Vanquished Native Voices — A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?

Woman Questioning Why Native Voices Have Been Vanquished

As sign language interpreters we have the difficult and challenging task of straddling two languages/cultures (Michal Agar coined the term “languaculture” to highlight the fact that language and culture cannot really be separated.) But I suggest, as others have (see Bill Moody’s 12/11/11 comment), that the vast majority of us approach this daunting task only partially prepared. To fully understand and appreciate this reality I believe we must constantly examine our roots and acknowledge the valuable resource we have around us.

Our Roots

When the RID was established in 1964 Codas played a prominent role in rendering sign language interpreting services for Deaf people and in the establishment of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). Indeed for the first two decades of RID’s existence the president was a Coda. For the first decade or so the majority of interpreters were related by blood to Deaf people. (“All-in-all, to know a sign language interpreter is to know someone who cares deeply about humanity in its many forms” — this from an earlier post on this site by Brandon Arthur in “The Goo at the Center of a Sign Language Interpreter”). In the last twenty-five years, however, Codas have not been as well represented in the elected leadership of RID as I believe they should be and as I believe we need them to be.

Native World-View

As the ranks of RID members who were not-Codas swelled inexorably (in large part because of federal laws as I have suggested in “Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain”), it has become less and less a given that we will have the insights of Codas on the RID Board of Directors. This would prove to be a significant loss for our organization and for the future direction of our field.

For those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — the DEAF-WORLD and ASL are neither our first culture nor our first language; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — our initial societally reinforced perceptions of Deaf people are that they are “disabled” and are therefore inferior to those of us who can hear; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know the feeling of experiencing firsthand the communicative oppression of our family members; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know the pressures of family members depending on us to facilitate communication; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know what it is like to grow up in a Deaf household; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know what it is like to grow up in a visually-oriented world-view.

I suggest that the experience and world-view gap between Codas and non-Codas may best be encapsulated by Egg Drop Soup who posted on the website: “Sometimes it’s the worry that gets to me; that one day, I won’t know where they are and won’t have any way of getting in contact with them. Sometimes, it’s the clash of cultures – my adopted American individualism colliding unpleasantly with their traditional Eastern values. Other times, it’s the frustration of constantly being their ears and mouths, translating for them for friends, doctors, teachers, car salesmen, and even the occasional police officer.” This is unquestionably an experience and world-view that those of us who are not Codas can only experience vicariously in our wildest imaginings. Codas also represent a rich cultural reservoir from which I believe those of us who are not Codas must draw because Codas are connected to Deaf people in an intense and intimate way.

It is precisely this intense level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant presence as a guide to our work; it is precisely this level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant presence in the regular and secured leadership of RID; it is precisely this level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant reminder of the roots of our profession.

Don’t Feel Inadequate

All of this is, of course, is in no way intended to make those of us who are not Codas feel inadequate as interpreters. Our experiences – Codas and non-Codas — are simply quite different. Our experiences are neither better nor worse, they are just different. And, no, I am not suggesting that all Codas are effective and successful interpreters and neither do I believe that that one must be a Coda to be an effective and successful sign language interpreter. However, I do believe that to be effective and successful as an interpreter one must absolutely have deep and sustained connections to the Deaf Community. And since 54% of us spend less than 10% of our time socializing with Deaf people (see my 1/5/12 comment on “Complicit With a Devils’ Bargains” post), this is a serious problem for us as a field! I absolutely am suggesting that listening to and ensuring a presence for the native voice of the Coda-experience is one incredibly vital way that we as individual practitioners and as a field can begin to re-connect with Deaf people and can connect with the experience of the communicative oppression that Deaf people experience on a daily basis. Perhaps more importantly we can develop a fuller and enriched understanding of and appreciation for what it is we do as interpreters.

A Coda on the RID Board

This past July at the RID Conference a motion was passed by a significant majority that would create a dedicated position on the RID Board of Directors for a certified member who was raised by one or two Deaf parents. I absolutely and unequivocally believe that we must ensure that RID, our organization, does not lose the vital Coda link to our past. I can think of no compelling reason why we, as an organization, would not want to ensure this irreplaceable link to our past and its presence on our Board of Directors. Some would argue that RID (us) would incur additional expenses by adding an additional seat on the Board. I would argue that the price of doing so definitely does not outweigh the cost of not doing so.

Further, I would encourage the leadership of any association serving sign language interpreters to work to ensure that the Coda link to our past is represented as they move their respective organizations forward.

In Sum

I urge every member of RID to honor our past, cherish our present and enrich our future by voting in the affirmative to create a dedicated Coda seat on the RID Board of Directors. When the vote is called for next fall I urge us all to vote to ensure that we always have a Native Voice on our Board of Directors!


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About the Author

Dennis Cokely is a nationally certified interpreter and has been interpreting for over four decades. He also served two terms as president of RID. After teaching at Gallaudet for 15 years, he worked full-time at the company he co-founded — Sign Media, Inc. Dennis has published widely on various aspects of interpreting and has directed the IEP at Northeastern since 1996. He almost always thanks Patrick Graybill who was his first guide into the DEAF-WORLD, but there are those days.

28 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Amy Amundsen says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Dennis, your insightful comments are right on the mark. You have so eloquently expressed many ideas that I have had in the back of my mind for years, but could not articulate. The drift away from Coda influence in RID circles, and resulting negative perception/assumptions of Codas from Hearing interpreters, has been what has held me back from getting more deeply involved with RID, nationally and locally. Just like with baked goods….we need a balance of home-grown (Coda interpreters) and store-bought (Hearing interpreters)in our lives/profession!
    By the way, thank you for using the correct written form of “Coda” in your article. In our world, all-caps “CODA” is intended for the acronym of the name of the international organization, Children of Deaf Adults, much like RID and NAD. The lowercase “Coda” is intended for the person, much like the musical term where the ending piece is different from the main structure. As we are different from our parents.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful comments….it feels good to be appreciated for what we bring to the profession!

    • Dennis says:


      Thanks for the kind words. I believe you are correct when you speak of the importance of balance. While balance is certainly important, I would suggest that organizational stability (the ability of a body to restore its balance after a disturbance) is what, to me, is at stake here.

      As for the CODA/Coda distinction, kudos go to Amy Williamson, herself a Coda, who reviewed an earlier draft of the article. I will endeavor to undo years of all caps!


  2. Bill Moody says:

    Particularly appreciated the fact that my non-CODA experiences are simply different from the CODA’s — not better or worse. Reminds me of Margaret Ransom’s comments on her early experiences partnering with CODA Alan Champion in the 80s in NY — as they worked TOGETHER, sharing those really different world-views, they helped each other understand the ins and outs of professionalism, doing really good work, and when to scooch that line over a bit to accommodate either the needs of the Deaf person or the hearing person in the interaction — that juggling act is really delicate and requires an excellent working knowledge of the mores of BOTH cultures!

    • Dennis says:

      Bill -

      Thanks for the post.

      Margaret and Alan are certainly one of many examples of the partnering between Codas and those of us who are not Codas (what some have termed Cohas). I absolutely agree that the “collision” of cultures is a delicate juggling act. I say “collision” for a few reasons:
      1) visual and auditory worlds are not necessarily compatible
      2) individualistic and collectivist cultures are not necessarily compatible
      3) world-view experiences are not necessarily compatible

      You are absolutely correct when you say that we must have a working knowledge of BOTH cultures. I would suggest that this, in large part, requires a commitment to engagement on the part of Codas and Cohas. if we as interpreters are to be effective and successful we must be wiling and eager to share our world-views and we must be willing to value each other’s world views as different different (not better/superior/entitled) and acknowledge the value of that difference.



  3. Catherine White says:

    Rock on Dennis, go raibh maith agat (thank you)

    • Dennis says:

      Catherine -

      You have me at a language loss ––– “raibh math agate” ?? The linguist in me says Gaelic perhaps? If so I would respond by saying “Sláinte!”. If not ….. you tell me.

      thanks for the post


      • Shane Gilchrist says:

        Yea, its Irish :) and the usual response would be either:
        “Go raibh maith agat féin” or “tá fáilte romhat” :)

  4. Byron Bridges says:

    I’ve been through the 60′s until now. Saw what My father and Texas Interpreters were back then setting up a professional group long before RID came up at Ball State. Those interpreters were mostly Coda’s but there were a few Noda as well. They all had one thing in common. Good will to the Deaf people and wanting to make lives better for Deaf people. We still have those interpreters out there but I see most of those interpreters who have NAD certification. There are many in RID as well but they have scattered out or become burnt out.(Should I say “signed out”) There is a new group of young trained interpreter coming our way. Maybe ten percent of them has what it takes but the rest??? Problem here is we do not have any gatekeeper in each interpreter program. We do not have Deaf people involved giving “Thumbs up or down.” We are just rubber stamping anybody coming our way. This cause frictions among the interpreters. Deaf people don’t feel they are part of helping ensure correct “Deaf sensitivity” or “Deaf heart.” So many newly interpreters are out there wanting to work because it pays well. VRS is not helping either. We grown apart from being physically to robotic/machine interpreting.. I am speaking for myself. Not for all of the Deaf people. Just saying.. you know.

    • Dennis says:

      Byron -

      Thanks for the post.

      I agree that we lack sufficient gatekeepers. But I would suggest that those gatekeepers need not only reside in IEPs. I believe that we need working interpreters to be more frank and forthright when they encounter those who may not “have what it takes”. It is true that Deaf people lack the structural opportunities to give “thumbs up or down” to less than effective interpreters. While I believe that IEPs have an obligation to provide Deaf people with those opportunities, I also believe that each of us has an obligation to be “a gatekeeper of one” and provide our colleagues with honest feedback on their work, attire, behavior and attitude and we, of course, must be open to, and non-defensive about, that feedback from our colleagues. Unfortunately, in may cases, we as interpreters stand in proxy for Deaf people who all too often have little or no opportunity to express their frustrations or dissatisfaction with the services they are given. Sadly, too often, I believe that Deaf people have little opportunity to express their feelings that they were simply provided “a warm body” instead of a competent practitioner and thus were ill-served. I also think that “the places” to find Deaf people have become more difficult to find and that hampers non-Codas ability to hone their skills.


    • Kate says:

      Well, my experience at my ITP was that we had many Deaf instructors who did have the opportunity to provide feedback and fail us if they felt we were inadequate. I know that the making of interpreters has gone away from “the community” to behind the doors of educational institutions, however in the end that means the person who is interpreting for you in the end has a better understanding of the cognitive process of interpreting and does not have to learn by trial and error on the backs of deaf people, something that ultimately hurts more than it helps. I have met many people “trained by the deaf community” who have no real commitment to interpreting as a profession or think of it as a serious task. It is just something they can do, or do as a side job. These interpreters often omit information from their work, skew the message, or act as a participant in the interpreted event. It is difficult to balance the professional neutrality so essential to interpreting with this nebulous “deaf heart” that everyone so wistfully talks about. Some people look at it in a positive light if the interpreter is ‘involved in the community,” while others are oh too ready to rip someone to shreds for it because anything you do related to sign language even in your off hours is “unprofessional.” Let me tell you right now, anyone who has learned the language and culture well enough to become a professional interpreter is certainly not in it for the money because there are easier ways to make it, and has certainly been involved in the community.

      When you say “deaf heart” what do you mean? Do you mean respect? Do you mean a general sense of servitude, do you mean acting in more of a helper mode? Do you mean someone who smooths over the rough edges of an interpreted interaction? Someone who is married to a deaf person? Please explain further.

      • Dennis says:

        Kate –

        Thanks for the post.

        It is a terrible state of affairs if some of us think that being involved in the Deaf Community s “unprofessional”. We are always involved in the English-seaking world during our “off hours”, so how do we make a logical case we should not be involved in the Deaf Community for some of that time?

        Having developed a cognitive model of the interpreting process, I can state without equivocation that having “a better understanding of the cognitive process of interpreting” does not, in and of itself, result in a more competent and effective interpreter. And, in my experience, we all “have to learn by trial and error on the backs of deaf people”. This is because we all always omit information and skew the message – there are NO perfect interpretations. Every interpretation we produce is flawed in some way; the most we can hope for is that the flaws in our work are recoverable by the participants. I believe that those of us who think that our work is without flaws have failed to look at our work through the eyes of the other — those Deaf and non-deaf people who rely upon our interpretations.

        For example, interpreters routinely interpret the sign DEAF by using the English word “deaf”. But “deaf” does NOT mean DEAF (see “Interpreting Culturally Rich Realities: Research Implications for Successful Interpretation” in Journal of Interpretation Fall 2001). DEAF is a sign of cultural and community identity and pride while “deaf” is a word that means disabled/handicapped/inferior. I suggest that Deaf people have been trying to convey to society at large that they are DEAF (a member of the Deaf Community; a member of a linguistic and cultural minority) but our interpretations into English have been and continue to be that they are “deaf” (poor person – you are disabled, incapable, handicapped; certainly NOT a member of a linguistic and cultural minority). DEAF, I suggest might better be interpreted as “member of the Deaf Community” than “a disabled, inferior person”. As long as we interpreters continue to engage in what I have called “glossing” our interpretations will always be flawed.

        You ask what I mean by “deaf heart”. I believe that is for Deaf people to decide and define. But if I am pressed to offer an explanation for what I mean it would include several things, including: viewing Deaf people as capable of making informed decisions; recognizing the systemic oppression of Deaf people; being committed to not contributing further to the oppression; interpreting what Deaf people really mean/intend; being committed to not letting Deaf people being screwed over by the system/establishment; having roots in the community.
        I would further suggest that preventing oppression of Deaf people by exercising/asserting some control in a situation is not the same thing as the “helper model”. And while all interpretations have rough edges, to me an interpreter with a “deaf heart” work very hard to make sure that the Deaf person in any interaction is not communicatively disadvantaged.

        Finally, to have or be recognized as having a “deaf heart” I do not think that one must be married to a Deaf person – but you’d have to ask Deaf people about that.


  5. Dwight says:

    Very well written Dennis, as always.

    As a Coha (Actually I prefer the term NerDa – Not even related to Deaf adults), I have tremendous respect for Codas who work hard to become “PROFESSIONAL” Interpreters.

    However, to play devil’s advocate and most likely be the odd man out (Being a male in this profession kind of does that automatically – laughing), I want to emphasize that in my experience being a Coda does not an interpreter make. Please, this is not to discount the phenomenal Coda Interpreters out there, of which there are many! Unfortunately, I see too many Codas held up as closer to Deaf Heart when in reality some can be pretty bad interpreters (Professional).

    Several people, including yourself have touched on the realization that it takes dedication, hard work, and engagement on an interpreters part to BE a professional interpreter.

    My hope is that in looking at the creation of an RID Board seat for a Coda, people would more closely look at an individual’s experience and dedication to the Interpreting Profession than the label. To say, “you are Coda – You fit” would be tantamount to voting for a particular political party rather than the person running for office. (Yes, I know it happens all the time. That does not make it the most effective way of choosing those who run our government).

    It is true that a Coha can never know what the world view of Codas are. The same as Cohas and Codas can never have full understanding of what world view is like as a Deaf person. I love listening to the perspectives of the Coda Interpreters I work with. I am more enthralled with listening to the perspectives of the Deaf Consumers I serve and socialize with.

    As for Deaf Heart, why aren’t we looking at more Board seats for Deaf members? CDI members? That would seem a more apt if we are seeking “Native World View”. A recent year and a half long experience I have had has shown me that RID has a huge gap in educating CDIs. The amount of material available for a Deaf person wishing to become a CDI is lacking greatly compared to those materials available for Hearing Interpreters.

    The current board has two CDIs. Yet, that does not seemed to have enhanced the work on filling in the gaps and opportunities for emerging CDIs (No disrespect to Lewis and Debbie – I know they work hard). Yet, with nine (9) Hearing Interpreters on the Board and only two (2) Deaf people on the Board – are none of those 9 Codas? Why is it necessary to create a Board position just for Coda? If Codas wish to serve as leaders to our professional organization, let them run for a position. There is not exactly a whole lot of competition out there these days for people working at the National level with in RID.

    The profession is changing, as all things change. Change is painful. I just wish we could look more closely at the individuals serving the membership rather than the label they come with when considering the population on the board.



    • Dennis says:

      Dwight –

      Thanks for the post.

      You state “being a Coda does not an interpreter make” – I doubt anyone would argue with that. I stated as much in my original post “I am not suggesting that all Codas are effective and successful interpreters and neither do I believe that that one must be a Coda to be an effective and successful sign language interpreter.” The point here, I think, is that one’s birth status is, by itself, an insufficient condition to determine/produce/predict an effective and successful interpreter. This applies to both Codas and Cohas as it most certainly does to children born to parents of any non-dominant spoken or signed language.

      Your statement about the work it takes to be a successful and effective interpreter (note I didn’t use the word “professional” because I think that is a false metric that, too often, is associated with the business model of interpreting) is self-evident. Those of us who do not continue to work at developing the skills of our craft move our field inexorably toward the “interpreter as warm body” model (I believe that RID’s CMP program must be much more rigorous in the area of skill development in order to be credible).

      I agree that I would hope that in voting for ANY seat on the RID Board that members would consider what talents any individual is bringing to the office. In the case of the Coda seat, however, for me, the issue is whether we, as a field, value, honor and wish to benefit from those of us who from birth both “languacultures” are native or (depending on family constellations) near-native.

      You present your argument as an “either-or” choice. I would agree that we should move to ensure more Deaf representation on the Board. But then I would also suggest that we need a modicum of representation for people who are totally disconnected with interpreters and Deaf people on the Board since they are at least 50% of the participants for whom we interpret. However, I do not think you can sustain an argument for wanting more Deaf members on the Board of a largely ASL/English interpreting organization over guaranteeing a seat for an RID certified Coda member (and this is not meant in any way to diminish effective and successful work done by CDIs). It is certainly true that the emergence of CDI as a field is relatively new and so one should expect (as you have noted) much less research, materials, programming opportunities, etc. for that section of our field. However, until we, as non-CDI practitioners, begin to argue for and insist on the need for CDIs as language specialists they will never be perceived as valuable to effective and successful interpreting as they can be. And we will never be in the position to advocate for or apply for funding for the research needed to help us better understand the work and training needed to become a CDI.

      However, I would suggest that the anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that Codas (depending on their parents’ dominant languaculture), as a group, are the closest reality we (who purport to mediate between two languages and cultures) have to true native competence in both worlds. It is precisely that level of competence that we must ensure is persevered. And, no, not all Codas are alike; and, no, not all Codas are interpreters; and, no, not all of those Codas who are interpreters are effective and successful interpreters. But this is no different than the mirror turned – not all of us who are non-Codas are alike; and, no, not all of us who are non-Codas are interpreters; not all of us who are non-Codas are effective and successful interpreters. Acknowledging and respecting our differences (and admitting our limitations) and being willing to work together to move forward (in support of Deaf people) is a step forward. And, above all, ensuring a place for these differences in our professional organization is the embodiment of accepting the value of difference.

      That there are two CDIs on the Board is terrific (and in the future we may want to work to ensure a larger, more permanent presence of Deaf people – not just CDIs – on the Board). Nevertheless, representation of Deaf people and CDIs on the Board is a separate issue from whether we, as an organization, should ensure that those of us who are the closest to being bilingual and bicultural always have a place on the Board.

      thanks for your posting


    • Lynnette Taylor says:


      Your response made me wonder about a few things. Where is this conversation coming from that says it is codas or deaf people? We are not the same and one experience does not reflect the other. How and why did this conflation begin? Wherever it began we need to stop it. This conversation is a dangerous one and pits codas against deaf people, and I have to ask, for whose gain?

      The CDI issue is not a Deaf issue it is a membership issue. We are all responsible for the state of things. That said, shame on us for not making it an RID priority.

      Asking for recognition is not asking for privilege. The privilege of being recognized as a good interpreter comes from sustained hard work, as everyone who has posted has said. We are asking to be invited back to the table. We are asking for RID and the community to recognize that the experience we offer as interpreters with deaf parents is an experience/lens that can be beneficial to all of our interpreting community.

      But what is it we are asking to be recognized when we ask for an interpreter with deaf parents representation on the board? The living lens of the changing history of interpreting. Codas live the consequences of the interpreted experience, both their own and others. We see how interpreters interact with our parents in a myriad of settings both as children and as adults. We witness the small acts of kindness as well as those who treat our parents with respect or with dismissal, with kindness or aloofness. Those experiences, especially when we witness what Bob Hoffmeister calls, the ‘million and one daily injustices,’ is what I hope we all wish to undo. Most of us enter the field with a good heart with the wish to do no harm. But sometimes our cultural differences, our class differences or our presumptions because they are left unexamined and unchallenged, do cause harm.

      Sometimes in the name of the profession, we do great harm to the very ones we entered the field to serve. Perhaps it is time we re-examine what we value in a professional interpreter. Do we value cultural competencies? Do we value strategies that coda interpreters have organically developed over the many years of interpreting for their family? Do we value the collective wisdom and experience that is held in the Deaf and coda community? Do we value the problem solving strategies that has come from years of seeing natural language modeling both at home and in their community? Do we value the experience of seeing roundtable collective culture discourse and problem solving that took place in their deaf home, might this experience and wisdom be helpful to a field where interpreters more than ever are finding they lack support, lack problem solving strategies, lack a community and are feeling isolated ? Do we value the experience of those of us who have who have grown up living immersed in a rich language environment with an array of semantic domains? Is this not a view that would help guide our field, serve the interests of all our colleagues, hearing, deaf, and coda?

      Ryan Commerson during the Philadelphia IDP/Deaf Caucus sponsored Community Forum said, interpreters will in greater and greater numbers go straight from the Interpreting Education Program to interpreting in a vrs setting without ever having to meet a live deaf body. Molly Wilson calls it the freeway, or fast lane to interpreting one that bypasses the deaf community. Whether intended or not, this is the reality of our changing field. What are the consequences of this trend? We, as codas who rely on those interpreters to communicate with our family live the consequences. A very real and painful disconnect.

      Often when coda and interpreter are said in one sentence, the response is “unprofessional”. Let’s examine the un- When Affirmative Action began, the hegemonic voice responded with like terms, “ they are underqualified, unprofessional, uneducated, they are the ‘uns’… When you examine the ‘un,’ it means uninvited.

      And for the codas (and those who are not) who are interpreting in an “unprofessional” manner, we need to invite them in too. We need to take the time to understand the demands they are responding to. Perhaps they are responding in a manner we don’t recognize as ‘professional’ because they feel an injustice is being done. Perhaps they have a different vision of what interpreting means, perhaps we can learn from their vision as well.

      Pharaoh Sanders says, “difference for difference, not for degradation”. All of our views are essential to creating a rich, dynamic full interpretation and the more we understand our cultural differences, the richer our repertoire and skills for interpreting. What we have devalued in our push to become “professional” is organically changing cultural competencies. Interpreting is not about attire but the openness and fullness of heart and mind.

      Lynnette Taylor

      • Dennis says:

        Lynette -

        Thanks for posting.

        Very well stated. I fully agree with your statement that the CDI issue is a membership issue and one which we should openly discuss because some of us feel that the presence of a CDI is an indictment of OUR competence. Hopefully we can have that discussion at some very soon point.

        Given that the task we purport to do is an almost impossible one, I would think that we would want to tap every resource at our disposal. In this case it means ensuring a Coda presence on the RID Board. It has always puzzled me why we, in the RID, elect, without question, those whose parents are incredibly ignorant of Deaf people (and I am one of those) but resist electing those whose parents are Deaf.

        As interpreters, context is perhaps our most important and often elusive ally. The context in which I (and the vast majority of RID members) grew up, unlike Codas, was decidedly not a Deaf-aware context. I never had to live day in and day out with the systemic oppression visited upon Deaf people. Surely that must result in significantly different word-views and experiences between Codas and non-Codas. And if context is important to us as interpreters then those of us who are non-Codas should seek to learn from and embrace the Coda experience.

        And I certainly agree that if we are to positively impact the lives of Deaf people we must seek to engage everyone – Codas and non-Codas – who are “interpreting” whether in a “professional” or an “unprofessional” manner. Failure to engage everyone is to discard other potential opportunities for us to learn and grow as a field/profession.

        And Lynette, I definitely agree with your appeal to be inclusive. I would suggest that, just as we have seen in the current political primaries, it is an easy tactic to employ negative tactics and the “politics of divisiveness”. I would suggest that neither the field/profession, nor the Deaf Community can afford such divisiveness at this critical time.

        And I fully agree that “interpreting is about the fullness of heart and mind.” Well put!

        thanks again


  6. Midwest Coda says:

    Growing up as a coda I met many wonderful interpreters, but I mainly remember the many who ‘filtered’ what my parents said when it didn’t suit their beliefs/cause (religious interpreters), who dismissed my parents thoughts and perspectives, and many who just couldn’t create a logical spoken sentence when voicing for deaf people- so they made stuff up, or worse, ignored the statement. And yes, some were RID certified interpreters.

    I spent my koda life not liking most of the people who were ‘attracted to deafness’, either for friendship or occupation (“it’s such a beautiful language”, “I want to help them communicate”). I was blown away by the fact that so many men could be gay. (As ridiculous as it now seems, growing up I was cautioned that they were all child molestors and contagious.) I learned early that it was best to be able to spot the many, many cultural misfits, or what I called “hearing world rejects”.

    While working my way through my teens and my twenties, I picked up odd interpreting jobs. Uncertified but a coda, I felt empowered as a coda/native language speaker to interpret wherever I or a deaf friend deemed I fit, and that was pretty much everywhere. On occasion I worked alongside RID certified interpreters. Some were great, some were very disappointing. I think my favorite team comment was “my contact is hazy, can you do all the voicing?”

    I took work from certified terps based on economics (I was cheaper than agencies and liked the extra income), because I didn’t want to work for the people that ran the local agnecies, and sometimes because deaf people looked me in the eye and said, I want you. I’m sure there were hard feelings left in my wake, I’m sure I missed a lot of professional cues, I know I had no clue what ethics were, I know my charge wasn’t enough to sustain a living, and I’m sure a deaf person got less than stellar services because I had no professional training. Mea culpa.

    And maybe because of that I never had an RID interpreter as a friend, I never had someone take me under wing, I never had someone ‘bring me onboard’. There was a chasm between kid who signs natively and the RID certified interpreter. In fact, the only memory I have from the age of 20-30 is ITP grads being threatened by native language skill. Up until my 20s the only thing that I remember is hearing interpreters and ITP students who were mortified at what kodas would say and do while their parents weren’t keeping a close eye.

    I left interpreting and (other than family) the deaf community for 10 years, until a sudden unexpected layoff brought me back to my native langauge skills and interpreting. Over the past 6 years I’ve re-discovered a career that I now love and have the ultimate respect for. In fact, my business and life partner is one of Northeastern and Dennis Cokely’s own graduates. We own an agency together, have a family together and usually appreciate each other’s perspective on the balance of art and science in us as both native and non-native language users. I’m heavy on the art, they’re heavy on science.

    But I’m not a part of RID. I don’t feel they represent me and I don’t feel I’d ever be one of ‘them’. I’m thankful for the steps that they and groups like TSID have taken to promote the profession, I am a proponent of certification, and no doubt I am where I am professionally, in some way, because of what RID has done in the past. And there are many RID members that I’m damned proud to call friends.

    But arguments like Dwight’s above, about having a deaf position being more important than having a coda position, disregards the fact that codas are the only native language users on both sides of the interpreting coin. And while Dwight is “more enthralled with listening to the perspectives of the Deaf Consumers I serve and socialize with” (than that of codas), I’d suggest that as a coda I’m more enthralled with the hearing professional providing service and what they do to be distracted by the need for affirmation from deaf people.

    I don’t serve deaf people, I come from them. When I am with them, I am one of them. I serve courts, lawyers, hospitals and doctors, and I serve to make them accesible to my people. There is a difference, and I believe this to be important to the future mission of RID.

  7. Bethany James says:

    Midwest Coda : it’s like you took the words right out of my head and put them down for me. I couldn’t agree more.

  8. Dave Coyne says:

    I agree. I would assume many – the vast majority, of current interpreters are bi-lingual and mono-culture – not that I am in the camp that separates the two – which would mean that I doubt hearing people who spend less that 10% of their time socializing with Deaf people are able to develop adequate language skill-sets that embodies cultural nuances. I’m thrilled to see you bring up languaculture – I feel the more people within our field realize that we must not separate language and culture, the closer we (interpreters) may be to adequately provide intelligible interpretations that do not require Deaf people to interpret our severely skewed interpretations (the ones with minimal Deaf cultural influence). Including CODAs within RID, and in all aspects of the field of interpreting, allows for access to a valuable world-view that most non-CODAs will perpetually struggle to navigate within.

    Thanks for this thought seed


  9. Suzanne says:

    Dennis, On behalf of IDP, Interpreter with Deaf Parents, I wan tto thank you for this article. Your support and recognition of this motion means more than “signs” can say.

    There is a purpose behind putting a Coda on the national board. In interpreting preparation programs the ASL linguistics class teaches us that culture contains language and language is ever changing. I think Michal Agar made it clear by conjoining the words language and culture into “languaculture” showing us that they do, in fact, go hand in hand. As interpreters we try to possess that languaculture he speaks about. Humphrey and Alcon also state in “So you want to be an Interpreter” that “language and culture cannot be separated”. Having Deaf parents gives those of us a perspective that no one other person than a Coda can relate to. That is not to say that all Codas share the same experience outside of having Deaf parents, but neither do children born of hearing parents. In short, these are our parents, we Codas have a vested interest. An insider’s perspective on the board would be beneficial. Those who invest in stocks would cherish such an insight, and like stocks, this is an investment for future security.

    In 2009, at the RID conference in Philadelphia, we were blessed with the presence of Mrs. Lillian Beard. She shared with us how it was to be a pioneer in the interpreting field and how to keep our perseverance to overcome the obstacles of mainstream society. Dennis, you called us Codas a resource. Those of us that represent IDP are willing to be just that. Whether it be to answer cultural questions, share experiences and perspectives or to help find your Deaf-heart, or even to open the door so that you can create experiences of your own. Stating that a Coda on the Board of Directors isn’t necessary could be perceived as audism by proxy. This isn’t just linguistics to us; this is our everyday life.

    This is a motion for change. Warren Buffett said “In a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.”. The change we are looking for is small, yet can make a colossal impact. We can work together to ensure the language and culture we love keeps it’s integrity.

    Again, on behalf of IDP, we thank you. On a personal note, I thank you.

    Suzanne Nace
    IDP Chairperson

  10. Mary says:

    I think this is a great topic. Dennis, I would like to know your thoughts on Kate and Lynette’s post. I think they made a really good point and I would like to know your thoughts on this.

  11. Dan Parvaz says:


    I read your article with interest, and while I agree with what you have written in spirit, the fact that the devil is in the details — and I know I’m not saying anything you haven’t considered, but I hope you can make some of this more explicit — leads me to make a comment or two:

    1. Codas are fetishized in our field, and are seldom taken simply as another path into the profession. They are either derided, literally as mom-and-pop interpreters with little education and less ethics, or are the objects of almost obsequious deference. I hope the inclusion of a Coda/IDP into the RID Board has a normalizing effect, rather than strengthening our misconceptions.

    2. Who determines Deaf-Heart? Deaf people, obviously. Which ones? We have a strong attachment to a “core” Deaf community (Deaf Codas, bascially) who form a influential minority within the community They are looked to as the standards for ASL purity, deaf education, cultural mores, etc., whereas the majority of our deaf clientèle are from the 90% of deaf people who do not have Deaf parents, and their worlds are just as valid, and certainly just as Deaf as those who form the core. Deafhood, then, is more a set of traits, a cloud of exemplars, than a strict category. How do we take the diversity of experience into account without short-changing anybody?

    3. Really more of a 2 (a), but here it is. How is Deaf-Heart quantified? What happens when there are two candidates, all other things being equal, and one is chosen over another for being “Deafer,” somehow? Is this simply identity politics? What if the selection is challenged?

    None of my comments or questions should be taken as anything other than what keeps me up past my bedtime… we certainly should have Native voices on the Board because it’s the right thing to do. But anything you can offer in terms of your own thoughts would be greatly welcomed.



  12. Bill Moody says:

    We non-Codas need all the Deaf World exposure we can get from all sorts of Deaf people AND all sorts of Codas. Neither group is monolithic and we need to be exposed to all the layers and points of view in a diverse Deaf World. Personally, I have needed differing role models and language models from both Deaf people and Codas in order to get to the modest understanding of this language and culture which I have achieved after long years of trying to reach the level of a professional (not someone who is paid for the work, but someone in whom consumers have real confidence in my professional judgment). I haven’t had to work as hard for my mastery of English and the hearing culture. I have a very clear understanding of that languaculture, since I grew up in it, have been extensively educated in it, and live in it every day.
    Lillian Beard, mentioned above, having grown up in the Deaf World, felt the need as a young interpreter to live with a hearing family for a few years in order to better understand the (to her) hidden layers of English and hearing traditions and mores to which she had been little exposed. When I have mentioned this in presentations about Lillian and suggested to workshop presentations that we non-codas probably should try living a year or two in a Deaf family in order to be exposed to daily traditions and layers of ASL in a Deaf family, I have actually gotten evaluation comments accusing me of encouraging new interpreters to be unprofessional!
    I did not attend, but heard about, a workshop at Region 1 this summer where the presenters were adamant that professional interpreters should not fraternize with ANY Deaf people outside of an assignment. And the young impressionable interpreters in the room were all nodding in agreement. Presenters who appear at RID conferences are presumed by young interpreters to have the imprimatur of the organization, since there are never any warnings that the opinions expressed by workshop presenters at RID conferences do not necessarily represent the views of the association. Are we really living in an era when a young professional interpreter is actually encouraged not to be exposed to ASL in a Deaf environment? Certainly, spoken language interpreters know that they must actually live in both cultures in order to have the knowledge and experience to do their jobs properly.
    I cannot continue progressing as an interpreter without the continual aid of codas and Deaf people. Period. And I very much appreciate the encouragement and lessons I have learned from both. They have not only made my professional life richer, they have made my life richer.

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