Lynnette Taylor | Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field

February 4, 2013

Weaving personal and collective history, legislation and cautionary tale together, Lynnette Taylor leaves us with the question, “What can we do to fix what we can?”

The Modern Questor

The modern questor now takes up the search, His quest the same; his methods only changed. He studies records; carefully he weighs Each point, for light upon his inquiry: Whence came his people? Whither are they going? What struggles have they known? What victories? Out of his notes he weaves an epic story.
– Ella Cara Deloria

In Ben Zeitlin’s, Beasts of the Southern Wild, a film about Hurricane Katrina, the pint sized sage Hushpuppy, declares, “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right. If one piece busts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.

Lately, in our universe, there has been a lot of discussion about the ‘busted piece’ of interpreter referral agencies. Economic, ideological and political storms have washed away most of the Deaf centric service agencies, those that traditionally provided interpreter referral services to the local community. Interpreting services have relocated to market centric agencies that often have no connection to their local communities, their service providers or even the services they provide.

The shift from local agencies that were responsive to the community’s needs to market centric agencies that have no historical understanding of the struggle for linguistic rights, has had a dire effect on the well being of our communities, one that has led to the loss of our individual and collective agency. Not only has this ‘busted piece’ led to the unraveling of comprehensive services and community ties it has also led to the unraveling of our collective political narrative. Like a strand pulled from the weave, we find ourselves vulnerable as stray threads thrown to the wind.

As we think about how to fix this “broken piece,” whether through certification of agenciesexploring an interpreter’s duality, or their inner warning system we should revisit the role these Deafcentric agencies, and by extension interpreters, played in our local communities to help us identify what to import for our future.


RID was entering puberty when I came of age as an interpreter. At that time interpreting services were housed in Deaf service agencies and it was there, that stories like dewdrops at dawn, collected on leaves. In Native Speakers, Linda Tuhiwai Smith explains, “ The story and the storyteller both serve to connect the past with the future, one generation with another, the land with the people and the people with the story…storytelling is a way of representing the “diversities of truth”… (133) These agencies served as the ‘land’ where people and story, past and future generations met to write their epic tale, of which we were a vital part.

They were also a way for agencies to monitor the health and well being of our community. Interpreters were an integral part of story collecting, becoming in Deloria’s words, ‘modern questors’. As we went on assignments, we brought back not only reports, but questions and concerns. If we saw a family in need, we knew there was help. If we faced obstacles or discrimination we had advocates or legal services to help, if an elderly person was getting evicted, we could guide them to assistance. Because it was intra-agency communication confidentiality was kept intact. We didn’t shoulder the burden alone and didn’t have to choose between being a disengaged witness or a zealous savior, because we functioned within an engaged community where there was support.

Whence Came Our PeopleTrail Marker for Sign Language Interpreters

Ella Cara Deloria, in a letter to John D. Rockefeller Jr.  wrote, “I represent a middle era in the development of my tribe… I lived in the days when it was a really Indian background, I stand on middle ground, and know both sides…no matter how far a younger student should go, he could not know both sides, because that other, the Indian side is gone.” (41)

It is from this “middle era” I will talk about the place of agencies in our narrative. As a coda I grew up steeped in the traditions of a collective Deaf culture, when stories told in the ‘I’ often signified the ‘We’ of collective culture.  These stories birthed around any gathering place, the kitchen table, Deaf clubs, Deaf schools, under lamp posts in the parking lot and they coalesced in those Deafcentric service agencies.

Story swapping was a means of connectivity to our collectivity; each singular episode weaving part of an epic tale, tracing the footsteps of our people and animating the path of our future. If stories of struggle were a recurring theme they became a call for action. If stories of victories were shared, they passed on strategies for success to others. Discord was also part of the narrative for there wasn’t always agreement on interventions or strategies. But in spite of disagreements these gatherings offered a place of comfort, a place where the I, reflected in the WE, was a reassurance that “I” am not alone.  In the world of minority language users, this is very important.

In turn, these stories provided a snapshot of our community life, giving the agency a way to monitor the wellbeing of our community. From stories collected they could decide where to administer medicines and when they saw that aggressive action was needed to heal, call the warriors together.

Interpreter services were a lucrative part of an array of support services that were vital to the well being of both the Deaf and interpreting community. Revenue from the Interpreting Department helped offset deficits in other high cost/ low revenue service programs such as mental health services, advocacy, housing etc. this in turn enabled agencies to employ people from the local Deaf community. Staff interpreters were a resource not only to the agency, but also to the community covering those occasional unpaid interpreting needs such as funerals, last minute hospital requests, and even political demonstrations.

The Price of a TTY Call

The road to here began because I had to make a TTY call to my mother.

The year was 1976. I had just left home, Danville Kentucky, to go to college in San Francisco. To say I was ‘green’ would be an understatement. When I got off the plane at midnight,(with everything I owned: one green suitcase and $100 dollars in my pocket,) I thought I would walk right out the door and into my college classroom.

I needed to let my mother know I had arrived. After a few days, I finally found a Deaf Services Agency, for the use of their TTY I had to give them my phone number. Giving them my phone number was the act that changed my life. In April of 1977, I got a call asking if I could come down to the Health Education and Welfare building to interpret for the 504 demonstration.

They needed volunteers and explained if the demonstration was successful, we would make history by putting  legislation in place that granted civil rights for all disabled people. How could I say no?

I remembered all the times my mother didn’t have access because there were no interpreters. I thought about the many experiences we could have shared but weren’t able to: the theatre, parent teacher night, the movies, the doctor, television, art classes (I wouldn’t have to interpret). That one day turned into 26 days as we occupied the Health Education and Welfare building in San Francisco, in what became known as the 504 sit in. NPR reported, “for people with disabilities, it’s a moment as important as Selma or Stonewall.

The success of the sit in, and the rights we won, could not have happened without the involvement and support of local agencies. The leaders in the Deaf community had a national network from which they could organize, strategize, network and muster support from local community members.

Interpreting was a 24/7 activity, with bomb threats, arrest threats and strategy meetings lasting ‘til the wee hours of the morning. Agencies helped by providing us with staff and free- lance interpreters during the day, and organized visits from the local Deaf doctor for our care.

Strangers in a Strange Land

It was because of agency involvement that I met my first “professional” interpreter, (At the time I couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to become one). At first meeting we were ‘strangers in a strange land’ and definitely did not ‘grok’ each other, me with feathers in my hair, a pierced nose, bracelets up my arm and in overalls, he in a smock, from Boston, with a college degree. Our hesitations melted the minute we started working together. It was from him that I began to learn how to navigate strategies of discourse that I had not grown up with, and in turn helped him navigate the discourse of Deaf elders, both of us helping each other recognize nuances and subtleties that take years to identify.

We were all foreigners in this ‘interpreting space’ and together we were learning how to cross the distances of language and culture to understand each other.

The agency helped us navigate these new waters by teaming newer interpreters with more seasoned ones, using discernment to match interpreter to assignment. The Deaf community had power to choose their representation, if they were not happy with an interpreter the agency knew it. And the interpreter had a community of ‘critical friends’ to help refine their skills. The interpreter had revenue, had support, had relationships within a community and had someone to turn to when help was needed in the field. And so did the Deaf community.

It Takes Many Voices to Make Change

As we observed how the community came together to respond to issues of conflict, oppression or discrimination we learned our respective places in the matrix of the community and came to understand it takes many voices to make change.  The agency responded to the community’s needs by addressing social injustice, celebrating victories, strengthening bonds with the greater community and by providing economic well being to the local community, all of these building long lasting relationships

There existed a synergistic and dynamic relationship between the interpreters, the agency and the community in which we all took part in monitoring and maintaining the health and well being of our community.

Diversities of Truth/Telephone Wednesdays

Community stories flourished in the local agencies, especially on ‘telephone Wednesdays’ when Deaf people would line up to make interpreted phone calls. As we cradled ringing telephones, we engaged in conversations, forged new relationships, negotiated interpreting, and for many, deaf, coda and particularly those who had arrived on these shores of our community through routes other than family, this provided a natural entrée, an organic way to enter the community.

Having a site to gather gave interpreters a place to try on different ‘roles’ as interpreters. We were becoming adept shape-shifters as we explored what Robert Lee and Peter Llewellyn Jones, describe as the interpreter’s ‘role space’. (If we were to diagram it, it would look like a morphing Kandinsky painting.) We found we often needed to alter our ‘role’ to fit the situation, sometimes taking in the seams, sometimes letting them out, and sometimes donning a whole new costume.

The role of the interpreter was shaping itself in response to the changing needs of the community. All of us, interpreters, D/deaf people, and even non signers, were engaging in conversations about how to work together, sharing world views, problem solving ethical conflicts, and it was through these conversations and interactions that we began to learn our place in the story.

But perhaps more important, these interpreted interactions and witnessing of stories helped us understand the complexities of our community. Families that don’t communicate with each other, the struggle for access, the lively humor of survival tales, the outsider view of majority culture, the scars of racism, audism and other isms, that people experience when one is, as Andrew Solomon describes, “far from the tree” in both family and mainstream society.

All the different faces of class, privilege and power made its imprint on the daily stories reminding us of the “diversities of truth.” These agencies were the ‘land’ where people and story, past and future generations met to write their epic tale, of which we were a part. What happens to these ‘diversities of truth’ as we lose our land? When the ‘I’ separates from the ‘We,’ we become vulnerable as stray threads thrown to the wind. Rather than being creators of our story, the danger is we will become the story that others inscribe on us.

Fixing What We Can…

“When the director Ben Zeitlin asked the then, six year old actress, Quvenzhane Wallis, ‘ If all these things were your fault… what would you do? The wizened sage answered, “I would just try to fix it.  I would do whatever I can to fix what I broke.”

These are a few of the many who are fixing things.

StreetLeverage, our ‘modern questor’ is gathering our stories. From them we can monitor the wellbeing of our community and find ways to take action.

National Interpreter Digest Group, NIDG ( is an online discussion group started by Stephanie Feyne in an effort to initiate  thoughtful discussions about pertinent issues in the field of interpreting.

Washington RID and Northern California RID have been actively addressing the problem of outsourcing of sign language interpreters.

WRID successfully removed sign language interpreters from some of the state contracts awarded to language services and are now working with state agencies to ensure credible interpreting agencies get awarded the contracts.

NORCRID held a community forum to discuss the implications of interpreter referrals being outsourced to language service agencies. Recently held a follow up  forum which included the  language service agencies as participants in a panel. Starting dialogues with the community and service providers.

Over the past two years, PCRID, Hawaii RID has hosted community forums inviting our communities to reflect on the trends in the field and its impact on our relationships.

These are just a few of the ways our community is trying to “fix what we can”.

What are your thoughts?



Cotera, M. (2008) Native Speakers and the Poetics of Culture Austin: University of Texas Press Smith,L. (2006) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples

Llewellyn-Jones P/ and Lee R.G. (in prep) Interpreting in Three Dimensions: Defining the Role Space of Community Interpreters

* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox? SignUp!

Stay Current

Want to be among the first to know when we publish new content?

Are you an interpreter?

We respect your privacy.
We will never share your info.


Leave a Reply

24 Comments on "Lynnette Taylor | Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field"

Notify of
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
John Hendricks

Lynnette, fantastic article which really hits home with me since I have had dealings with all language agencies as well as the state (California) prison systems which had been awarding contracts to them. This has recently changed. Every little bit helps if we choose to do something which your article reflects perfectly! Thanks for all you do for our profession and community!!!

Lynnette Taylor

Thank you for your kind words. IT is always nice to see your name pop up. How did the contracts with the California prison systems get changed? Now who gets awarded the contracts?

John Hendricks

Wellll, lets just say a couple of codas made a bit of noise with the person in charge and they are now contracted with “Deaf centric” agencies that are well respected in our area. Next time I see you will give details. smile.


“I would just try to fix it. I would do whatever I can to fix what I broke.”

Thank you for these words.

…and thank you for helping the attempt to guide us out of this desert of failure the last few years have brought RiD.

Lynette, thank you…for the very words I have held in my heart but could not put down on paper. As I read the current blogs of VRI, language agencies, and many more, I have wanted to reply, but I had no words. I know that the current trends have put such deep feelings into those of us who work with the Deaf community from our hearts….not “helpers”, not “do gooders”, but interpreters who love and care about what they do everyday. There are those who say “well, are you just worried about your job?”. Oh such ignorance! If you really… Read more »
Lynnette Taylor
Ellen, Thank you. I am glad my words could help a bit. When we stop thinking about interpreting as a “service” and only as an “industry”, we lose our connection to the idea of service- to be of help to someone, to a community, to each other. When we held the IDP/Deaf Caucus Community Forum in Philadelphia 4 years ago, I was struck by how often the feeling of ‘isolated and lonely’ came up during the small group discussions. Many interpreters talked about missing working in teams, having a community, and feeling overwhelmed by dealing with ethical issues in a… Read more »
Hilary Mayhew
Lynette– What a beautiful piece. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and wisdom, and I hope we continue to see more dialogues, gatherings, and actions like those you cited at the end of your article. I know I’ve been grateful for the conversations I’ve been able to listen in on in the NIDG. As a fairly recent ITP grad myself (2008), these ideas were thankfully part of my education, but seem to be less a part of the landscape I’ve entered than I expected. I’m hopeful that we’ll continue to feel our way as a profession towards healthy community. (I… Read more »
Lynnette Taylor

Thank you for including the link to Robert’s presentation. I saw it and it was wonderful. See, here we are questing…
So let’s keep thinking of different ways to make these conversations part of our landscape.

Thank you,

There’s a lot to love, here. I’d only add that we (and by “we” I don’t mean “you” 🙂 ) tend to conflate “interpreting” with “RID”. Interpreters have stood in the gap long before interpreting was a profession, and this history is repeated in our time in families, towns, and villages all over the world. Reaching back in time is sometimes as easy as reaching next door, and lessons on both sides are ripe for the exchanging. Also a nod to TSID. We think about Ball State so often, that we forget that Texans — as much as it grieves… Read more »
Lynnette Taylor

You are such a poet, I love the idea of reaching next door. You are right, in many places that still happens and there is much to be learned from those places and those exchanges.

Thanks also for the TSID reminder. I am now going to look at that history because sadly, I don’t know much about it.

And not only do we conflate the interpreter with RID, but the interpreter with the deaf body. So that interpreter body ends up as a very complex sign.

Thanks for taking the time to share this.

Nancy Riley

Thank you for sharing the “504” history. I think few people know of it,and I agree about the significance of its impact. We often refer to ADA as the guiding force behind “access”, though really 504 laid the groundwork decades sooner (though ignored until those demonstrations pushed the “regulation” process along). It was very gratifying to read this personal account.

Lynnette Taylor

I am glad the 504 story had meaning for you. I think we often forget the cornerstone that put so much in place. Not only the ADA, but PL94-142, which has created a very complicated history for us.
Of course there are so many ways that legislation has changed our lives in America, every curb cut in a city, every bus, all the captions and yes, even Switched at Birth.
Thanks for your response,

Diane Hazel Jones

Your words gave me goosebumps.
I see the same thing happening in Deaf Education.
We are no longer Deafcentric and we need legislation to change it.
Thank you so much.

Lynnette Taylor
Diane, I agree we do need to change it. We can’t go back to the way things were, but if we start building social communities and learning communities together, then we can find a way to address the obstacles. I think we need a multi-prong, multi- community approach to address these issues. I have been thinking that perhaps the local chapters of NAD and RID should take over the Deaf clubs, those that are left, and keep them as sites for our meetings, community events and such. As long as we hold onto the spaces we have left, then the… Read more »
Stephanie Feyne
Lynnette, thank you for continuing to encourage us to look at what we do in a deeper way. I wanted to share an upcoming opportunity for us to engage in discussion and reflection on Aug 10 in Indianapolis. Many know that IDP and Deaf Caucus have co-sponsored open Community Forums at the last 3 RID Conferences. These discussions have been opportunities for all of us (Deaf, hearing, coda interpreters, certified, associate, student) to meet with each other and members of the Deaf community and address specifics on our work, our goals and our relationship. And now for some exciting news:… Read more »
Lynnette Taylor

Thanks Stephanie!

Thanks for this article. Good to hear about the work WRID has done so that consumers of ASL interpreting services don’t have to deal with ‘mainstream’ interpreting agencies that don’t (ahem) grok Deafness. We have similar issues here in Australia. I have mixed feelings about it, though, for two reasons. 1. I think that in most (but not all) ways, the Deaf community is no different from the many CALD/NESB communities which exist in both the US and Australia (all unique culturally, obviously, but requiring interpreting in similar ways and settings). Claiming ‘specialness’ can in fact be disabling; helping solicitors,… Read more »
Lynnette Taylor
Dani, Thanks for bringing in a more international perspective. There are many kinds of interpreting interactions happening on a global level and it behooves us to share these to help us think beyond what we know. I agree that, “Claiming ‘specialness’ can in fact be disabling; helping solicitors, doctors etc understand that what we do is fundamentally no different to what a Vietnamese/English interpreter does is, I think, empowering both to us and our shared Deaf clients.” I didn’t mean to imply we need “special” places, but we need a locus for community. So thank you for raising this point,… Read more »

Hello, Lynnette;

I was delighted to find, and to view this last month. I particularly appreciated with your challenges, alerting viewers & readers to consider the footprints we follow, as well as those we leave.

Today – the 36th anniversary of the signing of 504 – I’m sharing a link so that others may further appreciate YOUR role…so sit back and glimpse another view of historic events you’d mentioned in Modern Questor.

KUDOS on your earlier, and continuing good and great works.

Credit to Lennard Davis and to Lawrence Carter-Long, for posting this to Facebook earlier today.

The Power of 504,


[…] and effective intervention for induction into an industry. For years, as Lynette Taylor in Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field reminds us, interpreters with more experience have been paired with those will less experience as a […]


[…] be effective as interpreters.  In terms of development of the profession, Lynnette Taylor in Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field reminds us […]

Marlene Elliott
Hi Lynnette, I’m sure you probably don’t remember me. I met you at CIT in San Diego. That’s been awhile ago. I remember seeing a fantastic presentation you and your colleagues gave there about a method you were using at LaGuardia to teach students to have a good attitude. I’ve been looking through CIT proceedings and I don’t see a paper for that presentation. I’m starting to doubt my memory. Did you write a paper for it? Am I missing something? I would love to look again at what you had done there. I hope you don’t mind me asking… Read more »

Forward-looking organizations committed to retelling the story of the interpreter.



(New York)