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 CODA-international.org 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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