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This week's Chicagoan: Josh Garrett, sign-language interpreter

I left with a mission: I am going to learn every dirty sign out there'

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A first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford.

"When I was in sixth grade, I was in choir at school, and we had to sign a song. I think it was 'Somewhere Out There.' I thought it would be the dumbest thing ever, but it was fascinating. My mom bought me a sign-language book, and that's how I started. I was interpreting in church at age 16. I was awful. Now I have my national interpreting certification.

"I moved to the Chicago area because there was a large population of deaf people here. I had deaf roommates for about five years. We had wooden floors, so they'd stomp on the floor to get someone's attention, and the vibration would carry. The biggest thing for me culturally—and I'm making a generalization; not all deaf people are like this—is that they were very blunt. I saw a deaf person describing me once, and they're like, 'Tall, skinny, big nose.' I got used to it.

"It's crazy, what we see in the educational arena. Teachers sometimes say, 'Don't sign this, but . . .' As soon as that comes out of their mouth, I immediately stop them, because I want them to know that whatever they say next will be interpreted. That's how this works.

"I do a workshop on swearing and sexual signs. The way it came to be was I was interpreting a counseling session for two deaf parents and their hearing children. The father signed the word 'hell,' and I had never seen that sign before. He was yelling, and then there was dead silence while I was trying to ask what that sign was. I left with a mission: I am going to learn every dirty sign out there

"You have to know culturally what was intended. One example is 'fucked up.' If we were to hear 'fucked up' in a business meeting, everyone would look at the person who said it. But if a deaf person signed 'These numbers are fucked up' in a business environment, it wouldn't mean 'fucked up'; it would mean 'These numbers aren't adding up.'

"There's a sign where you start out like you're holding a book in front of you with your middle fingers up. Then your left hand goes out to the left, and your right hand simultaneously goes out to the right. In English, it would be like, 'Fuck all y'all.' It could be that the deaf person literally meant that, or they could have meant 'Leave me alone.' The hard part is if a hearing person sees that, and then they're like, 'Uh, no, they did not say, "Leave me alone."'

"I was interpreting for a woman who was deaf and a hearing woman. The deaf woman used the term 'heffa.' The hearing person said, 'I know that cracker did not just call me a heffa.' The deaf person signed, 'You're right. He didn't call you a heffa; I called you a heffa. He's my bitch. He just says what I tell him to say.'"

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