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? 


  1. This is a wonderful post. It's tough to think of a self as means for someone else's profit.

    So glad to have found your blog. Such rich thoughts being expressed here. I would love to post your thoughts on my blog if you'd like.