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Hearing Interpreters: The Danger of Being the Public Face of ASL

Hearing Interpreters the danger of being the public face of ASL

When ASL is seen publicly, it is often vis-à-vis hearing sign language interpreters. Aaron Brace examines the impact this has on public perceptions of ASL, and suggests strategies that create opportunities for Deaf interpreters to authentically represent their language and culture.

I’ve been asked a few times by family and friends to explain what was going on when a CDI/hearing team delivered the interpretation of NY City Mayor de Blasio’s press conference on Ebola. The very notion that Deaf people can work as professional sign language interpreters is new for most hearing people; indeed, if they see ASL at all, it’s usually hearing interpreters like me, or signed music videos of questionable value (also by hearing people) on social media.

[Click to view post in ASL]

One of the reasons I sometimes have a hard time explaining this service model is that feeling of an existential threat, which doesn’t necessarily disappear just because I know it to be false. But another reason, which I’d like to focus on here, is that I haven’t fully come to grips with the implications of hearing sign language interpreters like me being the public face of ASL. Rather than learning how to do it better, I’m learning how to let it go.

Navigating the Changing Dynamics in Interpreting

I first began thinking about hearing sign language interpreters as the public face of ASL a number of years ago. Like many who are reading this, I’ve been one of the go-to interpreters for public-facing work for most of my career. Although my focus has always been on serving the people relying on my work, I’ve found myself enjoying the opportunities to stand out, to be trusted in jobs where my work would be broadly seen. I’ve enjoyed the positive feedback afterward, the status it has given me among my colleagues, and the chance to share what I’ve learned about ASL and the Deaf community. For a large part of my career, that was simply the water I swam in. I didn’t consider that there was anything else. After a while, as painful as it is to admit this, I began to think it was my right.

I have also regularly worked at conferences for national and international organizations. I have typically been on stage at their conferences, handling keynote presentations as well as presentations by other prominent speakers.  There came a time, though, when several of these organizations, with Deaf people in decision-making roles, decided that Deaf interpreters were to be on stage at all plenary sessions. I was relegated to small breakout sessions and working into English through a closed loop; I wasn’t on stage any more. It took me longer than I like to admit to get over losing the opportunity to do the plenary work, but I had the presence of mind to observe the work being done by the Deaf interpreters. Sure, the quality varied, but so much of the work that I saw was exemplary, and qualitatively superior to what I, or other hearing colleagues, typically produce.

More importantly, that model of service was chosen for high-profile work due to the involvement and leadership of knowledgeable Deaf people. Not only did they consider what would best serve the participants, but, surely, they were also influenced by the desire to authentically represent Deaf people’s language and culture to a broader audience.

Positioning My Ability

Like others, I began calling my work ‘bilingual/bicultural mediation’ soon after that terminology entered our professional discourse. Of course, that’s how the researchers in our field began describing what effective interpreting should be. It never crossed my mind that I was lacking the ASL fluency and cultural competency needed to actually do that kind of work. A Deaf friend recently told me that applicants to Gallaudet’s MA Program in Teaching ASL have to pass the ASL Proficiency Interview at a level 4 or higher…before beginning their studies. It took him three tries. Not only would I have failed to meet that bar before I began training, I’m quite confident I couldn’t meet it now.

I’m not qualified to go on about theories of bilingualism. I mention it only because it has become clear to me that the general public is primed to impute to me, to all hearing interpreters, a level of linguistic and cultural mastery that I simply don’t possess. Even if I’m relatively aware of the limits of what I have to offer, I don’t quite know how to articulate them to hearing people in a way that won’t undermine both their confidence in me as well as my own. Silence speaks volumes, as I already have the glamour of the words ‘professional’ and ‘interpreter’, and letters after my name. Oh, and I’m hearing. That’s probably the biggest factor in eliciting other hearing people’s high opinion of work they don’t understand.

This became painfully clear to me once, when I told one of my sisters that I’d be interpreting a play with a team that included a Deaf person as our Sign Master. She looked puzzled and said, “After all this time, Aaron, isn’t that what people ought to be calling you?” It was embarrassing to realize that I had never positioned my profession, myself, or, my ability to her in a way that she could have thought any differently. To her, I was the exemplar of ASL fluency. Who knows? Maybe I need to believe my own hype in order to have the nerve to do this kind of work at all.

Shifting The Focus

I realized recently that the more effort I put into preparing to interpret something like a play, the more I begin to worry. I worry not only that the hearing audience may think they’re seeing me produce a work of ASL literature, but that I might even start to believe it myself- all without anyone saying out loud that’s what we’re thinking. I worry that the Deaf poets, actors, storytellers, translators, teachers, and the friends I try to emulate in these instances will have far fewer chances than I, if any, to stand before a similar audience, with the same authority that’s imputed to me – but which I have only borrowed from them.

When I stand up at a public or televised event before a predominantly hearing crowd, on a real or virtual stage, under a real or virtual spotlight, I worry that some ASL student will decide to become a sign language interpreter in an effort to seek out the same kind of attention that I’ve realized I can be overly fond of.

But when a qualified, certified Deaf interpreter, like the one working at the Ebola press conference, gets asked questions about what interpreting is and how it serves the Deaf community, I don’t worry so much. Not only because his answers are likely to contain observations I couldn’t legitimately make, but also because it begins to shatter hearing people’s frequently-held stereotype of Deaf people as needy receivers of information. Deaf children also benefit from seeing qualified Deaf professionals modeling one way to represent their language and culture. If we quibble that not all CDIs are as experienced, or as able to give a good account of our profession, well…that’s never stopped the rest of us, has it?

Stepping out of the Spotlight

In her article, Are Hearing Interpreters Responsible to Pave the Way for Deaf Interpreters?, Anna Mindess listed some excellent, practical steps for us to take in expanding opportunities and visibility for CDIs.  In addition to hers, I’d like to add a few more. Some of these I’ve already implemented for myself, others are aspirational. Some may be more practical in some geographic areas than others:

  • work with Deaf colleagues and the local Deaf community to determine what an increased public presence of Deaf signers, including but not limited to CDIs, might look like and how to work towards making that presence a reality;
  • enlist as allies any hearing hiring agents who understand the value of CDIs;
  • consider working, on occasion, for reduced rates or pro bono in order to get more hiring entities to try using Deaf/hearing interpreting teams. This may be a controversial idea, but I believe that, used judiciously, it can be an effective tactic in getting more native ASL out where hearing people will see it;
  • share exceptional Deaf- or Coda-made videos on social media, along with a description to hearing friends of what makes them exceptional.
  • And finally, develop the reflex to step aside and team with a qualified Deaf colleague at every opportunity that comports with your own community’s values. Deaf people, even CDIs, may disagree strongly about when it’s necessary or even just preferred to have a Deaf face as the public face of ASL. It’s a process. I choose not to hinder that process, but to foster it.
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Sign Language Interpreting: The Danger of the Idea That Transformed the Profession

How has the push for the professionalization of sign language interpreters affected our influence on larger systems, and on our related stakeholders? Brandon Arthur asks us to reflect on how we got to where we are, and how to redirect our engagement to the industry.

Decades have seen the sign language interpreting profession quietly transformed by a single, powerful idea—sign language interpreters are professionals.  This single idea has created the momentum necessary to move the field from a hand written list of volunteers to a vast web of public and private entities, interest groups and regulation—an industry.

Is it possible that the power of this ideal has left us, the sign language interpreter, with a dangerous blind spot when engaging with the broader industry? Meaning, has the dogged determination to qualify as a profession prevented us from seeing what is necessary to effectively govern one?

What follows are a few things that gave me pause as I considered this possibility.

Interconnectivity

It occurs to me that the opportunities and threats faced by our profession is no longer the result of industry stakeholders (consumers, sign language interpreters, associations, businesses, service providers, educational institutions) being divided, but rather as a result of them being connected.  One might consider the sweeping impact FCC VRS reform has had, and will yet have, on the sign language industry as an example.  If this interconnectivity is real, and I believe we have examples to demonstrate that it is, we could logically conclude that the industry has evolved into an integrated system of stakeholders; where each is directly or indirectly impacted by the action of another.

If the industry is in fact integrated, wouldn’t the very basis of our engagement with other stakeholders need to change? Might this suggest that we are attempting to address current issues with an antiquated approach.

If yes, have we, the profession, stumbled over our own feet?

Weak Engagement

In seeking the specialized knowledge and skills to qualify as a profession and as professionals, it occurs to me that we appear to be failing to prioritize an important aspect of our long-term viability—expert knowledge of the broader industry.  One might consider state licensure laws passing in the face of outraged interpreters as an example of why this is gives me pause.

Is late or weak engagement by sign language interpreters on broader industry issues because we are indifferent to what occurs around us or is it that we are simply unaware that the issues even exist?  Or, is it because we don’t have the know-how to obtain the information needed to form an opinion? Worse yet is it our view that, “there is no industry without the interpreter” and it will work itself out?

If we are unable to effectively form an opinion and engage on industry related issues ourselves, is it possible to collaborate with industry stakeholders on broader issues?

In my view, for the profession to be effective long-term, ignorance can’t possibly be bliss in this instance.

Sparse Information

In an environment where the stakes are high and the pace of change quick, it seems important that sign language interpreters are able to quickly equip themselves with information.  Do we have the channels necessary to effectively deliver information across the profession and industry?  Can these channels effectively mobilize interpreters if necessary?  If no, does that suggest our infrastructure is insufficient to effectively administer the profession?

If we don’t have an infrastructure of size, does it mean we have information siloes and expensive duplications of effort brewing?

What I do know is that if people don’t have sufficient information to form an opinion regarding the system they are part of, they will feel overwhelmed by it, homogenized by it, and/or unwilling to invest in it.

I don’t believe interpreters are any different.

A Refocus

As a profession, we have made great strides over the past 40+ years.  Again, the early momentum of the sign language interpreting profession was possible because of our dogged determination to be recognized as a profession.

In my view, we need to refocus this determination on a few things.

How to:

-Leverage our interconnectivity to other industry stakeholders

-Remain aware of industry threats and opportunities in real-time

-Effectively distribute information across the profession and industry

-Extend our passion for skill development to the acquisition of broader knowledge

A focus on these items will assist us in effectively navigating the challenges of administering the profession long-term, which I believe is necessary if we are to maintain our position and success within the industry.

Is there other action we should consider?