Mandela row highlights deaf services shortage

Accusations that a sign interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial was a fake have highlighted the difficulties faced by deaf communities in accessing public information.

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Australia's hearing-impaired community advocate, Deaf Australia, says there's a gaping need for sign interpreters that isn't being filled.

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This week, millions of people around the world turned to their televisions to watch the memorial of Nelson Mandela.

However for the deaf community of South Africa, parts of the historic event - such as the eulogies from US President Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela's grandchildren - were rendered meaningless.

Experts say the signing from the man tasked with interpreting the speeches for the deaf amounted to little more than arm-waving.

Sign language expert Adam Schembri, from La Trobe University, says he immediately knew something was amiss.

"The sign language at the memorial for Nelson Mandela should've been South African sign language, which is the language that is used in that part of the world, but I didn't need to know any South African sign language however to quickly pick this guy as a fake interpreter."

He says there were several glaring indicators that the signing used wasn't South African, or indeed any official sign language.

"There are a number of varieties of South African sign language: the language hasn't been standardised. But it became quickly apparent to most observers that this interpreter was doing things that couldn't be a characteristic of any sign language that deaf people would use: a) because of the lack of facial expression, b) because of the lack of the use of any kind of coherent body movement while he was signing and thirdly there just simply weren't enough signs that were being produced at anywhere near the kind of rate and fluency that you would expect an accomplished sign language interpreter to use."

Whilst the interpreter claims to be fully qualified and blames his performance on a schizophrenic episode, the South African government has admitted he was not a professional sign language interpreter.

Sheena Walters is the Oceania representative for the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters.

She says this episode is a failure for human rights for people with disabilities.

"People are pretty disgusted, I think. Given that this is an opportunity to celebrate human rights advances across the world and someone is pretending to be a sign language interpreter and not giving deaf people access to this information is pretty disgraceful."

Members of the World Federation of the Deaf have told SBS that the South African government's failure to provide qualified sign interpreters for the event could be a breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

The Convention, ratified by South Africa in 2007, states:

"States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that persons with disabilities can exercise the right to freedom of expression and opinion, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas on an equal basis."

Australia ratified this convention in 2008, and currently it has 158 signatories and 138 parties to it worldwide.

However Deaf Australia's President, Todd Wright, says there is still a long way to go in providing sufficient access to interpreters for the deaf community internationally and in Australia.

Mr Wright says while Australia has an association for interpreters (ASLIA) and an interpreter-accreditation service (NAATI) there are not nearly enough interpreters to fill the demand.

"We don't have a national service for NABs (The National Auslan Booking Service), which is legal appointments. We have interpreting services for medical appointments, so if we want to head to a lawyer to discuss a civil case there's no interpreters provided for that. If we get arrested and go to court, yes we are able to get an interpreter but there's no guarantee that an interpreter will actually turn up."

Mr Wright is speaking here via the National Relay Service.

It uses Skype with an interpreter and allows deaf people in Australia to make phone calls for the first time.

He says the fact that this service only became available in July this year shows how hard the battle for services for the deaf community has been, and how far it still has to go.

Todd Wright says such services could save lives in events such as the New South Wales bushfires earlier this year.

"There were a lot of emergency announcements made on TV. There were no Auslan interpreters until the deaf community advocated to the NSW government to provide interpreters, and then there were interpreters. And that was fantastic. It was a huge, huge resource that was needed."

Mr Wright says the current scandal over the Nelson Mandela memorial is an important reminder of the struggle the deaf community continues to face.

"It is very important for anyone in their whole life, not just for a historic event in a significant point in time but for all aspects of life, like going to the doctor, seeing a lawyer in the workplace at any time, with your own family at recreation, so everything."

Source World News Australia

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