For the past 31 years, the Seattle Men's Chorus has employed the same American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter for deaf audiences. But members of the deaf community say that Kevin Gallagher, the chorus’s only interpreter, is unintelligible. One primary complaint: He’s not certified in ASL.
But the choir's executive director, Frank Stilwagner, says he that he doesn’t plan to fire Gallagher. “We will continue to work with Mr. Gallagher and provide him with ASL coaching and continuing education, including moving toward certification, to improve his skills and ASL accuracy in order to better serve the entire deaf community,” Stilwagner said in a statement released today (.pdf), in response to an open letter and MoveOn.org petition asking SMC to fire Gallagher that has garnered over 600 signatures. (Mr. Gallagher hasn't responded to my request for comment.)
More from Stilwagner's letter:
In the time this issue was brought to my attention last week, I have taken immediate action, with a goal to fully understand the concerns, the history of these concerns being raised to our organization, and how we can best address these concerns moving forward. To address best practices, particularly within a performing arts environment, I have consulted with individuals who I know to be qualified ASL experts. I have also had conversations with individuals affiliated with the deaf community, including deaf patrons who regularly attend our concerts, to listen to a spectrum of needs and responses, furthering our understanding. While most have praised our dedication as an organization to offering accessible performances with interpreters, this current concern highlights a need to expand those services.
... 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; feedback that continues to provide us with a greater understanding of both the weaknesses and strengths as we chart immediate and long-term solutions that fully address the needs of everyone within the community.
But members of the deaf community say they've been attempting to provide constructive feedback since 1989—and now instead of attending the choir's last weekend of performances, members of the deaf community are organizing a protest outside of the choir's last show at Benaroya Hall this Sunday, December 22.
The problem, critics say, is that while Gallagher may be fluent in ASL, he is not qualified to be an interpreter for mass audiences, such as SMC's sold out choir performances at Benaroya, which seat nearly 2,500. (Gallagher has not responded to an interview request.)
“There were many errors,” says Katie Roberts, a deaf woman who co-authored the open letter to SMC and the MoveOn.org petition. Roberts says by e-mail that she attended SCM's December 15 Christmas performance at Benaroya Hall, where she watched Gallagher flub simple signs for “Lord,” “Hannukah,” 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 go through years of training, are required to update their skills regularly, and often work in pairs to provide the most clear communication possible. 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. “He fluctuated between overly flowery visual artistry and literal translation (not idiomatic which is the goal of all interpretation). Neither was effective.”
And, petition organizers say, more training is not an acceptable solution: They want Gallagher gone—or at the very least, supplemented with certified interpreters. “If they wish to support him in this long-term efforts to increase his skills and attempt to become qualified, we applaud that,” explains Crystal Green, a co-author of the MoveOn.org petition. “It is, however, too slow of an approach to have an immediate effect on access needs.”
The bottom line is, “we just want access,” Green says. “The best possible outcome is a qualified interpreter on the stage, providing accessible accommodation for deaf patrons. This is what is right. And this is what is legally mandated.”