Comedian defends sign language prank on Taoiseach

Cork comedian Ross Browne has insisted the prank was aimed solely at the Taoiseach adding that he never meant to insult the deaf community

A comedian who mocked the Taoiseach by pretending to be a sign language interpreter at an event in Cork has insisted he never intended to offend the deaf community.

Enda Kenny was speaking at a forum on Brexit in Cork when comedian Ross Browne provided the audience with his own sign language interpretation of what the Taoiseach was saying.

Browne who made his name on RTÉ’s The Republic of Telly continued the act for over a minute before being he was rumbled and asked to leave.

A video of the Cork man’s act has been uploaded to Facebook, where it has been the subject of much debate over the past two days:

The video has been viewed more than 274,000 times on the social network – however not everyone found the incident funny, with the Council of Irish Sign Language Interpreters (CISLI) and Irish Deaf Society (IDS) voicing concern over the decision to make light of sign language.

In a statement this morning the CISLI said the comedic side of the stunt “does not remove the offence felt by both professional interpreters and deaf people.”

“Regardless of the intention of the stunt, the message was delivered by poking fun at sign language,” reads the statement. “Presumably, in his comedy act, Ross Browne would not perform stereotypical accents of ethnic minorities. One wonders as to why the same form of ridicule is propagated against Deaf people – regardless of intent.”

“The blatant impersonation of a working interpreter in this case also mocks the emerging profession of sign language interpreting - and possibly casts doubt on our status as professional, impartial language experts.”

Targeting the Taoiseach

In reply to the statement on Facebook, Browne insisted the only target of the stunt was the Taoiseach adding that it was never his intent to undermine Irish sign language.

Speaking to Newstalk this evening, he said he has made it his business to reply to everybody who made contact with concerns over the video.

“There has been a lot of people that were offended by it which kind of makes me a bit sad because you never want to upset people with your comedy,” he said.

“I knew it was going to be construed in certain ways but that is the gamble that you take. All you can stand over is the fact that you know where the intent was or you know that there was nothing malicious in it.

“Although I agree with all the points that they are making, I can’t apologise for it – or I wouldn’t – because I know that it came from a genuine place rather than a malicious place.”

“All I can do is explain, rather than apologise.”

Barriers for the deaf community

Responding to the video today the Irish Deaf Society pointed out some of the main issues facing the deaf community.

The statement said the community has consistently been unable to gain media attention for the exclusion and discrimination faced by deaf people in Ireland.

“The barriers we face are not limited to accessing a public event,” it said in a statement.

It said a combination of factors - most significantly, the lack of recognition of deaf peoples’ right to use a sign language and legal supports for the language - have left the deaf community facing serious social barriers:

  • Irish deaf people are up to 10 times less likely to attend university.
  • 2-4 times more likely to be unemployed than our hearing peers.
  • 2-3 times more likely to suffer abuse (sexual, emotional, and physical) than our hearing peers
  • 2-4 times more likely to experience clinically significant emotional distress.

The society called on the government to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) - which also offers recognition of sign languages, and the rights of deaf people who use sign languages – adding “this lived in reality is no joke.”

Harnessing publicity

Browne said he now aims to ensure the publicity surrounding the incident can highlight the issues facing the sign language profession and the deaf community – and hopes to be able to have an interpreter at his next gig in Cork.

“A conversation has been started,” he said. “I’ll throw my weight behind them in any way, shape or form that I can in highlighting the fact that they are actually having to fight to get recognition - which is something I was ignorant of.”

“I think a lot of people don’t realise that this is going on with the community.”

Another person he will not be apologising to is Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

“There was offence intended in Enda’s direction,” he said “I am always looking to take down the guys on top that are the ones that are standing over everyday Joe Soaps - the same way that a jester would to a king.”

Browne said he doesn’t agree with party politics, “in any way shape or form” and is non-politically aligned.

“I think these guys are scandalous so I would quite happily catch the leader of Sinn Féin or Fianna Fáil no problem, any day of the week.”

“I would always go for the people that need to be taken down a peg or two – Trump is on the radar. I might have a few laser dots on the head but I’m going for Trump.”