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Has An Identity Crisis Immobilized The Field of Sign Language Interpreting?

Sign Language Interpreter Immobilized Due to Conflict

As the demographics of sign language interpreters change, rifts develop as products of privilege and cultural identity. Stacey Storme uses the lens of war for insight into linguicism and the need for peace through meaningful dialogue.

During my attendance at the 2012 Region IV RID Conference in Denver and the 2013 National RID Conference in Indianapolis I found myself in tears more than once. While it is not uncommon for me to become emotional when I am with colleagues discussing the very serious, real and important issues that impact our work as interpreters, the tears I felt at these conferences were different. It was not until a moment of clarity during the business meeting in Indianapolis that I realized the difference.

It was not long after the start of the Business meeting in Indianapolis when I experienced a shift in my awareness about my emotional response during both conferences. It occurred as I was witnessing discussion and decisions regarding the use of spoken English via open microphone. As I was sitting there, feeling helpless, looking around the room feeling the heavy and volatile energy – I realized I felt as if I was witnessing a war. A battle waged between two perspectives, the deaf and hearing world, both fighting for recognition.

As a person who has grown up in both worlds, I have struggled with my own identity and place in each world since I can remember. Sitting there, I found myself relating with perspectives from both “sides.” As I type this, it strikes me that it may not seem such a powerful realization. After all, this struggle between the two worlds has been going on for years.

By framing this struggle through the lens of war and making the connection between my internal struggle and the mirror reflecting around me I found clarity that I have not yet experienced.

Lens of War

War is not something I want to perpetuate or contribute to.

When I consider ways to end war, three immediately come to mind: surrender, truce, and victory. At first thought, none of these sound too appealing. Truce suggests compromising or simply putting the “war” on hold for a short time. Surrender implies giving something up and the opposite of victory is defeat – so, depending on which side of the war you are on it could be very destructive. However, upon deeper reflection, and some reframing – I see these three approaches turning out to be possible strategies that can work in tandem to move the field to a more constructive and healthy space.

A Truce

Calling a truce seems a good first step. Putting “the fight” on hold for a while in lieu of some time to reflect and take note of our own journey. Hindsight is indeed 20/20. When I reflect on my past struggles and active times of ‘war’ I see with clarity that it is only when I stop reacting that I am able to move past the fight. I think one of the biggest reasons people are able to move past the “fight,” is when they give themselves the opportunity to look within they become more centered on their own beliefs and perspectives. Thus equipping themselves more readily for healthy interactions when faced with situations where their beliefs and perspectives are challenged. So rather than reacting in an attempt to protect their own beliefs and perspectives they can more confidently listen to another and engage in productive discussion rather than destructive war.

Surrender

Upon consciously calling a truce and engaging in self-reflection next can come surrender. In this context I think especially of surrendering judgment. Rather than judging emotions, reactions, behaviors – simply acknowledging them and accepting them as what is. The act of acceptance can be the step needed to move one from reaction to action. Rather than judging whether or not a colleague is using ASL in a shared space made up of Deaf and hearing people; first recognizing it as fact can slow down a likely knee-jerk reaction based on judgment of another’s actions purely based on assumptions. Instead of feeding the anger or resentment that resides within, attention could be focused on constructive approaches to addressing the incongruity of the person’s choice within this shared space. By surrendering judgment, we are more likely to be committed to sincerely sharing our own perspectives and receiving others perspectives, no matter how different they may be. From there we can move forward and hold each other accountable as we explore the issue at hand.

Victory

So, you may be thinking, ok Pollyanna, it would be nice if everyone came to the table being centered in self, and equipped for healthy, constructive dialogue; but that is not the case. I am aware that after reading this it can appear that my view of moving forward is one through rose colored glasses: that if we all just play nice the present state of affairs within the field will magically improve. I do not take this perspective in any way. This is where I see victory coming into play as a way to end war. When I consider what it means to be victorious in my own inner war, it is when I reach those moments of balancing all parts of myself that identify with both the Deaf and hearing part of me. It is when I have fully succeeded in enough self-reflection and enough surrendering of judgment that I feel fully acknowledged and accepted. It is also when I allow these parts of me to co-exist in ways that are fluid and evolving based on my interactions in the world around me.

So, ultimately, victory comes in acknowledging there will always be different views, therefore there will always be ample opportunities for war. It is up to us to choose how we enter each war. We can enter in full-fire, taking out everyone who crosses our path. Or, we can stay committed to our own truth, knowing it is fully ours until we decide to change it. Therefore, there is nothing to defend. There is only opportunity to fully be who we choose to be in each moment – to embody the change we wish to see.

The Costs of War?

War hurts. War scars. War kills. As I witness the wars taking place in our field today I see many costs. We are hurting ourselves, each other and immobilizing meaningful forward progress.

One of the biggest costs, perhaps is that sometimes we are in war and don’t even realize it. I think this is especially true for those of us who hear and experience the many privileges of living in a society where we take much for granted. Sometimes this unintentional war occurs as we perpetuate audism by defending and/or exercising our right to our own native language, or at least the majority language, by not considering ways that our hearing privilege colors our views of our work, therefore silencing people of the marginalized minority with whom we work.

A tangible example can be given by exploring sometimes buried assumption of one’s right to choose spoken English when engaging in professional development. When attending interpreting conferences, I sometimes sense a vibe in the air. At StreetLeverage – Live in Atlanta, Nancy Bloch referred to this vibe as “Hearing Interpreters Only.” This vibe manifests in a few different ways. Sometimes it is sensed as a mild irritation in the air due to having Deaf people in attendance. Other times it is disappointment at having to use ASL. Yet other times it feels as if Deaf people are being appeased – as if they don’t really understand our work but need to be placated.

I am in no way asserting that these things happen all the time, or that all hearing interpreters feel this way. Rather, I am attempting to articulate something that I merely sense; something that has the potential to shed light on one aspect of active war occurring in our field today. It is this type of exploration I hope will bring us closer to unpacking the baggage that underlies the tension and pain I both feel and witness all around me. This baggage that hurts us by way of limiting us to majority perspective; that hurts others by way of devaluing and ostracizing them; that perpetuates our false belief that we are the only ones who “get” our work; that there is something special to the work of interpreting that Deaf people don’t and can’t understand.

If we do not work together to explore areas of opposition surrounding areas of language use, oppression, privilege, assumptions, power and the like, we lose the opportunity to fully understand the existing struggles rampant in our field and professional organization. We also run the risk of our view being colored only by our likely colonized perspective of what it means to be a sign language interpreter.  We lose out on the opportunity to fully realize that while we, as hearing interpreters, may always be the face of oppression, we do have the opportunity to change that face so that instead of being the face of that which we are against, we are instead the face of change, respect and acceptance.

The Lesson

“A man or a woman who has peace inside has everything. A man or a woman who is pulled apart by the war inside him or her has nothing. How you choose to interact with the opposing forces within you will determine your life. Starve one or the other or guide them both.”

– Cherokee Story

We must take a hard look at our own wars. If you feel like you are not engaged in or aware of any wars, either internally or externally in our field and with regards to the field of interpreting, I encourage you to explore more deeply. Some wars may be hidden – sometimes when we feel too much pain, or experience too much resistance to our views, we become desensitized and ignore signs of war. The exploration of the opposing forces within and around us becomes more critical when we consider the power we hold by way of the privilege we hold as hearing members of a society who are granted entry into both worlds – the hearing world and Deaf world. It is our responsibility to dive deeply into the issues surrounding us. The fact that we have the choice whether or not to dive deeply and choose not to have complete access to the world around us limited attests to the importance of this responsibility. This is the heart of privilege held by hearing interpreters.

We always have a choice.

If things get too overwhelming, too scary, too sticky, too “fill-in-the-blank,” we have choices that include access to both worlds. If we become too uncomfortable with our role in the deaf world, there is another world we can go and have unlimited communication access. Perhaps we can play the “neutral” card and be “just the interpreter” or simply detach and only show up in the Deaf world when actively interpreting. We must remain conscious of these choices.

I know important conversations addressing tough issues are happening within our field. Especially in response to the recent vote about the DPMAL position on the RID Board. I recently watched a video posted by Sarah Hafer sharing some of her thoughts in response to the vote and her discussions with colleagues in her graduate program. Locally, in Kansas, we are engaging in important, sometimes painful, dialogue regarding certification standards, our state commission and the varying perspectives that exist. So, the hard work is happening. People are showing up. People are unpacking. This work must continue and catch fire.

Conclusion

War hurts relationships. War scars hearts. War kills trust. The field of ASL/English interpreting is one rampant with opportunities for war. However, if we reframe the lens in which we look out into our field and communities, I believe those same opportunities are also ripe for growth, learning and healing.

Let’s unpack our own privilege, hold ourselves accountable, and be willing to share our own perspectives while remaining open to others. As scary as it may be, it can take us a long way toward peaceful, healthy dialogue and respectful, balanced co-existence.