‘I hope sign language will one day be an exam subject’

15 Jul 2020

Thanks to interpreter Irma Sluis, sign language was thrust into the public spotlight. Yet when it comes to the emancipation of deaf communities, we still have a long way to go, according to sign language professor Onno Crasborn and PhD candidate Tashi Bradford.

Irma Sluis could easily join the ranks of mononymous Dutch celebrities like Anouk, Jamai and Tooske. Thanks to her appearances during the weekly coronavirus press conferences, sign language was thrust into the national spotlight. The sign for ‘hoarding’ became an instant internet meme and there is more interest than ever for sign language training.

Although this increased interest is good, the deaf community still has a long road ahead of it, according to professor of Dutch Sign Language Onno Crasborn (48) and PhD candidate Tashi Bradford (49). One example is the automatic tendency of non-deaf people to address the interpreter instead of the deaf person. ‘People will ask the interpreter to tell the deaf person this or that,’ says Crasborn. ‘They don’t make any contact with deaf people like myself,’ adds Bradford. ‘Non-deaf people are fascinated by the interpreter, when it’s us they’re trying to communicate with!’

A sign language interpreter is also present during this interview: Tessa Heldens. We are sitting at the kitchen table in her house in Nijmegen-Oost, which is convenient as she’ll later be accompanying Bradford to an appointment nearby. In the Netherlands, deaf people are given a personal budget to spend on interpreters. This means they often have a ‘permanent’ interpreter at their disposal, who is familiar with their distinct ‘sign accent’. Born and raised in the United States, Bradford is still working on becoming as fluent in Dutch Sign Language (DSL) as she is in her native American Sign Language. Heldens has since become familiar with Bradford’s personal style and use of signs.

‘Interpreters always go viral’

The seating arrangement is strategic to ensure that everyone can understand each other. Crasborn and Heldens are seated opposite Bradford, who is seated next to the Vox interviewer. Heldens interprets two ways and Crasborn signs as he speaks.

What did you think of all the attention Irma Sluis got after the press conferences?
Tashi Bradford (TB) laughs. ‘Interpreters always go viral. Now is no different.’

Onno Crasborn (OC): ‘It’s always the same: the interpreters outshine the deaf, despite being there for them.’

TB: ‘Even so, the prominence of interpreters is a positive development. It’s shining a light on sign language in general. I think it’s great that Irma Sluis had deaf people answer questions about sign language in a Facebook video.’

OC: ‘The visibility of sign language contributes to my dream of Dutch Sign Language being normalised and used more often throughout the Netherlands. It starts with the realisation that sign language can be valuable.’

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