Certified Deaf Interpreters: Moving From Celebration to Action7 min read
By providing concise definitions, sharing success stories and through consistent advocacy, Hearing interpreters can support and increase the hiring of Certified Deaf Interpreters to ensure effective communication.
On October 24, 2014, a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) interpreted a live news press conference for the Office of Emergency Management about the Ebola outbreak in NYC. This may have been the first time ever, in the United States, that the use of a Deaf interpreter in this capacity garnered national attention. It was a significant accomplishment for ASL access and for the sign language interpreting profession. In light of this recent breakthrough, there is a buzz of excitement in the air. While there are sign language interpreting agencies, interpreting organizations, and Deaf organizations who have long utilized CDIs in a variety of domains, still many other entities are late to the game. Often the decision to use or, more often, not to use a CDI, lies with the interpreting agency or the entity paying for services and not with the Deaf consumer or the experienced hearing interpreter. This chasm deepens when agencies use hearing interpreters who lack experience or are resistant to working with a CDI, citing competition as their rationale. When to hire a CDI, why to use a CDI, and what a CDI does are questions not always asked and can, unfortunately, be difficult to answer.
Importance of Education and Explanation
Now that the world has been introduced to the concept of a CDI, where do sign language interpreters go from here? Seasoned professionals may know why a Deaf interpreter was used for that particular press conference, but does everyone in the field truly understand? What about the layperson? The best tactic for educating the public at large is to be prepared with a concise definition that clearly explains the benefits of using a CDI, a definition that makes sense not only to those who work in the signing community, but also to the average person who requests sign language interpreting services. These individuals usually have very little knowledge of ASL or the diversity within the Deaf community. Some interpreters may already utilize a definition. Still, there remains the challenge of ensuring that CDIs are hired for all situations that would benefit from them. The NCIEC addresses the role of the Deaf interpreter, stating,
“NCIEC studies indicate that in many situations, use of a Deaf interpreter enables a level of linguistic and cultural bridging that is often not possible when hearing ASL-English interpreters work alone.”1
While this makes sense to those who work in the field, I believe this definition alone, without real-world examples, may still leave a layperson at a loss. Currently, there is little in the way of normative data that could give us meaningful statistics and provide a balance to our narrative, which would help validate our definitions.
Concern for the Community
Increased exposure to ASL is not necessarily the answer. Sadly, the hearing majority still sees ASL interpreters on stage and online as performers, as evidenced by the many comments made on the heels of the aforementioned press conference. This misunderstanding has detrimental effects on those providing and using sign language interpreting services. After re-reading the powerful article, A Role for Sign Language Interpreters: Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People, by Lynette Taylor, I am reminded that as the public gains exposure to ASL, the language is in danger of being monetized as a product, and the fact that it belongs to the Deaf community is forgotten. “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 the life of the community.”2
Power of Narrative
Now is the right time for action from both the interpreting and Deaf communities. We can all start by sharing stories of when a CDI made communication access happen. Narrative is an important tool. Sharing our human experiences, feelings and needs serves to connect us. By telling our stories to the general public and to those with decision-making power, we can have a great impact on increasing general awareness and effecting change. The impact of narrative may even surpass that of impersonal, academic knowledge about the Deaf community.
One way we can look at making changes in our profession is through the lens of Systems theory, which examines how nations maintain their relationships. Systems theory states that there are two ways to elicit change.3 A delicate or indirect way of eliciting change is used for minor infractions and when saving face is paramount. Extreme action is taken when a country has committed human rights violations. In this case, sanctions are imposed in order to threaten that country’s economy and to draw world attention. If other countries also place sanctions, the offending country has to decide if it can afford to lose business.
How can interpreters and Deaf consumers use these ways to elicit change in our community? In applying the delicate way, start by thanking those interpreting agencies who are providing CDIs. Thank them for hiring only certified interpreters and educating the hiring entity about the value of a CDI. Ask those agencies to share your personal narratives in meaningful ways. Change occurs not only through threat or complaint. A person complimented is a person who is listening, and one who will be more likely to share positive and informed feedback about the benefits of CDIs.
For agencies and entities that are not providing satisfactory services, more extreme action can be taken. First, don’t give up without multiple attempts to contact them. Organize with the community to make clear demands for certified Deaf interpreters, certified hearing interpreters, and interpreters preferred by Deaf consumers. It’s not enough to sit back and hope that bad agencies will fold up or only commit to working for better agencies. Organized action is key in order to send a message to offending agencies.
While everyone is celebrating the use of the CDI for the Ebola press conference in NYC, we should not forget that behind that decision was a hiring agent (OEM), an interpreting agency, and professional interpreters speaking up. This surely did not happen overnight, either. Do these parties realize that having a CDI interpret had a significant impact? Paraphrased from the interview on Deaf Hearing News (DHN), Jon Lamberton, CDI, says, “A few Deaf people thanked me, saying, ‘Wow, I finally know what Ebola means. I never knew what it meant before.’”4 Indeed, everything that happened behind the scenes, from education to action, yielded a positive result for the Deaf community.
Call to Action
By the time this article is printed, the first ever Deaf Interpreter Conference will have taken place in June, 2015 in St. Paul, MN. It’s an exciting time to remind the general public that Deaf people are interpreters, too. Let’s go from celebration to action through education and clear demands stated in a way that non-signers can understand. Share success stories by calling the good guys Friends of the Deaf Community, and be specific about what they are doing right. Push those lagging behind with tact. Assume they need information and insight. Persistence coupled with strong explanations grounded in both data and narrative can go a long way. RID-NAD recently posed the question,
“Can we settle with that fact that there are citizens of our country, our neighbors, friends, family or colleagues, who may be held powerless due to lack of adequate information – information we can clearly provide to them if we just embrace and utilize interpreting services in the way that they are meant to be effective?”5
The CDI profession is relatively new to everyone. Let’s work together to spread a unified message of best practices to ensure effective communication access for the American Deaf community.
Questions for Consideration:
- How can the interpreting profession assist Deaf consumers in asserting their right to CDI-CHI teams?
- How can hearing and Deaf interpreters best answer the question, “Why do we need a Deaf interpreter?”
- How can we conduct more research to analyze the communication experiences of Deaf consumers using CDIs
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1 NCIEC http://www.interpretereducation.org/specialization/deaf-interpreter/
2 A Role for Sign Language Interpreters: Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People by Lynette Taylor (Street Leverage, 2012)
3 Systems Theory //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_theory
4 DHN http://www.watchdhn.com/
5 RID-NAD http://www.rid.org/content/index.cfm/AID/352. Editorial from RID-NAD on Interpreting Services and the Media, October 28, 2014.