Strategic Partnerships: Cooperation Among Stakeholders in Sign Language Interpreting Isn’t Enough

January 13, 2015

Chris Wagner presented Strategic Partnerships: Cooperation Among Stakeholders in Sign Language Interpreting Isn’t Enough at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. His talk explores how developing strategic partnerships among the Deaf Community and the sign language interpreting community is more than a cooperative effort; it’s one of accountability.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Chris’ talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Chris’ talk directly.]

Strategic Partnerships

My topic today is “Strategic Partnerships: Cooperation Among Stakeholders in Sign Language Interpreting Isn’t Enough.”

Let’s talk about the term “partnership”, specifically the partnership between the Deaf Community and the Interpreting community. In reality, there has been little in the way of true partnerships between the two groups for more than a century – perhaps more formal partnerships have taken shape in the past 50 years or so.

Why am I talking about strategic partnerships? Stakeholders are critical element in this conversation. Let’s look at our stakeholders in the Sign Language Interpreting Community.

Major Stakeholders in the Sign Language Interpreting Community

Over the past 20 years, I’ve had a lot of conversations with people in my professional journey. Wow. There are so many stakeholders – not just interpreters or members of the Deaf Community, but numerous people who are involved. Our task is to find ways to engage with those groups and for them to engage each other.

Oftentimes, we focus solely on interpreters and the Deaf Community and forget about those other groups. We can’t do that – we have to broaden our scope to consider to all stakeholders. Specifically, we can’t just consider schools for the Deaf as stakeholders – we have to include mainstream programs, as well. There are so many kids in those programs – remember that approximately 92% of Deaf kids are in mainstream programs. We have Interpreter Training Programs, Interpreter Agencies, Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals, etc. – all of these groups and people comprise the whole and are stakeholders. Also included in our stakeholders are smaller groups and individuals – parents of Deaf children, employers, co-workers, and others. I want you to consider these stakeholders groups as we progress through this presentation.

When we talk about stakeholders, we also have to look at how we can transition them into partners. It’s a lot of work. Doug Bowen-Bailey mentioned community organizing, Robert Lee talked about roles and Stacey Storme talked about privilege – all three of these elements are required to establish partnerships. Each piece, independent of the others, cannot succeed in creating a partnership.

Prevalent Issues in the Community

Throughout our history and to the present day, many issues have continued to emerge. Each of us is accountable for the way we address them.

Lack of Knowledge. Sometimes I’m astounded when I meet a person who lacks knowledge, for example, a lack of knowledge about happenings in the Deaf Community or even who the leaders are in the Deaf Community. When asked, they often shrug it off with an “I don’t know” and a perplexed look.

Oppression. Of course, we’ve all talked about oppression for a long time in our community. I grew up oral and learned to sign when I went to RIT, but I still felt oppressed – by my peers, by interpreters, by various people in the community. Intentional or not, I felt oppressed.

Privilege. We all carry different privileges. I’m a white male. I’m a privileged white male. I can’t change that, I can’t help it. My mother chose a white man, so, that’s the reality. But at the same time, other people, friends of mine who grew up using American Sign Language – they have language privilege. I don’t have that. They have language privilege. Some interpreters may tell their stories, as Stacey did, about growing up using ASL in the Deaf community and in her home – they have language privilege, too. Many other interpreters are in the same situation I am in – they don’t carry language privilege.

Lack of Community Accountability. I can give you another example. There are a lot of issues coming up for both the Deaf and Interpreting communities. Often, when issues arise in the Deaf Community, interpreters step back and take a “hands off” approach to the situation. “It’s not my issue,“ they might say. Some interpreters feel they have to set a firm boundary – signing it as if drawing a line firmly between the person and the situation at hand. I would recommend a change in how we sign the concept “boundary” – instead of “drawing a line”, establish a line that moves closer to or further away from the signer. Sometimes we have to set a boundary that will keep people or situations at bay, but at other times, those lines are closer in. We have to think about how far we need to go. If we just “set a boundary”, as in drawing that line, that’s the end of the discussion. We have to start thinking about how to maintain some fluidity and movement in our boundaries.

Quality vs. Quantity. I’m sure you recognize this issue. Groups, conferences, etc., will often cry for large numbers of interpreters but what of the quality of the interpreter?

Empowerment. Some people will say “Interpreters are the ones who make all the decisions and take control of things.” We need to consider all of this.

From Complaint to Action

Ultimately, my reason for bringing up all of these issues is to comment on what I’ve seen. I’ve seen the Deaf Community complaining and the interpreters are complaining when what they should be doing is turning those complaints into action. (Moves the ASL sign COMPLAIN from the chest to the sign ACTION or DO with the same handshape.) Stop complaining and take action. Get involved!

I see people complaining and I don’t have a lot of patience for it. Do you know why I got involved, why I’m where I am today? Growing up, I had a lot of things I didn’t like – captioning, interpreting, and other issues and I complained about those things. My grandmother raised me, bless her.  She would say, “Chris, if you are going to complain, do something about it.” I learned from that. Over many years, in my professional work, I learned to take complaints and transform them into actions. You all must transform your complaints to actions. You have to be accountable.

Accountability

Another issue we need to discuss – we complain a lot and we talk…I’m going to sign TALK like this: Signs the sign “TALK” with the 4 handshape touching the non-dominant hand as if showing the hand “talking” instead of touching on the chin as in spoken language…but we don’t walk the walk.

You have hold yourself accountable. You have to stop, today, while you are sitting here, and consider: Am I involved in my Deaf Community? Do I contribute to my community? Do I sit down and engage in dialogue with my community about how I can improve my skills as an interpreter? On the flip side, a Deaf individual might ask how they can improve their leadership in the community. How will we know if we never have the dialogue? That’s something to think about. Another interesting part to all of this – do we really embrace it? Sometimes, I find myself sitting back and pondering, “Do I really embrace what I’m doing?”

The Challenges We Face

Unfortunately, there are some bad apples in every group but we are all here for one reason: communication. You all are here to support our community. We are one community – we aren’t two separate communities. We are one community. I’ll give you an example of how to get involved. Are you aware of the CRPD?  It’s the Convention on the Rights of Persons with DisabilitiesThe United Nations (U.N.) has been encouraging Deaf people to sign on to this. But wait a minute. Deaf people aren’t the only ones. This impacts you as well. Language rights are human rights. This has an impact on you, as interpreters, too. Change your complaints into actions.  You have to get involved.

Questions for us to ask ourselves: Who owns this? Who makes the decisions? Is it the Deaf person? The interpreter?  Really, the answer is both. It should be both. It depends – now wait. So, my decision as a Deaf person is based on how I want to progress forward. My decision is based on action. Interpreters have to accommodate these decisions by working with us. Some interpreters may disagree with a person/group’s decision and decide that they don’t accept the decision as it stands. That’s fine. They can go on their way and we can find someone else. As an interpreter, you become my voice. We have to be on the same page. There has to be agreement.

I always dreamed of something as I was growing up – I had aspirations. Many of you despise politics – I know. I admit it. It’s all right. I hate politics, too. But how can I change the current political system? By getting involved. So, I decided I wanted to run for office. I’m not talking about the National Association of the Deaf (N.A.D.) – I’m talking about a real office – like state senate or state house of representatives. I considered it and decided okay. I started having conversations with various people – I had brought in an interpreter for these conversations, but over time, I realized I wasn’t feeling any connection. There was some kind of disconnect. I wondered if I was doing something wrong. I know the system, I understand politics, I’ve studied political science – but still there was a disconnect. I realized it was “my voice” – the interpreter. The issue was with my voice. So, I excused the interpreter with thanks for their work and searched for an interpreter who would collaborate with me – we would work together, they would function as my voice.  I wanted someone who would help make decisions  and we would own it together. As it turns out, that interpreter had the same passion I had, the same desire. You all have passions, too. It’s critical.

Embracing Change

Many people say they hate change. It’s true a lot of people hate change, say they don’t take change well. The Deaf Community is the same way, and I tell people they have to accept change. Interpreters have to accept change, too. Technology is changing all the time, the world is changing. But some people want to opt out.

Think of it this way. Thirty years ago, the beehive was all the rage. Do you remember the beehive hairdo? Now, women have cut their hair and consider themselves much more chic. That is accepting change. If we look at our cars – think about the windows. Back in the day, we had manual, roll-down windows with a crank handle and no air conditioning. Now we have power windows and air conditioning. We’ve accepted that change. Remember the old days – remember TV dinners with the rolled back foil? I’m that old – I’m not that young…I remember popping those TV dinners in the oven and waiting for the chicken, dessert, corn and mashed potatoes to cook in the one little tray – pretty cool, huh? Now, pop something in the microwave and 1-2 minutes later, you’re done. We have changed. Back in the day, we had to adjust the antennae on our television sets to get the picture. Now, we have our remote and our cable TV, our tablets where we can also watch TV.  We’ve accepted those changes. But people in our community refuse to accept change when it comes to how we run things in our community. Organizational change is difficult. It’s hard to change our desire for things to remain the same. That hurts us in the long run.

Let’s go back to the concept of partnerships. Partnerships – what can we do? What can we do? I want you to think about that. I don’t expect you to answer now. I want you to think, “How can I go back home and create community partnerships?” How? Sit down and talk to people. Robert, Doug and Stacey talked about making connections. Sit down with people in your community and engage in dialogue. How can we better work together? This is so important.

If you pooh-pooh the idea, just remember that without the Deaf Community, you are in the unemployment line. That’s the truth of it. That’s the bottom line – unless you want to be teaching ASL to hearing students or babies. But if we want one community and we want to cherish it, we have to work together.

Respect is Key

The most important point is respect. Mutual respect. I’ve been on the N.A.D. board for the last 10 years- well, 8 years. I’ve seen a lot during that time. I wish I could say we were all one big happy, cooperating community. I wish I could say that, but we are like the Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress currently. It’s sad. We could set a good example for them and encourage them to follow our community’s successes. But, sometimes, it can be fun to learn from the debates. We can learn from that. I just want to emphasize the idea of mutual respect.

Ask Yourself What You can Do

The bottom line is that we have to ask ourselves, “What can we do as a community?” Leverage – that’s the perfect term. How do we get there? We are leverage. Not just interpreters, but also Deaf Community members, all the stakeholders. How do we get them involved? We see Deaf clubs closing; schools for the Deaf are seeing their enrollment decrease. We can’t afford a hands-off approach. Get involved in whatever ways you can. Sit down with the Deaf Community. Sit down and have conversations about how we can improve and strengthen our community. I’ve seen so many amazing things.

You all know that yesterday was Interpreter Appreciation Day, right? Were you aware? In reality, every day should be Interpreter Appreciation Day. Thank you all for doing what you do. But I ask you, as colleagues, to be part of the community to help us fight. There is still oppression happening. You can’t just stand there close-mouthed and do nothing. Where is your accountability? Help to stop oppression. You have to participate. Help to end oppression. I’ve seen interpreters allow other interpreters to oppress the Deaf person in a situation. How do we stop that from happening?  I tell Deaf people, “You have to be accountable, too. If you see someone oppressing the interpreter, step in.” That same thing holds true for interpreters. If you see someone being oppressed, stop it. We have to support each other and stop that behavior amongst ourselves. It’s sad that we have allowed this kind of behavior to occur and to continue. So, how do we stop it? By working together. By setting aside our personal opinions and by setting aside our personal philosophies. By saying, “Stop. We are one community. We MUST work together.”

Be the Change

Community accountability. We have a plethora of organizations in our community. It is imperative that they all work together. We are a diverse community – we have people of color, people of different gender identifications, we must all work together. I know that by working together, we can accomplish so much.

I want to share something my grandmother said when I was growing up. I was brought up orally, so I had to get this from speech reading, but luckily, she often wrote things, as well. She told me,”Chris, if you can make a significant impact on one person, it will truly make a difference among many others through that person.” I feel honored to be a part of that change. No matter what, no matter how old you are, no matter where you are from, your background, your experiences, your skills – none of that matters. When we are all working as one, we can make changes that will impact the world.

Finally, I want to ask you all to listen to each other, respect each other and learn from one another. When we do that, we will become one powerful ASL Community. Thank you.

 

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2 Comments on "Strategic Partnerships: Cooperation Among Stakeholders in Sign Language Interpreting Isn’t Enough"

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Kim Souhrada

Excellent points made. Thank you for the reminder that we are one big community who needs to work together to continue to improve the quality of communication and access. If a person isn’t willing to get involved, either on the Deaf or Interpreting “side”, to make changes and improve the system and fix whatever may not be working, complaining becomes a moot point. Well stated.

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