Deaf critics ask chorus to replace longtime interpreter

Fuss over signer at Mandela service has raised issue of quality

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SEATTLE — The global scandal over a sign-language interpreter at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela has ignited one in Washington — with some deaf people demanding the Seattle Men's Chorus replace a longtime interpreter whose signs they say are inaccurate and unclear, his facial expressions odd.

While beautiful and engaging, Kevin Gallagher's interpretations of chorus performances, the protesters say, seem designed more to entertain the hearing audience than serve the deaf or hard-of-hearing who want to know what's sung.

Motivated by the publicity surrounding the incoherent gestures at the tribute to Mandela, the late South African leader, they started a petition at Change.org that has drawn nearly 600 signatures and posted an open letter outlining why Gallagher's performance with the chorus is inadequate.

The chorus said Wednesday it was prepared to find Gallagher a deaf coach and additional training.

The critics say that won't do. They want Gallagher, who's been with the chorus 31 years, removed and replaced by a qualified interpreter. They also want an apology from the chorus.

Those who signed the letter are not claiming Gallagher is a fake. But they say he is not a fluent signer, and "to the trained eyes of deaf persons and professional American Sign Language interpreters, his 'performance' does not accurately convey the valuable work of the men in the chorus."

Katie Roberts, who is deaf and teaches ASL at Seattle Central Community College, said she attended Sunday's concert.

Through an interpreter, she said, "Kevin … looks beautiful when he signs and people think he's great.

"But this is about accessibility and language clarity, and the (deaf) audience is not being served. We are telling them he's not clear. This isn't just a problem in another country; it's happening right here and we felt it was important to bring this issue up."

The chorus website notes Gallagher's breadth of experience, spanning 35 years.

A New York native and Seattle Public Schools kindergarten teacher, he has been a guest interpreter for many performances in the U.S., Canada and across Europe.

In an email, Gallagher said, "While there are stylistic choices any performer makes to both inform and 'challenge' the audience, it can require a patron to understand with different effort and perhaps therein lies some of the disagreement."

While he lists his qualification as "accredited," experts in the deaf community say there's no such thing -- that interpreters must be certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf after lengthy training.

Frank Stilwagner, executive director of Flying House Productions, parent of both the men's chorus and the Seattle Women's Chorus, said he became aware of concerns over Gallagher only last week, during what is a busy time for the choruses.

He said he's spent the past few days educating himself.

"I now know that ASL is a language and if we're not speaking that language fluently, or only to a certain level, then perhaps we're not serving the community," Stilwagner said.

In addition to providing a coach and training for Gallagher, Stilwagner said he will invite members of the deaf community to watch him at work and offer feedback. "We are committed to bringing Kevin to the level where he will serve," he said.

Questions about the quality of access for the deaf occur every day. Interpreters help children in class and people visiting doctors or going to court.

The protesters say Gallagher's signs are incorrect, his grammar is poor, his expressions are odd and do not match the signs, his interpretations do not reflect what is happening on the stage, and his transliteration is inaccurate.

Roberts, who saw his performance, said, "His heart is in the right place but he lacks the appropriate skills.

"We are not trying to bully anyone. But if the chorus is going to provide interpretation, it should be by a professional-skill interpreter. Having an unskilled interpreter is disrespectful."