Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Mutuality of Respect (And Trust)

You and me, we need to go on a hike. Strap on your boots and bring your water bottle.  I've got the first aid kit.  You bring the sunscreen. We're going to hike through some rough terrain, through the woods.  And we're going to talk about respect.

We often talk about respect as a two way street.  Equally traversing between two parties. And this works well if the playing field is level.  But it is not. So how does mutual respect play out on uneven playing fields, between Deaf folks and interpreters?

Not very fucking well. Lets walk in peace for a bit and let that sink in.  

I'm going to go off, ahead of you, into the wilderness of tangents. Wild, tangled vines of things that interlink and connect. Hopefully we'll see the trees, the forests, and the vines as we walk through these woods together. 

I see interpreters wishing there was more respect for their noble profession.  And I see interpreters wishing there was more respect and trust from Deaf folks being sent in their direction.  Especially the trust bit.

This open grove looks like a grand spot to stop for a bit and catch our breath. 

So here I am. And there you are.  We're sitting together here taking deep drinks from our water bottles. The sun is shining down, midday and we've got a long ways to go still. 

I am going to look you straight in the eye and tell you something: Interpreters not receiving enough respect for their profession was never the problem.

The problem has always been that ASL as a language is not valued and respected.  And Deaf folks as a people and culture are not recognized, let alone valued and respected.

It is not possible nor is it even appropriate for ASL interpreters to seek and ask for more respect without this, first.

"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? - See more at:"

And trust is a choice.  It is. It really is.  And if Deaf folks are choosing not to trust interpreters, there is a damned good reason. You and me, we're on this hike together and we're not even half way there.  And I need you to trust me, first, that I know where we are both going.

So let me lead you through the forest here.  Let me be the guide. How comfortable are you putting your profession in the hands of Deaf folks? Of letting us lead, guide?

I'm also going to reclaim your profession from this point on. What I referred to as yours is now mine.  Ours even.  But especially mine. 

Will you let Deaf folks lead our interpreter conferences? Will you let the vast majority of speakers be Deaf folks? Will you have those conferences only in ASL?  Will you let us head RID and comprise a majority of our RID board?  Will you let us re-examine those Codes of Professional Conduct and re-write them from the bottom up?  How about your tests and certifications? Will you let us test you and pass/fail you?  Will you let us be the ones to oversee grievance procedures?

Do you trust us enough? Our knowledge, our skill, our capacity, our motives? Will you be okay with values that are Deaf-centric and Deaf-first and not Interpreter-Centric and Hearing-First?

Will you let Deaf leaders, grassroots and professionals, and Deaf-led organizations lead the way?  And take charge of our profession?  Because it's not your profession any longer.

Somehow, somewhere we lost sight of that.  Nothing that is about Deaf folks can be done by hearing folks.  "Of the Deaf. For the Deaf. By the Deaf." -  these are the wisest tenants in our community.  They have served us well and will continue to do so.

And if interpreters cannot hear those reasons, or respond without getting defensive as their first choice... then we're at a bit of an impasse here.

Two folks, everything being equal, will share mutual respect.  If someone has more power and privilege... respect is coerced by the system. The one with more power must stand down and let the one with less power stand up- then we can begin to respect and trust one another, on more equal footing.

We've reached an especially gnarly thicket in this part of our hike. And we need to hack our way through. Because I can't see the way ahead, and neither can you.  There's a whole mess of tangled, thorny vines; complicated stuff here. And as far as I can see, I'm the only one doing the hacking.  I think I left you back there, because I don't see you next to me any longer. Did I lose you? Did you get lost. Or did we lose each other?

We all participate in the system. Every one of us. Not a single one is exempt.

And we are programmed to help our helpers. To defer to them. To make sure we do everything we are supposed to do to keep them.  We are programmed by the system that we all participate in to help you, because if you go away, if you are no longer there, then who will help us? I am programmed to be your guide, even here on this hike. 

And don't you see how messed up that is? And how utterly devoid of respect it is? And how much it destroys any possibility for trust? We need you. And you need us to need you.  We pay your bills.  This crazy symbiosis is so inherently unhealthy and so inherently oppressive, it keeps us tied to one another through coercion, and not choice. And if trust is the only choice I have here, when nothing is else... I'm not sure I can give it so willingly. 

How can you possibly fight for a future that includes more respect for Deaf folks, their language and culture when you need us to need you?

I don't know.  It seems easier doesn't it, to fight for the profession itself. More concrete.  And nothing changes. Absolutely nothing changes. You'll still be getting paid. And we'll still need you. And you'll be in charge of my profession. 

I hear you saying it's not your fault. That you're not personally responsible. And I get that response.  I do.

But you also benefit from it more than most hearing people do who actively perpetuate oppression against Deaf folks .  You get paid to be a part of this system.  So you don't get to opt out of being responsible.  More than any one else, you have a front row seat to the oppression that Deaf folks face. More than any one else you know exactly how messed up it gets out there.  And so more than any one else, we have higher expectations of you.  Because you cannot claim ignorance.  You cannot say you did not know.

You must stand down.  Because the only way out of this forest is through you first. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Jobs You Take & The Jobs You Don't (Love Ya but WTF)

This is a love letter to my favorite terps. The rock stars. The hell-yeah, damn-they're good terps.  The ones I love to watch and oft-request. And fortunately oft get.  I love ya. Truly, madly, deeply do. When you invite me to your parties and include me in your gatherings, I get all kinds of tingly inside. And when you take my jobs, I feel all kinds of validated. You're the best and you wanna work with me? Sweeeeeet!

Now hold up.  Lets put the brakes on this love fest for just a minute.

I'm going to stop writing this love letter to them and talk to you instead. Let me just fold this up for a minute and set it aside. I don't care if you're hearing or Deaf. A terp or not. Or if you're the head of an agency or a regular folk.  I just want to have a little vent session and blow some steam.

Relationships are like that right? Full of ups and downs. My love for rock star terps is hitting a rocky patch right now. Getting kinda hard to write a love letter. Feels fake (kiss-kiss-hug-hug) and hella patronizing. I'm going to toss you a diet coke, and we'll crack them open, sit on my couch, and gush on the latest and not so greatest of my current relationship with terps.

Some context is helpful yes? Most of the rock star terps are working in the private sector where the pay is better. Makes sense. Or they're taking jobs in VRS  for more stability and benefits. (And I guess the pay can't be too shabby either). Many of the top tier, highly skilled certified terps in Washington state have left the public sector in droves, refusing to contract with the state for a variety of reasons, primarily due to a lower pay rate.  I get it.

And .. . It sucks.

It sucks because some of the most difficult jobs and the most vulnerable members of the Deaf community are those who are using interpreters in the public sector. They deserve the very best. Instead of  getting the most qualified and skilled interpreters, they are getting some of the most inexperienced interpreters whose skills sets don't match their needs. Or worse still, they're not getting a interpreter at all. Because there's not enough of them who will agree to take the work.

Now I do need to make a fair caveat here:  There are still a handful of good interpreters who work in the public sector and take those DSHS jobs, and some of them are also volunteering and contributing to the community.  This isn't about them. This isn't even about the mediocire, meh interpreters. Dude, I'll totally write about that another time. For days. Promise.

This is about the ones I love to love.

Sigh. Let me take a sip.  This is hard stuff. I need some carbonation to swallow it down with. 'Cos mostly I just want to hurl.

Lets clarify something here; My rock star, hell-yeah, damn-they're good terps I was writing a love letter to aren't taking these public sector jobs any longer, where they are most needed. At least a lot of them aren't.  Because they don't want to deal with the "BS" with the ODHH contract. Because they won't settle for being paid less than the private sector.  Because of any dozen reasons why working in the public sector sucks.

Whoa. Dude. That's not cool. 

So where'd they go and who is using them? Some of the most privileged folks in our community: Deaf professionals. 

A large percentage of consumers who use these rock star terps are Deaf professionals who are employed by nonprofits and businesses, and have private health insurance.  Some of them are my friends and I've been among them, full disclosure: I have worked for agencies that only hired the best terps. My agency could afford it. And only the best would do for us. This is a problem.

It makes it hard to relate to folks in our community who are getting shitty terps or not getting enough terps all-the-time. It makes it hard for Deaf professionals to get hot and bothered about this ODHH contract and give a damn. We think terps are paid enough. Too much.  And we don't look very far into the complexities of this issue because it doesn't really affect us that much.  Just our clients.

Boom. Just our clients. So who gives a fuck. Hello privilege, come hang out on the couch with us, here's a Diet Coke. You're going to need it to get the rest of this bitter pill down.

So what the fuck?!  My rock star, hell-yeah, damn-they're-good terps are specifically, mainly only taking terp gigs in the private sector, VRS included. They've essentially abandoned the most vulnerable of the Deaf community: The ones who cannot complain and if they do, often are not heard. My friends, Deaf Professionals, are sitting on the sidelines and not doing a damn thing.

This stuff hurts.  My beloved rock star, hell-yeah, goddamn-they're-good terps.... the ones I love and adore beyond reason... I'm just going to pick up my pen and start writing that letter again, because I really do love you:

Dear Rock Star Terps,

Well shit, you're part of the problem.  A big part.  We need you back, in the trenches, taking the jobs you don't want to take, that pay less than the private sector because if you don't, the problem in the public sector gets a whole lot worse and the solutions a whole lot more impossible to find.



PS xoxo

Pretty sure I need to cc this to Deaf Professionals. So here we go.

And Deaf professionals who are used to getting decent to awesome terps, you need to get whole lot more pissed off here. Because if you were getting the mediocre and the meh (or no terps at all) and weren't being included in the solution, you'd be pissed.  You'd mobilize. You'd raise holy hell and galvanize the community and get.shit.done.

PPS: What the fuck people?

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Absolute Neccesity of Anger

Here's what I want to say: Get comfortable with my anger.

Think of it as a roaring fire in a stone fireplace. Pull up a chair, grab your hot toddy, and bask in its glow. Your cheeks are going to get rosy, but that's just grand. It looks good on you.  I have a story to tell, and what better place for stories than in front of a roaring fire when the storms of disquiet rage outside the windows.

Lean closer to me. You need my anger. You need it to keep you warm when you are chilled to the very marrow of your soul.  You need it when you are weary and tired of fighting.   My anger will ignite you from within so you can keep going.

Don't be afraid of my anger. It is a bright light in a dark night.

The world is full of brimming chaos and swirling dissonance.  Those howling winds of change and cacophony are going to blow down the very walls of your ignorance and denial.  Good. So it should. But my anger lights the way through and lights the path towards a new way of being.

Don't tell me to simmer down and bank my fire.  Because someday there will be no fire left and the hearth will be barren, cold, with nothing left but ashes. You'll miss my anger then.

Fire is cleansing. So is anger. It burns down what is not needed so new growth can take root.

Every activist knows that the power of anger doesn't come from explosion but from its ability to light other fires so that the warmth of new ideas, and new possibilities can take root in us all.

Don't tell Deaf folks to stop being so angry. It is their anger that will lead us all out of the darkness.  Follow them into the light.  Come closer. Get warm. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mothers Day: For Those 'Whose Mother's Didn't Sign

Your mama, she loved you.  When she found out you were deaf, she loved you.  When she consulted with doctors, specialists, speech therapists, audiologists with fear running through her veins... she loved you.

When she didn't learn sign language. She loved you.  When she tried to learn some fingerspelling and signs, and you were embarrassed, she loved you.

Love was always there. And if it was layered with things like grief, regret, fear, worry, anxiety... remember, love was always there.

It didn't leave you at the dinner table when the family talked and you tried to follow in between bites of casserole and sips of milk.  And when you walked away to go read a book, she saw. And she loved you.

It didn't leave you when you sat for countless hours  the sound booth, taking one hearing test after another.

It never left you though you go home now, decades later, and the two of you are like strangers She loves you still.

Loving a stranger-mother who does not sign is hard.  But she loves you through it.  Your anger and your frustration and your sorrow at missing that deep mother-child connection stays with you.  Why didn't she love you enough to give you two the gift of communication?

Her eyes fill with tears. She loved you the best she knew how.  And somehow the two of you have to make that enough.

Meanwhile, the mother-love from other nurturing hands fly through air over the years, lifting you up when your house was a place of resentment.  Those hands from other mothers who signed, who opened their hearts to you let you see what was possible.  And the hands from children your age who loved you through those times carried you as well.  They saved you.

For all the mothers who sign with their children and the children of those who don't, Happy Mother's Day and thank you. You have no idea how precious that gift is.  And for those who don't: we know you love us. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

When Allies Ask You to Fight for Them: Sailing Ships & Trekking Mountains


"Interpreters are an island most of the time"- this quote comes from a woman and and interpreter I admire and think well of. Interpreters are an island; going to and fro jobs, isolated much of the time but occasionally gathering on ships, to sail together for destinations known and unknown.  Sometimes those ships are passenger ferries that connect them to one another as they visit homes.  Sometimes they are commercial container ships, bringing them all to a gathering place to discuss their industry, exchange ideas and lend support.  Other times cruise ships dot the water where much merriment and drinking copious amounts of alcohol takes place.  And finally, sometimes those ships are mighty Rescue Ships, with churning wakes during times of calamity.

Necessity requires them to hop off their islands, and hop aboard these Rescue Ship, picking up other interpreters along the way, gathering momentum with every mile ... steering towards the islands of better wages, better conditions, better contracts, better terms. Around the country, interpreters are boarding these Rescue Ships, refugees seeking a better life on another cluster of islands in the distance.

Deaf folks don't live on islands surrounded by water on every side. We're gathered on the shore on the mainland. We'll stand, watching these terps pick one another up as they sail across rocky seas as they chart for what they hope will be more clear and smooth waters. 

We watch their ships set course away from us, increasing the already far distances that separated us. We turn to one another and exchange various expressions of bemusement, disdain, indifference, concern, curiosity, and open hostility. We're quite land locked, with no ships of our own available to us. And no room on that ship for us.  So we turn our backs, and look to the mountains that hover over us, imposing and seemingly impregnable.  We huddle together as we always have, comparing maps, and sharing resources and survival gear- how do we trek these mountains and reach the other side, where we will be free? Where foes block our way at every pass and every turn. Where our survival does not concern better wages, but the right to exist. The right to things more basic, like language. 

Then a message by bottle arrives on the sand, ,a flare shoots across the sky-  we're asked and sometimes summoned to swim out to the Rescue Ship. They have need of us. Our help is essential.  Our stories and narratives are imperative to their cause. Their plight after all, affects Deaf folks, ultimately. If interpreters are not paid enough, or are not able to earn a living wage, or are asked to work under intolerable conditions the quality of interpreters will diminish, and the pool of interpreters will shrink. They'll simply set anchor on a new island, one that involves better pay in the private sectors, leaving the public sector shipwrecked, or they'll simply find new careers on sandier shores with better drinks. And Deaf folks will be landlocked still. 

We turn to one another. Because there is truth in what they say.  Some will risk the long swim, some will drown in the process.  Some will create rafts out of driftwood and debris and paddle their way out.  Others... most, will turn their backs and leave their pleas unanswered. We have our own mountains to climb, and our resources are limited, our people number small, and our gear is scarce.  

Because we know from experience that once we reach their ships, we'll stay for only a while and we'll be thrown off- perhaps will life jackets. Perhaps not.  And if we are lucky, we will return to the mainland, depleted and unable to help our people prepare and set out for the long trek across the mountain. Though we sent reinforcements, it will not be reciprocated. No reinforcements from interpreters will be sent in exchange after their battle is won. They will go back to their islands, surrounded by water, content that the status quo has been saved to live another day. 

I share this parable as a way to explain why Deaf folks don't immediately join the fight when interpreters call on us to help them fight for better wages, better conditions, and better terms for contracts.  It also helps explain the indifference and for some, the anger and hostility Deaf folks feel when we are asked to fight for something when we have our more pressing fights that we often fight alone, without the rank and file of the interpreter community behind us.  

Sometimes interpreters think we don't understand, or that we don't get it.  Or worse that we don't care.  Perhaps they're right.  But I wonder if that's the point. It seems to smack of navel-grazing and self-centeredness.  I think Deaf folks are so busy surviving and fighting battles we did not choose  nor can we opt out of.  Our numbers are so small, and we are so battered, and we have so little left to give that diverting attention, funds, and our talent towards the battles and wars of others will ensure our own defeat.  

For as long as interpreters are sailing away from us, without us (and this is key), for a better life when the power dynamics and income earning power are already steeply skewed in favor of hearing interpreters... we'll never  be able to feel we are on the same side.

Because as long as it is lucrative to choose careers in "helping" professions to support the Deaf community, we will always have hearing people to fill those jobs.  For as long as our bodies and our language provide income for those to profit and live off of, we will always have interpreters, audiologists, surgeons, speech therapists, teachers, counselors, etc. Oppressed, Deaf folks are far more valuable for the industry and jobs they provide, than if we were emancipated.  It makes complete sense why there is not a call to arms for more jobs for Deaf folks by our interpreter allies, it makes sense why there is not wide spread acknowledgement and respect for our language and culture, and it is deeply clear that as long as there are barriers to access, we will see folks more invested in improving the interpreter profession. It is profitable.

Before you ask us to fight with you, can we find a way to build rickety rafts together? Will you fight for a future where your jobs are no longer needed? Can we all live on the mainland and share resources?  Can we trek those mountains together first, before we chart the seas, with Deaf folks leading?  Or can we find ships big enough to carry us all, with Deaf folks at the helms, leaving no Deaf person behind? 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Interpreter Appreciation Day: The Praised & The Invisible

Can I preface this by saying I come from a mainstream background from 5th grade onward. Prior to that, I was in a classroom with no access to ASL for 5 1/2 years. 

This informs my experience as a Deaf person greatly. It informs my opinions of interpreters, in the ways I love them. And don't.  

At times my relationship with interpreters is co-dependent. At other times it is downright toxic . I vacillate between abject adoration and chilly condemnation.  Neither is an accurate vantage point.

At no point though, is it a vantage point of my choosing.  I do not hike those mountains of love and hate willingly, with a map in hand; I am dropped there from the airplane of hearing dominance without a parachute.

Interpreter Appreciation Day has come and gone. It began, incorrectly observed on May 1st owing to the confusion of many, and ended on the actual day of observance, the first Wednesday in May, the official date. Full disclosure: I participated. And I am glad to give shout outs to terps who do good work, in all the right ways.

So, of course (again)  I appreciate interpreters. Not as a whole, not as an entire institution. But on an individual, name-by-name basis. I appreciate those individuals are are among the "good ones."   Those few individuals who are welcome guests in my house.  Whose passports were earned the right way, through humility and recognition that as allies they earn respect through doing the work we ask them to do.

We Deaf folks, especially from mainstream backgrounds, look to interpreters with respect and something more.  We look up, specifically, to interpreters. Not as equals but as folks on pedestals. Or as folks who are beneath us.  They were often our only friend in the classroom. And so the unhealthy co-dependency began for many Deaf folks. We love them/we hate them.

For hearing folks, interpreters are at the forefront of ASL. Interpreters are the literal front-line "ambassadors" of our community . They are the ones praised for ASL and their "performances." It is interpreters who are approached after performances. Whose hands are shaken. Who are surrounded by adoring hearing non-signers, recent converts to the glory and sexiness that is ASL.

Deaf folks are all but invisible.   They're a nameless, faceless member in the crowd. Unrecognized, nearly always. The praise and recognition of interpreters has not resulted in increasing respect and visibility for Deaf folks and ASL.

Because interpreters are sexy right? Well, I do think so. But that's a topic for another time.  Or is it? Can we talk about sexiness?  I don't mean soul-deep, own-it, walk your truth kind of empowered sexiness. I mean that, "goddamn that's hot" objectification- where the person isn't seen, just their potent appeal. In the case of "that interpreter is hot", the language isn't seen. And certainly, Deaf folks aren't seen.  And isn't that the most effective way to de-value a language & culture, and dehumanize the group it comes from? By debasing it as something trite, entertaining, and well... hot?

And here lies my discomfort with Interpreter Appreciation Day. Because I do appreciate access. And I appreciate folks who do their jobs well. And I certainly appreciate interpreters who "get it."    But there is something  inherently "sexy" about Interpreter Appreciation Day... and shallow.  And where is there mention of the Deaf teachers who taught them? Of Deaf folks who took them in and gave interpreters the most valuable gifts they had: ASL and the history and culture? Why are interpreters yet again in the spotlight and why are Deaf folks still invisible?

Although I am an adult now, I am often capitulated back to that 10 year old girl...  alone in a classroom with only an interpreter for a friend.  There was desperation there, and a need to survive a hearing world. How utterly dependent I was and still am, without a map torn between the peaks of love and hate.  

I want off that mountain.  

Passports & Reclamation

My whole life words have been in equal measures my salvation and my torment.

English, no better or worse than any other language, gave me life saving escape from the hearing world. Reading English words gave me thousands of hours of pleasure and escape, and knowledge too. Writing English word gave and gives me still an outlet {one of many} for self-expression so that I don't succumb to an avalanche of oppression that surrounds me on all sides like an ever-encroaching slag heap. Daily, it threatens to bury me. 

Writing in English allows me to hand out passports to all humans, Deaf & hearing, so that they can travel into my mind and heart.  Your reading of my words allow us to connect there in my English house as two-hearts and two-minds, even if we are not same-hearted or like-minded. 


And yet, here as I write and over time I will explore the ways English defeats me, as the enemy's language, pushes me into the dust and tramples over me day after day. And I will explore how ASL saves me and lifts me. There is a strange push-pull between the two for me. A war even, as much as I hate using war-mongering language, it is a war none the less.  

But perhaps, just maybe, words give you/me the power to rise. When we write in the enemy's language we are able to invite them into our home, sit down with them, offer a cup of coffee and then use the very same words, more powerful than any weapon, to throw them out again when they have overstayed their welcome. We can reclaim our homes and lands that have been stolen from us and are denied to us. 


Language is our home. For Deaf folks, ASL is our home. Hearing users of ASL are guests at best, and enemy invaders at worst. Sometimes welcome. Sometimes not. Sometimes we invite them in for coffee. And sometimes we wish to throw them out and barricade the door. 

English is not my home. I have a house there. Though I was born in that house, I will forever be an immigrant with a temporary visa using the language with mastery but still missing the nuances of native fluency. There will never be dual citizenship for me in this English house of mine, that I own but whose lands it stands upon I do not. Those lands will never belong to me. The soil there is forever foreign. There will never be amnesty that says "You're one of us." I wouldn't want to be, anyways. 


So allow me to write to you these postcards from my English house, as someone who longs to return home. Let this be your passport that invites you to join me on my journey. Stay. Have some coffee.

*Please read the links. They inform my thoughts and ideas. Full credit given to those who inspired the ideas in this writing, the ideas are theirs, and did not originate with me. Credit attributed for both ideas and words are important. Especially as every movement is informed by movements that go before, by nameless and famous individuals who whose lives and thoughts made the impossible possible, and upon whose shoulders I stand. Men and women from every walk of life have made it possible for me to share this with you. Without them and their words and work, I would not be.