For the past 31 years, the Seattle Men's Chorus has employed the same American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. But members of the deaf community say that Kevin Gallagher, the company's only interpreter, is sometimes unintelligible. One primary complaint: He's not certified in ASL.
Still, the choir's executive director, Frank Stilwagner, says he doesn't plan to fire him. "We will continue to work with Mr. Gallagher to provide him with ASL coaching and continuing education, and Mr. Gallagher will look into accreditation/certification as well," Stilwagner said in a statement released December 19, in response to an open letter and a MoveOn .org petition with nearly 600 signatures from people asking the chorus to fire Gallagher. Mr. Gallagher did not comment, instead allowing the Seattle Men's Chorus to provide statements in response. "We would like to invite all members of the deaf community to attend performances where Mr. Gallagher is interpreting, so they have the opportunity to provide us with constructive feedback," Stilwagner said.
But members of the deaf community say they've been attempting to provide constructive feedback since 1989. The problem, they say, is that while Gallagher is certainly fluent in basic ASL communication, he is not qualified to be an interpreter for mass audiences, such as at SMC's holiday performances at Benaroya Hall, which seats nearly 2,500.
"There were many errors," says Katie Roberts, a deaf woman who coauthored the open letter to SMC and the MoveOn.org petition. Roberts says by e-mail that she attended SMC's December 15 performance at Benaroya Hall, where she watched Gallagher flub signs for "lord," "Hanukkah," and "promise," among others.
It got worse from there: "Often, it seemed that Mr. Gallagher was using signs as a replacement for whole phrases or concepts," she says. For instance, during a song called "Asian Christmas," Gallagher used the sign for "salad" repeatedly. "I was very confused," says Roberts. "It was only after the show that I discovered that that specific line named different types of Asian food that were mixed into a salad. He had not taken the time to spell or sign those specific items. All I got from him was 'SALAD.'"
Certified ASL interpreters undergo years of training and often work in pairs. But Gallagher works alone, and while his skills are praised by chorus members and hearing audiences as "joyous" and "graceful," members of the deaf community label him "clownish, silly," and "unintelligible," according to Roberts.
Tamara Moxham, a certified ASL interpreter and diagnostician who attended (and independently evaluated) Gallagher's December 15 performance, found he "showed many small mistakes that all accumulated into a skewed result—rendering the overall result unintelligible," she states.
Petition organizers say more training is not an acceptable solution: They want Gallagher gone—or, at the very least, supplemented with certified interpreters.