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Erosion of Trust: Sign Language Interpreters and Hearing Privilege

The lack of trust between the Deaf community and hearing interpreters is rooted in privilege. Examination of our own privilege is difficult but necessary work if we hope to address the impacts of that privilege on the community we exist to serve.

Recent events have shone the spotlight on the deep rift and lack of trust between the Deaf community and hearing sign language interpreters. This lack of trust is not new and the actions of the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf are not the sole source of this mistrust. Hearing interpreters must look at ourselves and our own behaviors to recognize that we are perpetrating our own peculiar brand of hearing privilege in our daily interactions with the Deaf community we exist to serve. Aside from obvious and egregious ethical breaches, we are often oblivious to our own hearing interpreter privilege.  

[View post in ASL]

Confronting Our Own Privilege

A common reaction when confronting our own privilege is to deny that we have it or that we have ever behaved in a way that capitalizes on or perpetuates this privilege. We may acknowledge the existence of privilege while denying our participation in it or that we benefit from it. Michael Eric Dyson has written a book called, Tears We Cannot Stop (Dyson, 2017) as a sermon to white people on white privilege. In a section of the book called, “The Plague of White Innocence,” he writes, “…in my insistence on holding you accountable for privilege, for tiny but terrifying aggressions, for condescension, for any of the everyday racial slights that reinforce white supremacy, I have invoked again your sense of guilt.” (Dyson, 2017, p. 102-103) Now, let’s think about this in terms of Deaf people and hearing interpreters and the “tiny but terrifying aggressions” we may perpetrate against Deaf people. When Deaf people raise issues of hearing privilege, do we exempt ourselves? Can we acknowledge the unique form of our hearing interpreter privilege?

I have been asked by Deaf consumers, “Why don’t interpreters hold each other accountable?” When we engage in polite indifference and look the other way at behavior damaging to the Deaf community, we are perpetuating interpreter privilege. We, as part of the collective community of interpreters, all too often close ranks against the Deaf community as an act of self-preservation based on privilege. So I ask you, my colleagues, why don’t we hold each other accountable?

Recognizing Power Dynamics

I’ve been told by hearing interpreters that Deaf consumers need to speak out when they experience inadequate skills or ethical abuses by interpreters. In a perfect world, this is exactly what should happen, however, it ignores the power dynamics involved. Deaf people risk a great deal in speaking out about hearing interpreters who fail to provide adequate services. They risk being labeled as ‘difficult’ by the interpreting community, making it harder to find interpreters to work with them. In spite of ethical prohibitions against divulging assignment related knowledge, it happens widely in the interpreting community under the guise of ‘information sharing.’ We justify this kind of sharing as a way to support other interpreters in making better decisions about what jobs to accept, but at what cost to the consumers who have been deemed less desirable to work with? Again, we close ranks on the community we purport to serve and employ our privileged status to do so.

Consider these additional words from Dyson, through the frame of power dynamics between interpreters and Deaf people, “We are forced to be gentle with you, which is another way of saying we are forced to lie to you. We must let you down easy, you, the powerful partner in our fraught relationship.” (Dyson, 2017, p. 96). How many of us, working, paid, professional interpreters, expect a big dose of gratitude from the Deaf consumers we work with? How many of us demand positive feedback, claiming openness and the desire to improve, and then feel aggrieved should the consumer dare to share honest feedback with us? Consider the position we put Deaf people in when we ask them for feedback. Now, in addition to trying to glean the meaning of the message through the imperfect filter we are, the consumer is also expected to be observing and noting patterns in our work, errors in sign formation, sloppy fingerspelling and erratic use of space. Is it fair to make such a request of someone who is trying to benefit from a class or a conference or a meeting at work or a medical appointment? Suppose the consumer is willing to go along with the interpreter’s request to subjugate meaning in order to observe interpreting patterns, what does s/he risk in offering honest feedback?

Look again at Dyson’s words, “We are forced to be gentle with you, which is another way of saying we are forced to lie to you. We must let you down easy, you, the powerful partner in our fraught relationship.” (Dyson, 2017, p. 96). Denying we have power does not lessen the power we have. Interpreter privilege allows us to put Deaf people in these risky positions.

The Practice of Allyship

We hearing interpreters don’t get to decide for ourselves that Deaf people can and should trust us. Trust must be earned in each encounter and we must be meticulously trustworthy in order to earn it. Over the years, I have worked with a number of hearing sign language interpreters who expect a personal relationship with the Deaf consumer from the first moment they meet. They insist on an emotional connection with someone who, in any other context would be a total stranger. In effect, they expect and demand that the Deaf person trust them on sight because they have deemed themselves as trustworthy or a friend of the Deaf community or an ‘ally.’  In her article “No More Allies,” Mia McKenzie writes,

’Ally’ cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you—or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day(McKenzie, 2013).

The assumptions and expectations that Deaf consumers must trust us and befriend us immediately because we see ourselves as trustworthy and demonstrating ‘Deaf heart’  reflect unearned privilege on the part of the interpreter.

We must re-earn and reaffirm that trust every day in every encounter with each Deaf consumer. It requires a lot of effort, but as Mia McKenzie says later in her article, “Sounds like a lot of work, huh? Sounds exhausting. Well, yeah, it ought to be. Because the people who experience racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, classism, etc. are exhausted. So, why shouldn’t their ‘allies’ be?” (McKenzie, 2013). Add “audism” to that list and it applies directly to our work.

How Do We Start?

Addressing the deep lack of trust between hearing interpreters and the Deaf community requires us to listen deeply to the marginalized community we are privileged to enter on a daily basis. Learning about privilege in other contexts and training that lens on our interactions with the Deaf community, we can support each other in confronting hearing interpreter privilege in order to raise the level of accountability of the entire field. Listening to Deaf people without being defensive, apologizing when called for, taking responsibility for our actions, and learning from mistakes will go far to rebuild the delicate trust necessary for hearing interpreters to work effectively with the Deaf community.

Final Thoughts

Looking at privilege is an extremely uncomfortable journey. It takes us to places that can feel shameful and painful. But it is also an opportunity to look beneath the surface of how things have always been and begin to build a better, more equitable way of being in the world. Interpreters are in a unique position, as sojourners among the Deaf community, knowledgeable about the language and culture of this historically oppressed community. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to examine our privilege and alter our thinking and our actions to truly ally ourselves with the Deaf community.

Questions for Consideration

  1. By virtue of being interpreters, sojourners in an oppressed language community, how are we perpetuating our own peculiar brand of interpreter privilege?  
  2. What kinds of “tiny but terrifying aggressions” towards Deaf consumers have you witnessed/engaged in while working as an interpreter?
  3. How can hearing interpreters best support each other in coming to terms with the fact of our privilege in the context of our daily work?

References

Dyson, M.E. (2017) Tears We Cannot Stop. New York City: St Martin’s Press.

McKenzie, Mia (2006). No More ‘Allies’. Black Girl Dangerous. Retrieved from http://www.blackgirldangerous.com/2013/09/no-more-allies/

 

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What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting

Sign Language Interpreter Framing Their Work

Kelly Decker examines common ways sign language interpreters frame the task of interpreting and peels back some of the implications and impact on the field and the larger communities served.

 

Sign language interpreters are taught that meaning is conveyed through accurate word choice. Do we give the same considerations to word choice when we label and describe interpreting itself? How do our words and actions frame our work?

As a professional sign language interpreter, I would like to address some of the language used when conversing with colleagues, training new interpreters, and depicting the profession to the mainstream media. The frames we use, as a profession, have the power to devalue the work we do, and by extension, the communities we serve. Continued reinforcement of these frames impacts public perception of sign language interpreting.

[Click to view post in ASL.]

It takes years of intentional practice, reflection, and dedication to develop competence as a sign language interpreter. Platforms such as Street Leverage allow us to continually highlight and examine the ways we have yet to grow. MJ Bienvenu’s Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual and Carol Padden’s Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? illustrate two fundamental problems we face in the field.

While we have begun to address the language we use to talk about our work, there is more work to do. I have selected four examples which demonstrate various ways interpreters contribute to current understandings of our work. There are many other examples that could be analyzed. I encourage you to contribute to this conversation online and with your colleagues to further examine how our use of language can contribute to a misperception of our profession and the disenfranchisement of the Deaf community. These types of conversations lead to greater awareness, which can be a catalyst for change.

The Labels We Use: “Terp”

It is not clear to me where this abbreviation came from. A cursory search on the internet found that it is cited as slang for “interpreter” and paired with the word ‘deaf’. We work with marginalized communities who are continuously disenfranchised regardless of the abundance of evidence and research regarding language, intelligence, and Deaf Gain [1]. We deflate our profession and the work we do for the sake of a few saved keystrokes.

This word “terp” (and I call it a word since it has become commonplace nomenclature and somewhat of a phenomenon within our field [i.e. TERPexpo],) is used primarily in written English when interpreters communicate with and refer to each other, and when interpreting agencies make requests for “terps”. The use of the term “Terp” does not stop within sign language interpreting circles. Since it has become somewhat the norm internally, it has spilled out into the larger community as the preferred label for what many interpreters want to be called. I feel this does a disservice to the field. I am an interpreter.

Misleading Terminology

“Hands-up”

As I understand it, in most instances, this phrase refers to actual interpreting. I come across it when dialoguing with ASL/English interpreting students. This term is used in practicum to indicate a requirement that is different from observation hours – the need for “hands-up” hours.

When sign language interpreters in the field and educators in interpreter education programs use this term to talk about the work we do, it implies that interpreters only interpret in one direction, into American Sign Language. It implies that Deaf people have nothing to say nor contribute. In reality, our work is working between – at least – two languages. This misguided idea is further bolstered by how our national organization frames the act of interpreting. The interpreter certification exam tests interpreting capabilities and decision-making. Yet ASL vlogs, created by RID, refer to the performance portion of the interpreting exam using a gloss that gives the literal impression that the exam is a “signing test”[2].

As explained above, “hands-up” addresses only half of the work we do. Or does it? When colleagues say “I prefer to work into ASL, it’s easier” or “I don’t do any ASL to spoken English work,” is it because interpreters, too, believe that interpreting is only done in one direction?

Additionally, the term “hands-up” perpetuates the erroneous notion that sign language interpreters, most of whom are second language learners of ASL, prefer to work into ASL because they are “comfortable”, “have more experience working into ASL,” or “feel they are clear”.  Substantial evidence is to the contrary [3].

Interpreting, and more broadly, signed languages, have little to do with the hands. While sign language is expressed in a visual modality, the hands are but one element of that mode. Language is rich and complex. It conveys thoughts, emotions, and abstract ideas and it results in human connections. Language is influenced by and interwoven with culture. It is impacted by generational, intersectional and regional influences. Reducing an entire language to its modality is a prime example of how the dominant language and culture exerts power over and diminishes a linguistic and cultural minority.

“Voicing”

This term “voicing” has become commonplace within our field as a descriptor for the spoken language work we do as interpreters. It is a descriptor that oversimplifies the nature of the work, as if it requires no cognitive decision-making by the interpreter, nor cultural brokering between the two languages, and that the interpreter functions simply as a sign-by-sign voice over.  In Jessica Bentley-Sassaman’s article, Taking Ownership: Defining Our Work As Sign Language Interpreters, she states “voicing” does not appropriately state what we do, what does is naming what we are actually doing when interpreting.

As the profession continues to use the term “voicing”, I believe that we perpetuate a medical perspective on deafness. It bolsters the idea, that when deaf people use sign language they need to be fixed somehow, given a voice, and that’s what interpreters are doing.

This portrayal of the work reinforces a view held by the majority culture that  the language used by the Deaf community is somehow deficient. This misconception is propagated by the Alexander Graham Bell Association, whose position was made public [4] after the televised accomplishments of Nyle DiMarco, that desirable language development and outcomes for deaf children are only possible when focusing on listening and speaking, both of which are deeply rooted in the deficit-based medical model of what it means to be deaf.

As sign language interpreters, I believe we ought to unpack the implications and impacts of how we frame our work.

Perceptions of Professional Interpreters: Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] [5]

This video was so popular on social media after its release in December 2014, that the video’s participants were a part of the entertainment during RID’s 2015 national conference in New Orleans, LA. I have cited this piece not based on its participants but as an example of how we portray who we are, what our work entails, and how we approach the task of interpreting.

From what I gather, this video was made as a parody, a day-in-the-life of a sign language interpreter. All joking aside, what I cannot shake off while watching this video without audio input, is that it clearly represents misconceptions about the work we do:

(1) we only work into sign language, as the tired arms, hands and fingers portray;

(2) we only do this work for the money, as the interpreter runs off screen following the dollar bills;

(3) we self-medicate, as the abundance of pills clearly shows; and

(4) we can brush off the significance of the task of interpreting, as the title of the song conveys.

This day-in-the-life video makes no mention of the substantial cognitive work we do, which is the foundation of the product we produce. The sole focus is the self-aggrandizement of the interpreter. We must consider how this can contribute to the  mainstream media’s abundance of misleading and demeaning pieces about sign language interpreters while #DeafTalent continues to go unnoticed.

Holding Ourselves Accountable

These examples are both subtle and not so subtle. As these flawed representations proliferate, we, as practitioners, as educators, and as a professional organization, become complacent and immune to the deleterious effect they have on our profession. We may dismiss it, saying, “This is the way we’ve always talked about the work,” “This how my interpreter training program said it,” or “I never really thought about it.”

We need to think about it. We need to talk about it. We need to question and remind each other when we use language that trivializes our work.

Mastery of interpreting is no easy feat. It is a labor of love, a demanding cognitive endeavor, and a dedication to craft. Above all, we are collectively accountable to representing our work with the utmost respect for the Deaf community.

How will you model talking about the work we do?

Questions for Consideration:

  1. The ways in which we, as a profession, talk about the work we do is anchored upon our understanding of what interpreting means. Are the ways we portray the work, the profession, and the communities we serve accurate?
  2. How do you think the ways that we talk about the work impact the profession?
  3. Do you have examples of times when dialoguing with colleagues where how they were talking about the work just did not sit right?
  4. With those examples in mind, how can you further explore what it is that did not sit right?

References:

[1] Bauman, H-Dirksen and Murray, Joseph. Editors. Deaf Gain Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. University of Minnesota Press. October 2014.

[2] Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. RID Announces Moratorium on Credentialing You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y6PM4a1tR7E Posted 9 Aug 2015.

[3] Nicodemus, Brenda and Emmorey, Karen. Directionality in ASL-English interpreting Accuracy and articulation quality in L1 and L2. Interpreting. Vol 17:2. 2015. p. 145-166.

[4] Sugar, Meredith. Dispelling myths about deafness. Online: http://www.agbell.org/inthe-news/response-nyle-dimarco/ Posted 1 April 2016

[5] Ott, Stephanie. Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] You Tube https://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=DS2UdoXS3xA Posted 13 Dec 2014.

 

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6 Presentations That Will Make You a Better Sign Language Interpreter

6 Presentations That Will Make You a Better Sign Language Interpreter

Sign language interpreters constantly strive to be better practitioners. Often it is a flash of perspective that gives context to the challenges they face and assists them in moving along their path to actualization.

 

Let’s admit it, being a sign language interpreter can be tough. Sometimes a little sprinkle of perspective can contextualize the challenges we face as practitioners. From language fluency to connecting with the community, from confronting social justice issues and inaccurate assumptions to maintaining our integrity and leaving a legacy, these flashes of insight can lead us to becoming the interpreters we aspire to be. What follows are sprinkles of goodness that will, in fact, make you a better sign language interpreter.

1.  Dennis Cokely | Sign Language Interpreters: The Importance of the Day Before

Dennis Cokely

In his StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: The Importance of the Day Before, Dennis Cokely discusses the dangers of unchallenged assumptions and the “one thing” sign language interpreters must always remember in order to render more effective, meaningful, and culturally appropriate interpretations.

View the ASL, English and PPT here.

2.  Deb Russell | Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover an Enduring Legacy

Debra Russell

Deb Russell’s StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover an Enduring Legacy, recognizes the importance of uncovering and acknowledging the contributions and traits of leaders who have significantly impacted the field of interpreting. In order to move forward, we must first understand where we have come from.

View the ASL, English, and PPT here.

3.  Betty Colonomos | Sign Language Interpreters: Fostering Integrity

Betty Colonomos

In her presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: Fostering Integrity, from StreetLeverage – Live | Atlanta, Betty Colonomos defines integrity and highlights the critical need for accountability in the field of sign language interpreting.

View the ASL, English and PPT here.

4.  Doug Bowen Bailey | Transforming Perspectives: The Power of One-to-One Conversations For Sign Language Interpreters

doug bowen bailey

Doug Bowen-Bailey’s StreetLeverage – Live | Austin presentation, Transforming Perspectives: The Power of One-to-One Conversations for Sign Language Interpreters, explores the concept of one-to-one conversations as a means of connecting with the Deaf community and other interpreters.

View the ASL, English, and PPT here.

5.  Trudy Suggs | Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter

Trudy Suggs - Deaf Disempowerment and Today's Interpreter

Trudy Suggs’ StreetLeverage – Live | Baltimore presentation, Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter, powerfully explores both financial and situational disempowerment within the Deaf Community.

View the ASL, English and PPT here. 

6.  MJ Bienvenu | Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilinguals?

MJ Bienvenu - StreetLeverage - Live 2015

MJ Bienvenu’s StreetLeverage – Live | Austin presentation, Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual?, explores the deeper questions involved in determining whether sign language interpreters are, in fact, bilingual.

View the ASL, English and PPT here.

The Whole is More than the Sum of its Parts

While these presentations represent a small part of the wisdom and insight shared at StreetLeverage – Live events, we hope this retrospective provides you with some tools, ideas and information to support your journey to becoming the sign language interpreter you’ve imagined yourself to be.