Sign language interpreters face online criticism

Sign Language interpreters have been a daily part of the Government's official messaging around the Covid-19 response. Ross Giblin/Stuff.

Sign language interpreters working on the coronavirus response are copping flak on social media simply for doing their jobs.

New Zealand Sign Language interpreters have become a staple on TV screens during the Government's daily coronavirus press conferences, helping to keep the country's deaf community informed.

But parody videos, memes and comments circulating online making fun of interpreters – calling them "distracting" or "unnecessary" – is causing these workers added stress, Deaf Aotearoa and the Sign Language Interpreters Association of NZ (SLIANZ) say.

The groups say some recent comments had been "particularly disrespectful" and they were calling for New Zealanders to show respect for interpreters and the wider deaf community.

Approximately 4000-5000 New Zealanders are deaf, and rely on NZSL as their first language.

It is one of the country's three official languages, alongside English and Māori.

Deaf Aotearoa say there are six "highly-skilled and experienced" interpreters working on the Government's Covid-19 response.

They work seven-hour shifts across a seven-day week.

While the presence of NZSL on screens during times of crisis is a "novelty" to many, everyone has the right to access crucial information – the same information other New Zealanders are hearing, Deaf Aotearoa president Oliver Ferguson says.

Oliver says New Zealand is doing a good job of ensuring deaf people are not left behind in accessing information and support, but calls for wider respect of interpreters.

"We are all in this together, and ask that the public show their respect to deaf people and their language," he says.

Interpreting is a "very stressful" job at any time – with interpreters having to take in information, think on the spot and sign while also listening to the next sentence.

But interpreting for the prime minister or director-general of health brought "increased scrutiny" and pressure, Deaf Aotearoa chief executive Lachlan Keating says.

"If they get one sign wrong, everybody will know about it."

SLIANZ president Micky Vale says interpreters are working in a very "fast-paced, challenging environment" requiring a high-degree of skill.

In providing access to deaf people in this way, they had to be "in the limelight" – which is stressful in itself, he says.

"Interpreters do not need the added stress of being made the butt of jokes or negative comments."

There are about 100 NZSL interpreters working in New Zealand.


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Posted on 06-04-2020 13:06 | By morepork

Tanks for your comment. I wondered why they change signers, also. I think it may be that a continuous long discourse, on national TV, in sign language, is probably physically and mentally stressful so they swap them in order to get a break, but I don’t know this... We can all agree that they do a great job.


Posted on 04-04-2020 23:15 | By

The facial expressions and open mouths real wide is part of being a fluent speaker of sign language. They are for the deaf and hard of hearing. Not people that want to learn how to lip read.

I Agree

Posted on 04-04-2020 23:10 | By

Morepork makes a good comment. That being the signers shouldn’t take things too seriously, a smile at times would be great. As for those disrespecting them you need to get over yourself. The deaf people probably find the non-deaf distracting. They’re great at their job and very talented. Get used to it I say and if you have a problem with it you’ve always got your remote. I do wonder however why in these ’unprecedented times’ they need to keep changing the signers . . .


Posted on 04-04-2020 17:28 | By

For goodness sake, get a life all you critical people. These people do the most wonderful job for our deaf community and to be criticised and pulled apart for the highly stressful and wonderful job they do is shameful. Keep up the good work, you should be greatly admired and commended.

Lighten up.

Posted on 04-04-2020 13:25 | By morepork

The signers do a really great job and they do it well. Personally, I have great respect for the hours they must put in to learn sign language, and I accept that, for deaf people, it is an "essential service". But when you watch it, it IS funny. It has made me laugh on several occasions when you see some of the sign gestures that "translate" certain phrases. I don’t use social media (except SunLive) so I don’t know what is being said, but I would suggest to the signers not to take themselves too seriously. We can all use a smile at the moment, and it doesn’t necessarily imply disrespect.

Good job done, but

Posted on 04-04-2020 12:02 | By cantab

I dont mind the sign language people, they do a great job and it is interesting to watch but, i do wish they wouldnt pull faces and open mouths real wide, you cant lip read it.