Deaf community deserves better from television networks

America stood still yesterday as the Kansas City Chiefs triumphed over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV, but many in the Deaf community were left disappointed by the pregame performance of the national anthem. Demi Lovato and Yolanda Adams took the stage with a rousing rendition of the American anthem, but deaf artist Christine Sun Kim – who was providing American Sign Language interpreting – was left out by Fox Sports cameras, appearing only for a few brief seconds on the broadcast.

Sun Kim was supposed to be broadcast concurrently, but cameras cropped her almost entirely out of the telecast. Fox Sports had also agreed to run a live stream on their website that would focus entirely on Sun Kim’s performance of the anthem, providing a means for deaf viewers to enjoy the experience. Instead, the Fox stream cut away mid-song to show the players standing with hands over their hearts. This meant that deaf viewers had no way to be a part of the showcase, and Sun Kim described herself as “angry and exasperated”. 

The artist rightly pointed out that “we’ve had the technology [to broadcast signed performances] for decades” and described the experience as “a missed opportunity in the struggle for media inclusiveness on a large scale.”

It was a disappointing step back for the inclusion of deaf people in public spectacles, and one made more frustrating by the fact that it was easy to avoid. 

Closer to home, one Auslan interpreter has made headlines because he has been shown on people’s televisions. Sean Sweeney has worked through the bushfire crisis with the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, regularly accompanying RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian on TV announcements for emergency information. 

Sweeney has developed something of a cult following for his work spreading emergency messages to the deaf community, and his heartwarming story has gained attention in the news and on social media.

Sweeney’s work is crucial, ensuring that deaf members of the community have the same access to emergency information that hearing people do, and allowing them to make informed decisions about their safety. In general, TV stations have done a good job of allowing interpreters like Sweeney to get safety messages out to the deaf community, but some commentators warn they haven’t done enough.

Shirley Liu, founder of Auslan Media Access, has warned that when TV stations cut interpreters out of their broadcasts, deaf people miss out, and this can have serious ramifications for their safety, especially during bushfire season. 

Ultimately, what we can take from these situations – one in America and one in Australia – is that providing appropriate coverage of televised sign language performances and announcements is important for enjoyment, safety and inclusivity within the deaf community. 

Featured Image by AJ Mast, New York Times, 2019.

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