10th Anniversary of Naba Martin Adongo Abilba III

Sign of the times

Have you heard about the man who was supposed to be signing at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service?” my daughter, K, asked when she picked me up at the airport the other day.

She was, of course, referring to the recently reported news that the man who was supposed to be interpreting for the deaf, translating the words being spoken by the various presenters into Sign Language, was merely standing on the stage and randomly gesticulating.  

I asked K who, though not hearing-impaired, is fluent in Sign Language, “Was he just bad at it?  I mean, did any of what he signed make sense?”  

K shook her head.  “Not a word. Not a single gesture.”

I’ve read numerous news reports stating that this charlatan’s presence at Mandela’s funeral was a “disgrace” to Madiba’s memory, an “affront” to his legacy.  I could not disagree more.  The fact that this incident—which occurred on Human Rights Day, the 65th anniversary of the United Nations’ adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—has burst open a global conversation about an often marginalised community, is nothing less than a continuation of the battle for respect and human dignity of all people for which Mandela so selflessly waged throughout his lifetime. 

The truth of the matter is that people who are visually, hearing and/or physically impaired are rendered all but invisible on the African continent.  Theirs is an existence that is rarely considered, let alone discussed.

During my late teen years, before the proliferation of shopping malls, my friends and I used to hang out and while away our boredom at Union Station in Washington, D.C., where there were a few cafes and arcades with video games.  Gallaudet, a university dedicated to the education of the deaf and hearing impaired, was fairly close by, so we would always encounter groups of deaf students.

It was during one of these outings that I had my first conversation with a deaf person who, thankfully, could read lips.  He taught me how to sign the alphabet and, as a parting gift, left me a small note card with illustrations of the various hand symbols and their corresponding letters. 

From that day forward, it thrilled me to be able to communicate, however slowly and rudimentarily, with the deaf kids I encountered.  Over the years I learned how to sign a few words and phrases, like “thanks,” and “please,” but beyond that, my knowledge has pretty much been limited to those letters I learned that one afternoon. Still, it is knowledge that has come in quite handy—even in Ghana.

While having my hair braided one day in an Asylum Down shop, I called out to a worker and asked if she could please buy me some water.  Though she was standing only a few feet from me, she didn’t respond.  I asked again; still no response.  Then the woman who was braiding my hair said, “Oh, she can’t hear you.  She’s deaf and dumb.”  I was shocked to hear such an outdated and offensive description, though it was clear from the woman’s tone that she wasn’t saying it to offend, merely as a statement of “fact.”

“Please don’t say that,” I chided.  “That she is deaf does not mean she is also dumb.”  I asked if someone would get the girl’s attention.  As it turned out, the girl, whose name is Maria, did know American Sign Language so I was able to talk to her—by spelling out what I wanted to say one word at a time.  It was an arduous task, but I could tell Maria was happy to be able to communicate with someone without having to pantomime or resort to quickly scribbled notes.

A few days later, I met another deaf person, this time while shopping at Game, a store in the Accra Mall.  Again, a co-worker, trying to spare me the bother of speaking to someone who could not hear, referred to that person as “deaf and dumb.”  And again, I pointed out the ignorance of that statement before going on to slowly spell out in Sign Language what I’d been trying to say.

It is those two individuals who first came to mind when I heard about the fake interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.  Since meeting them, I’ve often thought of how challenging life must be in Ghana for the hearing impaired, people who are still widely thought of in our society as “deaf and dumb.”  Indeed, for all people with disabilities (or “challenges,” as is said in politically correct parlance) in a society that is wholly oblivious to their particular circumstances.

Some months ago, I had occasion to meet Hon Nana Oye Lithur, the Minister for Gender, Children and Social Protection.  Since her appointment, I’d heard and read much about her commitment to the protection of human rights; some aspects of which have earned her the ire of some who do not believe we are all, regardless of orientation, deserving of respect and human dignity.  At the end of our brief chat, Hon Lithur handed me her card.   It not only pleased me to feel the letters in Braille on the card, it also spoke volumes, more than anything else could, about this woman’s commitment to the underserved in our communities.  It pleased me to know there are people in leadership roles in Ghana who are living their beliefs in the small day-to-day ways that are rarely broadcast in headlines, but that matter the most when instituting real change. 

It is understandable why people are outraged by what has happened. Apparently so little investigation and effort went into hiring a Sign Language interpreter that a charlatan, a man who is now claiming mental illness as his reason for doing what he did, could end up on stage with dignitaries and heads of state during the internationally televised memorial for Nelson Mandela.  I only hope we make good use of our outrage.  I hope we take this opportunity of global awareness to expand the conversation beyond this one event and utilise it to investigate the efforts that are being made on the African continent to meet the specific needs of the deaf, the blind and the physically impaired.   This is one way we can take yet another step toward becoming the sort of inclusive society for which Nelson Mandela dedicated his life.   

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