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Allies: Sign Language Interpreters and a Bigger Picture View

Are sign language interpreters unconsciously holding back Deaf professionals’ careers? In her article, Holly Thomas-Mowery emphasizes the need to recognize context-driven interpretation and flexible service models to reach true partnership.

We know Deaf people who have advanced to mid-level ranges in their respective careers, who are more than competent at what they do and could easily be leaders in their realms of expertise. I wonder what trajectory any one of their lives would have taken if systemic biases weren’t around practically every corner on their paths to where they are today. And we all know Deaf people who have reached for the stars and made it.

Obstacles and barriers occur for all minorities in a variety of contexts. Oppression – which includes the gamut of “isms,” and in this case audism – is rampant. In an unjust world, the addition of an aware and keyed-in sign language interpreter doesn’t make everything magically better. Just consider: any one Deaf person may have grown up with a family who didn’t believe their child to be fully capable, in an education system that treated the child as a special-education spectator—but not a fully-competent participant, and with medical professionals who saw “deafness” as something to be rectified or at least mitigated. Interpreters may be present throughout a Deaf person’s life, and are often the only person in the conversation with a (hopefully, potentially) informed view of Deaf culture and hearing culture and a lens for recognizing audism.

A keen awareness of our vantage point and a thoughtful approach to our work leads a good interpreter into becoming a great one. Discussed here will be two thoughts: both what a freelance interpreter might do as an ally supporting a Deaf employee’s journey, and if “good-enough” accommodations (an occasional freelance interpreter brought onto an employee’s work site) are indeed good enough to support a Deaf professional’s path to greatness.

Working as an Ally

Informed sign language interpreters take a deeper and wider look at what they do and what the end goal is – not only the aim of a specific interpreting assignment, but how the outcome of the current assignment potentially impacts the overarching direction of a person’s life (e.g., health, career, pursuit of happiness, quality of life). An ally interpreter’s work isn’t to stack the cards in favor of the Deaf person; rather, it is an attempt at being purposely transparent about the larger systems at play, and empowers the Deaf person to choose her next move. I appreciate Aaron Brace’s article, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter, specifically how it highlights that while not malicious, sign language interpreters can unwittingly cause a Deaf person to miss an opportunity to reach a higher rung due to the interpreter’s own blinders.

One of the most influential speakers I’ve seen on this topic is Dr. Flavia Fleischer, Associate Professor and Chair of Deaf Studies at California State University Northridge. She graciously allowed me to interview her for this article and include her thoughts. “Because our society is not designed to include Deaf people,” Fleischer states, “we have to jump over more hurdles than your average American to simply get equitable access and opportunities.”

At the 2012 RID Region V Conference keynote address in Honolulu, Dr. Fleischer outlined seven forms of “capital,” as researched by Tara J. Yosso in her white paper “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth.” While Dr. Fleischer expanded on each of these forms of capital as being directly applicable to the Deaf community, I’m particularly interested in the concepts of social capital and aspirational capital.

Fleischer posits,

“Often Deaf children are not explicitly taught to believe the sky is the limit, nor do the adults around them believe this to be the truth. The well-meaning adults around them, including interpreters, unconsciously allow barriers to remain that lead the child to grow into adulthood believing his aspirations are just that – aspirational, but not achievable. And while a Deaf person may be perfectly capable of achieving success in whatever ways make sense to him, navigating social and physical spaces (that are designed for and by people who hear) to attain that success can be maddening if not exhausting.”

An Example

Let’s consider an example from the corporate world.

A Deaf engineer is scheduled to propose his design at this week’s team meeting. Unbeknownst to him, the other members of the team have informally vetted their proposed designs in hallways and on the golf course for the previous two or three weeks, and a design has been unofficially selected. The Deaf engineer is unaware of this social norm. He later learns the team had no intention of listening to and choosing his proposal. Not only does the Deaf engineer not capture this opportunity for a promotion – he now looks the fool for being unaware of business politics and “wasting their time.”

This is quite the conundrum for sign language interpreters – trying to keep our eyes and ears open for all potential references to hallway politics so that in those brief moments, the Deaf employee can be in-the-know just a little more. Let’s also suppose the sign language  interpreter(s) in the above situation notice small grunts or deep breaths coming from hearing peers as the Deaf engineer presents his design, which can be interpreted as impatience and “eye-rolling.” When an interpreter is hyper-focused on content, these noises and shifts might be left by the wayside, further disenfranchising the Deaf engineer as “not getting it” or not “fitting in” to the corporate culture. People who don’t fit corporate culture are rarely promoted to senior-level positions.

Often the sign language interpreter in the room is the only person who has a strong level of understanding of both of the major cultures in the room (e.g., American hearing culture and American Deaf culture). What about interpreting for an African-American Deaf gay female in a corporate environment? The contexts and subtexts of oppression often go unnoticed by unassuming interpreters who show up at 9:00am and start interpreting the meeting content. In comparison, consider an aware sign language interpreter going to a particular site several times and gaining access to more context and interrelational layers.

Something previously heard but discarded from the interpretation as inconsequential may now seem to have bearing. An interpreter ally builds an atmosphere of trust by sharing information with the Deaf employee even at a later date, and perhaps apologizing if this omitted information has had an adverse impact on the Deaf person’s life or career. Of course, this information would not be withheld maliciously; rather, sign language interpreters are inundated with bits and pieces of conversations. In Jules Dickinson’s doctoral thesis on designated interpreters, Dickinson discusses the complexity of an interpreter’s task when “discerning what to include and what to omit, given that what might be pointless discussions or gossip to the SLI [sign language interpreter] could be essential information for the deaf employee.”

In-House/Designated Interpreter

Might sign language interpreters potentially be a detriment to the Deaf employee?

Should an employer rightfully get to say “we provide accommodations” to the Deaf employee because they bring in an interpreter for one two-hour meeting twice a month? And yet the Deaf employee is passed over for promotions and projects time and again. Ubiquitous pieces of information surround a Deaf employee, much of which is not the type of information sent in an email or communicated in some other formal way. How much access does she have to it? And if the once-a-week interpreter sees his role as content-driven, as opposed to relationship or context-driven, the Deaf professional is left even further behind the pack.

Deaf professionals working with designated interpreters have much greater access to idioms, jargon, and ongoing office banter. The ability of the Deaf professional to wield these opportunities equal to her peers has a direct impact on her aspirational capital. A designated interpreter model isn’t the only answer – there is much to be said for a Deaf employee’s frequent access to a tight pool of 2-3 interpreters who pass-down workplace norms, conversation threads, jargon, and specific phrasing so all of the interpreters are always ready. This offers the Deaf employee that consistent face – so she “sounds” the same day in and day out, regardless which interpreter is there.

It could be said that some of the geographical regions of greatest success for Deaf professionals are in the greater DC region, Rochester, NY, and in parts of California. Perhaps the fact that many of these Deaf professionals have designated interpreters or at least much more daily communication access to their workplace and coworkers, speaks in part to their upward mobility and success.

What’s the Answer?

A one-size-fits-all approach certainly isn’t going to work as the variables are abundant and include geography, population centers, pervasive audism, and insufficient resources. While interpreters must be diligent, this conversation also needs to be encouraged in and among the Deaf Community, interpreting agencies, employers, and others.

As Dr. Fleischer stated in Honolulu, “The fate of the Deaf and Interpreting communities are intertwined.” Since this is the case, let’s work together to investigate these dynamics more closely, and hold ourselves to a benchmark of something well above “good-enough.”

 

References

Dickinson, Jules C. “Interpreting in a community of practice: a sociolinguistic study of the signed language interpreter’s role in workplace discourse.” http://hdl.handle.net/10399/2387. Heriot-Watt University. (August 2010): 160. Print.

Fleischer, Flavia S. “The Meaning of ‘Ohana: Working Together.” Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Honolulu. 13 June 2012. Address.

Yosso, Tara J. “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth.” Race, Ethnicity and Education 8.1 (2005): 69-91. Print.

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A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting

Healthy dialogue between the Deaf and interpreting communities promotes bicultural literacy and mutual understanding. Trudy Suggs examines an incident in which interpreters took advantage of their hearing privilege to disrespect Deaf workshop presenters.
 
A chip on her shoulder.
An angry Deaf person.
I will definitely NOT be attending her workshops in the future.
The workshop seemed to be a venting session for the Deaf people. 

These were just some of the evaluation responses to a workshop I presented at a state-level sign language interpreting conference recently. I had been asked to do three workshops at this conference, and the first workshop went fabulously.

[View post in ASL]

The second workshop was after lunch, a notoriously difficult time slot because participants are often tired from the morning and lunch. Even so, I expected this workshop—which I had presented many times before—would be fun and invigorating. I was especially pumped by the participants’ awesome energy that morning, and was excited to see that many who attended the morning workshop had joined this afternoon session. The Deaf participants were renowned advocates and leaders. However, as the session got underway, I became a bit perplexed by the mood before me. Perhaps it was the lighting, the room set-up, or fatigue, but the room seemed tense, almost foreboding. Still, I figured the energy level would quickly rise.

I noticed, almost immediately, a specific group of interpreters who whispered to each other without signing. Participants in the first workshop had been extremely respectful about signing at all times. The conference organizers had also clearly stated that one language was to be used. I naturally assumed that for workshops led by Deaf presenters, all present would sign.

I won’t go into how many articles and discussions there have been about how interpreters and students are notorious for not signing at interpreting conferences (although I’ll cite an article I wrote six years ago about this), but it may be helpful to understand my background. I’ve worked with interpreters since I was a toddler, and was mainstreamed for most of my education. I also constantly work with interpreters in my career, and travel the nation providing interpreting workshops because I think it’s so important for Deaf people to share their knowledge and experience. I emphasize in every workshop that interpreters are among the most crucial allies Deaf people can have. Furthermore, as a mother to four children who are Deaf, I have a very personal reason for wanting nothing but the very best in the interpreting profession.

I was disturbed, as were several participants, by this group’s behavior, so I quickly reiterated the importance of signing at all times. After the fourth time I mentioned this, I became visibly irritated, because it was difficult to understand how such rudeness would be exhibited. I explained that as a Deaf person, they were taking away my opportunity—without my having any say—to catch side conversations that often hold such a wealth of information.

Let me share an example. At another workshop, during a break, I noticed two participants talking about their pregnancies. I happily jumped into the conversation; as someone who was pregnant for four years in a row, I always love sharing pregnancy experiences. Sure enough, one of the participants sat with me during lunch and we exchanged wonderful child-raising tidbits. This interaction is what is so important to the development of alliances between hearing and deaf people. It helps us build connections and recognize shared experiences as human beings.

As is true for any workshop I present, I always ensure that the Deaf participants are given an opportunity to provide input. While the Deaf experience may be common across many levels, it isn’t identical for every Deaf individual. At this workshop, there were four Deaf individuals in attendance. About an hour into the workshop, I made a comment in passing about how I wished all video interpreters knew the names of deaf school towns—that is, towns with deaf schools (i.e., Fremont, St. Augustine, even Faribault)—or at least be familiar with the names. I said this lightly, with a smile, and the Deaf participants nodded vigorously in agreement. This type of knowledge is an important element of Deaf culture for many people. Not recognizing its importance, or dismissing it when someone shares this information, speaks volumes to cultural (il)literacy.

A participant from that group suddenly said with an incredulous look, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset that video interpreters don’t know city names! That’s really ridiculous. It’s such a small thing.” I was momentarily caught off-guard by her flippant response. I quickly clarified that I wasn’t upset, saying, “Quite the contrary. It’s just one of those things that Deaf people have to live with. It does become cumbersome if you have to make several calls a day and each video interpreter you encounter doesn’t know a city sign or town where a deaf school is.”

The participant started to dissect my comments, shaking her head in disbelief. A Deaf participant stood up saying, “Trudy isn’t upset. She simply—and she’s right—means that it does get frustrating when interpreters don’t know the sign for large cities or deaf school towns. Deaf school towns are to us what major cities are to the general population.” This interpreter shook her head as if we were silly. In retrospect, I should have ignored her. I didn’t, because I was, truthfully, astonished at her disregard for our experiences.

Realizing that perhaps her reaction came from culpability or taking my comments personally, I asked why she was upset. She said, derisively, “I’m not upset. I’m simply disagreeing. Disagreement is healthy, right?” I decided that I’d had enough and moved on, but I was shaken. Discouraged and belittled, I tried to keep the workshop going despite dagger-eyes from that interpreter who “healthily” disagreed with me.

After the workshop, at least six interpreters came up to me and apologized for that group; several thanked me for being so straightforward and expressed their appreciation for all the Deaf participants’ contributions. One interpreter said he was angry because he felt she wouldn’t have done this had I been a hearing presenter.

I talked with one of the volunteers at my workshop, a Certified Interpreter and the mother to a Deaf adult. I shared my puzzlement at why I felt blindsided. She said, “There’s a difference between challenging an expert and disagreeing respectfully.” She nailed it; after all, would the participant have so publicly disagreed with me had she respected me as an expert in my subject matter? What if I had been a hearing presenter talking about deaf people’s frustrations? Maybe she still would have, but I doubt it.

I received overwhelmingly positive evaluations for the first and third workshops. For the second workshop, I was pleased with the supportive responses, but also surprised by the depth of the few negative comments. I wondered why I was called an “angry deaf person.” Why not simply an angry person? Why were the Deaf people’s shared experiences considered venting? Why was it a “Deaf” issue?

I later saw the very same Deaf participants at the National Association of the Deaf conference, and they were equally taken aback by the negative feedback. As we discussed the contempt we felt from certain participants at this workshop, it suddenly made sense: hearing privilege. As we all know, some enter the interpreting profession with misguided intentions. Fortunately, we have so many solid interpreting standards and programs in place that help steer those individuals in a more positive direction. Even so, had all the Deaf participants sharing their experiences been hearing, would they have been criticized for their so-called venting? Would I have been labeled angry if I were hearing? Perhaps.

I wish that interpreter who challenged me had come up to me after the workshop and started, yes, a healthy dialogue, so that we could have come to appreciate each other. I wish she had respected my perspectives. I likely would have learned from her perspective as someone who did not grow up in the culture or community. I also find it quite ironic that she and a couple of others chose to vent via the evaluations, stating that the workshop was a “venting session for the Deaf people,” instead of building alliances.

Workshops led by Deaf people are golden opportunities to listen to their experiences—while reserving judgment—and understand that interpreting, for them, is not just a career or interest. It affects their lives, their experiences, and their realities—and for many, the legacy they pass onto their children. Ensuring the sincere desire to be an ally and exhibiting a genuine respect for experiences is a reward beyond measure.

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The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter

Interpreters live with a constant internal struggle between intent and impact, perception and reality, Jekyll and Hyde. Aaron Brace confronts some of these pitfalls and realizations while taking stock of interpreters’ relationships to whom we serve.

Before I can even consider being an ally to Deaf people in the face of societal audism, as a sign language interpreter I must address another overlooked and, at times, more pernicious enemy—the sign language interpreting profession itself.

Enemy is, perhaps, too strong a word for the darker side of my role in Deaf people’s lives, but as it stands in counterpoint to the term ally, I find it opens a useful a window into the duality of my role. I’d like to share some traces of this shadowy figure that I’ve spotted in the mirror over the last thirty years in both my interpreting process and my doing business as an interpreter. I learned to manage parts of this enemy long ago, while in other ways he will always challenge me.

The Enemy Lurks in My Interpreting Process

Inspiring trust and delight in my customers happens, rather paradoxically, more easily when they feel I understand that there’s no real reason they should trust me, and that the reason for my presence, at all, is something less than delightful. They need me to be aware that I come with potentially harmful side effects.

Put another way, I sometimes feel I’m like Dr. Jekyll, keeping Mr. Hyde on a strong, short leash.  As did Dr. Jekyll, I have to keep this lurking enemy to heel, because he:

Tends to Monopolize Deaf People’s Time, Attention, and Space.

I’ve come to understand that my habit of making a bee-line to a Deaf person’s cubicle and cheerily plopping myself down in the guest chair to start establishing our working relationship is often, well … annoying. The first time I took it upon myself to acknowledge he might be busy and offered to wait elsewhere, the Deaf person’s sense of surprise and relief was palpable. This has led me to look for other instances where my presence or my good intentions get in my customers’ way and can be managed less obtrusively.

This tendency also manifests itself in how I approach prep. My insistence on time to prepare with a speaker may prioritize my need for confidence in the quality of my product over the speaker’s need for confidence in hers. Insistence on advance prep can also have the effect of implying either that I’m not confident in my comprehension of the source language or that I suspect that the speaker won’t express herself well. Also, I may over-estimate how much my product improves as a result of the preparation I demand.

Overestimates His Centrality to the Relationships Between Deaf and Hearing People.

I think he must have had a hand in writing the RID Philosophy Statement:

The philosophy of RID is that excellence in the delivery of interpretation and transliteration services between people who are deaf or hard of hearing and people who are hearing, will ensure effective communication.” 

On some level I truly want to believe in this. If I don’t, how do I have the nerve to interpret at all?  But my customers are not well served by a quasi-messianic philosophy that valorizes my role far above theirs. It’s also simply inaccurate; customers often communicate effectively despite my excellent service rather than because of it. They also, due to forces beyond the reach of my service, can end up not communicating effectively.

Is a Fundamentalist in His Adherence to Interpreting Models.Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter

I am tempted to embrace new wisdom on effective practice in a way that stigmatizes older wisdom as outdated and oppressive. I believe that fully empowered customers may still request that I perform more like what we’d call a machine or a conduit. Even as I understand that some customers express such a preference because that’s all they think sign language interpreters can do, or they think they’re doing me a favor in making my job “easier.” My Mr. Hyde and I go ’round and ’round over whether it’s more oppressive to comply with requests that might stem from internalized oppression or an incomplete understanding of one’s options, or to presume that it’s even my place to try to “diagnose” such things.

Is Wired to Privilege Auditory Input Over Visual Input.

I realized at one point that my default strategy for managing turn-taking was to always finish what the hearing person said before attempting to get the floor for the Deaf person. On one hand, it merely revealed my auditory bias.  On the other, it perpetuated the notion that the hearing person was the holder of knowledge, and the Deaf person was the needy receptacle. Once I realized this input bias and its implication, I over-compensated by stridently talking over hearing people the second a Deaf person raised her hands. While I’ve since greatly improved the equitability of my turn-taking management, I’ve only very recently learned that I maintain eye-contact in a way that doesn’t accurately convey the availability of the floor in ASL-discourse, depriving Deaf people of cues that would help them manage graciously taking the floor for themselves.

The upshot:  The choices I make in the name of effective practice almost always come with potentially dangerous side-effects that I must predict and be prepared to mitigate.

The Enemy Lurks in the Business of Interpreting

For several decades, interpreting has been a viable profession for me due to my having appropriate education, skills, and credentials. Because it has been viable for so long, I’ve never been forced to think much about this Mr. Hyde-like enemy and his conception of what I do as a profession, a career, and a business. There is a need to confront this enemy because he:

Expects His Degree and Professional Credential to Command Respect. 

I wonder if it was necessary, in order to put forth the immense effort needed to earn a degree and professional certification, to believe that these things say more about my ability than they really do. Hearing people, including my family members and the people who are usually responsible for hiring me, typically consider me an expert because I have a degree and a certification after my name. It’s tempting for me to do the same. It’s tempting to resent having to prove myself anew to each customer and each colleague I meet. It’s tempting to feel betrayed by the institutions that authorized my entry to practice, knowing that savvy customers consider me competent in spite of my paper qualifications, not because of them.

Is Rigid About Best Practices and Industry Standards.

There’s a fine line between what I need in order to do my work well and what I want in order to make it easier. I often lose sight of that line. I insist on industry standards like going rates, cancellation policies, two-hour minimums, and best practices like requiring a teammate and prep materials as if these were all cast in stone, even at times when there might be a good reason to waive or modify them. I also don’t want to legitimize disreputable agencies that don’t follow standards, even when this may cause customers whose are stuck with those agencies to suffer. This is another issue on which this Mr. Hyde like character and I go ’round and ’round.

Maintains Faulty Expectations of a Profession, a Career and a Business.

I was raised to expect that a profession would provide all of my material comfort, and that at some point I would cease having to defend or prove my expertise. I expected I could pursue a career ladder in my own best interests, and that there would always be a higher rung to reach for. I expected that as a businessman I would be expected to prioritize maximizing profit, at least slightly, ahead of all other considerations.

These unexamined expectations clash with my reality even during flush times, but significantly more so in the current economic climate, with an ever-expanding roster of gatekeepers to the work. The situation has become dire for some colleagues, and the volume of my work is trending in same direction. What happens when my profession can no longer provide the same income? How do I continue to provide customer-centered service while dealing with the financial hardship, the blow to my professional ego, and the feeling of betrayal by my industry?

I think that understanding and seriously altering my expectations, learning to live with less to the extent that I can, is the best thing I can do to avoid having to make choices out of desperation while I work with my community to make things better. I also wonder whether it’s viable to continue bringing new practitioners into the field, or into specific markets, expecting that we will all continue to be able to support ourselves solely as sign language interpreters.

The upshot:  A schema roughly bounded by concepts like profession, career, and business fosters expectations of the rewards for my work- expectations of which I’m mostly unaware, yet which can thwart the interests of my customers.

Living With Duality

One last observation about this enemy in the mirror: he resists thinking about issues like these because he thinks they entail a life of constant apology.

I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand my duality as both ally and enemy in the lives of Deaf people without some measure of guilt. Like many members of privileged groups, I hope to learn the right way to behave toward an oppressed group—once— and never again have to feel unsure of myself or guilty about my privilege. I seek constant validation as “one of the good ones.”  I believe this takes a psychic toll on Deaf people, though—even those who know me well and truly value what I have to offer—when I deny there’s a shadow cast by even my worthiest efforts.

I can only hope to be an effective ally against an enemy opposing Deaf people’s interests when I understand how “he is us,” and in some ways always will be.  When I demonstrate a fuller understanding of both what I give and what I take, it is returned by Deaf people, not with a sneering pleasure at my knowing my place, but with greater trust, friendship, and welcome.

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