Signed interpretation on TV: under attack from the Guardian

A while back, the Guardian did a fantastic set of articles on deaf people. On Monday though, I read a blog on the Guardian’s website which seemed to suggest that the Guardian’s own journalists don’t read their own paper.

This article was about sign language interpretation on a film shown on TV, by a Nick Lezard, called “Sign language strangles cinema”. It’s hard to know where to start – but the whole article suggested a profound ignorance, which was rather worrying to anyone who campaigns on deaf issues.

Nick shows a profound lack of understanding between British Sign Language and English, asking why deaf people cannot just use subtitles. Five minutes of basic investigation would have revealed to him that BSL is a distinct language. It is not just English with signs. It has a different grammar and structure. Asking a BSL user to follow subtitles is like asking a French man to follow a German film with Spanish subtitles. I imagine that most deaf people will in fact prefer to use subtitles to access TV. But there are a sizable minority who communicate primarily through British Sign Language and who will prefer to see sign language on TV.

Nick suggests the film was ‘ruined’ by the presence of sign language interpretation. If he doesn’t like it, that’s fine. And if all programmes were shown with signed interpretation, I can imagine he’d be very unhappy. But this is not the case. We’re talking here about a film that was on in the very early hours of the morning. In fact, most signed interpreted programmes are shown in the twilight zone, deliberating timed to avoid being too intrusive to hearing viewers. BSL users – who pay a full licence fee too – are forced to either stay up to after midnight or record programmes in order to be able to access a small number of programmes and films in their own languages.

Nick has the option of renting or buying a DVD and being able to watch it in English, or waiting till it is repeated on TV again. BSL users do not have this kind of ready access. It is a shame that Nick seems to want to begrude BSL users this small accommodation to their needs.

One of the comments to the blog – from ahumanist – summed up my feelings by saying:

In my understanding, the job of a journalist is to ask questions and investigate when he comes up against an issue. So when he turns on the box and sees “a fat little man” (I prefer not to think what Lezard looks like) gesticulating in the corner of the screen, then he might be prompted to ask some questions and investigate: Do deaf people prefer subtitles or sign language? Is poor literacy more prevalent amongst deaf people? Can one get DVDs film with sign language? Is the BBC filling a gap the private sector ignores? Are there technical problems is using the “red button” to switch on and off? These are the kind of questions I would expect a journalists to see as their task, and they should be paid for that kind of work. Lezard is a lazy man, his column inches of self-indulgence and ignorance are pure garbage.

I couldn’t agree more. The article was ignorant and mean-spirited. To see it appear on the website of a paper which I’ve always thought recognised diversity and the needs of disabled people and promoted inclusion is profoundly disappointing.


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