Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Taking Back Responsibility for What is Ours: Bringing Interpreters Back into the Fold

I took some time off to percolate. Now I'm back.

The feedback and the speed at which some of Deaf Wordsmith posts went viral surprised me.  Clearly, while many didn't agree with all/some of the points in previous entries, there was resonance. Y'all shared like crazy. And conversations were had.  For that, I am grateful.

But I also was tasked with taking a look at my anger.  That familiar chip on my shoulder. Yeah. It's there. It's a real thing.

Here's my take on that- I think anger is much maligned and not so far removed from kindness and love as we have been led to believe. I've done some work around it and here are the things I've come up with so far.

For many Deaf folks, interpreters are our first line of defense ,where the hearing world and Deaf world intersects. Interpreters are at the forefront of some of our most intense, scary times where we encounter "The System."

And when things go awry with interpreting it affects us. Deeply.

It hurts. Behind the anger is hurt.

I do think that the responsibility of access in the Deaf community is a shared one.  It does not rest of the shoulders of interpreters alone. So this post is for my Deaf brothers and sisters, and not for interpreters really. If you are an interpreter, I invite you to read along and mull these things over in private. Share this if you like, with your fellow interpreters, but give the platform to us.

For my Deaf brothers and sisters, I ask you to engage in this conversation publicly, with one another. I ask you to weigh in, to add your thoughts to this discourse.

We Deaf folks need to do a better job at some of this stuff too. We need to reclaim some things we have relinquished.

Interpreter Training Programs:
We are no longer raising interpreters like we did decades prior, and this is to the detriment of our people and interpreters alike. Interpreters used to be home-grown; they came from us and absorbed our values and ways of being. CODAs were instrumental in this.  That is our responsibility, raising interpreters, and we have turned it over to the interpreter training factories. We have turned over quality control and oversight to institutions of higher learning corporations who are more interested in profitability than they are in serving our Deaf communities.

Many interpreter training programs these days are being run like a big business, far removed from the heart of the Deaf community that its administrators, teachers, students, and graduates purport to serve. We have handed them the keys to the kingdom and we walked away, unconcerned  There is often very little oversight and understanding about what happens behind those classroom doors. Teachers in these programs send wave after wave of students and new graduates into our Deaf spaces, meetings, appointments, events, plays,  happy hours, and gatherings. For many, if not most, of these students and new graduates we are their first encounter. We are the first Deaf person they have met. We are the first large gathering of Deaf people they have come across.  Nothing in their lives, previously, has informed them or prepared them for what they are encountering.

That is frightening.

The results speak for themselves- interpreter quality has consistently gone downhill year after year. These hearing students and recent graduates are so far removed from our communities that often the ranks are flooded with those who do not possess the skill set and cultural competency needed for the work they are called to do. They do not know us.  How can they interpret for us? The lack of skill set goes far beyond the "Newbie Interpreter" grace period that assumes all new interpreters need time to get better. They are missing something even more fundamental, they do not have Deaf hearts.

Internalized Oppression:
The ramifications goes deeper than this. The result is really a symptom of a much larger problem. At the very core, we have lost our way as Deaf people when it comes to interpreters.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the role of CODAs here.  In the past CODAs, along with Deaf people have worked together to raise interpreters.  And CODAs remain a crucial part of this problem and the solutions we need to find. But that is a post for another day.

We have learned to assimilate and internalize hearing values, including sparing the feelings of those we care about/depend on at the expense of our understanding, which has reduced the opportunity for giving and receiving important feedback.   This assimilation has not been voluntary, admittedly. It has been forced upon us. And ultimately this assimilation has contributed to the declining quality of interpreters in the field who are unable to grow their skills without that much-needed feedback. Because we are putting individual interpreters and their feelings at the greater expense of our understanding and access. We have spared the few at the expense of the many. And we are paying for it dearly. Deaf children will pay for it even more.

Educational Interpreters:
Mainstream culture, that more and more Deaf children are being raised in, has contributed to this internalized oppression and certainly has contributed to the glorification of interpreters. Interpreters for many of these children are seen as a friend, a life preserver... the only hearing person in the classroom who literally understands them. This creates an unhealthy emotional and physical dependency, and a blurring of boundaries that many carry into adulthood. It is difficult for many of us from this background to confront interpreters or to understand that we deserve the best when it comes to access.

 We have not done a very good job of letting Deaf children in mainstream education settings know that they are entitled to quality interpreters. They are entitled to better access. They are entitled to competent, skilled, clear interpreting in the classroom provided by experienced, certified interpreters.  Deaf children are among the most vulnerable members of our community and yet they are not given the very best access.

Deaf folks, historically, have fought more for improved access in medical settings, in court settings, the video relay industry, as well as entertainment venues. We have not demanded that educational interpreters be held to the same, if not higher standards than we hold professional, certified interpreters to. In fact, we have not demanded that our Deaf children deserve the best, period.  That is shameful. We must do better.

Going Forward: 

We have work to do. And we have ignored our responsibility to lead this work for too long. We need to bring our interpreters back into the fold, raise them from within our community, and pass on our values and language the old fashioned way.  We need to care again about the quality of interpreters and not be afraid to use tough love when the occasion calls for it.  We need to let interpreters know that education exists both inside and outside the classroom walls. We need to remember that interpreters are not there to be glorified or vilified, but to be treated as human beings with both flaws and potential, and to treat them with the dignity we all deserve. It's time to bring them home. 


  1. But as a Deaf individual, I've come across some amazing Interpreters, and I've come across those who still look down on a Deaf individual and the ego I've encountered has been frustrating as well as complete incompetence. I wish that there was a way that Deaf individuals could feel safe, and know they are going to be understood, not pitied, and not berated or oppressed (subtly) by the Interpreters. Not to mention that Interpreting agencies are climbing over the backs of the Deaf clients to create absolute monopolies. I believe that the myriads of Interpreter agencies feels like they are breaking the anti-trust laws, and using Deaf individuals as indentured servants who are not given a choice as to their taskmaster. I believe that ALL Interpreting agencies need to be run by Deaf individuals instead of having it so "Hearing" top down effect. I believe that most Interpreters truly go into the field for the "lucrative money" that they can make. It's a disaster that could turn into a perfect storm sooner or later.