Under A Bad Sign

The idea was still somewhat novel when Garrett Morris popularized it on national TV, but it was well past time when hearing people realized that with one remarkably easy addition, hearing-impaired people could enjoy news and public participation: the sign language interpreter. It remains a spotty accommodation, for many reasons, but it’s the sort of thing that should be ubiquitous for government actions, at the very least.

When Tampa police spokesman Stephen Hegarty was told the sign language interpreter had arrived for his press conference, he was somewhat confused but not displeased.

“As we were getting ready to start, I was told that a sign language interpreter was outside,” Hegarty told the Miami Herald. “My reaction was: ‘I didn’t call an interpreter, but great that someone did.’ It appeared that she was very well known in Tampa, but I just didn’t ask enough questions. There was a lot going on but it was my responsibility, so shame on me.”

The press conference was about the arrest of a serial killer.

During the press conference, Roberts was supposed to relay what Tampa Police Chief Brian Dugan was saying about Howell Emanuel Donaldson III, who was arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the shooting deaths of four people in the Seminole Heights neighborhood of Tampa since October.

At an earlier point in time, catching a serial killer would be big news. That was before the Puritan Network took over the airwaves and only prurient stories were deemed newsworthy.

Nonetheless, Hegarty went about his news conference with the sign language interpreter at his side, reflecting the inclusiveness of the Tampa police department. All seemed to go well until it didn’t.

Rachelle Settambrino, a sign language teacher at the University of South Florida, told the Tampa Bay Times that when Dugan said his agency received around 5,000 tips about the four murders, Roberts signed something along the lines of “fifty-one hours ago, zero 12 22 [gibberish] murder three minutes in 14 weeks ago in old [gibberish] four five 55,000 plea 10 arrest murder bush [gibberish] three age 24.”

It turned out that the sign language interpreter was really bad at sign language. Or to be more accurate, couldn’t actually sign at all. And to add insult to injury, she wasn’t even an upstanding citizen.

Derlyn Roberts, 53, – who signed alongside Tampa police officials – has a criminal past. Records show Roberts was released from state prison last year after being convicted in 2012 for organized fraud over $50,000 and fraudulent use of personal information.

More irony? The Tampa Police Department was the arresting agency.

Was Roberts pulling a prank on the Tampa cops? Did she believe she had better signing skills than she actually did? Was there some mental illness component to her showing up, claiming to be a sign language interpreter?

Added Hegarty: “We did the public a disservice and I am very sorry.”

The department is investigating.

Investigating for what purpose? There’s no crime of Bad ASL in the First Degree. That Roberts embarrassed the Tampa police is unfortunate, but then, nobody forced them to have Roberts sign on their behalf. There is no suggestion that Roberts sought or received payment for her services, such that she defrauded anyone by claiming to be a sign language interpreter. And even if she did, her offense was to suck at ASL.

The use of a sign language interpreter at a press conference is a wonderful thing, and should be the norm. This would be easier to accomplish if public agencies maintained lists of approved interpreters, and if the ASL community was more open to educating the hearing in signing.*

But the fact that a sign language interpreter could sneak her way into a place aside a police spokesman and do a completely incompetent job of it, making the cops look pretty foolish and doing a terrible disservice to the deaf community, suggests that thoughtful attempts at being inclusive require a little more effort than just having a warm body waving their hands around in the vicinity of a speaker. And making the Tampa cops look silly may well be a public service in itself, even if it doesn’t speak specifically to the hearing impaired.

*This raises an entirely separate problem, that radical Deaf Culture tends to reject the idea that the hearing should be taught ASL at all, as they aren’t entitled to participate in a culture to which they’re not born.

16 thoughts on “Under A Bad Sign

  1. wilbur

    I don’t believe they are investigating this as a crime, rather they’ll find out internally how this occurred so they don’t repeat the mistake. Nobody likes looking pretty foolish.

    Radical Deaf Culture? How do they expect ASL interpreters to interpret at press conferences, if they can’t hear what the speaker is saying?

    1. SHG Post author

      When the police say they are investigating, does that give rise to a belief, one way or another? The fact that the criminal background information on the “perpetrator” was disclosed to the media might provide a clue.

      1. Elpey P.

        They disclosed her criminal background? I hope she knows the sign language for “hands up don’t shoot.”

  2. Turk

    You’d think after Obama went through the identical fiasco in South Africa at the Mandela funeral that security folks would have understood that interpreters can be a security weak spot.

    Or not.

  3. B. McLeod

    It could have been much worse. A Hunter S. Thompson-inspired activist who actually could sign might have worked havoc.

    Chief: So, now I will go into further detail as to the timeline of the investigation, as to when officers first obtained the leads that developed into the identification of the suspect as a person of interest. . .

    Interpreter: This arrest has inspired me to confess my own vile, criminal misdeeds, including the two three-year-olds I raped yesterday evening, one of whom I fried and ate for breakfast this morning. . .

    I’m thinking the interpreter could get through a fair amount of that sort of thing before the calls started filtering in to anyone who could alert the participants in the press conference.

      1. wilbur

        Fried eggs are considered appropriate breakfast food, whereas fried chicken is not. It seems age does matter.

  4. DaveL

    I’m sure that, in the future, the department will vet their interpreters with the same diligence as they do their Drug Detection Experts, or Bite Mark Analysts.

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