The Speed of Change: Is Sign Language Interpreting Keeping Pace?

January 24, 2017

Wayne Betts, Jr. presented The Speed of Change: Is Sign Language Interpreting Keeping Pace? at StreetLeverage – Live 2016 | Fremont. His presentation highlights the need for evolution in the field of sign language interpreting to better meet the needs of Deaf consumers.

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

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

The Speed of Change: Is Sign Language Interpreting Keeping Pace?

First, could you bring up the house lights, please? Wow! I can see all your faces! Hello, everyone. Greetings!  I’d like to take a quick demographic survey of the audience today. Go ahead and raise your hand when you fit into the category mentioned. If you’re a sign language interpreter, can you raise your hand? Almost the whole room raised their hands. Okay. Where are the interpreting students? Interpreters in training? A good number. Who is here as a visitor? A few. What about Deaf consumers? Some people are raising their hands. Do we have CDIs? I see a few. Great! Thank you! We can go ahead and dim the lights now. Thank you.

A number of topics have been discussed here this weekend – boundaries, accountability, feedback, and through it all, there is one term that stands out – Deaf consumers. That term includes me, as well. If you raised your hand for that group, we’re in this together. My status as a Deaf consumer isn’t something I chose; it was automatically granted the day I was born.

Life With Interpreters

I’ve had interpreters in my life since the day I was born. This is evident in my family’s photos. I’m from a Deaf family. Both my parents and my brother are Deaf. Even in my first family photo, complete with my dad and his ‘80s hair, mustache, and hospital scrubs, and my exhausted, but elated, mother holding me, there was a third person decked out in scrubs, photo-bombing my first picture – the interpreter. Our family’s interpreter for the birth experience was there in my very first baby photo. So, I have had interpreters in my life since birth. A few years later, it was time for me to enter elementary school. Although my parents were Deaf, they decided to place me in a mainstream program. They thought it might be a good way for me to get a strong foundation in language and learning. And I had an interpreter. When I looked at my school photos, I see interpreter after interpreter. I don’t have photos with my teachers or classmates. I don’t really remember any of them – but I do remember the interpreters. Interpreters have played an integral role in my life – they were part of the family. I viewed some as friends – they have been so intimately involved in my life.

As I got older, I witnessed a lot watching my parents struggle with interpreting services – for example during IEP meetings. I’ve seen both sides of interpreter service provision – some interpreters were excellent, and others were terrible. Through it all, my family survived. That’s my experience. We took care of our own, and so it is with the broader community. The Deaf community shares information. The community knows and shares the interpreters to avoid, those who should never be permitted to interpret. This information-sharing goes on all the time. When it comes time for a meeting or appointment, and one of “those” interpreters show up, we put on our poker faces and deal with it, while in the back of our mind, we know we are sunk. As we watch the interpreter in these situations, the resentment stirs and builds with each request for clearer communication while we try to make due. Imagine being stuck in a meeting with that interpreter, and then, when they show up again, having to deal with it again. The minute one of “those” interpreters leave, we have to explain what happened and why. That’s the kind of experience I had growing up.

The Age of Technology

When I started college, technology was transitioning. In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, technology exploded onto the scene. Back in the day, Deaf people used TTYs (teletypes) to communicate. We typed a message which printed out on a strip of paper. When I was a kid, I watched my mom type her conversations, and when she was done, I would read those strips. It took me about six months to figure out what GA and SK meant. I had no idea. I asked around until I finally found out that GA meant “go ahead” and SK meant “stop keying”. That was the technology of the time. Then captioning came along and the technology continued to boom until there was an explosion of new devices – pagers, etc. As a Deaf person, I felt like the world was opening up and becoming accessible through these amazing technological advances.

TTYs eventually gave way to video relay services (VRS). The creation of VRS meant that Deaf people could use their first language, American Sign Language (ASL). Gone were the days when we had to type or text everything in our second language. I was able to use my first language and BE myself. Amazing. Technology allowed that to happen. Incredible.

At the same time, in a parallel universe, from the day I was born, throughout my school years, my college years, and to the creation of VRS, something was off. The interpreter could be the most incredible interpreter in the world, but there is always a dissonance. Jimmy Beldon mentioned this concept in his presentation. From the moment you meet an interpreter and pass communication through them to another person, there is a sense of uneasiness in having to involve a third party at all. It’s that same feeling that Jimmy described in his presentation. This internal conflict is a common experience among my family and those in the community which is a shared burden.

Video Relay Services

Now, let’s talk about VRS. VRS is where I immersed myself in these issues. I was on the creative path as a filmmaker and artist, and then, life took a turn; I found myself working within the VRS industry. It was in the very beginning, the inception of VRS, in 2002-2003. My first job was in video production for a VRS company. In 2003, one of the big issues surrounding VRS was that people didn’t understand what VRS was. They just didn’t get it. It was brand new, and people didn’t know what to make of it. When I asked my parents about VRS and using the service, they were extremely resistant. They didn’t want people peering into their home and they didn’t want to have to dress up every time they wanted to make a phone call. They were adamantly opposed and clung to their TTY and IP Relay service.

So, my first job was to clearly define VRS using videos and graphics to describe how it all worked. To do that, I first had to understand how it worked for myself. I needed to understand it all, from the technology to the “why” – the rationale behind the design of the interface, the reason the interpreters behaved in certain ways, etc. It was then that I was transported into a completely different world. I left the existence I’d always known to enter a different space. As I asked questions in the new world, I was able to reflect on my own experiences and fill in gaps in my understanding about why interpreters did the things they do. I had a lot of lightbulbs go off during those conversations. At the same time, the technology in this new world was moving fast – evolving. The interpreters were not moving at the same pace; they remained static.

Coming Full Circle

Last year, I had a son. He’s one year old now. I’ve come full circle. I’m the parent now. I’m that dad in the picture with his hospital scrub hat taking a picture with my wife and newborn son. And, we did have an interpreter in the room. This interpreter was top-notch – amazing- and only available for one day. My wife’s hospital stay lasted a week. During that time, the baby experienced some distress. The situation was terrifying. My son was in ICU for a week. I can honestly say this was one of the worst experiences of my life, not only because of my son’s situation but because of the communication, including issues with interpreters. This happened just last year! We have all this advanced technology exploding into our lives, and still, we haven’t found a way to resolve these issues with interpreters. Don’t misunderstand my point. I’m not speaking about a single interpreter. This is systemic – it’s the whole thing. The systems we use haven’t changed since my parent’s era. The systems that are in place are archaic.

While we were at the hospital that week, I had a variety of experiences with interpreters. At one point, I was trying to explain to one of the interpreters that the baby had a fever and that I needed to get some clarification. The interpreter watched me, nodding without speaking and finally signed, “It will be fine. He’ll be fine.” I wasn’t even sure who was talking at that point – was it the doctor or the interpreter? I asked the interpreter if the doctor had said that and the interpreter indicated no and continued to sign, “He’ll be fine. It’ll be all right.” The interpreter was telling me my baby would be fine with the doctor standing right there. The interpreter was giving me the answer. I know multitudes of interpreters who are stellar, but this person? I wanted to ask them why they were there. Who are they to give me medical advice about my newborn child? How does that happen in this day and age? It is happening. Still. It just happened. It defies logic. My mind was racing with questions: Where is the accountability? Who can I go to? How do I find a contact to deal with a situation like this? In the end, I was exhausted and worried about my newborn child. I decided to say nothing and take matters into my own hands. I started writing notes and communicating through written English. That’s just one example of what I’m talking about. That’s an example from my own experiences from being immersed in the Deaf world. There are broader applications to these ideas if we look at the larger society – the Deaf experience is one microcosm that represents the whole.

In Search of a Safety Net

If we go back to the explosion of technology that has happened, we have to recognize something else that has happened. In the past, we could count on various avenues of support. Government entities, programs, and organizations provided resources and support for jobs and programs and projects. This included the work of nonprofit organizations and fundraising efforts to support programs and community needs. Those support mechanisms were game changers. They acted as champions for people’s rights. Where are those champions now? I’m not talking about Deaf rights, specifically, but more generally. Who are the agents of change in our world now? Who is out there fighting the good fight for our rights these days? Is it government or these support organizations? No.

Did anyone watch Tim Cook battle the FBI to protect Apple products and users’ privacy? His argument against allowing the FBI access to iPhones was that our phones are an extension of our lives. All of our personal information has been gathered and downloaded onto a smartphone. To allow the government access to that information – to our lives- represents a violation equivalent to accessing our minds. Plugging into someone’s phone is like plugging into their brain. Cook was adamant that this kind of surveillance cannot be allowed. Our phones are reflections of us. Now, this is Apple. A private sector, for-profit corporation which is in business to earn money. And they are standing up to say no to injustice. The world has taken notice. Conversations are starting to happen. People are trying to discern meaning from this action. Google has fought mightily for net neutrality to maintain equal access for all users without interference. This is Google, fighting for the democratization of information-sharing. Tesla has proposed designs for an electric train to combat fossil fuel use and emissions. I could cite example after example. This is the new world. This is evolution. With Facebook and Twitter, we all start to bear responsibility for our communities, and the Earth. These days, if a company has money and resources, they are accountable, too.

A Brave New World?

There’s one more critical piece to discuss. You’ve seen presenters talk about it here this weekend. We need to create safe spaces where we can come together to process. You may be wondering what we need in order to process some of these issues. First, we need a diverse group of people to come together, each with their own experiences. We need to have goals and conversations about how we can work together to achieve them. Once a consensus is reached, we need entities willing to stand up for what is right. That’s what is happening in today’s world.

So now, we bring it back here, to me, as a Deaf person. I can say, without making judgments, change is happening. If we look at our history, the hub of the Deaf community was the Deaf school. It was the centerpiece for everything in the Deaf community. Organizations like Jr. NAD and NAD had strong roles in the schools. If something happened, the community looked to NAD, to Gallaudet, to the Deaf schools for guidance. I don’t believe that is the case in today’s world. That’s just not the way anymore. More and more, we look around, and in the absence of guidance, we start to push accountability onto others. NAD should do it. Gallaudet should do it. We cast accountability away with “shoulds.” But the world has changed. The old ways worked in the old days, but they don’t work anymore. The longer it takes for us to realize it, the further behind we get. We have more private businesses who have money in positions where they can make a difference now. Think about it.

Be the Change

As an interpreter, there are a plethora of agencies and businesses, VRS providers, and multitudes of other options. As an independent contractor, I would consider myself a business, as well. Each one of you is in a position to make a difference. Every one of you. You don’t need to wait for communication or permission. What are you waiting for? You have the people; you have the connections, you are in a position to provide services. As a paid interpreter, you have expectations you have to meet. We are all in a position to create change. Right here, right now. It’s working in that “other” world.

I am one of the founders of Convo. You may not agree, but I believe VRS has been a bit of a blessing. It has been a blessing because VRS requires interpreters to congregate under one roof, and this coming together isn’t about competition. In general, there is a desire to raise standards to better meet the needs of consumers. The reality is that, as Deaf consumers using VRS, we never know what we are going to get when we place a call. FCC rules do not permit consumers to pick their interpreter or request preferred interpreters. With that in mind, our focus has been to standardize quality overall for VRS consumers. The only way to do that is to come together. Convo is one of those safe spaces I mentioned. Our Deaf owners, Deaf designers, and engineers can come together with our interpreters, codas, and non-codas. The whole range of experience and perspective are included for one singular purpose.

Convo: A Case In Point

After about four years at Convo, and after we had accomplished our primary goals, we needed to explore Convo’s identity. What did we have to offer the world? We put together a retreat that included our interpreters and Deaf staff from a variety of departments, and we all came together. It was much like StreetLeverage – all ASL, all the time. There was no need to establish “language rules” – it was just common sense that the group would communicate in ASL. The communication was great – fluid, easy. Then, one of the first topics came to the fore.

The first issue was one I brought forward, one that had bothered me since VRS started. I dislike the way VRS is “announced.” Why do we do that? I place a call, and the minute the interpreter answers, they turn away from the camera, disengaging from the screen to talk to the person I’m calling. It usually goes something like this. The interpreter says, “I have a Deaf caller here on a video screen. I can see them and will interpret what they are signing. You can speak directly to him.”  What is that? Meanwhile, I’m sitting there, cooling my heels, waiting to make my call. When the interpreter is finally done with their spiel, the hearing person usually responds with something like, “So…you’re talking to him? Is he with you? Tell him…” which leads to the interpreter explaining that the caller should address me directly. The interpreter may say, “as if I’m not here” or some variation. Now, wait a minute. The interpreter has already blown up the conversation by first stating, “I’m here,” and now they are saying, “Pay no attention to me. Pretend I’m not here.” Which is it?

So, there we were at this retreat. For me, I was still carrying that old model from my family – say nothing, grin and bear it, and discuss amongst yourselves later. At the retreat, at that moment, I was there and the interpreters were present. We were all using a shared language with direct communication. It felt like a safe space for me, and the interpreters, as well. I explained my experience and got affirmation from the other Deaf participants. We asked the question, “How can we change this?” The interpreters were in agreement about wanting to eliminate the announcement of VRS calls, but in their opinion, hearing people were not ready – yet. They believed the time was drawing near, but we weren’t there yet. They alluded to the continuing struggle many hearing people have receiving VRS calls. The interpreters talked about phone culture and the speed of turn-taking. If one side falters or breaks rhythm, it creates confusion and leads to hang ups. That is information about their world, and while the Deaf staff championed our ability to just place our phone calls, the interpreters reminded us how often hearing people simply hang up when misunderstandings occur. This was a big epiphany for me and gave me pause. How can we get the call back into the hands of the Deaf consumer? How do we give them ownership of their phone conversation? How would that work?

Creating the Illusion

Have you ever been to a magic show? People usually enjoy watching a magician at work. They always perform such amazing tricks, like having a helicopter on a giant stage and making it disappear by dropping a curtain over it, saying a few words, and viola! The helicopter is gone. The audiences are amazed and confused as they wonder how the magician could do such a thing. The secret is the behind-the-scenes magic with smoke and mirrors and wires helping to create the illusion. Even when you know it’s all an illusion; it’s still worth the price of admission.

That principle applies to our VRS situation. In that safe space, we all came together and realized the trick was a slight of hand, an illusion to shift perception. That shift makes the illusion feel real. And it worked. At Convo, we changed the way we “announce” VRS calls. When our interpreters open the call with the hearing party, they simply say, “Hello. I am speaking through a sign language interpreter.”

Hello. I am speaking through a sign language interpreter.

While they say it, they are indicating the video caller with an honorific, open hand. The call may proceed from there, or if the hearing caller is confused, they may say, “So, you are speaking through a sign language interpreter? How does that work?” Immediately, I am empowered. I have the opportunity to explain how VRS works. Some hearing people breeze on into the conversation. But either way, they are addressing ME. The interpreter is no longer front and center in the conversation. They are relieved of the responsibility of explaining and are left to focus on the task of interpreting. Much of the awkward call management that happens can be eliminated with this simple phrasing.

In that meeting – remember, we established a safe space – the interpreters expressed concern. Were they “lying” or being deceptive? With the Deaf staff members present, we were able to come to an agreement that this method works and that we did not see it as deceptive. With that endorsement, the interpreters were willing to move forward and give it a try, so we decided to try it. We’ve been opening calls that way for almost three years now. Maybe you didn’t realize? You can probably catch it on the interpreters’ lips when you have them onscreen. “I am speaking through a sign language interpreter.” Boom. The focus shifts to the Deaf caller. Done. It’s your call. You own it.

Creating Change In Sign Language Interpreting

So, my point today is about creating spaces for progress. This weekend, we’ve discussed boundaries. As companies, agencies, interpreters, independent contractors – we have spaces where we gather to process. Now, we need to examine this process. The discussions are critical, yes, but the next steps are to take the information to discover and identify solutions.

Remember earlier when I asked for the interpreters, Deaf consumers, and others to identify themselves? How many owners and business people are here? We are here, together, in this room. My workshop this afternoon will focus on real world applications for these thoughts. I’m going to plant some seeds, and you are going to talk about the smoke and mirrors needed to accomplish your goals. We’re going to make the helicopter disappear. The how doesn’t matter if it works and we all walk away feeling we have accomplished our goal. Find out more in my workshop later today.

Thank you.

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