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Deafhood: Liberation, Healing, and the Sign Language Interpreter

Marvin Miller presented Deafhood: Liberation, Healing, and the Sign Language Interpreter at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. Marvin explored the Deafhood journey –the internal and external dialogue on what it means to be a healthy Deaf person today– and the role sign language interpreters have and can yet play in that journey.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Marvin’s presentation from StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Marvin’s presentation directly.]

Deafhood: Liberation, Healing, and the Sign Language Interpreter

I have spent a lot of time thinking about my presentation today. This morning’s lectures were astonishing and impactful. They were all fantastic. Those of you just joining via the live stream missed out, but you can view them later when they are posted. The presentations correspond nicely with topics addressed in the Deafhood curriculum –  they create a similar sense of discomfort, anxiety, loss of equilibrium, and conflicted feelings. We often label these issues systemic problems. We say the problem lies with “the system” as if it is one huge monolithic system. The system itself works at multiple levelsat the educational level, the interpreter training program level, the community level, and the world level, and these levels all interact with one another. More and more, weve seen discussion about identities, which has given rise to the term intersectionality. This is an important concept, because, as Amy Williamson said, for her its not a question of being either hearing or Deaf. She’s both in one. To choose would be impossible. Our community must grapple with the complexity of these multiple levels of identity. Left to wonder how I could neatly package for you the Deafhood course, training that is comprised of three separate sections, each lasting 20 hours, I had to pick carefully which aspects I could share with you all. I truly wish I could transfer the needed understanding a la “The Matrix.” (see video at 1:45)

It would be so nice if you could just be rapidly injected with the wisdom and knowledge necessary to navigate this world. How many of you dread the thought of going to the gym to work out, or having to practice a skill to become proficient? For those who are studying to become interpreters, entering the Deaf community and learning to sign, I wish we could just exchange our experiences, and in an instant, just like Neo, suddenly get it. Sorry, StreetLeverage, youd be out of business. I wish it could be done that way, but it cant. So, what do we do? We come to events like this. We learn from these talks; we discuss these ideas, and then the discussion grows and evolves. It enters the larger discourse and continues to morph and develop until it becomes our reality. [Bill Ashcroft, cited in Paddy Ladd’s book:] points out that people think discourses is all about discussing what reality is. No. Its the discussion and the germination of ideas that create and shape the reality. Take this hotel – the building, the grounds. Someone had an idea. They needed to create something in this space, came up with a design – an idea of what everything should look like from the grounds to the pond, to the floor plans. Take this conference. It began with an idea. With each step of the process, everything had to be considered: Where the conference would be held, in what kind of space, with what kind of draping behind the stage? It all starts as an idea. Every decision was analyzed and discussed until it became for us a reality. That very process is crucial.

I didnt come here to lecture you, or to explain how to accomplish this task, or to list all the things you should do. Im not an interpreter myself. Im not a CDI. I am Deaf, my parents are Deaf, and I have four Deaf children. Im engaged in the community, and I work with many interpreters. So, while I bring that set of experiences, I wont preach at you. What I would like to do is share something with you – my Deafhood journey.

My Deafhood Journey

This is my journey. As I share my personal journey, I want you to have some realizations of your own. Again, I wont tell you how to apply this knowledge or how to think about it. Have the discussions, do the analysis. As Sharon Neumann-Solow said this morning, it wont be comfortable. As you uncover some truths about yourself, youll be tempted to hide them, to deny them, to refocus on otherswork in this process. Dont. 

Ironically, my journey began while I was teaching the Deafhood course. Its true! People say, You already knew all about Deafhood before!, but thats what happened. I had been serving on the board of the Deafhood Foundation and had gone through the course training on the job when I became President of the Indiana Association of the Deaf, which has an ASL program that offers non-credit classes to the wider hearing community. The ASL program was great, but it dawned on me that while it was perfectly fine to provide courses to the larger hearing community, we weren’t providing those same opportunities and training to the Deaf community. Deaf people would derive an enormous benefit from the course. The potential for growth and development in the community was immense, but the course wasnt offered to Deaf people. I was stunned. It was time to establish a course on Deafhood for the Deaf community. We got the approvals, built the curriculum, gathered the materials, created the power points, pored over the readings, and began teaching the course. In the first class, the stories were incredible. Everyone from seniors to youth, from the grassroots to the college-educated, all shared their stories and had lively discussions about their experiences. Class after class has been like that ever since, and now, four years later, weve just completed our 26th and most recent training here in Boston. A few of you here took it. It was terrific.

That has been my journey to a greater understanding of Deafhood.We know of the oppression of Deaf people. We know the struggle, the colonization of language and culture, the history of bans, and on and on, but to engage in the deeper analysis is different. People often say, Well, Im a Deaf person, I sign and know Deaf culture, Im fine. Why do I need this course?When you take the course, its astonishing. Its truly an eye-opening experience. Once you learn some key pieces of information, youre able to reframe your entire understanding of our experience. Its extremely powerful.

Now, I want you to take a few seconds to look at the next slide. (7:12)


You see that we have two columns, one depicting hearing values, and the other depicting Deaf values. I want to make note of a couple of things. First, notice that the top value under the Deaf column is “visual”. As Deaf people, we cherish our vision. We treasure ASL, so vision is very important. Further down we see tactile. I would say that order should be reversed. The tactile is more important than the visual. We know this because the Deafblind community is still a part of the Deaf community. They still use ASL. They still embody Deaf culture even though they dont see. Were known to say that we cherish our vision, and vision for us is indeed important, but we must recognize that the culture and the language are still transmitted regardless of visual ability. The other thing I want you to notice is that one of the Deaf values is 3-D space while its hearing counterpart is linearity. Pat Graybill remarked that ASL can express two events simultaneously, using two hands. A spoken language cannot divide the tongue to achieve this. So, linearity belongs to the hearing world, and three-dimensionality belongs to the Deaf world. We each prize our respective values. Music is an important value of hearing people. I often see people grooving to music through earphones. You see it everywhere. Hearing culture holds music as a high value. Music is also an integral part of almost all movies, as I learned from a friend. Its even used in car chase scenes. I hadnt realized that music was used throughout the film in this way before.

So, we see these two different sets of values, yet each value is no better or worse than its counterpart. Theyre equally valued as important, and should be respected as such. Understanding the values of these two worlds gives us a rich opportunity to engage, share, learn, and even borrow from one another. When the power is shared equally across that exchange, it is wonderful. Do we in the Deaf community see an equal exchange of ideas and values across these two worlds today? Do those in education and other systems of power who make decisions about our language and culture regard us as equals? No. They do not. It looks something more like this slide. (9:51)

Unequal and Unhealthy

The Deafhood movement is the culmination of the work of Dr. Paddy Ladd, who spent over ten years studying and unpacking our experience until he arrived at a framework that helps us to more deeply understand the forces of oppression, forces which include audism, racismwhich has permeated our history, and linguicism. The thread that ties it all together is this concept of hegemony, the colonizing force that seizes power and control over our language and culture, demeans it, and compels us to adopt the language and culture of the dominant, powerful class until we internalize its false superiority. The vicious, intentional, and persistent practice of degrading a people and then replacing their culture and language with that of the powerful class continues today. The message is, Our way is better. Its a hearing world. Spoken language is better. English predominates. Work opportunities only exist in the hearing world.” Despite our protestations and pleas, despite our saying, We are capable. We can do it. Sign language is important,they just continue, “You can always learn ASL later. Its important that you practice speech now.This ideology is prevalent throughout society. Thats why I was so inspired yesterday by the students from The Learning Center, who were here sharing their poems and stories. It was spine-tingling. The children were expressing their experiences, showing us the depths of their hearts in beautiful ASL. I couldnt have done that in my day. Our teachers, some of whom I loved, were mostly hearing. They signed in English, and I internalized their colonialist message. But the children yesterday were expressing themselves in ASL. They have internalized a different message. Brenda Schertz has said we are making some progress, but sometimes I just want us to make quantum leaps. Internalizing a positive cultural identity happens for some, but I must remind you that the kids from The Learning Center and my four Deaf kids do not represent the vast majority of Deaf childrens experiences. Those who are proficient in ASL, who have internalized Deaf culture through Deaf adult role models, only amount to 5% or 6% of us. The Indiana School for the Deaf is fantastic. Its a bilingual-bicultural program where over 80% of the administration is Deaf, including the superintendent and principal. Over 80% of the teachers are Deaf. While we applaud them for their program, we also see that, sadly, most Deaf schools cannot boast those numbers. 

Again, once we recognize that the brutal, demeaning, forceful replacement of culture and language is our lived experience, examining that hegemony helps us to understand how it impacts us, not only culturally, but at every single level. It impacts how parents interact with their childrenCODAs, SODAs, and hearing children. It impacts how interpreter training programs are run. It impacts how teachers in those programs teach. It impacts how we frame our thinking and how applications are made according to that frame. For Deaf people, that framing is drastically skewed, which forces us to work extremely hard to make sense of it. When we look at our Deaf and hearing values side by side, we see that the Deaf values are utterly suppressed and supplanted by the hearing values. That suppression has a lasting, crushing effect on our people.

Marvin Miller
Marvin Miller

This colonization is so ingrained that the moment a Deaf baby is born, they are automatically victim to its crushing effect. They aren’t aware that its not normal. They assume that its okay. I grew up this way myself, as did many of you, thinking that this is normal. The Deafhood course instructs us to look within, to recognize the position were in, to say, Wait a minute. This is not okay,and to challenge the colonizer to step off. But when we do challenge the status quo, the answer is, Youre going to start complaining? This is not new. This is how things have always been. This is just the reality. Theres nothing to be done.We answer, No, this is not reality.But then as we get on with our lives, all of our subsequent conversationswith sign language interpreters, at RID conventions, at StreetLeverage, in the community, in Deaf education, at CEASDhappen under this paradigm of cultural suppression, with our values rendered subservient to hearing values. We are powerless in the discourse. As we attempt to discuss working together as allies, were situated in this dizzying, skewed frame. We try to talk about collaboration with sign language interpreters who get paid to work in mainstream settings with Deaf children, and were agonizing in our disempowered position. Can that conversation be a healthy, equal exchange? Its incredibly hard. Equality is simply not there.

I talk with CODAs, and I agree that the Deaf community should get together with CODAs and discuss how we can raise our children, both Deaf and CODA. Often the Deaf community has mixed feelings about CODAs, and I dont want to disparage them, as there are many tremendous CODAs out there. But, as an example, the governor of South Dakota, Dennis Daugaard, is a CODA. I met his father who is very sweet and fluent in ASL. We’ve had lovely conversations. I also met Dennis before he was governor and chatted with him. Did he do anything in his tenure as governor to protect the Deaf school? No. It has closed. Now it is just an outreach center. That was very upsetting. Of course, I dont blame him personally. It goes back to how we were raised and the messages we internalized growing up. Having these conversations in the context of an unequal power relationship is extraordinarily difficult. This concept is very important to understand. All of this leads to false divisions. (slide at 16:13).

False Divisions

Our community has been divided and compartmentalized under a host of different labels. Audism plays a huge role here. Your child cant hear? She failed the hearing test? We must hurry and start speech training, never mind what those people over there are saying.This notion of ignoring our input, coercing us onto their path, and rendering us helpless, divides our community. Among the many important lessons we can take from Ladds work on Deafhood, there is one critical message. 

“All Deaf people are our brothers and sisters.”

Now is the time for the community. We often dismiss members of our community who attempt to assimilate into the hearing world or who have been mainstreamed. We shut them out. We say, What can I do? How can I help 80% of our people? Privacy laws prevent me from contacting them. It’s impossible to reach parents and early hearing detection and intervention (EDHI) groups.We dont take responsibility. Are we to become an ever smaller, elite group? No. Now is the time to recognize that they are all our brothers and sisters. Their culture, their language, their very nature has been stripped of them, brutally replaced by the ideology of the dominant majority. We have to say, no more. Many Deaf and hard of hearing people are out there today with a very weak sense of identity, and their lives are a struggle. We need to step in on their behalf. At the same time, the reality is that Deaf people often do not have have the power to fight the system. With little to no power to fight against the system, it is hard to imagine how we can create change. Along my journey Ive thought this through and discussed it with others. I’ve come to realize that something out there is stopping us, blocking us from making progress. Rosa Lee Timm expressed it beautifully yesterday in her performance, that desire for a Deaf ideology to get through. But sadly, too often our ideas dont penetrate. Despite our amassing all the scientific evidence, all the cognitive research to support sign language, our attempts to share that evidence are ignored. Today, 90% of parents still choose an oral-only approach. They dont sign at all with their Deaf children. I watched Ryan Commersons graduate thesis, Re-Defining D-E-A-F, and one part struck me. The whole thesis is great, but I keep coming back to one section, which Ill share with you now. (video clip from Ryan Commerson’s thesis at 19:20)

Reframing Perceptions

Stuart Hall is a well-known Black sociologist who studied the impact of mass media on how people perceive the Black community. It is profound work, and he examines the idea of how our perceptions get locked into the subconscious where they become understood as common sense. Honestly, how many people in the world assume it is common sense that Deaf people cannot read beyond a 4th or 5th-grade level, or that it is common sense that Deaf people should not drive or do a whole host of things. These subconscious perceptions affect not only Deaf people and their myriad identities but also CODAs and interpreters, too. We assume that many of these perceptions are common sense, and we see these assumptions reflected throughout the discourse.

That got me thinking, how can we get inside the subconscious of the colonizing forces and expose the distortion? To Ryans point, we cant only promote the positive aspects of our people and culture, saying, Deaf is beautiful! ASL is beautiful!We must also expose the distorted beliefs of the powerful. We must disrupt their belief system, and in doing so, open up the possibility of new interpretations and new meanings. This has to happen in the discourse. Afterward, we can instill the positive attributes of the culture and foster their new understanding.

In the Deafhood coursework, we talk a lot about reframing. Reframing is powerful. In political discourse, we see Democrats and Republicans constantly reframing the issues. They play games with reframing to bolster their positions. For us, it must involve understanding that our subconscious perceptions frame our assumptions. When we research facts and find that they dont comport with our frame, we discard those facts wholesale. They cant penetrate our subconscious. That is why facts get ignored. Often the Deaf community says, We need more research. We need to educate them!No. Stop it. We cant beat them over the head with it. We cant get through to them that way. This applies to me personally as a white, straight man. I have privilege. I experience oppression as a Deaf person, but I have major privileges which are rooted in my subconscious. So, I have to ask myself, do I think about Deafblind people? Am I considering Deaf people of color? Do I think about Deaf people with disabilities? No. My frame is still locked in my subconscious. The board of one Deaf organization was talking about bringing in more Deafblind members, more Deaf members who have a disability, and more Deaf people of color. We wanted to build genuine relationships, not just hold them up as tokens and pat ourselves on the back. We realized it would require entering authentic dialogue to achieve real understanding, and that only from that place could we move forward together. While I agreed with this stance, I was also confronted with my privileged frame. When we were discussing Deafblind board involvement, I immediately thought about our non-profit status as an organization, about the cost of SSPs, and the extended time we would need for our meetings. I was fidgeting nervously. This was my subconscious frame preventing me from moving forward. My impulse was to say, Lets deal with this later. We can talk about this in a year or two when were ready. Lets wait.Recognizing these thoughts was shocking to me. I was horrified that I wanted to say, Wait.This familiar, hurtful command had been stored inside my subconscious, and I was about to make the same demand of others.

Last weekend, the board of Deafhood Foundation (DHF) invited Najma Johnson from a group called, Together All in Solidarity (TAS), for training on intersectionality. It was an introductory, 4-hour course. We barely scratched the surface. The dialogue was amazing, though, and it was a phenomenal training. However, some people responded that while the training was good, they felt encumbered by the notion that theyd have first to look at the issue of intersectionality, then at Deaf issues, then at educational issues, then at early intervention issues, then at interpreting issues, and so on. But intersectionality is not an isolated issue that we discuss and then shelve while we tackle each other issue in turn. It cannot be divorced from all of these other issues. You must study, learn, and train on intersectionality until it permeates your thinking about everything until it becomes a part of your lens. How we see the world must be infused with intersectionality. It is no small feat. We must incorporate intersectionality wholly, such that how I view the Deaf Black community, the Deaf Mexican community, the Deaf disabled community, the Deafblind community, has to change. The time is now. No more of the message, Wait. We need to put Deaf people first. Well put the rest of you on hold. Just wait.How long have they been waiting? Are we building actual relationships this way? No.

Now, I want to close with a discussion about a very important word. (25:40)

On Vulnerability

Do you want change? Do you want to foster creativity and innovation? You get there by opening yourselves up to reflection and examination, by apologizing for the things you do and say that are hurtful or problematic, and by being willing to engage in dynamic discussions about them. Also, you must recognize the power structure within our different organizations. Who are the decision makers? If its a white majority, what do you do? What if its all Deaf, yet all white? It is time for us to stop, to say, No more.How do we step back and make sure that were on equal footing? Often, we who have the power say, Come on! Lets talk!But it doesnt work that way. People in disempowered positions feel afraid, uncomfortable, and unsafe. We have to figure out how to make sure that the power dynamic in the discourse is equal. Only then will a productive conversation ensue. 

We need to heal. We have a lot of healing to do together.

Thank you.

Are you going to StreetLeverage – Live 2016 in Fremont, CA, April 15-17th? 

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Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me?

Sharon Neumann Solow presented Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me? at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. Her presentation examines healthy and less helpful uses of ego in the work of sign language interpreters and why genuine confidence is a comfort to be around.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is the article that served as the basis for Sharon’s StreetLeverage – Live 2015 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Sharon’s original presentation directly.]

Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me?

While interpreting for a wedding with our legendary colleague, Lou Fant, I learned a huge lesson. We exited the church after the ceremony and Lou gently guided me away from the doors, advising me to stay away for a bit to allow all the attention to go to the couple and their party. He reminded me that everyone always rushes to let us know we did a good job. We can’t help but draw some attention while working but sometimes we can choose to wait in the wings for them to get the entire spotlight until we’re needed again. We can work at ways to deflect the attention from ourselves, so that it is focused on the people who are central in the experience.

Walking a Fine Line

When I think of this story, it makes me think of all the times I’ve seen speakers with an expectant smile as people are rushing toward them. It’s a look that indicates the expectation of a compliment or at least of attention coming their way. Too often, when they work with sign language interpreters, their faces drop as the crowd gathers around the interpreters to congratulate them on a job well done, or to commiserate over challenges faced while interpreting.  I’ve overheard people even criticizing the speaker – spoke too quickly, jumped all over the place, and so on. I worry that the speaker might overhear such comments, further deepening this concern that Lou helped me understand when I was a young interpreter.

Sign language interpreters walk a fine line between needing to be comfortable in the spotlight and being cautious and self-effacing. We are often in the front of the room, and our work is fascinating to many, so it is natural that attention will be drawn to us. It’s sometimes hard for the participants to share or lose that attention. Most speakers, teachers, preachers and so on are accustomed to a great deal of attention. For some it’s not easy sharing that attention. The interpreter can soften that difficulty with gracious and conscious effort. I see sign language interpreters handing off many questions about their work and particularly about ASL or individual signs to the Deaf participants so that Deaf people are afforded respect and attention. A lovely thing I’ve witnessed is the sharing of a compliment, such as the interpreter suggesting that the work was better because the presenter was so clear and organized.

Gracious handling can take many forms. It might be as simple as stepping away and remaining out of obvious sight, but ready to work; or the interpreters might make conscious efforts to place the attention back on the Deaf and hearing clients.

Focus on the Work

Our focus is best kept on the work as we negotiate this challenging tightrope of being comfortable with attention and yet being as invisible as possible. Even when the situation is not about stealing or sharing attention, our position as that extra person puts us in a position that requires incredible discretion. Most people would prefer to keep their business to themselves. So many little things are shared with interpreters. Imagine having a stranger or other outsider present while getting a cancer diagnosis, being in therapy sessions, being disciplined by a Vice Principal, and a million other scenarios. Our capacity to put our own egos aside and focus on the needs of the participants will make us the best we can be.

Feeds and Feedback

One way in which we can focus on the situation rather than our egos is to be open to feed and feedback. How many times have you heard sign language interpreters thank their partners for a feed? That does not help the interpretation to be understood, and it may be extremely confusing to the people relying on the interpretation. There’s no need to take care of the interpreters’ egos; just take the feed and keep interpreting. Thank your partner later.

Sometimes the problem is defensiveness. When getting or giving feedback we are sometimes posturing or defensive or both. If you are feeling defensive, my suggestion is to simply note the feedback you get on a piece of paper or your phone and visit it later with as little comment as possible. We can practice saying things like, “Thank you. I’m so frazzled I’ll have to think about this when my mind is back in my head.” or “Thank you for sharing this. I need to think about it more.” If we practice gracious ways to receive feedback, the likelihood is that we will receive more, which can help us improve by seeing things from other people’s perspectives.

It’s Not Always About Us

Sharon Neumann Solow
Sharon Neumann Solow

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that it’s not all about us. There are times when sign language interpreters simply take up too much bandwidth. A friend was complaining that the interpreter he hired for his child’s special performance bugged him for a music stand the entire time he was greeting guests. He asked her to wait until a more appropriate time, but the interpreter made him drop his hosting duties and get her the music stand then and there. Who doesn’t feel for that interpreter? We know that certain things are essential to our work, but it is also essential that the people involved are comfortable and have a positive experience on many levels.

Once I was on my way to a very important appointment to sit as a participant in front of a professional panel. Traffic and parking had been a nightmare and I was in a rush to get to the assigned room. I hopped on the elevator and an interpreter slid in as the doors were closing. It turned out she was an interpreter for this panel situation. When the elevator stopped, she pushed in front of me to arrive first. Somehow that deeply offended me. It slowed me down, and I was in a hurry, too, and it felt like it was all about her. This was a situation in which I was nervous and in actuality, it was much more all about me than the interpreter.

A Different Perspective

Another strange thing has happened to me that may be unique to the experience of having interpreters when I am, myself, an interpreter. Sometimes the interpreter steps in and makes a comment or a joke, or plays with me as the speaker. It’s as if the rules are not in effect because we are colleagues. When this happens, I sense how a speaker must feel having people so fascinated with the interpreter. It’s a strange sensation. I feel foolish for even noticing that the attention is not all on me. I feel embarrassed that I might care and I feel uncomfortable with the possible poor modeling that is occurring (it’s often the case that I’m lecturing to new as well as seasoned interpreters). I feel a bit offended at the intrusion; once in a while, it has actually taken me way off track and affected my teaching. It’s good for me to have a window into how our clients might feel, so the lesson has been worth it.

Another experience that puts me in the shoes of our clients is that I do a great deal of foreign travel. I have had interpreters assigned to interpret for interviews, lectures and discussions. Very few of those interpreters are memorable other than being charming outside of the work, like at lunch or in the coordination discussions. Once I went to lunch with members of the media in France. They had asked to talk to me about our television show, “Say It With Sign.” All through lunch, the interpreter chatted with the reporters. I was peripheral to the event, yet it was supposed to be about me. These experiences are remarkable in a very negative way.

Self-Awareness is the Key

In the end, we have to think about where we get our jollies. If attention is something you enjoy, make sure you are savoring the proper attention you get while interpreting, not drawing undue attention to yourself. Find other ways to get healthy attention, such as joining Toastmasters, lecturing, performing or just being sure you have enough social outlets in which you can attract as much attention as you enjoy.

Are you going to StreetLeverage – Live 2016 in Fremont, CA, April 15-17th? 

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Incidental Learning with Deaf Students: Is There a Role for Sign Language Interpreting?

Mindy Hopper presented Incidental Learning with Deaf Students: Is There a Role for Sign Language Interpreting? at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. Her presentation defines incidental learning and where it is infused in social learning, identifies the broader implications for deaf students, and inquires about the role of sign language interpreters in incidental learning discourse within the Deaf student’s situated contexts.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Mindy’s presentation from StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Mindy’s presentation directly.]

Incidental Learning with Deaf Students: Is There a Role for Sign Language Interpreting?

Hello everyone! It has been an amazing and inspiring time at this Street Leverage event. I have learned so much that I feel truly alive. I am honored to be here today. My presentation is based on my dissertation work which centers on the topic of incidental learning. I want to make clear that I am not applying this focus solely to Deaf students in mainstream settings, but also more broadly to Deaf consumers of interpreting services in a variety of settings, such as medical offices, financial planning, meetings or any host of others.

Types of Learning

While there are many different types of learning theories, today I would like to focus on three main kinds of learning: formal, informal and incidental. Formal learning tends to occur in more structured environments. Such environments may include an agenda from which to discuss a number of prescribed items with a certain audience- much like I am presenting to you now. Informal learning occurs in environments in less structured environments such as in group conversations of varying sizes as side conversations in a room or while chatting in a hallway. In this setting, no agenda, lesson plan or topic of discussion exists. Incidental learning can occur in either formal or informal settings. Dynamic and fluid, incidental learning is elusive in its complexity, duration, and propensity for layering. It is often brought on by external stimuli that create for those involved many different but related conversations. Bystanders attune to them either consciously or subconsciously. Through connection to that stimulus, either visual or auditory, our brains can file it away for immediate or eventual knowledge gain and growth of related ideas. We will delve more into the complexity of incidental learning during this presentation.

Moreover, incidental learning is rich and infused with social learning. Opportunities for these kinds of learning are absolutely ubiquitous from day one and throughout our daily lives; and constantly emergent around structured school curricula. Next slide. [SLIDE at 3:05.] This slide embodies what incidental learning really is: a constant milieu of visual, auditory and linguistic stimuli in any given environment. The question is: do Deaf students have access to them?

I want to take a moment to share some examples of incidental learning with you from my own personal experience. At some time between the age of 6 to 8, I remember getting thirsty while playing outside. I went into the kitchen to get some water when I saw my mother having a discussion with my father. She was using spoken English so I couldn’t catch her exact words, but she seemed agitated and held a paper in her hands. I then lipread her saying one phrase: “the interest is a killer.” For whatever reason, those words stuck with me. But unable to make sense of it in the moment, I went back outside and continued to play. It was not until I was a junior in high school taking a consumer education class when the teacher began to lecture on the dangers of consumer debt and high interest rates that I put it together with my parents’ worry and anxiety of what I had remembered from all those years ago, deciding at that moment not to get a credit card. Had I not drawn on that past experience through incidental learning, I may not have had the same degree of reaction to what I was later learning as an adolescent.

Another example of incidental learning happened to me just recently as I participated in a meeting via interpreting services. This particular interpreter knew me well both personally and professionally. While interpreting, the interpreter, for a moment,  attuned to a sudden flurry of discussion in the hallway about some breaking medical news. Apparently, the polio vaccine was being used as treatment to fight brain cancer, since the virus had been shown to attack cancer cells. The interpreter had shared this information after the meeting. My interest was piqued, and at that moment I was afforded a choice: I could do further research into the topic, take it at face value, or dismiss it. I decided to dig a little deeper and discovered information I then shared with some friends. That access point was an example of the power and influence incidental learning can have.

The Critical Nature of Social Learning

Mindy Hopper
Mindy Hopper

Now, before I display the next slide which departs a little from the current topic, I would like to mention something called utterances. In my doctoral research I studied utterances among 8th grade middle school students in a variety of interactions. You can imagine the staggering amount of social interactions in this age group- whether it be outside the school, in the halls, at lockers, in the gym or cafeteria, the bus, playground, bathroom- basically, you name it, it was happening there. I documented and will share with you some utterances on the next slide. As you read them, think of what power and influence having access to those utterances would mean. While you read them, you may have thought back to your own experiences growing up in middle school. Consider that your most salient memories of that time may not have been academic related, but rather, dependent on the society of your peers outside the classroom- and most others would agree. I am not looking for individual answers here; this is just food for thought. The implications of access to utterances such as these are rich, in terms of knowledge, understanding the world around you, feelings of self-worth, gaining a sense of belonging and more. As I show the next slide listing different possible implications of accessing such utterances, I encourage you to think about the impact of each.

As you can see, the impact is broad. Through this exposure a person develops metacognitive awareness and in particular, self-esteem, which is crucial. After all, it feels good to possess knowledge about the world, right? I want to share one other example that came to light in my dissertation research. I was observing a group of students who were friends and peers. By the way, if you would like more information about my methodology, I will address that in my workshop. We entered a classroom and before instruction officially began, I observed the group of girls chatting about college options and their reasons for wanting to attend certain schools. The Deaf student I observed learned of this conversation much later. During this particular conversation, one girl preferred a certain college for its small class sizes and low faculty to student ratio, while another preferred a different college for its many majors, particularly in environmental engineering where she could study the effects of global warming. Yet another student chimed in with a preference for a college with the lowest tuition to avoid saddling her family with debt. As a researcher, I was blown away. Eighth grade, and already these students were talking about college? Looking back, college never even crossed my mind until I was a senior in high school. It made me wonder: did my friends discuss college plans as these students did when I was young, and I just didn’t know? It gave me pause to think I may have missed out on something so important because of gaps in incidental learning.

Leveraging Incidental Learning

[SLIDE at 10:50.] In the next slide, notice the person in the lower left corner. You will see a progression of images to be viewed in sequence, lower left to upper right. So at the bottom of the screen you see a student who is a human being with innate curiosity. Now in theory, suppose the person in the lower left corner had access to the incidental learning, that ambient information that is constantly and simultaneously flowing amongst their peers.  The information, the scaffolding exchange of ideas, becomes a person’s fund of knowledge. This fund of knowledge develops over time, expands and allows us to make decisions accordingly. It also allows us to negotiate, form newer ideas, and make new conclusions. This process of appropriating input influences our values, perceptions, beliefs, and how we relate to our immediate community and indeed, the world. Having access to this wealth of knowledge allows us to see things from different angles. It helps us to “look under the hood,” and come to terms with “social realities” which connect with our sense of belonging and engagement as an equal member of our community. This is all constructed in theory.

You may wonder why I chose to take such an avid interest in incidental learning. As a Deaf person, my epistemology, or the ways of knowing myself, my experiences, and the world all have been shaped by my identity and my environment. From a very young age, I was educated in a mainstream program as the sole Deaf person and trained in an aural-oral communication method. Although I received a perfectly satisfactory education, I later realized with a sense of concern how much of my rich incidental environmental information I had missed. I would occasionally get just a portion of a topic being discussed incidentally, but would often miss the layers of why and how this information came up in the first place. I am very concerned because the numbers of Deaf students mainstreamed is now approaching 85-87%. In environments where they may be the sole Deaf student, access to the wealth of incidental learning could be very limited. That is the reason I feel that the role of the sign language interpreter is key in supporting the benefits of incidental learning.  [SLIDE at 13:30.]

Systemic Ideologies and The Role of Sign Language Interpreters

You might be wondering why I decided to show a slide with traffic lights on it. Based on my observations- not to say this is endemic- some of you may relate to this and feel imposed upon by systemic ideologies. The picture of traffic lights, to me, signifies the systemic ideologies. When interpreters arrive in a classroom environment, often they do not start interpreting until the instructor begins to speak- the red light, green light or on/off approach. When the instructor stops so does the interpreter, the class ends, the students exit the room and so forth. Should we consider that systemic oppression? It may be a daunting thing to consider as an interpreter, but really what I want to emphasize is that interpreting needs to effectively communicate the most salient points of instruction without allowing anxiety to take over the weight of the process. Consider Demand-Control Schema when thinking about how to synthesize systems and information when you interpret. Through DC-S an interpreter can reflect on their values, ethics and also how to respond to the larger demands of systems at work while coming to a conclusion on how to act. It is also imperative to use your intuition on what makes sense to do in any given situation.

Systemic ideologies tend to prioritize content stemmed from from the teacher’s formal curricula or high-stake testing standards. Some even have language policies or IEP documents that cite which kind of language mode or communication is required. In general education, spoken language as a rule seems to dominate the environment while a signed language is expected to function discreetly in a corner. It can be a struggle then for interpreters to garner the resources and support needed to perform their job well in that kind of unbalanced dynamic, and to circumvent that requires some creativity. Next slide. [SLIDE at 16:06.]

Collaboration is Key

It is interesting that this slide seems to dovetail nicely with a theme I have noticed during this Street Leverage conference: collaboration. An idea I would like to float with all of you today, one I happened upon in my dissertation work, stems from a comment from a Deaf student I observed. She was satisfied with the interpreter’s service overall, but asked why it was the interpreter’s preclusion to decide what information was important- basically asking “why the filter?” She wanted to have the autonomy to choose what information to attend to in their daily interactions.This is noteworthy. I suggest that interpreters set aside time in their schedule to check in with the Deaf student on their preferences, interests and goals to further the spirit of partnership and to give the student a sense of ownership over their own education, both formal and informal, in whatever topics interests them- health, science, sports, etc. The interpreter is then able to tailor their attunement to the Deaf student’s and make what is salient to them accessible. At that point the student is free to pursue that information or not at their discretion. Regular check-ins could happen weekly so there is opportunity to modify, if needed, what is most of interest.

Another idea to foster collaboration is to reach out to any notetakers present in the classroom. Notetakers, like interpreters, are accustomed to attending primarily to the formal instruction in the room- mainly the teacher. But if an interpreter took it upon her/himself to alert the notetaker to the importance and impact of incidental learning, notes would then become one more way for the Deaf student to have access to the environment beyond official instruction.

One more suggestion is to attend and participate (not interpret) at a student’s IEP meeting. An interpreter has unique insight to share with other privileged decision-makers at IEP meetings, such as parents and school personnel. Yet another thought that surfaced while conducting my research- and this is brilliant- is developing partnerships with local interpreter preparation programs. Students or intern interpreters could shadow a Deaf student in their school day and be responsible, in signed or written form, for communicating incidental content when the teacher is not present in the room. Again, the Deaf student would then be able to peruse that communication and make an informed choice on whether or not to follow up. These are just some of the ideas that came up in my research process, and merit more thought. [SLIDE at 19:59.]

You will notice that one thing is now different about the slide you just saw. It is the same as my initial slide, but with what difference? Yes, now you, the interpreter, have a place in the scheme. In conclusion, you all are a part of the informal curriculum, and in the informal environment, that takes place around a Deaf consumer. It is not a feature solely within the bounds of a classroom. At that next medical appointment you interpret, think about stepping outside the confines of interpreting only direct communication and instead widen your frame to the incidental communication happening all around. An overheard conversation between medical staff may have relevance beyond what appears on the surface, and could serve to impact the Deaf consumer in a meaningful way.

Your Turn

I urge all of you to contemplate exactly how you approach your daily work. After all, you are an important voice in our mutual collaboration and benefit. Through continued dialogue, we can work toward transformation. It does not happen overnight of course, but will with ongoing investment from all of us. As the hashtag says, “it’s our turn,” and I then put it to you as becoming “your turn” in this effort. Before I close, I have one more thought to share: [holds up poster] challenge your practice. Think outside the box. See it from 10,000 feet. Delve into the layers that make up who you are as a practitioner. Heed your intuition, and keep on the path. Thank you.


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Sign Language Interpreters: Practicing with a Socially Conscious Approach

Joseph Hill presented Sign Language Interpreters: Practicing with a Socially Conscious Approach at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. His presentation explores the importance of reflective practice as a means of examining one’s perspective on language ideology, social injustice, and the development of a socially conscious approach to interpreting.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English version of Joseph’s presentation from StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Joseph’s presentation directly.]

Sign Language Interpreters: Practicing with a Socially Conscious Approach

This talk can apply to all social issues that we have been dealing with in our lives and we need to keep in mind that these issues are always interconnected. We all have more than just one identity. Our identities tie to the systems that can either benefit or hurt us depending on our social positions in our community during a given period, the circumstances of our birth, and the choices we make. Unfortunately, due to the limited time for this talk, I’ve chosen to focus on a single issue that is relevant to me as a black deaf person so I can give you some specific examples that I have seen, that I have read, and that I have heard. This issue is something that we are all familiar with: racism. Now this makes you wake up this morning so you can pay attention to this topic. Racism is still a sensitive social issue for many people, but for marginalized people, the issue is more than just sensitive. It is a barrier. It is a social poison. It is a life and death issue. Typically, when we think of racism, we think about how it negatively affects people of color, but we rarely think about how it also affects white people and their relationships with people of color.

Journey of Black ASL Research

About eight years ago, I was in a fortunate position to be involved in a sociolinguistic project that focused on the sign language variety of African-American deaf signers that we called “Black ASL.” Dr. Ceil Lucas, who is a leading researcher in sociolinguistics of sign languages in deaf communities,  Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, and Dr. Robert Bayley asked me to be part of the team. I was a doctoral student at the time, so of course I was eager to be part of it. There weren’t many opportunities like this one. Before this, there were a very small number of studies on the language and communication of black deaf signers, so this project could make a great impact.

For the next couple years, we traveled to six Southern states and collected data from black deaf participants. We picked the South because of the history of segregation that was part of the public institutions,  that influenced the social networks, and prevented language contact between white and black deaf children at schools. We could just focus on the interesting linguistic features of Black ASL, but we could not ignore the history of Black ASL because whatever happened in the history still has an effect today on those who have lived through segregation. We also focused on younger black deaf signers who were generations removed from the state-sanctioned segregation and their educational context was different compared to the educational context before the segregation, but still, the distinctive linguistic differences could be found in their signing.

After finishing our data analysis, we traveled to different venues to give the presentations on the findings of Black ASL. Our project was written up in The Washington Post. We published our work so the public could learn more about it. We were involved in a Q & A online chat session on the Washington Post. There were positive comments but there were negative comments as well. For example, one negative comment said that people always see race in everything. Another example of the negative comment was this, “You mean the color of your skin affects how you communicate?” My answer was no, it wasn’t what we meant. It was the situational context that influenced how you communicated based on how you were perceived.

Anyway, we started going to different places and giving our presentation on Black ASL. The black deaf community members appreciated our effort to shine the spotlight on their language variety and had their stories told in our book and on the DVD. This kind of validation was rare for them. The deaf community, in general, enjoyed learning about this as well because it was rarely told to them. The audience of hearing people who knew least about sign language were pleasantly surprised about the fact that there were more than one variety of sign language. And of course, sign language interpreters loved to learn about anything related to sign language. Following the presentations, there were questions that kept coming up:

  1. Where can I take a class on Black ASL?
  2. Where can I buy a dictionary of Black ASL?
  3. Should I use Black English when I interpret for my black deaf clients?
  4. How can I apply it to my work?

I have been getting these questions for about four years now and for some reason, I feel uneasy with these questions. They seem innocuous enough, but in the past year when I started thinking deeply about the underlying social issues, I began to see the significance of these questions. They are based on the assumption that this information is widely available in academic settings which are far removed from the social contexts. They are based on the audience’s lack of relationships with the black deaf community who use the language in the specific social contexts. This is part of the general trend where more people can learn about ASL without being involved in the deaf community.  The operative word is “general” because if something negative happens to the deaf community in general, it is usually the worst for the members with marginalized identities.  

Number Matters

Joseph Hill
Joseph Hill

I want you to visualize how marginalized some social groups are. As you can see from the numbers on the RID member demographics, we have about 95% of RID members who are female, so the interpreter profession is female-dominant. If we look at race, we have 87% of RID members who are white. That leaves 13% who are RID members of color. Almost 5% of them are African American/Black (RID Views, Winter 2014). We have about 320 million people living in United States and 12% of them are African American/Black (38 million); 17% of them are Hispanics (54 million); 5% are Asian (18 million).  You can see the discrepancy with the numbers. Let’s think about the number of African American/Black deaf and hard of hearing consumers. Out of 20 million deaf and hard of hearing people, 1.2 million of them are Black and they see white interpreters more often than they see black interpreters. Let’s think about the number of black deaf people who graduated with Ph.D degrees. The number is 13 and I am one of the recent ones in 2011. Two years ago, two of the thirteen passed away. The number gets smaller. Going back to what I said about prior research studies on Black ASL, which were few, if we wait for someone like me and Dr. Carolyn McCaskill (who might retire someday) to publish more on Black ASL, our research output will not be a lot. That is related to the system that doesn’t allow for people of color to produce necessary work. I am talking about the system in America.

To see how widespread the problem of underrepresentation is for people of color, let’s think about the number of children’s books that contain characters of color. It was based on a report in 2012 that covered 3,600 books. Around 93% of the books were about white characters and 3% were about black characters, and 4% included Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Pacific Americans. Why do these numbers matter? Let me give you an example to show why they matter.

In “Dark Girls” which is a documentary released in 2011, there was one particular scene that was heartbreaking. It showed a young black girl, around the age of 5, sitting with a psychologist. Between them was a picture of 5 children who looked and dressed the same except for the skin color. From left to right, the shade of the skin color went from light to dark. Each time the psychologist told the girl to point out which child was smart, which child was beautiful, which child was good, the girl always pointed to the one with the lightest skin color. Each time the psychologist told the girl to point out which child was dumb, ugly, and bad, she always pointed to the one with the darkest skin color. This girl, who was raised with a black family, somehow internalized the negative messages about people with dark skin. We could say that the girl was exposed to the explicit messages about black people, but these days, some people are very good with being careful about what to say so the messages are not always explicit. But the girl could pick up on the implicit messages. How many children’s books have black characters? How many magazines feature black models on the covers? How many TV programs have black characters that she could relate to? Did her white friends have other black friends? How did people interact with her and a white child? What did people assume about her before they talked with her? If she noticed the large number of white people anywhere she went and they received positive treatment, she would interpret “whiteness” as the norm and she would assign positive attributes to it. Anything opposite that she would interpret it as negative.

Now let’s think about white children who were exposed to the same implicit messages and they had fewer or no black friends. Imagine that they grew up the same way and became the interpreters as you see on the 2014 RID member demographics. Now these same interpreters work with deaf and hard of hearing people of color. I want to show you the perspective of a black deaf consumer on this issue.

Video: “As a black deaf woman, I feel oppressed by the system. When I was growing up, I noticed how people looked at me, expressed doubts about me, asked me what I was doing here and telling me to get away. I noticed them and felt confused. But I went and lived as I was living. But then when I got older, I realized that it was the system and it was so powerful. The system is too big to challenge. It makes me afraid for myself. My other concern is related to interpreters. For example, when I made my doctor’s appointment, I requested a specific interpreter. I wanted a black interpreter. The office looked for one and found none. So I went ahead and accepted an interpreter who was not a person of color. I felt like I had to erase my language identity, my cultural identity. It was not effective for me with the interpreter. There was a lot of misunderstandings. So we ended up rescheduling the appointment. I did not feel good about that. During that encounter, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want to look like I wasn’t smart. I had to work harder so I could appear to have better language. It didn’t feel right to me. Within the deaf community, it is pretty diverse. In the interpreter community, there are more members but the problem is that it is not diverse enough with people of color, people with disabilities, and other identities. If both communities reflect each other in terms of diversity, it will be much better.”

Obviously, we want to do something about that. We want to change the way we work. We want to expand our vocabulary and linguistic knowledge to match our consumers. We want to learn more strategies to be able to interpret better. We want to be culturally competent in order to serve our consumers. But those things are the tip of the iceberg. They are about work. We want to address our views of the world that shape our interactions. I want to tell you a story about a couple who chose to live on the farm so they could grow their own food organically. They wanted to live and eat healthy. So they grew vegetables and handled their animals. Over time, they became sicker and sicker. They were not sure what caused them to get sick. Eventually, they found out that the soil was contaminated with toxic waste left by a company long ago and it was never reported. The toxic waste contaminated everything that was raised on the soil, including the food that the couple grew organically. Metaphorically, the soil is the systems we are in and the toxic waste is racism that was left by a powerful group of people who profited from it.  We have to do something about our soil before we can plant our seeds.

Roots of Social Consciousness

Social consciousness means we need to be aware of the social discrepancies and recognize them. But we don’t always recognize them in the same way. For example, we can have an acquired social consciousness which means that we follow the system as it is. We won’t be involved in a situation that involves a problem. We contribute to oppression. Next, we have an awakened social consciousness which means we recognize the problem and we can’t ignore it. We fight with the system. We focus something outside of ourselves, rather than looking within us. Another one is an expanded social consciousness which requires us to be aware of our roles in the system, the actions we need to take to change, and the strategies to change. We will discuss more about them later in the workshop.

I have one example for you to think about. A black interpreter has a mentor who is white. The interpreter is assigned with a white deaf consumer but the consumer makes racist remarks against the interpreter and it throws the interpreter off. After the assignment, the interpreter shares with the mentor about her experience. What does the mentor do in this situation? The mentor says, “you just have to deal with it. It is part of the job.” My question for you, is that right? Is that appropriate? Why would the mentor say that? This is why we need to talk about this because we don’t have to accept this.

Comfortable being uncomfortable

Clearly, we have to talk about it. If we try to push it down, it will be toxic for us, like the metaphor I shared with you. We have to unpack. We have to be open. When we are willing to become vulnerable, we will recognize our place in the system. We can’t deny it and say that this is not our problem. We are part of the problem. We have to get involved in the discussion, engage in a dialogue. Dialogue is not just a form of talking. We exchange our ideas through communication to help ourselves in understanding each other’s perspective and recognizing the stories. We don’t cast doubt on someone’s story and push it down. We should be open and recognize someone’s lived experience. Conversation will lead to change.                                                

Are you going to StreetLeverage – Live 2016 in Fremont, CA, April 15-17th? 

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