were not amused at what they saw.

I run into the same phenomenon when the subject of pharmaceutical research comes up. There are lots of people out there that think they know about my industry and what it may or may not be doing, but all they are doing is waving their hands around onstage. They do all right until they encounter someone who actually does know a great deal about that industry, and then the charade is revealed. And like the members of the Deaf community at Mandela's funeral, I am not amused to see falsehoods and misinformation passed off as the real thing.

I can always tell when someone has really done their homework and knows how my industry is supposed to operate, who knows the language and terms. I will listen to such a person with respect, even if I don't agree with him or her. I have no respect for someone who is doing the equivalent of getting up on a stage, waving their arms around and saying that they know sign language when it is obvious they don't. Sad to say, most of the people I encounter either in person or online fall into that latter category. There are certain dead giveaway clues. If you claim to know what is going on in my industry, but do not know the language used or how the processes work, then that tells me you really don't know. You are waving your hands and calling it sign language. If you are claiming that companies are sitting on a cure for cancer or bribing the FDA, you'd better be ready to name these companies and tell me what your source is. If you get defensive and angry instead, and say that these things don't matter, then that's another tipoff that you really don't know and are just repeating what you have heard or seen online. You are no more qualified to evaluate the reliability of this information than someone who does not know sign language is qualified to evaluate the skills of an interpreter. In the case of Mandela's funeral, the results of that ignorance were there for the whole world to see.

Ignorance is not bliss. I can understand why people get frustrated and lash out at "Big Pharma" or "Big Oil" or whatever it is that has got them all stirred up. It's because they feel that they are powerless. And there are plenty of people out there who have a vested interest in keeping them that way, who are counting on them to not acquire critical thinking skills and start asking questions. They will feed people conspiracy theories and whisper that they have inside information that is so secret that people working in those fields, who deal with company matters on a daily basis, don't even know what it is. They wave their hands and everyone goes ooh and aah at their eloquence in signing. And when a Deaf person speaks up and says, "But that isn't sign!" they encourage the crowd to turn on that person.

Knowledge is power. Some decades ago, back in the days when they still had full-serve gas stations I stopped at one in a small town in Upper Michigan. To this day, I don't know if they were particularly incompetent or if they saw a lone female they could take advantage of (which was VERY common back then). Anyway, they told me I was down a quart of oil. Knowing my car and how much I had driven, it seemed reasonable to me and I told them to add some. The next thing I heard from under the hood was "Uh-oh", and "I don't know why it isn't taking a full quart when it said it was down one." "That's because you put it in the automatic transmission." That was when I got out of the car and demanded to know just where they put that oil--because my car was a stick shift and there was no way they could access the transmission from the engine compartment. The two guys looked at each other--and one pointed to a tube clearly labeled FOR POWER STEERING FLUID ONLY. That's where they had put it. I said, "Ok, now you take it out, and put the right stuff back in." And from that point on, I always supervised when someone was working under the hood. No, I didn't know a lot about cars, but I had learned enough to tell when a mechanic was trying to pull a fast one on me. And because I could demonstrate that I did know what I was talking about I was probably treated with more respect than many other women.

And that's what I'm getting at here. If you are going to talk about an industry that you don't work in, either do your homework so you don't come across as an utter fool, or make sure that your audience is equally ignorant. Don't prance around randomly waving your arms and claiming you are speaking sign in front of someone from the Deaf community--because you will be called on it if you do.


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Spinning Compass
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