As a practising interpreter, it may seem odd that my idea of Utopia includes no opportunity for me to do the job I love. My idea of the perfect world is one where deaf people communicate with hearing people direct, without the need to have someone else to say their words for them. There’s a joke I’ve heard among Deaf people that hearing people are the disabled ones as they’re ‘hard of
hearing signing’ and, while I enjoy the joke, it highlights a sad and persistent inequality.
Perhaps if you’ve seen Samsung’s latest advertising campaign you might think we’re one step closer to my perfect world, but let’s take a step back and think about what’s really going on. For those of you who’ve avoided the viral and ever so tempting links to ‘Deaf guy thinks it’s a normal day but you won’t believe what happens next’ or ‘Deaf man moved to tears by something he never expected’ and ‘Most emotional surprise of the year’- well done, I applaud you. I can only dream of such self control in the current like/share culture. That said, go ahead and watch it here if you want to be able to follow my commentary.
On the face of it it’s a heart warming story of compassion and empathy, he even cries at the end- what more could you want from an internet viral(!) These lovely people have done so much to make him feel like he’s part of the community, they learnt how to communicate with him! Bravo those hearing people and bravo Samsung for helping people do the right thing. Sure. Without wanting to detract from the positivity of some people learning to sign (remember in my utopia, everyone can sign and I will do all I can to make that a reality) let’s consider the bigger picture. Why did he cry? Because people communicating with him like that wasn’t normal. People giving him the time of day, apologising for bumping into him, thanking him for his help- none of this was normal and when he was able to experience the sort of everyday human interaction most of us take for granted, it was overwhelming. I can’t comment on the legacy of Samsung’s involvement in the small Turkish community but the optimist in me wants to believe the people learnt more than their one sentence for the cameras and that they will continue to use the language they’ve learnt to make their town a more inclusive place in which to live. Regardless, this is one neighbourhood. Muaharrem is one Deaf man. This was one short journey where he got to taste what most of us experience everyday. It’s not the answer, it’s a prompt to question.
From the limited knowledge I have about it, the new service the advert was launching is fantastic, in the UK we have a similar service called Sign Video but aside from the advances in technology to bring telecommunication services for sign language users on par with those enjoyed by hearing people for decades, it’s not a substitute for small talk. You might not realise the affect of someone welcoming you or thanking you, but as someone who doesn’t experience that, we can see the difference it makes in Muaharrem’s face. Yet again, it made me think- wouldn’t the world be great if ‘sign language interpreter’ wasn’t a thing?
So don’t just jump on the warm fuzzy band wagon. Celebrate it for what it is, a beautiful example of inclusion, but remember what else it represents, normalised exclusion and acceptance of misrecognition. But also don’t be left thinking ‘woe is me, those poor deaf people’. Anyone who is able to watch John Smith (Deaf comedian) tell the one about the deaf guy marrying a fairy and not laugh, or watch Dot Miles recite ASL poetry and not been moved, really is ‘Hard of Signing’. For that, I’m genuinely sorry. And if there is still a niggling voice in the back of your head that can’t quite accept this dystopia that deaf people face everyday of their lives, why not do something about it. Even if it’s just to learn how to say ‘we have hot bagels’!