At deaf caucus meeting, jokes about Mandela interpreter

December 12, 2013
Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.). (AP)
Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.). (AP)

Well, this was bound to happen.

During the inaugural meeting Thursday of the new Congressional Deaf Caucus, at least one lawmaker cracked a joke at the expense of the official interpreter for this week's memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela.

Taking the stage at the meeting in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building, Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.) greeted the dozens of people gathered in the room and then stopped.

“Do I need to double-check though that the sign language interpreter actually is an interpreter?" Yoder asked. Turning to an interpreter standing next to him, he said: "Looks like she’s legit. Okay. If she starts just making stuff up let me know."

People in the crowd roared -- and some who are deaf raised their hands and shook them to signal laughter. The interpreter at the Mandela memorial has been widely denounced as a fake by advocates for the deaf.

The group had been scheduled to meet for weeks, so the timing of the event was merely coincidental. And joking aside, the group is forming for an important cause. Yoder and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who have schools for the deaf in their districts, will co-chair the Congressional Deaf Caucus in hopes of promoting issues and concerns of the nation's deaf and hard of hearing and to find ways for deaf people to seek internships or employment on Capitol Hill.

Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.), who also attended the meeting, suggested that the deaf community should aim higher.

"I really do believe that one day you'll have a deaf congressman," he said. "I'll help work on your campaign."

The interpreter at the Mandela memorial has been widely panned and criticized for failing to actually interpret the remarks of invited speakers. He defended himself in an interview with the Johannesburg Star, which reported that the man, Thamsanqa Jantjie, said he suffers from schizophrenia and that he had lost concentration and started hearing voices during the event.

"There was nothing I could do. I was alone in a very dangerous situation. I tried to control myself and not show the world what was going on. I am very sorry, it’s the situation I found myself in,"Jantjie, 34, told the Star.

The Post's Steven Mufson reports from Johannesburg:

A South African deputy minister said Thursday that the man who turned out to be faking sign language as an interpreter for the deaf during Tuesday’s memorial event for Nelson Mandela did not speak English very well and worked for a company that has “vanished into thin air."

The deputy minister suggested that the interpreter did not understand English well enough to do the job, Mufson reported.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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Aaron Blake · December 12, 2013