Feel Good Story: the ASL interpreter at Bonnaroo

Even though I try to be aware of challenges people different from myself experience (even “checking my privilege” here and there), it is to my great shame that I had never really given deaf people’s interaction with music much thought. If I thought of it at all, I probably assumed that there wasn’t much, that it was an experience wholly unknowable to a person who couldn’t hear. That misinterpretation was blasted away at extreme decibel levels last week when a video from the Bonnaroo music festival surfaced showing a American Sign Language interpreter KILLING IT along with the Wu-Tang Clan. Take a look:

What’s more embarrassing about my ignorance is how obvious it is that deaf people can still enjoy many forms of music. Duh. First, many of the deaf can still feel beats, giving them an experience of the tempo, rhythm and force of a song. Second, music (especially rap music) is often more about the lyrics behind a song than the notes played with it. A well written line can be just as powerful to a person reading it rather than hearing it (I should know, I have about a million books that testify to this). So it should be a given that musicians have hearing impaired fans too. Again: Duh.

Holly Maniatty signs at a Phish concert.

Holly Maniatty (source: Slate.com)

After watching the video I looked up the woman behind the assume dance moves and ridiculously smooth signs. Her name is Holly Maniatty, a professional ASL interpreter who has made somewhat of a name for herself as being one of the best concert and festival interpreters around. And for good reason. The amount of time and effort she puts into researching an upcoming show is nothing short of awe inspiring. According to her own estimates, she spends around 50 to 100 hours researching the entire catalog of work of whatever musician she is working with. Along with that, she has to study the movements and style of each artists as well and tries her best to mimic it for the benefit of those watching her when not watching the artist him or her self. She describes it best here:

“[Eminem] has a very specific body cadence,” she said, “and if you’re able to mimic that, it almost looks like you are him. Jay-Z’s got a big boisterous chest-out way to rap sometimes. So you have to watch the different performers and watch how they move the body because the more genuine you are to their way of presenting themselves as an artist, the more equal of an experience the deaf person is going to have.”

While ASL at concerts and festivals is on the rise, I’m guessing the people don’t pay her anywhere near enough to deserve the kind of professionalism and energy she brings. But I’m glad she does it anyway. She represents a world I want to live in. It’s not enough to accommodate people who aren’t “like us”, they deserve more. We need to change the conceptualization of disabilities to one where they aren’t considered a separate group but instead that their needs are just another challenge that needs to be met when organizing events. We can do it, we just have to try and Holly Maniatty tries. Clearly talented, she is bringing concerts to people who for a long time were left out, not because of their own limitations but because, like me, the concert organizers didn’t stop to think or didn’t bother to ask the hearing impaired whether they wanted in. The organization that Holly works for is called Everyone’s Invited, and it seems like they are ensuring that everyone is. Duh.


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