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6 Presentations That Will Make You a Better Sign Language Interpreter

6 Presentations That Will Make You a Better Sign Language Interpreter

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

Dennis Cokely

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.

View the ASL, English and PPT here.

2.  Deb Russell | Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover an Enduring Legacy

Debra Russell

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.

View the ASL, English, and PPT here.

3.  Betty Colonomos | Sign Language Interpreters: Fostering Integrity

Betty Colonomos

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.

View the ASL, English and PPT here.

4.  Doug Bowen Bailey | Transforming Perspectives: The Power of One-to-One Conversations For Sign Language Interpreters

doug bowen bailey

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.

View the ASL, English, and PPT here.

5.  Trudy Suggs | Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter

Trudy Suggs - Deaf Disempowerment and Today's Interpreter

Trudy Suggs’ StreetLeverage – Live | Baltimore presentation, Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter, powerfully explores both financial and situational disempowerment within the Deaf Community.

View the ASL, English and PPT here. 

6.  MJ Bienvenu | Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals?

MJ Bienvenu - StreetLeverage - Live 2015

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.

View the ASL, English and PPT here.

The Whole is More than the Sum of its Parts

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.

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Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart

Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart

“Deaf-Heart” has been a hotly debated but ambiguous topic for many sign language interpreters. Betty Colonomos poses critical questions and provides hope that sign language interpreters can begin to embody this elusive quality.

A recurrent phrase that has been appearing in frequent discussions is “Deaf heart.”  Our national interpreter organization, RID, has long been characterized as needing a Deaf heart.  Recently, changes have been made to move RID to a more Deaf-centered perspective on the field of interpretation. The most recent evidence of this is the addition of Shane Feldman, who is Deaf, as the new Executive Director.  Although institutional shifts are possible with changes in policies and practices, there is much misunderstanding of the concept as it applies to practicing interpreters.

Early Discovery

In the 1990’s there were many efforts to address this concern.  New England states held a series of Ally Conferences that focused on the Deaf view of interpreters and their behaviors.  This resulted in many discussions and workshops to clarify the meaning of an interpreter-as-ally. There was–and still is—debate about the fine line between ethical practices and ally responses.  Today, it is considered acceptable and even desirable to provide information to hearing and Deaf consumers regarding accommodations, cultural differences, and resources. The emergence of Deaf Interpreters in our profession has contributed  to the dissemination of information about accessibility and Deaf people, and has helped to educate the Deaf Community about their own power.

Deaf Activists & Social Dynamics

In the 21st century we looked to models from minority groups that view societal privilege and oppression to explain and understand the relationship between interpreters and the Deaf Community. Deaf activists are helping the community of interpreters and Deaf people to understand the social dynamics that create marginalization, audism, and racial/ethnic prejudices.

These robust and healthy discussions about privilege are paving the way for a change in the way we think about minority communities and cultures that goes beyond the medical and pathological view of Deaf people.

Internalization of Deaf Heart

But what about ‘Deaf heart’?  In my travels and conversations with many interpreters, codas, and members of the Deaf Community it has become clearer that we still are not adequately capturing the qualities and behaviors of Deaf-heart interpreters. It is not about laws, services, ethics (at least from majority/privilege perspective), or training.  It is something that can’t be taught. It is difficult to explain, yet palpably absent.

The internalization of a Deaf heart must come from the interpreter’s own sense of justice and morality.  

A number of contributors to StreetLeverage have expressed this quality in different ways.

Dennis Cokely, in his article, Sign Language Interpreters: Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain?, provides a historical context that demonstrates the shift from earlier times when having ‘Deaf heart’ was intrinsic for interpreters to the indicators that this has significantly diminished. He explains:

How do we justify learning their language and profiting from it without giving back? In becoming a “profession” have we simply become parasites?”

and

What are we willing to do as individuals to become reconnected with Deaf people? Are we willing to adjust our work choices to accommodate the rhythm of Deaf people’s lives?”

Trudy Suggs illustrates this clearly in, A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting

This type of knowledge (schools for the deaf) is an important element of Deaf culture for many people. Not recognizing its importance, or dismissing it when someone shares this information speaks volumes to cultural (il) literacy.

A participant from that group suddenly said with an incredulous look, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset that video interpreters don’t know city names? That’s really ridiculous. It’s such a small thing.” I was momentarily caught off-guard by her flippant response. I quickly clarified that I wasn’t upset, saying, “Quite the contrary. It’s just one of those things that Deaf people have to live with. It does become cumbersome if you have to make several calls a day and each video interpreter you encounter doesn’t know a city sign or town where a deaf school is.”

In Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility, Anna Witter-Merithew asks us to examine the human side of the interpreter.

Do we think of ourselves as bystanders—present from a distance, and therefore, not involved?  Have we internalized the neutrality we are to bring to our task as non-involvement and disinterest [versus objectivity and emotional maturity]?  

What do we believe about ourselves, our work and our contribution to the good of the Deaf society? As we explore the answer to this and other hard questions, we must consider the implications of our history of behaving as if invisible and its potential contribution to the diffusion of responsibility.”

Overcoming Inertia

Part of having a Deaf heart is caring enough about the well being of Deaf people and their communities to put them above ego, pride, and unwillingness to fight for what is right.  For example, I have interpreted in Juvenile Court many times and have come across several instances when parents/guardians should have the services of Deaf interpreters.  It is obvious at the first meeting that the consumers have limited education, cognitive deficits, idiosyncratic language, or some combination of these. I inform their attorneys of this and find out that this case has been ongoing (sometimes up to three years) and the attorneys had no idea about this. Often these lawyers and social service personnel indicate that they “felt that something was not right” about their interactions with clients.  Numerous interpreters have been working on these cases. They are deemed qualified to work in court; they are certified; all have had some degree of legal training. Why didn’t they recognize this? Intervene? Advocate for Deaf Interpreters?

Absence of Context

My professional experiences are replete with markers of the lack of  “Deaf heart.” I have heard English interpretations of texts where Deaf people are proudly sharing their generational Deafness (e.g. fifth generation Deaf) conveyed as a matter-of-fact piece of information about having deaf children in each generation.  The critical meaning of Deaf “royalty” is absent, leaving the possibility that the non-deaf audience might see this as a genetic flaw or “problem.”

In workshops I see many interpreters–student and experienced alike—who do not recognize ASL discourse that is representing a community’s point of view. For example, Deaf people often convey narrative that on the surface seems to be about them (an “I” Deaf text) when in fact the message is about the “We” Deaf story. The consequence is that the Deaf person appears to be discussing an isolated event, when the issue is really about a community with shared experiences. Which do you think has a greater impact on the audience?  Being around Deaf people often allows interpreters to know how to distinguish “I” from “We” Deaf texts.

Interpreters who have no interactions with Deaf people outside of work miss much of the collective history and current burning issues that show up in interpreted interactions and collegial discussions. How can interpreters who hide behind their interpretation of the Code of Professional Conduct–instead of taking responsibility to intervene–employ strategies that are culturally appropriate to solve problems?

Accountability is the Beginning

Interpreters who demonstrate the qualities of Deaf heart are those who reflect on how their choices and decisions affect the Deaf Community; they question their practices that seem to be oppressive or damaging to the lives of Deaf people; they own their mistakes and share them with others. Most importantly, they seek input and advice from Deaf people and are not afraid to be uncomfortable with Deaf people’s responses and viewpoint.

A number of authors on Street Leverage have also shared what it is to have a Deaf heart. In Aaron Brace’s piece, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter, he digs deep and exposes some of the demons we face.

“…my customers are not well served by a quasi-messianic philosophy that valorizes my role far above theirs. It’s also simply inaccurate; customers often communicate effectively despite my excellent service rather than because of it.”

 “I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand my duality as both ally and enemy in the lives of Deaf people without some measure of guilt. Like many members of privileged groups, I hope to learn the right way to behave toward an oppressed group—once— and never again have to feel unsure of myself or guilty about my privilege. 

When I demonstrate a fuller understanding of both what I give and what I take, it is returned by Deaf people, not with a sneering pleasure at my knowing my place, but with greater trust, friendship, and welcome.”

Gina Oliva, in her challenge to us in, Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged, boldly brings forth the role played by sign language interpreters in mainstream education and the significant impact this has on future generations of Deaf people. We have remained silent for too long about our part in harming deaf children and their potential for successful lives. We have allowed interpreters to present themselves as adequate language models and carriers of negative views of Deaf people. We have done little to admit to this injustice and have put our needs for employment above the lives of innocent children.

There are things we can do to correct this major injustice in our field. Anna Witter-Merithew in, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice, emphasizes the need for us to look inside and seek guidance from our consumers:

“ It is important to find opportunities to talk with Deaf consumers about our work as sign language interpreters and to ask them to help us consider the implications of role implementation for their experiences.”

And in Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter by Trudy Suggs, we see a Deaf view on how we can move forward.

“…remember that if a deaf person expresses frustration at disempowerment, it doesn’t necessarily mean she or he is angry, divisive or separatist. Rather, take a look at the situation, and figure out how, if at all, you or other interpreters might have contributed to the situation. “

Important Enough to Act?

The only question that remains is whether or not the practitioners in our field care enough about this to want to do something about it.  Do we need to bring these discussions to the forefront of our public professional discourse?  Should we insist that our programs for training interpreters address this issue and involve Deaf people much more in educating future interpreters?  When will we uphold the integrity of our profession by supporting novices and by renouncing those who cast a pall over us?

When will we appreciate the valuable insights of codas to help us nurture the Deaf heart in us? Why do we vigorously debate whether a permanent seat on RID’s Board for an IDP (interpreter with Deaf Parents) is necessary when we know how much it will enhance the Deaf heart perspective in the organization?   When will we acknowledge that Deaf Studies courses and programs are helpful in understanding, but they do not replace the need for feeling the stories?

We have a wonderful opportunity before us. Deaf people and codas are more aware of their own Deaf hearts and they are willing to talk about it and to help others recognize their own unconscious anti-Deaf heart actions. Why aren’t we eagerly seeking their input and guidance?  Why aren’t we thankful for how they enrich us?

It is hard to walk in another’s shoes, but our work depends on the ability to see the world through the lenses of our consumers and clients. Without this, how can we become the noble profession we envision?

There is always room for a Deaf Heart…you are invited.

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A Salute to Big Thinking Sign Language Interpreters

StreetLeverage-Live - Thought Leadership Event

StreetLeverage-Live - Thought Leadership EventWhat do projectile vomiting, cancelled and delayed flights, and an unrelenting Nor’easter have in common? StreetLeverage—Live. As anyone who has organized a live event will tell you, there are always unforeseen challenges that arise and StreetLeverage—Live had its fair share. Despite these challenges, the event was a success.

Talent Salute

I salute Nigel Howard, Trudy Suggs, Lynette Taylor, and Wing Butler, the inaugural speakers of StreetLeverage—Live, for their commitment to the field and its next evolution, the courage to openly share their big ideas, and the considerable effort made to effectively pack these ideas into a concise 20-ish minute talk. No small task to be sure. These independent thinkers are people who require more of themselves, those around them, and of the status quo.

Nigel, Trudy, Lynnette and Wing, you guys killed it! Nicely done.

A Recap

Nigel HowardNigel Howard

Nigel presented, Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion. His 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.

Additionally, he highlighted that the definitions ASL-English and deaf interpreters hold of each other, correct or not, is the basis of their effectiveness working together and that both have equal responsibility for the processing of information and outcome of the communication.

Finally, Nigel offered that there is a need to broaden the view of how and why deaf interpreters are used in order to improve their inclusion and contribution to the field.

Trudy SuggsTrudy Suggs

Trudy presented, Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter. Her talk examined how the choices sign language interpreters make while delivering communication access can, and often do, contribute to the economic and situational disempowerment of deaf people.

Trudy offered that interpreters can avoid stripping power from those they work with, and the broader Deaf community, by remembering who are the owners of the communication. Further, that it is essential to defer to these owners and Deaf community representatives rather than speak on their behalf. Additionally, that true empowerment begins when a consciousness is achieved that results in the referring of opportunity to back to the Deaf community.

Finally, she offered that anything less than full and mutual respect, regardless of the situation and/or opportunity at stake, is a failure to support true empowerment.

Lynnette TaylorLynnette Taylor

Lynette presented, Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field. Her talk explored, how the dwindling numbers of deaf-centric service agencies and shared gathering places for the Deaf community and sign language interpreters is impacting the sign language interpreting field.

Lynnette offered that the elimination of these agencies and places of gathering is resulting in the disappearance of the stories and storytellers that serve to connect the two communities—and practitioners to each other—through a common understanding of the struggles and sacrifices known, victories achieved, and destination aimed for.

Finally, she suggested that without this common bond and shared understanding of history, sign language interpreters are left adrift—powerless against the definitions imposed upon them and their work. 

Wing ButlerWing Butler

Wing presented, Onsite Sign Language Interpreters Face Extinction. His talk examined the legislation and technology developments of the 90’s that defined the values of the “Onsite Era” and how these values are now being replaced by the values of a “Virtual Presence Era.”

He offered that some of the key values of the Onsite Era that are being replaced are, a relational approach to the work, interpreters are service professionals, quality means certified, specialty skill-sets and individual representation are valuable, and success is achieved through reciprocity.

Wing suggested that the iterative realignment of these values leaves sign language interpreters vulnerable to a number of dangerous pitfalls. Pitfalls that can be avoided by working to protect the value of certification, collaborating with industry partners, preparing the leaders of the future, and leveraging technology to create a learning culture within the field.

A Giant Thank You 

Access Interpreting

I would like to thank Access Interpreting for being the Thought Leadership Sponsor of the PCRID conference. Their leadership and support was directly responsible for making the inaugural StreetLeverage–Live event possible.Lyle Vold, Brad Leon, and Ryan Leon

 

Lyle, Brad, and Ryan, thanks for your vision and generosity in giving back to the field. asdfasdf

 

PCRID

I would like to offer my thanks to the PCRID conference co-chairs, Josh Hughes and Jennifer Bell and the PCRID Board for their support of StreetLeverage and live thought leadership at the conference. You all did a great job.

Participants

Thanks to the many people who actively participated in the event. It was your engagement and shared insight that multiplied, exponentially, the value of the speakers sharing their ideas and perspectives.

The Takeaway 

What quickly became obvious during the event is that there is an interest in openly discussing the developments and forces at play within the field in a live, real-time environment.

Let us collectively consider how we can personally work to include our deaf interpreter counterparts, avoid disempowering those we serve, find ways to share our collective stories, and avoid the pitfalls before us as our field continues to evolve.

Be on the lookout, as videos for each of the talks will be individually released on StreetLeverage.com in future.

Have a question for Nigel, Trudy, Lynnette, and/or Wing? Ask away!

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A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting

Healthy dialogue between the Deaf and interpreting communities promotes bicultural literacy and mutual understanding. Trudy Suggs examines an incident in which interpreters took advantage of their hearing privilege to disrespect Deaf workshop presenters.
 
A chip on her shoulder.
An angry Deaf person.
I will definitely NOT be attending her workshops in the future.
The workshop seemed to be a venting session for the Deaf people. 

These were just some of the evaluation responses to a workshop I presented at a state-level sign language interpreting conference recently. I had been asked to do three workshops at this conference, and the first workshop went fabulously.

[View post in ASL]

The second workshop was after lunch, a notoriously difficult time slot because participants are often tired from the morning and lunch. Even so, I expected this workshop—which I had presented many times before—would be fun and invigorating. I was especially pumped by the participants’ awesome energy that morning, and was excited to see that many who attended the morning workshop had joined this afternoon session. The Deaf participants were renowned advocates and leaders. However, as the session got underway, I became a bit perplexed by the mood before me. Perhaps it was the lighting, the room set-up, or fatigue, but the room seemed tense, almost foreboding. Still, I figured the energy level would quickly rise.

I noticed, almost immediately, a specific group of interpreters who whispered to each other without signing. Participants in the first workshop had been extremely respectful about signing at all times. The conference organizers had also clearly stated that one language was to be used. I naturally assumed that for workshops led by Deaf presenters, all present would sign.

I won’t go into how many articles and discussions there have been about how interpreters and students are notorious for not signing at interpreting conferences (although I’ll cite an article I wrote six years ago about this), but it may be helpful to understand my background. I’ve worked with interpreters since I was a toddler, and was mainstreamed for most of my education. I also constantly work with interpreters in my career, and travel the nation providing interpreting workshops because I think it’s so important for Deaf people to share their knowledge and experience. I emphasize in every workshop that interpreters are among the most crucial allies Deaf people can have. Furthermore, as a mother to four children who are Deaf, I have a very personal reason for wanting nothing but the very best in the interpreting profession.

I was disturbed, as were several participants, by this group’s behavior, so I quickly reiterated the importance of signing at all times. After the fourth time I mentioned this, I became visibly irritated, because it was difficult to understand how such rudeness would be exhibited. I explained that as a Deaf person, they were taking away my opportunity—without my having any say—to catch side conversations that often hold such a wealth of information.

Let me share an example. At another workshop, during a break, I noticed two participants talking about their pregnancies. I happily jumped into the conversation; as someone who was pregnant for four years in a row, I always love sharing pregnancy experiences. Sure enough, one of the participants sat with me during lunch and we exchanged wonderful child-raising tidbits. This interaction is what is so important to the development of alliances between hearing and deaf people. It helps us build connections and recognize shared experiences as human beings.

As is true for any workshop I present, I always ensure that the Deaf participants are given an opportunity to provide input. While the Deaf experience may be common across many levels, it isn’t identical for every Deaf individual. At this workshop, there were four Deaf individuals in attendance. About an hour into the workshop, I made a comment in passing about how I wished all video interpreters knew the names of deaf school towns—that is, towns with deaf schools (i.e., Fremont, St. Augustine, even Faribault)—or at least be familiar with the names. I said this lightly, with a smile, and the Deaf participants nodded vigorously in agreement. This type of knowledge is an important element of Deaf culture for many people. Not recognizing its importance, or dismissing it when someone shares this information, speaks volumes to cultural (il)literacy.

A participant from that group suddenly said with an incredulous look, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset that video interpreters don’t know city names! That’s really ridiculous. It’s such a small thing.” I was momentarily caught off-guard by her flippant response. I quickly clarified that I wasn’t upset, saying, “Quite the contrary. It’s just one of those things that Deaf people have to live with. It does become cumbersome if you have to make several calls a day and each video interpreter you encounter doesn’t know a city sign or town where a deaf school is.”

The participant started to dissect my comments, shaking her head in disbelief. A Deaf participant stood up saying, “Trudy isn’t upset. She simply—and she’s right—means that it does get frustrating when interpreters don’t know the sign for large cities or deaf school towns. Deaf school towns are to us what major cities are to the general population.” This interpreter shook her head as if we were silly. In retrospect, I should have ignored her. I didn’t, because I was, truthfully, astonished at her disregard for our experiences.

Realizing that perhaps her reaction came from culpability or taking my comments personally, I asked why she was upset. She said, derisively, “I’m not upset. I’m simply disagreeing. Disagreement is healthy, right?” I decided that I’d had enough and moved on, but I was shaken. Discouraged and belittled, I tried to keep the workshop going despite dagger-eyes from that interpreter who “healthily” disagreed with me.

After the workshop, at least six interpreters came up to me and apologized for that group; several thanked me for being so straightforward and expressed their appreciation for all the Deaf participants’ contributions. One interpreter said he was angry because he felt she wouldn’t have done this had I been a hearing presenter.

I talked with one of the volunteers at my workshop, a Certified Interpreter and the mother to a Deaf adult. I shared my puzzlement at why I felt blindsided. She said, “There’s a difference between challenging an expert and disagreeing respectfully.” She nailed it; after all, would the participant have so publicly disagreed with me had she respected me as an expert in my subject matter? What if I had been a hearing presenter talking about deaf people’s frustrations? Maybe she still would have, but I doubt it.

I received overwhelmingly positive evaluations for the first and third workshops. For the second workshop, I was pleased with the supportive responses, but also surprised by the depth of the few negative comments. I wondered why I was called an “angry deaf person.” Why not simply an angry person? Why were the Deaf people’s shared experiences considered venting? Why was it a “Deaf” issue?

I later saw the very same Deaf participants at the National Association of the Deaf conference, and they were equally taken aback by the negative feedback. As we discussed the contempt we felt from certain participants at this workshop, it suddenly made sense: hearing privilege. As we all know, some enter the interpreting profession with misguided intentions. Fortunately, we have so many solid interpreting standards and programs in place that help steer those individuals in a more positive direction. Even so, had all the Deaf participants sharing their experiences been hearing, would they have been criticized for their so-called venting? Would I have been labeled angry if I were hearing? Perhaps.

I wish that interpreter who challenged me had come up to me after the workshop and started, yes, a healthy dialogue, so that we could have come to appreciate each other. I wish she had respected my perspectives. I likely would have learned from her perspective as someone who did not grow up in the culture or community. I also find it quite ironic that she and a couple of others chose to vent via the evaluations, stating that the workshop was a “venting session for the Deaf people,” instead of building alliances.

Workshops led by Deaf people are golden opportunities to listen to their experiences—while reserving judgment—and understand that interpreting, for them, is not just a career or interest. It affects their lives, their experiences, and their realities—and for many, the legacy they pass onto their children. Ensuring the sincere desire to be an ally and exhibiting a genuine respect for experiences is a reward beyond measure.