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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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IEP: Faculty Composition Impacts Sign Language Interpreter Readiness

IEP: Faculty Composition Impacts Sign Language Interpreter Readiness

By investing in a faculty rich in diversity, skills and experience, Joseph Featherstone believes Interpreter Education Programs can enhance sign language interpreting students’ readiness while upholding high standards of practice.

There’s been a lot of focus on interpreter readiness, especially for recent graduates of Interpreter Education Programs (IEP). As a Deaf person who often uses sign language interpreting services, as an educator teaching university-level ASL courses, and as a CDI, I want to share some observations and insights that will increase the likelihood that an IEP will turn out graduates who are ready to function as effective interpreters.

[View post in ASL]

Identifying Gatekeepers

I remember once getting a call from a friend who teaches ASL. She had a question about a former student of mine.

“Should I accept her into the program? Or is she going to waste a spot for a potential interpreter?”

It hadn’t occurred to me how my ASL classes impact the Deaf community by feeding ITPs and educating prospective interpreters.

At that moment, I realized, as an ASL instructor, I was a gatekeeper.     

Historically, Deaf community members acted as exclusive gatekeepers and chose who would become interpreters (Ball, 2013., Cokely, 2005., & Fant, 1990). In the 1960s and ‘70s, sign language interpreters were most often those who were already connected to the Deaf Community – children of Deaf parents, close friends, siblings, and pastors of congregations (Cokely, 2005). With time, though, government support for sign language interpreting grew, new trends emerged, and the mode of gatekeeping shifted.

Nowadays, the most common way to become an interpreter is via classroom education through schools and interpreter training programs (Ball, 2013). Due to this change, the role of gatekeeper has now expanded to include a variety of instructors from these schools and programs.

In his article, It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter, Brian Morrison says, “Rather than viewing interpreter education programs negatively or putting the sole onus on them for having not taught students all they need to know, we can shift our focus to building on their existing foundation.”

I couldn’t agree more.

After the phone call from my friend, my epiphany snowballed. I realized that as an instructor and a gatekeeper, I had the unique opportunity to prepare my students to connect into the Deaf community. I wasn’t on just one side anymore; I had a responsibility to set high standards and teach my students to these standards.

And I’m not the only one. Every instructor along a student’s journey, from those teaching introductory ASL to those teaching the most advanced IEP courses, have a dual role—teaching and gatekeeping. Everyone.

As Morrison says, it takes a village.

For that reason, I encourage IEP directors to evaluate their faculty’s backgrounds and experiences. It does take a village to raise a sign language interpreter, and it takes a village to keep the standards of sign language interpreting high.

The Village

The village, like the gatekeeper, is a metaphor. Village members represent members of the Deaf community in all their variety. In earlier times, the village helped mentor and nurture a budding interpreter to grow in language and cultural fluency.

Today, sign language interpreters are graduating and passing certifications without being immersed in that surrounding village, leaving a gap between them and the Deaf community.

As an interpreter, instructor, and Deaf individual, I’ve seen how this gap affects all of us involved in the IEP student’s journey and how it affects our roles as gatekeepers.

In addition to more and more encouragement (or a requirement) to go out and spend precious time participating in the Deaf community, I propose that IEP directors and boards bring a little bit of the village to the interpreter—for preparation and evaluation.

This sampling of the village cannot replace the knowledge, skills, and experience interpreting students gain by spending time in the Deaf community. But, a faculty that reflects the diversity of the village can help students more quickly build their knowledge, skills, and cultural fluency. And time is short to prepare interpreters to reach graduation.

Who, then, do we bring in from the village?

I’d like to introduce you to four of what I call the village elders: the Native English-Speaker, the Native ASL Signer, the Bilingual Native, and the CDI.

The Village Elders

The Native English-Speaker:

Instructors who are English natives, for whom ASL is an acquired language, aren’t difficult to find. These are hearing instructors. Because they are common, their role in the village can become ambiguous without the context of the other faculty.

As a Native English-Speaker, this elder has the distinct trait of native fluency in English. They share this English first language acquisition with most of their interpreting students. The depth of their understanding of the nuances of English can only help as they interpret in situations rich with jargon or cultural queues (e.g., a hospital visit).

In large part, Native English-Speakers can identify with their interpreter students’ journey because it is one they had to make themselves: they once had to pass by gatekeepers and gain entrance to the Deaf community and the village.

The Native ASL Signer:

Typically a deaf teacher with native ASL fluency, having a Native ASL Signer teaching ASL or ITP classes cannot be undervalued. It’s always preferable in terms of language acquisition to have a native speaker teaching the mother tongue rather than someone who learned it later. Often, the ASL native not only has a primary language learner’s understanding of ASL but also can share their experience and knowledge as a member of the Deaf community.

In the classroom, they represent the Deaf perspective on sign language interpreting. Through their instruction, IEP students can gain a better appreciation for the Deaf community and can develop a basic cultural fluency to build on outside of class.

Many IEPs do not employ Native ASL Signers for classes other than ASL. There are classes that could benefit from a Deaf native’s perspective, like ethics and translation. Wouldn’t it be amazing if each of these village elders could teach an ethics course each semester and offer their different perspectives?

The Bilingual Native:

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 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.

The CDI:

This may be the most under-utilized Village Elder. A CDI can be instrumental in the holistic development of an interpreting student. Their experience as a Deaf community member and a certified interpreter helps them bridge the perspective gap between ITP students and the Deaf community. They understand the feelings of being a client, and they understand the pressures of being a sign language interpreter.

Sometimes interpreting students view Deaf teachers as skilled in the language but less able to identify with the mechanics of interpreting. CDIs like myself are able to relate on both levels. We are Deaf. We are also not just interpreters, but interpreters who are more often called in for extreme, high-stress, high-stakes interpreting situations. We typically have more experience in the trenches where interpreting mistakes can be disastrous.

The unique CDI role provides us with a distinct perspective and understanding of the interpreting process, the Code of Professional Conduct established by RID, as well as the feelings of interpreters and the recipients of interpreting services—not to mention, CDIs know firsthand the best practices for team interpreting with other CDIs and hearing interpreters.

CDIs have a lot to offer IEP students. It’s been my experience that recent graduates from programs with a CDI on faculty exhibit a more refined situational awareness.

In The End

To rephrase Morrison: “Imagine the outcomes when the new student and the [Village Elders] learn and grow from sharing their knowledge with each other.”  Skill development is quickest when in the community. For our students, that means taking every opportunity to encourage their interaction with allies, advocates, and members of the Deaf community and providing them with a faculty that reflects the strength and diversity of our community.

Questions For Consideration

  1. What skills or perspectives do you and your faculty have that contribute to the sense of the village in your program? What additional skills or perspectives could benefit your program?  
  2. How do you think IEPs can better build a sense of the village and gatekeeping?
  3. Why do you think it takes a village to raise a sign language interpreter?

References

  1. Ball, C. (2013). Legacies and legends: History of interpreter education from 1800 to the 21st century. Edmonton, AB: Interpreting Consolidated.
  2. Cokely, D. (2005). Shifting positionality: A critical examination of the turning point in the relationship of interpreters and the deaf community. In M. Marshcark, R. Peterson & E.
  3. Fant, L. (1990). Silver threads: A personal look at the first twenty-five years of the registry of interpreters for the deaf. Silver Spring, MD: RID Publications.
  4. Morrison, B. (2013). It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter. Retrieved September 28, 2016, from https://www.streetleverage.com/2013/09/it-takes-a-village-to-raise-a-sign-language-interpreter/