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.  


  1. Thank you for your honesty. I'm going to share this, although I'm afraid that the interpreters who don't "get it" never will.

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