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

December 3, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Lens of War

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

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

A Truce

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

Surrender

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

Victory

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

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

The Costs of War?

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

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

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

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

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

The Lesson

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

– Cherokee Story

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

We always have a choice.

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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18 Comments on "Has An Identity Crisis Immobilized The Field of Sign Language Interpreting?"

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bcolonomos
Member
Thank you, Stacey, for your thought-provoking article. I read it with excitement and even more hungry to have these conversations. While the analogy to “war” disturbs me, I see the value in your approach. I also feel the struggle as one with hearing privilege and the Deaf parts of me. Growing up mediating between the two worlds with some success, I am frustrated with the lack of sufficient success to satisfy me. In all the years I have been observing the landscape of our field, helping interpreters to better understand and accomplish the task, and serving on many committees and… Read more »
sstorme
Member
Stacey Storme
Hi Betty! Thank you for sharing your thoughts regarding my post. The notion of war is still an uncomfortable one for me – but, when I am honest – it is what I see as happening. Sigh…. I can imagine the amount of frustration you feel. You have contributed so much to our field, and done so much work to move us forward in respectful and meaningful ways as a field. I know your work with Etna has done, and will continue to do, much for many interpreters who care deeply about their own work and contributions to the communities… Read more »
Member
Kate Sumner
Hi Betty, I find your thoughts about fear to be compelling. As a recent graduate, I ultimately thought my interpreting-related fear came from some mixture of my own personality and my being a novice. I see now that this was a silly assumption on my part. It struck me in a big way to consider your observations– the fact that fear lives within a great many interpreters– and that it exists within them in a profound way. In light of only being an interpreter for a short time, my awareness of fear has been present from the start; for some… Read more »
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[…] Do sign language interpreters believe they are the only ones who “understand” their work? Stacey Storme suggests this perspective is part of an active crisis w/in the field.  […]

Member
Wendy Watson
Betty and Stacy – thank you for sharing your thoughts. I too am reluctant to apply the metaphor of “war” to what I see happening in the field today; but can see the value in doing so. I appreciate the thoughtful and transformative discussion about how the “war” can become productive. Perhaps the idea of revolution would be more palatable – since when revolutions work, the fighters are victors. The statements about the pervasive fear-based approach to our work resonate with me too. As one of the designers of the Peer Mentoring Program (with Laurie R. Shaffer), I have seen… Read more »
sstorme
Member
Stacey Storme
Hi Wendy!! So good to “see” you here! Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As I replied to Betty, exploring the concept of war is uncomfortable for me too. I appreciate that you can see the value. The concept of a revolution intrigues me. I do think change is key and that is what first comes to mind when I consider revolution. Part of the clarity that came to me during the business meeting I refer to had to do with calling it as it is. As I reflect more deeply on the moment of clarity I remember being more… Read more »
Member
Kevin Lowery
Stacey, great thought provoking article. And, I have to say that I saw some of the same thing happening at my chapter conference. There was a real strong disconnect between the Deaf and the hearing (interpreter) communities. Having married a Deaf person recently, I am only beginning to understand the slightest bit of what it felt like growing up in a Deaf family. I feel that inner conflict, those two worlds at war inside. At one point, I had been neglecting the “hearing side” of me. I was unhappy, grumpy, miserable and prone to “blow ups”. Then, when I thought… Read more »
sstorme
Member
Stacey Storme
Hi Kevin, Thank you for your comments and sharing a bit of your own process. As I read your comments it strikes me that we often think of war in binary terms. While I do think there is a largely binary perspective – I also believe there is a lot more dimension to be seen. Pushing ourselves to see beyond only two sides, we can begin to look at the varied perspectives that exist. If we have first called a truce and surrendered self-judgment as well as judging others, perhaps we can show up at the table having realized there… Read more »
Member
Thanks so much, Stacey, for the link to Sarah Hafar’s comments (I don’t know her). But history is replete with examples of the majority controlling the minority. Apart from the hearing/Deaf examples (there have been many wars in history between these two camps), I think particularly of the white/Aboriginal wars in Australia, when Aboriginal children were confiscated from the families and placed in white homes to assimilate/eradicate them. The result was disaster. It was a war. And the oralists campaign to destroy sign language was also a disaster. The examples in history are numerous. Stacey is right to use the… Read more »
sstorme
Member
Stacey Storme
Hi Bill! I am glad you took time to view Sarah’s video. I know she has continued the dialogue with others in the Deaf caucus. Important unpacking and dialogue going on for sure. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on the idea of revolution that Wendy raises. I have thought a bit more about it as well. When considering the idea of a revolution as a fourth strategy to ending the war, there is definite potential. My resistance is that we may move too quickly to focus on overturning “the other” – who ever we feel we are at war… Read more »
Member
I do think that Betty’s assertion (that FEAR is the cause of this war) is crucial. As long as Deaf students, or as long as interpreting students, feel that they are in the minority and are not respected, then they cannot be equal. Why are newly graduated ASL interpreters afraid of working? Are they afraid that they are not up to the task? Do they lack mentoring/ encouragement/ internships? IS THAT OUR FAULT? The UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) has been the human rights treaty that has been the most successful in getting developing countries… Read more »
sstorme
Member
Stacey Storme
Bill – your question about fault strikes me. First of all, when I consider the issues in interpreter education and entry into our field by recent graduates, I do feel great responsibility. One of the reasons I continue to work as fulltime faculty within a program is I know the only way to make change is to be a part of the system. Unfortunately, it can become very frustrating to navigate change and know when to be patient and when to be aggressive. Sigh. I often think of what it must feel like to try and change a flat tire… Read more »
sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne
Stacey, Thanks so much for articulating, with great sensitivity, the pushes and pulls that our organization is going through. And thanks to all those who have replied already. I think the issue of unexplored privilege is something definitely worth exploring. As Betty said, we are a lot of nurturing people, and don’t want anyone’s feelings to be hurt…but we don’t always examine that many of us (myself included) have invited ourselves in to this community – and yet we feel perfectly comfortable about making everything function so that we newcomers are comfortable. And then we get hurt if we are… Read more »
Member
Stacey Storme
Stephanie, Thank you for your post!! I so appreciate your comments about interpreters inviting themselves into the community and not always functioning with awareness of their own privilege when it comes to decision-making and behaviors. I am reminded of Deb Russell’s comments at StreetLeverage Live in Atlanta when she responded to my question about the most important lesson she still carries today from those who have influenced her. She talked about the importance of remembering that she is a guest in the Deaf community; as such to remember to always be grateful and humbled by that. It is such a… Read more »
Member
Jacob Marshall
Stacey, As a relative neophyte to the interpreting field, I have also been made aware of this ‘war’ in respect to where I am to fit in, where my passions lie, and most importantly focusing on culturally intuitive and responsible communication. To balance these sometimes leaves me feeling like a human centrifuge and reeling from the amount of responsibility to the people we represent, the field, and also to ourselves. But, just as a centrifuge separates ‘this from that’, the things that rise to the top after the spinning stops are the aspects that matter: a dedication to the values… Read more »
sstorme
Member
Stacey Storme

Greetings from quaint Overland Park, Jacob! Smile.

Thanks for taking time to read and respond to this piece! Your analogy of a centrifuge paints a vivid picture. I can imagine this feeling to be true as you continue to navigate your entry into this field and the communities! It is great to see you continue with such high self-awareness and feeling of responsibility as you work toward maintaining the balance you speak of!

Bet you are enjoying learning from Professor Grushkin! Thanks, again for the note. Do keep in touch.

Member
Kate Sumner
Hi there, Stacey. I appreciate your article, and as I type my question for you now, I find myself also appreciating this awesome discussion forum. How lovely it is to posit questions and share thoughts with such sincerity. There is great value not only in reading the article but in reading the responses to it. I have a quick (albeit not simple) question for you. The statement I am referring to is at the end of the following paragraph– I put it in brackets: “We also run the risk of our view being colored only by our likely colonized perspective… Read more »
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[…] Do sign language interpreters believe they are the only ones who “understand” their work? Stacey Storme suggests this perspective is part of an active crisis w/in the field.  […]

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