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New Lamps for Old: Apprenticeship in Sign Language Interpreting

Sign Language Interpreting Professor

The field of interpreting evolves rapidly; bridging the gap from educational programs to real-world interpreting is critical. Rico Peterson shares critical components from RIT/NTID’s DAS Apprenticeship program.

A while ago I taught a workshop in Thailand. My driver, Tuy, took pains during our commute to describe points of interest and cultural nuance. At stoplights, vendors would rush into the queue of cars. One day, Tuy bought a small garland. As he fixed the flowers to his rearview mirror, he explained, “Respect for the car and for the road. It’s important to respect where we’re going and how we’re getting there.”

On the cusp of this new academic year, those words ring truer than ever.

Recalibrating Pedagogy

Those who taught sign language and interpreting in the days before technology remember a very different pedagogy than that which has developed since, a pedagogy borne largely by technology.  You might say that we have seen interpreting education grow from pre-video to meta-video.

Perhaps the biggest constant in this time of change has been video technology and how it continues to impact our field. Technology and the ready availability of cassette recording revolutionized interpreter education in the 1980s. We discovered quickly what a handy tool video could be in teaching and learning interpreting.

Technology in the 21st century has turned the tables. Since 2002, video has learned what a handy tool interpreters can be.  As the revolution rolls on, pedagogy recalibrates to consider a new model of sign language interpreting, one where some of the most fundamental precepts of our work are radically different from those we espoused as recently as 2005; where values like professional authority, publicly known standards, and adherence to a code of ethics are superseded by company policy, private, proprietary standards, and selective application of a code of ethics.

Real-World Approximation

In the days before widespread, curricularized interpreter education, people came into our field armed with resources. Language competency, at least as reckoned in ASL, was determined before one was “invited” to interpret. (Granted, this “invitation” betimes felt more compulsory than invitations often do.) Interaction in the source and target languages was available in abundance. Opportunities to work in real-world settings were offered in bite-size chunks. A simple phone message here or appointment made there, done successfully, was fundamental to expanding one’s repertoire into more complex discourse settings. The study of moral conduct was fairly transparent. One needed to behave appropriately to be accepted into the larger deaf/interpreting community. Local communities were adept at policing themselves, endorsing only those with proven fluency and values as “approved” interpreters.

What can apprenticeships today glean from this aboriginal learning environment?

The Challenge

Today students in our sign language interpreting programs are often novice signers, and rarely do they have anything approaching ready contact with both source and target languages. This is a circumstance peculiar to sign language interpreting education. A good deal of what we call Interpreting Education might also be described as “Advanced ASL” or “Advanced English”.  In doing some research several years ago, I identified a university that offered programs in both spoken and signed interpretation. Regarding language competence, the exit requirements for the sign language interpreting program were lower than the entrance requirements for the spoken language programs! It is commonly accepted that “Advanced ASL” is a major component of many sign language interpreting programs.

To be sure, the study of “Advanced ASL” contains as many questions and perplexities as the study of “for-profit interpreting”.  Again the issue arises — How best to equip novices with experience that will prepare them to enter our rapidly evolving field?

Practice Profession

Interpreting is frequently referred to as a “practice profession”. Definitions for “practice profession” are sprinkled liberally with concepts long known to adherents of “Situated Cognition” and “Experiential Learning”; including things like cognition in context, that knowing and doing are interwoven, and interaction with communities of practice. In both domains it is stipulated that exposure to real work in real settings is fundamental to mixing and refining the palette of skills interpreting requires.

The value of experiential learning or, as we call it, “apprenticeship” in interpreting is as well understood as it is little available.  Each year, the 130 IEPs in this country graduate roughly 1000 students. The lack of opportunities for graduates of interpreting programs to be supported as they take their critical early steps down the path toward becoming interpreters has been heard time out of mind in interpreting education.

A number of entities have recognized and rushed to remedy this lacuna, this crucial gap in interpreter education. Indeed, opportunities today are more available than ever for this sort of transitive assistance. Entire communities and regions have come together to offer mentorship programs. One video relay vendor in particular is commendable for its attention to interpreter education.

Critical Program Components

At the Department of Access Services (DAS) at RIT/NTID, we define apprenticeship as a guided entry into the craft and trade of sign language interpreting. The question of what an apprenticeship in interpreting ought include  is a central consideration of any program. As apprenticeships take place in real-world settings, who we are and what we do is fundamental.

Here, then, are some of the core components of the DAS program that I think can be valuable to  apprentices and programs supporting interpreters:

  • Varied venue:

It is critical that programs offer a diversity of settings for their apprentices to work.  At DAS we have found that while we are steeped in postsecondary education, academic interpreting, we can expose apprentices to everything from medical to legal (student disciplinary) to student government and life and professional development for the 100+ deaf faculty and staff.  The greater the exposure, the more rich the apprentice experience. The more rich the experience, the better the outcomes in the real world.

  • Quality working conditions:

The ratio of interpreting time to preparation time is an essential factor in postsecondary interpreting.  Again, using DAS as a backdrop, we build interpreting schedules on a ratio of approximately 2:1 in terms of “interpreting” time and rest, recovery, preparation, professional development time. While this may be a high bar in the field of sign language interpreting, we are committed to affording our staff interpreters the time and resources necessary to produce work of the highest quality.

  • Professional development activities:

Regular access to in-service trainings, workshops, and learning experiences offers an opportunity to reinforce aspects of our practice.  While the amount of professional development can certainly vary, at DAS we have offered over 60 professional development opportunities for our staff of 125 interpreters in the last two years alone.  Increased opportunities for reinforcement supports a more confident interpreter in practice.

  • Peer to peer mentoring:

Innovation is key to a program’s success.  As an example of program innovation, beginning in the spring of 2012, DAS staff interpreters have been offered state-of-the-art mentorship training that allows us to explore new and exciting aspects of mentorship, including assessment and self-assessment.

  • Veteran Staff:

The level of experience of a program’s staff may be the most valuable part of apprenticeship. The practical experience offered to support the navigation of ethical and practicing situations is highly valuable to those graduates transitioning into practice. An example of the value a program can bring, DAS employs over 120 full time interpreters who have an average tenure of 13.5 years.

 Apprenticeship is Not For Everyone

To be sure, not every student graduating from an IEP wants or needs an apprenticeship. Many students graduate and go directly to work. However, it has been my experience that just as many can benefit from a structured, supported transition from being a student to being an interpreter, one that takes familiar elements of interpreter education like rubrics and self-assessment and blends them into a vibrant experiential learning environment.

Conclusion

The pedagogy of interpreting education must keep pace with the evolution of interpreting practice. DAS’s new apprenticeship program represents an honest offer to improve the way we bring new people into the work we love. And as Tuy once said, it’s important to respect where we’re going and how we’re getting there.

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Do Sign Language Interpreters Have a Right to a Consumer’s Attention?

Woman questioning whether sign language interpreters have the right to the attention of their consumers

Telling the “right” story is an art sign language interpreters must master to successfully navigate their career. Generosity and the ability to read a room are also important for positive outcomes.

At times it can be very difficult to be a sign language interpreter. We put our reputations on the line each and every day we raise our hands to work. We navigate new environments and new subject matter on a regular basis. We suffer vicariously as a result of inhumane acts. Worse, we do all of this with extremely limited amounts of information.

The resulting—often intense—occupational self-interest, leaves us vulnerable to the notion that people understand why what we do is important, the reason certain practices are critical to our work, and the effort it takes to be a good interpreter.

The Danger

The challenge with this assumption is that it may lead us to the perception that we have the right to the attention of our consumers and the purchaser of our services. Simply, we have the right—or responsibility as the case may be—to prevail upon those we encounter on the job that challenge our practices or take an opposing view of a particular situation in an effort to help them, “get it.”

While we are often victorious in these moments of tactical “education,” the damage found in the aftermath can be significant. These moments can result in the disenfranchisement of our consumers, marginalization of the interests of those who purchase our services, and our succumbing to one or more of The Three Temptations of a Sign Language Interpreter. None of which is good for us individually or collectively as a profession.

An Alternative

If we were to step back and consider the notion that the purchasers of our service are indifferent, though they provide it, to the importance of the work we do as sign language interpreters, does it change our perspective to the right we have to their attention? Or, how we go about earning that attention?

If we consider that the consumers of our service may have little to no interest in the effort it takes to become a professional, qualified, credentialed sign language interpreter, does that change our perspective about right we have to their attention or how we go about earning it?

If as a sign language interpreter, we are faced with indifference, a lack of interest, or a worldview that doesn’t resonate with ours, what do we do to earn the social currency necessary to perform our work?

Tell the Right Story

The answer to this question can be found in an example that exists in every sign language interpreting community around the globe.

In each local interpreting community there is an interpreter who isn’t particularly amazing, they might even be considered below average. Interestingly though they seem to always have work and consumers and purchasers of our service love them. Additionally, these communities also have an interpreter who is incredibly talented and clearly above average when compared to their peers. Yet, they struggle to piece opportunities together.

The difference?

The first likely brings generosity and humility to their work. They understand that the consumers and purchasers of their service don’t owe them attention. In response, this interpreter chooses to tell a story through their approach to and interactions about the work. They tell a story that resonates with those they come in contact with and is considerate of their point of view.

The latter likely brings a perspective that they are owed attention as a result of the investment they have made in their skillset and career. Their story is a story of entitlement. One where the slant goes unchecked, as suggested in Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head?

Determine What’s Important

As sign language interpreters, we are good at deciphering meaning. We need to use this skill to determine what’s important to those we serve and those that engage our services. We can do this by evaluating our answers to the following questions:

1.  How is my work and occupational self-interest perceived by those I serve and those who engage my services?

2.  How can my work today best assist consumers and purchasers in accomplishing their ends? How can I demonstrate my understanding of that?

3.  From the consumer and purchaser’s point of view, what adds the most value by my being present today? How can I amplify that?

4.  Whose agenda is the most important in the room? Why? How can I support that agenda?

5.  How can I approach my work to extend ample generosity, demonstrate an appropriate level of humility, and show clarity about my role?

By considering the answer to these questions, we place ourselves in the position of the consumer and purchaser. It offers us a perspective that helps us tell a story through our work that resonates with those we come in contact with while on the job.

At the End of the Day

In the end, let’s remember that as sign language interpreters we are not owed the attention necessary to do our work—we need to earn it. Further, that the consumers and purchasers of our service are engaging us for the story we tell. Let’s be sufficiently generous about how we tell it.

How do you know if you are telling the right story?

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The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter

The Value of Networking for Sign Language Interpreters

In the world of ubiquitous social networks, Stacey Webb explores the significant value of networking offline for emerging sign language interpreters.

In order for students to be successful sign-language interpreters, prior to graduating it is critical that they develop a relationship with both the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community (DHHC) and current-working professionals within the DHHC.  This would include interpreters, educators and DHHC advocates. By fostering these relationships, students will create educational, professional and personal opportunities that would not be available to them outside of the classroom environment. Personally, I would not be as successful in my career had the DHHC and Interpreter Community not provided me guidance.  These communities did not seek me out to help; rather, I became involved in community-related endeavors and positioned myself to become a well-connected member.

Importance of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community

In order for sign language interpreters to be successful, a relationship with the DHHC is paramount, as suggested by Trudy Suggs in her post, A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting .  An interpreter in California once stated, “If you call yourself an Interpreter and you have never had a deaf person in your home – shame on you!”  In order to be an effective interpreter, one must create a relationship with the community in which you will serve.  Through this relationship, doors are opened which provides for a greater understanding of the people and language epitomizing the culture.  As a participant in the community, interpreters are able to represent and interpret messages more accurately and equivalently.

It is important that interpreters understand their personal and professional roles within the DHHC.  Historical analysis of the role of the sign language interpreter is helpful in developing and understanding the role of today’s interpreter.  For the role has ranged from overzealous inclusion with the community, known as the “helper model,” to almost-complete detachment from the community, also known as the “conduit model.”  As the interpreting profession has evolved through its peeks and valleys, one sentiment has become absolute—relationships with the DHHC are essential and their importance should not be underestimated.

Socializing with Language Users is Essential

Unfortunately, the DHHC is often a stopping point for opportunistic students who simply wish to only learn American Sign Language.  After getting a basic understanding of the language, either by graduating from a program or earning an interpreter certification, opportunists leave with little to no continuing relationship with the DHHC.  I cannot stress the importance of undeviating involvement.  To learn American Sign Language well, interpreters must immerse and socialize with language users.  By starting networks early in ones career, it provides the perfect opportunity for interpreters to create life long friendships that will add richness to their personal journey into the Deaf world. This also creates a link for future professional opportunities.

Relationships With Working Interpreters

Robert Kiyosaki, an American investor and author stated, “If you want to go somewhere, it is better to find someone who has already been there.” As a graduate, whether you feel completely confident and capable in your skill set, or you feel insecure about your abilities, actual work experiences are invaluable.  Work experiences are continually enhanced through professional relationships with interpreters of all facets. The interpreter profession is growing in popularity, constantly evolving as new research is being discovered, and flourishing with educational opportunities.  These changes have helped create a field of professionals with various skills, abilities, and knowledge, all of which have strengthened the profession.

By developing relationships with others in the field, the opportunities for professional development become endless and help to create a “career,” not simply a “job.”  These relationships create increased opportunities for jobs, provide teaming and mentorship possibilities, allow for professional dialoging and workshop attendance and allow interpreters to meet other professionals that will help advance their careers.

Networking Creates a Strong Community

Having a drive to connect with others, your roots will grow within the profession and you will want to become an interpreter who gives back to the profession by assisting upcoming interpreters in their career endeavors.  Networking aids in creating a strong community of reflective practitioners who work together to become highly qualified while preparing the next generation of interpreters.   This profession has been likened to working on an isolated island, but in my opinion, if that is true, the island I work on must be the most populated island in existence.

Relationships With Professionals Outside of the Deaf Community

Interpreters often operate as the middleman between the DHHC and Hearing Community.  Therefore, they have opportunities to educate both populations on the particulars of each community and its respective culture.  Further, these professionals are often responsible for the hiring and contracting of other interpreters.  Therefore, remember that anyone you meet has the opportunity to have a deaf client or host a public event that openly caters to the DHHC.  As interpreters, we have all been to public events that would have been enhanced had the venue or organizer provided an interpreter to cater to their DHH patrons.

By networking with other types of professionals, you have the opportunity to educate, which creates a platform for change in accessibility and equal access.  Several business professionals, educators and even government officials that I have communicated with were unaware of the particulars of the Americans with Disability Act and because of my background, I have been able to inform them on the needs for equal access.  It is often through edifying conversations that misconceptions are broken, innocent ignorant stereotypes are overcome and personal responsibilities are accepted.  It is important that you strive to be a resource and a liaison for your DHHC, thus aiding in your professional endeavors, while leaving a considerable and lasting impact on both the DHHC and interpreting profession.

Relationships Build Long-Term Success

Regardless of your years of experience, career satisfaction occurs through improved working relationships with peers, coworkers, students and customers. Sign language interpreters who immerse themselves into the field by staying visible to the people they come in contact with, while avoiding the traps of isolation, and clock watching have a fuller career.  Career expectations come in all shapes and sizes.  When expectations are realized through service as a friend, mentor, teacher, and advocate, you will make a difference for the people you meet along your professional journey.  Below are some tips for all interpreters on how to create and retain your networks.

Creating & Retaining Your Networks

  • Discover Deaf Events: Involve yourself in your local DHHC by actively participating in silent dinners, deaf professional happy hours and workshops particular to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Attending these events will enable you to immerse yourself in the Deaf culture and will help you come in contact with future clients.
  • Remember Reciprocity: Unfortunately, there are often interpreting needs not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act.  As an interpreter, you have spent time learning a language so you can help the DHHC and Hearing Communities interact with each other.  It is important to remember the needs of DHHC will also be supporting you financially.  Be willing to work pro bono when the appropriate time arises—for example, interpret weddings, funerals and baby showers as a way to give back to the community
  • Professional Development:  Attend workshops and conferences to expand your professional network. This will enable you to meet interpreters from all over the country and could potentially lead to new job opportunities.  When in attendance, dress professionally, and be willing to meet new people.  If you simply pair up with the one person you know at the event, you will be limiting your professional opportunities.
  • Professional Affiliations:  Join the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) the National Association of the Deaf and local affiliate chapters of both organizations.  Further, if you have any specific interests in the field, join those organizations as well. Whether your interest lies with the Conference of Interpreter Trainers, the National Association of Black Interpreters, or the American Sign Language Teaching Association. You do not have to simply be a cardholder in the organizations. You can join a committee, task force or hold an officer position to become an active member and agent of change.  When you take on such roles, you will meet other stakeholders in the profession and form new relationships.
  • Stay Current:  Read current publications and journals that are well received by the interpreting profession.  RID publishes the Views quarterly and the Journal of Interpretation yearly. Gallaudet University Press also publications and resources relating to the most current research related to American Sign Language linguistics and education, as well as cultural studies of individuals who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH). Additionally, trending blogs and vlogs, bring attention to current topics and issues affecting the DHHC and interpreting profession. These mediums all you to participate in professional dialogues, allowing you to speak knowledgably, credibly and genuinely with your peers.
  • Community Involvement: Become involved in local organizations, such as your local Chamber of Commerce, Sertoma club or hiking group.  By expanding your network of personal contacts, you will also be expanding your network of potential professional contact and will be creating business opportunities for yourself, accessibility for the DHHC and ultimately helping to close gaps between the Deaf and Hearing worlds.
  • Create Opportunities: Do not wait for people to approach you and integrate themselves into your life.  Remember to be friendly, smile and be willing to create conversations with strangers.  Don’t just focus on yourself; ask others questions and learn about their lives and careers.  By helping others achieve their goals, they will often assist you on your journey as well.  Stay at the conference site hotel, arrive to events early, ask questions, share your passions and follow up.

Be Grateful

People live extremely busy lives.  Regardless of whom you meet be grateful for the person’s time.  When appropriate, shake hands, offer a hug and always follow up with a thank you card.  If someone donates their time to you and provides you with the opportunity to take them out for coffee or lunch, remember to always pay and articulate your gratitude.

How have your relationships and professional networks enriched your professional career and personal journey?

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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.

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Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege

While most sign language interpreters come from non-Deaf families, one can develop an intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression by interacting with the Deaf community, recognizing the unique life experiences of Coda interpreters and working to dismantle systems of oppression.

Are sign language interpreters intrinsically connected to the fight for humanity, as suggested by Brandon Arthur in his post, The Goo Inside a Sign Language Interpreter? What is our role working within a marginalized and oppressed community? What is our connection to solidarity? Do we have a broader sense of responsibility to the community that gives us the opportunity and privilege to access and learn language and then to make a living using it?

These are important questions for new and experienced sign language interpreters to consider.

(Note: In this article, the term Codas refers to Children of Deaf Adults who are native American Sign Language users who share language and culture with the Deaf community and their Deaf parents/guardians.)

Codas: Distinct Experiences

Dennis Cokely points to the importance of Codas in establishing Sign Language interpreting as a profession in his article, Vanquished Native Voices-A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?. He describes the importance of Codas not only in the development of our profession, but he identifies the importance of their historical knowledge and distinct lived experience with communication oppression. Many Codas have experienced unique and complex roles, having hearing privilege in a Deaf family, straddling two cultures, and dutifully providing communication access without pay. Perhaps a deeper understanding of privilege contributes to their intrinsic connection to the fight for humanity and communication access.

In my observation, many Codas possess an unequivocal understanding of privilege and power that is not easily recognized by non-Coda interpreters (including myself.) This leaves “the vast majority of us” (Cokely, 2012, para. 4) working to recognize and comprehend the impact of language oppression and the inherent privilege of non-Deaf people.

Institutional Construct: Dehumanization

Let’s consider the institutional construct and social belief system, referred to as the “slant” in Brandon Arthur’s article, Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head? He references thefreedictionary.com’s definition of slant as, “To present so as to conform to a particular bias or appeal to a certain audience” (2012, para. 1).  He emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and warns that the slant can lead to “impaired self-awareness” (para. 5) not only in our professional narrative when analyzing our production of an interpretation but in other arenas as well.

The slant is a systematic lens formed by our upbringing, culture, social status, etc. It embodies our particular biases related to deafness, race, class, education level, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etcetera that creates “Othering” as described by social theorist Michel Foucault in the study of social science. “Other” is defined by Wikipedia.org as, “The processes by which societies and groups exclude “Others” whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society” (2012, para. 2). Distinguishing the “Other” allows us to establish roles for ourselves, which serves as an important function in society. However, it also “involves the demonization and dehumanization of groups” (“Other,” 2012, para. 2), specifically those unlike our own.

“For the vast majority of us [non-Codas], our initial societally reinforced perceptions of Deaf people are that they are ‘disabled’ and are therefore inferior to those of us who can hear” (Cokely, 2012, para. 4). This institutionalized slant impacts our work and our worldview, and for non-Codas, distinguishes Deaf people as “Other.”

Systematic Marginalization: “Other”

Many Codas are familiar with the impact of being seen as “Other” and are intimately connected to the systematic marginalization and oppression of the Deaf community. Codas are often simultaneously utilizing their hearing status and privilege to provide communication access battling language oppression at young ages. Their intimate understanding of privilege and power, and the realization of their social status from birth, may be the intrinsic connection to marginalization and oppression that some non-Codas are missing. Their unique lived experience of witnessing communication oppression and the impacts of systematic and social dehumanization is a part of the historical knowledge they possess and are able to share with non-Coda interpreters. Perhaps this is what motivated the fight for humanity, inspiring Codas to establish the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) in the 1960’s (Cokely, 2012).

Perception: Managing the Slant

My response to Brandon’s question, “Suggestions on how to keep the slant in check?” (2012, para. 18) is to begin by analyzing our own privilege as interpreters. Whether we are White, non-Deaf, able-bodied, straight, employed, male, educated, cisgender, or a combination of these and other identities it can be challenging to recognize our own privilege. Without having experienced the impact of being perceived as “Other” it is hard to intimately connect with the realities faced by those experiencing systematic marginalization and oppression on a daily basis.

Personal Experience: Building Solidarity

My intimate connection to the Deaf community stems from my personal experience of oppression and marginalization, as a Transgender person. I have a visceral reaction to discrimination and injustice because I live within a historical context of inequality and have been personally impacted by marginalization and oppression. As a non-Deaf person, I have never walked into a room in the United States and been denied communication access. I am not personally impacted by daily language oppression. I have been fired from a job and not hired for others because of my gender identity. I have been intimately, professionally, and socially impacted by systematic oppression because of the perceived “condition” or “mental health diagnosis” that has been applied to my identity. I use my life experiences and understanding of how it feels to be seen as “Other” to intimately relate to the discrimination and oppression that Deaf people experience daily. I use my power and privilege, as a White, non-Deaf, educated, economically stable, able-bodied, non-immigrant, English speaking person to interrupt oppression, to build solidarity with other marginalized communities, and to fight for equality.

RID statistics illustrate that 8,414 of the 9,604 members, or 87%, of interpreters reporting to RID identified as Euro-American/White (The RID, 2011). With only 13% of RID members identifying as people of color, how do White interpreters, who do not experience life as “Other,” whether able-bodied, economically stable, well educated, gender normative or a combination of these, intimately connect to systematic marginalization and oppression that the Deaf community experiences?

 Connections: Dismantling Systems

One approach is to spend time in the Deaf community. Cokely believes that “to be effective and successful as an interpreter one must absolutely have deep and sustained connections to the Deaf Community” (Cokely, 2012, para. 7). If we cannot intimately connect to the experience of “Others,” how will we intrinsically relate to the importance of the fight for humanity and the necessity of fighting language oppression and the impacts of systematic and social dehumanization? How will we recognize and analyze our own power and privilege, avoiding micro-aggressions against the very community we are passionate to work with? (F. Fleischer, keynote address, June 13, 2012). How do we stand in solidarity, harnessing the passion we have for our interpreting work, to build on our dedication to the Deaf community while contributing to communication access and striving to dismantle systems of oppression?

Experiences: Recognizing and Acknowledging Privilege

One can study the impact and effect of marginalization, oppression and inequality. From my experience, the impact of studying something is drastically different than personally experiencing it, or watching your friends and/or loved ones experience it daily. My privilege and the systematic lens in which it was formed limit my ability to see oppression and marginalization around me. As a White person, I don’t see the clerk not following me when I go to the grocery store in an all-White neighborhood. Therefore, it is challenging to recognize my White privilege. I don’t realize my privilege to stroll around the store uninterrupted until my African American friend joins me. It’s then that I see the clerk following him. I stare in disbelief…“How could this be happening? I love this store,” I tell him. He shrugs and says, “It happens all the time.”

Without experiences like this it is challenging for me to recognize and acknowledge my White privilege. Without personal experiences and conversations, about the impact with my Deaf friends and colleagues, it is challenging to recognize my hearing privilege. As a non-Deaf person it is easy for me to ‘do my day’ forgetting to recognize and appreciate my privileges, to acknowledge them, to analyze the power they bring with no effort but simply because of the systematic and social hierarchy that distinguishes some as “Other.”

Solidarity: Connecting with the Deaf Community

I believe the shared history that many Codas possess comes from a place of solidarity with the Deaf community. Their familiarity with the impact of being seen as “Other” intimately connects them to the impacts of systematic marginalization and oppression. Interpreters have the ability to gain intimate connections to marginalization and oppression through analyzing, understanding and acknowledging our own privilege. We can gain access to the importance of creating a profession that values and prioritizes the recruitment and advancement of marginalized communities in the interpreting field: people of color, the economically disadvantaged, Deaf people, the under educated, persons with disabilities, those who are gender-nonconforming, etc.

Diversity: Enhanced Competence

Increasing access to the interpreting profession and promoting diversity will enhance culturally competent interpreting services for Deaf and non-Deaf consumers. Through conversation and experience with “Others,” we raise our self-awareness and intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression. Using our privilege and power we can dismantle systematic discrimination faced by so many, creating change in solidarity with a community that has given us so much linguistic and financial opportunity.

 

Special Thanks

I would like to thank Tamar Jackson Nelson for her work to edit this post.

Tamar Jackson-NelsonTamar is a student in Gallaudet University’s Ph.D. in Interpretation program (pedagogy/research) as well as an adjunct professor for the Department of Interpretation. Tamar enjoys and values presenting and writing about interpreting to promote growth, development, and respect of the interpreting profession. Tamar has worked as a certified community interpreter, mentor, ER on-call manager & interpreter, VRI & VRS interpreter. She enjoys time with her family, state fairs and sunshine.