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Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters?

Sign Language Interpreters Committed to Change

What actions can sign language interpreters take to put the Deaf community at the center of the profession? Dave Coyne explores how applying principles of social justice to our work can result in positive change.

The field of sign language interpreting still finds itself at a very serious and critical juncture as interpreters and educators attempt to put Deaf community members back into its center. Without considering the tenets of social justice and the perspectives of those who aim to proliferate it, sign language interpreters face the reality that they may be contributing to the oppression of Deaf people.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

-Desmond Tutu

[Click to view post in ASL]

A Critical Juncture

The aim of social justice is to prohibit privileged majority members from taking control – accordingly, a significant amount of guidance and support by those in the minority is needed. Social justice permeates daily experiences because practices, policies, and laws perpetuate the very existence of majority members. Though there is little space today for the appreciation of individual efforts toward justice, and perhaps less space to celebrate times of creativity, sign language interpreters need to create the capacity to give meaning to the Deaf experience in socially conscious ways.

Embracing social justice and incorporating its tenets at the center of interpreters’ practice moves professionals away from explanations that people’s outcomes in life (more specifically minorities’ lives) are merely results of their good and bad choices toward a position that highlights the strength and conviction required to create opportunities for positive change. Social justice works to include the experiences of others that showcase both social injustices as well as how to move us toward equality—in the case of sign language interpreters, this process is about keeping or changing behaviors that are supported by Deaf people and support their desires and goals to achieve autonomy.

What is Social Justice?

While the United States Government is responsible for ensuring basic quality of life for all citizens, interpreters know too well that people’s reactions to injustice in situations differ depending on their political background, media influences, and affiliations. Often we use the same terms to talk about differing scenes of injustice (political, social, economical, and the like). We find that these terms can be vague, meaningless, and often leave us with our wheels turning, but going nowhere. Although the terms justice, e.g., political and social justice, are often seen as interchangeable and often used synonymously, but they can also be defined as distinct terms concerning various inequalities experienced by minority groups.

But do not allow all of this wordsmithing to stop you—minority groups’ injustices (regardless of the realm they fall within) are about being targeted, discriminated against, and oppressed; often concerning power rooted in the social order of our society.

An important component of any social injustice is that conversations about minority lives are happening.

Maintain Fairness

Discussions guided by the uses of status, meaning the effects of today’s socially constructed hierarchies (i.e., social ordering), are real and important pieces in sign language interpreters’ productions of interpretations. Taking types of social ordering into account within interpretations can show us how status affects people (their views and how they are represented in the eyes of others, both individually and systematically). We are talking about reading between the lines of language use to show prestige, respect, and esteem for individuals.  In addition to this, those working with hearing interpreters are often from very different communities. To articulate accurate messages, we must consider the real challenges of attempts to maintain fairness based on the myriad relationships (which are symbolic of status used within the exchange) possible within situations.  Status can be used to maintain, leverage, and define the types of relationships between people, e.g., best friends, teachers and students, employees and managers.

Advocacy

Social justice is also a concept that deals with people’s actions to craft equitable opportunities for positive change (Rawls, 1971), so it is vital that interpreters work closely with Deaf community members to support equitable experiences.  These practices can include sometimes-controversial behaviors, yet are critical interventions of oppressive acts found within our professional role, e.g., advocating, supporting, educating. The more we shift control of our field to the hands of Deaf leaders, the less controversial our behaviors will become because appropriate actions will carry the Deaf community’s seal of approval.

On the other hand, pausing or avoiding behaviors that intervene oppression may actually prohibit various forms of respect for individual autonomy. The explanation behind such pauses/avoidance may be due to our understanding of ethical relativism, whereby those experiencing the injustice may have the right to determine right and wrong behaviors based on their cultural norms and individual contexts within situations. Perhaps some of us are too worried about doing wrong that we perpetuate current habitual patterns that support the status quo, and thus, inadvertently contributes to injustices.

Inclusion

Similar worries have given rise to growing public controversy surrounding political, social, and economic institutions, which have centered conversations on social justice since the late 19th century. Though these conceptions related to justice have been formulated and reformulated over the years, we realize that political justice generally deals with equality, while social justice addresses freedom (Rawls, 1971). These forms of justice are actually elements of each other and represent unique challenges of those experiencing injustices.

Because inclusion related challenges exist (which many minorities experience) the Deaf community faces similar challenges about involvement in conversations about roles of social structures.  Special attention to the needs of those we serve, as professionals providing a service, is vital.  These needs are a part of an overarching holistic understanding, not solely based on communication exchanges, because majority members (yes, even sign language interpreters) lack full awareness of experiences of Deaf community members.

So, while sign language interpreters work, they permeate participants’ experiences during the communication exchange. Working between two or more people communicating makes the use of status and its social roots (that are often unfamiliar to the parties involved) visible to the interpreter. All injustices are social in nature, even those within political situations, and are based on the relationships among those involved.  This makes interpreter’s positions in the interaction between people useful in working toward social justice (e.g., addressing, supporting, opposing). Again, most injustices experienced by Deaf people are types that interpreters will never fully ‘get’, because as hearing individuals, hearing interpreters may only have secondary experiences to associate with individuals who experience our world differently.

Social justice emphasizes that privileged majority members do not have full understanding of minorities. This makes minority groups’ involvement, guidance, and support with professionals serving them imperative.

Community Involvement

Of course both social and political justice need to occur under the eyes of the law, but we are far from achieving equality; social justice exposes social deficits and injustices that bring Deaf people’s experiences to the center. The social injustices experienced by the Deaf community create a call to action for everyone, reminding us that we are all part of a much larger battle. Liberating actions cannot be successful without true community involvement because no one can liberate themselves by their own efforts or solely by the efforts of others (Freire, 1971). Interpreters’ community involvement should include being a part of a force attacking the social injustices experienced by Deaf community members.

This support is pertinent in the lives of those we serve, and for most interpreters, this is as personal as it gets.

The Examination of Power

A multitude of personal and institutional concerns surround a fear that the behaviors of sign language interpreters’ will remain static despite the shifting needs of the Deaf community. One example may be the identified need to establish ASL as the language used at interpreting-related conferences as a norm and the historic struggle to achieve it. In the big picture, static and indifferent stances can stymy efforts to overcome systemic injustices (not that they need interpreters, but working both with and beside them supports their efforts tremendously). This makes social justice even more important. A position of indifference creates a critical need to examine the power, inequality, and transformational opportunities central to our work as interpreters in mastering language and culture.

This examination allows for the formation of a bridge between the need of social justice in the lives of minority groups and the practice of sign language interpreting (a significant influence within Deaf people’s lives). This bridge only holds if stakeholders are involved in its design. Grassroots reform movements have historically relied on strong collaborations among members of various groups that come and go from the lives of minority groups. Unfortunately for the Deaf community, interpreters’ involvement in grassroots reform movements are not a given; views of such involvement differ widely from interpreter to interpreter. Even interpreter organizations and educators vary widely in their stance on such involvement.

Both the positive and negative affects relationships have on experiences dictate one’s unique understanding of the world (Fairclough, 2001). Thus, the relationships that sign language interpreters maintain make their positions on issues of social justice even more vital because power struggles are bound to arise among participants who require negotiations through interpreters (this includes relationships between Deaf individuals and interpreters).

Therefore, an interpreter’s understanding of the Deaf community must extend beyond their own experiences, thoughts, and actions (majority-centric) in a way to support their overall wellbeing based on their understanding (minority-centric). The potential to build the bicultural attributes needed to promote the wellbeing of others lies within the social rules, experiences, and signed language of Deaf people, especially in matters highlighting social justice itself. Social justice begins by upholding the belief of minority groups on matters of equality.

A Conscious Choice

Exploring a sign language interpreter’s cultural competencies challenges them to understand their own position within situations as well as the positions of those involved. Critical language study expert Fairclough (2001) indicated that for groups to make real progress toward their liberation, social emancipation of minority cultures is essential. The first step for interpreters to support the progress of the Deaf Community toward equality is to openly evaluate and strengthen their own behaviors. Locations are already being created and discussions are taking place all over the country: Jean Miller’s TerpTalk or as suggested by Damita Boyd in her article, Cooperation Strengthens Sign Language Interpreter Education Programs.

The need to change the collective stance of interpreters has become a moral imperative today more than ever—this change begins individually. Sign language interpreters cannot expect those we serve to believe that change can occur for the Deaf community if we are not sure ourselves that such change is actually possible.  We must ask ourselves what we truly believe and understand that social justice leaves us with a choice. 

We have to choose to do something about how we position ourselves as professionals.

How can Deaf individuals trust that there is a modest level of integrity in interpreters if they do not see us learning and emulating models that aim to eradicate stereotypes, prejudices, and the discrimination of Deaf people? Exploring the dynamics of relationships among all ages, abilities, religions, races, ethnicities, social classes, sexualities, and genders is more crucial than ever to tackle the current injustices these members face; simply put, we should do this because it is the right thing to do.

Social justice moves us toward supporting autonomy and allows people to one day live in a world that provides unique spaces for minority groups to flourish. Understanding how Deaf individuals view social justice issues allows for majority members to begin looking at the unique needs of individuals, rather than viewing the whole community as another alternative group based on memorized knowledge about minorities in general (although important parallels between minority groups do exist).

The Prism of Social Justice

The concept of social justice wills interpreters to address current social challenges posed by policy, growing inequality, and social exclusion. Many sign language interpreters strive for social justice because of our unique position to witness injustices experienced by Deaf individuals. Examples of how unfair and avoidable differences lead to disparities in the lives of those we serve include how insufficient support and education in our country affects those who use sign language. I sometimes feel we fail to truly recognize and account for how Deaf people experience the world.

Delivering actions through a prism of social justice creates opportunities for positive change. 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. To avoid this, a framework of social justice minimizes disconnects between communities and positively influences the relationships between Deaf Community members and sign language interpreters.

If interpreters work in a dysfunctional manner (i.e., working passively and remaining unconcerned about personal involvement with Deaf individuals), they are likely to block the grassroots collaborations necessary for change to occur. If this happens, it means interpreters can become a social justice issue themselves. This brings the need for individuals in the interpreting field, and its organizations, to advocate for the equal treatment of Deaf Community members, and recognize their impact on the lives of Deaf Community members: civic, academic, and otherwise.

Continue the Discussion

Social justice is a part of on-going discussions about shifts in our work as scholars, practitioners, teachers, and policy makers. These shifts, in turn, will improve the lives of oppressed people—in this case the Deaf Community. Scholar Rabbi Tarfon perhaps best articulates the nature of this call to action, our task to join Deaf people in a wider battle toward equality for all communities, “you are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it”.

Let’s work together to get rid of structures of hearing supremacy (e.g., stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination) by ensuring professionals in our field uphold Deaf Community members’ beliefs and thoughts surrounding their own self-empowerment.

 

References

Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and power. Harlow, Eng: Longman.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. [New York]: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Rawls, J. A. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Deaf Interpreters: In the Blind Spot of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession?

Sign Language Interpreter Consider the Position of Deaf Interpreters in the Field

Do Hearing Interpreters send messages of welcome or warning to Deaf Interpreters? Jennifer Kaika explores the overt and covert messages Hearing Interpreters send and the potential meaning they carry.

A few weeks ago, I was looking through StreetLeverage posts and as I neared the end- perhaps even after I had looked at all of the titles—I realized that I had not seen anything explicitly about Deaf interpreters.

Of course, the phrase “sign language interpreters” appeared often, and of course Deaf interpreters are included in that population. Still, I thought, I have read several articles since StreetLeverage began and I couldn’t help but feel like they were written with hearing sign language interpreters in mind. (For the purposes of this post, when I say “hearing” interpreters, I am also referring to coda interpreters; I am using the label to refer to auditory status, not cultural identity.)

I contacted Brandon, asking if this observation was accurate, and he invited me to write about it. (Let that be a lesson to anyone else thinking about piping up—you may have to follow through on your thoughts!)

Are Deaf Interpreters Invisible?

What does it mean that I hadn’t even noticed the absence of posts about Deaf interpreters for a year and a half? Does it send a message, unintentional but unmistakable, that I do not think about Deaf interpreters often; that they are invisible; that they are unimportant to the field?

I am reminded of an observation that was shared with me recently about another instance of the absence of Deaf interpreters. In my area, there is a group of freelancers who run a website for direct contracting of sign language interpreting services. I do not work through this site, but I know many of the interpreters who do. I like many of them, I respect many of them, I have sought many of them out to team with me. When people ask how to find an interpreter, I include this website among my list of referrals. In short, this network of freelancers is by no means new or unfamiliar to me. Yet, I never noticed that there are no Deaf interpreters on their site. What does it say to my Deaf colleagues that I never even noticed—that their presence is not missed?

The Organizational Level: Overt Messages

Upon looking through online resources, Deaf Interpreters are an unmistakable and long-standing part of the profession. Certifications have been offered to Deaf interpreters for as long as they have been offered to hearing interpreters. According to RID’s CDI bulletin, the Reverse Skills Certificate has been awarded since 1972- the same year that certification began for hearing interpreters- and was primarily awarded to Deaf Interpreters. Twenty years later, development of the Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) exam began as result of a 1989 vote that “a generalist Certificate of Relay Interpreting be established for Deaf persons.”[i]

During the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers’ 2005-2010 grant cycle, they “delineated the unique competencies required of Deaf Interpreters in a document titled Toward Effective Practice: Competencies of the Deaf Interpreter (available at www.DIInstitute.org).” In the current grant cycle from 2010-2015, the Northeastern University center (NURIEC) is piloting a curriculum for Deaf interpreter education called Road to Deaf Interpreting. A total of 34 interpreters from two cohorts have already graduated from the program, and the 2012-2014 session is currently underway.[ii]

In 2007, RID assembled a taskforce to revisit the application criteria for taking the CDI exam. In the same year, NCIEC conducted a survey of Deaf interpreters and got 196 responses- a number that surpasses the estimated 162 Deaf interpreters listed in RID.org.[iii] Assuming the number of certified Deaf interpreters is accurate, then Deaf interpreters represent 2% of the 9,846 people listed as certified on RID.org.

On StreetLeverage, when you search the phrase “deaf interpreter” you get 5 results out of the 67 total posts, for a rate of 7%.[iv] Not bad. At the organizational level, then, there seems to be a proportionate level of attention paid to and recognition of Deaf interpreters. What happens at the individual level?

The Individual Level: Covert Messages

Using myself as an example (for better and for worse), I have worked alongside Deaf interpreters in various capacities: in a platform setting as a hearing team, in situations where Deaf interpreters are working with DeafBlind consumers, sometimes from my interpretation and sometimes not, and in situations that involve Deaf consumers with intellectual disabilities. When I began my career, I worked with a deaf independent living center and the deaf counselors often served as de facto Deaf interpreters. I can think of many enriching experiences working with and watching Deaf interpreters at work.

At the same time, I have been guilty of not asking if Deaf interpreters have been assigned to a job that I’m on, even when I have reason to believe they would be. I don’t always think to share prep materials with Deaf interpreters until the day of an assignment- often not until we’ve all arrived. When I’ve been in touch with hearing teams to prepare for assignment, I don’t always include Deaf interpreters (again, usually because I haven’t asked if they were assigned.) What messages are sent when I consistently forget about my Deaf counterparts? Is there a reason I seem to consistently forget?

Is Frustration the Impetus?

There have been times where I have been frustrated by experiences working with a Deaf team—perhaps because they were new, perhaps because they had a different view of how to approach interpreting or teaming, perhaps because they usually work with DeafBlind consumers but I expect them to excel when working with consumers with different linguistic needs. Is this the reason I forget? If it is, does that mean that I hold Deaf interpreters to a double standard? After all, I have had similar experiences with hearing interpreters.

The range of experience and professionalism I have seen among DIs and CDIs parallels that of hearing interpreters: some are new, some have years of experience, some are certified, some are not, some have specializations, some are generalists, some aim to work at the national and international level, others aim to practice only in their local communities.

Should this range or these less-than-ideal experiences deter us from working together? Or can they become opportunities for us to talk openly about what wasn’t working?  Can they serve as opportunities for us all to be more specific about what skills we possess and what skills we are asking for when making a request to work with a Deaf interpreter?

Group Dynamics: Unintended Messages

Four years into my interpreting career, and only months after becoming a full-time freelancer, I had taken a staff position at Gallaudet University. Not long after coming aboard, discussions surfaced about speaking versus signing around the office and on campus. I had grown up on this campus. As a coda, I was accustomed to talking in front of my deaf relatives—whether to hearing friends or on the phone. All throughout my childhood and into my college years, I knew very few hearing people who could sign; thus, I spoke to hearing people and signed with Deaf people. All of this to say that the issue of hearing people speaking to each other when Deaf people were around was foreign to me. I was in need of an explanation.

Deaf people talked about feeling shut out—that choosing to speak when you could sign was exclusionary. Some hearing people said it was their right to use their first language. Deaf and hearing people talked about incidental learning—the ability to “overhear” a conversation and learn from it in the way you might pick up on the fact that people are talking about a bad storm approaching or some tidbit of news. This was pretty convincing, but still I wondered would it really be that big of a deal if I just talked with a hearing person and started signing when a deaf person came around? Then they could see what we’re saying and join the conversation if they wanted. When someone said that they wouldn’t even join the conversation if I weren’t already signing, I finally got it.

Nobody wants to disrupt their environment, you don’t want things to change just because you’ve walked into a room; you just want to be able to feel like you belong- no matter where you go.

Apply this same thinking to local and national RID conferences. Do we create spaces in the informal areas that send the message that Deaf interpreters belong there? On the organizational level, I would say yes. At the 2011 conference, I believe each Board member signed when they presented on stage. But as I recall, the hallways and social areas presented a different story.

The estimated 162 certified Deaf interpreters mentioned earlier represent 31 states.[v] In the directory on the Deaf Interpreter Institute, there are 35 interpreters listed representing 22 states. Between the two groups, 33 states are represented. If we truly believe that Deaf interpreters are a part of our profession—a long-standing and lasting part, present since the inception of RID, another way to connect to the Deaf community and maintain Deaf-heart, then wouldn’t our actions be aligned with our messages?

Addressing the Fundamental Question

Does the presence of DIs remove our status in the room as the ‘experts’ on sign language and interpretation in a way that is different than working with another hearing interpreter? Does it challenge a hearing interpreter’s ability to be “in control” of the environment? Does it raise questions about the quality of our work? Does all of this (and thus, the presence of a Deaf interpreter) make some of us nervous?

Have you grappled with some of these same questions? Do some of these experiences mirror your own?

I think these are some of the things that Nigel Howard addressed in his StreetLeverage –  Live 2012 | Columbia, MD presentation, Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion, in November of 2012, bringing up “the perception that ASL-English interpreters have that requesting to work with a deaf interpreter is an indication of an “inferior skill-set” and the “need to broaden the view of how and why deaf interpreters are used in order to improve their inclusion and contribution to the field.”[vi] I did not go to the presentation, but would appreciate contributions from those who did.

Beginning a Dialogue

I am sharing my own experiences openly in the interest of having an open discussion. Perhaps, though, I am alone in my experiences and the majority of our profession has good working relationships with Deaf interpreters. If this were the majority opinion, not only would I be relieved, I would be prouder of my profession (if not a little embarrassed for admitting my own ignorance.) 

 


[i] “Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) Examination Information Bulletin.” RID.org. Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, 24 Sept. 2001. Web. 15 Feb. 2013. <http://www.rid.org/education/testing/index.cfm/AID/89>.

[iii] Calculated by adding the total CDIs (139), the total who hold the RSC without certifications that Deaf interpreters are not eligible for (21), and the total of those who hold the CLIP-R without CDI (2). It is possible that some who hold the RSC alone are hearing, which is why I refer to this number as an estimate.

[iv] Trudy Suggs mentions that she is a deaf interpreter: http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/12/deaf-disempowerment-and-todays-interpreter/

Brandon Arthur describes Nigel Howard’s presentation “Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion” in http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/11/a-salute-to-big-thinking-sign-language-interpreters and http://www.streetleverage.com/streetleverage-live

Robyn Dean says that hearing and deaf interpreters  participated in supervision sessions in http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/04/ethical-development-a-sign-of-the-times-for-sign-language-interpreters

Debra Russell talks about Deaf interpreters being part of international collaboration efforts in http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/03/international-collaboration-should-sign-language-interpreters-do-more

[v] Some states only have one certified Deaf interpreter listed, but again this is only the number of interpreters who hold an RID certification.

[vi] http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/11/a-salute-to-big-thinking-sign-language-interpreters/ Nigel’s talk explored some of the perceptions that challenge better integration of deaf interpreters into the field and into daily practice. Most notably, the perception that ASL-English interpreters have that requesting to work with a deaf interpreter is an indication of an inferior skill-set.