Sign language interpreters constantly strive to be better practitioners. Often it is a flash of perspective that gives context to the challenges they face and assists them in moving along their path to actualization.
Let’s admit it, being a sign language interpreter can be tough. Sometimes a little sprinkle of perspective can contextualize the challenges we face as practitioners. From language fluency to connecting with the community, from confronting social justice issues and inaccurate assumptions to maintaining our integrity and leaving a legacy, these flashes of insight can lead us to becoming the interpreters we aspire to be. What follows are sprinkles of goodness that will, in fact, make you a better sign language interpreter.
1. Dennis Cokely | Sign Language Interpreters: The Importance of the Day Before
In his StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: The Importance of the Day Before, Dennis Cokely discusses the dangers of unchallenged assumptions and the “one thing” sign language interpreters must always remember in order to render more effective, meaningful, and culturally appropriate interpretations.
2. Deb Russell | Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover an Enduring Legacy
Deb Russell’s StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover an Enduring Legacy, recognizes the importance of uncovering and acknowledging the contributions and traits of leaders who have significantly impacted the field of interpreting. In order to move forward, we must first understand where we have come from.
3. Betty Colonomos | Sign Language Interpreters: Fostering Integrity
In her presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: Fostering Integrity, from StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta, Betty Colonomos defines integrity and highlights the critical need for accountability in the field of sign language interpreting.
4. Doug Bowen Bailey | Transforming Perspectives: The Power of One-to-One Conversations For Sign Language Interpreters
Doug Bowen-Bailey’s StreetLeverage – Live | Austin presentation, Transforming Perspectives: The Power of One-to-One Conversations for Sign Language Interpreters, explores the concept of one-to-one conversations as a means of connecting with the Deaf community and other interpreters.
6. MJ Bienvenu | Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals?
MJ Bienvenu’s StreetLeverage – Live | Austin presentation, Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual?, explores the deeper questions involved in determining whether sign language interpreters are, in fact, bilingual.
While these presentations represent a small part of the wisdom and insight shared at StreetLeverage – Live events, we hope this retrospective provides you with some tools, ideas and information to support your journey to becoming the sign language interpreter you’ve imagined yourself to be.
Angela Roth presented Seriously!? Do Sign Language Interpreters Still Need to Talk About Diversity? at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her presentation addressed the depth of the challenges our profession still faces addressing individual and collective cross-cultural reality, respect and responsibility.
You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.
[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English version of Angela’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Angela’s talk directly.]
Seriously!? Do Sign Language Interpreters Still Need to Talk About Diversity?
Good morning. First, I have to admit that when Brandon called me to invite me to present at Street Leverage, my reaction when I hung up the phone was panicked: Why did I say yes?! What am I thinking? But I’m thrilled to be here and see so many beautiful people gathered here today.
A common expression in American English is “good job” or “good work.” When I interpret into Spanish, the expression we use might be signed BEAUTIFUL [speaker mouths Spanish word]. In our community, the concept of “pretty” is not ocular, rather it means beauty exuding from the soul. Since I’m aware of the implications of your presence here today, I can describe you all as beautiful souls.
Slide: Seriously!? Do Sign Language Interpreters Still Need to Talk About Diversity?
The question I ask in the title of this presentation may have many possible answers. I’d like to ask you to think back to workshops and presentations you’ve attended in the past. How often were you asked to take action? Many people’s response to a call to action is “but how?” The response is usually that action requires self-analysis and reflection. Often the answer is “Create relationships or partnerships.” If that’s the case, do some self-analysis and reflection, create relationships and work with your partners. OK? Great, that’s it for my presentation!
My point is that that’s truly where the work begins. Someone once said “be careful of your thoughts, because your thoughts become your words. Be careful of your words, because your words become your actions.” There is much emphasis on taking action, but the words and thoughts behind the actions deserve a deeper look.
When you leave today you may find yourself with more questions than answers. For now, I want to share some views on what may hinder our ability to look critically at our thought to action process and reasons behind those barriers. Despite our best efforts, that analysis remains a difficult task. I’d like to highlight three such barriers and the causes behind each.
First, I’d like to look externally. If I were to ask you to tell the person sitting beside you about something in the news that held bias, perhaps a negative view of a particular group or event, you could do it easily. That’s an example of bias coming from an outside source. But biases and judgments originate within communities of which we’re a part. No community is immune to that dynamic. We carry and internalize the larger world’s paradigms within us, and they, in turn, affect our relationships.
This phenomenon is not unique to sign language interpreters, although it happens to be our focus today. We must remember that there is diversity in every interaction we have throughout our day, in every person with whom we have contact. For every relationship that we have, don’t have, or desire, appearances may be misleading. A seemingly pleasant relationship, even with those we love, could conceal issues below the surface. In that vein, I’d like to return to addressing the three barriers.
Slide: “The DEPTH of the unconscious effect on each of us from our communities is the proverbial iceberg”
We need to understand our unconscious selves at the deepest level, and that depth of analysis requires a lot of work. Despite it being a sensitive topic, we must proceed regardless.
The first of the three unconscious barriers we face comes from a book called “The Righteous Mind.”1 Even the best of individuals still may heartily disagree on issues such as religion and politics. The reasons behind this are numerous; however, one, in particular, can be referred to as “groupishness.” [Slide at 6:50 on video.] This refers to the fact that people tend to gather and align themselves with one another. This is not in and of itself a negative thing, but we should be cautious of that behavior then leading to the gradual widening of the gap between affiliated versus non-affiliated groups. Studies have shown that the tighter-knit a group becomes, the more likely members are to dismiss and discount views that differed from their own. [Slide at 7:48 on video.] I’ll pause a moment; it seems the audience wanted more time to read the previous slide. All set? The wall projection takes longer to load than my teleprompter.
The Dangers of “Only”
So, the slide says that groups become so entrenched that members are unable to even understand opposing views. This is significant. Often it leads such groups to the next point, which is “only.”[ Slide at 8:50 on video] This is a dangerous place to be. As an example, my mother and I once were walking to the mall, chatting as we went. All of a sudden, a man passing by stopped in front of us and forcefully ordered us to “speak English!” I was in disbelief. What would lead him to do that? He was obviously speaking from an entrenched group perspective where only one view existed.
This manifests in ideas like “only the wealthy allowed here,” “only people from this certain family,” “only Whites,” “only oral-educated,” and “only English.” Such homogeneity can be a comfort to some, but be careful: allowing the practice of “only” creates walls dividing groups even further. Those who wish to connect across the divide must work even harder to bridge the gap, and once dismantling one wall and connecting to a new group may find they have alienated themselves from their original affiliation. In aligning to one group, one loses ties to others. This is one example of a barrier.
Emotions vs. Reason
Emotions overpower rational thought. Despite our best intentions to be thoughtful in emotional situations, studies have shown that this is the case. When in a confrontational situation, we may automatically make assumptions about the person based on our emotional reaction. Past events are triggered when we become emotional, and we unconsciously and mistakenly can tie memories to our current experience to form a judgment on what’s happening.
Picture entering a room where you must speak with a receptionist. She is currently on the phone and gestures for you to wait a moment. One person in that situation may be nonplussed while another might take great offense at being ignored. An explanation for the difference between the two reactions could be that the offended person had had a negative formative experience with a classmate with red hair, made a snap judgment based on emotion, and was now projecting that experience of humiliation onto the current situation. Whether you agree or not, there’s more evidence of this happening than you may think.
Another example of premature judgment occurred in a room where I sat with another White interpreter. A man came in briefly and asked the White interpreter about a word he wasn’t familiar with. The interpreter shrugged, and the man left without asking me if I knew. He had assumed by looking at me that I would not have known–that I had a deficiency in some way. Remember that as much as we may stand by our initial reactions, our emotional memory is sloppy. Therefore, our reactions may be inaccurate.
The Case for Further Conversation about Diversity and Inclusion
The third kind of barrier to self-awareness relates to conversation. As much as lip service is paid to the desire to foster open dialogue on critical issues, this cannot occur without the potential for barriers. The compulsion to be seen as correct for reasons of personal security can be strong, as can be the narrow, limited or “local” lens some take on issues being discussed. Still others might attempt to dismiss the need to discuss issues at all and silence debates with what they may view as high-minded logic. The consequences of the conversational barrier results in either one-sided doctrinal rhetoric or a shutting out of minority views completely.
This kind of barrier is of course not unique to me or my experience. It can occur anywhere in our lives and work, on any level from interpersonal interactions to our agencies, organizations and in wider society. It is a common thread woven among all with minority status.
Reality, Respect and Responsibility
I want to talk now about three people who exhibit the following qualities: Reality, Respect, and Responsibility. One individual expressed that when they started learning American Sign Language, they experienced judgment from a CODA for not being a native user. When that person chose not to attend an interpreter training program they were judged as unprofessional. But the Deaf community beckoned to that person regardless.
I remember when I was a new, awkward signer and still wet behind the ears as an interpreter. An old Deaf woman asked me if I was a CODA, and I ducked my head and shook it, “no.” She looked at her daughter and said that I signed like family. I will remember that incredibly touching comment until the day I die, because you see, in my culture we equate the concept of family with a deep cultural understanding, much as Deaf culture defines it.
I remember a situation at a past RID conference where, long story short, there was a strong effort made to at last have more diversity represented among interpreters- because of course, sign language interpreter demographics are notoriously and unceasingly White. One of the coordinators was MJ Bienvenu. There were unending announcements and comments emphasizing the efforts toward diversity. I decided to approach two of the coordinators and expressed that if the only reason that I was present at the conference was because of the color of my skin and not due to my skill as an interpreter, then I didn’t want to be there. I saw in MJ’s eyes her solidarity with and deep understanding of my words, and in that moment we connected completely. I can understand how if the response to my comment was instead deflecting to my feelings of discomfort, life for me might have looked totally different. But because of the intense emotional connection I experienced, I’m still here today. Thank you, dear MJ.
The third person in our field I want to mention is Bonnie Kraft. I remember that I was offered an opportunity to interpret at what I saw was a very important conference, and I was incredibly excited to have merited an invitation. During one session, I was interpreting for a very fast speaker and was, therefore, signing very quickly. Upon seeing my team’s strategy, I realized I was using the wrong approach. My team eliminated some affect in favor of signing clearly. Seeing the “game” for what it was, I decided to follow suit. You must understand, however, that in my culture, we value a person’s style and affect highly, so I naturally prioritize incorporation of a speaker’s personality into the interpretation. But most of the White Deaf audience did not prefer that and instead favored an approach that prioritized the content. I was very receptive to that feedback and understood that perspective entirely. Unfortunately, before I had a chance to modify my work, it was arranged that another interpreter replace me for the next segment. I was unhappy and tearful, but then my team, Bonnie, responded with “Oh, you’re replacing us? That’s just fine.” As we prepared to leave, the coordinator tried to explain that only I was being replaced, to which Bonnie said “We’re a team. If you replace her, you replace me too.” For her to say that took astounding courage and responsibility.
Why don’t we have the courage to look around and ask ourselves who is not present, and if they were, if they would truly be a part of the group?
Now, I love sign language for many reasons. I find it very compelling. I speak Spanish, English and a little French and German, but when I discovered ASL I found that I loved the visual medium. I think we can learn a lot from signs themselves if we let them teach us. For example, the sign for DIVERSITY. What do you see in the production of that sign? (Please reference ASL video at 19:37.) There are many equal yet different moving elements in the sign. Now consider the sign for HARMONY. (Please reference ASL video at 19:54.) It also represents many of something, beginning in one place then moving to another, all the while becoming stronger. I’d like to turn to your neighbor now and try to produce the sign HARMONY, each contributing one hand to this two-handed sign. It’s not easy, is it? That means that to have harmony, it takes work- as the last poet- I think it was the poet, right?- mentioned this morning. Next slide.
“Give me the courage to accept the ones I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.”
Stacey Storme presented Self-Awareness: How Sign Language Interpreters Acknowledge Privilege and Oppression at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her talk lead attendees through an exploration and acknowledgement of the impact privilege and oppression can have on the practice and self-awareness of sign language interpreters.
You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.
[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Stacey’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Stacey’s talk directly.]
Hello! Good morning! I’m thrilled and honored to be here.
My talk today – well, let’s go ahead and show the title first.
Self Awareness: How Sign Language Interpreters Acknowledge Privilege and Oppression
While I was preparing for this talk today, I told myself that while I was standing here, I needed to remember that feeling of sitting down, having a conversation in my living room. That feeling is imperative because my talk today is a conversation I have already had with any number of people who are here in the room today. We’ve had those deep discussions and even though I haven’t necessarily been a part of them with every one of you, many of you have had these conversations, as well. Whether you have them after a conference with someone in the bar or in your hotel room, in your own living rooms, or wherever, these kinds of conversations are happening. While I may not be presenting totally new information today, you may come to a deeper understanding of the topic or have some moments to reflect on your own experiences. That’s my hope. At the root of it, I really just want to share my thoughts. That’s what StreetLeverage is all about. So, I had to remind myself that we are here to have a conversation.
Privilege and Influence
Before I begin, there are two important concepts to talk about. The first is something that is present in our daily life – we see it, read about it, and discuss it. The English word is privilege. How we sign that concept varies depending on the situation, the context we are talking about. [Sign selections start at 1:51 on the ASL video clip.] The fact that there are so many ways to talk about this is indicative of the richness of the concept. One sign cannot encompass the meanings inherent in the concept of privilege. The other concept is influence. [Sign options at 2:14 on the ASL video clip.] Again, this concept can be conveyed with a number of different signs based on what we see while we are working. Both of these concepts will come up throughout my talk today, as will the various signs we might choose for them. It’s important to recognize the complexities of both of these concepts and the choices we make when we are using ASL to talk about them.
Before I get too far, I feel it is important to let you know who I am. I know many of you here. I’m honored to call many of you friends. Some of us may know a little bit about each other’s stories, as well. If we were actually sitting in a living room together, we would know more about each other. With that in mind, I wanted to first show you a little bit about myself, about how I came to be in this world.
My sister is Deaf, so I chose photos of my sister and I as we were growing up. The one on the right was just taken last week. So, you see my sister there.
My sister is five years older than me. Both my parents are hearing. When my mother was sixteen, she got pregnant with my sister. When she was born, my sister had some other medical issues. My mother had been ill with the measles as was common at the time in 1964. So, they went through all of that with my sister. When she was about two and a half years old, they realized she was deaf. After that happened, they went through a number of things until, eventually, to make a long story short, they did some research and found Total Communication, a prevalent communication system at the time. It was a new system and spreading as mainstreaming was becoming more common. My parents did some research and found a school in Colorado, moved the family there and were on their way. My parents really immersed themselves – I’m so grateful to them for that – they didn’t really know what to do, but they both started learning to sign. At the time, that was the communication system available to them. They started on that path and about three years later I was born.
That was my world. My parents had been attending a support group with a bunch of other parents. They brought their children, so I got to be around them when the parents got together. While my parents were in the support group with the other parents, I could play with all the other kids who were there, hanging out with my sister and her friends and picking up sign language as I went along. I naturally acquired the language I was exposed to by my peers from a very early age.This was just my world growing up. I was born into it. I had access to both worlds. However, at the time I was not aware of any of this – I took it for granted as a natural part of my life. I had access to the Deaf world with my sister and her friends. I saw Deaf adults, went to the Deaf church, went to picnics and potlucks and a variety of other events. My mother was on the board of the Center on Deafness, so I went to those events, as well. I went to my first interpreting workshop when I was fourteen years old – yes, call me a dork. I was determined to go, but not because I wanted to be an interpreter. I wanted to go because a bunch of the people I knew were talking about things I loved, so I wanted to go.
That was my world for as long as I could remember. In the hearing world, I certainly felt at home, too, but I didn’t really think anything of it. I took it for granted that I could move within both worlds at will. That was how I grew up and I never gave it a second thought in terms of privilege. When I was in high school, I started to recognize differences between those two worlds. As a child, all those experiences made up the whole of what my world looked like. I didn’t notice anything different per se; it was just my life.
When I was seven or eight years old, I started going to school – public school, of course. My sister attended a different school. I got to see a bit of both schools and honestly, there were times when I was disappointed that I couldn’t go to the same school as my sister. I didn’t dwell on it – I took the situation at face value and went on my merry way.
Starting in high school, I started to become conscious of some differences for the first time. When I was with my sister and her friends, I started to realize that something was different. That was the age when I started to notice these issues. Over time, I began to wonder what those differences were and why. I started to look within and reflect on things. I felt like I identified with the people in my Deaf world but at the same time, something was different there. I couldn’t put my finger on it and I guess I went through my own identity crisis or something. After a lot of introspection and just simply going through the process, I realized that the only difference was that I could hear. It was really that simple. Sometimes I feel like, “Of course, I could hear.” But that was the first time I made the connection – I can hear and that makes a big difference.
Growing up, I just lived in my world without noticing anything out of the ordinary. As time passed, I started to realize some of the implications present due to my ability to hear. I had access to the hearing world in a different way than my sister did. I started to feel somewhat off-kilter…even within my family – my relationships with my parents, with my sister. Her relationship with our parents and my relationship with them are different. That’s true in any family, with siblings, etc. – those differences are perfectly normal. But I had started to recognize the differences and began to reflect on them. That was really the first time that I realized my life consisted of two distinct worlds.
Sometimes it would be nice to think of both worlds existing separate from one another – in their own right. But, we all know that is not the case – the two worlds are always interacting with one another, overlapping and presenting challenges. Recognizing these two worlds and their unique qualities was a lengthy process. As I look back, I realize I instinctively adjusted to cultural norms when I was in either of my worlds. When I was in my Deaf world, I felt comfort and a sense of “home” – the Deaf world was welcoming and familiar. My family and friends were there and I felt at ease. At the same time, I could also go to my hearing world and feel a similar sense of welcome and home. I had family and friends there, as well. Both worlds offered these comforts. Both worlds offered these things – that concept alone is powerful. That is privilege. Having access to both worlds is an amazingly rich opportunity and I’m thankful every day that I have both in my life. It is also important to consider the kind of privilege this is – how we sign that concept.
The concept is incredibly complex. Sometimes, it is scary to acknowledge this privilege and it is hard to examine. The first time I started to recognize and realize my privilege, I felt guilty. It made me anxious and uncomfortable and I didn’t want to talk about it. But what was even scarier was that I could choose not to talk about it. That is powerful in and of itself. Because sometimes, it is tempting to take the easy route and just brush all that privilege-talk under the rug, to think, “I don’t have to talk about it if I don’t want to.”
The concept of choice is extremely powerful. Later in the talk I will touch more on the concept of choices.
Oops. Not the one with 3. Go back one slide. Great!
So the concept of direct communication…Well, this morning, Doug Bowen-Bailey talked about community organizers and how interpreters could be communication organizers. That idea really resonated for me.
Now, this is pretty basic, but our work, at the heart of it, is communication. The core function is communication. So now, when we look at our work, at communication…let’s put interpretation aside for a moment. For communication to happen, you have two people. Let’s keep it simple for today. This talk is only 20 minutes long and I only have 10 minutes left, so I’ll keep this simple and to the point.
We have two people communicating – information is flowing back and forth between the two. Each of these people brings an incredibly rich context to the situation – their own set of experiences, their backgrounds, upbringings, etc. Some of these things may be in their conscious awareness and some may not. These two people come together. In some situations, the individuals may have some awareness of the other person’s contextual offering, sometimes not. It varies greatly from situation to situation. When these individuals come together and start to communicate, each party may pull from their personal context and insert bits throughout the interaction. This is part of the natural flow of conversing and communicating.
Communication via a Sign Language Interpreter
Now, imagine I’m the interpreter. We have our two individuals and the interpreter arrives on the scene. As the interpreter, I have a rich contextual background, as well. We can’t just cut all that away when we interpret. We cannot discard it – it just isn’t possible. We can certainly try, but we can’t eliminate it. This morning, both Doug Bowen-Bailey and Carla Mathers talked about how important it is that we know what is there in our own context. We can manage all those experiences and information when we enter an interpreting situation. If our context wants to show itself during an interpreted event, we can make the decision that it will have to wait.
At the point when two individuals come together to have direct communication, the situation is theirs. It is their situation, whether it is one-on-one, a legal setting, a meeting, whatever it is – it is their situation. When I enter a situation for my own direct communication, that situation is mine. In those situations that are mine, I am the person who controls my context, deciding if and when I will share parts of that during my communication. Now, if I am the interpreter entering other people’s situations, that situation is not mine. It is not my situation. Period. Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. Real life situations aren’t that black and white.
Perhaps I enter a situation as the interpreter – I’m entering their situation. Suppose one person makes a comment or says something that I agree with or identify with in some way. I may feel a pull to that individual or to their comments. Like Carla said, we want to or feel we must engage in some way, but the situation doesn’t really belong to the interpreter. The situation becomes increasingly complex as each person’s identity comes into play. Throughout the interaction, the interplay of identity wraps around the communication as our contexts intersect. The concept of intersectionality is at play in those moments when our personal differences and identities come together and those things can color the communication.
We enter situations having nothing to do with us. Our work has everything to do with us.
I think, for me, the number one reason we must talk about self-awareness and privilege, however you choose to sign that concept, is that slide we just saw. It is pure irony – how a situation can have nothing to do with me yet everything to do with me. We come into other people’s situations. It is their event completely – it is about their lives. The interpreter enters the scene but it has absolutely nothing to do with them – nothing at all. It is the participant’s situation, but now the interpreter is there, not because the participants need the interpreter. The Deaf and hearing parties don’t need an interpreter. Rather, a communication need is identified, therefore an interpreter is present.
So, we have an identified communication need between two parties. That need is the primary focus of the interpreter’s work; however, it is impossible to isolate the communication need from the people involved and the personal contexts in which they bring. So, the interpreter is there and their work can begin. The situation, which existed unrelated to the interpreter before they arrived, now shifts a bit. As the interpreter enters the scene, there is a piece that is related to them now. Their focus is the communication need – that’s the reason they are present. They aren’t there to address any of the contextual aspects of the other parties in any way. This is a critical point.
In order for the interpreter to manage their own personal context and to prevent it from interfering with the communication events they interpret in, it is imperative that they unpack their privilege on a continual basis. We have to know our own baggage. We can’t do it alone. We have to include other people in the process of unpacking – we just have to. It’s important to note that we don’t usually become aware of needed unpacking by way of friendly nudges from others. We rarely do. Am I right? In fact, we are more likely to be impacted when smacked in the face with it – when our defenses are raised. When a person calls us out in a way that we don’t like, we are more likely to take notice. What that means is that we have to be open to those times. If our defenses go up in response to someone calling us out, that is a critical moment of recognition. When that kind of response is elicited, we have to look at it more deeply. Maybe not at that precise moment, but anything that creates that strong response requires analysis at some point.
So, we have to always remain open to the process of unpacking, to looking at who we are and recognizing ourselves as we are reflected back in our interactions with other people. Hopefully, those reflections aren’t coming at us while we are in other people’s situations interpreting, right? We have to engage in this work outside of the interpreting arena so that when we do enter interpreting situations, it is less likely to happen. It isn’t that we will never have those moments of reflection during interpreting events. We probably will. We will. This is why it is imperative for us to partner with others. We have to continue to enhance our ability to recognize and acknowledge privilege in all its forms, and to partner with those who would help us to do so. We need to maintain a willingness to partner with people who will discuss these issues and then have those discussions – with other interpreters, with the Deaf community, with people outside of our profession who bring their own diverse intersections to the conversation. We can’t limit the conversation to Deaf or hearing. We also have to include race, cisgender, religion, etc. We have to be willing to open the conversation. That concept – I told you I would come back to the concept of choice. That concept is powerful. The fact that we can choose. That is a huge responsibility.
Privilege of Choice
Leading up to the conference, as I was talking about and thinking about privilege in all its forms, I realized that the heart of this conversation is choices. When I examine an area where I have privilege, it is also an area where I have choices. Sometimes, multiple choices and other times there are few, but there are still choices. Also inherent in the ability to choose is the fact that, often, the consequences of any given choice are not terribly unfavorable. Choosing one option over another may be of little consequence. If we go back to my two worlds, growing up, I could go into the Deaf world and do my thing. If I were to become frustrated or upset, I could choose to exit that world in favor of the hearing world for a while. I had another place where I was afforded the same access and comfort, where I felt welcomed and at home. Powerful.
Personally, when I recognized and acknowledged this privilege of having access to two worlds, it gave me chills. I was also moved to tears because I know what a privilege and a benefit this was. I also realize what a significant responsibility it is to own that privilege. I must acknowledge and constantly be willing to recognize the choices I have. I’m not implying that there is fault or blame to be placed. These privileges simply require acknowledgement. The work we do outside of the interpreting arena will present itself while we are interpreting. So, I think, again, back to our living room conversation…We have an enormous number of privileges – as many as there are ways to sign the concept. It is important for us to acknowledge that and to share that in our conversations with others.
With that thought, I thank you with one final slide.
And now, it’s time for your part in this conversation.
Chris Wagner presented Strategic Partnerships: Cooperation Among Stakeholders in Sign Language Interpreting Isn’t Enough at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. His talk explores how developing strategic partnerships among the Deaf Community and the sign language interpreting community is more than a cooperative effort; it’s one of accountability.
You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.
[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Chris’ talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Chris’ talk directly.]
My topic today is “Strategic Partnerships: Cooperation Among Stakeholders in Sign Language Interpreting Isn’t Enough.”
Let’s talk about the term “partnership”, specifically the partnership between the Deaf Community and the Interpreting community. In reality, there has been little in the way of true partnerships between the two groups for more than a century – perhaps more formal partnerships have taken shape in the past 50 years or so.
Why am I talking about strategic partnerships? Stakeholders are critical element in this conversation. Let’s look at our stakeholders in the Sign Language Interpreting Community.
Major Stakeholders in the Sign Language Interpreting Community
Over the past 20 years, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people in my professional journey. Wow. There are so many stakeholders – not just interpreters or members of the Deaf Community, but numerous people who are involved. Our task is to find ways to engage with those groups and for them to engage each other.
Oftentimes, we focus solely on interpreters and the Deaf Community and forget about those other groups. We can’t do that – we have to broaden our scope to consider to all stakeholders. Specifically, we can’t just consider schools for the Deaf as stakeholders – we have to include mainstream programs, as well. There are so many kids in those programs – remember that approximately 92% of Deaf kids are in mainstream programs. We have Interpreter Training Programs, Interpreter Agencies, Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals, etc. – all of these groups and people comprise the whole and are stakeholders. Also included in our stakeholders are smaller groups and individuals – parents of Deaf children, employers, co-workers, and others. I want you to consider these stakeholders groups as we progress through this presentation.
When we talk about stakeholders, we also have to look at how we can transition them into partners. It’s a lot of work. Doug Bowen-Bailey mentioned community organizing, Robert Lee talked about roles and Stacey Storme talked about privilege – all three of these elements are required to establish partnerships. Each piece, independent of the others, cannot succeed in creating a partnership.
Prevalent Issues in the Community
Throughout our history and to the present day, many issues have continued to emerge. Each of us is accountable for the way we address them.
Lack of Knowledge. Sometimes I’m astounded when I meet a person who lacks knowledge, for example, a lack of knowledge about happenings in the Deaf Community or even who the leaders are in the Deaf Community. When asked, they often shrug it off with an “I don’t know” and a perplexed look.
Oppression. Of course, we’ve all talked about oppression for a long time in our community. I grew up oral and learned to sign when I went to RIT, but I still felt oppressed – by my peers, by interpreters, by various people in the community. Intentional or not, I felt oppressed.
Privilege. We all carry different privileges. I’m a white male. I’m a privileged white male. I can’t change that, I can’t help it. My mother chose a white man, so, that’s the reality. But at the same time, other people, friends of mine who grew up using American Sign Language – they have language privilege. I don’t have that. They have language privilege. Some interpreters may tell their stories, as Stacey did, about growing up using ASL in the Deaf community and in her home – they have language privilege, too. Many other interpreters are in the same situation I am in – they don’t carry language privilege.
Lack of Community Accountability. I can give you another example. There are a lot of issues coming up for both the Deaf and Interpreting communities. Often, when issues arise in the Deaf Community, interpreters step back and take a “hands off” approach to the situation. “It’s not my issue,“ they might say. Some interpreters feel they have to set a firm boundary – signing it as if drawing a line firmly between the person and the situation at hand. I would recommend a change in how we sign the concept “boundary” – instead of “drawing a line”, establish a line that moves closer to or further away from the signer. Sometimes we have to set a boundary that will keep people or situations at bay, but at other times, those lines are closer in. We have to think about how far we need to go. If we just “set a boundary”, as in drawing that line, that’s the end of the discussion. We have to start thinking about how to maintain some fluidity and movement in our boundaries.
Quality vs. Quantity. I’m sure you recognize this issue. Groups, conferences, etc., will often cry for large numbers of interpreters but what of the quality of the interpreter?
Empowerment. Some people will say “Interpreters are the ones who make all the decisions and take control of things.” We need to consider all of this.
From Complaint to Action
Ultimately, my reason for bringing up all of these issues is to comment on what I’ve seen. I’ve seen the Deaf Community complaining and the interpreters are complaining when what they should be doing is turning those complaints into action. (Moves the ASL sign COMPLAIN from the chest to the sign ACTION or DO with the same handshape.) Stop complaining and take action. Get involved!
I see people complaining and I don’t have a lot of patience for it. Do you know why I got involved, why I’m where I am today? Growing up, I had a lot of things I didn’t like – captioning, interpreting, and other issues and I complained about those things. My grandmother raised me, bless her. She would say, “Chris, if you are going to complain, do something about it.” I learned from that. Over many years, in my professional work, I learned to take complaints and transform them into actions. You all must transform your complaints to actions. You have to be accountable.
Another issue we need to discuss – we complain a lot and we talk…I’m going to sign TALK like this: Signs the sign “TALK” with the 4 handshape touching the non-dominant hand as if showing the hand “talking” instead of touching on the chin as in spoken language…but we don’t walk the walk.
You have hold yourself accountable. You have to stop, today, while you are sitting here, and consider: Am I involved in my Deaf Community? Do I contribute to my community? Do I sit down and engage in dialogue with my community about how I can improve my skills as an interpreter? On the flip side, a Deaf individual might ask how they can improve their leadership in the community. How will we know if we never have the dialogue? That’s something to think about. Another interesting part to all of this – do we really embrace it? Sometimes, I find myself sitting back and pondering, “Do I really embrace what I’m doing?”
The Challenges We Face
Unfortunately, there are some bad apples in every group but we are all here for one reason: communication. You all are here to support our community. We are one community – we aren’t two separate communities. We are one community. I’ll give you an example of how to get involved. Are you aware of the CRPD? It’s the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The United Nations (U.N.) has been encouraging Deaf people to sign on to this. But wait a minute. Deaf people aren’t the only ones. This impacts you as well. Language rights are human rights. This has an impact on you, as interpreters, too. Change your complaints into actions. You have to get involved.
Questions for us to ask ourselves: Who owns this? Who makes the decisions? Is it the Deaf person? The interpreter? Really, the answer is both. It should be both. It depends – now wait. So, my decision as a Deaf person is based on how I want to progress forward. My decision is based on action. Interpreters have to accommodate these decisions by working with us. Some interpreters may disagree with a person/group’s decision and decide that they don’t accept the decision as it stands. That’s fine. They can go on their way and we can find someone else. As an interpreter, you become my voice. We have to be on the same page. There has to be agreement.
I always dreamed of something as I was growing up – I had aspirations. Many of you despise politics – I know. I admit it. It’s all right. I hate politics, too. But how can I change the current political system? By getting involved. So, I decided I wanted to run for office. I’m not talking about the National Association of the Deaf (N.A.D.) – I’m talking about a real office – like state senate or state house of representatives. I considered it and decided okay. I started having conversations with various people – I had brought in an interpreter for these conversations, but over time, I realized I wasn’t feeling any connection. There was some kind of disconnect. I wondered if I was doing something wrong. I know the system, I understand politics, I’ve studied political science – but still there was a disconnect. I realized it was “my voice” – the interpreter. The issue was with my voice. So, I excused the interpreter with thanks for their work and searched for an interpreter who would collaborate with me – we would work together, they would function as my voice. I wanted someone who would help make decisions and we would own it together. As it turns out, that interpreter had the same passion I had, the same desire. You all have passions, too. It’s critical.
Many people say they hate change. It’s true a lot of people hate change, say they don’t take change well. The Deaf Community is the same way, and I tell people they have to accept change. Interpreters have to accept change, too. Technology is changing all the time, the world is changing. But some people want to opt out.
Think of it this way. Thirty years ago, the beehive was all the rage. Do you remember the beehive hairdo? Now, women have cut their hair and consider themselves much more chic. That is accepting change. If we look at our cars – think about the windows. Back in the day, we had manual, roll-down windows with a crank handle and no air conditioning. Now we have power windows and air conditioning. We’ve accepted that change. Remember the old days – remember TV dinners with the rolled back foil? I’m that old – I’m not that young…I remember popping those TV dinners in the oven and waiting for the chicken, dessert, corn and mashed potatoes to cook in the one little tray – pretty cool, huh? Now, pop something in the microwave and 1-2 minutes later, you’re done. We have changed. Back in the day, we had to adjust the antennae on our television sets to get the picture. Now, we have our remote and our cable TV, our tablets where we can also watch TV. We’ve accepted those changes. But people in our community refuse to accept change when it comes to how we run things in our community. Organizational change is difficult. It’s hard to change our desire for things to remain the same. That hurts us in the long run.
Let’s go back to the concept of partnerships. Partnerships – what can we do? What can we do? I want you to think about that. I don’t expect you to answer now. I want you to think, “How can I go back home and create community partnerships?” How? Sit down and talk to people. Robert, Doug and Stacey talked about making connections. Sit down with people in your community and engage in dialogue. How can we better work together? This is so important.
If you pooh-pooh the idea, just remember that without the Deaf Community, you are in the unemployment line. That’s the truth of it. That’s the bottom line – unless you want to be teaching ASL to hearing students or babies. But if we want one community and we want to cherish it, we have to work together.
Respect is Key
The most important point is respect. Mutual respect. I’ve been on the N.A.D. board for the last 10 years- well, 8 years. I’ve seen a lot during that time. I wish I could say we were all one big happy, cooperating community. I wish I could say that, but we are like the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress currently. It’s sad. We could set a good example for them and encourage them to follow our community’s successes. But, sometimes, it can be fun to learn from the debates. We can learn from that. I just want to emphasize the idea of mutual respect.
Ask Yourself What You can Do
The bottom line is that we have to ask ourselves, “What can we do as a community?” Leverage – that’s the perfect term. How do we get there? We are leverage. Not just interpreters, but also Deaf Community members, all the stakeholders. How do we get them involved? We see Deaf clubs closing; schools for the Deaf are seeing their enrollment decrease. We can’t afford a hands-off approach. Get involved in whatever ways you can. Sit down with the Deaf Community. Sit down and have conversations about how we can improve and strengthen our community. I’ve seen so many amazing things.
You all know that yesterday was Interpreter Appreciation Day, right? Were you aware? In reality, every day should be Interpreter Appreciation Day. Thank you all for doing what you do. But I ask you, as colleagues, to be part of the community to help us fight. There is still oppression happening. You can’t just stand there close-mouthed and do nothing. Where is your accountability? Help to stop oppression. You have to participate. Help to end oppression. I’ve seen interpreters allow other interpreters to oppress the Deaf person in a situation. How do we stop that from happening? I tell Deaf people, “You have to be accountable, too. If you see someone oppressing the interpreter, step in.” That same thing holds true for interpreters. If you see someone being oppressed, stop it. We have to support each other and stop that behavior amongst ourselves. It’s sad that we have allowed this kind of behavior to occur and to continue. So, how do we stop it? By working together. By setting aside our personal opinions and by setting aside our personal philosophies. By saying, “Stop. We are one community. We MUST work together.”
Be the Change
Community accountability. We have a plethora of organizations in our community. It is imperative that they all work together. We are a diverse community – we have people of color, people of different gender identifications, we must all work together. I know that by working together, we can accomplish so much.
I want to share something my grandmother said when I was growing up. I was brought up orally, so I had to get this from speech reading, but luckily, she often wrote things, as well. She told me,”Chris, if you can make a significant impact on one person, it will truly make a difference among many others through that person.” I feel honored to be a part of that change. No matter what, no matter how old you are, no matter where you are from, your background, your experiences, your skills – none of that matters. When we are all working as one, we can make changes that will impact the world.
Finally, I want to ask you all to listen to each other, respect each other and learn from one another. When we do that, we will become one powerful ASL Community. Thank you.
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