Does the Past Hold the Answer to the Future of Sign Language Interpreting?

January 27, 2015

Carolyn Ball presented Does the Past Hold the Answer to the Future of Sign Language Interpreting? at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her talk will examine how the profession of sign language interpreting might be very different if 50 years of recommendations had not gone ignored.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

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

Lighting the Way

As I look around the room today, I am in awe. There are many of you who have been involved with this wonderful profession of interpreting since its inception.  Because of your background in this field, you have become a light, much like a match and an influence for those around you. Your light is like the one match that can be lit, and then spreads to all of the other matches and can influence change.

You would not be here unless you wanted to change this profession.  We all want to be better, we want to teach better, we want to interpret better, and we want to ensure that the Deaf Community has the skilled interpreters they deserve.  That’s why we are here and that is why we try so hard to make this profession better. You literally have the power to change this profession. Each of you has something inside of you that has and will change this profession.

I will show you three examples of lights (people) that have influenced our profession. Those people who have come before us in our profession have taught us many lessons.

Dr. Lottie Reikehof

It has become my personal goal to interview as many pioneers in our field as I can, to capture their impact on our field before they pass away and before we miss what they provided us with their beautiful candle.

Recently, I flew to Virginia to interview and film Dr. Lottie Riekehof.  I will expand on three people that I have interviewed so that we can remember their contributions to our field and how their light has influenced us. While interviewing Lottie, I learned many things about her and why her heart understands what it means to need an interpreter for complete communication.

Did you know that Lottie Riekehof and her family were immigrants from Germany when she was three and came to America?  Lottie did not speak a word of English and when she was in kindergarten, at the age of five, she did not speak English, so she did not understand what was going on in the classroom nor was she able to speak to her classmates.  Luckily, she had a little friend who would sit by her and, ultimately, became her personal interpreter.  She learned what it truly meant to rely on an interpreter, which, in turn, helped her to become a much better interpreter herself.  She knew what it felt like to rely on the interpreter and this impacted her future interpreting for Deaf people and helped her to have a Deaf Heart. We will come back to Lottie.

Sharon Neumann Solow

The next pioneer that has had a huge impact in our field is Sharon Neumann Solow. Many of you may not be aware that Sharon was not an advocate of the Vietnam War. While Sharon was attending college and also working as an interpreter, she was involved in many causes to show the dislike that many college students’ felt towards the Vietnam War.

During this time in the 1960’s, many of the students who were involved with the protests would run from classroom to classroom and open the door to the class where a teacher was lecturing, and the protester would yell, “Shut it Down!” This meant that the classes should not continue and that all should be involved in stopping the war.  This protest was how the students were showing their united feelings about not wanting the war to continue. Sharon Neumann Solow, being a wonderful activist for peace, was, of course, involved with these efforts to run to each classroom and open the door to scream, “Shut it down”, and close the school. They were boycotting the system. Each of the people in the group Sharon was involved with would take turns running into the classrooms and telling them to shut it down. The group would divide the classrooms on the campus and continue this revolt, as they did not want the war to continue.

During this same time that the protestors were running around the campus trying to get it shut down, Sharon was an interpreter for many classes that Deaf people were taking at the college. Even though Sharon felt strongly about the war, she knew it was her job to interpret.  So, when it was time, Sharon would go to the classroom and interpret for Deaf people who were taking classes at the college, even though this was against the uprising that she believed in so firmly against the war.  Sharon felt that her duty and responsibility as an interpreter was not to take away Deaf people’s choices to choose whether or not they wanted to be involved.

One time, when Sharon was interpreting, one of the people from the protest, opened the door to the classroom that Sharon was interpreting in and yelled, “Shut it Down, Close the College”.  He was so shocked to see Sharon sitting there interpreting that he paused, and looked at Sharon, asking her, “What are you doing here?”  He just stared at her and couldn’t believe his eyes. Sharon responded to her friend, with no shame, that it was her job to interpret and she was doing her job.  Sharon felt strongly that it was not her right to tell Deaf people what they should or shouldn’t do when it came to being involved in the protest against the war. Sharon teaches us a great lesson with her example- no matter what our own opinions are, we do not have the right to impose those same emotions and expectations on those we interpret for.

JoAnn Dobecki Shopbell

The next person (pioneer) that we will learn about is JoAnn Dobecki Shopbell. JoAnn Dobecki Shopbell, where is Carla Mathers? Oh, she is out… of course she is out when I want to make a wonderful point about her. Hahaha!  JoAnn was Carla’s teacher when she was learning to be an interpreter at the College of Southern Idaho (CSI).

Because JoAnn has been an important pioneer in our field, I flew to Idaho to interview her.  It was a wonderful experience for me to be able to learn so much from JoAnn. JoAnn is a Child of Deaf Parents (CODA). Oh, there is Carla… please put the picture back up of JoAnn for Carla to see.

While I interviewed JoAnn, I wanted to know why she became an interpreter and an interpreter educator and why she was involved with this field. It was during this interview that JoAnn explained how she became an interpreter at a very early age.

JoAnn had Deaf Parents and during WWII, JoAnn became a very important part of the neighborhood where she grew up.  JoAnn was five years old and remembers a particular event that impacted her life forever. JoAnn had a baby sister and her father made an amazing light system so that when the baby cried, the lights in the house would flash on and off. This would alert the family that the baby was crying. The baby would cry and the lights would go off and the whole house would light up.

One day a man walked sternly to the house and pounded on the door.  He was not happy. JoAnn’s parents allowed the man into their home and the warden began to try and explain to JoAnn’s parents that they could not use the lighting system any more at night. Remember that JoAnn was five years old and she was trying to interpret what the warden was saying for her parents. The warden told the family that they could not use the light system that they had rigged up any more. The reason for this was that the enemy would see the flashing lights and think it was a signal, then send their enemy planes and drop a bomb on the house. This was very dangerous.

In my interview with JoAnn, she tells this story about the warden and that at the very young age of five, she didn’t know how to sign that the lights might be sending a message to the enemy.  She didn’t know the words, or how to sign that the enemy could drop a bomb on the house because they thought the flashing lights were a code.

So, rather than not understand what the words meant, JoAnn was determined to learn about language and how to interpret so that her parents and other members of the Deaf Community would be able to know what was going on.  JoAnn explains that because of this situation she felt that she needed to learn all that she could so that she could understand what was being said.  Then she could interpret it more clearly.

This led to the Deaf Community thinking that JoAnn was a very clever girl. When her family would go to the Deaf Club, the adults would bring their documents and papers waiting for her.  The very important lesson that JoAnn learned from these experiences was that she was not there to make decisions for Deaf people, but to interpret the information and then they would make their own decisions.

So, from these three pioneers, we learn wonderful lessons. Lottie, Sharon and JoAnn are perfect examples of what we need to remember about our profession today.

We Have a Problem

Even though we have so many examples for the past, we have a problem in our field today. We don’t have enough interpreters, we don’t have enough skilled interpreters, we don’t have enough sign language interpreters that have Deaf hearts and we don’t have enough skilled interpreter educators. We want to know how to make have good interpreters and this consumes our energy. We need to have more interpreters that have the same characteristics and values as Lottie, Sharon and JoAnn.

What would the world look like if we had so many sign language interpreters that were fluent in ASL who had Deaf hearts, who knew how to be involved in the Deaf Community and we had interpreter educators who were fluent in ASL? Imagine if we had this world?

The Importance of Capturing History

It is vital that we look to the past, look at our history, in order to help us imagine this future world. But, history is powerless unless we can capture it.  If we don’t take the time to interview people and learn from our pioneers like Lottie, Sharon and JoAnn, then we do not know how to have the “perfect world” for interpreters. By learning about our past, we can make a perfect world again.

My goal has been to interview as many people as I can, to learn from them and to document the lessons that we can learn from the pioneers in our field.  Just by learning about Lottie, Sharon and JoAnn, we can learn great lessons. Additionally, learning about other people who have been in our field and helped build and mold it will help us understand where our profession came from, and where it needs to go. We can capture the stories of these wonderful pioneers and help the new generation of interpreters understand the dedication, the love, and the work that has helped our field become what it is today.

We can capture our past; we can influence the field. For example: When I was a little girl, my parents would read to me. I was always connected to the people that were from the past. I would love to learn about the stories of those who had lived before me. I remember a story about a person named Peter Pan. Peter Pan could fly, so at age five, I decided that I wanted to try and fly.  So, I jumped off a picnic table and thought I could fly.  But, it didn’t turn out so well, and I broke my arm. The important point was that I felt connected with Peter Pan; I didn’t care about my broken arm.

In this next photo, you can see that I really wanted to be a cowboy. I read everything that I could about Buffalo Bill.  As I read these stories, I wanted to go back in time to interview them and learn from them. Even though they were not alive, I could not stop thinking about how much I wanted to interview them and so I wanted to read and also to dress up just like them, as you can see from the photo.  This is how I began my love of learning from the past.

This is where my love for the past came about and why I have been driven to learn from the past and try to document how we can pass this knowledge onto the current generation of interpreters and interpreter educators.

Applying Lessons to the Present and Future

How do we learn the past and apply it to the present or future? If we don’t become like the little girl or boy who wants to learn so much about the past, and begin to interview our pioneers, if we don’t document what has happened in the past, what will happen to our field?  As a profession, we will not be able to look forward and plan without looking back and learning from those who came before us.  So, as we look for the perfect world that I talked about earlier, the world that had skilled teachers and skilled interpreters, we must learn from those who came before us. Whether the events were deemed as good or bad doesn’t matter; we need to document the events and learn from them in order to improve the future of our field.

Why would anyone want to know this?

Many people, younger students today that I have a chance to meet and teach, will learn about the historical events that I have learned about our profession.  I will also describe the people who we need to love and respect and even tell the stories that I have learned from interviewing our pioneers.  Many of the students today don’t understand why this is important, why should they need to learn about the past? This is very unfortunate. Perhaps we need more people to write about history, to document their memories, to interview more people who have been in this field for a long time, people that we can learn from. Just like I showed in the beginning, the candles that are still lit, still here, we can take advantage of our time and learn from these great lit candles (people). We need to do this before those candles are gone.

For example, do you remember the wonderful interpreter named Gary Sanderson? I was teaching a workshop about history a while ago at RID Region V. Gary was sitting in the front row and he would add so much information to what I was explaining about in my presentation. Unfortunately, I did not write down the information that Gary was telling me and when Gary passed away all of that information was lost.  That made a huge impact on me as a person and made me realize that I did not have time to waste. So, I rolled up my sleeves and was determined to find out as much as I could and interview as many people as I could about our history. I knew that it was time that I began to ask questions, to ask important questions. The courage was what I needed. This reminded me of my own mother and a story she used to tell us.

(Presentation shows picture of Mom when she was 16.)

That picture is of my mother when she was 16. My mom tells us this story about when she was in high school and her best friend moved away. Her friend told her to come and visit her on the train and my mom wanted to go so badly. But, she never did because she was afraid to ask her mom because she knew she would say no.  Years later, Mom asked her mother if she would have let her go on that train and her mother told her absolutely. She told her she could have taken that train. This story, about my mom being afraid to ask if she could ride the train to visit her friend, teaches us a great lesson about not being afraid to ask for something that we need or want.

 Be Brave Enough to Ask

It’s not easy to look back or to call people and ask them if we can talk with them about their history. It’s not easy to call and ask if we can call and interview them to capture the past. But, if we don’t do this and be brave enough to ask, we will not have the opportunity to take advantage of the time we have, or the time that that person has as a lit candle in our community. We need to capture them and their memories before their candle goes out.

If we do this then we can remember that perfect world that we talked about earlier, with qualified and skilled sign language interpreters and educators. If we are brave and we ask the questions of why and how we can change the things that seem to never improve, then we can change them. Just like the lessons that we learned by asking Lottie, Sharon and JoAnn about their lives. We can learn from them and help the profession to be the wonderful place that it can be. We need to capture all of your stories and your histories.

The most important thing is to remember the lesson from my mom. Don’t be afraid of the train; don’t be afraid to ask if we can ride the train. As a profession, let’s hop on the train and look back when we need, and keep the train moving. Let’s be brave and learn from the past, ask those who came before and study all that we can about the building of this wonderful field

Thank you.


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