A Role for Sign Language Interpreters: Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People12 min read
As a coda when I left home to go to college, I never dreamed that I was leaving my mother tongue. It never dawned on me that there wouldn’t be deaf people where I was going and that ASL would be nowhere in sight. Never were my eyes so lonely.
Much like an immigrant leaving their homeland, I had to go in search of my motherland. Luckily, I had a map. One given me by my mother that not only taught me the way to ASLand but also how to travel. She taught me that when you meet the community, you come bearing gifts, whatever they may be; in my case it was interpreting. It was through volunteer interpreting that I found my way back home. But I couldn’t have done it without a map.
What Role, if any, Interpreters Have to Play in the Preservation of ASL?
The question itself raises brows among my Deaf friends and colleagues. When I mention language preservation and interpreters in the same sentence I see their discomfort, a concern that this discussion could usher in the next wave of experts, of well intended “linguistic rescuers” and do even more damage, becoming yet one more blotch on the ‘structural canvas of colonization’.[i] Given the Deaf community’s history in the struggle for linguistic rights, it’s a valid concern, one I share.
Uphold the Purity of the Language of Signs
RID’s founding elders understood that once sign language became commerce a shift would occur not only between the language and the indigenous holders of the language, but also between the Deaf community and its interpreters. In an attempt to safeguard the linguistic sovereignty of the Deaf community and preserve the language of the community, they included tenet 11 in the original 1965 code of ethics to address our moral and ethical responsibility to the preservation of the language and the well being of the Deaf community. “The interpreter shall seek to uphold the dignity and purity of the language of signs. He shall also maintain a readiness to learn and accept new signs, if these are necessary to understanding.”[ii]
I propose we create a new code of ethics for RID, one that acknowledges the vision of our elders and supports the efforts of WFD and NAD and the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, (CPRD). By making the ‘linguistic human rights of deaf people’ the canvas of our field, we have a chance to, in the words of Veditz, “love and protect our beautiful sign language as the noblest gift god gave to deaf people.”
Deaf Angel/The Other’s Perspective
When your language is the dominant language, or the language of power, it’s everywhere, like the air you breathe, and is easy to take for granted. But when it’s not, you are often reminded just how fragile the thread of language can be.
It was sheer serendipity that the language found my mother. A visiting physician from Chicago happened to pass through the small mining town where my mother lived. He had heard about the meningitis outbreak and came to see how people in the town fared. Someone told him about my mother, that she had gone deaf from spinal meningitis, so he went to visit her. When he met my grandparents he told them about Illinois School for the Deaf. He told them there was even a special college she could go to one day, Gallaudet. For my grandparents, college was never even a dream, both of them had to quit school and go to work by the time they were eight years old. It took everything they had to save enough money for the train ticket to send my mother to school. The year was 1930.
The Road Not Taken
That same day, the physician also visited another family with a deaf daughter. Unlike my grandparents, they didn’t send their daughter to the school for the Deaf but kept her home, isolated and locked in the upstairs attic for years. Every year when we visited, my mother would drag me to their house so I could interpret her pleas as she tried to convince them that sign language would help their daughter.
When they died fifty years later, the deaf woman came down from the attic. She emerged as a feral woman/child language-less. That memory seared itself in my language. My mother was acutely aware how it easily could have been her who ended up language/ less. She told the story of the ‘doctor who saved her’ so often that we ended up calling him the “deaf angel”. Even though he didn’t know sign language, he led my mother not only to her language, but to life. That is what language does, gives life, like the air we breathe.
It’s a haunting experience to think that someone else could take away your right to language, to self, to human rights but stories like these still happen.
ASL is at its Zenith
When sign language classes are offered everywhere, You Tube is saturated with signed songs, the internet with Baby and me signing websites, why even Paul McCartney has stars signing in his music video (sizzling controversy fanning the flames)[iii]. The very idea of American Sign language endangerment seems absurd. If anything, ASL is at its zenith. How can it be an endangered language when it’s so prolific and accessible?
It is indeed accessible to hearing people, but ironically, for the deaf child, the way to the language is paved with obstacles that begin shortly after birth. The moment the audiogram hits the fan raging ideologies begin to scribe their path onto the life and body of the deaf child. Parents find themselves being ethically judged, and with no elders to guide them, or maps of their own, they are lost.
Maps are political. The cartographers who draw those borders and create nations do so with an ideological and political framework. While we have no “land” to speak of, ASL is our home, wherever it lives and it crosses all borders.
Nettle and Romaine in their book, Vanishing Voices[iv] talk about the main forces that cause languages to die: an enduring social network ceases to be, loss by population, a shift is forced.
We have over the past 15 years seen a dramatic shift in all of these areas. Deaf schools are in danger of closing, Deaf clubs and public gathering places are no longer as prevalent as before, Deaf social service agencies are diminishing, Deafness is considered a low incidence disability add to that current medical trends in cochlear implants, biotechnology and genetic counseling and these numbers decrease even more. Current trends in education cause a forced shift in where a child goes to school and an IEP dictates the child’s language of instruction. No longer can a child find his way to a community of others like himself without a lot of guidance and help.
More than 80 % of the students entering Gallaudet come from mainstream educational settings. Not only are the languaculture transmission power sites in decline, (Deaf schools, Deaf clubs, Deaf agencies) but so are the public gathering places that foster a rich linguistic environment.
As the demand for interpreters in the classroom increases, the less likely it is that those interpreters will have cultural and linguistic fluency.[v] Having little or no contact with the Deaf community they cannot help the Deaf student find their way to the wisdom embedded in the community and the language. They have no map. With the absence of standardized language interpreters create their own esoteric system for communication, which Ted Supalla predicted could lead to the creation of “1,000,001 Anne Sullivans”. (PCRID Community Forum 2011) Where will this map lead? Those deaf children will be bound to their individual interpreter because only they will be able to understand them.
Who are the Language Cartographers?
Language transmission isn’t the only hurdle Deaf children face. Linguistic racism is another. Hunter, a three year old deaf pre-schooler finds his name sign, (hunter,) the subject of controversy. He “has been prohibited from signing his own name because school administrators believe the gesture he uses looks too much like a gun”.[vi]
By banning it they sent a message to the public that is reductive and racist, sign language is not only a mime, but a dangerous mime at that. What is not pointed out however, is that the English word Hunter, is just as reflexive as the sign. I guess the message is loud and clear, as long as the hunter is English then it’s safe.
While many say the proliferation and visibility of ASL on the internet and in the media is a good thing there is a price to be paid for language living in a virtual space. Rico Peterson has pointed out some of the dangers in his article on Street Leverage . Once the people are separated from the language, then the “trope of universal ownership implicitly releases the reading public from any empathetic burden of taking the perspective of the other.”[vii] It becomes easy to become disengaged from the responsibilities of the well being of a community if you are cut off from it.
Once sign language became a language for profit it became a resource to be mined (both from within and without). Like all cultural resources, it could be exported, deployed and uprooted from its native soil into the land of commerce, where its value lay in the profit it could make in the market, not in the happiness and soul it could bring to a community.
The amputation of the language from the deaf body has led us down an ethically complicated path. (On the day that I am writing this, Bobby Beth Scoggins plea to ACT NOW TO SAVE DEAF SCHOOLS had a total of 5,207 hits, while the signsong “Womanizer” performed by a hearing person, had 267,520 hits. ASL as entertainment is a burgeoning business, but concern for the Deaf body in which it lives doesn’t seem as popular.)
With the heart of the language no longer at the center of the community, it puts at risk not only the life of the language, but also the life of the community.
What Can We Do?
If we revisit each of the stories, they are stories about getting lost and finding our way. About having maps. About making maps. About the price of being lost. To draw a map, you must have travelled the land. Our place in this story of preservation is about providing a map to lead people home. Leading deaf children to their elders, leading hearing parents to a thriving community that welcomes them and leading ourselves to a more compassionate place. We are all constrained by the conditions of the canvas. And yes, the gesso our colonialist narrative is written on is one of audism, pathology, and linguistic racism but if we repaint the canvas and let the Deaf community be the language cartographers, there will be a new narrative, perhaps a nation without borders.
Language Belongs to the Indigenous
But to achieve that we all must help. We must begin by recognizing that the language belongs to the indigenous people. We must visit those lands so we can help lead others there. We must commit to creating physical gathering spaces so that languaculture can thrive. This is the primary purpose of Community Forums to provide the arena for languaculture transmission and for community to build.
In your local communities make gatherings that include everyone. There are many of you out there already doing amazing things to keep ties to the community. Educational interpreters in Oklahoma have regular potluck dinners with all the deaf students and their families. They invite the Deaf community to join them. They are building micro communities. We can do this everywhere.
Linguistic and Cultural Fluency
Be as linguistically and culturally fluent as you can be. You may be the legend on the map that takes them home.
Set up ASL only classes during your local RID meetings. Invite Deaf people in to teach about sewing, cars, painting, linguistics, computers, whatever they wish to teach about and you all will have the experience of learning not only a new skill set but also a new semantic domain. Swap skills, then you offer to teach something the community wants to learn.
Set up bartering systems where you skill -swap with members of the deaf community and your community of interpreters. You all begin to know each other in a deeper way than a service exchange.
Have salons conducted in ASL. Invite groups of people in for discussions on current topics. Invite hearing parents to join so they begin to find their way to the Deaf community.
We Must be Patient With Each Other, but We Must Also Hurry
Invite elders and community members to your RID meetings. While many of us have grown up in deaf households, we do not know what it means to be Deaf and can’t impart the lessons of navigating the hearing waters that is so vital for the future of the community’s survival. Record the stories. They are leaving us. We need them for our children.
We need to revisit the foundation of RID and place safeguards that ensure our commitment to the linguistic human rights of deaf people. So let’s hand the brush back to the Deaf community and a new world we paint.Do not go gentle into that good night, Rage, rage against the dying of the light. – Dylan Thomas
[i] Kroskrity, Paul V. “Facing the Rhetoric of Language Endangerment:Voicing the Consequences of Linguistic Racism.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 21.2 (2011): 179-92. Print.
[ii] The original code of ethics can be found in Dennis Cokely’s seminal article, Exploring Ethics, A case for Revising the Code of Ethics (http://www.online-conference.net/downloads/sdp_free/ethics_keynote.pdf)
[iv] Nettle, Daniel, and Suzanne Romaine. Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. New York: Oxford UP, 2000. Print.
[vii] Kroskrity ibid