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Photo: Colorado Public Radio.
Cherish Ross is with FLOW, a sign language interpreting agency that specializes exclusively in performing arts.

So many interesting kinds of jobs in the world! And the luckiest people are the ones whose work aligns with what they love doing. Consider those who interpret for the deaf at concerts.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim has a cool story at the New York Times. “On a recent afternoon in a brightly lit studio in Brooklyn, Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant and Brandon Kazen-Maddox were filming a music video. They were recording a cover version of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ but the voices that filled the room were those of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who made the song a hit in the 1970s. And yet the two men in the studio were also singing — with their hands.

“Primeaux-O’Bryant is a deaf actor and dancer; Kazen-Maddox is a hearing dancer and choreographer who is, thanks to seven deaf family members, a native speaker of American Sign Language. Their version of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ is part of a 10-song series of American Sign Language covers of seminal works by Black female artists that Kazen-Maddox is producing for Broadstream, an arts streaming platform.

“Around the world, music knits together communities as it tells foundational stories, teaches emotional intelligence and cements a sense of belonging. … As sign language music videos proliferate on YouTube, where they spark comments from deaf and hearing viewers, the richness of American Sign Language, or A.S.L., has gotten a broader stage.

“ ‘Music is many different things to different people,’ Alexandria Wailes, a deaf actress and dancer told me in a video interview, using an interpreter. Wailes performed ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 2018 Super Bowl, and last year drew thousands of views on YouTube with her sign language contribution to ‘Sing Gently,’ a choral work by Eric Whitacre. …

“A good A.S.L. performance prioritizes dynamics, phrasing and flow. The parameters of sign language — hand shape, movement, location, palm orientation and facial expression — can be combined with elements of visual vernacular, a body of codified gestures, allowing a skilled A.S.L. speaker to engage in the kind of sound painting that composers use to enrich a text.

“At the recent video shoot, Gladys Knight’s voice boomed out of a large speaker while a much smaller one was tucked inside Primeaux-O’Bryant’s clothes, so that he could ‘tangibly feel the music,’ he said in an interview, with Kazen-Maddox interpreting. Out of sight of the camera, an interpreter stood ready to translate any instructions from the crew, all hearing, while a laptop displayed the song lyrics.

“In the song, the backup singers — here personified by Kazen-Maddox — encourage Knight as she rallies herself to join her lover, who has returned home to Georgia. In the original recording the Pips repeat the phrase ‘all aboard.’ But as Kazen-Maddox signed it, those words grew into signs evoking the movement of the train and its gears. A playful tug at an invisible whistle corresponded to the woo-woo of the band’s horns. Primeaux-O’Bryant signed the lead vocals with movements that gently extended the words, just as in the song: on the drawn-out ‘oh’ of ‘not so long ago-oh-oh,’ his hands fluttered into his lap. The two men also incorporated signs from Black A.S.L.

‘The hands have their own emotions,’ Primeaux-O’Bryant said. ‘They have their own mind.’

“Deaf singers prepare for their interpretations by experiencing a song through any means available to them. Many people speak about their heightened receptivity to the vibrations of sound, which they experience through their body. As a dancer trained in ballet, Primeaux-O’Bryant said he was particularly attuned to the vibrations of a piano as transmitted through a wooden floor.

“Primeaux-O’Bryant was a student at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington in the early 1990s when a teacher asked him to sign a Michael Jackson song during Black History Month. His first reaction was to refuse.

“But the teacher ‘pulled it out’ of him, he said, and he was thrust into the limelight in front of a large audience. Then, Primeaux-O’Bryant said, ‘the lights came on and my cue happened and I just exploded and signed the work and it felt good.’ Afterward the audience erupted in applause: ‘I fell in love with performing onstage.’ ”

Find information on things like the role of ballet training in ASL interpretation, the impact of the pandemic, and Egyptian Arabic Sign Language at the Times, here.

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Photo: Susan Meisalas/Magnum Photos
A deaf girl using Nicaraguan Sign Language at the Esquelitas de Bluefields, Managua, Nicaragua, 1999.

Lately, I’ve been impressed with the leadership of young people. I’ve told friends, “Wherever they lead, I’m going to follow.” One thing I like about young people is that they don’t know what’s impossible, so they just set about to do it.

In Nicaragua several decades ago, it was the youngest children who began to invent a language. The older children followed, and then, eventually, the adults.

Shoshi Parks has the story at Atlas Obscura, “Of all the changes within Nicaragua to come out of the overthrow of the Somoza regime by the Sandinistas in 1979, perhaps the least anticipated was the birth of a new language.

“Nicaraguan Sign Language is the only language spontaneously created, without the influence of other languages, to have been recorded from its birth. And though it came out of a period of civil strife, it was not political actors but deaf children who created the language’s unique vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.

“When the Sandinista National Liberation Front gained power, they embarked on what has been described as a ‘literacy crusade,’ developing programs to promote fluency in reading Spanish. One such initiative was opening the first public school for deaf education, the Melania Morales Special Education Center, in Managua’s Barrio San Judas. According to Ann Senghas, a professor of psychology at Barnard College who has studied NSL, it was the first time in the history of the country that deaf children were brought together in large numbers.

“These children, who ranged in age from four to 16, had no experience with sign language beyond the ‘home signs’ they used with family members to communicate broad concepts. American Sign Language, which has existed since the early 19th century, is used throughout the Americas and is often considered a ‘lingua franca’ among deaf people whose first sign language is a national or regional one. But the first Nicaraguan deaf school did not use ASL or any signs at all. Instead, they focused on teaching children to speak and lip-read Spanish. …

“The Sandinistas’ focus on Spanish literacy resulted in the immersion of deaf students in Spanish speaking and reading skills. But while the country’s deaf children were being taught Spanish inside the classroom, outside the classroom they were spontaneously developing their own method of signed communication. …

“All languages have grammar and syntax, but the first children at Managua’s deaf school had no model for how a language worked because they had been isolated from signed, spoken, and written language all their lives, notes [James Shepard-Kegl, co-director of the Nicaraguan Sign Language Project, which administers programs to empower the Nicaraguan deaf community through the use of sign language].

“When the children interacted, instead of adapting their signs to fit an existing language, they developed something unique. While the older students had more life experience, it was actually the younger kids that drove the language’s development. ‘As you get older, your language instincts tend to diminish,’ says Shepard-Kegl. ‘A lot of those older kids weren’t generating grammar the way little kids did. They copied the grammar the little kids generated.’ …

“The critical mass needed to spontaneously develop Nicaraguan Sign Language only occurred with the opening of Melania Morales. Within a few years, teachers and education officials recognized that something incredible was happening at the school.” More at Atlas Obscura, here.

Photo: Susan Meisalas/Magnum Photos
Deaf students using Nicaraguan sign language at the Esquelitas de Bluefields, Managua, Nicaragua, 1999.

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Photo: The Stage
Open Access Smart Capture’s glasses enable deaf theatergoers in Britain to read live captioning during a performance.

Earlier this month I posted about how the Vienna State Opera provides captions in six languages.

Today’s entry is on making dramatic productions more accessible to the deaf by means of glasses that churn out captions.

Georgia Snow writes at the Stage, “The National Theatre has unveiled new technology that will enable deaf audiences to see captions for performances in front of their eyes using special glasses, … removing the need for captioning screens in the auditorium.

“Developed by the NT with its innovation partner, consultancy firm Accenture, Open Access Smart Capture is being introduced during a year-long pilot.

“If it is a success, the result would be ‘transformational,’ [NT director Rufus] Norris said. …

“The glasses boast 97% accuracy in the timing of the captions, and can also facilitate audio description, for audiences with restricted vision. …

“The project is one of two new initiatives being introduced by the NT around accessibility, the second being an online video database showcasing deaf and disabled actors. …

“It is part of a drive to tackle the under-representation of disabled actors working in the profession, Norris said. …

“He added that ProFile also hopes to remove some of the barriers for deaf and disabled performers, for whom travelling to auditions and meetings can be difficult and expensive.” More at the Stage, here.

If nothing the else, the glasses will be fun. A few years ago, I got to see that for myself using Google Glass. An executive where I worked was having summer interns play around with programming the glasses to test the possibilities for the Fed. That didn’t go anywhere, but it was definitely fun.

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Here’s a new idea. A couple of young entrepreneurs have found a way to convert sign language into audible speech with their prize-winning electronic gloves.

National Public Radio has the story.

“For years, inventors have been trying to convert some sign language words and letters into text and speech. Now a pair of University of Washington undergraduates have created gloves called SignAloud. Sensors attached to the gloves measure hand position and movement, and data is sent to a computer via Bluetooth and is then converted into spoken word and text.

“Theirs is one of seven inventions recently awarded a Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, with awards ranging from $10,000 to $15,000.

“Inventors Navid Azodi and Thomas Pryor, both college sophomores, say the gloves will help create a communication bridge between deaf and hearing communities. The gloves, they say, will help deaf people better communicate with the rest of the world without changing the way they already interact with each other.

“However, the invention has been met with criticism that the bridge they want to create goes only one way — and it’s not necessarily one the deaf community has been clamoring for. …

“Azodi says he and Pryor are moving beyond their prototype and are working closer with those who use American Sign Language to develop new versions. They’re also working on better understanding ASL, which is more than just hand movements; it also uses facial expressions and body language to convey meaning.” Read more.

I don’t know much about the culture of the deaf community, but I do remember reading about resistance to cochlear implants a few years ago. It’s hard for people who can hear to understand that some people really don’t mind deafness and prefer their own ways of dealing with the world. But kudos to all inventors anyway, especially young ones open to continuous revision!

Photo: Conrado Tapado/Univ of Washington, CoMotion
SignAloud gloves translate sign language into text and speech.

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You remember that breathtaking moment in the movie The Miracle Worker, when a fiercely determined Annie Sullivan finally gets through to a recalcitrant Helen Keller that her hand signals are words and words have meaning? Well, revelations like Helen’s continue to happen to children, as in the recent viral video of a baby getting a first pair of glasses. The dawning wonder and smiles are so touching.

Today, Maria Popova posted a video at Brain Pickings of a deaf teen in Uganda whose silent world opens in a similar flash, and it is powerful. The TV report that captured that moment is obviously edited, but I find it convincing and moving.

According to the YouTube blurb, Patrick Otema, 15, is profoundly deaf. “In the remote area of Uganda where he lives, there are no schools for deaf children, and he has never had a conversation. Raymond Okkelo, a sign language teacher, hopes to change all this and offer Patrick a way out of the fearful silence he has known his whole life.”

Popova recommends you watch the video, then pair it with Helen Keller’s thoughts on optimism.

Once I knew only darkness and stillness. Now I know hope and joy. Once I fretted and beat myself against the wall that shut me in. Now I rejoice in the consciousness that I can think, act and attain heaven. … Can anyone who escaped such captivity, who has felt the thrill and glory of freedom, be a pessimist?
My early experience was thus a leap from bad to good. If I tried, I could not check the momentum of my first leap out of the dark; to move breast forward as a habit learned suddenly at that first moment of release and rush into the light. With the first word I used intelligently, I learned to live, to think, to hope.

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A while back, I wrote about the BBC National Orchestra of Wales launching a series of concerts to bring the joy of music to deaf children and adults, here.

I’ve been thinking about that lately. If you don’t love Christmas music, you might say that people who have hearing loss are better off at this time of year. But I like that there are so many initiatives to help the deaf enjoy Christmas music and other sorts of music.

Did you see this Clarke Canfield story in the Boston Globe? He writes about a sign language interpreter of lyrics who is adding a whole new level of fun to rock music — delighting the hearing and nonhearing alike.

“Teaming American Sign Language with dance moves and body language, [Holly Maniatty] brings musical performances alive for those who can’t hear,”  he writes, “Her clients are a who’s who of rock, pop, and hip-hop: Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Mumford and Sons, Jay-Z, Billy Joel, Marilyn Manson, U2, Beastie Boys, and Wu-Tang Clan, to name a few.

“Along the way, videos of her fast-motion, helter-skelter signing have become popular online.

“There’s the video of Springsteen jumping down from the stage at the New Orleans Jazz Fest and joining Maniatty and another interpreter. There, he dances and signs to ‘’Dancing in the Dark.’’

‘‘ ‘Deaf people were commenting, “Oh, the Boss knows he has deaf fans. That’s awesome,’’ ‘’ she said. ‘When artists connect with their interpreters, they also connect with their deaf fans.’

“In another video, rap artist Killer Mike approaches Maniatty in front of the stage after noticing her animated signing.

‘‘I’ve never seen that before .”… At a Wu-Tang performance, Method Man took notice of her signing, came down from the stage, and joined her.”

Read all about it here. See her dancing with Bruce Springsteen here.

 Photo: Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

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“Good good good good vibrations.”

I wonder if the Beach Boys ever thought about this aspect of good vibrations — how they can bring the joy of music to those who can’t hear.

According to Gramophone magazine, “The BBC National Orchestra of Wales will perform a series of free concerts in Cardiff on February 26 and 27, which aim to make orchestral music accessible to deaf and hard of hearing adults and children. …

“The events will feature sign language and live subtitles, and will allow audience members to sit within the orchestra, in order to feel the vibrations from instruments as the musicians play. The five concerts will demonstrate concepts including pitch, tempo and dynamics through music including ‘Hoe-Down’ from Copland’s Rodeo, ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ from Grieg’s Peer Gynt and the theme tune to Doctor Who. Four of the concerts will be aimed at students from primary and specialist schools, and adults in care homes and day centres. The fifth concert will be open to the public, allowing deaf and hard of hearing children and adults to take part alongside friends and family.”

More.

Photograph: Betina Skovbro
BBC NOW presented a pilot event for the deaf and hard of hearing in October 2012

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