A few years ago while on a Princess cruise in Europe, my wife, Meryl, and I had an interesting experience.
Among the 3000 passengers was a group of almost 100 deaf people from France. Because of American laws which require accommodations for the handicapped, the cruise company hired eight “deaf services interpreters” (DSIs) to accompany the group on the cruise.
On the first few days of the cruise, we saw these passengers at different places on the ship. Since I never shy away from learning about a new culture, I struck up a conversation with one of the DSIs. One night we were seated in the dining room close to one of the tables of a large group. It was interesting to watch how some of the people communicated by sign language and others by lip-reading. It was difficult to avoid staring because instead of eavesdropping onto another person’s verbal conversation, we found ourselves very distracted by the “quietness” of the interpersonal interaction.
The most interesting experience was later that evening at the performance in the Princess musical theater. Their whole group had reserved seats in the front side of the theater where one of the interpreters stood in front of them and interpreted the performance through sign language. Apparently, the interpreter had access to the printed version of the songs which he had rehearsed in advance.
At first it was quite distracting trying to watch the show on the stage while the interpreter was translating the show into this alternative format. It became even more interesting to watch the interpreter’s delivery since he was very animated, adding an additional dimension to the show.
I found it so fascinating that I decided the next day to contact the head interpreter to learn even more about the services that he was providing. He met with me for over an hour and taught me a lot about the cruise line’s obligation and commitment to the deaf community. Although I have had experience with deaf patients and families, I really didn’t know much about the “deaf culture.”
He explained that someone in the Princess home office back in the United States was unfamiliar with sign language. Without realizing that there are differences in sign languages from one spoken language to another, she had contracted with an American organization of DSIs. Of the eight who were hired, only one of them fortunately had prior experience with the French version. The others DSIs were initially unable to communicate with the French passengers except for those who understood sign language in English. I didn’t know, for example, that within the English-speaking population, there are actually three varieties: American Sign Language (ASL), British Sign Language (BSL) and Australian (and New Zealand) Sign Language (Auslan). Auslan developed as an offshoot of BSL and incorporated many words from the Australian indigenous and Maori vocabularies.
It didn’t take too long for the French passengers to get used to the American DSIs. As one passenger said as I spoke to him in French and he was reading my lips, “It was better than nothing.”
After the first leg of the cruise ended and the French passengers disembarked, we went to the Princess theater once again to see a repeat performance of the same show which we had already seen with the DSI’s accompanying “interpretation.” This time was as if we were watching a completely new production since we were not distracted by the sign-language presentation.
I was reminded about this story recently when my wife and I went into a local furniture store during the Pandemic. The salesperson was wearing two hearing aids and the then-required mask. She asked us if we were comfortable without our masks so that she would be able to communicate better with us by lip-reading. We realized from this experience that the Pandemic must have presented unique problems for people with any disabilities, especially one such as deafness which depends on full visualization of the face.
We wound up talking to her more about these issues than about the furniture she was trying to sell us. It was certainly an interesting and unusual learning opportunity for us.