The global scandal over a sign-language interpreter at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela has ignited one right here at home — with some deaf individuals demanding the Seattle Men’s Chorus replace a longtime interpreter whose signs they say are inaccurate and unclear, his facial expressions odd.
While beautiful and engaging, Kevin Gallagher’s interpretations of chorus performances, the protesters say, seem designed more to entertain the hearing audience than serve the deaf or hard of hearing who want to understand what’s being sung.
Motivated by the publicity surrounding the incoherent gestures at the tribute to Mandela, the late South African leader, they started a petition at Change.org that has drawn nearly 600 signatures and posted an open letter outlining why Gallagher’s performance with the chorus is inadequate.
After several letters between the two sides, the Seattle Men’s Chorus on Wednesday said it was prepared to assign Gallagher a deaf coach and see that he obtains additional training.
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The critics say that won’t do. They want Gallagher, who’s been with the chorus 31 years, removed and replaced by a qualified interpreter. They also want an apology from the chorus.
Those who signed the letter to the chorus don’t claim Gallagher is a fake. But they say he is not a fluent signer, and “to the trained eyes of deaf persons and professional American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, his ‘performance’ does not accurately convey the valuable work of the men in the chorus.”
Katie Roberts, who is deaf and teaches ASL at Seattle Central Community College, said she attended Sunday’s concert.
Through an interpreter, she said, “Kevin … looks beautiful when he signs and people think he’s great.
“But this is about accessibility and language clarity, and the (deaf) audience is not being served. We are telling them he’s not clear. This isn’t just a problem in another country; it’s happening right here and we felt it was important to bring this issue up.”
The chorus website notes Gallagher’s breadth of experience, spanning 35 years.
A New York native and kindergarten teacher in Seattle Public Schools, he has been a guest interpreter for many performances in the U.S., Canada and across Europe, including Broadway shows. He was invited to interpret for gay athletes at the Gay Games for four years and was the first interpreter at the reopening of New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1986.
In an email, Gallagher said, “While there are stylistic choices any performer makes to both inform and ‘challenge’ the audience, it can require a patron to understand with different effort and perhaps there in lies some of the disagreement.”
While he lists his qualification as “accredited,” experts in the deaf community say there’s no such thing — that interpreters must be certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) after lengthy training.
Frank Stilwagner, executive director of Flying House Productions, parent of the men’s chorus and the Seattle Women’s Chorus, said he became aware of concerns over Gallagher only last week, during what is a busy time for the choruses.
He said he’s spent the past few days educating himself on the issues.
“I now know that ASL is a language and if we’re not speaking that language fluently or only to a certain level, then perhaps we’re not serving the community,” Stilwagner said.
In addition to providing a coach and training for Gallagher, Stilwagner said he will invite members of the deaf community to watch him at work and offer feedback.
He plans to present all this in a letter to be delivered to community members Friday.
“We are committed to bringing Kevin to the level where he will serve,” he said. “We’re not shutting anyone out. That’s never been our intention.”
Questions about the quality of access for the deaf and hard of hearing occur every day as they go about their lives.
Interpreters help children attending classes and people visiting doctors and going to court.
“There are people unqualified to do this kind of work in many aspects of deaf people’s lives,” said Anne Del Vecchio, a certified interpreter and a member of the group TADA! (Theater, Allies & Deaf Audiences), which tries to improve access to theater and the arts for deaf people.
Critics of Gallagher’s work say they first complained to the chorus in 1989 and followed up with meetings in more recent years — to no avail.
Stilwagner, who was named executive director in 2012 and was marketing director for a few years before that, said he could find no record of a 1989 meeting and that one individual who complained last year never returned his call.
Both Stilwagner and Gallagher said several deaf people have attended the concerts and not had a problem with Gallagher’s signing.
In their letter to the chorus, the protesters say Gallagher’s signs are incorrect, he does not follow ASL grammar rules, his expressions are odd and do not match the signs, his interpretations do not reflect what is happening on the stage, and his transliteration from English to ASL is inaccurate.
ASL teacher Roberts, who attended Sunday’s performance, said, “His heart is in the right place but he lacks the appropriate skills:
“We are not trying to bully anyone. But if the chorus is going to provide interpretation, it should be by a professional skill interpreter. Having an unskilled interpreter is disrespectful.”
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.