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Last updated: Fri. Jan. 24, 2014 - 12:31 pm EDT

Comedian uses sign language to highlight deaf issues

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If you go

What: Windell “Wink” Smith Jr.’s “S.E.E. Me Fail” comedy show

When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Cinema Center, 437 E. Berry St.

Admission: $10 general admission; includes interpreter for those who do not know American Sign Language; go to www.cinemacenter.org for tickets or call DeafLink at 441-0551 for more information

Windell Smith Jr., better known as Wink, is able to pull off a performance that most comedians may envy – he can entertain a crowd without uttering a word.

As a sign language interpreter and deaf-rights advocate, Wink uses his life as a child of deaf parents and his experiences in the deaf community to make his audiences laugh, and more importantly, think.

“When you’re talking about a hot issue, you are not going to change someone’s mind. There’s emotion tied to that argument, but, hopefully, I can at least make them laugh at it,” he says. “What I really care about are the people that don’t have one side or the other because it forces them to think about it.”

Looking to engage interpreters and the public, DeafLink, a program of the League for the Blind and Disabled, will host Wink’s “S.E.E. Me Fail” comedy show Saturday at Cinema Center.

Garth Sponseller, director of DeafLink, says Wink will host a workshop during the day and give a performance open to the public at night. For five years, Wink has traveled the country to host “winkshops” and performances of his one-man show.

“He is a unique individual, and he brings a different twist to what we are used to,” Sponseller says. “He is able to engage and bring something closer to home.”

Wink says he works with interpreters so that audiences who do not understand American Sign Language will able to follow along.

“I used to rely on whatever interpreter I could get to voice my show, but this last year I’ve been requiring interpreters that I have personally trained and worked with,” he says. “If we do word for word, everything is confused and the interpretation is up to the receiver, and that’s not what interpreters do. The interpreter I work with makes it to where the hearing people have access to it, and for the things we can’t explain because you need to know the culture, we give a warning.”

Wink says people in the deaf community give out sign names based on a person’s personality and mannerisms rather than relying only on finger spelling. He says he received the name Wink because he often winks when in conversation.

“It’s my back channel – it’s how I show someone that I’m following along,” he says.

Wink says he draws on current topics of concern for the deaf community including Cochlear implants, electronic devices designed to produce a hearing sensation. The surgical implant has stirred debate as some people feel use of the device implies that deafness is something to be fixed or that it is forcing oralism – the practice of teaching the deaf to communicate by speech and lip-reading, not sign language – on participants not able to choose, such as children.

He also talks about English Sign Language and the idea of signing exact English, which is different than American Sign Language. ASL was developed by the deaf community as a language that preserves and honors deaf culture.

Wink says his father always made him aware of unintentional or intentional acts that he and other hearing people would do that were insensitive to deaf people.

“Part of the culture is being explicit with the language. You don’t beat around the bush. With my dad growing up, he was always very direct in his view of the world,” he says. “With my dad explicitly pointing out that this is wrong and telling me how else I could have done it or how other people could have done it, was impactful to me.”

He says that four years ago, a friend asked him to speak at a national conference about his mother’s traumatic car crash when she was pregnant with him. Wink says his mother lost her memory and wasn’t able to sign or walk, which left his father to make some tough decisions about his unborn child.

“I was kind of creating it as a speech, and then they asked me to be the entertainment. I did a crash course on writing a drama and acting because I wanted to do the story justice,” he says. “I did one show, and apparently there were just enough people from other states who watched it and enjoyed it enough to bring me to their states.”

Wink says he did dramatic performances for a year before a friend suggested he should expand on the comedic relief in his drama and create a comedy show. By the end of 2010, Wink had prepared a comedic performance. He says his mother and father have seen him perform and support him.

“I feel like using either drama or comedy works effectively. My comedy is definitely informed by my beliefs and what I’ve learned from the deaf community. I like to figure out ways to have commentary on really critical issues in the deaf community, but I compose it in a way that’s not threatening,” he says.

Sponseller says it is important to bring in instructors who can influence local interpreters and educate businesses while serving the deaf community.

Sponseller says businesses often are uninformed of their obligations to provide reasonable accommodations for deaf people under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 or that providing those accommodations will give them tax incentives.

“We’ve really begun to approach more aggressively our constituent groups,” he says. “We look at it as a three-legged stool – it’s the deaf community, the interpreters we train and the businesses we serve.”

DeafLink provides interpreters to local organizations such as the Fort Wayne Youtheatre, Fort Wayne Children’s Choir, Turner Chapel AME and the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend for many programs.

Sponseller hopes this event will be one step in helping the deaf community and the hearing community reach a mutual understanding.

“Growing up with deaf parents, I’ve seen a sense of hopelessness,” Sponseller says. “After you hear ‘no’ after a while you quit asking. There’s a demand for it, but it’s more about businesses willing to provide access to these services.

“I want people to have a deeper understanding of the deaf community and see that in the end, we all play on the same field level.”

kcarr@jg.net


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