Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters?12 min read
The field of sign language interpreting still finds itself at a very serious and critical juncture as interpreters and educators attempt to put Deaf community members back into its center. Without considering the tenets of social justice and the perspectives of those who aim to proliferate it, sign language interpreters face the reality that they may be contributing to the oppression of Deaf people.“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” -Desmond Tutu
A Critical Juncture
The aim of social justice is to prohibit privileged majority members from taking control – accordingly, a significant amount of guidance and support by those in the minority is needed. Social justice permeates daily experiences because practices, policies, and laws perpetuate the very existence of majority members. Though there is little space today for the appreciation of individual efforts toward justice, and perhaps less space to celebrate times of creativity, sign language interpreters need to create the capacity to give meaning to the Deaf experience in socially conscious ways.
Embracing social justice and incorporating its tenets at the center of interpreters’ practice moves professionals away from explanations that people’s outcomes in life (more specifically minorities’ lives) are merely results of their good and bad choices toward a position that highlights the strength and conviction required to create opportunities for positive change. Social justice works to include the experiences of others that showcase both social injustices as well as how to move us toward equality—in the case of sign language interpreters, this process is about keeping or changing behaviors that are supported by Deaf people and support their desires and goals to achieve autonomy.
What is Social Justice?
While the United States Government is responsible for ensuring basic quality of life for all citizens, interpreters know too well that people’s reactions to injustice in situations differ depending on their political background, media influences, and affiliations. Often we use the same terms to talk about differing scenes of injustice (political, social, economical, and the like). We find that these terms can be vague, meaningless, and often leave us with our wheels turning, but going nowhere. Although the terms justice, e.g., political and social justice, are often seen as interchangeable and often used synonymously, but they can also be defined as distinct terms concerning various inequalities experienced by minority groups.
But do not allow all of this wordsmithing to stop you—minority groups’ injustices (regardless of the realm they fall within) are about being targeted, discriminated against, and oppressed; often concerning power rooted in the social order of our society.
An important component of any social injustice is that conversations about minority lives are happening.
Discussions guided by the uses of status, meaning the effects of today’s socially constructed hierarchies (i.e., social ordering), are real and important pieces in sign language interpreters’ productions of interpretations. Taking types of social ordering into account within interpretations can show us how status affects people (their views and how they are represented in the eyes of others, both individually and systematically). We are talking about reading between the lines of language use to show prestige, respect, and esteem for individuals. In addition to this, those working with hearing interpreters are often from very different communities. To articulate accurate messages, we must consider the real challenges of attempts to maintain fairness based on the myriad relationships (which are symbolic of status used within the exchange) possible within situations. Status can be used to maintain, leverage, and define the types of relationships between people, e.g., best friends, teachers and students, employees and managers.
Social justice is also a concept that deals with people’s actions to craft equitable opportunities for positive change (Rawls, 1971), so it is vital that interpreters work closely with Deaf community members to support equitable experiences. These practices can include sometimes-controversial behaviors, yet are critical interventions of oppressive acts found within our professional role, e.g., advocating, supporting, educating. The more we shift control of our field to the hands of Deaf leaders, the less controversial our behaviors will become because appropriate actions will carry the Deaf community’s seal of approval.
On the other hand, pausing or avoiding behaviors that intervene oppression may actually prohibit various forms of respect for individual autonomy. The explanation behind such pauses/avoidance may be due to our understanding of ethical relativism, whereby those experiencing the injustice may have the right to determine right and wrong behaviors based on their cultural norms and individual contexts within situations. Perhaps some of us are too worried about doing wrong that we perpetuate current habitual patterns that support the status quo, and thus, inadvertently contributes to injustices.
Similar worries have given rise to growing public controversy surrounding political, social, and economic institutions, which have centered conversations on social justice since the late 19th century. Though these conceptions related to justice have been formulated and reformulated over the years, we realize that political justice generally deals with equality, while social justice addresses freedom (Rawls, 1971). These forms of justice are actually elements of each other and represent unique challenges of those experiencing injustices.
Because inclusion related challenges exist (which many minorities experience) the Deaf community faces similar challenges about involvement in conversations about roles of social structures. Special attention to the needs of those we serve, as professionals providing a service, is vital. These needs are a part of an overarching holistic understanding, not solely based on communication exchanges, because majority members (yes, even sign language interpreters) lack full awareness of experiences of Deaf community members.
So, while sign language interpreters work, they permeate participants’ experiences during the communication exchange. Working between two or more people communicating makes the use of status and its social roots (that are often unfamiliar to the parties involved) visible to the interpreter. All injustices are social in nature, even those within political situations, and are based on the relationships among those involved. This makes interpreter’s positions in the interaction between people useful in working toward social justice (e.g., addressing, supporting, opposing). Again, most injustices experienced by Deaf people are types that interpreters will never fully ‘get’, because as hearing individuals, hearing interpreters may only have secondary experiences to associate with individuals who experience our world differently.
Social justice emphasizes that privileged majority members do not have full understanding of minorities. This makes minority groups’ involvement, guidance, and support with professionals serving them imperative.
Of course both social and political justice need to occur under the eyes of the law, but we are far from achieving equality; social justice exposes social deficits and injustices that bring Deaf people’s experiences to the center. The social injustices experienced by the Deaf community create a call to action for everyone, reminding us that we are all part of a much larger battle. Liberating actions cannot be successful without true community involvement because no one can liberate themselves by their own efforts or solely by the efforts of others (Freire, 1971). Interpreters’ community involvement should include being a part of a force attacking the social injustices experienced by Deaf community members.
This support is pertinent in the lives of those we serve, and for most interpreters, this is as personal as it gets.
The Examination of Power
A multitude of personal and institutional concerns surround a fear that the behaviors of sign language interpreters’ will remain static despite the shifting needs of the Deaf community. One example may be the identified need to establish ASL as the language used at interpreting-related conferences as a norm and the historic struggle to achieve it. In the big picture, static and indifferent stances can stymy efforts to overcome systemic injustices (not that they need interpreters, but working both with and beside them supports their efforts tremendously). This makes social justice even more important. A position of indifference creates a critical need to examine the power, inequality, and transformational opportunities central to our work as interpreters in mastering language and culture.
This examination allows for the formation of a bridge between the need of social justice in the lives of minority groups and the practice of sign language interpreting (a significant influence within Deaf people’s lives). This bridge only holds if stakeholders are involved in its design. Grassroots reform movements have historically relied on strong collaborations among members of various groups that come and go from the lives of minority groups. Unfortunately for the Deaf community, interpreters’ involvement in grassroots reform movements are not a given; views of such involvement differ widely from interpreter to interpreter. Even interpreter organizations and educators vary widely in their stance on such involvement.
Both the positive and negative affects relationships have on experiences dictate one’s unique understanding of the world (Fairclough, 2001). Thus, the relationships that sign language interpreters maintain make their positions on issues of social justice even more vital because power struggles are bound to arise among participants who require negotiations through interpreters (this includes relationships between Deaf individuals and interpreters).
Therefore, an interpreter’s understanding of the Deaf community must extend beyond their own experiences, thoughts, and actions (majority-centric) in a way to support their overall wellbeing based on their understanding (minority-centric). The potential to build the bicultural attributes needed to promote the wellbeing of others lies within the social rules, experiences, and signed language of Deaf people, especially in matters highlighting social justice itself. Social justice begins by upholding the belief of minority groups on matters of equality.
A Conscious Choice
Exploring a sign language interpreter’s cultural competencies challenges them to understand their own position within situations as well as the positions of those involved. Critical language study expert Fairclough (2001) indicated that for groups to make real progress toward their liberation, social emancipation of minority cultures is essential. The first step for interpreters to support the progress of the Deaf Community toward equality is to openly evaluate and strengthen their own behaviors. Locations are already being created and discussions are taking place all over the country: Jean Miller’s TerpTalk or as suggested by Damita Boyd in her article, Cooperation Strengthens Sign Language Interpreter Education Programs.
The need to change the collective stance of interpreters has become a moral imperative today more than ever—this change begins individually. Sign language interpreters cannot expect those we serve to believe that change can occur for the Deaf community if we are not sure ourselves that such change is actually possible. We must ask ourselves what we truly believe and understand that social justice leaves us with a choice.
We have to choose to do something about how we position ourselves as professionals.
How can Deaf individuals trust that there is a modest level of integrity in interpreters if they do not see us learning and emulating models that aim to eradicate stereotypes, prejudices, and the discrimination of Deaf people? Exploring the dynamics of relationships among all ages, abilities, religions, races, ethnicities, social classes, sexualities, and genders is more crucial than ever to tackle the current injustices these members face; simply put, we should do this because it is the right thing to do.
Social justice moves us toward supporting autonomy and allows people to one day live in a world that provides unique spaces for minority groups to flourish. Understanding how Deaf individuals view social justice issues allows for majority members to begin looking at the unique needs of individuals, rather than viewing the whole community as another alternative group based on memorized knowledge about minorities in general (although important parallels between minority groups do exist).
The Prism of Social Justice
The concept of social justice wills interpreters to address current social challenges posed by policy, growing inequality, and social exclusion. Many sign language interpreters strive for social justice because of our unique position to witness injustices experienced by Deaf individuals. Examples of how unfair and avoidable differences lead to disparities in the lives of those we serve include how insufficient support and education in our country affects those who use sign language. I sometimes feel we fail to truly recognize and account for how Deaf people experience the world.
Delivering actions through a prism of social justice creates opportunities for positive change. When interpreters lack personal understanding—experience with and knowledge of Deaf culture—they tend to perpetuate, normalize, and widen the divide between hearing and Deaf communities. To avoid this, a framework of social justice minimizes disconnects between communities and positively influences the relationships between Deaf Community members and sign language interpreters.
If interpreters work in a dysfunctional manner (i.e., working passively and remaining unconcerned about personal involvement with Deaf individuals), they are likely to block the grassroots collaborations necessary for change to occur. If this happens, it means interpreters can become a social justice issue themselves. This brings the need for individuals in the interpreting field, and its organizations, to advocate for the equal treatment of Deaf Community members, and recognize their impact on the lives of Deaf Community members: civic, academic, and otherwise.
Continue the Discussion
Social justice is a part of on-going discussions about shifts in our work as scholars, practitioners, teachers, and policy makers. These shifts, in turn, will improve the lives of oppressed people—in this case the Deaf Community. Scholar Rabbi Tarfon perhaps best articulates the nature of this call to action, our task to join Deaf people in a wider battle toward equality for all communities, “you are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it”.
Let’s work together to get rid of structures of hearing supremacy (e.g., stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination) by ensuring professionals in our field uphold Deaf Community members’ beliefs and thoughts surrounding their own self-empowerment.
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Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and power. Harlow, Eng: Longman.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. [New York]: Herder and Herder, 1970.
Rawls, J. A. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.