8 things to look for in sign language interpreters

sign-language-okHow on earth could a person who can’t see get a behind-the-scenes look at sign language? Keep reading this blog post for the answer!

When we published a post here last Monday about an accessible theater workshop I’d be participating in here in Chicago, I promised I’d get back to you with details. Before I do that, though, let me refresh your memory.

Arts organizations all over Chicago have been sponsoring special events, lectures and workshops this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Victory Gardens Access Project opted to sponsor a workshop for “front of house” staff from theaters all over the city last Monday, August 17. I was asked to sit on a panel there with three other disability advocates to give tips on some of the special needs people with disabilities might have when we attend live performances. People who work front of house tend to do so because they enjoy working with people, they love live theater and they’d like more people to come out to support and enjoy performances.

Okay, now you’re caught up.

Now I have good news: from what I witnessed at the workshop last Monday night, front of house staff and the venues they work for are keen to include more people with disabilities in their audiences! I was pleasantly surprised by last week’s large turnout. Nearly 100 staff members were there, representing everything from storefront theaters to art museums to established art programs.

The workshop took up an entire evening and included many different sessions. My panel was the last event on the schedule, but my Seeing Eye dog Whitney and I arrived an hour or so before it started. When we walked into the Victory Gardens lobby I discovered two sign language interpreters giving a workshop about the things theaters should look for when hiring sign language interpreters for their productions.

The presenters used their voices as they signed, which made it possible for a woman like me to eavesdrop. I did, and learned that the best theater interpreters are ones who:

  • avoid signing every word — it’s more important to convey the overall story and allow the action on stage to tell the rest
  • prepare in advance — a presenter said she studies the written script and listens to recordings of the play for weeks ahead of her sign language performances and attends rehearsals and productions ahead of time to get a sense for the timing and determine which signs to use on the day of her sign language interpretation
  • agree to work in teams if the play has many people on stage at once who are talking over each other
  • use subtle movements, like widening their eyes or raising their eyebrows to add meaning to the words they’re spelling out
  • wear extra dark lipstick so audience members capable of reading their lips can see them better
  • wear dark clothes if they’re very light skinned so readers can see their hands
  • wear light-colored clothing if their skin is dark so readers can see their hands
  • take rings and bracelets off before they start signing

So many things I hadn’t ever thought of! Our panel afterwards went well, and it was a thrill to be on stage with playwright Mike Irvin (founder of Jerry’s Orphans), Rachel Arfa, J.D., (a staff attorney at Equip for Equality, a legal advocacy organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities) and Evan Hatfield (Director of Audience Experience at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre).

Mike Irvin uses a wheelchair, Rachel Arfa uses bilateral cochlear implants, I use a Seeing Eye dog, and Evan Hatfield introduced himself by telling the audience he “doesn’t identify as having a disability.” We took off from there.

The evening ended with answers to questions Front of House staff members in the audience had about touch tours before shows, wheelchair-accessible stages, captioning technology, and person-first language like “Mike uses a wheelchair” rather than “wheelchair-bound Mike.” Audience members shared the challenges and successes of accessing arts programs, the night flew by, and I think (hope!) we made a small difference.

Guess I can find that out the next time I attend a performance in Chicago — and I hope that’s very soon.


Comments may not reflect Easterseals' policies or positions.

Please read our community guidelines when posting comments.

Leave a Reply