Blind Complicity: Sign Language Interpreters Navigating Ethics and Power

March 19, 2019

Kellie Stewart presented Blind Complicity: Sign Language Interpreters Navigating Ethics and Power at StreetLeverage – Live 2018 | Cherry Hill.  Kellie explores perceptual and social constructs, such as relational power and bias, which carry the potential to unknowingly corrupt the ethicality of interpreters’ decisions.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is a write-up of Kellie’s StreetLeverage – Live 2018 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Kellie’s original presentation directly.]

Interested in attending StreetLeverage – Live 2019  being held in Round Rock/Austin, TX May 3-5, 2019?

Blind Complicity: Sign Language Interpreters Navigating Ethics and Power

A few weeks ago, a friend and colleague of mine, Risa Shaw, out of the blue sent me a text message. With her permission, I’ll share with you her message.  She said she was looking forward to this presentation, and would I mind if she gave me a bit of feedback. Of course, I was open to any feedback. Her concern was with the use of the word – blind – in the title. She cautioned me not to co-opt terms such as blind, deaf, etc., which is not in and of itself negative, and use them in a negative way. Human beings do this all the time, without consciously recognizing the implications. I thanked her for her feedback and took away from it the reminder of how important it is to have allies who have the courage to hold each other accountable for our words and actions.  This interaction has important ties to this presentation.

I am excited to be presenting on this information, which is a topic that is emerging in my work. To begin, as someone who has taught ethics for many years in classrooms, workshops, conferences, etc., it seems to me our (sign language interpreters’) collective understanding of ethics has remained stilted. In the field of sign language interpreting, and across professions, we know how to teach cognitive awareness of decision-making, values, principles, in other words, concepts associated with conscious decision-making. We teach the Code of Professional Conduct (CPC) and engage in dialogue that examines decision-making through deaf and interpreter lenses. Yet, this approach to decision-making engages the conscious part of the brain, such as what we are aware of through what we see and the knowledge we have acquired.

Subconscious Awareness and Decision Making

It is interesting to know that 10-20% of the brain is actively involved in conscious awareness, and this includes decision-making. Thus, roughly 80% of what occurs in our thoughts, decision-making and other various brain functions occur at the sub-conscious level of our awareness. At this level, influences on our thinking, decision-making and resulting actions stem from mental processes of which we are unaware; decision-making that occurs at the subconscious level is not something we even teach.

In life, there are times when situations arise that give us pause. One such situation occurred about 15 years ago and it has bothered me to this day. I was working at Harvard University one day. It was around lunch time and I chose a stop in a particular Asian restaurant. As I sat at the table eating, I noticed the front door of the restaurant fly open and a young woman came running by my table; as she passed by my table toward the restroom, in a split second I hear her say, “Oh my God…he’s going to kill me.” At first, I was stunned and questioned whether I heard her correctly. Shortly, the woman came running back out of the restaurant, disappearing outside. At that moment, I realized…I had done nothing. How was that possible? At the time, I didn’t know if others in the restaurant had heard or seen the same thing I did. I didn’t know if someone was waiting outside for her…or what happened in the end. I would never know. Yet, that experience has continued to gnaw at me all these years. I teach ethics; I have discussed the importance of actions when making decisions; yet, here was a situation in which I sat and did nothing.

Fast forward two years to when I begin my doctoral program where I am reading an extensive amount of research. During that time, I stumbled upon research on the brain. In particular, the research that shows that 80% of the brain is not functioning at a conscious level. I wondered, what exactly was happening in that 80% of brain function? I believe sign language interpreters are good people; I’m a good person…Is being a good person enough? Not really…Thus, this topic of unconscious cognitive processes in decision-making is vast and complex. When we examine ethics in the interpreting field, we have not made a great deal of progress in our understanding of ethical decisions and behaviors. When we listen to Deaf people’s grievances with interpreters, we see the extent to which Deaf people experience anger and frustration toward interpreters. Does this mean the instruction associated with myriad ethics courses involving ethical values, principles, etc., should be tossed by the wayside? Of course not. It does mean, however, the methods we have for inducting students and practitioners into ethical decision-making may just not be enough.

On any given day, human beings process, roughly, 35,000 decisions. I actually thought that seemed a little low when considering all of the possible decisions we make in a day. Taking that figure at face value would mean approximately 20% or 7,000 of our decisions would emanate from the conscious mind, while 80% or 28,000 decisions per day are made within the sub-conscious mind. Human beings have a tendency to believe we are incapable of doing terrible things; yet, research suggests otherwise.  Here are a few examples of how the subconscious mind influences decision-making.

There are several studies like the Milgram Experiment demonstrating that ordinary human beings have the capacity to engage in highly unethical behavior. Milgram was a researcher at Yale University. He wondered, how was it possible for Nazi soldiers during WWII to comply with orders to commit heinous crimes, such as conduct experiment on human beings. Thus, he designed an experience to test whether ordinary people were capable of following orders when what they were being ordered to do violated ethical or moral principles. The experiment involved various participants, an individual playing the role of the “researcher” and a second individual playing the role of the “learner.” Each participant/subject was told the experiment involved teaching an individual in another room to memorize lists of words. When the person made a mistake, the participant was to administer an electric shock, which increased in intensity from 7 volts to 450 volts as errors increased.

Socialization, Power, and Behavior

How was it that some individuals in this experiment were willing to administer dangerous levels of electric shock to a stranger? Even years later around 2005 or 2006, when a slightly altered but similar, experiment was conducted, results were similar. This time, a pattern emerged demonstrating for those participants willing to administer 150 volts of electricity, those same individuals were most likely to deliver 450 volts, a lethal level of electric shock.  An early hypothesis was that women would exhibit greater levels of empathy and would, therefore, be more likely to refuse to comply with orders to do harm. In fact, the research showed women were more likely than men to comply with orders. One takeaway is that authority has a strong influence on behavior. It is not insignificant to recognize that approximately 85% of sign language interpreters are women. Looking at how women are socialized, it is important to consider how early socialization of children influences reactions to authority and power.

How does power relate to this conversation? Certainly, power has been explored in terms of hearing versus deaf people, but it also plays a significant role in other social contexts, such as race and racism, gender bias, disability bias, among others. For example, among professionals, such as sign language interpreters, handing someone a business card or wearing a badge carries power and authority. One’s fluency in ASL carries power. Interpreters have the power to instill confidence in their interpreting skills through displays of socially accepted artifacts of power, such as licensure, contracts with interpreter referral agencies, etc., all of which communicates power. What does that reality mean for our work?

Sign language interpreters hold a tremendous amount of power. For example, in today’s world of private referral services, when offered an interpreting assignment, often, the interpreters have the sole power to accept or decline the assignment. When a doctor appointment has been postponed a number of times for a deaf person, the ability to turn down that assignment for any reason is power. After all, interpreters rarely, if ever, have an opportunity to see the ramifications of accepting or declining assignments for Deaf people. Perhaps, an interpreter is not qualified; yet, he or she can still accept the assignment. That is power. I can choose to perceive that whatever occurs during an interpreting assignment is not my fault, despite reality. That is power. One aspect of how the unconscious mind works is to construct rationales that benefit the self, thereby protecting the individual from feelings of guilt or responsibility. Likewise, should one’s decisions have a negative effect on a situation, there are usually few, if any, consequences for the one with power.

How Bias Shapes Decision Making

Behavioral ethics asks, “Why did the individual decide that course of action?” Thus, the situation regarding the sign language interpreter who interprets a very fast paced presentation without stopping the speaker may do so because he or she has the capacity to keep up with the speaker’s pace; the trade-off is usually at the expense of the Deaf participant(s). We can ask, however, “Why do interpreters make the choice not to stop the speaker?”  Perhaps we hold the belief that we cannot stop the speaker and that belief drives the inaction. If the particular lens through which I define interpreting is shaped by certain assumptions about what makes a quality interpretation, I may perceive the work as successful despite the lack of access for the Deaf participants. My decision not to interrupt the speaker might stem from wanting to avoid appearing unskilled or incompetent.

It is important to understand the implications for decision-making, particularly the last one, ‘bias’. Each aspect of professional decision-making is complex. Yet, conversation regarding each element is critical, as it the importance of understanding how the brain influences decision-making. It is important to understand who we are; what we bring to the interpreting work and the broader profession. We must consider reflective practice as an important tool for better understanding the decisions we make and the implications of those decisions for consumers. Lastly, we must invite a cadre of allies to challenge our thinking when hidden or implicit brain processes mask our intentions and actions.

I am still unpacking much of this research and its implications for teaching ethics. It is important we begin to explore the unconscious part of the brain since it appears to have a great deal of influence on decision-making, as well as, teaching and learning. I am not asking for a response at this moment; however, just consider this question…How ethical are we as interpreters and as a profession? How would we answer that question and, furthermore, how do we discover the answer? That will be part of the ongoing conversation.

Final Thoughts

To close, it is important to remember, while it is important that we engage in reflective thinking and dialogue with colleagues, it is even more important to engage in conversation with Deaf consumers when reflecting on the implications of our decisions. It is critical to understand the implication of our actions and decisions on Deaf people, given the impact sign language interpreters have on the quality of deaf people’s lives. We are merely scratching the surface at this moment in time. My hope is that we will continue to explore and grow our understanding of the effects of the subconscious mind on sign language interpreters’ decision-making.   Thank you.

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