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A Sign Language Interpreter Who Doesn’t Know How?


Advocates for the hearing impared and deaf are calling the sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service a “fake.”

Why have a sign language interpreter at an event if he doesn’t actually know sign language? It’s the kind of question someone with common sense might just ask if given the chance.

Apparently, no one with common sense attended the planning for Nelson Mandela’s funeral if advocates for the hearing impaired and deaf are right about their claims. They say that the man who gestured in what appears to be sign language during remarks by President Obama and others wasn’t signing at all. He was offering, instead, the sign language equivalent of gibberish.

“He was moving his hands, but there was no meaning.”

That’s what Bruno Druchen, the national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa, told ABC News:

“[He] was moving his hands around but there was no meaing in what he used his hands for.”

Let’s think about this for a second.

Maybe he wasn’t using sign language and maybe he wasn’t even attempting to use true sign language in any standardized form. 

Perhaps his intent, and that of the people who put him there, was something more along the lines of interpretive dance. Such interpretation is an art form unto itself. But it doesn’t follow strict adherence to any specific language, even if elements of it may appear to be sign language to someone who either isn’t trained in it or in need of it.

If that was the idea, they certainly did it the wrong way by making it appear to be sign language without letting anyone know that it wasn’t.

But it can’t honestly be said that there was “no meaning” in what he used his hands for.

If the idea was that this guy was supposed to use true sign language and just didn’t know it, well, yeah. That’s a problem on multiple levels.          


  1. As it turns out, Luis found this on the news and asked me to come see this man signing; I started heading out there just to find out that this was the man you posted about. I began explaining to him that this man may be speaking Afrikaans and I would not recognize it, but no, I had no trouble identifying that he was not signing anything. Aside from the fact that he was supposed to be signing in ASL, he was not using any signs I knew, nor was he gesturing more than three motions in a 30-second clip. From this alone I can tell you that this is not sign language. He wasn’t moving nearly enough for this. A true interpreter would be speaking only a moment or two behind the president, and this should have been a continuous flow of signs, not three “gestures” which were utterly meaningless.

    So there is the proof.

    He was paid $85 for this service that he clearly did not provide! Luis said his excuse was that he had some kind of physical issue that kept him from signing properly. I just hope they fired him and got their $85 – which is a lot of money there – and had him blacklisted from interpreting jobs ever.

  2. As someone who knows basic ASL, enough to spell my way through the signs I don’t know, this is just appalling. It is the oat egregious thing possible. There must have been a large number of people there who are deaf or hearing impaired and must have been confused, then furious to see this. I can’t even imagine such a heinous act.

    And who hired this clown?

    Now, I would not be able to understand this person, even if he did know how to sign, as sign language, just like any other living language, has different signs and dialects, and is completely different from place to place. I do know there is a Quebec version, as well as all other languages offering versions of their own. The signer for this event had to at least sign the Africaans language if not others for all to follow. This is crazy.

    Any idea what the follow-up to this was? Did this man have a statement or did the people who hired him say anything about this? I would be interested to know.

  3. audaciouslady Well, yes, mostly. 
    It’s definitely true that interpretive dance has some level of meaning to it, but in this context, interpretive dance wasn’t what anyone needed.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.