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

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