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The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession

Sign Language Interpreter Considering Cost of Marginalizing the Coda Perspective

Author Amy Williamson sheds light on the coda experience and how crucial differences in their worldview from an “in-between space” are indispensable, yet often undervalued, assets to the sign language interpreting field.

I recently attended an interpreter retreat where the purpose was to examine privilege, how it manifests in our individual work lives,  our relationships with each other, and within the sign language interpreting profession as a whole. Privilege is a topic that makes for a hard discussion for any group of people. Those of us in attendance included new interpreters, been-around-the-block interpreters, urban, rural, hearing families, deaf families, deaf, hearing, coda, partners of deaf people, and siblings of deaf people. We committed to a weekend of taking the time and space to look at what each of us has to offer. We talked about being marginalized, feeling marginalized, and how we marginalize each other.

We were honest.

We were vulnerable.

Our conversations were raw and invigorating.

[View post in ASL.]

It was in this setting that I was, again, pushed to face a reality that I have encountered periodically over my 20-year career…our field does not understand, appreciate, or value what it means to be hearing and raised in a deaf parented home.

The Invisibility of Between

Codas live in an in-between space within the sign language interpreting profession. We are not hearing. We are not deaf. As such, we are often not seen nor valued. We are; however, both vilified and worshiped in good measure.

From our hearing colleagues we are told that we are lucky to have deaf parents and that it must have been easy to become an interpreter.  We are told that our skills are not up to par because we didn’t attend an Interpreter Preparation Program and hearing interpreters tell us that we make them nervous.

From the deaf people we work with we are told that they are relieved we are present because they can relax and understand what is being communicated. We are also told that we can’t be trusted because we may tell our deaf family members their business.

Our experience affords us the opportunity to apply authentic, connective experience and insight to our work.  Is this threatening or is this assuring?

An example of the invisibility of between is the lack of coda involvement at the formal and informal decision-making tables within the field. How many non deaf codas have there been over the past few years on the RID National Board? How about within the RID committee structure? How many codas are there on state chapter committees and executive boards? How many codas are there in the wise circle of professionals that you call on when you need to talk out an issue? Whatever you answer, I will argue, as does Dennis Cokely in his post, Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?, that it is not enough.

What does the absence of this insightful perspective cost the field in the form of forward progress?

The Footings of Invisibility

The Difference That Divides

I grew up the child of intelligent, savvy, funny, competent, employed, educated, honest, bilingual, loving parents who were each part of large extended deaf families. Being deaf in my family is normal. I also grew up being told by every hearing person I encountered (including my own hearing family members) that my parents weren’t good enough. That it was my job to take care of them. It was my job to look out for them. Communicate for them. Be their ears. I was constantly pitied.

I was marveled over…the fact that I could hear and they could not was viewed as a miracle. “Bless your heart, honey” was a constant refrain in my southern existence.

Even today, when I tell people my parents are deaf I am always asked (without fail) “both of them?” as if that would be the end of the world. The second question (without fail) is “what is it like having deaf parents?” as if I have anything to compare it to. I was made fun of by other kids. I was always different…but not in the way that all kids at some point think they are different. I was coda different.

Every coda has this experience. Our experiences vary by degree and extent. Our coda experiences vary as the temperament and personalities of our parents vary, but there is an experience that is common to all codas. The experience that unifies us is that we all get the same reactions about our parents from people who simply don’t know any better.

We are told and whispered all of this, yet; the people being talked about are actually the parents who took care of us. Shielded us from danger. Fed us. Loved us. Yes, parented us.

Conflicting Realities

Never do these well-meaning family members, teachers, friends, strangers say to our deaf parents what they say to us. They wouldn’t dare. As young children we are left holding onto it all…most of us choosing (consciously or unconsciously) not to share what we were told with our parents. We held these conflicting realities and were too young to know what to do with them or about them.

Many of us grew up in a home where our deaf parents hated hearing people (with good reason given discrimination and oppression) and were free in talking about their distrust and hate for the hearing community. Many of us developed our own hate for hearing people after witnessing and being victim ourselves to injustice after injustice. We had the hearing community pitying us and telling us we weren’t deaf, because by miracle we could hear. We had our deaf parents telling us we were hearing, yet also saying that they hated hearing people. Confusing is an understatement.

The Aftershock

As a result, from a very young age we decide what we are going to believe. Some of us drink the Kool-Aid and agree with the hearing community’s assessment of our parents. We believe them when they tell us that we need to take care of our parents, look out for them, communicate for them, even pity them. That we are miracles and that it is so very sad that our parents are deaf. Poor us. We believe that ASL is a bastardized form of English and is substandard. We are ashamed of our families.

Others of us come out fighting and defend our parents and the deafness within us with a vengeance. We shoot verbal (or physical) daggers at anyone that dares attack the reality and validity of our existence. In 5th grade at least one of us is sent to the Principal’s office for giving what-for to the biggest kid in the class for calling her parents ‘dumb.’ We hate hearing people for putting us in the position to question our parents’ abilities, intent, and love.

Then there are the rest of us who vacillate between the 2 extremes yet usually settle somewhere in the middle. We find a way to navigate between our deafness and our hearingness, yet never really feel a part of either.

We are all coda. Not deaf. Not hearing.

We are somewhere between.

Depth of Perspective

Our uniqueness doesn’t have to do with language fluency. Defining a coda by language fluency or native/near-native/native-like signing fluency misses the point completely. Some of us grew up not knowing how to sign fluently ourselves. Many of us fingerspelled everything we said to our parents.  Some of us spent the first few years of our lives assuming we were as deaf as our parents and were perplexed when we were not taken to the school for the deaf on our first day of Kindergarten.

We are not all interpreters and those of us who are don’t have it come ‘naturally’ to us. We work very, very hard at a very, very difficult task, interpreting. Some of us do it well. Others of us struggle.

Our insight comes from spending our developmental and formative years in this between space.  

We have brokered between the deaf and hearing worlds our whole life. Disdain. Joy. The mundane. We have done it or seen it communicated directly. We learned fast and early what it took for the local mechanic and our dad to understand each other. This unique experience leads to a skill that cannot be taught in an IPP. It can’t be learned by having a deaf sibling or deaf partner even. It’s not about ‘knowing’ sign language your whole life. Our uniqueness is about being parented by a deaf person. A person that you can’t just walk away from, avoid, or never see again.  A person who is oppressed on all sides…by their families, by their education, by the media, by the judicial system, by their employer, and, yes, sometimes by their own children.

The word ‘parented’ is the operative one here. It implies a bonding, a relationship of dependence, of value sharing, of boundary teaching. We were parented by competent people who were viewed and treated as incompetent by the majority of society. A majority that takes it upon themselves to tell you how incompetent your parents are under the guise of kindness or good deeds. This experience is unique and solely a coda’s.

Deaf children of deaf parents do not get this reaction directly from the hearing people they interact with. They are pitied and vilified and objects of fetishism (this is how I describe the folks who think sign language is beautiful hand waving and don’t really get the linguistic and cultural aspects of the community) the same way their parents are. Their experience having deaf parents is unique to that relationship. They do often function as brokers within the deaf community but their experience is very different from that of hearing children with deaf parents.

Leveraging Insight

Codas have lived life in a deaf parented home after the interpreters and well meaning hearing people have all gone home. It is then that our deaf parents whisper to us what they dare not say in front of them.  We continue to hold the secrets of our deaf parents and the secrets of the hearing community (including hearing interpreters who quietly share their sentiments).

As described by Alex Jackson Nelson in, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing our Power and Privilege, this experience is rich and results in a deep understanding of hearing privilege:

“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.”

Alex goes on to state, “In my observation, many Codas possess an unequivocal understanding of privilege and power that is not easily recognized by non-Coda interpreters (including myself.)”

Perhaps, with this unique and unequivocal understanding of hearing privilege, codas still have a contribution to make to the field. After all, and as Dennis Cokely pointed out in Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?, codas have been the bedrock of our field.

What contribution do you think someone with this unique insight and perspective can play? 

A Standing Invitation

I shouldn’t have to say that our perspective brings value to our profession. Retreats like the one I attended shouldn’t be the only place and time we talk about who we are and what we have to offer. Codas shouldn’t have to beg for a place at the decision-making tables of our field.

Yet, here I am. Saying it. Begging for it.

We, codas, are here. We have a lot to share. Invite us to the table. Pull out a chair for us. Welcome us.

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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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VRS Reform: Will Anyone Wade in to Save the Sign Language Interpreter?

Sign language interpreter under water

As the FCC continues to reform VRS under its mission to reduce “waste, fraud, and abuse,” Brandon Arthur urges sign language interpreters to maintain a presence in the decision-making process.

The October 15, 2012 Public Notice released by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has sent another wave of distress crashing over top of the already apprehensive sign language interpreters working in support the nation’s Video Relay Service (VRS). As these interpreters, awash in the regulatory storm of VRS reform, reach out for the relationships, practices, and leadership that have anchored them in the past, they appear to find themselves largely alone in rough and rising waters.

It has been nearly 12 months since the FCC dropped it’s December 15, 2011 FNPRM seeking substantial comment on the structure and practices of the nation’s VRS program, the last in Docket 10-51. With that filing, I found myself wondering if there is anyone—individual or entity—positioned to successfully snatch sign language interpreters from these troubled waters by prevailing upon regulators with a solution that more centrally considers functional equivalency and the plight of the sign language interpreter who makes that possible.

The Latest Signal From the FCC

The October 15, 2012 Public Notice released by the FCC is an indication to VRS stakeholders (consumers, interpreters, providers, educators, and industry associations) of it’s consideration of the TRS Fund Administrator’s (RLSA) October 15, 2012 Supplemental Filing, which proposes a transition to a cost-based model of reimbursement, resulting in deep cuts to the per minute reimbursement rate.

The RLSA proposes an immediate reduction of 11-15% to the rates paid to providers, with further reductions to follow in subsequent years. The aim being to move reimbursement rates towards the “weighted average cost per minute” of $3.51, as calculated by RLSA. The “initial” cut proposed, or something similar that the FCC ultimately approves, is likely to occur soon after the first of the year.

Unfortunately, for VRS users, sign language interpreters and providers, the targeted average cost of $3.51 per minute is 31%-44% below the current tiered reimbursement rates, which range from $6.24-$5.07 per minute. Adoption of a cost-based model and significant cuts to the current reimbursement rate will only intensify the impact of the reform on VRS users and sign language interpreters working to deliver it.

What’s the Impact?

In response to the December 15, 2011 FCC FNPRM referenced above, I wrote, Will Sign Language Interpreters Remain Silent on FCC VRS Reform? In that post I stated that should VRS reform occur without specific recognition for the cost and commitment of employing certified interpreters via a reimbursement rate differential, it would serve a damaging blow to the longevity of employing credentialed, qualified interpreters in VRS settings.

I offered then, and still believe, that the practical impacts of this fundamental failure are largely twofold:

1.   The ultimate compromise of the functional equivalency of VRS.

Should the proposed rate reduction occur, providers would be forced to make fundamental shifts in their businesses in order to survive. As stated in my post referenced above, some of these shifts will almost certainly include to amp up performance expectations, decrease wages, and hire less-qualified practitioners in order to find cost savings. The necessity of being more efficient will result in an erosion of the quality, and therefore the functional equivalency, of VRS.

2.    The destabilization of the sign language interpreting profession.

The cost pressures will inevitably be too much for the smallest of the handful of providers remaining today. As such, the sign language interpreting industry will continue to see a consolidation of opportunity. This consolidation and the tremendous pressure to be efficient will result in fewer opportunities for credentialed, qualified interpreters to work in VRS settings.

The natural consequence of this declining opportunity will be an imbalance in the industry’s supply (excess number of qualified, credentialed interpreters looking for work) vs. demand (organizations and agencies seeking to hire interpreters) equation. With a greater number of sign language interpreters competing for decreasing opportunity a dog-eat-dog erosion of the best practices—designed to protect the accuracy of an interpreter’s work and their very health and wellbeing—will ensue.

In my view, the results of this supply vs. demand imbalance and the erosion of best practices will also impact interpreters working in Community settings. With rates and opportunity decreasing in VRS, the more highly qualified interpreters will start competing for Community work, which will lead to reducing rates for community work.

There are no safe-havens from VRS reform.

In my mind, these impacts are as real and relevant today as the day they were offered last year. In some cases, they are already being seen and experienced as shared by Karen Graham in her piece, Sign Language Interpreters: The Unintended Victims of VRS Regulation Change.

Again, adoption of a cost based approach to rate setting and deep rate cuts, as proposed by RSLA, will only accelerate the impact of this reform on D/deaf and Hard-of-Hearing users of the service and sign language interpreters working to deliver it.

A Call for Heroes and Heroines

At this point, sign language interpreters need someone—individual or entity—with the expertise and resources willing to wade into the rough water. Interpreters need someone willing to demonstrate that the work they do is central to the meaning of functional equivalency. Further, that an interpreter’s continued commitment to their craft and profession is fundamental to the interests and success of all VRS stakeholders.

Unfortunately, the FCC’s mistrust of providers; their perception that providers are motivated by self-interest when advocating for interpreters; and the resource challenge historically faced by industry associations to organize and mobilize support, will likely continue to leave sign language interpreters awash in the reform.

Will anyone wade in and extend a hand to the sign language interpreter?

The Truth?

There will be no caped crusader, individual or entity.

Clearly, the FCC’s disposition relative to providers and cost-reduction won’t change quickly enough to position them to help. Industry associations will not suddenly find themselves with lined coffers and new infrastructure to organize and mobilize meaningful support. Sadly, the remaining VRS stakeholders will serve only to amplify the volume of the shouting and cross-direction offered regarding how and where sign language interpreters can find their footing and protect their interests in the reform.

Is there any hope?

Yes.

Survival is Up to Us!

We need to empower ourselves in order to survive!

Given the regulatory and economic environment and the relative progress of the reform, we must be organized, disciplined, and consistent. We need to ensure that the FCC understands the challenged position of the sign language interpreter in the reform and the responsibility they have to the human performance side of the VRS system.

What should we do?

Mobilize. Mobilize! Mobilize!!

In order to be recognized by the FCC, we are left with little choice but to muster our own motility.

How can we do this?

1.    File Public Comment

It is important that every sign language interpreter file comment with the FCC. In my post, FCC VRS Reform Part II: Sign Language Interpreters File Public Comment, I offered detailed instruction on how to post comment to the FCC.  We need to do this more now than ever.

It is important to note that we have until November 14th to file comment on the proposed rate structure—then an opportunity to file again prior to November 29th. Please follow the guidelines and remember that you are submitting comment on a public forum. Post responses from a solution orientation.

Join me in advocating for the future of our collective quality of life by filing comment?

Need talking points? You can find a few here.

2.    Enroll Our Partners

We need to enroll, prod if necessary, all those that share an interest in the functional equivalency of VRS. We need to request that they stand up and take action now. We need to place calls to each and every VRS stakeholders and communicate our expectation that they join in the effort.

Let’s not forget that our Senators and Congressional Representatives are also our partners.  We should be sending them letters as well seeking their support.

We should not assume that anyone is standing with us until they are.

3.    Petitions of Support

It is essential to demonstrate the impact of the reform on everyone touched by VRS. While friends and family members may not be inclined to file public comment, we should encourage them and all our colleagues to sign petitions in support of a rate differential for certified interpreters in order to protect functional equivalency.

Sign and forward this petition of support to get the ball rolling.

4.    Rally at the FCC

While it may be considered a tactic of the past, civil disobedience in the form of a rally would go far in gaining the attention of the FCC. Let’s be prepared to employ this tactic if it becomes necessary to convince the FCC that we do not intend to be a quiet casualty of the reform.

While I am not familiar with what it takes to organize a rally, I am certainly willing to help.  Anyone interested in helping to organize an effort? If yes, you can Facebook me here.

Donate to the effort by clicking here.

5.    Other Tactics

While I think filing public comments and a rally will go far to gain the attention of the FCC, I do think we should reinforce our plight with the FCC by doing the following:

A. Mobile Billboards. Organize an effort to drive billboards past the FCC reminding them to not forget the sign language interpreter in the reform.

Interested in helping to organize and coordinate this effort? If yes, you can Facebook me here.

Donate to the effort by clicking here.

B. Social Media Blitz. Organize an effort to bring VRS stakeholders together to talk about the impact of the proposed rate reduction on functional equivalency and the ability to hire certified interpreters. Publish the interviews widely.

Interested in helping to organize and coordinate an effort? Know a graphic designer or videographer? If yes, you can Facebook me here.

Donate to the effort by clicking here.

6.    Friends of the Sign Language Interpreter—Political Action Fund

In my mind, it is necessary for sign language interpreters to create and contribute to a fund to lobby congress and the FCC. This will position sign language interpreters to have an independent voice that is free from the politics, economic implications, inexperience and mistrust that has to date prevented interpreters from finding their footing.

Is someone familiar with setting up this type of thing? I have some ideas, but experience would speed up the effort. Interested in organizing, coordinating, and/or donating to the effort? If yes, Facebook me here.

Interested in donating to the effort? Facebook me and I will provide updates if we can get something set up.

Let’s Be Careful

While this is in fact a survival activity, it is important to maintain a level of respect for other VRS stakeholders. By maintaining respect, we are better able to thoughtfully consider how to best achieve our ambitions while maintaining relationships with our partners. It is essential that we remember that this isn’t a zero sum proposition. Each VRS stakeholder can be successful if we remember that every action has a reaction.

In addition to maintaining respect, we would do well to avoid the following:

1.    Knee Jerk Reactions.

We should not give control at the discussion table to anyone but us. Our partners haven’t done well representing our interests at the FCC. It is time for us to marshal our collective genius and do the dirty work we have avoided to date.

2.    Creating Inertia.

Placing the field or ourselves in a position that limits our ability to adapt quickly to a rapidly changing environment.

3.    Avoid Unionization.

We should not unionize. No one can better articulate the impacts of VRS reform without consideration for human performance than the sign language interpreter. Let’s set up a political action fund and do a more effective job without the long-term damage to the ability sign language interpreters have to represent themselves. Not to mention the time period for effective action on VRS rate reform is far too short for such an effort to be successful.

4.    Making it About the Money.

Avoid conversation about this being about money for the sign language interpreter. This is about pushing the FCC to recognize what it takes to offer a functionally equivalent service and the commitment interpreters make to their consumers and careers by pursuing certification.

This is urgent. We are nearly out of time to impact real change.

Let’s avoid engaging in actions that contribute to the erosion of the trust needed for consumers, interpreters, providers, industry associations and the FCC to navigate the reform to positive ends.

Conclusion

While it can be uncomfortable to be faced with the pace of continued change in VRS regulation, let’ not allow our own paralysis to enable the careless treatment of functional equivalency and the devaluation of the credentials and contributions of the sign language interpreter, to go on without adamant opposition.

At the end of the day, our survival in the reform depends on us. If you value your profession, the definition under which you do you work, and the diversity VRS brings sign language interpreting industry, you too have an interest in making your voice heard at the FCC.

While it appears that the FCC is prepared for an acceptable number of casualties in the name of efficiency, will you allow sign language interpreters be found among them?