Sign Language Interpreter Education: Returning to “Deaf Heart”

January 7, 2015

Working with Deaf mentors/tutors will help sign language interpreting students learn how to connect with Deaf people.

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Before the 1980’s, when there were not many programs for students studying the field of interpreting, social interaction was a high priority. Potential sign language interpreters interacted with deaf people at churches, in their neighborhoods, at deaf schools and in many other environments in our deaf community where they developed their deaf heart. In our current era, most hearing people are learning ASL through classroom settings, with only a few teachers to help them understand the language better. They do not go outside of the classroom setting to interact with deaf people in our community, unless they are required to attend deaf events for observation and maybe brief interactions. If we continue to educate student interpreters in this way, they won’t learn much, if anything, about Deaf Heart.

Drawing Attention to the Issue

As a faculty member at the University of Arizona since 2010, I knew something was missing from our program. I teach both ASL and Deaf studies courses. Most of the students in my classes major in interpreting at UA but I could tell that when the students graduated from four years in the interpreting program, many of them were not ready to face the real world as certificated interpreters. I hope to draw attention to and provide some suggestions to bridge the gap.

Byron Bridges has a vlog which is made for teachers, interpreters, and ASL students. He strongly believes in sharing ideas topics for discussion relating our deaf culture, ASL, linguistic, teaching/learning, experience, etc.  In one of his vlog posts, he mentioned the concept of “Deaf Heart”. I am sure most of you already know about Deaf Heart, but his discussion drew my attention. In the vlog, he provided what he feels is the conceptually accurate sign for “Deaf Heart”, signed HEART-UNDERSTAND instead of DEAF HEART.

Infuse the Curriculum

From our modern interpreter programs, many students need to acquire Deaf Heart/DEAF-UNDERSTAND. Based on that idea, I started thinking about our program and the gaps I had identified. I believe all sign language interpreter programs should require “Deaf Heart” courses as a requirement for graduation instead of only requiring language classes for four years.

Structuring “Deaf Heart” Courses

Students would be a required to take a “Deaf heart” course with two units per semester with a minimum of three semesters. Students would be required to take six total units in order to graduate. Two units would be specifically for students to do 6o hours of learning outside of the classroom with deaf adults or mentors. While I know it is not easy to find deaf tutors, this type of program could help develop those types of opportunities. Once deaf tutors are hired, they should participate in mandatory training sessions to provide a clear set of rules and expectations for their roles as deaf tutors.

Inevitably, the issue of money comes up when discussing additions to sign language interpreter curriculum. Funding this type of program could be easily addressed. Many students have to pay about $200 -300 for lab fee per course. In this instance, the deaf tutors would be funded through students’ lab fees. Students normally pay for textbooks for each of their classes and one textbook tends cost between $100-300. This would make the cost of a Deaf tutor equivalent to purchasing one textbook.

The professor(s) who leads the Deaf Heart course would coordinate the interactions of 3-4 deaf people (two big D and two small d) with each student for 60 hours for the semester. Every week, students would have a list of questions to answer. The deaf tutors would support the instructor in tracking visits and evaluating students as needed. If the deaf tutor would prefer not to use written formats, students can create vlogs up to 1 to 2 minutes discussing what they talked about with their deaf tutors.

When the students finish 60 hours within the semester, the teacher will evaluate and meet with the students individually to give them a pass or fail. Once the student passes the course, they will move up to second level of “Deaf Heart” coursework.

The Value of Deaf Mentors/Tutors

Working with Deaf mentors/tutors will help sign language interpreting students learn how to connect with deaf people in a variety of ways, not simply as a professional interpreter who is only interpreting. These Deaf mentors/tutors could help to refine students’ sign language skills, teach them how to deliver an accurate message in ASL versus transliteration, and help them understand how a CDI works. They would do this by bringing students to deaf clubs, deaf schools, and deaf events, etc. It is important that all faculty, ASL teachers, and deaf people who are well educated need to get together to monitor and hire deaf tutors and pay them every semester.

It is equally important that sign language interpreting students are exposed to Deaf mentors/tutors from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Interpreter Educators should be selecting deaf tutors from big “D” to small “d”, (“D” meaning more culturally Deaf than simply deaf “d” with hearing loss). Many deaf people come from many different families, some raised in deaf schools, some attended mainstreamed schools, some have a strong cultural background, some use voice, some are grassroots, some are from Gallaudet or NTID and many more. While deaf people have many different backgrounds, we all have similar experiences being oppressed, discriminated against, frustrated with the communicate barriers and struggling to get services, such as the provision of sign language interpreters. I think it would be good for students to interact with range of people from big D Deaf to small D deaf and to help develop and connect with deaf people by understanding our tendencies, customs and values. It is important for Deaf tutors to make sure that students learn they are not here to help the “poor deaf people”. Becoming a sign language interpreter should not be paternalistic, nor should people choose this profession simply for money.

Successful Interpreters Should Have Deaf Heart 

Sign language interpreters should take full advantage of the privilege to work with deaf people through training, and through gaining access to knowledge about what deaf heart really is and how it shows itself. They must fully comprehend deaf heart to be a successful interpreter.

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15 Comments on "Sign Language Interpreter Education: Returning to “Deaf Heart”"

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Terri Hayes
You cannot Teach Deaf Heart. Deaf Heart is an English-ized term that really has no English equivalent. It was a term used by Deaf – to reference hearing people who seemed to have a sense (an internal – natural sense) of what kind of injustice (wrong word – try half a sign for “frustrated”.. the “stopped” experience that Deaf face daily when interacting with hearing people… That accompanied by an internalized awareness that that sense of understanding – (grok) present in those hearing people – seemed to be a factor in what was driving their calling… to sign – to… Read more »
JUlia Hecht

That’s a very interesting angle. I so appreciate the concept of taking, and possessing and trying to own and define something that does not belong to us (hearing people). What you wrote makes a lot of sense to me and I, for one, am grateful you have put it out there. Thanks.

Thank you. I constantly struggle with this phrase and where I am in relationship to it. Acquiring “Deaf-Heart” has become a huge added pressure to my professional development. I often think, “I can’t become this” – it is humanly impossible for me, as a hearing-raised interpreter to achieve Deaf-Heart. No matter how hard I try, I will always fail. Your comments on how this phrase is being appropriated and that it is not something to strive for but merely a compliment if received from a d/Deaf person – for those words I am truly thankful! That said, I can always… Read more »
Colleen Geier
Reading this article, I find myself wondering what is happening at other interpreting programs. I teach at a small, private college in an area that doesn’t have a big Deaf population. Still our students are out in the community a great deal, it’s required! They are active in social events, attend Deaf churches, go to workshops and meetings in the Deaf community. They take advantage of what we have locally and they car pool for the 2-3 hour drive to cities with large Deaf populations. I can’t imagine how they could learn to be interpreters without this interaction! When my… Read more »
Wyatte Hall, Ph.D.

Deaf Heart cannot be taught in the classroom. It is immersion and developing a cultural identity within the community.

Kevin Lowery
I am married to a Deaf person and well as being an interpreter. I have seen the struggles and discrimination first hand. It makes me extremely angry and as a result I stand in solidarity for the advancement of Deaf people. To my way of thinking, that is Deaf Heart, understanding the culture, history, audism, discrimination and standing with Deaf people, side by side. The dearth of Deaf culture and history courses in the ITP program is staggering. When I went through an ITP, there was ONE CLASS concerning Deaf culture. BIG DEAL. It was only through my involvement with… Read more »

Hi thanks for this much needed article.

Hate to muddle over semantics or detract the point but do we want to use the phrase Deaf Heart to describe some kind of nirvana state that hearing people must strive to achieve? What about just plain Deaf Ally? Seems to be a better label of what you are are describing. Trudy says it better here:

Eve Dicker Eiseman
I was certified as a Sign Language interpreter early in my career and then went on to train and educate those who wished to become Interpreters at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. We had one hearing instructor and one culturally Deaf instructor in the program. The deaf in structure was one of the most valuable assets we had in our program because she virtually brought the deaf community into our program. The deaf community felt comfortable interacting with our students and the students felt totally comfortable interacting with members of the deaf community and attending their events. This was… Read more »
Laura Cozart
As an interpreter I wish there were more ways to interact in a natural environment (like I would with my friends not a forced situation) with Deaf people. However, since early on in my ITP program I have had experiences where I felt less than welcome at Deaf events. Examples: I took my deaf neighbor to a Homecoming game at a Deaf school about an hour away from our home. I felt so bad for him being so isolated from the Deaf community. So we were sitting in the grass outside of the Deaf Cultural center and I was trying… Read more »
Thank you Leslie for your article. As an interpreter here in Melbourne Australia, I have seen the changes over the years with the numbers of interpreters who demonstrate ‘Deaf heart’ and those who do not. For some interpreting is an occupation, a salary, but apart from that some of these individual interpreters are not interested in socialising with Deaf people at all. It’s a fine balance between understanding all the nuances, idiosyncrasies, developing a ‘Deaf heart’ through community interaction but not ‘imposing’ one’s self on the Deaf Community. Some Deaf community members I have talked to welcome interpreters to their… Read more »
Ashley Kreutz
Thank you for your article. It was a very interesting read. I am currently in a college interpreting program and agree with some of what you have mentioned. I do believe that interpreting programs should require more interaction with the Deaf culture and community however I do not think that can be taught in a classroom setting, even with Deaf/deaf tutors and mentors. Interpreting students should be required to go out and experience the community on their own. The program I am enrolled in requires a certain amount of “Deaf Events” based on the level course enrolled in. I do… Read more »
Byron Bridges
Deaf Heart can be taught. Most ITP program do not have deaf people teaching interpreting class. Thats where we are going wrong where understanding deaf people’s need and compassion. The ITP now, almost always have hearing folks teaching all courses. Back in the 60’s deaf people were training interpreters in church, school and whatnot. Those were the best interpreters ever and still to this day. We dont release our folks to the community until we know it is safe to do so. The concept of DEAF HEART taught in college ITP program should be enforced. Every time I see a… Read more »

[…] Janda Decker wrote an article for StreetLeverage entitled Sign Language Education: Returning to Deaf Heart. She mentions having D/deaf individuals as mentors and tutors for ASL students and interpreters. […]

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