It is tempting to write 2016 off and move immediately into the new year, but that would mean overlooking some of the profound and fundamental lessons shared by StreetLeverage contributors last year.
While public speaking is one of the most fearful things humans can do, expressing one’s thoughts and perspectives via social media in two languages is probably a close second. Still, StreetLeverage contributors continue to inspire and amaze, bringing new insights and conversations to the table on a regular basis. If we were to measure the year in the depth and breadth of perspectives shared, 2016 would definitely be setting us up for success in 2017. So, before we bid 2016 adieu, we wanted to highlight a few examples of the generosity and courageousness shown by sign language interpreters and industry stakeholders in the last 12 months.
For Auld Lang Syne
Before we dive into our retrospective, we’d like to express our deepest gratitude to everyone who contributed, in large and small ways, to the StreetLeverage endeavor. Without the writers, readers, volunteers, thought-leaders, videographers, editors, and friends who volunteer their time and efforts to support us, StreetLeverage could not begin to amplify the voice of sign language interpreters or attempt to change the way we understand, practice, and tell the story of the sign language interpreter. For all your work, we say: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
2016’s Nine Building Blocks for Success
1. Bring Social Consciousness to the Fore
As practitioners in the field of communication access, social consciousness is a critical aspect of the work of all signed language interpreters. Joseph Hill’s presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: Practicing with a Socially Conscious Approach, at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 provides an avenue for us to start looking at identity and interpreting through a social justice lens. As we continue to delve into the skewed relationship between interpreter demographics and consumer realities, we look to thought leaders to help us find greater understanding and paths to improvement.
2. Reach Out to Deaf Interpreters
Another evolution in the field of interpreting that continued to manifest itself in 2016 was the reintroduction and strengthening of the presence of Deaf Interpreters in the field. While this evolution is happening, progress is slow and sometimes arduous as Jeremy Rogers explains in his article, Where’s the Welcome Mat? Opening the Door to Deaf Interpreters.
3. Look at Insider Discourse Under a Microscope
Semantics matter. As sign language interpreters, language is our currency. Despite this fact, we don’t always consider the impact language has on perspectives when it comes to the words we use to describe our work. Kelly Decker’s article, What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting, showcases some current examples of language we use in our insider discourse that may impact perceptions about the work we do and those with whom we work. With lively conversation, this article lit up our comments board, and we hope it continues to do so.
4. Inject Humor and Humility into Our Practice
As one of the field’s most beloved teachers and mentors, Sharon Neumann Solow inserts equal parts humor, humility, and straight-forward talk into the conversation in her StreetLeverage – Live 2015 presentation, Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me?. By sharing personal stories, Sharon’s presentation provides context for looking at confidence versus spotlight-stealing and illustrates why the differences matter.
5. Support Ethics with Pre-Assignment Considerations
Job readiness is a topic that comes up in most conversations about sign language interpreting at some point, whether one-on-one or at a conference. Michael Ballard provides a consumer’s perspective on the kind of preparation sign language interpreters could do to help determine their level of preparedness for an assignment in his article, Accept or Decline? Questions Sign Language Interpreters Should Ponder.
6. Join the Civility Revolution
With bullying and trolling in the news constantly, it was refreshing to have a conversation about civil discourse. Providing tools and suggestions for action, Diana MacDougall invited sign language interpreters to join a kinder, gentler conversation and revolution in her article, A Civility Revolution: A Call to Arms for Sign Language Interpreters.
7. Explore the Realities of the Modern World
In a year where violence of all kinds dominated headlines and conversations around the country and the world, Stephen Holter’s article, Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World, struck a chord with readers who also shared some of their own experiences and strategies for staying safe. While we hope no interpreter ever needs to utilize these tips and tools, it’s an important conversation to engage in.
8. Uncover the Intangible
In his deeply personal and profound StreetLeverage – Live 2015 presentation, Status Transaction: The “It” Factor in Sign Language Interpreting, Wing Butler shared his thoughts on the “It Factor” for sign language interpreters. In his exploration of the intangible qualities that raise community esteem for one sign language interpreter over another, Wing also gives us a formula for success. Skills are important, but there are other factors that create the elusive “It” interpreter.
9. Examine Personal Cultural Competence
Our final selection is a compilation of exemplary work from some of the brilliant minds in our field. Our 2016 workbook, Ignite, is a collection of posts designed to lead sign language interpreters and sign language interpreting students through a process of self-discovery regarding cultural competence. This free-to-download offering is an opportunity to look at a specific topic through a variety of lenses in order to gain a more well-rounded perspective. We hope this inaugural edition will be the first of many such workbooks.
Please Continue to Join Us in 2017 and Beyond
We hope this look back on 2016 will provide you with some valuable takeaways that can be foundations for a successful year ahead. Again, thank you for your support, sharing, comments, viewings, and readership. We hope you will continue to join us here on the blog and register to come meet us in St. Paul, MN for StreetLeverage – Live 2017. Please join us in raising our glasses in a toast to a bright new year. Welcome to 2017!
*Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox?
Simply enter your name and email in the field above the green “Sign Me Up!” button (upper left-hand side of this page) and click “Sign Me Up!”
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 levels—at 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, we’ve seen discussion about identities, which has given rise to the term intersectionality. This is an important concept, because, as Amy Williamson said, for her it’s 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, you’d be out of business. I wish it could be done that way, but it can’t. 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. It’s 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 didn’t come here to lecture you, or to explain how to accomplish this task, or to list all the things you should do. I’m not an interpreter myself. I’m not a CDI. I am Deaf, my parents are Deaf, and I have four Deaf children. I’m engaged in the community, and I work with many interpreters. So, while I bring that set of experiences, I won’t 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 won’t 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 won’t be comfortable. As you uncover some truths about yourself, you’ll be tempted to hide them, to deny them, to refocus on others’ work in this process. Don’t.
Ironically, my journey began while I was teaching the Deafhood course. It’s true! People say, “You already knew all about Deafhood before!”, but that’s 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 wasn’t 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, we’ve 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, I’m a Deaf person, I sign and know Deaf culture, I’m fine. Why do I need this course?” When you take the course, it’s astonishing. It’s truly an eye-opening experience. Once you learn some key pieces of information, you’re able to reframe your entire understanding of our experience. It’s 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 don’t see. We’re 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. It’s even used in car chase scenes. I hadn’t 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. They’re 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, racism—which 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. It’s 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, “Weare capable. We can do it. Sign language is important,” they just continue, “You can always learn ASL later. It’s important that you practice speech now.” This ideology is prevalent throughout society. That’s 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 couldn’t 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 weare 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 children’s 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. It’s 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 children—CODAs, 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.
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 it’s not normal. They assume that it’s 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 we’re 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, “You’re going to start complaining? This is not new. This is how things have always been. This is just the reality. There’s nothing to be done.” We answer, “No, this is not reality.” But then as we get on with our lives, all of our subsequent conversations—with sign language interpreters, at RID conventions, at StreetLeverage, in the community, in Deaf education, at CEASD—happen 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, we’re 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 we’re agonizing in our disempowered position. Can that conversation be a healthy, equal exchange? It’s 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 don’t 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 don’t 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).
Our community has been divided and compartmentalized under a host of different labels. Audism plays a huge role here. “Your child can’t 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 Ladd’s 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 don’t 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 I’ve 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 don’t 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 don’t sign at all with their Deaf children. I watched Ryan Commerson’s 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 I’ll share with you now. (video clip from Ryan Commerson’s thesis at 19:20)
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 itis 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 Ryan’s point, we can’t 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 don’t comport with our frame, we discard those facts wholesale. They can’t 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 can’t beat them over the head with it. We can’t 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, “Let’s deal with this later. We can talk about this in a year or two when we’re ready. Let’s 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 they’d 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. We’ll 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)
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 it’s a white majority, what do you do? What if it’s 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 we’re on equal footing? Often, we who have the power say, “Come on! Let’s talk!” But it doesn’t 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.
Amy Williamson presented Deaf-parented Interpreters: A Challenge to the Status Quo in Sign Language Interpreter Education? at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston/Newton. Amy will examine the experience of deaf-parented interpreters as child language brokers, heritage learners of sign language, and practitioners working among the community who raised them.
You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.
“Do You Remember the First Time You Interpreted?”
For those of you without deaf family members, you remember. Clearly. This question probably evokes a visceral emotional reaction and a vivid mind’s eye image. For me, a white middle class hearing female who grew up with deaf parents and extended family members, I might as well be asked if I remember the first time I ate toast. Toast has always been a part of my world. So has interpreting. Well, at least the concept of interpreting.
What I grew up doing was what is commonly referred to as child language brokering. I don’t remember the FIRST time I interpreted but I do have memories of culturally brokering between my parents and non-signing people. When I was in middle school, I was assigned a submission to the dreaded science fair. Any of you with children may have some empathy for my mother as she had to deal with a daughter (me) that was, is, and shall always be the Queen of Procrastination. As per usual, just before the stores were closing the night before the project was due, I needed a run to the drug store to get some long forgotten but very important item to complete the project. Just as the store was closing, my mother was at the cash register purchasing the key item that would make or break my project. While I was not actually standing with my mother, I was close enough to witness the following:
Clerk: Hello, how are you?
My mother: looking down to retrieve money from her wallet does not see that the clerk has said something to her
Clerk: Well, you don’t have to be rude.
My mother: still looking down does not see that the clerk has said something else
In that moment, my 13-year-old self knew that I could do one of a few things in reaction. I was not ‘interpreting’ for my family members as I do now that I am a professional interpreter, but I had over time, trial, and error learned how to determine the goals of each of the people communicating and navigate between them. Each interaction, constellation of players, and context would result in a different decision on how to broker between them.
Some Days I Made Good Decisions. Other Days I Did Not.
On that late night I made a decision. I walked up to my mother and started signing to her. The act of signing made immediately clear to the clerk, who probably was exhausted after a long day of waiting on ungrateful customers and may not have intended for the comment to be said out loud, that my mother was deaf. Not rude. And more than anything, wanted to get in and out of the store with the must have for the science fair project item. Anyone that knows my mother can vouch for me when I say that ‘rude’ is the last adjective you would ever hear in a description of her.
To Broker or Not to Broker, Not a Choice.
This experience wasn’t a first. It wasn’t the last. This type of thing will always happen for children of deaf parents. No amount of Video Relay Service, Closed Captioning on TV, laws protecting the rights of Deaf people, or interpreters on every street corner will prevent children from witnessing and brokering in situations like this. Even if a parent chooses not to have their child broker, it is almost impossible to stand by and watch miscommunication happen. Children want to help their parents. How the situation is handled is unique to the relationship between child and parent and those decisions are highly personal. The dynamics around these interactions need to be understood and respected by the larger interpreting community.
What Defines a Native Signer? Is Auditory Status Part of the Criteria?
Signed language researchers have no consensus on a definition of who is a native sign language user. Such a small percentage of deaf people are born to signing deaf parents. By defining a native user as someone that uses the language from birth, the number of native users for their research purposes would be limited. Researchers manipulate the criteria to suit their research questions.
Among spoken language colleagues the criteria for native users of a language is straightforward. Anyone that uses a language from birth is considered a native user. For some reason, modality and auditory status become part of the criteria when we talk about native users of signed language. People seem loathe to admit that a majority of native signed language users are hearing because most deaf people have hearing children and those children acquire a signed language from birth.
What Makes a Heritage Language User? Fluency Will Vary.
If a person uses a minority language at home with their parents and is not educated in that same language, they are called a heritage language user. As a student of their home language, they are called a heritage language learner. Deaf-parented individuals are heritage language signers and potentially heritage language learners if they take a signed language class.
Heritage language fluency will vary wildly among users and may vary within the same family. Fluency in the heritage language will depend on several factors such as how often the child interacts in the heritage language or how diverse the language users are that they interact with. Family language policies and dynamics are unique and evolve for each family differently.
The Role of Family, Community & School.
For any language acquisition, whether it is a first or subsequent language, there are three areas of immersion that will ensure full and rich language acquisition. They are family, community, and school. If we apply this model of language acquisition to each of four groups, we can develop a better understanding of the opportunities for signed language acquisition and fluency development for the communities we work with.
If you are deaf with deaf parents, you will have signed language immersion in all three areas. If you are deaf with hearing parents, there are no guarantees of immersion in all three areas. If you are hearing with hearing parents, the opportunities for immersion in any one of the three areas are difficult to experience. If you are, like me, hearing with deaf parents, you will experience immersion at home, possibly in the community but not in school. I conducted a survey of 751 deaf-parented interpreters and found that 74% of the respondents reported that they had interactions with signing deaf people that were not their own parents at least weekly. deaf-parented interpreters do have community opportunities for signed language acquisition.
In thinking about these three areas of language immersion, how does your experience shape up? How much signed language immersion have you had in your home life, community, or schooling?
Child Language Broker to Professional Interpreter
When I was 18, I needed a job. I was a poor college student that needed money for shoes. And beer (shhhh…don’t tell my mother). I thought I had no marketable skills but then I found out that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had just passed and the world was in desperate need of exactly what I had to offer.
I was a heritage language user of ASL and I had experience as a child language broker. These two experiences were valued and needed. Without setting out any intention of becoming an interpreter, doors opened that started me on a professional career path. A path that I am grateful for.
My own entry to interpreting is not unique. Almost 80% of the respondents to my survey fell into the ASL/English interpreting industry without intentionally pursuing it. Most of the interpreters that responded to my survey started interpreting before the age of 25. Just like me and some of you.
What does all of this have to do with interpreter education and why am I…someone with no formal interpreter education program background…even talking about it? Let me show you.
Only 28% of the deaf-parented interpreter survey respondents attended and completed a formal interpreter education program.
Deaf-parented interpreters want to get training. They are committed to getting structured training. Enough so that one survey respondent, a mother of young children, drove an hour and a half one-way to attend a structured interpreter training program. That same program required students to attend specific evening and weekend events in the deaf community to get more exposure and understanding of ASL and the community that uses it. The respondent’s deaf family members lived near her and she saw and interacted with them and the deaf community regularly. Her instructor insisted that she adhere to the requirement to attend the same events that her classmates were required to attend.
The hoops she was required to jump to get exposure to sign language and the deaf community were unnecessary for her but the system failed her by sticking to their rigid requirements.
She is one of the 28%.
25 Years of Progress?
In the 25 years since I entered the field, the bar has been raised on entry-level requirements for interpreters. In the grand scheme of things, this is a good thing but I challenge our industry to look at what we may be losing as we raise the bar.
If I were to graduate from high school today and need money for shoes and beer, I’d probably have to get a job at McDonald’s. The community would not have access to my skillset. I would not be able to work in many states without licensure. Licensure would require certification. Certification would require sitting for RID’s NIC or CDI exam. To sit for that exam, I would need to have completed a BA or AA degree or demonstrated equivalent competency through the alternate pathways process.
Alternate pathway is a nice option for anyone that has not completed a degree but it still requires documentation of interpreting and education.
How would you propose I document all of the situations like the one in the drug store the night before my science fair project was due?
I would likely not become an interpreter in 2015. Maybe I’d be a police detective or a bookstore manager. All of those respondents that said they ‘fell into’ interpreting would be teachers or lawyers or waiters or accountants or stay at home moms.
Maybe I don’t know what I am talking about. Maybe interpreter education is working for most people. What do I know?
Together We Can Ensure Adequate Training.
It recently dawned on me that I had never met an interpreter/student interpreter before they started to learn sign. I don’t know what it is like to decide to take an ASL class or to become an interpreter. I don’t know what it is like to see a person signing for the first time. I don’t know what it is like to interpret for the first time (let alone in a classroom from a video). I don’t know what it is like to sign in front of other people for the first time. I don’t know what it is like to go though a decision making tree that you learned in a class before making a decision while interpreting.
I do know that expecting deaf-parented interpreters, child language brokers who are native and heritage users of signed language, to fit into the current model of interpreter education does not work for most of us. We need professional education. We need acknowledgement that we bring a different skill set to our industry than interpreters who do not have deaf parents.
Let’s ensure that little girls with deaf parents, and their classmates, have options for interpreter education that take into account their native and heritage language use. Training opportunities that are designed to enhance and refine their child language brokering experiences. We need deaf-parented interpreters to have an integral part of shaping our industry as we provide services to our signing communities.
*Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox?
Simply enter your name and email in the field above the green “Sign Up!” button (upper left-hand side of this page) and click “Sign Up!”
Angelelli, C. (2010). A professional ideology in the making: Bilingual youngsters interpreting for the communities and the notion of (no) choice. Translation and Interpreting Studies, 5(1), 94-108.
Compton, S. (2014). American Sign Language as a Heritage Language. In T. G. Wiley, J. K. Peyton, D. Christian, S. C. Moore, & N. Liu (Eds.), Handbook of Heritage, Community, and Native American Languages in the United States: Research, Policy, and Educational Practice. New York: Routledge and Center for Applied Linguistics.
Napier, J. (in press). Not just child’s play: Exploring bilingualism and language brokering as a precursor to the development of expertise as a professional signed language interpreter. In R. Antonini (Ed.), Non-professional Interpreting and Translation: State of the Art and Future of an Emerging Field of Research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Reynolds, W. & Palmer, J. (2014, June). Codas as heritage learners →signers. Presented at CODA International, Codazona, Tempe, AZ.
Part of my motivation in writing this article now is that I so poorly dropped the ball when the time came to vote on establishing a position on the RID Board of Directors that dedicated a seat to an Interpreter with Deaf Parents (IDP), the IDP MAL (Member-at-Large) position. I could cite my business at work, or the back pain and subsequent surgery as excuses, but the truth is I could have made time somewhere in there to attend to my business and vote! I failed to exercise my democratic power when the time came, and I failed in what I consider to be one of my personal and professional duties. I believed in the need for an ‘IDP seat’ already, having thought about the issues and arguments carefully, but by the time I got to putting my coins on the table, the hand was already dealt and done with.
I know there will be another opportunity for our community to debate and vote again on this issue, so I am ante’ing up now for the next hand and putting my arguments here in the public sphere to contribute to our next shot at getting this right.
Before going further, I want to state that I address this letter from the perspective of a Hearing interpreter (I.e. not a Child of Deaf Adults, CODA), to all of my fellow Hearing interpreters. I welcome all members of our community, Deaf, CODA, and Hearing interpreters, Deaf and CODA consumers of sign language interpreting services, and anyone else to read and respond to this writing. However, I feel it important to state that I am directing this to my fellow Hearing interpreters.
Any Position Will Do
In the interest of keeping my long-windedness at bay, let me begin by starting off with the seemingly strong and seemingly logical argument against having a dedicated IDP-MAL position on the RID Board of Directors. A CODA can always run for a position on the Board anyway! When I first saw this statement in discussions, it made sense and I had to ‘chew the cud’ as we say in the South, to figure out what bothered me about it. So chew I did and here is what I came up with. It is an absolutely true statement, but it is not an argument at all. It argues neither for a position nor against it.
So I chewed a little more, and I presumed that what was intended to be argued is that a need for the seat has not been shown. Having wrapped my slow but hopefully able wits around this nugget, I started to construct what arguments I could bring to bear to clearly establish that need and why it is important to the future of our field.
Running for Office
The first step in establishing a need for the position requires that we look at the assumptions underlying the “IDP’s can already run for office” argument. The fact that a thing can happen, does not mean a thing will happen. Sheer numbers can greatly reduce the likelihood that a given thing will happen in fact. The United States of America could have a dozen Hmong Representatives in Congress, but the probability of that given the current populations and geographic positioning of Hmong people in the United States, is extremely low. Given the changing demographics of our field, IDP’s are a shrinking minority within our ranks. The proliferation of Interpreter Training Programs and ASL as foreign language offerings in High Schools and Colleges has brought an influx of Hearing interpreters in greater numbers than ever before. Alex Jackson Nelson’s article, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege, offers some great insight on the need for practitioners to be aware of their privilege. In my mind, one demonstration that the need exists is because the math is against the continuous occupation of non-dedicated seats on the Board by Interpreters with Deaf Parents.
Affinity is Not Membership
As Hearing interpreters, we will never be members of the Deaf Community in the same way as a Deaf person is, or in the still different way that a CODA is. I say this without prejudice, or any sense of rejection by the community. We exist within the scope of the larger Deaf Community and are accepted into the fold to varying degrees throughout our lives, but we do not share the same experiences. It is vital that we address and accept that as the simple truth that it is. Laurie Nash offers excellent perspective on the value IDP’s bring to the profession in her interview with Brandon Arthur about the retraction of the referendum that would have established a designated position on the RID Board for IDP.
In other writings in other venues, I have spoken about my own background as child of a white mother and Mexican father. I have written about my experiences in the foster care system with a wonderful set of foster parents that were Black in the early 1970’s when such things just weren’t done. I have also written about the amazing couple (he, Lebanese, she Cherokee/Choctaw) that turned my life around, and about the many ways that the Deaf community has been in my life since I was a child.
In those writings, just as here, it was all to make the point that affinity does not create membership.
Given my experiences, I have unique insights to many communities, but I cannot have full insight into any of them. I was ‘interpreting’ for fellow children in the system at 12 years old, so I can relate to some experiences that an IDP has, but there are infinitely more that I can never understand or give voice to. If you want insight into the CODA experience, read Amy Williamson’s article, The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession. Affinity does not create membership, and if ever the Board does not have an Interpreter with Deaf Parents seated at the table, that voice will be absent.
IDP’s Are Consumers
IDP’s are not merely our colleagues, against whom we sometimes compare ourselves, or whom we envision en masse as the fulfillment of some stereo-typical image of ‘the CODA interpreter’.
IDP’s are also the consumers of our services!
I cannot stress this enough. IDP’s are the children whose IEP we are interpreting for directly or for their Deaf Parents. IDP’s are the performers in the school play or the Broadway production their loved ones are attending. IDP’s are the scientists and educators that we are working with in many educational settings. CODA children are sometimes directly using interpreters in critical care situations where Hearing Interpreters and Deaf Interpreters are working as a team to provide access just as they would with a young Deaf child. IDP’s are the presenters and performers that we are working with. IDP’s are our consumers. Few among our numbers would suggest that RID does not need to have a dedicated seat for a Deaf Member at Large on the Board, because we rightly see the need to have consumer/practitioner perspectives guiding our work and our future. Our field is also fortunate to have another community of consumer/practitioners in our IDP colleagues, and we should ensure that their unique perspectives are always part of our governing body.
In short we failed to recognize and embed the value IDP’s bring to the governing table of our profession. The demographics of our field create a greater likelihood that Hearing Interpreters will always be present but IDP participation on the Board will be absent or intermittent at best; that no matter the level of affinity a Hearing interpreter may have, we can never bring the full experience of a Deaf person or a CODA to bear in shaping the future of the sign language interpreting field; and that as we recognize the necessity of having practitioners of all types on our Board, we must similarly recognize the imperative to ensure that IDP’s are also at the table.
Please join me in preparing for the next time we have a chance to ensure that our organization always has a team at the helm who can provide valuable insight on the work we do and the perspective of the people we endeavor to serve.
*Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox?
Simply enter your name and email in the field above the green “Sign Me Up!” button (upper right-hand side of this page) and click “Sign Me Up!”
I recently attended an interpreter retreat where the purpose was to examine privilege, how it manifests in our individual work lives, our relationships with each other, and within the sign language interpreting profession as a whole. Privilege is a topic that makes for a hard discussion for any group of people. Those of us in attendance included new interpreters, been-around-the-block interpreters, urban, rural, hearing families, deaf families, deaf, hearing, coda, partners of deaf people, and siblings of deaf people. We committed to a weekend of taking the time and space to look at what each of us has to offer. We talked about being marginalized, feeling marginalized, and how we marginalize each other.
It was in this setting that I was, again, pushed to face a reality that I have encountered periodically over my 20-year career…our field does not understand, appreciate, or value what it means to be hearing and raised in a deaf parented home.
The Invisibility of Between
Codas live in an in-between space within the sign language interpreting profession. We are not hearing. We are not deaf. As such, we are often not seen nor valued. We are; however, both vilified and worshiped in good measure.
From our hearing colleagues we are told that we are lucky to have deaf parents and that it must have been easy to become an interpreter. We are told that our skills are not up to par because we didn’t attend an Interpreter Preparation Program and hearing interpreters tell us that we make them nervous.
From the deaf people we work with we are told that they are relieved we are present because they can relax and understand what is being communicated. We are also told that we can’t be trusted because we may tell our deaf family members their business.
Our experience affords us the opportunity to apply authentic, connective experience and insight to our work. Is this threatening or is this assuring?
An example of the invisibility of between is the lack of coda involvement at the formal and informal decision-making tables within the field. How many non deaf codas have there been over the past few years on the RID National Board? How about within the RID committee structure? How many codas are there on state chapter committees and executive boards? How many codas are there in the wise circle of professionals that you call on when you need to talk out an issue? Whatever you answer, I will argue, as does Dennis Cokely in his post, Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?, that it is not enough.
What does the absence of this insightful perspective cost the field in the form of forward progress?
The Footings of Invisibility
The Difference That Divides
I grew up the child of intelligent, savvy, funny, competent, employed, educated, honest, bilingual, loving parents who were each part of large extended deaf families. Being deaf in my family is normal. I also grew up being told by every hearing person I encountered (including my own hearing family members) that my parents weren’t good enough. That it was my job to take care of them. It was my job to look out for them. Communicate for them. Be their ears. I was constantly pitied.
I was marveled over…the fact that I could hear and they could not was viewed as a miracle. “Bless your heart, honey” was a constant refrain in my southern existence.
Even today, when I tell people my parents are deaf I am always asked (without fail) “both of them?” as if that would be the end of the world. The second question (without fail) is “what is it like having deaf parents?” as if I have anything to compare it to. I was made fun of by other kids. I was always different…but not in the way that all kids at some point think they are different. I was coda different.
Every coda has this experience. Our experiences vary by degree and extent. Our coda experiences vary as the temperament and personalities of our parents vary, but there is an experience that is common to all codas. The experience that unifies us is that we all get the same reactions about our parents from people who simply don’t know any better.
We are told and whispered all of this, yet; the people being talked about are actually the parents who took care of us. Shielded us from danger. Fed us. Loved us. Yes, parented us.
Never do these well-meaning family members, teachers, friends, strangers say to our deaf parents what they say to us. They wouldn’t dare. As young children we are left holding onto it all…most of us choosing (consciously or unconsciously) not to share what we were told with our parents. We held these conflicting realities and were too young to know what to do with them or about them.
Many of us grew up in a home where our deaf parents hated hearing people (with good reason given discrimination and oppression) and were free in talking about their distrust and hate for the hearing community. Many of us developed our own hate for hearing people after witnessing and being victim ourselves to injustice after injustice. We had the hearing community pitying us and telling us we weren’t deaf, because by miracle we could hear. We had our deaf parents telling us we were hearing, yet also saying that they hated hearing people. Confusing is an understatement.
As a result, from a very young age we decide what we are going to believe. Some of us drink the Kool-Aid and agree with the hearing community’s assessment of our parents. We believe them when they tell us that we need to take care of our parents, look out for them, communicate for them, even pity them. That we are miracles and that it is so very sad that our parents are deaf. Poor us. We believe that ASL is a bastardized form of English and is substandard. We are ashamed of our families.
Others of us come out fighting and defend our parents and the deafness within us with a vengeance. We shoot verbal (or physical) daggers at anyone that dares attack the reality and validity of our existence. In 5th grade at least one of us is sent to the Principal’s office for giving what-for to the biggest kid in the class for calling her parents ‘dumb.’ We hate hearing people for putting us in the position to question our parents’ abilities, intent, and love.
Then there are the rest of us who vacillate between the 2 extremes yet usually settle somewhere in the middle. We find a way to navigate between our deafness and our hearingness, yet never really feel a part of either.
We are all coda. Not deaf. Not hearing.
We are somewhere between.
Depth of Perspective
Our uniqueness doesn’t have to do with language fluency. Defining a coda by language fluency or native/near-native/native-like signing fluency misses the point completely. Some of us grew up not knowing how to sign fluently ourselves. Many of us fingerspelled everything we said to our parents. Some of us spent the first few years of our lives assuming we were as deaf as our parents and were perplexed when we were not taken to the school for the deaf on our first day of Kindergarten.
We are not all interpreters and those of us who are don’t have it come ‘naturally’ to us. We work very, very hard at a very, very difficult task, interpreting. Some of us do it well. Others of us struggle.
Our insight comes from spending our developmental and formative years in this between space.
We have brokered between the deaf and hearing worlds our whole life. Disdain. Joy. The mundane. We have done it or seen it communicated directly. We learned fast and early what it took for the local mechanic and our dad to understand each other. This unique experience leads to a skill that cannot be taught in an IPP. It can’t be learned by having a deaf sibling or deaf partner even. It’s not about ‘knowing’ sign language your whole life. Our uniqueness is about being parented by a deaf person. A person that you can’t just walk away from, avoid, or never see again. A person who is oppressed on all sides…by their families, by their education, by the media, by the judicial system, by their employer, and, yes, sometimes by their own children.
The word ‘parented’ is the operative one here. It implies a bonding, a relationship of dependence, of value sharing, of boundary teaching. We were parented by competent people who were viewed and treated as incompetent by the majority of society. A majority that takes it upon themselves to tell you how incompetent your parents are under the guise of kindness or good deeds. This experience is unique and solely a coda’s.
Deaf children of deaf parents do not get this reaction directly from the hearing people they interact with. They are pitied and vilified and objects of fetishism (this is how I describe the folks who think sign language is beautiful hand waving and don’t really get the linguistic and cultural aspects of the community) the same way their parents are. Their experience having deaf parents is unique to that relationship. They do often function as brokers within the deaf community but their experience is very different from that of hearing children with deaf parents.
Codas have lived life in a deaf parented home after the interpreters and well meaning hearing people have all gone home. It is then that our deaf parents whisper to us what they dare not say in front of them. We continue to hold the secrets of our deaf parents and the secrets of the hearing community (including hearing interpreters who quietly share their sentiments).
“Many Codas have experienced unique and complex roles, having hearing privilege in a Deaf family, straddling two cultures and dutifully providing communication access without pay. Perhaps, a deeper understanding of privilege contributes to their intrinsic connection to the fight for humanity.”
Alex goes on to state, “In my observation, many Codas possess an unequivocal understanding of privilege and power that is not easily recognized by non-Coda interpreters (including myself.)”
What contribution do you think someone with this unique insight and perspective can play?
A Standing Invitation
I shouldn’t have to say that our perspective brings value to our profession. Retreats like the one I attended shouldn’t be the only place and time we talk about who we are and what we have to offer. Codas shouldn’t have to beg for a place at the decision-making tables of our field.
Yet, here I am. Saying it. Begging for it.
We, codas, are here. We have a lot to share. Invite us to the table. Pull out a chair for us. Welcome us.