Pulling Back the Curtain: How Unwritten Rules Impact Sign Language Interpreters

April 6, 2017

Ritchie Bryant presented Pulling Back the Curtain: How Unwritten Rules Impact Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2016 | Fremont. His presentation examines how “unwritten rules” of behavior influence sign language interpreters’ actions and impact their working relationship with the Deaf community.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Ritchie’s StreetLeverage – Live 2016 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Ritchie’s original presentation directly.]

If you enjoy this presentation and accompanying article, consider going to StreetLeverage – Live 2017.

Pulling Back the Curtain: How Unwritten Rules Impact Sign Language Interpreters

In keeping with Deaf Cultural traditions, I’d like to start off my comments with a story. There once was a young, hearing, black gentleman named Jamal, with an outstanding work ethic, was employed as an office manager. He was well-respected by his co-workers for his skill and reliability. His supervisor prized his competence in ironing out issues from Jamal’s predecessor to deliver consistently top quality results. One day, the supervisor invited Jamal out for a round of golf. Hesitant because he didn’t know the game well, Jamal politely declined. Shortly after, the supervisor made an announcement that he had been promoted and his prior position was open. He had given Jamal encouragement to apply, and Jamal went through the interview process with ease and seeming success. But when time came to announce the winning candidate, another applicant had been chosen. Jamal was distressed and at a loss- why had this person, with only three years at the company, been chosen over him? He meticulously reviewed the interview process in an attempt to discover where he could have made a mistake, but he came up empty. Finally, he approached his supervisor to ask what had gone wrong. His supervisor asked him, “Remember when I invited you to join me for golf, and you passed? Our regular Wednesday golf games are when members of upper management assess up-and-coming employees we’re considering for management positions. If someone we invite ends up having a good rapport with everyone, we know they’re a good fit for the job.” What Jamal didn’t know was that in the corporate environment, business is regularly done in informal settings, and handshake deals are commonplace on the golf course. He had unknowingly missed a crucial opportunity for promotion.

“Good Is Not Enough”

This is an example of an unwritten rule. You’ll never see golf game attendance in any employee handbook. And yet, these unwritten rules are everywhere. If you take a look at the slide, you’ll see an image of the book “Good is Not Enough: And Other Unwritten Rules for Minority Professionals.” This book has been an inspiration to me and led to developing this presentation. This text delves into the reasons behind what many women and people of color experience in their professional lives – barriers known as glass ceilings – or the inability to achieve beyond a certain point because there is a lack of awareness of these unwritten rules: rules that inevitably govern our chances of success. Again, they don’t appear in any employee handbook; they are unspoken and inherent to those niches and circles to which they are privy.

Unwritten Rules in the Deaf and Interpreting Communities?

My question to you is: do the Deaf and interpreter communities have unwritten rules? How does that impact those communities, and the relationships within them? From my surveying and personal experiences growing up, I’ve identified eight possible unwritten rules I think apply. I’m pretty certain more than eight exist! This is just a taste of what I’ll be covering later this afternoon in my workshop.

Overgeneralized use of Misplaced Credentials

One such unwritten rule has to do with the RID certification. Have you ever noticed that most job postings for ASL instructors in institutions of higher education, etc., state “RID certified preferred” as a requirement? I’d wager it’s often overlooked. How does RID certification relate to a person’s qualifications for teaching ASL? What does attendance at an interpreter training program have to do with teaching ASL? The assumption is made that if a person possesses RID certification, they have free license to run the gamut of related fields.

Double Standard

Another unwritten rule appears in the Deaf and interpreter community as double standards regarding pre-certification work opportunities. It seems common that hearing interpreters who have graduated from a training program but have yet to become certified are presented with a wealth of opportunity to practice among mentors until gaining certification. Deaf interpreters in similar situations, on the other hand, receive the message “wait.” “Not yet.” “After you’re certified, you can work.” It seems our community is applying two different and unequal standards to these groups.

Financial Obstacles

My next unwritten rule applies to a similar disparity. In order to gain and maintain professional growth and certification standing, interpreters are called on to attend workshops, training, and other costly endeavors to continue practicing. Given the stark difference between the amount of work given/available to Deaf interpreters as compared to hearing interpreters, how can the expectation of professional development be applied uniformly to all? It is less economically feasible to complete requirements if one is a Deaf interpreter working today compared to one who is hearing.

Engaging and Networking

Deaf people, in general, face substantial challenges when it comes to networking, especially those Deaf who do not have use of speech or auditory input. Connecting to the larger society and developing ties with others is difficult due to communication barriers. Hearing individuals, including interpreters, can navigate and develop networks more seamlessly, even getting referrals and work opportunities- hosting a training for a school system, for example. Rarely do these hearing folk collaborate with Deaf individuals for counsel or advice on topics relevant to them and their community, thereby further exploiting the networking gap.

Deviation from Social Norms

This next image refers to social norms or the ways in which we behave to show concurrence and acceptance of social rules and expectations. An example: faculty at a school that has a Deaf and hard of hearing program attends an in-service training. The topic for discussion is whether or not faculty should sign while in public spaces in the school. Personally, I find that that is a topic for discussion inherently bizarre. If this were a teaching environment in Mexico, would teachers gather to debate whether it was appropriate to speak Spanish while in public places? The same norm of communication holds true for a Deaf environment. For those who would choose to challenge the need to sign in Deaf spaces, where a majority of children and adults are Deaf and sign, serious self-analysis needs to be undertaken on their part. What rights or dominance do they feel that so supersede social norms of respect and deference to a culture’s home environment?

Inequality of Resources Allocation

The inequitable allotment of resources is an issue very much present in our field. There is a dearth of resources available to Deaf interpreter’s professional development prior to certification as compared to those for hearing interpreters, especially when one considers the time and expense. Training specifically geared toward Deaf interpreters are few and far between, meaning Deaf interpreters must travel significantly more than hearing interpreters in order to have regular access to skills training.

The Role of the Enabler

I’d next like to talk about the practice of enabling. Some interpreters’ approach to Deaf people, their treatment of Deaf consumers,  leans toward a more stoic relationship rather than one of sharing information freely. If a Deaf consumer displays culturally inappropriate behavior, does the interpreter intervene or provide correction or information? Typically not. If we fail to intervene in some manner, these culturally conflicting behaviors continue, often to the detriment of the consumer. That silence, that lack of input, poses a hazard and can lead to potential conflict in those relationships.

Credentialing by Hearing Proxy

The next image speaks to the phenomena of credentialing by hearing proxy.  It is often the case that hearing interpreters are looked upon and given credence to be able to speak for the Deaf community, rather than looking to members of the community themselves. But do we condone men’s organizations to speak on women’s issues, or White organizations to speak on behalf of Black organizations? The misguided notion of proxy, when put into other cultural contexts, is self-evident.

”Controversy is only dreaded by the advocates of error.”

Benjamin Rush, the author of this quote, was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence. His quote points to the habit of justifying errors rather than correcting them. This process of justification and obfuscation in the face of clear error is problematic. Hearing interpreters, however conflict-averse, must not shrink from controversy or error. In fact, it is that hesitance to engage in potential controversy that can lead to Deaf disempowerment – a topic Trudy Suggs covered in her first StreetLeverage presentation. Disempowerment can create significant barriers to a Deaf professional’s career advancement.

“Who Moved My Cheese?”

This image you may recognize from the well-known 90s book by Spencer Johnson. The book’s message is simple: change is inevitable. With that in mind, one should always be prepared for and able to adapt to change. This applies to unwritten rules within the Deaf community (many exist!). Perhaps the biggest unkept secret, or unwritten rule, is that, in general, the Deaf community has a tenuous, and often frustrating, relationship with sign language interpreters. We are in a constant struggle to persevere despite unqualified interpreters and make sure to share our experiences with particular interpreters with our community in an attempt at minimizing any further negative impact.

It’s past time that we collectively acknowledge the lack of quality interpreting as our elephant in the room. It is the critical issue of our time. Addressing that together as Deaf community members and interpreters means we must be willing to face some hard truths. Some may not be ready or willing. How do we have the fortitude to think outside of the box, to take the interpreting field to the next level?

Despite nearly thirty years since the dawn of interpreting training programs, there continues to be a stagnation of skill and ability among graduates. Let’s take a step back and rethink how we train interpreters. Instead of having a bachelor’s degree as a requirement to sit for the certification exam, why not instead provide documentation of a strong foundation in ASL? Or perhaps the Deaf community should take more ownership of the interpreting process? That happened in the Bay Area- one particular group established an initiative during which Deaf consumers completed an evaluation form with a rating after working with an assigned interpreter. However, the practice was not well-received among the interpreters. Were they not willing to receive feedback in the interest of their own improvement? Is it a resistance to change? We just saw a presentation- and now I’m blanking on the presenter’s name- about the importance of receiving feedback well.

Closing Thoughts

In the book “Who Moved my Cheese?” the mice, Hem and Haw, were reluctant to change, while their compatriots, Sniff and Scurry, were more than amenable. The old model of interpreter training, in cheese standards, is well past the expiration date. The time has come to begin the exciting search for fresh, innovative models. Collectively, among our communities, we can discover the cheese we’re meant for. It’s uncomfortable perhaps, but necessary. In developing a process for sharing of our unwritten rules, we can create successful win-win partnerships. Those of us here at StreetLeverage – Live are aspiring to achieve that goal.  Thank you.

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