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Allies: Sign Language Interpreters and a Bigger Picture View

Are sign language interpreters unconsciously holding back Deaf professionals’ careers? In her article, Holly Thomas-Mowery emphasizes the need to recognize context-driven interpretation and flexible service models to reach true partnership.

We know Deaf people who have advanced to mid-level ranges in their respective careers, who are more than competent at what they do and could easily be leaders in their realms of expertise. I wonder what trajectory any one of their lives would have taken if systemic biases weren’t around practically every corner on their paths to where they are today. And we all know Deaf people who have reached for the stars and made it.

Obstacles and barriers occur for all minorities in a variety of contexts. Oppression – which includes the gamut of “isms,” and in this case audism – is rampant. In an unjust world, the addition of an aware and keyed-in sign language interpreter doesn’t make everything magically better. Just consider: any one Deaf person may have grown up with a family who didn’t believe their child to be fully capable, in an education system that treated the child as a special-education spectator—but not a fully-competent participant, and with medical professionals who saw “deafness” as something to be rectified or at least mitigated. Interpreters may be present throughout a Deaf person’s life, and are often the only person in the conversation with a (hopefully, potentially) informed view of Deaf culture and hearing culture and a lens for recognizing audism.

A keen awareness of our vantage point and a thoughtful approach to our work leads a good interpreter into becoming a great one. Discussed here will be two thoughts: both what a freelance interpreter might do as an ally supporting a Deaf employee’s journey, and if “good-enough” accommodations (an occasional freelance interpreter brought onto an employee’s work site) are indeed good enough to support a Deaf professional’s path to greatness.

Working as an Ally

Informed sign language interpreters take a deeper and wider look at what they do and what the end goal is – not only the aim of a specific interpreting assignment, but how the outcome of the current assignment potentially impacts the overarching direction of a person’s life (e.g., health, career, pursuit of happiness, quality of life). An ally interpreter’s work isn’t to stack the cards in favor of the Deaf person; rather, it is an attempt at being purposely transparent about the larger systems at play, and empowers the Deaf person to choose her next move. I appreciate Aaron Brace’s article, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter, specifically how it highlights that while not malicious, sign language interpreters can unwittingly cause a Deaf person to miss an opportunity to reach a higher rung due to the interpreter’s own blinders.

One of the most influential speakers I’ve seen on this topic is Dr. Flavia Fleischer, Associate Professor and Chair of Deaf Studies at California State University Northridge. She graciously allowed me to interview her for this article and include her thoughts. “Because our society is not designed to include Deaf people,” Fleischer states, “we have to jump over more hurdles than your average American to simply get equitable access and opportunities.”

At the 2012 RID Region V Conference keynote address in Honolulu, Dr. Fleischer outlined seven forms of “capital,” as researched by Tara J. Yosso in her white paper “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth.” While Dr. Fleischer expanded on each of these forms of capital as being directly applicable to the Deaf community, I’m particularly interested in the concepts of social capital and aspirational capital.

Fleischer posits,

“Often Deaf children are not explicitly taught to believe the sky is the limit, nor do the adults around them believe this to be the truth. The well-meaning adults around them, including interpreters, unconsciously allow barriers to remain that lead the child to grow into adulthood believing his aspirations are just that – aspirational, but not achievable. And while a Deaf person may be perfectly capable of achieving success in whatever ways make sense to him, navigating social and physical spaces (that are designed for and by people who hear) to attain that success can be maddening if not exhausting.”

An Example

Let’s consider an example from the corporate world.

A Deaf engineer is scheduled to propose his design at this week’s team meeting. Unbeknownst to him, the other members of the team have informally vetted their proposed designs in hallways and on the golf course for the previous two or three weeks, and a design has been unofficially selected. The Deaf engineer is unaware of this social norm. He later learns the team had no intention of listening to and choosing his proposal. Not only does the Deaf engineer not capture this opportunity for a promotion – he now looks the fool for being unaware of business politics and “wasting their time.”

This is quite the conundrum for sign language interpreters – trying to keep our eyes and ears open for all potential references to hallway politics so that in those brief moments, the Deaf employee can be in-the-know just a little more. Let’s also suppose the sign language  interpreter(s) in the above situation notice small grunts or deep breaths coming from hearing peers as the Deaf engineer presents his design, which can be interpreted as impatience and “eye-rolling.” When an interpreter is hyper-focused on content, these noises and shifts might be left by the wayside, further disenfranchising the Deaf engineer as “not getting it” or not “fitting in” to the corporate culture. People who don’t fit corporate culture are rarely promoted to senior-level positions.

Often the sign language interpreter in the room is the only person who has a strong level of understanding of both of the major cultures in the room (e.g., American hearing culture and American Deaf culture). What about interpreting for an African-American Deaf gay female in a corporate environment? The contexts and subtexts of oppression often go unnoticed by unassuming interpreters who show up at 9:00am and start interpreting the meeting content. In comparison, consider an aware sign language interpreter going to a particular site several times and gaining access to more context and interrelational layers.

Something previously heard but discarded from the interpretation as inconsequential may now seem to have bearing. An interpreter ally builds an atmosphere of trust by sharing information with the Deaf employee even at a later date, and perhaps apologizing if this omitted information has had an adverse impact on the Deaf person’s life or career. Of course, this information would not be withheld maliciously; rather, sign language interpreters are inundated with bits and pieces of conversations. In Jules Dickinson’s doctoral thesis on designated interpreters, Dickinson discusses the complexity of an interpreter’s task when “discerning what to include and what to omit, given that what might be pointless discussions or gossip to the SLI [sign language interpreter] could be essential information for the deaf employee.”

In-House/Designated Interpreter

Might sign language interpreters potentially be a detriment to the Deaf employee?

Should an employer rightfully get to say “we provide accommodations” to the Deaf employee because they bring in an interpreter for one two-hour meeting twice a month? And yet the Deaf employee is passed over for promotions and projects time and again. Ubiquitous pieces of information surround a Deaf employee, much of which is not the type of information sent in an email or communicated in some other formal way. How much access does she have to it? And if the once-a-week interpreter sees his role as content-driven, as opposed to relationship or context-driven, the Deaf professional is left even further behind the pack.

Deaf professionals working with designated interpreters have much greater access to idioms, jargon, and ongoing office banter. The ability of the Deaf professional to wield these opportunities equal to her peers has a direct impact on her aspirational capital. A designated interpreter model isn’t the only answer – there is much to be said for a Deaf employee’s frequent access to a tight pool of 2-3 interpreters who pass-down workplace norms, conversation threads, jargon, and specific phrasing so all of the interpreters are always ready. This offers the Deaf employee that consistent face – so she “sounds” the same day in and day out, regardless which interpreter is there.

It could be said that some of the geographical regions of greatest success for Deaf professionals are in the greater DC region, Rochester, NY, and in parts of California. Perhaps the fact that many of these Deaf professionals have designated interpreters or at least much more daily communication access to their workplace and coworkers, speaks in part to their upward mobility and success.

What’s the Answer?

A one-size-fits-all approach certainly isn’t going to work as the variables are abundant and include geography, population centers, pervasive audism, and insufficient resources. While interpreters must be diligent, this conversation also needs to be encouraged in and among the Deaf Community, interpreting agencies, employers, and others.

As Dr. Fleischer stated in Honolulu, “The fate of the Deaf and Interpreting communities are intertwined.” Since this is the case, let’s work together to investigate these dynamics more closely, and hold ourselves to a benchmark of something well above “good-enough.”

 

References

Dickinson, Jules C. “Interpreting in a community of practice: a sociolinguistic study of the signed language interpreter’s role in workplace discourse.” http://hdl.handle.net/10399/2387. Heriot-Watt University. (August 2010): 160. Print.

Fleischer, Flavia S. “The Meaning of ‘Ohana: Working Together.” Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Honolulu. 13 June 2012. Address.

Yosso, Tara J. “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth.” Race, Ethnicity and Education 8.1 (2005): 69-91. Print.