One on One: Signing on for life

Interpreter for the deaf Lee Dan works hard to bridge the gap between the hearing world and the deaf.

sign language 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sign language 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On the day of our scheduled interview, Lee Dan's car breaks down on the highway - somewhere between her residence in Kfar Yona and our meeting place in Tel Aviv. Several phone conversations later, a new venue is agreed upon: her parents' house in Kfar Saba. "If you think today's mishaps were problematic for me," she says, hitting home one of many points the professional interpreter for the deaf wants to make about the community she serves and loves, "imagine what life was for them before the advent of the text message." Indeed, she stresses, technological advances have made a huge difference in the ability of people who cannot hear to communicate with each another - and with the rest of the world. At this, she whips out a state-of-the-art mobile device with video-conference capability and demonstrates how the deaf can now read lips or sign language over the telephone. She is slightly less enthusiastic, however, about the most famous piece of technology for the hearing-impaired - the cochlear implant (CI). This surgically inserted electronic device that stimulates auditory nerves in the inner ear, enabling deaf people to have a sense of sound, has been developed and improved upon over the last few decades to a serious extent. Still - surprising as it may seem to those of us who can hear - the CI has been at the root of much controversy among the very people it is aimed to help. And Dan, who came by her vocation accidentally through her IDF service, says she can understand where much of the opposition comes from - though she also admits to having softened her position somewhat. She is certainly not as militant as those who refer to the advent of the CI as the "holocaust against the deaf." Still, asserts the 29-year-old beauty with silky, waist-length hair, the deaf often feel as though attempts are continually being made to "fix" them, rather than accept them for who they are. And who they are, claims Dan, is a "close-knit, kibbutz-like society" with a distinct, almost separatist, culture which they cherish. As does Dan. Though herself not hearing-impaired, she is so socially involved in deaf culture that her friends consider her an integral part of it. This may shed light on her passion for her occupation, from which, she says she'll "never get wealthy." And this is in spite of running from job to job - as an interpreter for deaf students at universities (paid for by National Insurance), TV broadcasts, court cases and other gigs - and often working 12 hours at a stretch. This is partly due to a shortage of interpreters, she says, expressing her belief that anyone dealing with the public should learn sign language, and that it should be taught in schools, just as French and Arabic are. As for other advice to the hearing population, Dan shrugs and smiles knowingly. "Though it's sometimes hard to understand someone deaf," she acknowledges, "be patient." How did you become an interpreter for the deaf? Completely by accident, through my army service as a soldier-teacher for deaf children at the Shema Center [an after-school tutoring program for hearing-impaired children]. Did you know sign language already, or had you been interested in learning it? No. I mean, like everybody else, I always found it beautiful to watch. And like everybody else, I always said I'd like to learn it. But, like everybody else, I never made an effort to do so. How long did you study it formally, before being forced to use it in your army job? The course was only a month long, so I only knew the basics when I was thrown into the water immediately to be an interpreter in a high school. I hardly knew anything, but I learned from the kids. And a strong bond developed between us, so I was with them all the time and got better and better at it. In the mornings, I worked at a high school, and in the afternoons, I taught small children drama. Were you not shy at first - or afraid that you lacked the necessary vocabulary to communicate and interpret? I think was a little uncomfortable at first. But I knew how to spell, so when I didn't know how to sign a certain word, I would spell it out and then the kids would show me how to sign it. I mean, I was there translating a history class, and I didn't know the sign for "history." So I spelled it out, and they showed me. There's a lot of logic to the signs. The word for "history," for example, is like the sign for "old." What happened when you finished the army? The day I was released, I returned to work as a civilian for Shema, where I remained for another four years. Did you know at that point already that this was what you wanted to do with your life? Well, it was clear to me that I loved the place and the children. Is there something unique to the deaf community? Absolutely. It's a completely different culture. In what way? There's something very kibbutz-like about the community. They're a very close-knit society, and they spend most of their time together. This creates an experience that's specific to them. They have their own beauty pageants, for example, and other events. And they all know each other. Even though they are not geographically homogeneous? Do deaf people in Metulla know those in Eilat? Pretty much, because they have joint activities, such as trips and parties. They also communicate via the Internet - through ICQ and Messenger and Facebook and forums... and the latest generation of cellphones enables them not only to send SMS messages, but to see each other signing on screen. Speaking of which, how has technology affected their lifestyle? It's funny, because before I was born, there was a deaf guy who used to sit at Kikar Hamoshavot in Tel Aviv and shine shoes. And he was like a one-man information bureau for the deaf. Everybody would tell him about weddings and other events, and he would spread the word. By the time I was in the army, the fax machine had been invented. And I would communicate with my pupils - either to inform them of events or write them letters - by fax. Then came cellphones, and the SMS became the favored method. That was a dramatic change, because imagine what used to happen when someone deaf needed to let someone else deaf know that he wasn't going to be able to show up at a prearranged meeting place. He had no way of doing this. Is the fact that there are many more TV programs that have an interpreter for the deaf on the screen indicative of a greater awareness in the country about the need for it? Well, first of all, there is a broadcast law requiring that there be either sign language interpreters or subtitles on all TV news shows. Still, the law hasn't been fully implemented. But, yes, there is more awareness today that the deaf and hearing-impaired are part of the people. And, after all, there are 10,000 deaf people in this country. What is the technical distinction between deaf and hearing-impaired? The hearing impaired can use the remnants of their hearing to communicate, either with hearing aids or cochlear implants. The deaf are not able to use any remnants of hearing. They might be able to hear some sounds, but won't be able to understand what is being said to them. They can't talk on the telephone, for example. The deaf communicate either by reading lips or by signing. How many of the 10,000 were born deaf, and how many lost their hearing as a result of illness, accident or war injury? I don't count those who lost their hearing, because in terms of their identity, they are more like people who can hear than people who can't. Why is there a controversy over the cochlear implant? Why are there many deaf people who choose not to have it? There used to be a more militant attitude toward it among the deaf. Many deaf people considered the implant to be an attempt on the part of others to make their community extinct. I can see why many people can't understand this. But the deaf felt that the hearing community wanted to "fix" them, so that they would be like them. Couldn't someone with one leg who uses a prosthesis say the same thing? Isn't the implant merely a tool to make people's lives easier? The difference is that the deaf have a very close-knit and distinct culture. They have a kind of "deaf pride." Even I used to be opposed to the implants. There was a movie made about this controversy [in 2000] called Sound and Fury [Josh Aronson's documentary about two brothers, one deaf and one hearing, debating about whether to give their deaf children the implant]. In the film, the deaf were conveying that they wanted to be accepted for who they were. What used to happen was that whoever underwent the implant was told that he shouldn't use sign language any more, to force him to learn to be a hearing person. And the deaf felt this was unfair. They consider sign language part of their culture. So strongly did they feel about this that they referred to is as the "holocaust against the deaf." Today, I no longer view it this way. The real problem with the implant, as far as I'm concerned, is that the deaf aren't given the option both to have it and at the same time continue signing. What people don't realize is the downside to the implant for children who, as a result, aren't taught to sign. For example, when they are not wearing it - such as when swimming or in the shower or in bed - they are completely helpless. And a lot of parents with deaf children who get them the implant are depriving them of an important tool. So much for hearing parents of deaf children. What about deaf parents of deaf children? Do they oppose the implants or prefer them? There is a very small percentage of deaf children born to deaf parents - because, for the most part, the reason they are deaf is not genetic. But there are some deaf parents who immediately have the implants put in their children. I can also understand that. The state of education for the deaf in this country is very poor; the level is very low. This is partly because many teachers don't know sign language perfectly. Also, the deaf are given "discounts" when it comes to making demands on them, which is wrong. So, deaf parents might want to enable their deaf children to receive a better education. But at home, they talk to them in sign language. So, they have both languages. If you personally give birth to a deaf child, what will you do? I always say that if God has a quota of deaf children, better they be born to someone like me, rather than someone who isn't familiar with the whole issue. Most hearing parents who give birth to a deaf child go through a mourning period. This causes the child to feel that he is limited or defective. This necessarily influences the kid's personality, because if your parents don't accept you, how will you accept yourself? Does your husband feel the same way? My husband would prefer a child who can hear, even though, through me, he has become familiar with and totally accepting of the deaf community. When you married a hearing person, how did your deaf friends respond? They told me I was being a traitor. Partly this was due to their being afraid that once I got married, I would no longer hang out with them. This is something that happens to a lot of interpreters. But the difference is that I have close girlfriends who are deaf, which is why they never really considered me a hearing person. I got very immersed in their culture. To this day, when deaf people find out that I'm married to someone who can hear, they ask me whether I'm not bored. Is it hard for him to fit in to the deaf community? He has learned some sign language, but he's not fluent. And whenever we get together with my deaf friends, he comes away saying that he's annoyed with himself for not having learned it better. So, I tell him he should do something about that. And he knows that my position is that even if we have hearing children, they will be taught sign language. This is both because I have so many deaf friends, and because I believe it's important. For one thing, deaf babies as young as nine months old can sign full sentences, whereas other children at that age don't have the spoken language tools yet. Really, babies are capable of signing full sentences like, "I want to eat something," or "My head hurts." Do hearing children sometimes feel ashamed of their deaf parents? Sure. But a lot of that depends on what the parents project. There are even some deaf parents who don't teach their kids sign language, because they only want them to talk. They don't want their children to be different. Do hearing children of deaf parents have to take on more responsibility at home than other children? Yes. They're very mature. And they have to serve as their parents' interpreters. It used to be even more so - when there weren't deaf interpreters in this country the way there are now. So, the children had to do it. This was problematic, because they would be called upon to translate delicate issues, even their own parents' divorce in court, for example. Is there is a national pool of interpreters for every situation? Yes, though not in sufficient numbers. And because there still aren't enough of us, and because there still isn't as much awareness as there should be, the children are still often forced to do it. Does sign language continue to develop? Constantly. What happens when there is vocabulary you are not familiar with? I don't take on translations in fields I don't know, such as math or physics. Is there an equivalent to the Hebrew Language Academy - that creates new words or expressions? Not formally, but the community does do this. The sign for "Olmert" is a gesture that stresses his comb-over. But he has since cut it off. What do you do in cases like that? It doesn't matter that he removed the comb-over. The sign has remained. How hard is it to learn sign language from other countries? It's not really that difficult. Though there might be many words we don't understand, communicating is possible - you know, the basics, like how many children someone has or where to go to eat or sleep, etc. For example, I know a deaf couple who went on a tour to China with a group of hearing people. At one point during the trip, the deaf couple encountered some deaf Chinese, and they all began chatting in sign language. Suddenly, they saw the other people on their tour looking on in amazement, because they themselves were hardly able to communicate with anybody, since the Chinese certainly don't know Hebrew, but most of them don't know English either. What about the community of deaf Arabs in this country? How do they get along with their Jewish counterparts? They are part of the larger deaf community. The deaf say of themselves that the blood of the deaf is thicker than the Arab-Israeli issue. In fact, if two deaf people get into a fight, and a hearing person intervenes, they will side with each other. The deaf consider themselves, first and foremost, deaf. Because of this, unfortunately, the Israeli Arabs know only Hebrew sign language, which is very sad, because they often know no Arabic, even when it comes to reading lips. How does someone who is deaf from birth learn how to speak with sound? And why are some extremely easy to understand when they talk, and others less so? It's a whole process of therapy. They are taught by specialists, who work with them on consonants and vowels and exhaling. As for why some are better at it than others: This has to do with the amount they practice at home, and with natural talent. What about tolerance among the deaf for other groups, such as gays? They are very tolerant of others within their community, but very intolerant of Arabs or gays who are not. It's not that the community is always so warm among themselves. Of course, there's lots of gossiping and the like - just like in any close-knit community. Do they tend to make fun of people who can hear? Do they tell derogatory jokes? Oh yes. They've got in-jokes that I don't find funny, but they crack up over them. One of their favorites is about a hearing couple and a deaf couple in the supermarket. The two wives wait at the cashier while their husbands do the shopping. Suddenly, both women remember that they need milk. The hearing woman yells out to her husband not to forget the milk. The deaf woman signs to hers not to forget the milk. The punch line is that only the deaf husband actually heard what his wife was telling him, so he was the one who returned with the milk. How do the deaf manage with air raid sirens? In Sderot, for example, they have beepers, but the system isn't that effective. During the Gulf War, the deaf were very anxious that they wouldn't hear the sirens. So, there are always new ways to try and alleviate this, but there's no perfect system. Do you talk with your hands more than most people? Yes, but I try to force myself to keep it down to a minimum. For one thing, I have medical problems with the tendons in my forearms, since in a given day, I often interpret from morning till night. It's a real strain. What is your advice to the hearing community about their attitude toward the deaf? Be patient, even though it's sometimes hard to understand someone deaf. A lot of people treat them as though they're retarded or stupid. Personally, I think schools should teach sign the way they teach other foreign languages. And anybody working with the public, such as bus drivers and bank clerks, should learn it. It's an amazingly rich language.