Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Access Versus Exploitation: When Entertainment Trumps All

BACKGROUND Amber Galloway Gallego is a nationally well known interpreter who specializes in platform interpreting for music festivals, venues and acts. Her wide range of work experience includes interpreting for festivals and artists such as: Lollapalooza, Madonna, Snoop Dog, Lorde and many more.  

Amber is the founder of a sign language interpreting agency called Amber G. Productions that advertises itself as an agency that provides ASL Music Interpreting, inspired by San Antonio Deaf Dance Company and the Wild Zappers, an all male Deaf dance group founded by Irvine Stewart in 1989. She is a fan of hip hop and rap music genres personally and specializes in interpreting it professionally. There are other members of the agency that also provide interpreting services in addition to training, workshops and mentorships.

In the about section of the company’s webpage “Our team is comprised of prolific music interpreters, hearing and Deaf, with a combined experience of over 30 years and several hundreds of concerts, festivals, rodeos and other venues.”

This is impressive on the surface. However, if you look closer, this past year, Amber has sparked controversy in the Deaf community more than once. In early 2017 there was grumblings from the community when Amber launched her Patreon fundraising account, asking for financial support from patrons, an untraditional approach in the industry.

(Original formatting and spelling below is left intact)

I am Amber Galloway Gallego, the Music sign language interpreter.  Many people know me for the viral video of Kendrick Lamar's F@%king Problems, soon after that video surfaced I was featured on Jimmy Kimmel's Sign Language Rap Battle, Rollingstone, Vibe Magazine, Oprah Magazine and several online news programs. I have set Patreon up as a means of finanical (sic) support so that I can continue in the amazing journey of making music covers accessible. I have been an interpreter for over 17 years now. I was taught and made by the Deaf community. I am now very well rooted and firmly planted in the Deaf community as well as in the culture since my spell in 2002 of meningitis which has caused me to also have significant hearing loss. I am considered to now be Hard of Hearing. I was born hearing to hearing parents but luckily I had significant Deaf stars lead my way to my current journey and world. I am 100 percent dedicated to the fight for language and access equality.  I have my Master's Degree in ASL/English Interpreting. My certifications are National Certification RID CT&CI, NIC, Texas BEI Level V, Oral Certified: Comprehensive. I CANNOT THANK YOU ALL FOR YOUR SUPPORT TO ENSURE MUSIC IS ACCESSIBLE TO ALL!”

A recent article on March 27, 2017,  How Sign Language Interpreters Innovators are Bringing Music to the Deaf published by VOX, the contentious debate continued among both fans and those who are not. Within the article is a link to the YouTube video where Amber gives an interview with Vox.

At the heart of the discussion is whether or not Amber’s rise to fame is financially exploitative, demonstrates cultural appropriation of more than one marginalized group, and exhibits a type of appropriation known as language appropriation. This term was first coined by Jane Hill’s writing Linguistic Appropriation: The History of White Racism is Embedded in American English," where she describes how a dominant group steals aspects of a marginalized group’s language.

Especially disturbing seems to be Amber’s claim during her Vox video interview that she is creating a specialized version of ASL for music or more specifically auditory stimuli. However, it is not a new thing that Amber has claimed credit for. She is using ASL descriptors for auditory stimuli that Deaf native ASL users have used for generations to describe visual stimuli and vibrations. Using already existing language mechanisms to describe sound is not special and certainly not unique to a single interpreter.

It is challenging to balance the attention and fame Amber has received with the ongoing feedback from Deaf consumers regarding access.  A specific example: Amber is difficult to understand when she is bouncing her signing space, violating language norms. While that looks cool and conveys rhythm, the result is a reduction in understanding which renders the meaning a challenge to receive and negates the primary function of an interpreter- access. Balancing the musicality with the meaning is a sign of a good performance interpreter, it is a delicate and difficult balance to achieve. Amber is not successful in this regard.  But it does explain the concurring and conflicting experiences of non signers and signers: many non signers love her because of the visual appeal and signers who require access are left in the dust with little to no recourse to remedy the situation.

Many of the comments in the comments section of the  YouTube Vox interview appear to be from hearing, non-signers. Repeatedly they portray Amber as savior figure bringing music to Deaf people who have been deprived of it. This portrayal while insulting and audist is also inaccurate. Deaf people have long enjoyed music and there have always been ways for Deaf people to access music through interpreters, headphones, speakers, lyrics, and more. While not as common as freelance interpreters, there certainly are a number of both hearing and Deaf platform interpreters who are equally if not more talented.

It is clear that as far as Deaf consumers go, an interpreter having the skill set or “chops”  (and credentials) if you will is not enough. Attitude and approach seems to be a continuing sticking point for many Deaf consumers, especially when an interpreter is resistant to receiving constructive feedback. The receiving of Deaf consumer feedback is a vital part of an interpreter’s job. Platform interpreting is a very public forum.  The increase in attention and publicity opens up opportunities for Deaf consumers to not only give feedback directly but also to have dialog and discussions among each other about what it means when a certified interpreter behaves in ways that are not just repugnant to the community’s values but are in possible violation of the Codes of Conduct. A sort of “what do we do now” attitude begins to surface.


The outcome seems uncertain. While Amber is certified, questions of her choices and behavior remain.

There have been other instances of unqualified or uncertified interpreters who were given similar feedback with little to no result that may inform how the Deaf community as a whole and Deaf consumers individually respond.

Several years ago, reports spread like wildfire of a fake interpreter at the Nelson Mandela memorial service and were picked up by major media outlets such as CNN here.

On the heels of this a renewed outcry came from Seattle. A 25-year long standing controversy resurfaced regarding a signer of the Seattle Men’s Chorus, Kevin Gallagher regarding his uncertified status and lack of fluency in ASL. Despite feedback, and meetings with Seattle Men’s Chorus over the years, nothing changed.  

The resistance to feedback by both Kevin Gallagher and the Chorus resulted in a MoveOn petition, a blog containing open letters, a boycott, and coverage by both online, print and television news. We covered it here on our deaffriendly.com website.

The short term result was the hiring of two certified interpreters while keeping the performance signer on stage, a compromise. In the end, Kevin Gallagher was awarded the highest  honor in 2014 by the Seattle Men’s Chorus. He officially retired as an Artistic Interpreter in December 2016- his Q&A with the chorus can be read here discussing his departure. The hearing audience and non signers preferences to keep him ultimately outweighed the Deaf consumer’s need for access.

This glorification, exotification, and entitlement of interpreters by hearing non signers and media runs rampant. It is exacerbated by the unwillingness of venues, organizations and musical artists to use interpreters as access for Deaf consumers when the entertainment value of interpreters for hearing audiences is higher than the number of Deaf attendees.  When performance interpreters agree to become entertainment for profit from instead of access, regardless of Deaf consumer feedback to do otherwise, the result is a normalized proliferation of using ASL for entertainment and not as a language for communication and access among Deaf children and adults.


Interpreting is a big business and a critical part of the Deaf consumer experience in the world.

At deaffriendly.com we believe that those that know better must do better. When an interpreter makes a mistake, goes astray and they are given feedback from the community it is expected they take it seriously however hard it may be and make changes accordingly.

Feedback is a gift. It is an opportunity to learn and grow. We believe that by working together in good faith, change can happen.

ASL interpreters are in the unique position of standing between two languages and two cultures. While neutral conduits in theory, the reality looks different.  Interpreters hold a great deal of power because language is always subjective. The ability to accurately and faithfully convey information is still filtered through the interpreter’s life experiences, biases, and immediate environmental stimuli. The room for mistakes is large and the potential for harm, intentionally or not, is ever present.

It is for these very reasons the Code of Professional Conduct was established for certified interpreters to follow; the consequence of breaking any one of the tenets is the looming threat of losing certification and the greatly diminished capacity to earn a living as an interpreter.

RID states on their website under the Code of Professional Conduct page

A code of professional conduct is a necessary component to any profession to maintain standards for the individuals within that profession to adhere. It brings about accountability, responsibility and trust to the individuals that the profession serves.”

Interpreters adhere to standards of confidential communication.
  1. Interpreters possess the professional skills and knowledge required for the specific interpreting situation.
  2. Interpreters conduct themselves in a manner appropriate to the specific interpreting situation.
  3. Interpreters demonstrate respect for consumers.
  4. Interpreters demonstrate respect for colleagues, interns, and students of the profession.
  5. Interpreters maintain ethical business practices.
  6. Interpreters engage in professional development.

I believe the above tenets are required as a minimum standard to be met at all times and not a goal to strive for because the margin for error is so thin.

Interpreters, regardless of speciality, who have full access to the Deaf community, who are both certified and qualified, and to whom the gift of language from a marginalized community has been bestowed upon them as a way to make a living have an obligation to do no harm to the community it serves.

I recognize the interpreting field does not have a built in feedback loop, or a channel for consumers to effectively give feedback to the industry as a whole. Therefore, the onus of change and improvement of the interpreting field remains not on the Deaf consumer but on the industry until this is remedied at the system level and Deaf consumers can effectively give feedback with a reasonable expectation of change.

When the industry is unable or unwilling to create such a channel, or unable to effectively solve industry wide problems- other measures and escalations by Deaf consumers are appropriate including but not limited to: reviewing interpreting agencies, publically discussing individual interpreter’s violations of Code of Conduct, boycotting or protesting when called for.

I encourage Deaf consumers to give this kind of feedback where and when it can to push for change.

I encourage interpreters to hold one another accountable and to have difficult conversations with each other about violations of Code of Conduct.

I expect RID to implement other ways for Deaf consumers to meaningfully impact interpreting industry concerns, issues, and interpreters through whose skill or conduct are unqualified to attain or maintain certification.

I expect the media to be better informed about access, its portrayal of Deaf people and ASL

I expect businesses, venues (including music), organizations, and hearing artists to use interpreters to provide access to their Deaf consumers and not capitalize on the entertainment value of interpreters for novelty, publicity or financial gain.

Warning Signs

  • Little to no emphasis on the Deaf consumer’s experience or regard for their experience.
  • Is not Deaf-centered.  (i.e. art before access; primary goal goal is to be as true to the musical artist as possible rather than provide access to the Deaf consumer)
  • They are creating a “new” kind of ASL or a specialized version of it just for their genre
  • Does not defer to Deaf people in the form of ASL coaches, recognition that ASL belongs to Deaf people or create opportunities for Deaf artists
  • Does not reference Deaf audience members
  • Does not frame their work as access, frames it as art
  • Does not educate artists and venues on the benefit of providing access, seeks to maintain connections with artists with the goal to book with them in the future
  • Fame seeking- gives interviews
  • Show boating on stage- steals the show
  • Goal is to be the best and is competitive with other interpreters instead of supportive
  • Does not use their platform to educate about language deprivation of both English and ASL
  • Instead of advocating for more access for Deaf people, there is an emphasis on the novelty of ASL- how beautiful it is, how wonderful it is
  • There is a wow and awe response from hearing non signers
  • Deaf people are largely absent from the conversation

#deafchallenged #access #ASL #interpreters

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