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Codas: Can We Still Call the Sign Language Interpreting Profession Home?

Codas: Codas: Can We Still Call the Sign Language Interpreting Profession Home?

More and more, academic credentials are now considered to be superior to those that have gained their expertise through lived experiences. By working together, we can find ways to recognize the intuitive expertise Coda interpreters offer.

To my colleagues, specifically to those that have Deaf parents. Maybe you choose to identify as a Heritage Signer, Deaf Parented, Coda, signing MOTHER-FATHER-DEAF, or maybe you choose not to make reference to your Deaf parents at all. However you identify, we are all united by our shared experiences while we work as professional sign language interpreters. We share this by reflecting on our heritage with pride, compassion, and more importantly, our lived experiences which translate into our intuitive expertise as interpreters. More so, when Codas enter into interpreting training programs (ITPs) and graduate, the knowledge we acquire only solidifies and broadens our inherent ability. But sadly, for many Codas, we are continuously forced to validate our lived experiences to those with academic credentials. We need to remove the hierarchical lens in which lived expertise is viewed as secondary to academic accomplishments.

The expertise Codas bring to the profession deserves to be respected equally with those who have gone on to earn their BAs, MAs, or PhDs in the interpreting field. We, as Coda interpreters, have been interpreting long before being recognized by interpreting organizations and academic institutions. We have done this and will continue to do this, not out of an early interest in becoming sign language interpreters, but rather because of our birthright into the profession Codas helped create.

[View post in ASL]

Canadian Codas and their History in the Profession

Janice Hawkins, Mary Butterfield, and Louise Ford were at the forefront in establishing Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC) and interpreter training programs across Canada. All Codas. Everyone from Deaf community members, ministers, social workers, Codas, and teachers of the Deaf were invited to meet, discuss, and collaborate on establishing a national organization to validate and recognize sign language interpreting as a bonafide profession.

In the thirty-nine years of AVLIC, and out of sixteen presidents¹, only two Codas have been recognized by the organization as president: Louise Ford (1980) and Bonnie Heath (1986). Interestingly, Janice Hawkins, who was designated Acting President in 1980, has yet to be recognized as a past president of AVLIC. Why? And out of 800+ AVLIC active members, approximately only 19 Coda interpreters have their Certificate of Interpretation (COI) status.² As heritage signers, more Codas should have their COIs. But we don’t. Why?

Is it because there’s negative bias against Coda interpreters? Could it be that ITPs are not actively recruiting or retaining Coda students and/or staff? Or could there be a perception that our skills are not strong enough because we are not being supported in ways that acknowledge our unique heritage? Let’s work together to change this. We can start by advocating that our interpreting organizations and educational institutions come up with ways to recognize the unique experiences Codas bring to the profession. Codas, we need to start claiming our expertise as cultural brokers, heritage signers, and more importantly, as interpreters. We should no longer be asking for permission to be recognized and respected: we need to start insisting on it.     

Personal Experiences: Coda = Identity

I attended an affiliate chapter meeting a few months back. A motion was put forward to establish a committee to look into how the local chapter could be more culturally proficient. Noticing that Coda representation was lacking from this motion, I requested the motion be amended to include Codas. The discussion that followed was unfortunate and uncomfortable. Numerous people, one by one, attempted to dismiss the need for the word Coda to be included in the motion. It was posited that we don’t face prejudices and/or discrimination in the interpreting profession we work in and Deaf communities we live in. Honestly, I wish this was the case, but sadly, it is not. We are never accepted fully by one or the other despite the sacrifices we have made in trying to bring them together. Thankfully, the motion passed with the amendment. But feelings of exclusion still linger.

I have also attended numerous interpreting conferences/workshops and occasionally, presenters will make a point to thank Codas for their contributions to the field of interpreting. I find this puzzling because while we’re applauded for our contributions, we are also quickly criticized when given the chance to positively influence others with our teachings. When we have worked our entire lives as interpreters and come into positions of perceived power, especially within our profession, this same community that applauds us can easily dismiss us and our expertise. This is not fair. In Amy Williamson’s StreetLeverage article, The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession, she eloquently describes how Codas “… are not hearing. We are not deaf. As such, we are often not seen nor valued. We are; however, both vilified and worshiped in good measure.” Far too often Codas experience this dichotomy within the profession. It’s now time to change the status quo; we need to do this together. We can do this by recognizing the invaluable contributions Codas make towards the profession – past and present. You can do this, not by saying “thank you” on a stage, but rather by giving us the respect and space to showcase our expertise. Let us share our vital knowledge. More importantly, allow us to celebrate our heritage and expertise with you.

Codas Under-Represented in Canadian ITPs

Currently, only two ITPs in Canada include a Coda as part of their faculty team. I strongly believe there should be Coda instructors in every ITP in Canada. When Codas are invited into ITPs as instructors and impart their empirical knowledge, students learn first-hand about traversing between the Deaf and hearing world, how to apply interpreting theory to a variety of existential experiences, cultural brokering techniques, and how to navigate the professional/personal boundaries as sign language interpreters. As Codas, we have done this our entire lives and have become experts in it. This deserves to be professionally recognized and taught.

Therefore, it is essential we have Coda instructors in all ITPs. Not only will this give students a crucial bicultural perspective, it also gives recognition to the Deaf communities who have passed indispensable knowledge onto their children and encouraged them to take their rightful place as professional educators.

In Joseph Featherstone’s StreetLeverage article, IEP: Faculty Composition Impacts Sign Language Interpreter Readiness, he identifies four pillars that should be evident in all ITPs: the Native English-Speaker, the Native ASL Signer, the Bilingual Native, and the CDI. By having these four elements in place, interpreting students can be exposed to the necessary things they need in order to become well-educated and well-rounded interpreters. CODAs, in this case, are identified as the Bilingual Native. Featherstone states:

“Bilingual Natives have native fluency in both ASL and English, such as Children of Deaf Adults (CODA). Because they most likely grew up with ASL as their first language, the Bilingual Native more intimately understands the Deaf way. That’s not to say that they are more invested in the Deaf community than those who learned ASL in school, but that their relationship with the Deaf community is more direct, and as such, they are greatly impacted by the state of the Deaf community. Bilingual Natives also have a strong understanding of English and can teach on the intersection between the Deaf and Hearing communities, especially as it relates to interpreting.”

We must encourage ITPs in Canada to do more to include Codas. We have to actively work towards being more inclusive towards Coda instructors whose life experiences dictate their professional expertise. It is imperative that ITPs, as well as sign language interpreting organizations, strive towards being better reflections of the Deaf communities that we serve.

Moving Forward with a Holistic Approach

Moving forward, let’s work together to create spaces for Codas where our experiences, and furthermore, expertise is viewed as equal to those who have made other valuable contributions to our profession. When discussing whether or not Codas are qualified to be instructors or when Codas express concerns about the state of the profession, I encourage everyone to engage in those conversations through a holistic lens. Take into consideration the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of Coda interpreters and their lifelong experience of being a part of the Deaf community.  All of these facets work in tandem to give rise to the invaluable contributions Codas make towards our profession – let’s recognize them. We at least owe this to the Deaf communities that have shared so much of their time, language, and culture with all of us.

Questions to Consider:

  1. How can we recognize the intuitive expertise Coda interpreters bring to the profession?
  2. How can we encourage ITPs to include more Codas as part of their faculty team as well as recruiting more Coda students?
  3. What are some ways you can help celebrate Codas unique heritage?

 

References:

¹ Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada. (n.d.). Retrieved June 11, 2018, from http://www.avlic.ca/about/conferences

² AVLIC does not collect information on how many of its’ members identify as Coda. The list of interpreters who identify as Coda was compiled by several Coda interpreters across Canada. If you would like to receive the list, please contact the author of this article.

 

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The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession

Sign Language Interpreter Considering Cost of Marginalizing the Coda Perspective

Author Amy Williamson sheds light on the coda experience and how crucial differences in their worldview from an “in-between space” are indispensable, yet often undervalued, assets to the sign language interpreting field.

I recently attended an interpreter retreat where the purpose was to examine privilege, how it manifests in our individual work lives,  our relationships with each other, and within the sign language interpreting profession as a whole. Privilege is a topic that makes for a hard discussion for any group of people. Those of us in attendance included new interpreters, been-around-the-block interpreters, urban, rural, hearing families, deaf families, deaf, hearing, coda, partners of deaf people, and siblings of deaf people. We committed to a weekend of taking the time and space to look at what each of us has to offer. We talked about being marginalized, feeling marginalized, and how we marginalize each other.

We were honest.

We were vulnerable.

Our conversations were raw and invigorating.

[View post in ASL.]

It was in this setting that I was, again, pushed to face a reality that I have encountered periodically over my 20-year career…our field does not understand, appreciate, or value what it means to be hearing and raised in a deaf parented home.

The Invisibility of Between

Codas live in an in-between space within the sign language interpreting profession. We are not hearing. We are not deaf. As such, we are often not seen nor valued. We are; however, both vilified and worshiped in good measure.

From our hearing colleagues we are told that we are lucky to have deaf parents and that it must have been easy to become an interpreter.  We are told that our skills are not up to par because we didn’t attend an Interpreter Preparation Program and hearing interpreters tell us that we make them nervous.

From the deaf people we work with we are told that they are relieved we are present because they can relax and understand what is being communicated. We are also told that we can’t be trusted because we may tell our deaf family members their business.

Our experience affords us the opportunity to apply authentic, connective experience and insight to our work.  Is this threatening or is this assuring?

An example of the invisibility of between is the lack of coda involvement at the formal and informal decision-making tables within the field. How many non deaf codas have there been over the past few years on the RID National Board? How about within the RID committee structure? How many codas are there on state chapter committees and executive boards? How many codas are there in the wise circle of professionals that you call on when you need to talk out an issue? Whatever you answer, I will argue, as does Dennis Cokely in his post, Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?, that it is not enough.

What does the absence of this insightful perspective cost the field in the form of forward progress?

The Footings of Invisibility

The Difference That Divides

I grew up the child of intelligent, savvy, funny, competent, employed, educated, honest, bilingual, loving parents who were each part of large extended deaf families. Being deaf in my family is normal. I also grew up being told by every hearing person I encountered (including my own hearing family members) that my parents weren’t good enough. That it was my job to take care of them. It was my job to look out for them. Communicate for them. Be their ears. I was constantly pitied.

I was marveled over…the fact that I could hear and they could not was viewed as a miracle. “Bless your heart, honey” was a constant refrain in my southern existence.

Even today, when I tell people my parents are deaf I am always asked (without fail) “both of them?” as if that would be the end of the world. The second question (without fail) is “what is it like having deaf parents?” as if I have anything to compare it to. I was made fun of by other kids. I was always different…but not in the way that all kids at some point think they are different. I was coda different.

Every coda has this experience. Our experiences vary by degree and extent. Our coda experiences vary as the temperament and personalities of our parents vary, but there is an experience that is common to all codas. The experience that unifies us is that we all get the same reactions about our parents from people who simply don’t know any better.

We are told and whispered all of this, yet; the people being talked about are actually the parents who took care of us. Shielded us from danger. Fed us. Loved us. Yes, parented us.

Conflicting Realities

Never do these well-meaning family members, teachers, friends, strangers say to our deaf parents what they say to us. They wouldn’t dare. As young children we are left holding onto it all…most of us choosing (consciously or unconsciously) not to share what we were told with our parents. We held these conflicting realities and were too young to know what to do with them or about them.

Many of us grew up in a home where our deaf parents hated hearing people (with good reason given discrimination and oppression) and were free in talking about their distrust and hate for the hearing community. Many of us developed our own hate for hearing people after witnessing and being victim ourselves to injustice after injustice. We had the hearing community pitying us and telling us we weren’t deaf, because by miracle we could hear. We had our deaf parents telling us we were hearing, yet also saying that they hated hearing people. Confusing is an understatement.

The Aftershock

As a result, from a very young age we decide what we are going to believe. Some of us drink the Kool-Aid and agree with the hearing community’s assessment of our parents. We believe them when they tell us that we need to take care of our parents, look out for them, communicate for them, even pity them. That we are miracles and that it is so very sad that our parents are deaf. Poor us. We believe that ASL is a bastardized form of English and is substandard. We are ashamed of our families.

Others of us come out fighting and defend our parents and the deafness within us with a vengeance. We shoot verbal (or physical) daggers at anyone that dares attack the reality and validity of our existence. In 5th grade at least one of us is sent to the Principal’s office for giving what-for to the biggest kid in the class for calling her parents ‘dumb.’ We hate hearing people for putting us in the position to question our parents’ abilities, intent, and love.

Then there are the rest of us who vacillate between the 2 extremes yet usually settle somewhere in the middle. We find a way to navigate between our deafness and our hearingness, yet never really feel a part of either.

We are all coda. Not deaf. Not hearing.

We are somewhere between.

Depth of Perspective

Our uniqueness doesn’t have to do with language fluency. Defining a coda by language fluency or native/near-native/native-like signing fluency misses the point completely. Some of us grew up not knowing how to sign fluently ourselves. Many of us fingerspelled everything we said to our parents.  Some of us spent the first few years of our lives assuming we were as deaf as our parents and were perplexed when we were not taken to the school for the deaf on our first day of Kindergarten.

We are not all interpreters and those of us who are don’t have it come ‘naturally’ to us. We work very, very hard at a very, very difficult task, interpreting. Some of us do it well. Others of us struggle.

Our insight comes from spending our developmental and formative years in this between space.  

We have brokered between the deaf and hearing worlds our whole life. Disdain. Joy. The mundane. We have done it or seen it communicated directly. We learned fast and early what it took for the local mechanic and our dad to understand each other. This unique experience leads to a skill that cannot be taught in an IPP. It can’t be learned by having a deaf sibling or deaf partner even. It’s not about ‘knowing’ sign language your whole life. Our uniqueness is about being parented by a deaf person. A person that you can’t just walk away from, avoid, or never see again.  A person who is oppressed on all sides…by their families, by their education, by the media, by the judicial system, by their employer, and, yes, sometimes by their own children.

The word ‘parented’ is the operative one here. It implies a bonding, a relationship of dependence, of value sharing, of boundary teaching. We were parented by competent people who were viewed and treated as incompetent by the majority of society. A majority that takes it upon themselves to tell you how incompetent your parents are under the guise of kindness or good deeds. This experience is unique and solely a coda’s.

Deaf children of deaf parents do not get this reaction directly from the hearing people they interact with. They are pitied and vilified and objects of fetishism (this is how I describe the folks who think sign language is beautiful hand waving and don’t really get the linguistic and cultural aspects of the community) the same way their parents are. Their experience having deaf parents is unique to that relationship. They do often function as brokers within the deaf community but their experience is very different from that of hearing children with deaf parents.

Leveraging Insight

Codas have lived life in a deaf parented home after the interpreters and well meaning hearing people have all gone home. It is then that our deaf parents whisper to us what they dare not say in front of them.  We continue to hold the secrets of our deaf parents and the secrets of the hearing community (including hearing interpreters who quietly share their sentiments).

As described by Alex Jackson Nelson in, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing our Power and Privilege, this experience is rich and results in a deep understanding of hearing privilege:

“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.”

Alex goes on to state, “In my observation, many Codas possess an unequivocal understanding of privilege and power that is not easily recognized by non-Coda interpreters (including myself.)”

Perhaps, with this unique and unequivocal understanding of hearing privilege, codas still have a contribution to make to the field. After all, and as Dennis Cokely pointed out in Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?, codas have been the bedrock of our field.

What contribution do you think someone with this unique insight and perspective can play? 

A Standing Invitation

I shouldn’t have to say that our perspective brings value to our profession. Retreats like the one I attended shouldn’t be the only place and time we talk about who we are and what we have to offer. Codas shouldn’t have to beg for a place at the decision-making tables of our field.

Yet, here I am. Saying it. Begging for it.

We, codas, are here. We have a lot to share. Invite us to the table. Pull out a chair for us. Welcome us.