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Deafhood: Liberation, Healing, and the Sign Language Interpreter

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

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

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

Deafhood: Liberation, Healing, and the Sign Language Interpreter

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

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

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

My Deafhood Journey

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

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

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

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


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

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

Unequal and Unhealthy

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

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

Marvin Miller
Marvin Miller

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

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

False Divisions

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

“All Deaf people are our brothers and sisters.”

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

Reframing Perceptions

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

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

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

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

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

On Vulnerability

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

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

Thank you.

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

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

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

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

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

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

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

Types of Learning

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

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

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

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

The Critical Nature of Social Learning

Mindy Hopper
Mindy Hopper

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

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

Leveraging Incidental Learning

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

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

Systemic Ideologies and The Role of Sign Language Interpreters

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

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

Collaboration is Key

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

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

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

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

Your Turn

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


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

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Implicit & Explicit Meaning: Implications for Sign Language Interpreters

Patrick Graybill presented Implicit & Explicit Meaning: Implications for Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. His talk examines how authentic meanings can be implicit or explicit and explores some of the guiding principles for uncovering meaning.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

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

National Treasure

Good morning, everyone! It’s difficult for me to start after having watched that tribute. I’m truly stunned. To call me a national treasure, however, could be a dubious honor. I have to ask myself whether this means that I’m now a fossil or if I’m still going strong. But, after watching the video [Aaron Brace video tribute to Patrick Graybill], I must say that every time I saw Aaron Brace, I was inspired. I simply planted the seed. That’s all! What happened from then on was not my doing alone.

Freedom to be Authentic

This weekend I’ve come to the StreetLeverage conference, but I’m not an interpreter. I’m just a Deaf person, so at first I didn’t know why I would come to such an event. However, yesterday and this morning helped me understand that I can cry. I don’t tend to cry, but I did, because here at StreetLeverage, ASL is allowed to come first. It’s placed above English, and that makes me feel free, inspired, like I can simply be! I feel like I did years and years ago when I was at the National Symposium on Sign Language Research and Teaching (NSSLRT) here in Boston. Prior to that I had been performing a one-man show for the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD), and on tour a voice actor would stand behind me and interpret my lines. While I was on stage, I would worry the whole time that I might jump a line. What would the voice actor do? Would he follow me? I was utterly thrown off by this worry during my performances. I couldn’t concentrate at all. Now, Dennis Cokely was at the NSSLRT. Like me, Dennis also planted a seed that grew. He had a Lexus; he had a condo. I didn’t have these things, so I watched him and learned. At the NSSLRT I was slated to do my one-man show, and I asked Dennis who would voice interpret for me. He said, “No one. It’s not necessary.” I said, “Wait a minute! It’s important that interpreters in the audience understand me! There has to be a voice actor behind me on stage!” He said, “No, there doesn’t.” That evening, after the day’s events, I performed my show, and I felt unbelievably free. I was emotionally free. I had no worries about the interpreter behind me. That experience had an enormous impact on me, and it convinced me of something that I’ll share with you now.

As I said, that evening on stage I had no worries, no internal distractions or discomforts to impede my performance. I want interpreters to have that same experience. I want you to feel honest inside, to feel free, to feel that if you make a mistake, you can carry on. I want you to feel in your work that you’re not merely donning a mask and pretending to be something, but that you are being authentic as a person.

Implicit and Explicit Meaning

Language has multiple meanings. Sometimes it carries explicit meaning, which is easily grasped and easily understood. Sometimes language conveys implicit meaning, which is murky, abstract, and difficult to encode. Perhaps a good word for this type of meaning is “invisible”. This hidden meaning wants to be made clear to the world. “Here I am! Under here! Bring me out!” Interpreters study these meanings, and they often spend more time looking at explicit meaning than implicit meaning. However, when they understand the implicit meanings, their interpretations are far more honest, clear, and confident. If they stay at the surface without plumbing the depths of meaning, the message is not made clear, and we as consumers have to work very hard to uncover the meaning ourselves. That’s what I want to address with you today.

Yesterday, Marvin Miller presented on Deafhood and the importance of having an internal sense of identity. Interpreters must have their own internal sense of identity, too – their “interpreterhood”, if you will. My journey as a teacher, as an actor, and as a member of the church began with this internal sense of identity. It must start from an authentic place within.

Gulliver’s Travels

I grew up in a residential school, which taught me one particular way of thinking. I had to adopt my teachers’ perspectives and follow their lead. Then at Gallaudet, when I was about 20 or 21 years old, I began to grapple with my identity. I knew I wanted to be an actor, but Gallaudet didn’t offer a major in theater. Acting was considered extracurricular there, which was fine, but I had to choose a major. I thought perhaps I could pursue teaching, but Gallaudet didn’t offer a major in education either. I had to wait until graduate school to study education. So, as I was weighing my options, I spoke with Dr. Robert F. Panara who was a late-deafened professor. He said, “You love acting. You love reading. You should major in English. You can read and study plays.” And being the good boy that I was, I followed his advice. I took classes in English, and in one, we read Gulliver’s Travels. I understood it superficially, thinking that the story of the giants and the miniature people was merely cute. But as we discussed the book in class, and different perspectives were raised, I became confused. These characters were symbols representing the struggle between the British and the Irish. This concept really threw me. From then on, I grew to understood that a text contains multiple perspectives.

Much later, I learned how to translate the Bible, and fortunately, I didn’t have to struggle alone in that task. I counted on MJ Bienvenu, Marie Phillip, Freda Norman, linguist Charlotte Baker-Shenk, consultant Kevin Kreutzer, as well as a hearing biblical scholar who had expertise in Hebrew and Greek. We all worked together, examining and uncovering the layers of meaning in the Bible and bringing them to the surface. I was at once intellectually and emotionally stimulated. I loved the Bible! Not because of its piety, but because people from biblical times experienced the same struggles, the same emotions, and the same depth of thinking that we do today. Literature contains these same themes. Gulliver’s Travels contains these same themes. From that point on, this work has been fun! Uncovering implicit meaning is fun, and I want you interpreters to experience that, too. It’s fun! Life is good. Why waste it arguing? Dig into the deeper meanings, and do it together, not alone.

The Semantics of Boston Strong

Let’s look at this symbol in terms of its explicit and implicit meanings. On Friday, Patrick Costello exclaimed, “Boston Strong!” Firstly, that statement had a certain prosody. We know some of its explicit meaning, but we can explore it more deeply. What does Boston mean? What does Strong mean?

I don’t have a PhD in semantics. I am not a linguist. But I have consulted on the interpretations of plays with Aaron Brace among others, and we focus on examining meaning at the implicit level. We work to uncover deeper meanings, and people have often said to me, “You should teach a course in semantics!” I’ve always demurred, but over the years, despite the fact that I have no degree, I have gained a lot of experience with interpretation and translation. I’ve come to realize that teaching is not what’s important. Gaining experience is. The work of deep analysis, digging for and unearthing implicit meaning, is perhaps where the new national treasure lies. Making explicit those implicit meanings allows us to present a clearer message. From there, we can doff our masks, dispense with ambiguity, and be free to render an authentic message. Whether you’re an interpreter, an actor, or a teacher, the key is communication, and clearer is better. Don’t you agree?

Levels of Meaning

There are fours levels of meaning, and I imagine you’ve studied them and know what they are. I find them fascinating. Take Street Leverage, for example. We have the word, street. Taken alone, what does this word mean? I’m here at this conference and I see no street. What about the word, leverage? Maybe this is a common word for hearing people, but as a Deaf person, I see the words “street” and “leverage”, and I don’t get it. Now, at the phrasal level, what is Street Leverage? What does this phrase mean? I still don’t know. At the sentential level, I can look at the words that make up the mission of StreetLeverage and begin to see that it has to do with interpreters improving their skills, developing a sense of identity, and advancing the profession. But it’s not until I look at the level of the text as a whole that I can understand what StreetLeverage is all about, both intellectually and emotionally.

We can do the same exercise with the expression, Boston Strong. What is Boston? What is Strong?

Mayor Menino’s Speech: Semantic Levels

This is an excerpt from the mayor’s speech made on the day after the marathon bombings in Boston. We see the word Boston in the text. What was in the mayor’s mind when he said that word? What did he mean by Boston? Let’s look further.

Patrick Graybill
Patrick Graybill

We may think of a city when we see the word, Boston. But can a city be strong? “We are one Boston.” Interesting. We are a city? Are we buildings? No, we are people. Okay, so Boston cannot exist without us as people. Boston needs us. “One”. Hmmm. The paragraph begins, “Good morning. And it is a good morning…” Do these two iterations of “good morning” mean the same thing? No, they don’t. We know this intuitively. Obviously, the mayor meant the first as a greeting. The second is a statement on the greatness of the morning due to the fact that we are together, united. Boston is us. We are one. And the people of this city are not breaking down. We are resilient. Intrusions will not budge us. Challenges cannot disrupt us. We are strong. This is what is meant by Boston Strong. To simply interpret this concept into ASL with the signs for “Boston” and “strong” is not enough. It’s also not about how to do it correctly or who decides what the appropriate signs are. As we take time to engage in discussions about its meaning, the right signs will emerge. It’s not as though one person can come up with the correct expression of this in ASL. That would be impossible. It requires that people work together to construct its translation.

Responsibilities for Translators

I’ve been a translator for about 25 years. It is imperative for us to look for and uncover implicit meaning. It is our responsibility! We must sift through ambiguities and render a whole, truthful, completely clear picture of what is there in the source text. Then when I deliver the translated text to a group of Deaf people, its message must be understood as equal to, not lesser than, that of the source text. Equivalence is our ultimate responsibility.

Genuine Confidence

Interpreters have the very same responsibility that translators do. As you acquire more skills in translation work, your confidence will grow. Your interpretations will become strong, and you’ll astound people with the clarity of your work. You won’t leave us looking at each other trying to discern what you mean. No more of that! Here at StreetLeverage, as I experienced yesterday and today, it’s happening. It’s possible. There’s no need for voice interpreters. I’m standing here today, and I’m not wondering what the interpreter is doing. I don’t have to look down to check on an interpreter. All of us, Deaf and hearing alike, are using ASL here. We’re all on equal footing. It’s a strange world for me, but it’s the best. It’s simply the best.


Lastly, interpreters do not have to do this work alone! Together, we can do the analyses, make mistakes, and learn. Together, we can take on this task. Moreover, it isn’t only for the “on” interpreter and the “off” interpreter to tackle a translation. Deaf people and hearing people must work together on this. In my workshop this afternoon, Deaf and hearing people will work together to translate a text. This translation work serves as a tool, since interpreters on the job must do it simultaneously in real time. You can practice using this tool from time to time, in the evenings over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, in front of a nice dessert. You can sit in a circle, look at a text, and work on uncovering its implicit meanings. Discussing it together, the hearing interpreters can analyze the English text while the Deaf interpreters determine how best to express those concepts in ASL. Working together, our world will surely grow brighter! Good luck to you all!

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Success Starts by Acknowledging Humanity: The StreetLeverage – Live Recap

StreetLeverage – Live 2015 brought Deaf Community members, interpreters and stakeholders from within the field of sign language interpreting together under the premise of generosity, collaboration and the spirit of inquiry.

It was here, at the intersection of idea-sharing, perspective gathering and genuine introspection, that a fundamental truth about the field of sign language interpreting was further distilled—success is derived from first acknowledging the humanity of the people in front of you.

Simple. Challenging. True.

A great weekend to be sure. What follows is the highlight reel from the event held April 17th-19th in Boston/Newton, MA.

Deaf Community & Sign Language Interpreters Give Big

Rosa Lee Timm

In recognition of our responsibility to support the communities in which we live, work and play, StreetLeverage – Live and Northeastern University ASL Festival attendees, Deaf Community members and sign language interpreters from around the country donated monies to The Learning Center for the Deaf. Together we were able to exceed our goal of raising $10,000.00 in support of the advancement of The Learning Center’s innovative ASL Curriculum Project.

You can watch the fundraising event and the check presentation here.

National Treasure – Patrick Graybill

Patrick Graybill - StreetLeverage National Treasure 2015

To formally acknowledge the contributions of those working for change within the Deaf Community and field of sign language interpreting, StreetLeverage announced the creation of a National Treasure Award. This award will be given annually in an effort to recognize those who have enriched the fundamental assets of Deaf Culture, ASL, and the field of sign language interpreting.

StreetLeverage was delighted to honor Patrick Aaron Graybill as the first recipient of the StreetLeverage National Treasure Award.

You can view the presentation of the award here.

Complimentary Live Stream Access

StreetLeverage - Live 2015 Streaming Options

In an effort to extend the reach of thought leadership within the field of sign language interpreting, StreetLeverage proudly extended complimentary access to a number of StreetLeverage – Live 2015 sessions via live stream.

If you were unable to attend or simply want to relive the experience, you can immediately view the following sessions:

Friday, April 15, 2015

Brandon Arthur & Dennis Cokely | Fundraising Event: ASL Curriculum Project

Saturday, April 16, 2015

Marvin Miller | Deafhood: Liberation, Healing, and the Sign Language Interpreter

Anna Witter-Merithew & Kellie Stewart | Increasing the Value of Deaf-Interpreter Community Solutions: An Appreciative Inquiry Process (starts at 9:35)

Sunday, April 17, 2015

Wing Butler | Status Transactions: The “It” Factor in Sign Language Interpreting

Connect With Us

Connect with StreetLeverage on Social Media

If you haven’t done so, we hope you will take this opportunity to subscribe to receive our weekly posts in your inbox and connect with us via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We are committed to continuing the dialogue that occurred during the Live event and hope you will connect with us regularly to share your insight, perspective, and experience in order to enhance the practice of sign language interpreting.

Presenter Fusion

StreetLeverage - Live 2015 Presenters Patrick Graybill, Marvin Miller and Mindy Hopper

We are grateful for the big thinkers who took to the stage to share their ideas and insight on how to responsibly challenge practice within the field of sign language interpreting in order to uncover the art beneath. Special thanks to:

Wing Butler

Patrick Graybill

Joseph Hill

Mindy Hopper

Marvin Miller

Sharon Neumann Solow

Amy Williamson

Kellie Stewart

Anna Witter-Merithew

We are giddy with the anticipation of releasing of the videos of their presentations. The short-form talks from the Main Sessions will be released via in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned. The first one will be released shortly.

You can view talks from past StreetLeverage – Live events by clicking here.

LiveCorps Volunteers

StreetLeverage Social Media Ninjas Sandra Maloney and Jason Smith

Have you ever found yourself in a circumstance where it was the kindness, dedication, and talent of others that made an outcome far greater than anything you could have expected? Enter: StreetLeverage – LiveCorps. This amazing and uber-talented group of volunteers consisted of the Core Staff and students. They worked from the wee hours to the wee hours in support of creating a moment in time where generosity, collaboration, and the spirit of inquiry could freely abound.

The contributions made by these good folks are the only reason StreetLeverage – Live 2015 was possible.

Tara Arthur, because cupcakes, beaches, and our two little crazy-beautiful sticks of dynamite are all we’ll ever need.

Jean Miller, Diane Lynch, Wing Butler, and Dennis Cokely, you enrich the lives of everyone you touch. The success of StreetLeverage – Live 2015 was a direct result of your dedication to the field and passion for change. #YouWalkYourTalk

John Lestina, Mike Cahill, and Dan Cook, you guys killed it! Tech never looked so sexy.

Amy Williamson, Jason Smith, Kristy Bradley, Sandra Maloney, Kate O’Regan, Jen Vold, and Erica West-Odeyele, StreetLeverage – Live Social Media Ninjas, your keen eyes, fast fingers, and quick wit launched a perfect set of social waves that carried the discussion far beyond the wall of the Boston Marriott Newton. Thanks for digging deep!

Lance Pickett, Bill Millios, Tara Arthur and Sean Benson, photogs and votogs unite! You prowess behind the lens is insane! Your work will be long remembered. Thanks for bending light and capturing the moment.

Diane Lynch, Kelly Kerr, and Hayley Baccaire, you did it! You made slaying the three-headed logistical beast that is registration look like child’s play. Thanks for doing another tour. Gold stars all around!

Dan Cook, Letitia Byone, Erica Kramer, Tom Lauterborn, Jenna Eckenrode, Austin Harriman, Bobbie Krimmer, Brianna Palardy, Britney Siereveld, Cara Goldman, Dani Rauch, Elise Melito, Emily Smith, Gillian Gipson, Jamie Knight, Katie Skara, Lina Garcia, Lindsey Schick, Madison Norton, Meghan McCombs, Miko Kajen, Nora Rodriguez, Olivia Mabrey, Samantha Norton, Krystal Chung, and Sarah Garcia, thank you for demonstrating that leaders come in many forms and that the next generation of practitioners are in fact interested contributing to the future of the field in meaningful ways. StreetLeverage – Live was better because each of you came. Thank you for standing with us.   

Event Partners

Gallaudet Interpreting Service - StreetLeverage - Live 2015 Event Partner

StreetLeverage – Live would not be possible except for the generous and progressive support of our Partners. We would like to thank each of them for demonstrating that responsible community citizenship comes in many forms. Thanks again to the following companies for their support of the StreetLeverage endeavor to foster idea-sharing within the field of sign language interpreting.

Sorenson Communications | Salt Lake City, UT

TCS Interpreting | Rockville, MD

Access Interpreting | Washington, DC

Gallaudet Interpreting Service | Washington, DC

Purple Communications | Rocklin, CA

Partners Interpreting | Plainville, MA

Conference of Interpreter Trainers

GoReact | Orem, UT

Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing | Boston, MA

Northeastern University ASL Program | Boston, MA

Texas Society of Interpreters for the Deaf | Austin, TX

Sign Language Interpreting Professionals | Glenshaw, PA

Professional Sign Language Interpreting | Denver, CO

It’s #OurTurn

This year’s event hashtag was intended as a call to action for all those engaging with us during StreetLeverage – Live 2015. It is indeed #OurTurn. It is #OurTurn to rub the blur of industry politics and self-promotion from our eyes and see our fellow community members, colleagues, and ourselves as we are and can be. It is only then when humanity can be truly recognized and appreciated. This is when meaningful change occurs in our lives and our work. It takes root and springs up to propel the field of sign language interpreting forward.

Thanks again to everyone who participated in StreetLeverage – Live 2015.

We have already begun preparing for next year. StreetLeverage – Live 2016 will be held in Fremont, CA April 15th-17th. Mark your calendars!

Who will we be working to support next year? Take a look.

Fremont, CA here we come!