Sign language lawyer works single-handedly to represent the deaf

World Today

He is probably the only one of his kind in China, but that has not deterred his efforts. Tang Shuai is a sign-language lawyer and he has made it his mission to represent China’s deaf defendants.

CGTN’s Tao Yuan has his story.

As a sign language lawyer, Tang Shuai always knew there’s a huge under-served community in China in need of legal help. But it was after his local district government made a documentary film about him, which circulated outside his hometown, that he discovered the real scale of the problem.

Tang’s phone was flooded with friend requests. “It just buzzed non-stop I thought it was going to explode,” he said.

Eventually, he had to ask Chinese social messaging app WeChat to boost his contact limit from 5,000 to 10,000.

Thousands of deaf people got in touch with him about their legal troubles. “One client even asked me where he could get a divorce,” he said. “It’s strikingly sad how little legal awareness these people have.”

Tang’s fame on Chinese social media highlights a pitfall in the sign language system.

There are two types of sign language in China. The standardized sign language is taught in schools and used by most court interpreters. But day-to-day, most deaf people use the natural sign language.

Tang understands both and knows just how different they are.

“They are like two different languages,” Tang said, explaining that many court interpreters cannot effectively communicate with a deaf litigant. “When people’s freedom and lives are at stake, there’s no room for any guesswork or misinterpretation,” he said.

Tang was born to deaf parents in southwest China’s Chongqing. When they realized their baby was healthy, “a big fat little boy,” as Tang put it, they sent Tang to be raised by his grandparents.

“They never taught me sign language and didn’t allow me to hang out with deaf people,” recalled Tang. “They felt inferior, that deaf people were the lowest of the low, and didn’t want me to have anything to do with that world.”

But Tang mastered sign language – by secretly learning from any deaf person he could find, even strangers at Chongqing’s crowded Chaotianmen tourist spot.

Now, he says he understands his parents’ decision because much of how they felt then is still the norm for deaf people today.

“The whole country is promoting the rule of law. But the deaf community is still a dark corner where the sun doesn’t shine,” Tang said.

Tang feels more pressure than pride. “I’m one person for 20 million deaf people in China,” he said. “I’m a drop in a bucket.”

He has hired five deaf university graduates who want to start a career in law. In September, they will be the first among China’s deaf population to take the National Judicial Examination.

“We’ll be the first deaf lawyers and will be able to help other deaf people,” said one of them.

Jeffrey Levi Palmer and Na Zhuo on the global deaf community

CGTN’s Mike Walter spoke with Jeffrey Levi Palmer, an educational researcher and sign language scholar and Na Zhuo, a recent graduate of the Gallaudet University about the deaf community in China and internationally.