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Deaf Interpreters and Repatriation

Deaf Interpreters and Repatriation

This is a cri de coeur that in our headlong rush to commoditization, we not forget our community roots.

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? Mark 8:36

Not long ago, Sign Language interpreting was snug in the hands of deaf communities. Deaf people exerted great influence over the field, as practitioners and as leaders. There was little question then of where interpreting belonged or to whom the benefits of interpreting should accrue. The events of the past 50 years have changed much of this. The re-emergence of Deaf interpreters is hailed as a lifeline to our original purpose as interpreters.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Remembering the Past

Until October 10, 1973, I lurked in the shadows of Deaf World. On that day some of us were hanging around a television. We were actors in a touring theater company, and Harry Reasoner and ABC News were telling us that Vice President Spiro Agnew Had Just Resigned! At least they were telling those who could hear. Some of us who couldn’t hear, were rather too quick, I thought, to demand that I make known physically what Harry Reasoner and ABC News were going on about.

At this point I was nine weeks into Deaf World. I soon discovered some things from my old world that were no longer available; things like literacy and sense of humor in particular. In Deaf World my main schtick of being verbal was less useful, most of the time, than the ability to be funny, smart and/or skilled in physical ways.

But I was an actor, and I had seen interpreters work. I knew I could play the role of interpreter, if not do the job of interpreting. I remember fondly the encouragement from some of my audience, who assured me that my performance was certain to improve with practice and experience.

This was the way it had ever been. Interpreters were forged in the crucible of Deaf communities. Deaf people actively participated in the selection of who would interpret for them and when, and often, how. Deaf people in positions of authority in interpreting were the norm. The adolescent RID from Maryland, USA still lived in its parents’ basement on Thayer Avenue.

But adolescents grow up and grow away. RID moved into its own place and before you know it, here it is 2015, and CDIs are a welcome and growing presence. Of course, deaf people have been involved in interpreting for deaf people ab ovo. Shared access to information is woven into the culture. The RSCs of yesteryear are today rack focused as CDIs.

From Community to Curriculum

For 40 years, interpreting education has wandered the scholastic wilderness: finding prosperity in some few hospitable locations, but barely subsisting in many others. IEPs are often ‘orphan’ programs in their institutions. Sometimes housed in Language departments, but sometimes in Communicative Disorders. Sometimes yoked to vocational programs like air conditioning repair and auto mechanics. The relatively small number of students enrolled makes it difficult for many programs to secure adequate funding from their schools.

There has long been a desire to move interpreting education back, closer to its community roots. Deaf interpreters are an assurance that deaf people will remain strongly represented in and by our field going forward. Both community and interpreting have moved significantly in the last 50 years. Here is a rare opportunity to bridge that gap. By making deaf interpreters stakeholders in our educational programs and in our practice, we are respecting the past and protecting the future.

But why is it so much easier to champion this cause than to accomplish it?

From Curriculum to Commodity

The curricular impact of including deaf students into interpreting education programs is enormous. The inclusion of deaf students into IEPs demands the re-examination and revision of the entire curriculum in terms of standards, equity, and outcomes. This inclusion can have many wonderful benefits, but benefits that might come at significant cost.  The plight of plugging deaf students into existing curricular structures designed for hearing students is considerable. The simple solution of offering instruction exclusively in ASL grossly oversimplifies the problem. Students who cannot yet express themselves adequately in their L1 are not advantaged by being forced prematurely into an L2-only mode. It also disregards the needs of those deaf students whose English fluency wants improvement. MJ Bienvenu does well in reminding us of the importance of interpreters being bilingual.

Similar challenges exist in melding deaf interpreters into existing workforces. Fundamental aspects of team interpreting with deaf interpreters are little understood, little explored. Roles, boundaries, responsibilities, and workloads vary widely, as do standards for education, training, and certification. Much work needs be done on creating norms for teams of deaf and hearing interpreters and for the inclusion of deaf interpreters into the practice of interpreting. NCIEC has done some early, brilliant work in this regard.

It is still early days in this most recent episode of the evolution of sign language interpreting and interpreting education. Those in positions of influence ought to explore deaf interpreting and to do whatever possible to support its natural growth and development. This is the best chance we’ve had in a very long time to bring our practice into balance with our original purpose.

But how do we best support this? Blanket provision of DIs in the absence of demonstrated need simply will not fly in most places. Of all the changes wrought in interpreting over the past half-century, one of the most profound is commoditization. Today Interpreters are both cross-cultural mediators and variables in profit maximization formulae. Interpreting has become a highly competitive billion-dollar industry. Interpretation is a commodity that is readily available at a wide variety of price points.  In this economic climate, it is critical to distinguish need from preference, and cost from value.  Given our recent history, it is not hard to foresee the implementation of Deaf Interpreters being underbid by providers more dedicated to profit than to best practice.

Where Does Interpreting Belong?

Who is to say where interpreting belongs today? Both the defining of interpreters and the definition of interpreting have become quite elastic, allowing for new, remarkable perspectives on the provenance of our craft. Culture and Community have always held strong sway on interpreting. Now, Business clamors about having a proprietary interest as well. Whither interpreting?

The resurgence in Deaf Interpreters could not come at a more auspicious time.

Questions to consider:

  1. Regarding interpreting, how do community standards, academic standards, and professional standards align?
  2. How best to include deaf students in our IEPs and deaf interpreters into our practice
  3. How do we reconcile the new “commodity” value of interpreting with the old “community” value of interpreting?

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Certified Deaf Interpreters: Moving From Celebration to Action

Certified Deaf Interpreters - Celebration to Action

By providing concise definitions, sharing success stories and through consistent advocacy, Hearing interpreters can support and increase the hiring of Certified Deaf Interpreters to ensure effective communication.

Leveraging Celebration

On October 24, 2014, a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) interpreted a live news press conference for the Office of Emergency Management about the Ebola outbreak in NYC. This may have been the first time ever, in the United States, that the use of a Deaf interpreter in this capacity garnered national attention. It was a significant accomplishment for ASL access and for the sign language interpreting profession. In light of this recent breakthrough, there is a buzz of excitement in the air. While there are sign language interpreting agencies, interpreting organizations, and Deaf organizations who have long utilized CDIs in a variety of domains, still many other entities are late to the game. Often the decision to use or, more often, not to use a CDI, lies with the interpreting agency or the entity paying for services and not with the Deaf consumer or the experienced hearing interpreter. This chasm deepens when agencies use hearing interpreters who lack experience or are resistant to working with a CDI, citing competition as their rationale. When to hire a CDI, why to use a CDI, and what a CDI does are questions not always asked and can, unfortunately, be difficult to answer.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Importance of Education and Explanation

Now that the world has been introduced to the concept of a CDI, where do sign language interpreters go from here? Seasoned professionals may know why a Deaf interpreter was used for that particular press conference, but does everyone in the field truly understand? What about the layperson? The best tactic for educating the public at large is to be prepared with a concise definition that clearly explains the benefits of using a CDI, a definition that makes sense not only to those who work in the signing community, but also to the average person who requests sign language interpreting services. These individuals usually have very little knowledge of ASL or the diversity within the Deaf community. Some interpreters may already utilize a definition. Still, there remains the challenge of ensuring that CDIs are hired for all situations that would benefit from them. The NCIEC addresses the role of the Deaf interpreter, stating,

“NCIEC studies indicate that in many situations, use of a Deaf interpreter enables a level of linguistic and cultural bridging that is often not possible when hearing ASL-English interpreters work alone.”1

While this makes sense to those who work in the field, I believe this definition alone, without real-world examples, may still leave a layperson at a loss. Currently, there is little in the way of normative data that could give us meaningful statistics and provide a balance to our narrative, which would help validate our definitions.

Concern for the Community

Increased exposure to ASL is not necessarily the answer. Sadly, the hearing majority still sees ASL interpreters on stage and online as performers, as evidenced by the many comments made on the heels of the aforementioned press conference. This misunderstanding has detrimental effects on those providing and using sign language interpreting services. After re-reading the powerful article, A Role for Sign Language Interpreters: Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People, by Lynette Taylor, I am reminded that as the public gains exposure to ASL, the language is in danger of being monetized as a product, and the fact that it belongs to the Deaf community is forgotten. “With the heart of the language no longer at the center of the community, it puts at risk not only the life of the language but the life of the community.”2

Power of Narrative

Now is the right time for action from both the interpreting and Deaf communities. We can all start by sharing stories of when a CDI made communication access happen. Narrative is an important tool. Sharing our human experiences, feelings and needs serves to connect us. By telling our stories to the general public and to those with decision-making power, we can have a great impact on increasing general awareness and effecting change. The impact of narrative may even surpass that of impersonal, academic knowledge about the Deaf community.

Eliciting Change

One way we can look at making changes in our profession is through the lens of Systems theory, which examines how nations maintain their relationships. Systems theory states that there are two ways to elicit change.3 A delicate or indirect way of eliciting change is used for minor infractions and when saving face is paramount. Extreme action is taken when a country has committed human rights violations. In this case, sanctions are imposed in order to threaten that country’s economy and to draw world attention. If other countries also place sanctions, the offending country has to decide if it can afford to lose business.

How can interpreters and Deaf consumers use these ways to elicit change in our community? In applying the delicate way, start by thanking those interpreting agencies who are providing CDIs. Thank them for hiring only certified interpreters and educating the hiring entity about the value of a CDI. Ask those agencies to share your personal narratives in meaningful ways. Change occurs not only through threat or complaint. A person complimented is a person who is listening, and one who will be more likely to share positive and informed feedback about the benefits of CDIs.

For agencies and entities that are not providing satisfactory services, more extreme action can be taken. First, don’t give up without multiple attempts to contact them. Organize with the community to make clear demands for certified Deaf interpreters, certified hearing interpreters, and interpreters preferred by Deaf consumers. It’s not enough to sit back and hope that bad agencies will fold up or only commit to working for better agencies. Organized action is key in order to send a message to offending agencies.

While everyone is celebrating the use of the CDI for the Ebola press conference in NYC, we should not forget that behind that decision was a hiring agent (OEM), an interpreting agency, and professional interpreters speaking up. This surely did not happen overnight, either. Do these parties realize that having a CDI interpret had a significant impact? Paraphrased from the interview on Deaf Hearing News (DHN), Jon Lamberton, CDI, says, “A few Deaf people thanked me, saying, ‘Wow, I finally know what Ebola means. I never knew what it meant before.’”4  Indeed, everything that happened behind the scenes, from education to action, yielded a positive result for the Deaf community.

Call to Action

By the time this article is printed, the first ever Deaf Interpreter Conference will have taken place in June, 2015 in St. Paul, MN. It’s an exciting time to remind the general public that Deaf people are interpreters, too. Let’s go from celebration to action through education and clear demands stated in a way that non-signers can understand. Share success stories by calling the good guys Friends of the Deaf Community, and be specific about what they are doing right. Push those lagging behind with tact. Assume they need information and insight. Persistence coupled with strong explanations grounded in both data and narrative can go a long way. RID-NAD recently posed the question,

“Can we settle with that fact that there are citizens of our country, our neighbors, friends, family or colleagues, who may be held powerless due to lack of adequate information – information we can clearly provide to them if we just embrace and utilize interpreting services in the way that they are meant to be effective?”5

The CDI profession is relatively new to everyone. Let’s work together to spread a unified message of best practices to ensure effective communication access for the American Deaf community.

Questions for Consideration:

  1. How can the interpreting profession assist Deaf consumers in asserting their right to CDI-CHI teams?
  2. How can hearing and Deaf interpreters best answer the question, “Why do we need a Deaf interpreter?”
  3. How can we conduct more research to analyze the communication experiences of Deaf consumers using CDIs

References

1 NCIEC http://www.interpretereducation.org/specialization/deaf-interpreter/

2 A Role for Sign Language Interpreters: Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People by Lynette Taylor (Street Leverage, 2012)

3 Systems Theory //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_theory

4 DHN http://www.watchdhn.com/

5 RID-NAD http://www.rid.org/content/index.cfm/AID/352. Editorial from RID-NAD on Interpreting Services and the Media, October 28, 2014.