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The Sign Language Interpreter Controversy in South Africa

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This week, I will publish two articles discussing disability-related headline news topics. Today’s story will cover the sign language interpreter controversy in South Africa that occurred during the late Nelson Mandela’s memorial service last week.  The second story, which will be published on Thursday, will cover the disabled mannequins on display at a popular Zurich store that received international and social media attention.  I felt that shining a spotlight on these stories, whether controversial or empowering, is important because those who follow Ramp Your Voice! need to be aware of what is taking place in the world around us, whether it is on U.S. soil or abroad.

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Photo image credit: Winepress Publishing

The Fake Sign Language Interpretation Seen Around the World

Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was supposed to be a remembrance of the great man and leader he was, and how he inspired millions around the globe to stand up against oppression and racism.  Instead, we will remember Madiba’s service as being plagued by the fake sign language fiasco that outraged not only those within the deaf and disability communities, but also those who worried about the safety of the world leaders who paid their respects to Nelson Mandela that day, including President Barack Obama.

Man passing himself off as a sign language interpreter punches the air during a speech being given by India's President Mukherjee at memorial service for late South African President Mandela in Johannesburg

(Photo image credit: Free Beacon)

Thamasanqa Jantjie (pictured right) is the man who has caused many to call into question the South African government’s ability to find qualified individuals to provide a much-needed service such as sign language interpretation to its disabled countrymen, as well as conduct thorough background checks on individuals who will be in close proximity to some of the most powerful leaders in the world.

The Deaf Community’s Outrage & the South African Government’s Oversight

The deaf community in South Africa is outraged that Jantjie made a mockery of the need for sign language at key events, such as the highly publicized memorial service.  Many felt that they were robbed of being included in the event by Jantjie’s inability to sign properly; the ardent feeling of exclusion is valid because they were indeed unable to follow the proceedings of the service.

Many in South Africa (and across the globe) believed that the South African government did not place acquiring appropriate (and verifiable) signing services as a high priority for its hearing impaired residents.  It was an utterly embarrassing moment for the South African government as the offensive blunder was not only televised internationally, but also became headlining international news.  Though I am not very versed on the experiences of those with disabilities in South Africa, this occurrence has caused me to question how dedicated the government is when it comes to inclusion and empowerment of South Africans with disabilities.

Schizophrenia, Criminal Background, & Security Concerns

The security concerns surrounding Jantjie’s participation in the memorial service shines a blinding spotlight on individuals who have mental illness and criminal and/or violent backgrounds.  Jantjie had reported to the Associated Press (AP) that he suffered from schizophrenia, and has had a history of violence and hallucinations.  He admitted that he was hearing voices while on-stage signing, with world leaders just inches away from him.

The eNews Channel Africa (eNCA), South Africa’s most watched TV news channel, reported that Jantjie had faced several criminal charges, with many of the convictions being withdrawn.  Here is a rundown of the alleged charges Jantjie had faced:  rape in 1994; theft in 1995; housebreaking in 1997; malicious damage to property in 1998; and murder, attempted murder, and kidnapping in 2003.  (At the time of this article, other news reports had stated that a complete verification of the charges had not been provided by the South African government.  Upon complete recognition of the aforementioned charges, they will be considered “alleged” for legal purposes.) 

Many, those domestic and abroad, are mystified as to how someone with Jantjie’s mental health status and alleged criminal history could be deemed qualified to stand next to prominent leaders and sign.  Such concerns pertain to the fears that society has about individuals with mental illness, particularly those who have a violent history due to delusional or hallucinating episodes.  It is not to say that those with schizophrenia (and other types of mental illnesses) cannot participate in society or should not be hired to perform at high profiled events; the concerns echoed surrounds the fact that Jantjie was experiencing an hallucinating episode that could have caused him to become violent if he had been triggered.  Anyone in his vicinity, in this case, President Obama and other key figures, could have been seriously injured (or worse) if Jantjie had acted on what he was experiencing during the episode.

This fear of those with mental illness becoming violent, regardless of whether a history of violent incidences is prevalent, is a stereotype that burdens this segment of the disability population.  Mental illness is a very stigmatized disability, and those with schizophrenia are bombarded with ill misconceptions about their social functionality and the safety of those who encounter them.  This event has placed an unjust dark cloud on people with schizophrenia that has left little room for empowering mental health awareness discussions to take place about the mental and social capacities of this group.

Your Reaction to the Controversy

I want everyone reading this article to voice their reactions about the controversy of Thamasanqa Jantjie, better known as the “fake interpreter” in the media.

Though we have many policies that exist in America to ensure that people with disabilities are able to fully participate at such events, could a similar situation occur here?  If you are a person with a hearing impairment, have you witnessed inadequate signing services being provided at certain events?  How did such gross acts of exclusion make you feel about your way of life?  What steps can be taken to guarantee that others do not experience similar circumstances?

If you are a person with a mental illness, is the media’s portrayal of Jantjie’s mental state, as alarming and posing a safety risk to others, an accurate depiction of what you have experienced when others had learned about your health condition?  Do you purposefully hide your illness from others, afraid of the possible negative thoughts and isolation?  How has the stigma surrounding mental health affected your ability to cope with your illness?

Share your experiences, reactions, and opinions with me via email at Vilissa@rampyourvoice.com, or by leaving a response in the comments section under the article.  The only way to create understanding, erase stigma, and effect positive change to become a more inclusive society is by breaking the silence on topics that are considered “taboo.”

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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