Sign language interpreter finds joy in catering to hearing impaired

– calls for service to be more widely available

Mikoowanyah Yosef-Yisrael has fulfilled his lifelong dream of becoming a sign language interpreter and while catering to the needs of those with hearing disabilities brings him great joy, the opportunity to display his skill in the National Assembly was the icing on the cake.

Yisrael and his colleague Sean Thomas created history on November 28 last year, when for the first time ever they interpreted the National Budget in sign language. The three-hour long presentation was televised live, simultaneously with the sign language interpretation.

While the call from a Ministry of Finance official came as a surprise, Yisrael who has been signing since 2004 said that the idea had been pursued in the past but never became a reality. Today he is proud of the ministry for taking that bold step and called for more focus to be placed on training in this area as well as its use in service sectors such as banks.

The National Centre for Education Resource Development with the assistance from Mikoowanyah Yosef-Yisrael last year organized a Signing Bee competition for hearing impaired children. Four children participated.

Speaking to Sunday Stabroek about the experience, he said that after he expressed his willingness and availability to the official, Thomas was contacted.

Yisrael is no stranger to the public. He is the host of a Ministry of Education production, “Voicing Signs,” which is aired on Channel 80—The Learning Channel—daily.

He explained that because of the technicalities associated with sign language interpretation it is not advisable for a single person to handle long speeches. As such he and Thomas worked in 20-minute shifts. “Sign language is very stressful on the body because you have to think, interpret and use your arms to make the sign language and as such regular breaks are needed,” he explained.

Yisrael could not say if any hearing impaired person was sitting in the House that day, but he did not question the sudden interest of the ministry because it was something that had been on the table before. He recalled meeting prior to Budget Day with both the former Speaker of the National Assembly and current Speaker Dr Barton Scotland about using his skills during parliamentary sessions. He said both men had expressed interest.

With regard to the feedback, the former Bishops’ High School student said people were surprised. “I think going forward we would probably need, if this is being broadcasted, a special area for the interpreter so that as the minister is speaking a deaf person can look and follow what is happening,” he said noting that the set up that day wasn’t ideal though the electronic media managed to capture a bit of the signing. “For it to be more effective, we would have to have a special set up for a sign language interpreter.”

Mikoowanyah Yosef-Yisrael providing assistance during the Signing Bee competition held last year

He expressed hope that the interpretation in Parliament was just “the start of something and not just a one-off thing. I commend the government, especially the Ministry of Finance, for starting that but I hope it can develop into something.”

At age 33, Yisrael, who follows the Hebrew faith wears many hats. Not only is he a sign language interpreter but he is also a teacher, father, husband and on a lighter note, a cricket umpire. He currently works at the local branch of the Arthur Lok Jack School of Business which is a part of the University of the West Indies where he is also pursuing his Masters.

He recalled that from early on, he developed an interest in learning the art of sign language and that opportunity presented itself when he completed his studies in Business Management at the University of Guyana.

“I just thought that it was cool… After university I had some time on my hands,” he recalled. He said that what sparked his interest even more was the fact that his neighbour, a VSO volunteer from Africa, had enrolled in a sign language class. He said that his neighbour did a lot of field work with special needs persons and as such learning sign language was important.

Yisrael stated that he enrolled in classes at the Vlissengen Road-based Guyana Deaf Mission. He said that he subsequently graduated with distinction at both the basic and advanced levels. Noting that he loved the training sessions, he said, “In life when you are doing what you are passionate about, doing something that you love, it is easy to do. So it was quite fun and exciting for me.” The training lasted a total of six months.

He said there were about a dozen persons doing the courses with him at the time, among them were teachers from some of the special needs schools and others who had an interest in the art for various reasons.

According to Yisrael, the “funny” thing about sign language is that here in Guyana it is not something that keeps one busy all the time. He said the need for it may pop up now and then and the majority of the time, he works on a voluntary basis and does not receive payment. He said he was contracted a number of times by different organizations to teach privately and has been working with the Ministry of Education.

“We teach sign language on the show,” he said, referring to the show he currently does for the Learning Channel. He explained that “Voicing Signs” tells stories and focuses on basic sign language. The feedback from the show is tremendous and very encouraging.

Yisrael sees sign language interpretation as very much needed in Guyana as there are a lot of persons with hearing disabilities. He said that there are many children at the David Rose School for the Handicapped and the Diamond Special Needs School with hearing issues, all of whom will become adults who will require interpretation for various reasons. He said that during the last elections period, too, he was contracted along with another colleague to do some interpretation at a rally for someone present who was hearing impaired.

“Deaf persons in Guyana are at a real disadvantage through no fault of theirs. We just need to make things more accessible to them such as quality education, interpreting, teaching and I believe that with this they will be able to function as regular persons,” he stressed. He said these persons because of their disability are often made to do low-end jobs such as packers in supermarkets and cleaners. This, he stressed, should not be as despite their disability they should be allowed to reach their maximum potential by being given all the opportunities a hearing persons would get.

For them to have the opportunity to choose, he stressed, services are needed to support these persons to acquire higher levels of education to ensure that they get high level jobs.

Yisrael said that in the past he had approached many ministers and different persons with a hope of being able to do more for persons with hearing disabilities. He said strides are being made but Guyana still has a long way to go.

He recalled that last year during Deaf Awareness Week, he was speaking to a US-based interpreter who said that Guyana was moving as a “tremendous pace”. While noting that this was encouraging, he said more government interventions are needed.

Stressing the importance of deaf education, he said that a school specifically catering to the needs of the deaf, was needed and government ought to invest in the training of interpreters and teachers.

“There are a lot scholarships out there, maybe there can be specialized scholarships …especially for our teachers who work very hard at the Diamond Special Needs School, David Rose, New Amsterdam, Linden Special Needs School and maybe also have an interpreter training,” he suggested.

He said that in Trinidad there is specialized training for interpreters as well as in the US. He blamed ignorance for Guyana being behind in this regard. “One of the things with deafness is that people associate it with maybe a learning disability… because persons don’t hear sounds they have speech problems. There is also a lot of stigma attached to it, so I think we need more awareness,” he stressed. He expressed hope that the Ministers of Education and Social Protection would work together to take sign language interpretation and teaching those with hearing disabilities to another level.

Yisrael believes too that sign language should be added to the schools’ curriculum particularly at the primary level.

For him he still has more to learn and give.  He believes that he needs some more training and would embrace a scholarship in this regard.

Anyone desirous of learning the art of sign language can contact the Guyana Deaf Mission on 223-4870 or contact Yisrael on 673-5980.

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