The current code of ethics for ASL interpreters is the joint NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct. That document contains in its preface a section titled, “Philosophy,” which reads as follows:
The American Deaf community represents a cultural and linguistic group having the inalienable right to full and equal communication and to participation in all aspects of society. Members of the American Deaf community have the right to informed choice and the highest quality interpreting services. Recognition of the communication rights of America’s women, men, and children who are deaf is the foundation of the tenets, principles, and behaviors set forth in this Code of Professional Conduct.
As an RID-certified interpreter and transliterator, I must agree to uphold and follow this code of professional conduct — and I do — but there is a bit of nonsense in that paragraph that I cannot endorse, and that is the fallacy of “inalienable rights.”
It is ironic that such a fallacy is promulgated under the heading “Philosophy.” Anyone familiar with philosophy knows that rights are social constructs: they are given by society and can be taken away by society. “Inalienable” means “cannot be taken away.” Well, the fact is that rights are given and rights are taken away.
It may sound paternalistic to say so, but the only rights deaf people have are the ones that hearing people give them. I am sorry to be the bearer of bad news to people who won’t acknowledge the obvious, but that’s the way it is. This is simply because deaf people are in the minority and hearing people are in the majority. Don’t get me wrong— I acknowledge that, in part, I owe my livelihood to those deaf people who fight for the right to an interpreter. Ultimately, though, I think you know who I owe my livelihood to: those hearing people who follow the Americans with Disablilities Act and give deaf people that right.
I know what it’s like to be in a minority who wants the majority to give him a right. I am a man who is married to another man (in our eyes), but the government doesn’t see it that way. Clearly gay people do not have the inalienable right to marry, because if we did, we would. But even if we win that right, it will only be because straight people gave it to us. Why? Because we are in the minority! No matter how many gay people vote for gay marriage, the right to marry another person of the same sex will never be granted until a majority of the people vote for it— and most of “the people” are straight! (Just like most people are hearing!)
Now, I do believe that within my lifetime gay people will win the right to marry, but when we do, I won’t ignore the truth and call that right “inalienable”!
Before I close, allow me to quote one more thing from the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct:
Interpreters who are members in good standing with the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. and the National Association of the Deaf voted to adopt this Code of Professional Conduct, effective July 1, 2005. This Code of Professional Conduct is a working document that is expected to change over time. The aforementioned members may be called upon to vote, as may be needed from time to time, on the tenets of the code.
I hope that, in the future, we members of NAD and RID will change this document. Let us improve its credibility by removing from it the illogical language about “inalienable rights.”