There Are No "Inalienable Rights"!

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.”





2 responses to “There Are No "Inalienable Rights"!”

  1. Daniel Greene Avatar

    Thank you, Kent, for your comment. I was beginning to wonder whether or not anyone read my post or had any thoughts or feelings about it!

    Of course I believe that it is in society’s best interests to provide accommodations to deaf people and people with disabilities in general. I don’t believe that “fairness” is a permanent entitlement or in/unalienable right, though. I suppose you could argue: IF rights must be given to all people, AND rights are given to hearing people, THEN rights must be given to deaf people. My point is that “fairness” is a virtue, not a “given.” Yes, it is financially and morally in society’s best interests to give deaf people accommodations that allow them to be fully involved in society. I just don’t see “should” as equivalent to “must.”

    My question is: why couldn’t the language in the CPC be simpler and more verifiable, such as, “American deaf people have the legal right to equal communication access via qualified American Sign Language interpreters”? I believe it should be stated in a straightforward and unassuming way, rather than invoking the lofty but dubious conceit of “inalienable rights.”


  2. Kent Munro Avatar

    You present an interesting viewpoint regarding the meaning of “inalienable right(s).” The technical definition you provided was correct; i.e., “cannot be taken away.” However, when one considers the context of this phrase (albeit “unalienable”) within the Declaration of Independence, it is obvious that the founding fathers were expressing “inalienable rights” that were capable of being taken away by force or opposition. They found themselves asserting a set of rights believed granted by a Creator, which the king of England was trampling upon. I recognize that you are speaking strictly within the scope of a society; however, there is little doubt that the vast majority of, if not all, societies, consider a sense of fairness to be paramount to their integrity. In other words, fairness can be viewed as a universal right. As such, optimal societal equilibrium, as it were, would reflect fairness, i.e., in/unalienable rights to all its members. Obviously, different societies find themselves in varying states of social equilibrium, depending on the level of fairness that exists for each of its members. Where fairness is denied to the dissatisifaction of a subset of its members, that society faces increasing social imbalance which, in turn, leads to some kind of price to be paid, i.e., suffering, financial cost, etc. Yet, fairness, even when absent to some degree in a particular society, remains in/unalienable in the sense that it’s a permanent entitlement. Whether it’s realized or not is entirely a different ballgame.


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