Editor’s Note: This transcript has been updated to correct errors in the ASL interpretation for one of the guests.
How does American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation help people who are deaf and hard of hearing enjoy music and other live performances? What are these experiences like for people who are hard of hearing if they don’t have an interpreter? We talk about deaf culture and the arts with Rian Gayle, an ASL music translator who is deaf, Aimee Miller, a community educator and music lover, and Amanda Hays, an ASL interpreter who grew up with a deaf parent.
Below is a transcript of the interview.
Dave Miller: This is “Think Out Loud” on OPB. I’m Dave Miller.
If you are hearing my voice right now, our next conversation might come at somewhat of a surprise to you. We’re going to talk about access to music and live performances for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. There is a wide range of interpretation and technology for people who otherwise wouldn’t have much access to live shows. I’m joined now by three people who all take part in this culture in different ways. Rian Gayle is an assistant director of access and inclusion at Western Oregon University’s office of disability services. He also calls himself an American sign language music translator. Andrew Tolman is here as his interpreter. Aimee Miller is a community educator and advocate and music lover and a person who is deaf. Jenna Curtis will be interpreting for her. And Amanda Hays is with is with us as well. She grew up with a deaf parent and now works as an ASL interpreter. It’s great to have all three of you on the show.
Rian Gayle: Perfect. Thank you for having us.
Amanda Hays: Thank you for having us here.
DM: Aimee Miller, I want to start with you because this is actually, through the magic of editing and radio, it’s the second time I did that intro because the first time, um, I said something different and you corrected me and I, I want to talk about that. I want to start with that. I said, “we’re going to talk about live performances and music for people who are deaf or hearing impaired.” Can you tell our audience why you corrected me?
Aimee Miller: OK. First, thank you for giving me the opportunity to engage with this. Um, the term “hearing impaired” is not a word that many in the deaf community use. Typically we use the term “hard of hearing.” Some deaf people do prefer to be called “hearing impaired,” but “impaired” is a very negative term. It sees deaf people as less than, while “hard of hearing” is a more positive and empowering word, that people can do things deaf and hard of hearing people are able to do whatever they desire.
DM: Thank you. Thank you for that. I feel like it actually is as good of a true introduction for our conversation as we could have. Um, let’s start with the big question: what is, what does music mean to you?
AM: For me, it’s not based on sound because I’m deaf and I am very profoundly deaf. I’m not able to hear anything. You could probably push me in front of a train and I would not hear it. I feel vibrations through my body — dance, vibrations, physical sensation. That’s my personal experience.
DM: What kind of music do you most enjoy?
AM: I’m going to let the others speak.
RG: Yeah, this is Rian.
DM: Rian Gayle.
RG: Yeah. I would love to add, you know, I was born into music. So I’m actually from a place where music is part of the culture. I was born in Jamaica, so, you know, we just have a strong, strong music culture there that I grew up in. At about three years old is I started losing my hearing … my parents, lovers of music as well, and still even to this day, would turn up the music at home every single day. They would, you know, put on their old vinyls. We had all of the old 45s growing up, you know, every, every old record you could think of. And so I grew up like that. I was a lover of music and that’s never left me and so it still applies to me and who I am, even as a deaf person. But I just engage in it in a different way. I enjoy it in a different way. Like Aimee was saying, uh, the beat, the vibrations, the feeling of it. I always love to turn up the max volume in my car, even in my house, I’ll turn it up and sometimes it bugs my wife. I love you, wifey (laughs). But, uh, my parents too, you know, I’ll turn it even higher than they do. They’re like, “You’re gonna turn us deaf next.” (laughs) You know, it’s just always booming. So that’s just what music is for me.
AM: And I’d also like to add, so nine years ago I had the attitude of most deaf people about music, which was: that is a hearing thing. That is not my world and I have no desire to be a part of it. Until one of my friends who is not deaf, they are hearing, asked me to go to a rave. And I had never even heard of what a rave was at that point. My friends didn’t understand. Of course, everybody in the hearing world knows what a rave is, but I had no idea what that was. They told me it was a music show. And so I opened my heart, I opened my mind. I was willing to go. And I remember the [room] had wood paneling on the sides and I was seated on a wood bench and I started to feel the beat and the vibration and at that moment I was hooked to the bass, hooked to music. And, um, typically music festivals, I love going to music festivals. There’s much more sound. They’re louder. Some places are not great for music, like bars. I don’t typically frequent bars for music because there’s a lack of bass. I want to go where the music is better, where it’s louder and where there’s more of a sense.
RG: Yeah, definitely.
AM: It’s also, um, you will find me at many different places if there’s a lot of people, a lot of vibration, a lot of movement, you’ll find me there.
RG: Yeah. And you know, if you don’t mind, I really wanted to add to that, too. As Aimee mentioned, deaf people are often looked down on and so they (hearing people) think like, ‘Oh, this (you as a) deaf person, how are you going to enjoy music? How can deaf people really, like, be in it?’ You know, it’s sort of like a hearing privilege thing. But what they don’t understand is that even if somebody is profoundly deaf and they can’t hear a single thing, they can enjoy the feeling, they can enjoy the music. And so that behavior is what we call “audism” in the deaf community, is any sort of discrimination against people in the deaf community because of a hearing loss or a physical ability to hear. So when we’re thinking about accessibility, when we’re thinking about music access, you can now find lyrics online, you can use technology in all of these different ways to go to these events and engage and appreciate the music in different ways that we couldn’t before. And you know, before it was just this hard line between communities and that’s sort of what caused that deaf reaction that Aimee was talking about.
AM: Exactly. I had that perspective as well, that music was for hearing people. And then I believe, you know, that I showed up in the music world for a reason. That changed the course of my future. It helped bring connections for me with those two worlds and it created a more inclusive and equal space. That can become a wonderful space for deaf and hard of hearing people to enjoy. And that’s my dream, my goal, to bring those two worlds together. Before I thought that it was not for me, but now that I’ve become immersed in it, I’ve had a lot of wonderful experiences. For example, Burning Man — it’s a large music festival. I’ve actually ended up working at Burning Man. I don’t go just to play; I go to work and volunteer and I’m really participating in more things than I ever thought I could. I want to use music as a vehicle to teach people and educate people. And that’s been my experience. And so many people to me say, “You can’t even hear the words. How do you enjoy music?” But music is so much more than that. It’s about a drum circle. I can close my eyes, I can feel the music in my mind.
AM: I don’t know if Rian, you’ve experienced a drum circle perhaps in, in Jamaica, but that’s a wonderful, wonderful example of different ways that people can enjoy music and really I’ve become immersed in it.
DM: So, um, Rian Gayle, how much have you made music? I mean, Aimee now is talking about not just listening to music but taking part in music creation.
RG: Yeah. So I do make music and I also perform, uh, myself. I am a deaf interpreter, so when I’m hired to interpret, that’s different than when I’m on stage as an ASL translator and performer. I do try to write music, but so far I hear it’s not good (laughs). I sent it to a couple of my friends who are producers. I kinda want to see maybe if they could give it to somebody who could sing on top of it or maybe they could sing my lyrics, maybe they can voice it, give it back to me and then I can use that during my performances. So I’m kind of going through the steps of making that right now. I really like to listen to famous songs that are already there. I’ll study the lyrics, I’ll get really into what they really mean and what the beats are and I want to find a way that a deaf person can appreciate and enjoy that music in the same way that a hearing person is. How does that music impact somebody? What is the real way that I can sign that to strongly impact deaf people in the same way? So, even hearing people can maybe get that impact through me. So typically it takes, you know, a week or two for me to truly understand the lyrics. And then I understand it from a more personal perspective and add that flavor to it before I even get on stage. You know, and I also keep in mind that hearing people are in the audience. So if I have more hearing people, maybe I’ll want to match a different vibe than if the audience was primarily deaf.
DM: Hmm. Um, this seems like a good time to bring Amanda Hays into our conversation. As I mentioned earlier, um, she grew up with a deaf parent. She is now an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. Amanda Hays, good to have you here.
AH: Thank you for having me.
DM: Can you give us a sense for how you approach signing, um, interpreting, translating like I guess there are various words for this when you’re at a musical performance compared to or, or as opposed to, you know, even something like this where there’s just people sitting around and just talking, you know, in a, in a very plain way?
AH: Well, absolutely. As Rian was sharing before, that preparation is key, especially for any public performance with music. If you can get the lyrics at least two weeks ahead of time, then you’re able to study the meaning behind it, uh, other contexts, the artist. You can watch interviews, you can watch performances, you can emulate their body language, their behavior and incorporate that into your interpretations so you’re providing a more, uh, approximate interpretation and better quality access as opposed to what the interpreters are doing [here] today — people are speaking from their own personal experience. You don’t really have an opportunity to get a lot of preparation ahead of time. So, it’s more simultaneous on-the-spot interpreting. Um, so that’s one of the differences.
DM: How do you try to communicate the nonverbal parts of music? I mean, in other words, the purely musical parts of what you’re hearing to a non-hearing audience. Let’s say, you know, a guitar solo — do you do air guitar? Is that a dumb question?
AH: It’s not a dumb question. Generally. It just depends. If I have an opportunity that I can speak with a consumer and ask them what their preference is, some people want to know the instrumentation and some people don’t really care about it.
DM: When you say the consumer, you mean you may talk to people in the audience beforehand to say, “What do you want from me as, as an interpreter?”
AH: Absolutely. I try and make it a priority to communicate with the deaf person that I’m working for and asking them what their preferences are, if that’s an option available to me. Sometimes if it’s a larger venue or you don’t, it’s a larger group of people, you’re not always able to accommodate to everyone’s request. So I usually will add the instrumentation um, so I’ll show the drums, uh, I’ll show the, the bass using my hands. And a lot of, a lot of the language is also conveyed through facial expressions. So as long as I’m incorporating the intensity of the music using my facial expressions, I’m showing the guitar, I’m showing the drums or maybe if there’s a techno piece so it would be more of an electronic instrument that I would be showing to the audience member. And that’s also a difficult path to navigate is deciding which instrument will I be showing if there’s multiple layers going on at the same time. So, really, it’s just what is showing the emotion, what is pushing the music forward, what is the arc of the song? And I try to incorporate that into the interpretation.
DM: Aimee Miller, I understand that that you two have experience doing, um, this kind of interpreting. What was that like for you?
AM: It’s different than a hearing interpreter or an interpreter that would be on stage. I am a deaf person, so it was a little bit of a different situation. There was a band called Just People, a local Portland band, who asked me to perform. I performed for them twice. One big event, which was called Portland’s Prom. So this year was the last year. They are no longer putting on Portland’s Prom, but I was able to be involved in that event. And what was cool about that for me, well, for example, Portland’s Prom, I did two select songs. I didn’t do the entire setlist. So I would stand up front with the person who was singing in the band. And uh, I was really, I didn’t memorize the lyrics. I didn’t know. It was a new experience for me, but I was able to convey an American Sign Language and the audience watched me. It was almost as if I was interpreting for the entire audience, but I was primarily performing for deaf and hard of hearing people in the audience. And I do have a couple of experiences with that. I want to figure out how to grow seeds in the community where other bands and other people will be more open to that kind of performance and interpretation, but I’m really grateful to Just People for that experience. And I hope other Portland bands will be more open to that kind of opportunity. And translation and interpretation is very challenging work. It includes facial expression and some interpreters do not provide that expression, but really to interpret music, interpreters must be aware of all of the dynamics at play — the actions, the facial expressions. For example, guitar — there’s a particular different way that you can sign guitar to show what it actually looks like and it’s a little bit difficult to describe, but that’s just one example. So, you’re including a whole spectrum of vibrant pieces of this music and it takes a lot. I hope that helps give you a better idea.
DM: It does. And I have to say this is not the first time, but um, but it’s, it’s one of the times when I, I, uh, I really wish people could see you as you’re talking to me because I feel like since they can’t, they’re, they’re missing a lot of your communication. Obviously, just to remind folks, this whole time we had been hearing the voices of, of your two interpreters — Aimee Miller in your case, Jenna Curtis, Rian Gayle in your case, Andrew Tolman, um, who are, uh, from what I can tell, doing an amazing job of capturing your words, but, but our audience can’t see the two of you as you are communicating a lot in, in, you know, in nonverbal ways that, that I can appreciate and, and sort of take in since I get both their words and, and your physicality. Rian Gayle to go back to you, how do you, you call yourself an ASL music translator, which I have to say it’s, it’s not a job I had heard before, a description of a job. What do you mean by being a translator?
RG: Yeah. Thank you for asking me. So in the deaf community, we have deaf interpreters, people who function as an interpreter role during music. So, me as a deaf person, I’m actually performing the song. So I’m the actual performer and not the interpreter role. So I call myself a music translator because I have the job of translating that song for people to then consume and appreciate. And it’s really not just for deaf people, but hearing people as well. So I do use some signs because I’m familiar with the way that hearing people are exposed to certain gestures or signs in just the world in general. And then there are sign language vocabulary and ASL that I’m actually using for deaf people. So I sort of have a mixed signing. So sort of like what Amanda…
DM: And they’re all together? You, you mix in ASL, which is you know, a true full-fledged, robust language, and you mix that right with things that, that I, as a hearing person who knows no ASL, might also recognize as just gestures that are in the public world?
RG: Exactly. Sometimes, I’ll add something personal or some sort of facial expression, something that’s in the music — maybe they’re talking about, you know, “I’ve got a bunch of money” or whatever and I kinda have a certain swagger in the way that I’m going to translate that. You have to really show that. That’s part of the thing. Maybe you can hear it, but then now you can really see the way that that voice and that music is giving that inflection and that energy. It’s the same way that hearing people hear that and they’re like, “wow, I really got the point of that.” Deaf people are being, are able to consume it in the same way and be like, “oh, this is the point. This is the message.” That’s accessibility. So that’s the reason we add things like the air guitar, because sometimes people are maybe gonna complain, “ooh, that’s a little much. Maybe you’re taking the spotlight from the performer, from the musician.” But I say the opposite. When someone is showing that air guitar, that access, maybe the hearing people can enjoy a riff, they can enjoy a snare hit, they can enjoy a certain tap and understand the quality of that sound and appreciate it. So deaf people deserve that access. I want to show the way that the guitar’s being riffed — they’re going really hard on these strings, they’re, you know, they’re doing this hard rock solo. I want to really be able to show that same energy, those dynamics. And so when people are going to watch an interpreter, I think about how I consume an interpreter, how people are clapping, for example. I want to know how they are clapping. I want to know what rhythm they are so that I can enjoy that instead of an interpreter just sort of clapping and giving me that, you know, so that’s my, my definition of a music translator. I want to give a full experience, a full sensory experience, everything that’s going on.
DM: It sounds like what you aim to do is to create your own, not independent, but sort of parallel art that’s going on. How much does it matter where the interpreter is, where the translator is? Because it seems to me that sometimes, they’re physically pretty far away from the stage, um, and other times, um, maybe increasingly, although I don’t know that it’s the norm, um, they’re, they’re a little bit closer to the main performer. How big of a difference does that make for you — where you are?
RG: Yeah. So actually that’s very important. So while I’m accessing the interpreter, I want to be able to see what’s going on for myself on the stage as well. Sometimes if the interpreter is out of that sightline, I can’t see what’s going on. I don’t see what everyone’s doing at the same time. I don’t have access to all of that.
DM: Oh, you mean when you’re in the audience, you want to see at the same [time] without turning your head, you want to see the interpreter or the translator and you know, Justin Timberlake or whoever?
RG: Right, exactly. Because sometimes maybe the performer’s acting or dancing, there’s a choreography or they did something crazy on stage. I want to be able to see that and not just, you know, tennising my head back and forth to see the interpreter and then miss the action on stage. But sometimes then on stage, there’s bad lighting and you can’t see the interpreter clearly. So, sometimes I struggle with that too. Some bands are huge. There’s, you know, maybe two drummers and a keyboardist and a bunch of guitarists and the interpreter is supposed to stand in the corner on the stage. And so that gets, you know, sticky too. It really doesn’t work. When I am music interpreting, I typically will ask the band beforehand how to provide access and to give that space on stage. Most of the time, performers are willing to give us space, but sometimes, you know, they’ll get pissed off and they’re like, “no, this is our zone,” you know, and it gets crazy, but you know, one thing that we talk to interpreters about is to not be afraid to use that space. Some interpreters will stand and it’s almost like they have, you know, a wall on either side of them and they can’t rock back and forth. They can’t move. If a band is rocking out and moving with everyone onstage, I want that energy, that environment to be encapsulated in what’s going on from the interpreter. I want it to look good. That’s how we access it. And I do want to add too, you know, if me, myself as an interpreter, we’re not just providing access for the deaf person. Again, I’m providing, an environment for this music, uh, enhancement, an enhancement of the music itself. I’m enhancing the music. They’re noticing more going on. The hearing person can see the interpreter. I’m noticing a lot more people taking note of the interpreter there. And it’s not just that they know sign language, but that it becomes another piece of that. You’ll notice hearing people come up at the end and they’re like, “great job!” to this interpreter, you know, and we have to ask the hearing people sometimes, “Did you understand what we were saying?” And maybe they did or not, but you know, it increases the experience and those hearing people may have no idea but they still enjoyed it the same way, you know? And I think that it just grows the attention the more that we can get interpreters within that sightline and, and providing that access and we’re showing people that they can enjoy it in different ways.
DM: Amanda Hays, how much do you feel like you are a part of the performance when you’re interpreting?
AH: One hundred percent. Absolutely. If you’re able, as Rian was sharing, if you’re able to incorporate the energy of the performer into your interpretation, that’s quality equal access. And the goal is to move past the lyrics, to show the instrumentation in your body, to move, to show the vibe that’s going on in the environment and uh, to create, um, a well-rounded experience for really anyone watching the interpreter.
DM: Um, Rian Gayle, as, as folks probably remember from the beginning, you grew up, you were born in Jamaica. You are, um, a black man. How much does this play into interpreting? I mean, I guess this gets to the question of what I’ve seen described as, you know, as cultural relevancy or culturally relevant interpreting. If you’re, um, if you go to a hip hop show now with black performers, does it matter to you if the interpreter, if the translator, is white or black?
RG: Yes. In some cases I do care, especially if the music is talking about the black experience explicitly, talking about black struggle, talking about, about black, you know, wording, black verbiage that if a white person us may be offensive.
DM: Oh, is that an issue? I mean, if for example, if the n-word is in a song, are there cases where a white interpreter is going to say that word or, or sign that word?
RG: So, what they’ll use is something similar with the meaning. So, they’re like, “oh, that’s my boy,” you know in the hip hop community, then the n-word would be used, signed that way. But you know, we can find different ways to interpret around that. But a black rapper who’s talking about, you know, “they are calling me the n-word,” that experience from a black perspective, it’s a little bit more sticky coming through a white interpreter.
DM: You know, I’ve never…
RG: A black person would, you know, maybe be able to really match that situation much better and a white person may have to then voice the n-word back to an audience, you know? And then it’s like, did they say that, you know? Oh. But if you’re saying, “That’s my boy,” you know, there’s ways to interpret that without having to use the explicit English word that is being used to that concept. Um, so you really have to be careful the way it’s being played versus being offensive.
DM: In ASL — and I’ve never really thought about this before — but is there both the phrase “the n-word” and also the word itself?
RG: Yes. We have two different signs to actually …
DM: Just like an English, for, I imagine, for the same reason.
RG: Yes, exactly. Yeah. So, you know, if someone is using it to offend me, I’m going to expect that interpreter is going to sign it to offend me. Hmm. But if somebody is just talking about general rap, you know, “my friends, my people,” obviously then they’re going to interpret it with different wording. But you know, if you see a white interpreter using that word, it can definitely feel, you know, it hits you a little bit, you know, and yes, of course they’re just doing their job, but what it represents is a lot more important for me as a black man, I feel that oppression sometimes. You know, I really want to represent the black experience. I want to make sure that if people are seeing the music and enjoying it, that they’re seeing the representation in that as well.
DM: Amanda Hays?
AH: And I just wanted to add some educational information for the audience — that in the interpreting field, 90% of the interpreters are white women. So, it’s limited which interpreters, one, are qualified linguistically, but also culturally to be able to provide that access that Rian is saying that he really needs and that a larger community really needs and that’s lacking at the moment.
DM: Have you been asked, just, just because of the, the existing demographics of who is available for jobs, have you been asked to interpret for shows where you thought you were not the right person to do it?
AH: Meaning culturally not having enough context?
AH: Yes, and I have interpreted shows where I personally have had to educate myself in that particular culture, whether it be hip hop, queer culture, and expanding upon that knowledge so that I can provide an accurate interpretation. But unfortunately, there’s not enough interpreters who have the linguistic skills to be able to fill those cultural gaps at the moment.
DM: You know, that gets to a, um, a bigger question here. We’ve been talking about, um, how interpretation at shows works — whether you’re a performer or an audience member or, and, and all of you, it seems can be both. Um, but it doesn’t seem that this is necessarily always the case. I mean, Aimee Miller, how often are there interpreters at live shows?
AM: To be frank, almost never. That is why I am having such a challenge and a frustration right now with the music industry. I do know that interpreters are always guaranteed at Burning Man or Oregon Country Fair. They are wonderful. They provide interpreters, they pay for interpreters and provide them with tickets to go. And it’s wonderful. I try to get people to go, but I want to figure out how we can change the narrative. And that’s one challenge. There also, there’s also the SHIFT music festival, which is very exclusive. They are not inclusive. They don’t understand interpreters. They will not provide interpreters. And this is the fourth year that we’ve tried. I have been working very hard to make it happen. People are very privileged, I’m sorry to say. They have different ideas. They think that it’s a deaf person’s job to provide their own interpreter. I do it myself because I love the music, but I want people to wake up. I want people to become more open-minded and imagine the possibilities of what interpreting could look like. But it’s not easy because typically it’s about money — who’s going to pay. They will pay so much for music and putting on this whole production, but they’re not willing to pay a little bit for an interpreter for full inclusion and equal access.
DM: Rian Gayle, how much have you had to advocate for yourself as a deaf person if you want there to be an interpreter at some kind of show?
RG: Yeah, we have to fight a lot. Sometimes I’ve had experiences where I will try and contact like a human rights department, the Oregon Registry for interpreters, ORID. I tried to contact different disability, you know, law firms about ADA access.
AM: I don’t know who to contact.
RG: I try to contact them sometimes to help with the fight. And a few times, you know, we have successfully bent an arm and, and figured it out, but sometimes you have to sue. Sometimes you have to, you know, really get the law involved and it leaves a bad taste in our mouths. You know, it leaves a bad taste for me. It leaves a bad taste for the people organizing the tour. You know, I just want to show up and enjoy the music. Sometimes we go through this whole thing and then I show up to the concert and they’re kind of looking at me like I’m that guy that started this, you know, it’s like, uh, you know, I just really want to ask for an interpreter to be provided so that I can enjoy it and I would be happy to work with people. You know, if it’s their first time, then I’ll work with it. But most of the time, the response is, “We don’t have money; we’re not going to do it.” So, that struggle is, is all over the place.
DM: Do you have a sense for how Portland or other cities in Oregon, compared to, you know, other parts of the country in terms of these issues? How are we doing compared to the rest of the world?
RG: Compared to the East Coast? We are, you know, decades behind, I would say even California…
AM: I will second that.
DM: Decades behind?
AM: Well, one way we’re way behind deaf people are looked on as disabled.
RG: Yeah, yeah, definitely. You know, at least, you know, 10 years, you know, I mean, just when it comes to resources, when it comes to people power, when it comes to people fighting for this, we need more hearing people to understand. But a lot of times when they don’t see it, they don’t get, and if they don’t see the deaf people or only deaf people asking, you know, we get “no” a lot and it’s exhausting. We’re tired.
AM: Even, even when we show up, it’s not provided. And sometimes we’re afraid to ask for interpreters because I don’t want to look bad. If we ask, they might say, “Oh, you want special treatment? Why would you need an interpreter? You think that you’re special.” And I said, “No, I don’t think that I’m special. I’m, I’m not asking for anything,” but I’m frustrated with that perspective of privilege. I think individuals should want deaf people to come and participate, be involved. And a lot of times I’m not able to come because of the people who have power and it’s not equal access. And if that love was there, if that access was there, that would be beautiful, but it’s not. And so sometimes I have to actually make decisions about whether I’m going to participate or not. And Oregon I believe is very far behind because the attitude towards people with disabilities is, is quite negative here. I lived in Rochester, New York, which had amazing access compared to here in Oregon. And the attitude I think is, is primarily the issue here in Oregon.
RG: Yeah. You know, and I would love to add too, that my experience as a performer trying to get opportunities here is tough. Because sometimes I’ll sign up for like a Make Music Day, for example, is a big music event or an open mic event or you know, maybe they’ll have, you know, spots available for musicians to hop on this show, you know, and I will go up and I’m like, “Hey, I’m a deaf person, I’m a performer.” And some of the feedback I get is like, “Well, you’re not a real musician. That’s not really performing. I don’t know if you know the people will understand you. I’m sorry.” I have to fight just to educate people to understand that I’m providing a performance and it works for hearing people and deaf people, everyone can enjoy it. But to do that extra work to convince them is, you know, double, triple work that I have to do just to get on stage. And it’s rough.
DM: Amanda Hays, I mentioned at the beginning that you grew up with a deaf parent. I think you have a, a deaf sibling as well.
AH: I do.
DM: How, how much did, did that experience growing up with deaf people in your family, um, influence your work? I mean, you are now an ASL interpreter.
AH: Well, originally growing up, I had wanted to be a musician. And I went to school for that, funny enough in Rochester, New York, which at the time I didn’t realize had a very large deaf population, um, the music path didn’t work out for me and I started taking interpreting classes, started learning more about my language and my culture and just became immersed and embraced that part of myself. So, absolutely, growing up in a deaf household, I didn’t grow up with music, um, I have seen my parents and my sibling phase oppression as Aimee and Rian have been sharing, at not only music venues, but that can be applied to, really, any area of life. That’s a very common experience, unfortunately, and that’s just shaped me as an individual to do more work as to advocate and support my community, to work with my community to make those changes.
DM: Um, before we go, I want to ask, um, both, uh, Rian and Aimee what you’d like the world to, to be like in the future. We’ve been talking about some problems, some uh, some improvements over the years, but, but clearly from what you’re describing, we still have a ways to go as a society in terms of inclusion. Aimee Miller, can you, can you describe the vision of the world that you’d actually like to live in?
AM: My vision is that I want to bring more equality, more equity for deaf and hard of hearing people, specifically for the music industry. I think we can bring the deaf and hard of hearing communities together and I want to see that come to fruition. I want us to be able to share that knowledge, that love, share our love of music and access in general. I want to say that that’s a basic right.
DM: Rian, what about you?
RG: For me, my vision is quite large. I’m noticing more and more venues using captioning services. They have a big screen or a projector alongside the musicians so that people can read the lyrics alongside, and that’s good. I think it would be nice if they had someone maybe signing in the corner on that screen too, or if somebody in the band was signing and performing like Aimee and I can, you know, do, someone that’s on the stage actually performing in ASL with them. I would love to see that. And also more technology provided so that deaf people can feel that tactile experience, that vibration, that bass. Sometimes, we’ll bring balloons and we’ll blow those up so that we can hold them and feel the bass through there. That’s a thing that we do in the deaf community. It’d be cool if, you know…
DM: Oh, creating events to your own personal vibrating machine? Huh.
RG: Yeah, yeah. You know, you can feel inside the balloon, the air moves. And so that’d be nice if even venues provide us something like that or some simple technology where we could feel involved in that way, you know? And also for live music at local bars, you know, I think that’s probably the hardest because small bars don’t typically provide interpreters. They don’t know how to do that right away. Maybe it’s a small local band people don’t know about. I wish there was something where if a deaf person could show up to a bar and just have that access no matter what, maybe if it’s not there right away, half an hour later it shows up at the bar. You know, something that is a lot more immediate so that we don’t have to go through this whole drama and spiel of getting an interpreter and finding out all the details of that. You know, opening doors to allow more deaf people and deaf musicians to make music and to perform and to be included and to be on stage. That’s the inclusion I want for everyone.
DM: Amanda, what about you?
AH: I agree with both of them that I, that’s the vision and I wanted to share that for, um, for people who are listening, if you have a smaller venue or a bar or you’re an individual or an artist who’s wanting to provide access, that you always have the power to negotiate rates if the finances are constricted or if price is an issue for you. And if you’re not sure where to start, there’s a wonderful nonprofit organization here in Portland called Cymaspace and they have a roster of interpreters who can do volunteer work, who can do it at a lower rate, you can just Google sign language interpreter agencies here in Portland. You can connect with OAD, Oregon Association of the Deaf, and work with people like Rian, like Aimee, and start those conversations and have that dialogue and initiate providing access on your own.
DM: Rian Gayle, Aimee Miller and Amanda Hays, thank you very, very much.
RG: My pleasure. Thank you for inviting me here.
AH: Thank you so much.
DM: Our interpreters were Jenna Curtis and Andrew Tolman, and we also want to give a special thanks to the deaf artist and activist Myles de Bastion for helping us think through and also set up this conversation. You can find that earlier interview with Myles on our website, opb.org/thinkoutloud.