Vanquished Native Voices — A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?

January 10, 2012

Native Coda interpreters form the roots of the field and RID. Dennis Cokely urges us to respect Coda voices as sources of understanding and leadership. Maintaining these connections is critical for the field moving forward.

As sign language interpreters we have the difficult and challenging task of straddling two languages/cultures (Michal Agar coined the term “languaculture” to highlight the fact that language and culture cannot really be separated.) But I suggest, as others have (see Bill Moody’s 12/11/11 comment), that the vast majority of us approach this daunting task only partially prepared. To fully understand and appreciate this reality I believe we must constantly examine our roots and acknowledge the valuable resource we have around us.

Our Roots

When the RID was established in 1964 Codas played a prominent role in rendering sign language interpreting services for Deaf people and in the establishment of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). Indeed for the first two decades of RID’s existence the president was a Coda. For the first decade or so the majority of interpreters were related by blood to Deaf people. (“All-in-all, to know a sign language interpreter is to know someone who cares deeply about humanity in its many forms” — this from an earlier post on this site by Brandon Arthur in “The Goo at the Center of a Sign Language Interpreter”). In the last twenty-five years, however, Codas have not been as well represented in the elected leadership of RID as I believe they should be and as I believe we need them to be.

Native World-View

As the ranks of RID members who were not-Codas swelled inexorably (in large part because of federal laws as I have suggested in “Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain”), it has become less and less a given that we will have the insights of Codas on the RID Board of Directors. This would prove to be a significant loss for our organization and for the future direction of our field.

For those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — the DEAF-WORLD and ASL are neither our first culture nor our first language; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — our initial societally reinforced perceptions of Deaf people are that they are “disabled” and are therefore inferior to those of us who can hear; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know the feeling of experiencing firsthand the communicative oppression of our family members; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know the pressures of family members depending on us to facilitate communication; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know what it is like to grow up in a Deaf household; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know what it is like to grow up in a visually-oriented world-view.

I suggest that the experience and world-view gap between Codas and non-Codas may best be encapsulated by Egg Drop Soup who posted on the CODA-international.org website: “Sometimes it’s the worry that gets to me; that one day, I won’t know where they are and won’t have any way of getting in contact with them. Sometimes, it’s the clash of cultures – my adopted American individualism colliding unpleasantly with their traditional Eastern values. Other times, it’s the frustration of constantly being their ears and mouths, translating for them for friends, doctors, teachers, car salesmen, and even the occasional police officer.” This is unquestionably an experience and world-view that those of us who are not Codas can only experience vicariously in our wildest imaginings. Codas also represent a rich cultural reservoir from which I believe those of us who are not Codas must draw because Codas are connected to Deaf people in an intense and intimate way.

It is precisely this intense level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant presence as a guide to our work; it is precisely this level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant presence in the regular and secured leadership of RID; it is precisely this level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant reminder of the roots of our profession.

Don’t Feel Inadequate

All of this is, of course, is in no way intended to make those of us who are not Codas feel inadequate as interpreters. Our experiences – Codas and non-Codas — are simply quite different. Our experiences are neither better nor worse, they are just different. And, no, I am not suggesting that all Codas are effective and successful interpreters and neither do I believe that that one must be a Coda to be an effective and successful sign language interpreter. However, I do believe that to be effective and successful as an interpreter one must absolutely have deep and sustained connections to the Deaf Community. And since 54% of us spend less than 10% of our time socializing with Deaf people (see my 1/5/12 comment on “Complicit With a Devils’ Bargains” post), this is a serious problem for us as a field! I absolutely am suggesting that listening to and ensuring a presence for the native voice of the Coda-experience is one incredibly vital way that we as individual practitioners and as a field can begin to re-connect with Deaf people and can connect with the experience of the communicative oppression that Deaf people experience on a daily basis. Perhaps more importantly we can develop a fuller and enriched understanding of and appreciation for what it is we do as interpreters.

A Coda on the RID Board

This past July at the RID Conference a motion was passed by a significant majority that would create a dedicated position on the RID Board of Directors for a certified member who was raised by one or two Deaf parents. I absolutely and unequivocally believe that we must ensure that RID, our organization, does not lose the vital Coda link to our past. I can think of no compelling reason why we, as an organization, would not want to ensure this irreplaceable link to our past and its presence on our Board of Directors. Some would argue that RID (us) would incur additional expenses by adding an additional seat on the Board. I would argue that the price of doing so definitely does not outweigh the cost of not doing so.

Further, I would encourage the leadership of any association serving sign language interpreters to work to ensure that the Coda link to our past is represented as they move their respective organizations forward.

In Sum

I urge every member of RID to honor our past, cherish our present and enrich our future by voting in the affirmative to create a dedicated Coda seat on the RID Board of Directors. When the vote is called for next fall I urge us all to vote to ensure that we always have a Native Voice on our Board of Directors!

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28 Comments on "Vanquished Native Voices — A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?"

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Member
We non-Codas need all the Deaf World exposure we can get from all sorts of Deaf people AND all sorts of Codas. Neither group is monolithic and we need to be exposed to all the layers and points of view in a diverse Deaf World. Personally, I have needed differing role models and language models from both Deaf people and Codas in order to get to the modest understanding of this language and culture which I have achieved after long years of trying to reach the level of a professional (not someone who is paid for the work, but someone… Read more »
Member
Amy Amundsen
Thank you, thank you, thank you! Dennis, your insightful comments are right on the mark. You have so eloquently expressed many ideas that I have had in the back of my mind for years, but could not articulate. The drift away from Coda influence in RID circles, and resulting negative perception/assumptions of Codas from Hearing interpreters, has been what has held me back from getting more deeply involved with RID, nationally and locally. Just like with baked goods….we need a balance of home-grown (Coda interpreters) and store-bought (Hearing interpreters)in our lives/profession! By the way, thank you for using the correct… Read more »
Dennis Cokely
Member

Amy

Thanks for the kind words. I believe you are correct when you speak of the importance of balance. While balance is certainly important, I would suggest that organizational stability (the ability of a body to restore its balance after a disturbance) is what, to me, is at stake here.

As for the CODA/Coda distinction, kudos go to Amy Williamson, herself a Coda, who reviewed an earlier draft of the article. I will endeavor to undo years of all caps!

dennis

Member
Particularly appreciated the fact that my non-CODA experiences are simply different from the CODA’s — not better or worse. Reminds me of Margaret Ransom’s comments on her early experiences partnering with CODA Alan Champion in the 80s in NY — as they worked TOGETHER, sharing those really different world-views, they helped each other understand the ins and outs of professionalism, doing really good work, and when to scooch that line over a bit to accommodate either the needs of the Deaf person or the hearing person in the interaction — that juggling act is really delicate and requires an excellent… Read more »
Dennis Cokely
Member
Bill – Thanks for the post. Margaret and Alan are certainly one of many examples of the partnering between Codas and those of us who are not Codas (what some have termed Cohas). I absolutely agree that the “collision” of cultures is a delicate juggling act. I say “collision” for a few reasons: 1) visual and auditory worlds are not necessarily compatible 2) individualistic and collectivist cultures are not necessarily compatible 3) world-view experiences are not necessarily compatible You are absolutely correct when you say that we must have a working knowledge of BOTH cultures. I would suggest that this,… Read more »
Member
Catherine White

Rock on Dennis, go raibh maith agat (thank you)

Dennis Cokely
Member

Catherine –

You have me at a language loss ––– “raibh math agate” ?? The linguist in me says Gaelic perhaps? If so I would respond by saying “Sláinte!”. If not ….. you tell me.

thanks for the post

dennis

Member
Shane Gilchrist

Yea, its Irish 🙂 and the usual response would be either:
“Go raibh maith agat féin” or “tá fáilte romhat” 🙂

Member
Byron Bridges
I’ve been through the 60’s until now. Saw what My father and Texas Interpreters were back then setting up a professional group long before RID came up at Ball State. Those interpreters were mostly Coda’s but there were a few Noda as well. They all had one thing in common. Good will to the Deaf people and wanting to make lives better for Deaf people. We still have those interpreters out there but I see most of those interpreters who have NAD certification. There are many in RID as well but they have scattered out or become burnt out.(Should I… Read more »
Dennis Cokely
Member
Byron – Thanks for the post. I agree that we lack sufficient gatekeepers. But I would suggest that those gatekeepers need not only reside in IEPs. I believe that we need working interpreters to be more frank and forthright when they encounter those who may not “have what it takes”. It is true that Deaf people lack the structural opportunities to give “thumbs up or down” to less than effective interpreters. While I believe that IEPs have an obligation to provide Deaf people with those opportunities, I also believe that each of us has an obligation to be “a gatekeeper… Read more »
Member
Well, my experience at my ITP was that we had many Deaf instructors who did have the opportunity to provide feedback and fail us if they felt we were inadequate. I know that the making of interpreters has gone away from “the community” to behind the doors of educational institutions, however in the end that means the person who is interpreting for you in the end has a better understanding of the cognitive process of interpreting and does not have to learn by trial and error on the backs of deaf people, something that ultimately hurts more than it helps.… Read more »
Dennis Cokely
Member
Kate – Thanks for the post. It is a terrible state of affairs if some of us think that being involved in the Deaf Community s “unprofessional”. We are always involved in the English-seaking world during our “off hours”, so how do we make a logical case we should not be involved in the Deaf Community for some of that time? Having developed a cognitive model of the interpreting process, I can state without equivocation that having “a better understanding of the cognitive process of interpreting” does not, in and of itself, result in a more competent and effective interpreter.… Read more »
Member
Very well written Dennis, as always. As a Coha (Actually I prefer the term NerDa – Not even related to Deaf adults), I have tremendous respect for Codas who work hard to become “PROFESSIONAL” Interpreters. However, to play devil’s advocate and most likely be the odd man out (Being a male in this profession kind of does that automatically – laughing), I want to emphasize that in my experience being a Coda does not an interpreter make. Please, this is not to discount the phenomenal Coda Interpreters out there, of which there are many! Unfortunately, I see too many Codas… Read more »
Dennis Cokely
Member
Dwight – Thanks for the post. You state “being a Coda does not an interpreter make” – I doubt anyone would argue with that. I stated as much in my original post “I am not suggesting that all Codas are effective and successful interpreters and neither do I believe that that one must be a Coda to be an effective and successful sign language interpreter.” The point here, I think, is that one’s birth status is, by itself, an insufficient condition to determine/produce/predict an effective and successful interpreter. This applies to both Codas and Cohas as it most certainly does… Read more »
Member
Lynnette Taylor
Dwight, Your response made me wonder about a few things. Where is this conversation coming from that says it is codas or deaf people? We are not the same and one experience does not reflect the other. How and why did this conflation begin? Wherever it began we need to stop it. This conversation is a dangerous one and pits codas against deaf people, and I have to ask, for whose gain? The CDI issue is not a Deaf issue it is a membership issue. We are all responsible for the state of things. That said, shame on us for… Read more »
Dennis Cokely
Member
Lynette – Thanks for posting. Very well stated. I fully agree with your statement that the CDI issue is a membership issue and one which we should openly discuss because some of us feel that the presence of a CDI is an indictment of OUR competence. Hopefully we can have that discussion at some very soon point. Given that the task we purport to do is an almost impossible one, I would think that we would want to tap every resource at our disposal. In this case it means ensuring a Coda presence on the RID Board. It has always… Read more »
Member
Midwest Coda
Growing up as a coda I met many wonderful interpreters, but I mainly remember the many who ‘filtered’ what my parents said when it didn’t suit their beliefs/cause (religious interpreters), who dismissed my parents thoughts and perspectives, and many who just couldn’t create a logical spoken sentence when voicing for deaf people- so they made stuff up, or worse, ignored the statement. And yes, some were RID certified interpreters. I spent my koda life not liking most of the people who were ‘attracted to deafness’, either for friendship or occupation (“it’s such a beautiful language”, “I want to help them… Read more »
Member
Bethany James

Midwest Coda : it’s like you took the words right out of my head and put them down for me. I couldn’t agree more.

dcoyne
Member
I agree. I would assume many – the vast majority, of current interpreters are bi-lingual and mono-culture – not that I am in the camp that separates the two – which would mean that I doubt hearing people who spend less that 10% of their time socializing with Deaf people are able to develop adequate language skill-sets that embodies cultural nuances. I’m thrilled to see you bring up languaculture – I feel the more people within our field realize that we must not separate language and culture, the closer we (interpreters) may be to adequately provide intelligible interpretations that do… Read more »
Member
Dennis, On behalf of IDP, Interpreter with Deaf Parents, I wan tto thank you for this article. Your support and recognition of this motion means more than “signs” can say. There is a purpose behind putting a Coda on the national board. In interpreting preparation programs the ASL linguistics class teaches us that culture contains language and language is ever changing. I think Michal Agar made it clear by conjoining the words language and culture into “languaculture” showing us that they do, in fact, go hand in hand. As interpreters we try to possess that languaculture he speaks about. Humphrey… Read more »
Member

I think this is a great topic. Dennis, I would like to know your thoughts on Kate and Lynette’s post. I think they made a really good point and I would like to know your thoughts on this.

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[…] levels of readiness for all that is required of us, as eluded by Dennis Cokely in his article, Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis. However, it is worth exploring the degree to which lingering shadows of invisibility impact our […]

Member
Dennis, I read your article with interest, and while I agree with what you have written in spirit, the fact that the devil is in the details — and I know I’m not saying anything you haven’t considered, but I hope you can make some of this more explicit — leads me to make a comment or two: 1. Codas are fetishized in our field, and are seldom taken simply as another path into the profession. They are either derided, literally as mom-and-pop interpreters with little education and less ethics, or are the objects of almost obsequious deference. I hope… Read more »
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