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Chris Ford: The Mandela funeral signer - comments on his mental health disability are discriminatory

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

The mystery South African sign language interpreter Thamsanqa Jantjie has come out and blamed his poor performance at Tuesday's State Memorial Service for Nelson Mandela on the fact that he was having a Schizophrenic experience.

It is true that Jantjie's near non-existent interpreting skills caused Deaf South Africans and, indeed, Deaf people globally to lose out on the experience of being included in the memorial service. The ANC Government's poor organisation of the whole service led to it becoming a near trainwreck as symbolised by Jantjie's ineffective interpretation of it. Other non-English speaking world leaders brought their own very effective translators and it was they who made Jantjie's efforts look the more ridiculous.

Information is also emerging that Jantjie has worked at other ANC and government events where, according to official translating organisations, he allegedly delivered the same level of poor service as well. Evidently, Jantjie's career as a South African Sign Language (SASL) interpreter is over and his phone won't be ringing red hot anymore.

However, what concerns me are the comments being made in some media outlets around Jantjie's experience of living with psychiatric disability, in this case, Schizophrenia.

As usual, the media have been making the usual stereotypical links between mental illness and violence. It has been reported that Jantjie has had past violent episodes, thereby insinuating that he was a potential threat to the world leaders standing right next to him. Jantjie has admitted to experiencing the symptoms common to his condition (hallucinations) during the service but the very fact that he was more frightened by them and also that he continued calmly with his false signing act illustrates that he wasn't a danger to anyone. If anything, he more greatly endangered the professional reputation of millions of professioner signers worldwide rather than the people around him.

What must be pointed out is that very few people with mental illness (including schizophrenia) perpetrate violence and are more likely to inflict violence upon themselves (in the form of self-harm) than against others. Also, where violence by people with psychiatric disabilities against others has occurred, this has come about more due to them feeling marginalised in some way by the people around them. Moreover, people with psychiatric or psychological disabilities are more likely to be the victims of violence than to be violent themselves.

And another factor to bear in mind is that, as I have learned from my dealings with the Deaf community, they also have a slightly higher than average proportion of their population who experience psychiatric and psychological disability due to the marginalisation experienced by them within society. Besides, it would be wrong to deny people with experience of psychiatric or psychological disability the ability to become trained sign language interpreters as this would discriminate against them. With this having been said, perhaps the agency that employed Jantjie should have checked on his wellbeing on the day of the service as they could have withdrawn him and replaced him with a more competent person. As it stands, though, the agency which hired him has gone to ground and this could produce more questions than answers.

Nonetheless, the media has got it right about one disability community (the Deaf community) being robbed of its right to enjoy an historically significant public event like the Mandela service but wrong in (yet again) pushing negative stereotypical messages about people with psychiatric and psychological disabilities. In this case, two wrongs do not make a right and it would be better for the media to show a more consistent attitude on disability issues than it has to date, especially on this story.



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