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Deaf Interpreters: In the Blind Spot of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession?

Sign Language Interpreter Consider the Position of Deaf Interpreters in the Field

Do Hearing Interpreters send messages of welcome or warning to Deaf Interpreters? Jennifer Kaika explores the overt and covert messages Hearing Interpreters send and the potential meaning they carry.

A few weeks ago, I was looking through StreetLeverage posts and as I neared the end- perhaps even after I had looked at all of the titles—I realized that I had not seen anything explicitly about Deaf interpreters.

Of course, the phrase “sign language interpreters” appeared often, and of course Deaf interpreters are included in that population. Still, I thought, I have read several articles since StreetLeverage began and I couldn’t help but feel like they were written with hearing sign language interpreters in mind. (For the purposes of this post, when I say “hearing” interpreters, I am also referring to coda interpreters; I am using the label to refer to auditory status, not cultural identity.)

I contacted Brandon, asking if this observation was accurate, and he invited me to write about it. (Let that be a lesson to anyone else thinking about piping up—you may have to follow through on your thoughts!)

Are Deaf Interpreters Invisible?

What does it mean that I hadn’t even noticed the absence of posts about Deaf interpreters for a year and a half? Does it send a message, unintentional but unmistakable, that I do not think about Deaf interpreters often; that they are invisible; that they are unimportant to the field?

I am reminded of an observation that was shared with me recently about another instance of the absence of Deaf interpreters. In my area, there is a group of freelancers who run a website for direct contracting of sign language interpreting services. I do not work through this site, but I know many of the interpreters who do. I like many of them, I respect many of them, I have sought many of them out to team with me. When people ask how to find an interpreter, I include this website among my list of referrals. In short, this network of freelancers is by no means new or unfamiliar to me. Yet, I never noticed that there are no Deaf interpreters on their site. What does it say to my Deaf colleagues that I never even noticed—that their presence is not missed?

The Organizational Level: Overt Messages

Upon looking through online resources, Deaf Interpreters are an unmistakable and long-standing part of the profession. Certifications have been offered to Deaf interpreters for as long as they have been offered to hearing interpreters. According to RID’s CDI bulletin, the Reverse Skills Certificate has been awarded since 1972- the same year that certification began for hearing interpreters- and was primarily awarded to Deaf Interpreters. Twenty years later, development of the Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) exam began as result of a 1989 vote that “a generalist Certificate of Relay Interpreting be established for Deaf persons.”[i]

During the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers’ 2005-2010 grant cycle, they “delineated the unique competencies required of Deaf Interpreters in a document titled Toward Effective Practice: Competencies of the Deaf Interpreter (available at www.DIInstitute.org).” In the current grant cycle from 2010-2015, the Northeastern University center (NURIEC) is piloting a curriculum for Deaf interpreter education called Road to Deaf Interpreting. A total of 34 interpreters from two cohorts have already graduated from the program, and the 2012-2014 session is currently underway.[ii]

In 2007, RID assembled a taskforce to revisit the application criteria for taking the CDI exam. In the same year, NCIEC conducted a survey of Deaf interpreters and got 196 responses- a number that surpasses the estimated 162 Deaf interpreters listed in RID.org.[iii] Assuming the number of certified Deaf interpreters is accurate, then Deaf interpreters represent 2% of the 9,846 people listed as certified on RID.org.

On StreetLeverage, when you search the phrase “deaf interpreter” you get 5 results out of the 67 total posts, for a rate of 7%.[iv] Not bad. At the organizational level, then, there seems to be a proportionate level of attention paid to and recognition of Deaf interpreters. What happens at the individual level?

The Individual Level: Covert Messages

Using myself as an example (for better and for worse), I have worked alongside Deaf interpreters in various capacities: in a platform setting as a hearing team, in situations where Deaf interpreters are working with DeafBlind consumers, sometimes from my interpretation and sometimes not, and in situations that involve Deaf consumers with intellectual disabilities. When I began my career, I worked with a deaf independent living center and the deaf counselors often served as de facto Deaf interpreters. I can think of many enriching experiences working with and watching Deaf interpreters at work.

At the same time, I have been guilty of not asking if Deaf interpreters have been assigned to a job that I’m on, even when I have reason to believe they would be. I don’t always think to share prep materials with Deaf interpreters until the day of an assignment- often not until we’ve all arrived. When I’ve been in touch with hearing teams to prepare for assignment, I don’t always include Deaf interpreters (again, usually because I haven’t asked if they were assigned.) What messages are sent when I consistently forget about my Deaf counterparts? Is there a reason I seem to consistently forget?

Is Frustration the Impetus?

There have been times where I have been frustrated by experiences working with a Deaf team—perhaps because they were new, perhaps because they had a different view of how to approach interpreting or teaming, perhaps because they usually work with DeafBlind consumers but I expect them to excel when working with consumers with different linguistic needs. Is this the reason I forget? If it is, does that mean that I hold Deaf interpreters to a double standard? After all, I have had similar experiences with hearing interpreters.

The range of experience and professionalism I have seen among DIs and CDIs parallels that of hearing interpreters: some are new, some have years of experience, some are certified, some are not, some have specializations, some are generalists, some aim to work at the national and international level, others aim to practice only in their local communities.

Should this range or these less-than-ideal experiences deter us from working together? Or can they become opportunities for us to talk openly about what wasn’t working?  Can they serve as opportunities for us all to be more specific about what skills we possess and what skills we are asking for when making a request to work with a Deaf interpreter?

Group Dynamics: Unintended Messages

Four years into my interpreting career, and only months after becoming a full-time freelancer, I had taken a staff position at Gallaudet University. Not long after coming aboard, discussions surfaced about speaking versus signing around the office and on campus. I had grown up on this campus. As a coda, I was accustomed to talking in front of my deaf relatives—whether to hearing friends or on the phone. All throughout my childhood and into my college years, I knew very few hearing people who could sign; thus, I spoke to hearing people and signed with Deaf people. All of this to say that the issue of hearing people speaking to each other when Deaf people were around was foreign to me. I was in need of an explanation.

Deaf people talked about feeling shut out—that choosing to speak when you could sign was exclusionary. Some hearing people said it was their right to use their first language. Deaf and hearing people talked about incidental learning—the ability to “overhear” a conversation and learn from it in the way you might pick up on the fact that people are talking about a bad storm approaching or some tidbit of news. This was pretty convincing, but still I wondered would it really be that big of a deal if I just talked with a hearing person and started signing when a deaf person came around? Then they could see what we’re saying and join the conversation if they wanted. When someone said that they wouldn’t even join the conversation if I weren’t already signing, I finally got it.

Nobody wants to disrupt their environment, you don’t want things to change just because you’ve walked into a room; you just want to be able to feel like you belong- no matter where you go.

Apply this same thinking to local and national RID conferences. Do we create spaces in the informal areas that send the message that Deaf interpreters belong there? On the organizational level, I would say yes. At the 2011 conference, I believe each Board member signed when they presented on stage. But as I recall, the hallways and social areas presented a different story.

The estimated 162 certified Deaf interpreters mentioned earlier represent 31 states.[v] In the directory on the Deaf Interpreter Institute, there are 35 interpreters listed representing 22 states. Between the two groups, 33 states are represented. If we truly believe that Deaf interpreters are a part of our profession—a long-standing and lasting part, present since the inception of RID, another way to connect to the Deaf community and maintain Deaf-heart, then wouldn’t our actions be aligned with our messages?

Addressing the Fundamental Question

Does the presence of DIs remove our status in the room as the ‘experts’ on sign language and interpretation in a way that is different than working with another hearing interpreter? Does it challenge a hearing interpreter’s ability to be “in control” of the environment? Does it raise questions about the quality of our work? Does all of this (and thus, the presence of a Deaf interpreter) make some of us nervous?

Have you grappled with some of these same questions? Do some of these experiences mirror your own?

I think these are some of the things that Nigel Howard addressed in his StreetLeverage –  Live 2012 | Columbia, MD presentation, Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion, in November of 2012, bringing up “the perception that ASL-English interpreters have that requesting to work with a deaf interpreter is an indication of an “inferior skill-set” and the “need to broaden the view of how and why deaf interpreters are used in order to improve their inclusion and contribution to the field.”[vi] I did not go to the presentation, but would appreciate contributions from those who did.

Beginning a Dialogue

I am sharing my own experiences openly in the interest of having an open discussion. Perhaps, though, I am alone in my experiences and the majority of our profession has good working relationships with Deaf interpreters. If this were the majority opinion, not only would I be relieved, I would be prouder of my profession (if not a little embarrassed for admitting my own ignorance.) 

 


[i] “Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) Examination Information Bulletin.” RID.org. Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, 24 Sept. 2001. Web. 15 Feb. 2013. <http://www.rid.org/education/testing/index.cfm/AID/89>.

[iii] Calculated by adding the total CDIs (139), the total who hold the RSC without certifications that Deaf interpreters are not eligible for (21), and the total of those who hold the CLIP-R without CDI (2). It is possible that some who hold the RSC alone are hearing, which is why I refer to this number as an estimate.

[iv] Trudy Suggs mentions that she is a deaf interpreter: http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/12/deaf-disempowerment-and-todays-interpreter/

Brandon Arthur describes Nigel Howard’s presentation “Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion” in http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/11/a-salute-to-big-thinking-sign-language-interpreters and http://www.streetleverage.com/streetleverage-live

Robyn Dean says that hearing and deaf interpreters  participated in supervision sessions in http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/04/ethical-development-a-sign-of-the-times-for-sign-language-interpreters

Debra Russell talks about Deaf interpreters being part of international collaboration efforts in http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/03/international-collaboration-should-sign-language-interpreters-do-more

[v] Some states only have one certified Deaf interpreter listed, but again this is only the number of interpreters who hold an RID certification.

[vi] http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/11/a-salute-to-big-thinking-sign-language-interpreters/ Nigel’s talk explored some of the perceptions that challenge better integration of deaf interpreters into the field and into daily practice. Most notably, the perception that ASL-English interpreters have that requesting to work with a deaf interpreter is an indication of an inferior skill-set.