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A Glimpse into the World of Ukrainian Sign Language (USL) Featuring USL Interpreter Olga Bunaziv’s Performance at the Eurovision Final

According to a famous Chinese saying, “Better to be a dog in times of tranquility than a human in times of chaos”. That might be true, but living in the whirlpool of metamorphoses is our reality, and we have to adjust to it.

Language is a litmus paper that vividly reflects all the changes affecting our lives. Sign language is not an exclusion.

Did you know that the first sign language was introduced in France? (History of sign language – Wikipedia). At first, an Old French Sign Language was used to teach children in non-French-speaking countries. Sign language lessons were widely taught until the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf, held in Milan, Italy in 1880. The resolution signed there declared that oral education (oralism) was superior to manual education (sign language) and banned learning sign language in schools.

Only in the 20th century was sign language recognized as an ideal method for teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing people (History of Sign Language – Deaf History | Start ASL).

It is rapidly becoming more and more popular among those using spoken languages, as hearing people want to be able to communicate with their deaf/HoH family members, friends and colleagues.

One of the countries where sign language is currently in its heyday is Ukraine. Hello Interpreters spoke with Olga Bunaziv, a Ukrainian sign language interpreter, who worked at the Ukrainian Final for the Eurovision Song Contest 2024. She shared her thoughts on the future of Ukrainian Sign Language and the daily challenges deaf and hard-of-hearing (HoH) Ukrainians encounter.

Ukrainian Sign Language Interpreter Olga Bunaziv, 2024

Interviewer: Hello Olga! Thank you so much for finding time for our conversation today. First and foremost, my sincere congratulations on your triumphant sign language interpretation work on the Ukrainian Final for the Eurovision Song Contest [it took place on February 4th, 2024].

Could you please tell us more about the process leading to the Ukrainian Eurovision Final?

Olga: My colleague Kateryna Zabotkina was contacted by Suspilne TV [the national public broadcaster in Ukraine]. She reached out to me and invited me to work together with her at the event.

Interviewer: What were your impressions of the whole experience? Could you share with us some bright memories?

Olga: I enjoyed time spent with contestants, the jury and other famous people in the dressing room. There was one moment that made me realize how privileged I was to interpret at the Ukrainian Final for the Eurovision Song Contest. At one point, I wanted to come closer to the stage to hear the singers’ performances, but a security guard was about to stop me. Then he looked at my VIP badge and smiled, saying, “No questions asked, you are good to pass through here!”.

USL Interpreter Olga Bunaziv (middle) with Ukrainian finalists Jerry Heil (left) and alyona alyona (right), at Ukrainian Final, Eurovision Song Contest 2024

Interviewer: Did you imagine that your sign language interpreting skills would get so much praise and recognition among Ukrainians?

Olga: To be honest with you, I did not expect such a strong reaction. All I really wanted to achieve was to provide clear Ukrainian sign language interpretation for deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers. It was my intention and my number-one goal. Interpreting for the Eurovision contest was a challenge for me as a USL interpreter (Ukrainian Sign Language). It was a nerve-wracking experience. I felt relieved when I got positive feedback from my instructor. She told me I looked confident and managed to convey emotions well. When I heard this, I told myself, “You did it! Well done!”.

Interviewer: What was the feedback of the deaf and HoH audience? Have they reached out to you afterwards?

Olga: My interpretation was received well. It was important for me to know that my signing was clear and relevant. Deaf people told me that there was still room for perfection, and I totally agree with them. Nevertheless, I was glad to know that the hard-of-hearing community understood the messages I conveyed as a sign language interpreter.

USL Interpreter Olga Bunaziv at the Ukrainian Final Eurovision Song Contest, 2024

Interviewer: Where do you study sign language interpreting? Are there many training courses where one can learn to become a sign language interpreter?

Olga: I am a student at the Kyiv Professional College of Applied Sciences. In 2023, they opened a new course called “Social Services. Ukrainian Sign Language Interpreter”. Since I love sign language and use it daily, I was thrilled and submitted my application right away! I have been studying here since September 2023. I will complete the course program in a year and earn a sign language interpreter diploma.

Interviewer: Excellent, Olga! You have mentioned using sign language every day. Could you specify where you use it the most often?

Olga: Primarily, I use it to communicate with my brother and sister and their spouses—my in-laws. They were born hard-of-hearing. We talk about our daily routines, discuss news, and so on.

Apart from using sign language in my family circle, I have a blog on Instagram where I record videos with actors and singers. Together, we sign songs for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. They liked my initiative. They share our song videos with their friends and thank me for filming them. My idea brings positive outcomes. I help the deaf community learn modern songs. I enjoy signing music. Why not keep on doing it, right? [Watch Olga’s videos of songs interpreted into Ukrainian Sign Language on her YouTube channel here https://www.youtube.com/@olga_bunaziv].

Growing up, I oftentimes witnessed misunderstandings between my hard-of-hearing brother and sister and our parents. I served as a bridge between my siblings and the “hearing world”.

Interviewer: Absolutely! It is a fantastic idea. As you mentioned earlier, you have hard-of-hearing family members. In that case, you must be well aware of the hurdles and hardships they encounter on a daily basis. What can you say about this aspect of your siblings’ lives?

Olga: There are five children in our family. I am a third child. My elder brother and sister are hard-of-hearing, born to hearing parents. After my birth, Inna and Andriy [Olga’s elder siblings] decided to teach me sign language so I could become their outlet to the world. Growing up, I oftentimes witnessed misunderstandings between my hard-of-hearing brother and sister and our parents. I served as a bridge between my siblings and the “hearing world”. My task was to help them overcome any communication barriers. I turned out to be a fast learner and later on accompanied my siblings to doctor appointments, interpreted movies for them, and went grocery shopping together. Basically, I was always at hand to help them communicate with hearing people.

Unfortunately, there are families of deaf people in which parents refuse to learn sign language to communicate with their children. It makes me very sad. When I hear such stories from my clients, I feel heartbroken. I am glad I know sign language, and I have an emotional connection with my siblings.

Interviewer: Olga, what would happen if they did not have you as their personal sign interpreter? Are there any specific support programs for deaf and hard-of-hearing people in Ukraine?

Olga: There is an organization called UTOH (the Ukrainian Society of the Deaf). Among other services, it provides sign language interpreting upon request. But sometimes the quality of their interpreting services does not measure up. For instance, my elder sister Inna was getting married a few years ago. She insisted on me not interpreting on her big day, so we called UTOH, and they sent over a sign language interpreter. I do not want to go into details, but let’s just say that I ended up providing interpretation at the wedding. There are organizations that are interested in opening programs and offering services for the deaf community, but they are in the early stages of development.

I strongly believe that it should never be a deaf patient’s headache; instead, a hospital must provide sign language interpreting. The same goes for any public service, like a restaurant or store, TV programs, movies, or theater.

Interviewer: I got it. What changes for the better would you like to see happening in regards to the deaf and hard-of-hearing people to make their lives easier and integrate them better into Ukrainian society?

Olga: I would like to see an onsite sign language interpreter in every healthcare facility, or at least a quick access to a remote interpreting service. I strongly believe that it should never be a deaf patient’s headache, instead a hospital must provide sign language interpreting. The same goes for any public services like a restaurant or a store, TV programs, movies and theater. It’s vital for a deaf or hard-of-hearing person to feel that they belong to the world. They should never feel excluded from society. These people are just like any others, the only difference is that they can not hear.

Interviewer: No doubts about the necessity of raising awareness and promoting inclusion. As an advocate for the rights of the deaf community, do you think that we need to promote active learning of the Ukrainian Sign Language?

Our videos ignite a spark of curiosity and motivation to learn the Ukrainian sign language. It makes my heart sing with happiness.

Olga: Yes, I believe so. I try doing it with the help of my videos. People watch them and think it is easy to sign. In reality, it’s a tough job on my part,  and especially on the part of a singer or an actor who films with me. Usually, we spend hours preparing for the video shoot. Nevertheless, all our efforts pay off. By doing these duet performances, I show that there are Deaf people among us, and they also want to feel that they belong to the world. I get extensive feedback from people who ask me how to communicate with their Deaf neighbors or hard-of-hearing clients. Our videos ignite a spark of curiosity and motivation to learn Ukrainian sign language. It makes my heart sing with happiness. On my Instagram page, I use both languages—the spoken and the sign. Basically, I am speaking and signing at the same time. This way, everyone understands me, no matter which language they use. It also serves as an additional opportunity for people to learn signs. Please always remember that the deaf and hard-of-hearing people want to stay within the context of the events happening around. They deserve respect and equal treatment by everyone.

Interviewer: What message would you like to send to the world about the sign language that everyone should know?

Olga: I would like people to understand that sign language interpreting is not only about signs; it involves emotions, articulation, and body movements. I am inspired by the increasing interest in learning sign language. There is a huge demand for sign language interpreters, as we are needed in all areas of the deaf communities’ lives.

Sign language is rapidly evolving due to the war in Ukraine. More and more deaf and hard-of-hearing people have started using new signs to describe the new notions Ukrainians come across these days. An Expert Committee on Ukrainian Sign Language Development has been formed. Its main focus is on giving a second life to historical signs, adopting new orthography and introducing international signs like the word “thanks”. Every deaf and HoH Ukrainian knows signs for such notions as “air alert”, “bomb shelter”, “explosions”, “kamikaze drone”, “cluster munitions”, “artillery”, etc.

Advocating for the deaf community is vital for creating the inclusive environment we all want to live in.

Let’s make a difference in the world together! As Maya Angelou once said: “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands. You need to be able to throw something back”.

References

  1. History of sign language. (2024, March 7). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_sign_language
  2. Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf. (2024, April 26). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_International_Congress_on_Education_of_the_Deaf
  3. Jay, M. (2021, February 15). History of Sign Language – Deaf History. StartASL.com. https://www.startasl.com/history-of-sign-language/
  4. Ukrainian Sign Language. (2024, March 3). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukrainian_Sign_Language
  5. Schulte-Wieschen, C. (2024, February 4). Ukraine: alyona alyona and Jerry Heil to Eurovision 2024 with “Teresea and Maria”. Eurovisionworld.com. https://eurovisionworld.com/esc/ukraine-alyona-alyona-jerry-heil-wins-vidbir-to-eurovision-2024-with-teresa-maria
  6. Suspilne. (2024, April 2). In Wikipedia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspilne
  7. Bunaziv, O. [@olga_bunaziv]. (n.d.) Instagram. Retrieved March 6, 2024. https://www.instagram.com/olga_bunaziv
  8. Bunaziv, O. [Ольга Буназів] (n.d.) Youtube. Retrieved March 6, 2024. https://www.youtube.com/@olga_bunaziv
  9. Ukrainian Society of the Deaf. (2023, August 27). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukrainian_Society_of_the_Deaf