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Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart

Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf HeartA recurrent phrase that has been appearing in frequent discussions is “Deaf heart.”  Our national interpreter organization, RID, has long been characterized as needing a Deaf heart.  Recently, changes have been made to move RID to a more Deaf-centered perspective on the field of interpretation. The most recent evidence of this is the addition of Shane Feldman, who is Deaf, as the new Executive Director.  Although institutional shifts are possible with changes in policies and practices, there is much misunderstanding of the concept as it applies to practicing interpreters.

Early Discovery

In the 1990’s there were many efforts to address this concern.  New England states held a series of Ally Conferences that focused on the Deaf view of interpreters and their behaviors.  This resulted in many discussions and workshops to clarify the meaning of an interpreter-as-ally. There was–and still is—debate about the fine line between ethical practices and ally responses.  Today, it is considered acceptable and even desirable to provide information to hearing and Deaf consumers regarding accommodations, cultural differences, and resources. The emergence of Deaf Interpreters in our profession has contributed  to the dissemination of information about accessibility and Deaf people, and has helped to educate the Deaf Community about their own power.

Deaf Activists & Social Dynamics

In the 21st century we looked to models from minority groups that view societal privilege and oppression to explain and understand the relationship between interpreters and the Deaf Community. Deaf activists are helping the community of interpreters and Deaf people to understand the social dynamics that create marginalization, audism, and racial/ethnic prejudices.

These robust and healthy discussions about privilege are paving the way for a change in the way we think about minority communities and cultures that goes beyond the medical and pathological view of Deaf people.

Internalization of Deaf Heart

But what about ‘Deaf heart’?  In my travels and conversations with many interpreters, codas, and members of the Deaf Community it has become clearer that we still are not adequately capturing the qualities and behaviors of Deaf-heart interpreters. It is not about laws, services, ethics (at least from majority/privilege perspective), or training.  It is something that can’t be taught. It is difficult to explain, yet palpably absent.

The internalization of a Deaf heart must come from the interpreter’s own sense of justice and morality.  

A number of contributors to StreetLeverage have expressed this quality in different ways.

Dennis Cokely, in his article, Sign Language Interpreters: Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain?, provides a historical context that demonstrates the shift from earlier times when having ‘Deaf heart’ was intrinsic for interpreters to the indicators that this has significantly diminished. He explains:

How do we justify learning their language and profiting from it without giving back? In becoming a “profession” have we simply become parasites?”


What are we willing to do as individuals to become reconnected with Deaf people? Are we willing to adjust our work choices to accommodate the rhythm of Deaf people’s lives?”

Trudy Suggs illustrates this clearly in, A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting

This type of knowledge (schools for the deaf) is an important element of Deaf culture for many people. Not recognizing its importance, or dismissing it when someone shares this information speaks volumes to cultural (il) literacy.

A participant from that group suddenly said with an incredulous look, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset that video interpreters don’t know city names? That’s really ridiculous. It’s such a small thing.” I was momentarily caught off-guard by her flippant response. I quickly clarified that I wasn’t upset, saying, “Quite the contrary. It’s just one of those things that Deaf people have to live with. It does become cumbersome if you have to make several calls a day and each video interpreter you encounter doesn’t know a city sign or town where a deaf school is.”

In Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility, Anna Witter-Merithew asks us to examine the human side of the interpreter.

Do we think of ourselves as bystanders—present from a distance, and therefore, not involved?  Have we internalized the neutrality we are to bring to our task as non-involvement and disinterest [versus objectivity and emotional maturity]?  

What do we believe about ourselves, our work and our contribution to the good of the Deaf society? As we explore the answer to this and other hard questions, we must consider the implications of our history of behaving as if invisible and its potential contribution to the diffusion of responsibility.”

Overcoming Inertia

Part of having a Deaf heart is caring enough about the well being of Deaf people and their communities to put them above ego, pride, and unwillingness to fight for what is right.  For example, I have interpreted in Juvenile Court many times and have come across several instances when parents/guardians should have the services of Deaf interpreters.  It is obvious at the first meeting that the consumers have limited education, cognitive deficits, idiosyncratic language, or some combination of these. I inform their attorneys of this and find out that this case has been ongoing (sometimes up to three years) and the attorneys had no idea about this. Often these lawyers and social service personnel indicate that they “felt that something was not right” about their interactions with clients.  Numerous interpreters have been working on these cases. They are deemed qualified to work in court; they are certified; all have had some degree of legal training. Why didn’t they recognize this? Intervene? Advocate for Deaf Interpreters?

Absence of Context

Betty Colonomos - Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart
Betty Colonomos

My professional experiences are replete with markers of the lack of  “Deaf heart.” I have heard English interpretations of texts where Deaf people are proudly sharing their generational Deafness (e.g. fifth generation Deaf) conveyed as a matter-of-fact piece of information about having deaf children in each generation.  The critical meaning of Deaf “royalty” is absent, leaving the possibility that the non-deaf audience might see this as a genetic flaw or “problem.”

In workshops I see many interpreters–student and experienced alike—who do not recognize ASL discourse that is representing a community’s point of view. For example, Deaf people often convey narrative that on the surface seems to be about them (an “I” Deaf text) when in fact the message is about the “We” Deaf story. The consequence is that the Deaf person appears to be discussing an isolated event, when the issue is really about a community with shared experiences. Which do you think has a greater impact on the audience?  Being around Deaf people often allows interpreters to know how to distinguish “I” from “We” Deaf texts.

Interpreters who have no interactions with Deaf people outside of work miss much of the collective history and current burning issues that show up in interpreted interactions and collegial discussions. How can interpreters who hide behind their interpretation of the Code of Professional Conduct–instead of taking responsibility to intervene–employ strategies that are culturally appropriate to solve problems?

Accountability is the Beginning

Interpreters who demonstrate the qualities of Deaf heart are those who reflect on how their choices and decisions affect the Deaf Community; they question their practices that seem to be oppressive or damaging to the lives of Deaf people; they own their mistakes and share them with others. Most importantly, they seek input and advice from Deaf people and are not afraid to be uncomfortable with Deaf people’s responses and viewpoint.

A number of authors on Street Leverage have also shared what it is to have a Deaf heart. In Aaron Brace’s piece, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter, he digs deep and exposes some of the demons we face.

“…my customers are not well served by a quasi-messianic philosophy that valorizes my role far above theirs. It’s also simply inaccurate; customers often communicate effectively despite my excellent service rather than because of it.”

 “I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand my duality as both ally and enemy in the lives of Deaf people without some measure of guilt. Like many members of privileged groups, I hope to learn the right way to behave toward an oppressed group—once— and never again have to feel unsure of myself or guilty about my privilege. 

When I demonstrate a fuller understanding of both what I give and what I take, it is returned by Deaf people, not with a sneering pleasure at my knowing my place, but with greater trust, friendship, and welcome.”

Gina Oliva, in her challenge to us in, Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged, boldly brings forth the role played by sign language interpreters in mainstream education and the significant impact this has on future generations of Deaf people. We have remained silent for too long about our part in harming deaf children and their potential for successful lives. We have allowed interpreters to present themselves as adequate language models and carriers of negative views of Deaf people. We have done little to admit to this injustice and have put our needs for employment above the lives of innocent children.

There are things we can do to correct this major injustice in our field. Anna Witter-Merithew in, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice, emphasizes the need for us to look inside and seek guidance from our consumers:

“ It is important to find opportunities to talk with Deaf consumers about our work as sign language interpreters and to ask them to help us consider the implications of role implementation for their experiences.”

And in Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter by Trudy Suggs, we see a Deaf view on how we can move forward.

“…remember that if a deaf person expresses frustration at disempowerment, it doesn’t necessarily mean she or he is angry, divisive or separatist. Rather, take a look at the situation, and figure out how, if at all, you or other interpreters might have contributed to the situation. “

Important Enough to Act?

The only question that remains is whether or not the practitioners in our field care enough about this to want to do something about it.  Do we need to bring these discussions to the forefront of our public professional discourse?  Should we insist that our programs for training interpreters address this issue and involve Deaf people much more in educating future interpreters?  When will we uphold the integrity of our profession by supporting novices and by renouncing those who cast a pall over us?

When will we appreciate the valuable insights of codas to help us nurture the Deaf heart in us? Why do we vigorously debate whether a permanent seat on RID’s Board for an IDP (interpreter with Deaf Parents) is necessary when we know how much it will enhance the Deaf heart perspective in the organization?   When will we acknowledge that Deaf Studies courses and programs are helpful in understanding, but they do not replace the need for feeling the stories?

We have a wonderful opportunity before us. Deaf people and codas are more aware of their own Deaf hearts and they are willing to talk about it and to help others recognize their own unconscious anti-Deaf heart actions. Why aren’t we eagerly seeking their input and guidance?  Why aren’t we thankful for how they enrich us?

It is hard to walk in another’s shoes, but our work depends on the ability to see the world through the lenses of our consumers and clients. Without this, how can we become the noble profession we envision?

There is always room for a Deaf Heart…you are invited.


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Questions for Shane Feldman, New Executive Director of RID

Brandon Arthur interviews the newly appointed Executive Director of Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), Shane Feldman. It takes a special blend of skills to effectively run a large organization with a diversity of needs like RID. Shane shares how RID is working to restore confidence in the NIC test and how as the new Executive Director he will work to maintain the historical values of the field while preparing RID for the future. He also provided insight on his vision for the Government Affairs Program and what members can expect regarding communication with the national office.


“The other thing that has impressed me is our ancestry of volunteers and staff who have built a strong organization with core programs that include, certification, ethical practices system, continuing education, and advocacy.”

“…it seems there is a perception that RID isn’t attending to the members and isn’t interested. That is simply not true. We are listening and want the best for the membership.”

“Over many years, we have built a strong certification program that is reliable and valid. You asked how we restore confidence in this program? In my view the larger issue is that more people need to understand what is occurring within the certification program…”

“In the past, it was Codas and Deaf Community members that were the ones who develop practices within in the field. Is that still occurring today? If not, what are we doing to ensure we are focused on the relationship and partnership interpreters have with the Deaf Community and how to strengthen that?”

“Interpreters are important to me and to my connection to the world. We need to ensure the profession is valued.”

“Licensure will recognize interpreters as professionals. I will be sitting down with the new Director of Public Policy and Advocacy to discuss how to ensure that interpreters continue to be recognized as professionals.”

“I would ask that group back in 1964, do you believe that RID’s purpose is solely to serve the Deaf or to facilitate language between the Deaf world and the Hearing world? It would be my hope that this would help them make a determination to adjust the name to be more reflective of the organization.”

Shane Feldman - RID Executive Director
Shane Feldman

Shane H. Feldman, M.A., CAE

Shane Feldman serves as Executive Director of RID. Previously, he worked as COO of the NAD. Feldman has a distinguished history of civic advocacy for accessibility rights especially those related to closed-captioning, although he serves the community in several other areas including his work with VRS and the FCC, the Maryland Office of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and Maryland School for the Deaf.



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Lynnette Taylor | Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field

Modern Questor for Sign Language Interpreters

Lynnette presented, Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field, at StreetLeverage – Live. Her talk examined how the shift from a Deaf/centric to a market/centric locus of power has left both the Deaf community and sign language interpreters feeling powerless.

The Modern Questor

The modern questor now takes up the search, His quest the same; his methods only changed. He studies records; carefully he weighs Each point, for light upon his inquiry: Whence came his people? Whither are they going? What struggles have they known? What victories? Out of his notes he weaves an epic story.
– Ella Cara Deloria

In Ben Zeitlin’s, Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film about Hurricane Katrina, the pint sized sage Hushpuppy, declares, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.

Lately, in our universe, there has been a lot of discussion about the ‘busted piece’ of interpreter referral agencies. Economic, ideological and political storms have washed away most of the Deaf centric service agencies, those that traditionally provided interpreter referral services to the local community. Interpreting services have relocated to market centric agencies that often have no connection to their local communities, their service providers or even the services they provide.

The shift from local agencies that were responsive to the community’s needs to market centric agencies that have no historical understanding of the struggle for linguistic rights, has had a dire effect on the well being of our communities, one that has led to the loss of our individual and collective agency. Not only has this ‘busted piece’ led to the unraveling of comprehensive services and community ties it has also led to the unraveling of our collective political narrative. Like a strand pulled from the weave, we find ourselves vulnerable as stray threads thrown to the wind.

As we think about how to fix this “broken piece,” whether through certification of agenciesexploring an interpreter’s duality, or their inner warning system we should revisit the role these Deafcentric agencies, and by extension interpreters, played in our local communities to help us identify what to import for our future.


RID was entering puberty when I came of age as an interpreter. At that time interpreting services were housed in Deaf service agencies and it was there, that stories like dewdrops at dawn, collected on leaves. In Native Speakers, Linda Tuhiwai Smith explains, “ The story and the storyteller both serve to connect the past with the future, one generation with another, the land with the people and the people with the story…storytelling is a way of representing the “diversities of truth”… (133) These agencies served as the ‘land’ where people and story, past and future generations met to write their epic tale, of which we were a vital part.

They were also a way for agencies to monitor the health and well being of our community. Interpreters were an integral part of story collecting, becoming in Deloria’s words, ‘modern questors’. As we went on assignments, we brought back not only reports, but questions and concerns. If we saw a family in need, we knew there was help. If we faced obstacles or discrimination we had advocates or legal services to help, if an elderly person was getting evicted, we could guide them to assistance. Because it was intra-agency communication confidentiality was kept intact. We didn’t shoulder the burden alone and didn’t have to choose between being a disengaged witness or a zealous savior, because we functioned within an engaged community where there was support.

Whence Came Our PeopleTrail Marker for Sign Language Interpreters

Ella Cara Deloria, in a letter to John D. Rockefeller Jr.  wrote, “I represent a middle era in the development of my tribe… I lived in the days when it was a really Indian background, I stand on middle ground, and know both sides…no matter how far a younger student should go, he could not know both sides, because that other, the Indian side is gone.” (41)

It is from this “middle era” I will talk about the place of agencies in our narrative. As a coda I grew up steeped in the traditions of a collective Deaf culture, when stories told in the ‘I’ often signified the ‘We’ of collective culture.  These stories birthed around any gathering place, the kitchen table, Deaf clubs, Deaf schools, under lamp posts in the parking lot and they coalesced in those Deafcentric service agencies.

Story swapping was a means of connectivity to our collectivity; each singular episode weaving part of an epic tale, tracing the footsteps of our people and animating the path of our future. If stories of struggle were a recurring theme they became a call for action. If stories of victories were shared, they passed on strategies for success to others. Discord was also part of the narrative for there wasn’t always agreement on interventions or strategies. But in spite of disagreements these gatherings offered a place of comfort, a place where the I, reflected in the WE, was a reassurance that “I” am not alone.  In the world of minority language users, this is very important.

In turn, these stories provided a snapshot of our community life, giving the agency a way to monitor the wellbeing of our community. From stories collected they could decide where to administer medicines and when they saw that aggressive action was needed to heal, call the warriors together.

Interpreter services were a lucrative part of an array of support services that were vital to the well being of both the Deaf and interpreting community. Revenue from the Interpreting Department helped offset deficits in other high cost/ low revenue service programs such as mental health services, advocacy, housing etc. this in turn enabled agencies to employ people from the local Deaf community. Staff interpreters were a resource not only to the agency, but also to the community covering those occasional unpaid interpreting needs such as funerals, last minute hospital requests, and even political demonstrations.

The Price of a TTY Call

The road to here began because I had to make a TTY call to my mother.

The year was 1976. I had just left home, Danville Kentucky, to go to college in San Francisco. To say I was ‘green’ would be an understatement. When I got off the plane at midnight,(with everything I owned: one green suitcase and $100 dollars in my pocket,) I thought I would walk right out the door and into my college classroom.

I needed to let my mother know I had arrived. After a few days, I finally found a Deaf Services Agency, for the use of their TTY I had to give them my phone number. Giving them my phone number was the act that changed my life. In April of 1977, I got a call asking if I could come down to the Health Education and Welfare building to interpret for the 504 demonstration.

They needed volunteers and explained if the demonstration was successful, we would make history by putting  legislation in place that granted civil rights for all disabled people. How could I say no?

I remembered all the times my mother didn’t have access because there were no interpreters. I thought about the many experiences we could have shared but weren’t able to: the theatre, parent teacher night, the movies, the doctor, television, art classes (I wouldn’t have to interpret). That one day turned into 26 days as we occupied the Health Education and Welfare building in San Francisco, in what became known as the 504 sit in. NPR reported, “for people with disabilities, it’s a moment as important as Selma or Stonewall.

The success of the sit in, and the rights we won, could not have happened without the involvement and support of local agencies. The leaders in the Deaf community had a national network from which they could organize, strategize, network and muster support from local community members.

Interpreting was a 24/7 activity, with bomb threats, arrest threats and strategy meetings lasting ‘til the wee hours of the morning. Agencies helped by providing us with staff and free- lance interpreters during the day, and organized visits from the local Deaf doctor for our care.

Strangers in a Strange Land

It was because of agency involvement that I met my first “professional” interpreter, (At the time I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to become one). At first meeting we were ‘strangers in a strange land’ and definitely did not ‘grok’ each other, me with feathers in my hair, a pierced nose, bracelets up my arm and in overalls, he in a smock, from Boston, with a college degree. Our hesitations melted the minute we started working together. It was from him that I began to learn how to navigate strategies of discourse that I had not grown up with, and in turn helped him navigate the discourse of Deaf elders, both of us helping each other recognize nuances and subtleties that take years to identify.

We were all foreigners in this ‘interpreting space’ and together we were learning how to cross the distances of language and culture to understand each other.

The agency helped us navigate these new waters by teaming newer interpreters with more seasoned ones, using discernment to match interpreter to assignment. The Deaf community had power to choose their representation, if they were not happy with an interpreter the agency knew it. And the interpreter had a community of ‘critical friends’ to help refine their skills. The interpreter had revenue, had support, had relationships within a community and had someone to turn to when help was needed in the field. And so did the Deaf community.

It Takes Many Voices to Make Change

Lynnette Taylor
Lynnette Taylor

As we observed how the community came together to respond to issues of conflict, oppression or discrimination we learned our respective places in the matrix of the community and came to understand it takes many voices to make change.  The agency responded to the community’s needs by addressing social injustice, celebrating victories, strengthening bonds with the greater community and by providing economic well being to the local community, all of these building long lasting relationships

There existed a synergistic and dynamic relationship between the interpreters, the agency and the community in which we all took part in monitoring and maintaining the health and well being of our community.

Diversities of Truth/Telephone Wednesdays

Community stories flourished in the local agencies, especially on ‘telephone Wednesdays’ when Deaf people would line up to make interpreted phone calls. As we cradled ringing telephones, we engaged in conversations, forged new relationships, negotiated interpreting, and for many, deaf, coda and particularly those who had arrived on these shores of our community through routes other than family, this provided a natural entrée, an organic way to enter the community.

Having a site to gather gave interpreters a place to try on different ‘roles’ as interpreters. We were becoming adept shape-shifters as we explored what Robert Lee and Peter Llewellyn Jones, describe as the interpreter’s ‘role space’. (If we were to diagram it, it would look like a morphing Kandinsky painting.) We found we often needed to alter our ‘role’ to fit the situation, sometimes taking in the seams, sometimes letting them out, and sometimes donning a whole new costume.

The role of the interpreter was shaping itself in response to the changing needs of the community. All of us, interpreters, D/deaf people, and even non signers, were engaging in conversations about how to work together, sharing world views, problem solving ethical conflicts, and it was through these conversations and interactions that we began to learn our place in the story.

But perhaps more important, these interpreted interactions and witnessing of stories helped us understand the complexities of our community. Families that don’t communicate with each other, the struggle for access, the lively humor of survival tales, the outsider view of majority culture, the scars of racism, audism and other isms, that people experience when one is, as Andrew Solomon describes, “far from the tree” in both family and mainstream society.

All the different faces of class, privilege and power made its imprint on the daily stories reminding us of the “diversities of truth.” These agencies were the ‘land’ where people and story, past and future generations met to write their epic tale, of which we were a part. What happens to these ‘diversities of truth’ as we lose our land? When the ‘I’ separates from the ‘We,’ we become vulnerable as stray threads thrown to the wind. Rather than being creators of our story, the danger is we will become the story that others inscribe on us.

Fixing What We Can…

“When the director Ben Zeitlin asked the then, six year old actress, Quvenzhane Wallis, ‘ If all these things were your fault… what would you do? The wizened sage answered, “I would just try to fix it.  I would do whatever I can to fix what I broke.”

These are a few of the many who are fixing things.

StreetLeverage, our ‘modern questor’ is gathering our stories. From them we can monitor the wellbeing of our community and find ways to take action.

National Interpreter Digest Group, NIDG ( is an online discussion group started by Stephanie Feyne in an effort to initiate  thoughtful discussions about pertinent issues in the field of interpreting.

Washington RID and Northern California RID have been actively addressing the problem of outsourcing of sign language interpreters.

WRID successfully removed sign language interpreters from some of the state contracts awarded to language services and are now working with state agencies to ensure credible interpreting agencies get awarded the contracts.

NORCRID held a community forum to discuss the implications of interpreter referrals being outsourced to language service agencies. Recently held a follow up  forum which included the  language service agencies as participants in a panel. Starting dialogues with the community and service providers.

Over the past two years, PCRID, Hawaii RID has hosted community forums inviting our communities to reflect on the trends in the field and its impact on our relationships.

These are just a few of the ways our community is trying to “fix what we can”.

What are your thoughts?


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Cotera, M. (2008) Native Speakers and the Poetics of Culture Austin: University of Texas Press Smith,L. (2006) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples

Llewellyn-Jones P/ and Lee R.G. (in prep) Interpreting in Three Dimensions: Defining the Role Space of Community Interpreters