If Red Symons’ reply to Deaf Victoria’s complaints about comments on interpreters on television is anything to go by, there’s just a little more understanding of why they are sometimes there.
Ask hearing people about sign language, and they reply in much the same way – they love it. Some think it is beautiful, and some would even like to learn it.
Then put it on television where Auslan interpreters catch hearing people by surprise. Put them on because of an emergency announcement, or overseas, perhaps because of an access deal. Then watch how quick is the change from a generally positive attitude.
Load up Google with “sign language on television”, and it takes less than a couple of seconds to come up with the headline:
“Get these manic sign-language gnomes off our screens”.
For that astonishing description of interpreters on television, we can thank the good Gerald Warner, a Scottish historian, columnist and former political adviser in the Conservative political tradition.
Do you hear that, all you terps? You are not accredited professional Auslan interpreters. You are all short-statured persons with a mental illness, and probably with an attitude problem. You are not terps but are “gesticulators” with an “element of exhibitionist do-goodery” about you. Get some help, will you!
Seriously, you couldn’t make up this stuff if you tried.
The political and everything-else blogger Jack Marx complained some years ago when Auslan interpreters were filmed with the then premier of Queensland, Anna Bligh, as she spoke to the state about the disastrous floods. They were distracting, Marx said; we assume he meant the interpreters and not the floods, which were considerably more than distracting. And all the terps really did, he said, was to make Bligh look politically good.
Warner brushed aside the issue as annoying, insignificant tripe. Marx seized the chance to score points. And so we come to the soothing cup of tea in the storm, Red Symons’ reply to complaints about the reference to interpreters.
Late in January, the radio personality Red Symons, in his breakfast program on ABC 774, opened up on Auslan interpreters appearing on television during emergency announcements. He said they were unnecessary because there were already captions – just press the subtitles button, people. They added “theatre”, he said, and he suggested that politicians like them because they added obvious political capital in the form of inclusion and diversity.
Talkback callers more or less reinforced these views, with one describing interpreters as a “Punch-and-Judy” show. I’m sure that was a cue for the obligatory guffawing. And most hilarious of all was Symons’ apparent invitation to deaf people to contact the station. Errm, deaf people listen to radio, do they? It’s unclear whether Symons realised that. But it needed a response, and Deaf Victoria’s Melissa Lowrie stepped forward.
In a letter to Symons, Lowrie politely neutralised every point raised in the segment. Just use subtitles? Not ideal for people whose first language is not English. Distracting, Punch-and-Judy theatre? But these were emergencies, and deaf people need them!
Symons replied to Lowrie. In fact, he read Lowrie’s letter on air, because he thought it was “informative and an education”. His letter, which Lowrie released on the Deaf Victoria FaceBook page, reveals a man who knew almost nothing about deafness and the importance of interpreters, and who was anxious to explain where he came from.
Before anything else, Red Symons is an entertainer. His radio program covers an astonishing array of subjects. Symons has a cheerfully acid sense of humour and some waspish insight. Nothing is sacred.
I don’t find that surprising. Red Symons has always been a man who will challenge the status quo. He was a guitarist in Skyhook, a glam rock band from the 1970s. Instead of twee love songs or aping whatever came out of the UK or the US rock scene, Skyhook wrote and played songs about places I knew, like Balwyn and Carlton’s Lygon street. They sang about real stuff, too, about booze, dope, sex and relationships. That group challenged a very large herd of sacred cows.
Hearing people have been cracking jokes about the mad gestures of sign language for centuries, and they always will. They are made by people who know as much about Auslan and the nuances of Deaf culture as I know about quantum physics.
I’ve no idea if they are doing so less now, but I like to think this exchange will clear up some misconceptions. If so, it’s because of the work of deaf advocates like Melissa Lowrie, and because of public figures like Red Symons who listen to what they say.