Why are interpreters deaf community members? And other questions

Recently, I read some statements made by a hearing person who had very limited exposure to deaf people and interpreters. This person was in a position to hire interpreters to accommodate requests from deaf people. While some of her comments shocked the sensibilities inculcated in me as an interpreter, I imagine that other hearing people who know little about deaf people or interpreters share the same thoughts. I will address these sentiments to the best of my ability. Please feel free to comment if you have something else to add.

… the deaf community (and by that I mean, the deaf, not the interpreters, etc because I believe its ridiculous that a party who benefits heavily from the community be considered a part of it)…

First, let’s dispense with the fallacy that a party who benefits heavily from a community should not be considered a part of it. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker are members of their community even though they prosper by selling their wares to other community members. A Rabbi is a member of her Jewish community even though she benefits from their synagogue dues. But the interpreter requestor has a point: why are people who are not deaf considered a part of a community of those who are?

The short answer is that hearing people are members of the deaf community when deaf people say they are. We interpreters do not presume to be members of the deaf community, but deaf people invite us to be, and we are proud to be. The butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker are not members of the bovine, flour, or iron communities because inanimate materials do not form communities as people do. Deaf people, on the other hand, are people, and their language is inseparable from them. An interpreter must, therefore, enter the deaf community in order to possess an intimate knowledge of their language and culture; otherwise, they cannot be bilingual. And more important, they will not be trusted by deaf people who rightly view hearing people as potential threats to their way of life.

When I went to the Conference of Interpreter Trainers in San Antonio last October, I attended two presentations that spoke to the issues of interpreter identity and community membership, by Robert G. Lee and Arlene Gunderson, respectively. Allow me to share some insights I gleaned from them.

Lee, in his presentation “Across the Pond But on Familiar Turf: Sign Language Interpreters and the Nature of Identity,” emphasized that our identity as interpreters is granted to us by deaf people. Also the interpreter identity is a lasting one that persists even while we’re not interpreting or even, in Lee’s case, if we’re in a deaf community abroad. Lee shared three powerful statements by Richard Jenkins about identity: “Individual identity – embodied in selfhood – is not meaningful in isolation from the social world of other people” (Jenkins, p. 20), “…what people think about us is no less important than what we think about ourselves…” (Jenkins, p. 20), and “Social Identity is never unilateral” (Jenkins, p. 21). [Lee’s Reference: Jenkins, R. (1996) Social Identity. London, Routledge.] In other words, it is deaf people who say whether or not interpreters are members of the deaf community. I don’t brag that I’m a member of the deaf community, but I gladly accept the membership deaf people give me and I accept the responsibility of the interpreter identity.

Gunderson, in her presentation “Understanding & Teaching Avenues & Membership into the Deaf Community – Past & Present,” stressed the importance of ensuring that all interpreters have a strong understanding of both cultural and medical views of deafness both past & present. She talked about the Four Avenues to Membership in the Deaf Community— audiological, political, linguistic, and social. This model was constructed by Dennis Cokely and Charlotte Baker–Shenk in American Sign Language: a teacher’s resource text on curriculum, methods…. Deaf members of the deaf community may grant hearing people membership as long as those hearing people have the right attitude. Obviously, audiological is not an avenue for hearing membership into the deaf community, but political, linguistic, and social are. Also, Carol Padden wrote in 1980 that “a deaf community may include people who are not themselves deaf but actively support the goals of the community, and work with deaf people to achieve them” (Padden, C. in Gregory, S., Deconstructing Deafness). Interpreters do actively support the goals of the deaf community and work with deaf people to achieve them. Interpreters do have political, linguistic, and social avenues to the deaf community. That is why deaf people consider interpreters to be members of the deaf community.

Frankly, I’m amazed that in 2011, the best we have to offer the deaf is ASL interpreters. With all that technology has to offer, I’d be upset we didn’t have better systems than one that relies on expensive human interaction.

Far be it from human interaction to take the place of all that technology has to offer! Seriously, though, this statement is also addressed by language and community. For many deaf people, sign language is the best form of communication the world has to offer. The visual–gestural mode of communication suits their abilities, and sign language is much more than a mode; it is a language, and entwined in every language—be it ASL, French, or Swahili—is culture. History. Identity. Deaf people give us sign language so that we can give it back to them. It is what they want. Of course there are deaf people who prefer realtime captioning, but that is just as expensive as interpreting. Anyone who thinks technology trumps human interaction should never have anything to do with a conference, since a conference is all about human interaction.

And, yes, human interaction is expensive. Not to brag, but to demonstrate the commitment to professional growth that I and other professional interpreters have, it was very expensive for me to attend the Conference of Interpreter Trainers. Registration was about $400 for four days, and four nights’ stay at the St. Anthony Hotel was about the same (half of what it cost to stay at the conference hotel, the Omni La Mansion del Rio). In addition to this $800, there was the airfare of about $300. Add to that a week’s worth of lost wages, and you get a grand total of about $2500. If an interpreter is willing to spend that much time and money on human interaction for the sake of professional development—that is, to be a better servant to the deaf community—then perhaps conference organizers and others who request our services should respect what we are worth.

[Comparing deaf people to other groups is an] unfair comparison to other special rights groups. Those groups, say, based on color or religion or sexual preference are asking for equal rights, not special rights. That’s not what [the deaf attendees] were asking for.

Oh. I must have heard wrong when people were saying that gays were demanding special rights. Hm. Ahem… Be that as it may, even if deaf people are asking for special rights, that doesn’t make them wrong. Hearing people don’t need to demand special rights (because they already have them). For deaf people, access to communication in the hearing world is a special right— a right granted them by the American people when our government passed the ADA— and given them by generous people even when the ADA doesn’t require them to.

If anyone reading this blog post thinks it is an inadequate representation of the issues, that’s because it is. Interpreters spend years learning the medical and cultural views of deafness, the intricacies of sign language, and new trends in the deaf world and the profession of interpreting. I have been interpreting for over twenty years and I am still learning. There are many times I feel inadequate, and sometimes, for certain assignments, I am. Any professional interpreter will admit the same. We interpreters who are certified by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) know that we are never done learning. We complete 80 hours of continual education every four years. Our field is constantly changing as the language and culture of deaf people is ever changing. Many articles, dissertations, and books have been written on sign language, deaf culture, and interpreting. I cannot hope to comprise it all here.

If I still feel I have so much to learn this many years into my career, I can only imagine how baffling it must be for hearing requestors of sign language interpreting services for the deaf. I am happy to do what I can to educate people. I only ask that they admit how little they know.

Are you a hearing requestor of sign language interpreting services who has learned things about deaf people and interpreters that you never knew you didn’t know? Are you a deaf person or an interpreter who has learned that there are things you never knew hearing people didn’t know? I would love to hear from people who have had positive experiences working with deaf people and interpreters to provide equal access.

Author: Daniel Greene

I facilitate communication between Deaf and hearing people, and I teach people American Sign Language (ASL) and interpreting. Apart from doing the work I love, my greatest joys are family & friends, entertainment, food, photography, and travel.

4 thoughts on “Why are interpreters deaf community members? And other questions”

  1. Daniel, that was a well thought out blog post. Some comments:

    1.) I used to work as a videophone installer and I would be paid per diem and the usual job took about two hours. I calculated that I was earning approximately $30/hour. However, when I deducted for gas, commute time, taxes, and other jobs that took +2 hours I was making very little. So, I am in agreement that interpreters do not make enough money, especially free lance interpreters who do not have enough hours to bill. On the other hand, there are staff interpreters and/or VRS interpreters who commute to one location every day and work 40 or 40+ hours a week. I think these interpreters make sufficient enough money due to the number of hours they work and their likely experience level (interpreters have to be very good to be hired on full time or qualify for a VRS position). That is just my opinion.

    2.) I am not too surprised by the level of ignorance among hearing people who aren’t involved in the deaf community. At the same time, I can understand their ignorance because they are viewing things from the outside. Blog postings like this will alleviate that ignorance somewhat.

    3.) Yup, terps are a part of the deaf community. I know many interpreters who even elect to socialize in the deaf community almost exclusively despite having hearing friends/family members outside of the deaf community that they could socialize with. Also, I always feel a bond with my interpreter when we both face a situation in which I am discriminated (i.e. job interviews and the interpreter makes a not so obvious note of sarcasm). So, interpreters are one of us and they should be compensated well for their specialized skill set which took many years of practice to obtain.

    4.) Some other members of the deaf community would include parents of deaf children, teachers, guidance counselors, and etc..

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  2. Interpreters should be active in the community, Since they are profitting off of them (as for without them, theres no one to interpret) they should give back to the community.. you know, watch their plays, buy their products, etc.

    Like any community that speak in a different language, its very hard to trust someone who is a part of another community translating for them. So for them to accept you, they must trust you alot.

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  3. It bothers me that in 2011 we still have people who may consider themselves accommodating and equal-opportunity, yet think that technology should make everyone else just like them. Yet Deaf people aren’t the only ones who want to retain their own culture and identity through their language- look at America and how many people advocate for English to be spoken. Even at the UN people have interpreters that translate in spoken languages. Speaking of which, even with all the technological developments, there is still a live person at the other end of the phone. There is no machine, to my knowledge, that will automatically detect another language, then interpret to another language automatically (and accurately). Shocking, I know. Point is, no matter how advanced technology becomes, humans crave human interaction. We are pack animals. As embarrassing and uncomfortable as a pap smear is, I’d much prefer a human to do it, not a machine. I couldn’t imagine getting news that I have cancer or other sensitive information from a machine. As much as people want to believe that technology will help things be more accessible, there is no way to guarantee that a machine could learn and grow along with a language. Language is a living and growing thing, it is always changing. Humans are the only thing that has the capacity to grow with the language. Maybe one day there will be something that allows us to understand eachother, but for now, interpreters are here to stay.

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