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Crossing Borders: Sign Language Interpreter Identity at Home & Abroad

Crossing Borders: Sign Language Interpreter Identity at Home & Abroad

International participation by sign language interpreters presents a valuable opportunity for self-reflection and identity exploration which enhances work and relationships at home and abroad.

 

When I was talking about getting ready to go to two international conferences this past summer, I heard several different reactions from my colleagues- everything from affirmation to indifference to slight surprise. As I thought about these reactions, several questions came to mind:

  • What motivates sign language interpreters to engage in our profession on an international level?
  • Why do we choose to expend or conserve our resources to do so?
  • What benefit can sign language interpreters gain from thinking outside their own borders to see how we fit into the larger world of interpreting?

While some may question the relevance of connecting to the larger interpreting community, I believe that participation in the world arena informs and runs parallel to our daily work. Interpreters are afforded new levels of insight if we show up with awareness, investment and humility.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Renewal of Self-Awareness

One of my favorite aspects of travel is the opportunity and challenge to examine my reflexive thoughts and behaviors when encountering something novel. These manifestations revolve around identity. How we enact our identities shapes the perceptions of those around us and reinforces our affiliation and membership in certain categories, and they are mutable: I’m used to having certain aspects of my identity felt or perceived as primary, such as female or White, but it wasn’t until moving to another region of the United States that my home region became primary more often, and it wasn’t until I traveled internationally that my national identity took center stage in both inner and outer perception.

When we’re in places where we feel like the majority in some aspect, those identities can temporarily take a back seat from having to enact and defend, especially when those traits have power in the larger society. When identities that are yet unexamined suddenly surface as primary, the result can be destabilizing. We must find a way to understand and integrate what it means to be this new identity in relation to those who share it and those who may not. Dissecting what it is to be American, for example, requires the same kind of work as understanding what it means to hold any kind of identity with power. And like any kind of unconscious power, there is the potential for harm.

Power, whether we are cognizant of it or not, can give a sense of legitimacy on a personal and systemic level. The cycle to perpetuate some power hierarchies is firmly in place: wealth and resources are more concentrated within certain nations and racial groups, and infrastructure supporting Deaf community values and interests (for example, official recognition of a signed language, ADA legislation mandating reasonable accommodation) gives a leg up to some groups while others face more barriers without these as a foundation. These factors all can favor a group to have a strong presence in research and activism. Individuals and groups with this power become leaders internationally, and gain more decision making power and legitimacy as a result.

Information sharing in this context is most powerful when done in collaboration and with an eye toward impact and application. Some of the most meaningful sessions I attended at the last World Federation of the Deaf Congress involved partnerships between a researcher and a local community to address salient issues like language endangerment. To consider research on all levels as a form of service learning requires us to go beyond tokenism and elevate communities of interest as full partners in the trajectory of the research process.

Investment, Presence and Impact

When we are self-aware, we can better see those around us and the overarching structure and systems at work. I’m brought back to discussions and decisions within RID to add the Deaf Advisory Council and the position of Deaf Member at Large, as well as the aftermath of the failed vote to create an Interpreter with Deaf Parents position in the organizational structure. We must continually call into question who occupies the seats of power, who historically has been included, and what stakeholders are missing or silent. (2014 RID Demographics listed under “Membership Services.”) Once we have done that work, we must ask ourselves why, what the impact is, and if that impact aligns with where we want to go.

Organizational decisions can’t be made wisely until we know who we are and why we act in the ways we do. It takes emotional and intellectual buy-in. In the hundreds of decisions we make every day in our work, we have to take a pause for a power, privilege and identity check-in. If we came to a signing community later on in life, we need to look at our language skills and cultural internalizations and seriously examine how and if we fit into the Deaf and ASL-using community paradigm. As David Coyne wrote in his article “Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters,” “When interpreters lack personal understanding—experience with and knowledge of Deaf culture—they tend to perpetuate, normalize, and widen the divide between hearing and Deaf communities.” Our global community is subject to similar pitfalls.

When considering the intersectionality of identity combined with privilege, personal understanding is crucial on an international level to ensure that divisions of all kinds are not tacitly or unknowingly sustained. The language we choose to use daily is an enactment of identity, and as a sign language interpreter’s language shifts, identity does too (Hunt, in press). Using languages of power internationally like English and ASL is an act of inherent privilege. Although International Sign is widely used, and IS interpreters are prevalent at international conferences, research suggests it is not accessible to all participants (Whynot, 2014). There is no easy or economical solution to bridging language gaps and making costly and/or time intensive events accessible for all stakeholders, yet it remains a priority and challenge. I’ve seen thoughtful leadership and action at many levels, and I’ve also witnessed divisive behavior based on assumptions. As always, there is more work to be done by all of us.

Show Up – The Right Way

It can be easy to congregate with others who share our identities, language preferences, backgrounds, etc., especially when traveling. We may rarely have to confront negative stereotypes or question our way of being in homogenous groups. Alex Jackson-Nelson, in his article “Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing and Analyzing our Power and Privilege,” suggests that dismantling systems of power depends on making connections to those historically marginalized in order to harness our collective passion for the field while at the same time fighting the status quo systems of oppression. When norms established by a majority permeate the entire group, barriers arise- not only for access, but also to leveraging the kind of open, collective thought and action that embodies the spirit of coming together.

In his essay “I am where I think: Globalization, epistemic disobedience and the de-colonial option,” author Walter Mignolo (in press) discusses the need to think decolonially in politics, where minority identity traditionally has been constructed by imperial, racial and patriarchal systems. He quotes the intellectual and activist Fausto Reinaga, who said in the 1960s “I am not Indian, dammit, I’m Aymara. But you made me Indian and as Indian I will fight for liberation.” As a community of diverse identities, how do we work as allies to recognize, decry and dismantle the chokehold of systemic oppression?

Final Thoughts

Whether or not we participate in the international interpreting sphere, the process is akin to the effort we make to understand the privileges and impact we have in our daily work at home. How do we, literally and figuratively, show up?  At interpreter and signed language-themed conferences, nationally and around the world, we must be aware of who we are as interpreters and how our choices shape our environment. Debra Russell in her StreetLeverage – Live 2013 talk posited that before changing the world, our organizations and our field, we must turn inward. Becoming a more introspective sign language interpreter at home will make one a wiser interpreter abroad and a better agent of social change.

Questions for Consideration:

  1. How has your awareness of your identities changed over time? Why, and in what context?
  2. Where in our field do you see missing or silent stakeholders? What can be done to create an environment where all can feel represented?
  3. Think back to a recent conflict you experienced in interpreting. Where could identity enactment have impacted the situation?

Related Posts:

Identity Presentation: How Sign Language Interpreters Do it With Integrity by Robert Lee

International Collaboration: Should Sign Language Interpreters Do More? by Debra Russell

StreetLeverage’s 2015 WASLI Coverage

References:

Coyne, D. (2014, May 20). Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters? Retrieved December 1, 2015, from http://www.streetleverage.com/2014/05/social-justice-an-obligation-for-sign-language-interpreters/

Hunt, D. (2015). “The work is you”: Professional identity development of second-language learner American Sign Language-English interpreters. (Doctoral dissertation, Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.)

Jackson Nelson, A. (2012, August 1). Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/08/sign-language-interpreters-recognizing-analyzing-our-power-privilege/

Mignolo, W. (in press). I am where I think: Globalization, epistemic disobedience and the de-colonial option. Duke University Press.

Russell, D. (2013, July 16). Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover an Enduring Legacy. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from http://www.streetleverage.com/2013/07/debra-russell-sign-language-interpreters-discover-recover-an-enduring-legacy/

Whynot, L. A. (2014). Assessing comprehension of international sign lectures: Linguistic and sociolinguistic factors.  (Doctoral dissertation, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia).

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Mea Culpa: We Failed RID & Sign Language Interpreters with Deaf Parents

Sign Language Interpreter Lamenting the Failure to Pass IDP Seat

How do sign language interpreters show our values in our RID vote? Adam Bartley comments on the question of creating an Interpreter with Deaf Parents Member-at-Large position on the RID board, and the implications of a disengaged membership in determining the course of our profession.

Part of my motivation in writing this article now is that I so poorly dropped the ball when the time came to vote on establishing a position on the RID Board of Directors that dedicated a seat to an Interpreter with Deaf Parents (IDP), the IDP MAL (Member-at-Large) position. I could cite my business at work, or the back pain and subsequent surgery as excuses, but the truth is I could have made time somewhere in there to attend to my business and vote! I failed to exercise my democratic power when the time came, and I failed in what I consider to be one of my personal and professional duties. I believed in the need for an ‘IDP seat’ already, having thought about the issues and arguments carefully, but by the time I got to putting my coins on the table, the hand was already dealt and done with.

I know there will be another opportunity for our community to debate and vote again on this issue, so I am ante’ing up now for the next hand and putting my arguments here in the public sphere to contribute to our next shot at getting this right.

The Who

Before going further, I want to state that I address this letter from the perspective of a Hearing interpreter (I.e. not a Child of Deaf Adults, CODA), to all of my fellow Hearing interpreters. I welcome all members of our community, Deaf, CODA, and Hearing interpreters, Deaf and CODA consumers of sign language interpreting services, and anyone else to read and respond to this writing.  However, I feel it important to state that I am directing this to my fellow Hearing interpreters.

Any Position Will Do

In the interest of keeping my long-windedness at bay, let me begin by starting off with the seemingly strong and seemingly logical argument against having a dedicated IDP-MAL position on the RID Board of DirectorsA CODA can always run for a position on the Board anyway! When I first saw this statement in discussions, it made sense and I had to ‘chew the cud’ as we say in the South, to figure out what bothered me about it. So chew I did and here is what I came up with. It is an absolutely true statement, but it is not an argument at all. It argues neither for a position nor against it.

So I chewed a little more, and I presumed that what was intended to be argued is that a need for the seat has not been shown. Having wrapped my slow but hopefully able wits around this nugget, I started to construct what arguments I could bring to bear to clearly establish that need and why it is important to the future of our field.

Running for Office

The first step in establishing a need for the position requires that we look at the assumptions underlying the “IDP’s can already run for office” argument. The fact that a thing can happen, does not mean a thing will happen.  Sheer numbers can greatly reduce the likelihood that a given thing will happen in fact. The United States of America could have a dozen Hmong Representatives in Congress, but the probability of that given the current populations and geographic positioning of Hmong people in the United States, is extremely low. Given the changing demographics of our field, IDP’s are a shrinking minority within our ranks. The proliferation of Interpreter Training Programs and ASL as foreign language offerings in High Schools and Colleges has brought an influx of Hearing interpreters in greater numbers than ever before. Alex Jackson Nelson’s article, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege, offers some great insight on the need for practitioners to be aware of their privilege. In my mind, one demonstration that the need exists is because the math is against the continuous occupation of non-dedicated seats on the Board by Interpreters with Deaf Parents.

Affinity is Not Membership

As Hearing interpreters, we will never be members of the Deaf Community in the same way as a Deaf person is, or in the still different way that a CODA is. I say this without prejudice, or any sense of rejection by the community. We exist within the scope of the larger Deaf Community and are accepted into the fold to varying degrees throughout our lives, but we do not share the same experiences. It is vital that we address and accept that as the simple truth that it is. Laurie Nash offers excellent perspective on the value IDP’s bring to the profession in her interview with Brandon Arthur about the retraction of the referendum that would have established a designated position on the RID Board for IDP.

In other writings in other venues, I have spoken about my own background as child of a white mother and Mexican father. I have written about my experiences in the foster care system with a wonderful set of foster parents that were Black in the early 1970’s when such things just weren’t done.  I have also written about the amazing couple (he, Lebanese, she Cherokee/Choctaw) that turned my life around, and about the many ways that the Deaf community has been in my life since I was a child.

In those writings, just as here, it was all to make the point that affinity does not create membership.

Given my experiences, I have unique insights to many communities, but I cannot have full insight into any of them.  I was ‘interpreting’ for fellow children in the system at 12 years old, so I can relate to some experiences that an IDP has, but there are infinitely more that I can never understand or give voice to. If you want insight into the CODA experience, read Amy Williamson’s article, The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession. Affinity does not create membership, and if ever the Board does not have an Interpreter with Deaf Parents seated at the table, that voice will be absent.

IDP’s Are Consumers

IDP’s are not merely our colleagues, against whom we sometimes compare ourselves, or whom we envision en masse as the fulfillment of some stereo-typical image of ‘the CODA interpreter’.

IDP’s are also the consumers of our services!

I cannot stress this enough. IDP’s are the children whose IEP we are interpreting for directly or for their Deaf Parents. IDP’s are the performers in the school play or the Broadway production their loved ones are attending. IDP’s are the scientists and educators that we are working with in many educational settings. CODA children are sometimes directly using interpreters in critical care situations where Hearing Interpreters and Deaf Interpreters are working as a team to provide access just as they would with a young Deaf child. IDP’s are the presenters and performers that we are working with. IDP’s are our consumers.  Few among our numbers would suggest that RID does not need to have a dedicated seat for a Deaf Member at Large on the Board, because we rightly see the need to have consumer/practitioner perspectives guiding our work and our future. Our field is also fortunate to have another community of consumer/practitioners in our IDP colleagues, and we should ensure that their unique perspectives are always part of our governing body.

The Gist

In short we failed to recognize and embed the value IDP’s bring to the governing table of our profession. The demographics of our field create a greater likelihood that Hearing Interpreters will always be present but IDP participation on the Board will be absent or intermittent at best; that no matter the level of affinity a Hearing interpreter may have, we can never bring the full experience of a Deaf person or a CODA to bear in shaping the future of the sign language interpreting field; and that as we recognize the necessity of having practitioners of all types on our Board, we must similarly recognize the imperative to ensure that IDP’s are also at the table.

Please join me in preparing for the next time we have a chance to ensure that our organization always has a team at the helm who can provide valuable insight on the work we do and the perspective of the people we endeavor to serve.

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Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege

While most sign language interpreters come from non-Deaf families, one can develop an intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression by interacting with the Deaf community, recognizing the unique life experiences of Coda interpreters and working to dismantle systems of oppression.

Are sign language interpreters intrinsically connected to the fight for humanity, as suggested by Brandon Arthur in his post, The Goo Inside a Sign Language Interpreter? What is our role working within a marginalized and oppressed community? What is our connection to solidarity? Do we have a broader sense of responsibility to the community that gives us the opportunity and privilege to access and learn language and then to make a living using it?

These are important questions for new and experienced sign language interpreters to consider.

(Note: In this article, the term Codas refers to Children of Deaf Adults who are native American Sign Language users who share language and culture with the Deaf community and their Deaf parents/guardians.)

Codas: Distinct Experiences

Dennis Cokely points to the importance of Codas in establishing Sign Language interpreting as a profession in his article, Vanquished Native Voices-A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?. He describes the importance of Codas not only in the development of our profession, but he identifies the importance of their historical knowledge and distinct lived experience with communication oppression. Many Codas have experienced unique and complex roles, having hearing privilege in a Deaf family, straddling two cultures, and dutifully providing communication access without pay. Perhaps a deeper understanding of privilege contributes to their intrinsic connection to the fight for humanity and communication access.

In my observation, many Codas possess an unequivocal understanding of privilege and power that is not easily recognized by non-Coda interpreters (including myself.) This leaves “the vast majority of us” (Cokely, 2012, para. 4) working to recognize and comprehend the impact of language oppression and the inherent privilege of non-Deaf people.

Institutional Construct: Dehumanization

Let’s consider the institutional construct and social belief system, referred to as the “slant” in Brandon Arthur’s article, Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head? He references thefreedictionary.com’s definition of slant as, “To present so as to conform to a particular bias or appeal to a certain audience” (2012, para. 1).  He emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and warns that the slant can lead to “impaired self-awareness” (para. 5) not only in our professional narrative when analyzing our production of an interpretation but in other arenas as well.

The slant is a systematic lens formed by our upbringing, culture, social status, etc. It embodies our particular biases related to deafness, race, class, education level, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etcetera that creates “Othering” as described by social theorist Michel Foucault in the study of social science. “Other” is defined by Wikipedia.org as, “The processes by which societies and groups exclude “Others” whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society” (2012, para. 2). Distinguishing the “Other” allows us to establish roles for ourselves, which serves as an important function in society. However, it also “involves the demonization and dehumanization of groups” (“Other,” 2012, para. 2), specifically those unlike our own.

“For the vast majority of us [non-Codas], our initial societally reinforced perceptions of Deaf people are that they are ‘disabled’ and are therefore inferior to those of us who can hear” (Cokely, 2012, para. 4). This institutionalized slant impacts our work and our worldview, and for non-Codas, distinguishes Deaf people as “Other.”

Systematic Marginalization: “Other”

Many Codas are familiar with the impact of being seen as “Other” and are intimately connected to the systematic marginalization and oppression of the Deaf community. Codas are often simultaneously utilizing their hearing status and privilege to provide communication access battling language oppression at young ages. Their intimate understanding of privilege and power, and the realization of their social status from birth, may be the intrinsic connection to marginalization and oppression that some non-Codas are missing. Their unique lived experience of witnessing communication oppression and the impacts of systematic and social dehumanization is a part of the historical knowledge they possess and are able to share with non-Coda interpreters. Perhaps this is what motivated the fight for humanity, inspiring Codas to establish the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) in the 1960’s (Cokely, 2012).

Perception: Managing the Slant

My response to Brandon’s question, “Suggestions on how to keep the slant in check?” (2012, para. 18) is to begin by analyzing our own privilege as interpreters. Whether we are White, non-Deaf, able-bodied, straight, employed, male, educated, cisgender, or a combination of these and other identities it can be challenging to recognize our own privilege. Without having experienced the impact of being perceived as “Other” it is hard to intimately connect with the realities faced by those experiencing systematic marginalization and oppression on a daily basis.

Personal Experience: Building Solidarity

My intimate connection to the Deaf community stems from my personal experience of oppression and marginalization, as a Transgender person. I have a visceral reaction to discrimination and injustice because I live within a historical context of inequality and have been personally impacted by marginalization and oppression. As a non-Deaf person, I have never walked into a room in the United States and been denied communication access. I am not personally impacted by daily language oppression. I have been fired from a job and not hired for others because of my gender identity. I have been intimately, professionally, and socially impacted by systematic oppression because of the perceived “condition” or “mental health diagnosis” that has been applied to my identity. I use my life experiences and understanding of how it feels to be seen as “Other” to intimately relate to the discrimination and oppression that Deaf people experience daily. I use my power and privilege, as a White, non-Deaf, educated, economically stable, able-bodied, non-immigrant, English speaking person to interrupt oppression, to build solidarity with other marginalized communities, and to fight for equality.

RID statistics illustrate that 8,414 of the 9,604 members, or 87%, of interpreters reporting to RID identified as Euro-American/White (The RID, 2011). With only 13% of RID members identifying as people of color, how do White interpreters, who do not experience life as “Other,” whether able-bodied, economically stable, well educated, gender normative or a combination of these, intimately connect to systematic marginalization and oppression that the Deaf community experiences?

 Connections: Dismantling Systems

One approach is to spend time in the Deaf community. Cokely believes that “to be effective and successful as an interpreter one must absolutely have deep and sustained connections to the Deaf Community” (Cokely, 2012, para. 7). If we cannot intimately connect to the experience of “Others,” how will we intrinsically relate to the importance of the fight for humanity and the necessity of fighting language oppression and the impacts of systematic and social dehumanization? How will we recognize and analyze our own power and privilege, avoiding micro-aggressions against the very community we are passionate to work with? (F. Fleischer, keynote address, June 13, 2012). How do we stand in solidarity, harnessing the passion we have for our interpreting work, to build on our dedication to the Deaf community while contributing to communication access and striving to dismantle systems of oppression?

Experiences: Recognizing and Acknowledging Privilege

One can study the impact and effect of marginalization, oppression and inequality. From my experience, the impact of studying something is drastically different than personally experiencing it, or watching your friends and/or loved ones experience it daily. My privilege and the systematic lens in which it was formed limit my ability to see oppression and marginalization around me. As a White person, I don’t see the clerk not following me when I go to the grocery store in an all-White neighborhood. Therefore, it is challenging to recognize my White privilege. I don’t realize my privilege to stroll around the store uninterrupted until my African American friend joins me. It’s then that I see the clerk following him. I stare in disbelief…“How could this be happening? I love this store,” I tell him. He shrugs and says, “It happens all the time.”

Without experiences like this it is challenging for me to recognize and acknowledge my White privilege. Without personal experiences and conversations, about the impact with my Deaf friends and colleagues, it is challenging to recognize my hearing privilege. As a non-Deaf person it is easy for me to ‘do my day’ forgetting to recognize and appreciate my privileges, to acknowledge them, to analyze the power they bring with no effort but simply because of the systematic and social hierarchy that distinguishes some as “Other.”

Solidarity: Connecting with the Deaf Community

I believe the shared history that many Codas possess comes from a place of solidarity with the Deaf community. Their familiarity with the impact of being seen as “Other” intimately connects them to the impacts of systematic marginalization and oppression. Interpreters have the ability to gain intimate connections to marginalization and oppression through analyzing, understanding and acknowledging our own privilege. We can gain access to the importance of creating a profession that values and prioritizes the recruitment and advancement of marginalized communities in the interpreting field: people of color, the economically disadvantaged, Deaf people, the under educated, persons with disabilities, those who are gender-nonconforming, etc.

Diversity: Enhanced Competence

Increasing access to the interpreting profession and promoting diversity will enhance culturally competent interpreting services for Deaf and non-Deaf consumers. Through conversation and experience with “Others,” we raise our self-awareness and intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression. Using our privilege and power we can dismantle systematic discrimination faced by so many, creating change in solidarity with a community that has given us so much linguistic and financial opportunity.

 

Special Thanks

I would like to thank Tamar Jackson Nelson for her work to edit this post.

Tamar Jackson-NelsonTamar is a student in Gallaudet University’s Ph.D. in Interpretation program (pedagogy/research) as well as an adjunct professor for the Department of Interpretation. Tamar enjoys and values presenting and writing about interpreting to promote growth, development, and respect of the interpreting profession. Tamar has worked as a certified community interpreter, mentor, ER on-call manager & interpreter, VRI & VRS interpreter. She enjoys time with her family, state fairs and sunshine.