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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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Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege

While most sign language interpreters come from non-Deaf families, one can develop an intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression by interacting with the Deaf community, recognizing the unique life experiences of Coda interpreters and working to dismantle systems of oppression.

Are sign language interpreters intrinsically connected to the fight for humanity, as suggested by Brandon Arthur in his post, The Goo Inside a Sign Language Interpreter? What is our role working within a marginalized and oppressed community? What is our connection to solidarity? Do we have a broader sense of responsibility to the community that gives us the opportunity and privilege to access and learn language and then to make a living using it?

These are important questions for new and experienced sign language interpreters to consider.

(Note: In this article, the term Codas refers to Children of Deaf Adults who are native American Sign Language users who share language and culture with the Deaf community and their Deaf parents/guardians.)

Codas: Distinct Experiences

Dennis Cokely points to the importance of Codas in establishing Sign Language interpreting as a profession in his article, Vanquished Native Voices-A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?. He describes the importance of Codas not only in the development of our profession, but he identifies the importance of their historical knowledge and distinct lived experience with communication oppression. 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 and communication access.

In my observation, many Codas possess an unequivocal understanding of privilege and power that is not easily recognized by non-Coda interpreters (including myself.) This leaves “the vast majority of us” (Cokely, 2012, para. 4) working to recognize and comprehend the impact of language oppression and the inherent privilege of non-Deaf people.

Institutional Construct: Dehumanization

Let’s consider the institutional construct and social belief system, referred to as the “slant” in Brandon Arthur’s article, Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head? He references thefreedictionary.com’s definition of slant as, “To present so as to conform to a particular bias or appeal to a certain audience” (2012, para. 1).  He emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and warns that the slant can lead to “impaired self-awareness” (para. 5) not only in our professional narrative when analyzing our production of an interpretation but in other arenas as well.

The slant is a systematic lens formed by our upbringing, culture, social status, etc. It embodies our particular biases related to deafness, race, class, education level, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etcetera that creates “Othering” as described by social theorist Michel Foucault in the study of social science. “Other” is defined by Wikipedia.org as, “The processes by which societies and groups exclude “Others” whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society” (2012, para. 2). Distinguishing the “Other” allows us to establish roles for ourselves, which serves as an important function in society. However, it also “involves the demonization and dehumanization of groups” (“Other,” 2012, para. 2), specifically those unlike our own.

“For the vast majority of us [non-Codas], our initial societally reinforced perceptions of Deaf people are that they are ‘disabled’ and are therefore inferior to those of us who can hear” (Cokely, 2012, para. 4). This institutionalized slant impacts our work and our worldview, and for non-Codas, distinguishes Deaf people as “Other.”

Systematic Marginalization: “Other”

Many Codas are familiar with the impact of being seen as “Other” and are intimately connected to the systematic marginalization and oppression of the Deaf community. Codas are often simultaneously utilizing their hearing status and privilege to provide communication access battling language oppression at young ages. Their intimate understanding of privilege and power, and the realization of their social status from birth, may be the intrinsic connection to marginalization and oppression that some non-Codas are missing. Their unique lived experience of witnessing communication oppression and the impacts of systematic and social dehumanization is a part of the historical knowledge they possess and are able to share with non-Coda interpreters. Perhaps this is what motivated the fight for humanity, inspiring Codas to establish the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) in the 1960’s (Cokely, 2012).

Perception: Managing the Slant

My response to Brandon’s question, “Suggestions on how to keep the slant in check?” (2012, para. 18) is to begin by analyzing our own privilege as interpreters. Whether we are White, non-Deaf, able-bodied, straight, employed, male, educated, cisgender, or a combination of these and other identities it can be challenging to recognize our own privilege. Without having experienced the impact of being perceived as “Other” it is hard to intimately connect with the realities faced by those experiencing systematic marginalization and oppression on a daily basis.

Personal Experience: Building Solidarity

My intimate connection to the Deaf community stems from my personal experience of oppression and marginalization, as a Transgender person. I have a visceral reaction to discrimination and injustice because I live within a historical context of inequality and have been personally impacted by marginalization and oppression. As a non-Deaf person, I have never walked into a room in the United States and been denied communication access. I am not personally impacted by daily language oppression. I have been fired from a job and not hired for others because of my gender identity. I have been intimately, professionally, and socially impacted by systematic oppression because of the perceived “condition” or “mental health diagnosis” that has been applied to my identity. I use my life experiences and understanding of how it feels to be seen as “Other” to intimately relate to the discrimination and oppression that Deaf people experience daily. I use my power and privilege, as a White, non-Deaf, educated, economically stable, able-bodied, non-immigrant, English speaking person to interrupt oppression, to build solidarity with other marginalized communities, and to fight for equality.

RID statistics illustrate that 8,414 of the 9,604 members, or 87%, of interpreters reporting to RID identified as Euro-American/White (The RID, 2011). With only 13% of RID members identifying as people of color, how do White interpreters, who do not experience life as “Other,” whether able-bodied, economically stable, well educated, gender normative or a combination of these, intimately connect to systematic marginalization and oppression that the Deaf community experiences?

 Connections: Dismantling Systems

One approach is to spend time in the Deaf community. Cokely believes that “to be effective and successful as an interpreter one must absolutely have deep and sustained connections to the Deaf Community” (Cokely, 2012, para. 7). If we cannot intimately connect to the experience of “Others,” how will we intrinsically relate to the importance of the fight for humanity and the necessity of fighting language oppression and the impacts of systematic and social dehumanization? How will we recognize and analyze our own power and privilege, avoiding micro-aggressions against the very community we are passionate to work with? (F. Fleischer, keynote address, June 13, 2012). How do we stand in solidarity, harnessing the passion we have for our interpreting work, to build on our dedication to the Deaf community while contributing to communication access and striving to dismantle systems of oppression?

Experiences: Recognizing and Acknowledging Privilege

One can study the impact and effect of marginalization, oppression and inequality. From my experience, the impact of studying something is drastically different than personally experiencing it, or watching your friends and/or loved ones experience it daily. My privilege and the systematic lens in which it was formed limit my ability to see oppression and marginalization around me. As a White person, I don’t see the clerk not following me when I go to the grocery store in an all-White neighborhood. Therefore, it is challenging to recognize my White privilege. I don’t realize my privilege to stroll around the store uninterrupted until my African American friend joins me. It’s then that I see the clerk following him. I stare in disbelief…“How could this be happening? I love this store,” I tell him. He shrugs and says, “It happens all the time.”

Without experiences like this it is challenging for me to recognize and acknowledge my White privilege. Without personal experiences and conversations, about the impact with my Deaf friends and colleagues, it is challenging to recognize my hearing privilege. As a non-Deaf person it is easy for me to ‘do my day’ forgetting to recognize and appreciate my privileges, to acknowledge them, to analyze the power they bring with no effort but simply because of the systematic and social hierarchy that distinguishes some as “Other.”

Solidarity: Connecting with the Deaf Community

I believe the shared history that many Codas possess comes from a place of solidarity with the Deaf community. Their familiarity with the impact of being seen as “Other” intimately connects them to the impacts of systematic marginalization and oppression. Interpreters have the ability to gain intimate connections to marginalization and oppression through analyzing, understanding and acknowledging our own privilege. We can gain access to the importance of creating a profession that values and prioritizes the recruitment and advancement of marginalized communities in the interpreting field: people of color, the economically disadvantaged, Deaf people, the under educated, persons with disabilities, those who are gender-nonconforming, etc.

Diversity: Enhanced Competence

Increasing access to the interpreting profession and promoting diversity will enhance culturally competent interpreting services for Deaf and non-Deaf consumers. Through conversation and experience with “Others,” we raise our self-awareness and intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression. Using our privilege and power we can dismantle systematic discrimination faced by so many, creating change in solidarity with a community that has given us so much linguistic and financial opportunity.

 

Special Thanks

I would like to thank Tamar Jackson Nelson for her work to edit this post.

Tamar Jackson-NelsonTamar is a student in Gallaudet University’s Ph.D. in Interpretation program (pedagogy/research) as well as an adjunct professor for the Department of Interpretation. Tamar enjoys and values presenting and writing about interpreting to promote growth, development, and respect of the interpreting profession. Tamar has worked as a certified community interpreter, mentor, ER on-call manager & interpreter, VRI & VRS interpreter. She enjoys time with her family, state fairs and sunshine.