Conscious Practice: A Courageous Choice for Sign Language Interpreters

April 3, 2019

Jonathan Webb presented Conscious Practice: A Courageous Choice for Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2018 | Cherry Hill. In his presentation, Jonathan urges us to explore whether we are accomplices with Deaf people in their survival, or colluding with societal norms.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

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

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

Conscious Practice: A Courageous Choice for Sign Language Interpreters

Consciousness is the underpinning of the work I do. I believe it is very difficult to make decisions around both critical and mundane issues, unless we understand why we are presented with the choices we have, and how the decisions we make will invariably lead to additional decisions to be made. While at times I am less conscious than I would prefer to be in  how and why I do what I do, I have seen time and time again that the choice to be as conscious as possible leads to less harm being unconsciously acted out against others- especially towards those who are already marginalized in our society and profession.

Of course, this level of consciousness with which many of us attempt to operate requires a certain amount of courage. To choose consciousness also means we often have to choose to see how we benefit from the very systems designed to further marginalize oppressed peoples. To choose consciousness means we choose to see how systems place us in a paradox. This paradox, for me, has to do with competing personal, cultural, and societal values. The only way I have found to navigate these competing interests is by understanding the systems at play and their ultimate goals.

Understanding Systems and their Impact

Systems are inherently about organization and control of those participating in the organization. Systems are about boundaries, patterns, rules, policies, guidelines, etc. Whether it is our circulatory system that keeps our blood flowing and our organs nourished or our system of government and law we abide by, the systems are meant to sustain our existence. If something does not fit within the pattern (read: system) then that something is either altered and assimilated or eradicated. While these systems are meant to serve us, they are not meant to serve those things, or humans, that do not adapt themselves and matriculate themselves into the system. When the system is about how our bodies’ cells divide and multiple we are happy and relieved to know that the system is alive and well and eradicating those rogue cells that would attempt to work outside the system. Is this our response though when we look at systems we have created that require innocent people to choose eradication or alteration and assimilation?

As a hearing interpreter (ASL and USA English), I cannot maintain consciousness in my work without acknowledging, daily, my existence in a system of audism. This is not the only system with which we as interpreters must contend. We must contend with racism, heteronormativity, sexism, colorism, ableism, and a host of other perniciously noxious human creations. But I personally have so much to gain from the system of audism, as an interpreter. This system pays my bills and allows me to survive in a larger system of capitalism. This system also requires Deaf peoples to live beneath hearing people, exist as second-hand citizens, have their language appropriated and changed, have their values and beliefs dismissed, and a list of other atrocities that undoubtedly encourage assimilation. This assimilation has a much more pernicious impact than we often realize, however. The assimilation means that linguistically and culturally, Deaf people must belong to the larger and dominant system which asserts their own culture and language. This falls just short of classically defined genocide. Beyond the classic definition, this is clearly cultural, ethnic, and linguistic genocide. As a hearing sign language interpreter, I am in the middle of this destruction. I stand in the middle of a daily attempt to bend and manipulate Deaf peoples. And, if you are a sign language interpreter too, you also stand in the middle of this atrocity.

Reframing Our Practice

Since 1964, we have worked diligently to develop standards, practices, policies, rules. Of particular note, extremely helpful models have been conceptualized and developed to assist us in knowing how to professionalize the field of sign language interpretation. The work that has transpired over the last half a century has been not only profound but highly beneficial. We have a slightly better understanding of what happens inside the interpreter’s head, how we move between languages as well as modes of communication, and how to conceptualize decision making in terms of our ethical tenets. What I would like to suggest is that we go deeper. While we have made great gains, we have done so without a full picture. And, I am suggesting that the full picture is not complete without being able to frame the models and practices accurately. So, what is the framing I suggest?

We are developing, instituting, and practicing models that paint an incomplete picture. The picture is a potentially viable one, but without the frame of the system of audism, the picture becomes non-useful. If we aren’t able to come to terms with the system of audism, that we both survive as well as benefit from, we cannot do our due diligence in the work. Furthermore, remaining unconscious of the system and the demand for assimilation and eradication of Deaf peoples, means we are immediately and consistently practicing in a manner that does harm. And while I write about this as a very privileged hearing interpreter writing to other privileged hearing interpreters, my words are not solely for us. They are also for the “us” who are CODAs/IDPs, as well as DIs/CDIs. We all own our individual participation, and the only way we can own that participation is through consciousness.

Consciousness is far more than thought, however. To be mentally aware is a requisite step but not the only step in the process. Additionally, awareness does not always start in the mind or end in the mind. Our center of emotional experience in the world is a profound place of awareness, as is the body and how it interacts with other bodies. Sadly yet expectedly, in all the beauty and light of Western thought, there is inevitably a looming shadow. Western thought and civilization have encouraged us to divorce the body and emotions from the mind. And we wonder why we grapple with vicarious trauma…

Choosing Consciousness

Courageously choosing consciousness means reconnecting my mind (mental awareness) with my heart (emotional center) and my body (physical and physiological awareness). When I attempt to reconnect myself in this way, I step into a fuller state of being and wholeness. I garner more information, information that isn’t always accessible via the eyes, hands, or ears. Choosing to be courageous so that I can maintain consciousness means that the quality of my decision making process has more substance. Courageously choosing consciousness means that I am not just some imaginary “neutral and objective” interpreter, but someone who has to realistically grapple with that fact that I:

1) make money based on a system of inequity.

2) am being asked by the Deaf community to assist them in navigating an overwhelming system that is set on eradicating them through assimilation.

I believe we can choose to be courageous. We can choose to develop resiliency in this system and learn what it looks like to think with Deaf peoples, to feel along with Deaf peoples, to act alongside Deaf peoples, and to simply be with Deaf peoples.

Ultimately, I believe that if we as interpreters do not choose a frame that clearly acknowledges our positionality in a system of audism, we are essentially choosing cowardice and ignorance.

In the end, I know what I want my story to be. I want to be known as someone who chooses courage and consciousness. I want to be an interpreter who, with consciousness, resists the system’s goal of assimilation and eradication. I want to be an interpreter that works not just for a paycheck, but for greater equity, love, and liberation for people in the world, including those who are Deaf.

Who do you want to be?

What do we want our profession to be?

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