About that Fake Sign Language Interpreter at Mandela’s Funeral

Just when I think the story can’t get any stranger, it manages to pull it off. Here are the details as I knew them yesterday: at Mandela’s funeral, they had a sign language interpreter on hand to . . . you know–interpret what was being said. Using sign language. (South African Sign Language, but you get the picture.) The only problem? The deaf community noticed that he couldn’t actually sign worth beans. He was just up there flailing his arms around in what sort of kind of looked like sign language if you had no clue what sign language really looked like.

Imagine if I wrote a blog post, and it read like this:

I muchead diential story got this storythime? I muche se thead int kint tiontionatsoever. Did hime? I muche diot makest wout mucheand of and nal a no on it wout up of an, a nals? I much bet up audiot this nal an, head no thing an, and it kind ing and grout the ch bet me? Did of tiredence? But of the it kin ent onal and do on ent what this no on a his staget ter. Whatimeand do tim audionals? I much bet this cred he in aboup about tired no this no stage. Did and heck hean, him aheck huge.

Some words are there. You can sort of kind of see some glimmers of meaning now and then, but most of it’s garbage. Having had some exposure to ASL (three semesters in college), I know enough to be able to at least tell when something seems off. Even could see it didn’t look right. One clip I watched was of him interpreting a poem. He repeated essentially the same signs three times in a row–and that was supposedly supposed to mean three entirely different things? It was bad.

But then the guy explained what had really happened.

He’s schizophrenic, you see. And he was in the middle of a really bad attack–one where he thought angels were coming into the stadium. Sometimes his attacks become very violent. Sometimes he just sees things. And so when he started having one of these in the middle of this big event, he just had to call an audible and wing it.

Next to Obama and other world leaders. A violent schizophrenic?

Look–I’m not here to demean people with disabilities, be they physical or mental. But I will say that if the guy was really having an attack (which I personally doubt, judging from the other facts about him that are coming out), he needed help–not to keep interpreting. And what kind of background checks are they doing for people who end up being right next to the President for long periods of time? The guy’s close enough to throttle the president, and it takes everyone days to figure out he was a phony?

This seems like something that belongs in a television show plot–not in the middle of the actual news.

Maybe next time, the approach to handling interpretation for the deaf community shouldn’t be outsourced to some fly-by-night company that vanishes the next day. Maybe they should actually turn to the deaf community itself for help with these sorts of things.


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