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I Can See The Music: Sign Language Experts Help Deaf Fans Enjoy Concerts
March 5, 2013
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Photo: Barbie Parker

Just because someone is deaf or hard of hearing, there's no reason they shouldn't rock out at a concert.

That's what LotuSIGN is all about. The company provides sign language interpreters for concerts and festivals.

But the interpreters don't just translate the lyrics of the songs. Barbie Parker, the founder of LotuSIGN, "communicates the entire musical experience," according to the New York Times. "She mouths the words. She plays air guitar and air drums. She jams along with the band."

Parker got interested in sign language 20 years ago. She worked as an accountant, but wasn't enjoying her job.

After reading a book about signing, she decided to enroll in courses. And since then, she has become a big part of the deaf community in Austin, Texas where she lives.

The first time she was recognized for her musical interpreting was at the funeral of a prominent member of Austin's deaf community. She had to communicate a very emotional musical performance during the service, and her impassioned signing inspired the singer, and vice versa.

"The singer got inspired, so the interpreting had to get inspired," she told the Times. "The deaf audience was just - I just saw these jaws drop open like, 'Oh, that's what it's like.'"

In 2007, after requests to interpret at weddings, recitals and live shows, Parker decided to start her own company (called Alive Performance Interpreting at first, and LotuSIGN since 2009).

This month, Parker and her team are going on stage with artists at South by Southwest for the sixth time. They have also signed and performed at Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits Festival.

"Music is such a large part of who I am," she said. "I want to be able to open up that experience."

But part of communicating the experience of music means letting the audience know when someone's not exactly nailing it. That's what happened when cyclist Lance Armstrong sat in on the drums during a Sheryl Crow performance.

"Well," Parker said, "he wasn't any good."

So how do you let the deaf and hard of hearing people in the crowd know that things aren't going quite right on stage?

Parker imitated Armstrong's off-time drumming, and made faces indicating her discomfort, while letting the audience know that she was doing so on purpose.

And how's this for a great moment: while she was signing, Parker noticed a deaf audience member elbow the hearing man beside him and make a face to indicate that the performance was poor.

"They had this shared experience," Parker said. Although he couldn't hear the music, the deaf audience member could certainly feel it.


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