Signs point way to barrier-free book festival

Shanghai Book Fair this year introduced the sign language interpretation into its sinological lectures for the first time.

Tang Wenyan, a sign language interpreter, arrived at the Shanghai Book Fair at 9am yesterday, half an hour before a sinology lecture was due to begin. Tang likes to prime her hearing-impaired audience before the show to make her signing more accessible to them.

It is the first time the annual book fair has used signing in its lectures, which has brought many new visitors to the event.

The signing comes as part of a lecture series called “Seven Days, Seven Classes.” Every day during the 90-minute lecture, Tang, 34, or her colleague, 24-year-old Cheng Ying, interpret Chinese history, literary classics, poetry and philosophy lectures given by elite scholars. They have both spent weeks preparing themselves.

Tang has many friends with hearing difficulties and learned from them that with no sign language interpretation, they had given up attending the fair.

“Shanghai Book Fair has been running for 15 years and has a great influence,” said Tang. 

“There are bound to be many visitors with hearing problems.” 

Yesterday was the last day of the fair and in the last lecture, using facial expression and hand gestures, Tang helped historian Fan Shuzhi of Fudan University explain statesman Zhang Juzheng’s reforms during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). 

“In sign language, any tiny change in facial expression, gesture or body movements means something,” Tang told Shanghai Daily. 

The signs also vary with dialect or the age of the audience. For example, when interpreting the names of Confucius and Laozi, young people prefer a “pinyin” method with gestures for the first letter of their names, while older people prefer more classical imagery.

Wu Desheng and his wife, both suffer hearing problems. Via signing, Wu said that although he likes reading books at home, it was the first time they had visited the fair and attended a lecture. They both hoped for more sign language interpretation at the next fair.

Gu Yixin, 77 and retired, said he would always visit the book fair if there were more interpreters. 

At least 10 hearing-impaired people attended the lectures each day, taking seats in the front rows to ensure they could see the interpreter clearly.

“Everybody should have the same chance to participate in these events,” Tang said. 

Much of the feedback Tang received after the lectures was from people saying the had understood and learned a lot. Most hoped that they would be able to attend more reading events with sign language interpretation.

“It’s not just my own hope, but all sign language interpreters’ and disabled groups’ hope, that more public events like this can be barrier-free,” Tang told Shanghai Daily. 

Besides sign language interpretation, she hopes all facilities and services will be friendlier to not only hearing-impaired people, but also the blind, those with physical disabilities and other difficulties.

Cheng Ying added that since the educational level of many people with hearing difficulties is lower than the norm, such educational activities are especially important to them and the value of these events for them could not be over-emphasized.

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