Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart

Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf HeartA recurrent phrase that has been appearing in frequent discussions is “Deaf heart.”  Our national interpreter organization, RID, has long been characterized as needing a Deaf heart.  Recently, changes have been made to move RID to a more Deaf-centered perspective on the field of interpretation. The most recent evidence of this is the addition of Shane Feldman, who is Deaf, as the new Executive Director.  Although institutional shifts are possible with changes in policies and practices, there is much misunderstanding of the concept as it applies to practicing interpreters.

Early Discovery

In the 1990’s there were many efforts to address this concern.  New England states held a series of Ally Conferences that focused on the Deaf view of interpreters and their behaviors.  This resulted in many discussions and workshops to clarify the meaning of an interpreter-as-ally. There was–and still is—debate about the fine line between ethical practices and ally responses.  Today, it is considered acceptable and even desirable to provide information to hearing and Deaf consumers regarding accommodations, cultural differences, and resources. The emergence of Deaf Interpreters in our profession has contributed  to the dissemination of information about accessibility and Deaf people, and has helped to educate the Deaf Community about their own power.

Deaf Activists & Social Dynamics

In the 21st century we looked to models from minority groups that view societal privilege and oppression to explain and understand the relationship between interpreters and the Deaf Community. Deaf activists are helping the community of interpreters and Deaf people to understand the social dynamics that create marginalization, audism, and racial/ethnic prejudices.

These robust and healthy discussions about privilege are paving the way for a change in the way we think about minority communities and cultures that goes beyond the medical and pathological view of Deaf people.

Internalization of Deaf Heart

But what about ‘Deaf heart’?  In my travels and conversations with many interpreters, codas, and members of the Deaf Community it has become clearer that we still are not adequately capturing the qualities and behaviors of Deaf-heart interpreters. It is not about laws, services, ethics (at least from majority/privilege perspective), or training.  It is something that can’t be taught. It is difficult to explain, yet palpably absent.

The internalization of a Deaf heart must come from the interpreter’s own sense of justice and morality.  

A number of contributors to StreetLeverage have expressed this quality in different ways.

Dennis Cokely, in his article, Sign Language Interpreters: Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain?, provides a historical context that demonstrates the shift from earlier times when having ‘Deaf heart’ was intrinsic for interpreters to the indicators that this has significantly diminished. He explains:

How do we justify learning their language and profiting from it without giving back? In becoming a “profession” have we simply become parasites?”


What are we willing to do as individuals to become reconnected with Deaf people? Are we willing to adjust our work choices to accommodate the rhythm of Deaf people’s lives?”

Trudy Suggs illustrates this clearly in, A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting

This type of knowledge (schools for the deaf) is an important element of Deaf culture for many people. Not recognizing its importance, or dismissing it when someone shares this information speaks volumes to cultural (il) literacy.

A participant from that group suddenly said with an incredulous look, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset that video interpreters don’t know city names? That’s really ridiculous. It’s such a small thing.” I was momentarily caught off-guard by her flippant response. I quickly clarified that I wasn’t upset, saying, “Quite the contrary. It’s just one of those things that Deaf people have to live with. It does become cumbersome if you have to make several calls a day and each video interpreter you encounter doesn’t know a city sign or town where a deaf school is.”

In Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility, Anna Witter-Merithew asks us to examine the human side of the interpreter.

Do we think of ourselves as bystanders—present from a distance, and therefore, not involved?  Have we internalized the neutrality we are to bring to our task as non-involvement and disinterest [versus objectivity and emotional maturity]?  

What do we believe about ourselves, our work and our contribution to the good of the Deaf society? As we explore the answer to this and other hard questions, we must consider the implications of our history of behaving as if invisible and its potential contribution to the diffusion of responsibility.”

Overcoming Inertia

Part of having a Deaf heart is caring enough about the well being of Deaf people and their communities to put them above ego, pride, and unwillingness to fight for what is right.  For example, I have interpreted in Juvenile Court many times and have come across several instances when parents/guardians should have the services of Deaf interpreters.  It is obvious at the first meeting that the consumers have limited education, cognitive deficits, idiosyncratic language, or some combination of these. I inform their attorneys of this and find out that this case has been ongoing (sometimes up to three years) and the attorneys had no idea about this. Often these lawyers and social service personnel indicate that they “felt that something was not right” about their interactions with clients.  Numerous interpreters have been working on these cases. They are deemed qualified to work in court; they are certified; all have had some degree of legal training. Why didn’t they recognize this? Intervene? Advocate for Deaf Interpreters?

Absence of Context

Betty Colonomos - Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart

Betty Colonomos

My professional experiences are replete with markers of the lack of  “Deaf heart.” I have heard English interpretations of texts where Deaf people are proudly sharing their generational Deafness (e.g. fifth generation Deaf) conveyed as a matter-of-fact piece of information about having deaf children in each generation.  The critical meaning of Deaf “royalty” is absent, leaving the possibility that the non-deaf audience might see this as a genetic flaw or “problem.”

In workshops I see many interpreters–student and experienced alike—who do not recognize ASL discourse that is representing a community’s point of view. For example, Deaf people often convey narrative that on the surface seems to be about them (an “I” Deaf text) when in fact the message is about the “We” Deaf story. The consequence is that the Deaf person appears to be discussing an isolated event, when the issue is really about a community with shared experiences. Which do you think has a greater impact on the audience?  Being around Deaf people often allows interpreters to know how to distinguish “I” from “We” Deaf texts.

Interpreters who have no interactions with Deaf people outside of work miss much of the collective history and current burning issues that show up in interpreted interactions and collegial discussions. How can interpreters who hide behind their interpretation of the Code of Professional Conduct–instead of taking responsibility to intervene–employ strategies that are culturally appropriate to solve problems?

Accountability is the Beginning

Interpreters who demonstrate the qualities of Deaf heart are those who reflect on how their choices and decisions affect the Deaf Community; they question their practices that seem to be oppressive or damaging to the lives of Deaf people; they own their mistakes and share them with others. Most importantly, they seek input and advice from Deaf people and are not afraid to be uncomfortable with Deaf people’s responses and viewpoint.

A number of authors on Street Leverage have also shared what it is to have a Deaf heart. In Aaron Brace’s piece, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter, he digs deep and exposes some of the demons we face.

“…my customers are not well served by a quasi-messianic philosophy that valorizes my role far above theirs. It’s also simply inaccurate; customers often communicate effectively despite my excellent service rather than because of it.”

 “I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand my duality as both ally and enemy in the lives of Deaf people without some measure of guilt. Like many members of privileged groups, I hope to learn the right way to behave toward an oppressed group—once— and never again have to feel unsure of myself or guilty about my privilege. 

When I demonstrate a fuller understanding of both what I give and what I take, it is returned by Deaf people, not with a sneering pleasure at my knowing my place, but with greater trust, friendship, and welcome.”

Gina Oliva, in her challenge to us in, Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged, boldly brings forth the role played by sign language interpreters in mainstream education and the significant impact this has on future generations of Deaf people. We have remained silent for too long about our part in harming deaf children and their potential for successful lives. We have allowed interpreters to present themselves as adequate language models and carriers of negative views of Deaf people. We have done little to admit to this injustice and have put our needs for employment above the lives of innocent children.

There are things we can do to correct this major injustice in our field. Anna Witter-Merithew in, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice, emphasizes the need for us to look inside and seek guidance from our consumers:

“ It is important to find opportunities to talk with Deaf consumers about our work as sign language interpreters and to ask them to help us consider the implications of role implementation for their experiences.”

And in Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter by Trudy Suggs, we see a Deaf view on how we can move forward.

“…remember that if a deaf person expresses frustration at disempowerment, it doesn’t necessarily mean she or he is angry, divisive or separatist. Rather, take a look at the situation, and figure out how, if at all, you or other interpreters might have contributed to the situation. “

Important Enough to Act?

The only question that remains is whether or not the practitioners in our field care enough about this to want to do something about it.  Do we need to bring these discussions to the forefront of our public professional discourse?  Should we insist that our programs for training interpreters address this issue and involve Deaf people much more in educating future interpreters?  When will we uphold the integrity of our profession by supporting novices and by renouncing those who cast a pall over us?

When will we appreciate the valuable insights of codas to help us nurture the Deaf heart in us? Why do we vigorously debate whether a permanent seat on RID’s Board for an IDP (interpreter with Deaf Parents) is necessary when we know how much it will enhance the Deaf heart perspective in the organization?   When will we acknowledge that Deaf Studies courses and programs are helpful in understanding, but they do not replace the need for feeling the stories?

We have a wonderful opportunity before us. Deaf people and codas are more aware of their own Deaf hearts and they are willing to talk about it and to help others recognize their own unconscious anti-Deaf heart actions. Why aren’t we eagerly seeking their input and guidance?  Why aren’t we thankful for how they enrich us?

It is hard to walk in another’s shoes, but our work depends on the ability to see the world through the lenses of our consumers and clients. Without this, how can we become the noble profession we envision?

There is always room for a Deaf Heart…you are invited.


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About the Author

Betty M. Colonomos, currently serving as Director of the Bilingual Mediation Center, is a fluent ASL/English bilingual. Her academic background is in Deaf Education/Speech Pathology (B.S.), Counseling (M.A.) Linguistics (Doctoral program). Betty holds the Masters Comprehensive Skills Certificate (MCSC) from RID. She was the second recipient of the Mary Stotler Award for excellence in Interpreter Education from CIT. Betty has chaired and served on many national committees on standards and evaluation of interpreters and served as President of the Conference of Interpreter Trainers (CIT). Ms. Colonomos has authored and appeared in video materials on interpreting and she co-authored (with MJ Bienvenu) videos on Deaf Culture, ASL Facial Grammar, and ASL Numbers. She worked as an International Sign interpreter for numerous conferences worldwide. Betty also consults with schools and the legal system as an expert on linguistic and cultural issues impacting the Deaf Community. Betty is the developer of the Integrated Model of Interpreting (IMI), which is the most widely used model in the U.S. for teaching cognitive processes in interpreting. She teaches the Foundations of Interpreting Series for hearing, coda and Deaf interpreters that combines the IMI with a Vygotskyan approach to learning. Betty is the creator of the Etna Project (2002 – present) held in New Hampshire and Maryland. The project is a series of retreats supporting a Community of Reflective Practitioners who are interpreters committed to their own growth as they seek to become change agents in the field of interpreting.

72 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Donna Reiter Brandwein says:

    Bravo Betty!

  2. Bill Moody says:

    Excellent distillation of current thinking with a Colonomos touch! I think we will be discussing many of these issues at the RID Community Forum. See you all there!

    • Thank you Bill. I hope we are able to have open and honest dialogue about something that is hard to describe and even harder to understand. Knowing the many interpreters who “grew” their Deaf hearts without growing up in the culture shows that it is indeed possible. The challenge, it seems to me, is to motivate those who may not feel that this is a desirable quality.

      • Tim Kinsella says:

        Dear Betty:

        Thank you for your thoughtful and compassionate piece. And the inclusive spirit with which you write, appealing to all and each of us to see that–just as in learning our languages well, whether they be native to us or not–growing a deep appreciation of the Deaf experience and development of Deaf Heart is a lifelong ambition (or process, or for Deaf people and those who grew up in Deaf families, unfolding) for us all. What it entails, that it not be something that is easily discussed or determined, and finding spaces to explore it and our relationships to each other remain to be seen, and may be daunting. But I am heartened (pun intended) by two things you’ve said in your comments to others: that it *is* possible for interpreters to “grow” their Deaf hearts without growing up within the culture, and then later, again, that you “do believe that within each person is some “place” they can find within that lets Deaf heart in.” Love to you! tk

        • Dear Tim,

          Being one of those people I am referring to in the article, I wonder if you could think back to how your process brought you to Deaf heart. Perhaps you can help others and let them learn from your experiences and insights. Knowing how special you are, it isn’t a surprise that you are continuing to feed your Deaf heart. I see it every time we are together. Love back to you and Laura!

  3. Lindsey Antle says:

    Well said, Betty. Thank you.

  4. Janis Cole says:

    You touched the core of the heart, mind n soul! Thank you Betty!

  5. Mebb says:

    Excellent! I am in ! Miss you Betty!

  6. John Hendricks says:

    Standing and applauding (waving hands)! Well said!

  7. Deb Russell says:

    Fantastic, Betty – thanks for an excellent post that resonates with so many…

  8. Eloquent words designed to make us THINK!! Hope this helps to stir us all to healthy discussions. Thank you Betty :)

  9. Lynnette Taylor says:

    Beautiful piece and I think you point out important distinctions between social justice, recognizing privilege and instilling a deaf heart.
    We need to look at this more closely and think about ways we can cultivate this desirable trait.
    What can we do to offer spaces for this discovery and practice to happen?

    I loved all of your quotes, seeing all of your powerful voices together asking the questions of how do we interpret with integrity and compassion was powerful.
    And you remind us, this is a noble profession.
    Thank you-always-

    • Betty Colonomos says:
      February 26, 2013 at 8:10 PM

      Thank you, Lynette.

      You have pinpointed two areas we need to examine and act upon…’cultivating’ this trait and offering space for discovery and practice. I don’t have any ‘answers’, which is why I look forward to us sharing the discoveries and growing from the struggle to find strategies and ultimately practices. It strikes me that I have met interpreters (whose ASL is not near-native) have Deaf heart, but I have never met someone who is fluent in ASL, English, and the interpreting process who doesn’t. Have you?

    • Amy Williamson says:

      Betty, thank you for tying all of our voices together so clearly. It is very, very good and reassuring to see your thoughts, ideas, and perspective here.

      I echo Lynette’s praise for the questions you raise and the distinctions you make. I also echo Lynnette’s point that we need to “look more closely and think about ways we can cultivate this desirable trait”. This statement can also translate into a ‘we’ and ‘I’ distinction. The collective ‘we’ needs to get moving and talking about the work we do in a new way, that has been made clear. The individual ‘I’ needs to also cultivate these conversations more regularly in their/our/my community on a larger scale. More of us need to be having these difficult conversations.

      Betty, thank you for always sharing yourself with us. Your openness in bringing up and dialoguing over the hard questions has been a model for me in my own work.

      • Barb Walker says:

        And you’ve both been models for me in my life and work. Thanks Betty this is so important to put out there. It should lead to good discussions in Vermont. I look forward to it. I believe change and growth are possible. I don’t know about “teachable” guess it depends on how folks are taught but they are definitely learnable.

        • Barb,

          Vermont is one of those places where the seeds of Deaf heart have taken root. VTRID has been so supportive of the Deaf Community and committed to helping Deaf Interpreters develop their skills. It is a pleasure to work with interpreters in Vermont. I know that the discussions will take place with sensitivity and honesty. Wouldn’t it be great if that dialogue could be recorded and shared with other groups across the country? We need to see models of healthy conversations.

      • Dearest Amy,

        Thank you for expressing what I could not in your piece.

        I hope that we can begin to talk with each other enough that Deaf heart is more than the latest “fad”. I feel as if I just cracked open the door to a room full of richness and beauty. It’s comforting to know that you are also there and ready to share.

  10. Terri Hayes says:

    Sigh… Deaf Heart is important – but I dont believe its teachable. Its a kind of Caring… and while it is not entirely absent in the formally educated interpreter – it is more and more – nearly so.
    CODA do not automatically come with Deaf heart either. I’ve met many who have more disdain than care for the Deaf… but those dont care usually dont become interpreters (well – uless they are motivated by what they percieve to be easy money)… Two kinds of CODA – those that became interpreters because they got sick of watching the Deaf people working with somewhat uncomprehending interpreters – and those that became interpreters because it was a job dropped into their lap. (the second kind – does not have Deaf Heart, despite being raised with Deaf – some of them are almost more hearing to Deaf than hearing people)

    Its an interesting muse – I have a couple people I’m working with – who are shaping up to be good interpreters – good “heart” – good “soul”… but … not… not exactly “Deaf heart”…
    maybe they’re not hurting enough for it all, … or maybe they’re not angry enough…

    anyway – nice to see the discussion – I do hope no one really tries to “can” it (Deaf Heart) so they can try to teach it… that’s the surest way to kill it once and for all.

    just thinking
    Terri Hayes

    • Thank you, Lynette.

      You have pinpointed two areas we need to examine and act upon…’cultivating’ this trait and offering space for discovery and practice. I don’t have any ‘answers’, which is why I look forward to us sharing the discoveries and growing from the struggle to find strategies and ultimately practices. It strikes me that I have met interpreters (whose ASL is not near-native) have Deaf heart, but I have never met someone who is fluent in ASL, English, and the interpreting process who doesn’t. Have you?

    • Hi Terry,

      I agree that this cannot be taught in a classroom, workshop, or in life. It is similar to language in that it must be acquired naturally.

      People who think they can write a curriculum for Deaf heart clearly do not know what Deaf heart is.


      • Terri Hayes says:

        The problem is that, the educated often think that “education” is the best way to promulgate a thing… but ti seems to be its one of the best ways to eliminate the edges and slowly deteriorate the whole. I think that in lots of ways the “education” of interpreters has be detrimental to a functional understanding of ASL (not PSE – not Interpre-speak… and not ASL “in English word order” .. smiling… cuz I know you know what I’m talking about…) but ASL – which is still a language primarily left to the Deaf who do not socialize much with hearing people… we dont often see it – and most interpreters simply do not know it – although everyone recognizes it and loves it when they do see it…
        Not that we need it… everyone is very certain of that… no one Needs ASL to work in today’s interpreting world… English is what the Deaf are asking for (or at least – that’s usually what they’re getting no matter what they ask for)…

        neither do they need Deaf Heart…
        interpreting is a comodity now – there’s no going back… it’ll be up to the individuals (with Deaf Heart) to stand alone… cuz the business is heading away from individual excellence and into mediocrity as a standard… that’s what happens when you have more need than supply.. the bar is lowered again and again – until the basic is considered acceptable -because the basic is all there is enough of.

        but now – I go to something you said a moment ago…
        fluent signers/interpreters who do not have Deaf Heart ?
        actually – Yes – I know more of them than I see Deaf heart in the world… many many… (hmm – but now thinking… what is fluent?… which fluent?… perhaps you are right… there might well be a kind of fluency that marks Deaf Heart… need to think about that more… (the same un-named thing that looks like ASL when you see it – but is not the ASL that everyone calls themselves using…)hmmm

        My wondering now, too – is – can you lose it? Can you have Deaf Heart when you’re young and “stupid” (idealistic) and in love with the language and can deeply feel the Deaf… and then come to know the language and get caught up in interpreter politics and forget your purpose and your heart and the Deaf – and become Not Deaf Heart? where once you were?…

        interesting question…
        I’ll be thinking on that one for a while
        Thanks for the chew!
        Terri Hayes

    • Tamara Moxham says:

      This is an important point. As both an interpreter and an interpreter educator I have experienced that both the most effective and least effective interpreters I have worked with and educated are CODAs. The former are those who know they need to be educated and trained and are willing to pursue what works including the qualities of “Deaf Heart” but who also don’t ignore the hearing consumers (whom we are also responsible to).

      The latter often are not teachable (during or after training) and maintain an attitude of “this is the way I/my parents/family, etc. have always done it therefore I don’t need to/won’t change” and often assume that innocently ignorant questions from the hearing consumers are automatically intentionally oppressive and behave irresponsibly.

      I had an enlightening conversation with a CDI recently who pointed out that the RID is an organization that is committed to gaining insight, experience, and earning credentials. CODAs have not earned their “CODAness”. They were born to it. Unless this is getting in their way professional way why have an official role within the organization? His point was well made.

      I can and do gain the insight and education that Betty speaks of in her article from appropriate CODAs. Those non-CODA interpreters who don’t have the right attitude and don’t want to pursue a Deaf-heart will not benefit from these roles.

  11. dani f says:

    Thanks for this great article.

    I’m in Australia and I’ve never heard/seen the term ‘Deaf heart’ before. I must admit I don’t really like the term itself – but I love the sentiment/philosophy of it, and it’s a value which is certainly shared, I believe, by many Deaf Australians and terps.

    To me, this boils down to being a social justice issue – and it’s the reason many of us, I suspect, became interpreters in the first place. However, I do think it’s difficult to always maintain this in ‘the field’ – as always, we’re juggling our role to suit the clients/situation. In some situations, for example, I’ve felt ethically obliged to provide information about available accommodations – as you say in your article – but when I’ve discussed that in public, I’ve had Deaf people criticise me for it as being ‘out of role’.

    Terps get to have years of training – if we’re lucky, and if we choose to do the right thing – so we’re hopefully across this stuff, but that doesn’t mean that all the shifts we’ve seen in our role are transparent to the Deaf community, or have occurred with the ‘blessing’ of the community. It’s also true of course that everyone is different and wants and expects different things, and this is the case for all our clients, whether they are Deaf or Hearing.

    Thanks again for the great article and to all for the interesting comments.

    • G’day Dani,

      So great to hear from folks down under. Something to consider is how we have “trained” the Deaf Community. For years, we have been saying that we are “invisible”, that being human is “stepping out of role”, that we are machines (akin to hearing aids), that codas who intervene are unethical. It will take a long time to undo the damage we have caused and once again earn the trust of Deaf people. Thanks for your contribution.

  12. Richard Brumberg says:

    Wonderful, Betty!!

  13. Hi! Thanks for posting!! I have seen the other side of the Deaf heart that goes too far to becoming overly-involved in D/HH’s lives and doesn’t give the appropriate space for self-determination. I want very much to be a compassionate interpreter who is sensitive and proactive, supportive and available to do my job. I also want to respect D/HH people and their autonomy to make decisions, make mistakes, make choices and not impact that human dignity. So I think that we will never get it exactly right. We will talk about professionalism and codes of ethics and reporting of unethical behavior and boundaries and do no evil and do not say anything….and we will emphasise not becoming overly employment oriented and being an ally etc…etc… On one hand we are supposed to be neutral, on the other we are to be an ally (of effective communication and access?). I love my job, love being around D/HH/DB people and probably cross the line into over-input fairly often. I think not having interpreters is the most natural communication situation, and as long as you have a third party it will not be 100% perfect. We can keep trying to reach that balance of meeting the professional expectations of the community and meeting the compassionate expectation of the community. Look at how Dr’s interact with patients…they are professional…and compassionate. My eyes and ears are open…keep on teaching me.

  14. Lewis Merkin says:

    Betty- It is gratifying to see the concept, Deaf Heart, being discussed. This was coined by the members of RID’s Deaf Members in Leadership committee at it’s face to face meeting in Alexandria, VA in December of 2008. The members present were Jimmy Beldon, Janis Cole, Alisha Bronk, Cheryl Moose (board liaison), Jennifer Apple (nat’l office liaison) and myself (chair). This article touches on many of the issues DML identified and we tried to find a way of encapsulating some core issues with an easy-to-identify slogan. I’m aware that sometimes it is too easy to attach a label without doing the inner work needed to understand the concept and that the term itself has created some resistance. Nonetheless, it is a process of understanding that we interpreters: Deaf, IDP, coda, hearing must explore in order to maintain awareness of our impact on the Deaf community. This has informed my service on the RID Board of Directors and is the impetus behind my decision to run for President of RID in the next term. I thank you for your part in keeping this dialogue moving forward.

    • Hi Lewis,

      Thanks so much for providing the history and origin of “Deaf heart”. I never knew where it came from. Of course it was conceived by a group of people who have Deaf heart!

      Thanks to all of you for the term we can easily use; I’m sure it will be a lot harder to talk about and comprehend. It is certainly worth trying!

  15. I wanted to add something…I have seen a change in myself as regards this issue after doing alot of community legal and medical work. When you see that you may be interpreting for the range of life experiences, not just educational, for example, but also legal and medical, it causes you to try to make sure you are neutral enough to do everything that comes up and don’t have a best friend-quasi family member status that would impede your ability to work with the D/HH person. I’m in a small community and have been working for 20 years here now…wow time goes by! I’ve noticed I try to keep my personal life and my work life not completely separate…there is room for exceptions and flexibility and D/HH people do not abuse or take advantage of that…but I do want to keep working long term so I do maintain work/personal boundaries with the goal of staying useful as an interpreter.

  16. Lauren Helfand says:

    Excellent article and lots of food for thought. One thing I’ve been thinking is that interpreters should all be forced somehow, somewhere to use an interpreter. I’ve experienced this myself in a foreign country. Now imagine “needing” interpreters for your whole life. Lots to think about!

    • Hi Lauren,

      I hope that interpreters would voluntarily put themselves in situations where they are consumers of interpreting service.

      It would also help if interpreters who enjoy privilege could spend an extended period of time living in an environment where they are not allowed to make decisions, nor to access services, nor to have personal and social power. I believe this is not possible to do; however, I do believe that within each person is some “place” they can find within that lets Deaf heart in.

  17. Betsy M. says:

    Beautifully inspiring! Thank you.

  18. Maria says:

    Betty –
    Thanks for sharing this fantastic piece.
    I could not agree more with your words of advice: “our work depends on the ability to see the world through the lenses of our consumers and clients” and that our quest for a “Deaf Heart” begins with our own “sense of justice and morality”.

  19. ‘Overcoming Inertia’ So right on… Thank you!

  20. Milly Smith says:

    You need to live it, to understand it.

    • You may be right that living it is the only way to acquire that deep and intuitive sense of Deaf heart. I am not ready to give up on the notion that there are ways to feel it at another level. I’ve seen so many who do “get it” despite entering the Deaf World as adults.

      • Kevin Lowery says:

        Another way to “get it” is to look within at your own experiences. If you are part of a minority group or you have been marginalized then you can easily understand how this relates to Audism and Deafness. All of us wanted to be treated like human beings. It starts there.

  21. Dan Parvaz says:

    Love this, Betty. I’ve thought long and hard about this — mostly prompted by your discussion of “Deaf Heart” throughout the years. You have been a voice in the wilderness on this topic for as long as I can remember. I’ve been somewhat dismayed at the way your words have sometimes been misapplied, resulting in superficial displays of commitment to Deaf people, or a naïve valorization of All Things Deaf. I can only hope that people can change from the outside in, and that these simplistic actions result in a deeper commitment, in the same way that the rush of falling in love can eventually give way to real loving — the stuff that lets you stick to it through thick and thin, warts and all.

    I’ll steal from Rebecca West, and I hope that wherever she is, she approves: Deaf-heart is the radical notion that the Deaf are people, too. Everything else flows from this, including that it is a root, fundamental (“radical”) ideal. There are, or should be, no saviors, no victims, no pedestals… only people trying to figure out how to live together. And re-realizing that on a regular basis, as I encounter yet another heretofore unchallenged bias of my own, is a constant source of surprise to me.

    • So nice to hear from you Dan. You always bring your honesty and insight to the table. Radicalism has gotten a bad rap…it’s the place where visionaries live. I love the analogy of falling in love. It works so well with Deaf heart. Thanks again for bringing your voice to this forum. Many of us look forward to your contributions.

  22. Kyra Pollitt says:

    Thank you for a great article, Betty. Might I extend the argument a little further?
    In the U.K. one of the major factors mitigating against deaf-heartedness is the form of the market economy that has emerged around interpreting.

    Deaf communities offer a lucrative market to interpreting agencies (most of whom know nothing about and certainly have no emotional or cultural connection with deaf communities).

    These agencies (increasing their market share year on year by offering cheap bulk contracts to large service providers)are driven by profit margins. For them it is much better for a trainee interpreter to take the assignment (regardless of its complexity or sensitivity) because the profit margin for the agency is greater.

    In such circumstances, how are fledgling terps – emerging from education – to find the mentoring, role models and safe spaces to nurture their deaf-heartedness and integrate it into their practice (particularly when said agencies have no interest in engaging/ educating deaf people about interpreting practices or their rights in interpreted situations)?

    Of course the situation in the States is probably quite different, but I pose this question to avert the risk of individualising this issue- of it becoming focused on individual interpreters and whether they pass or fail the deaf-heart test (after all isn’t that an echo of the arguments used to oppress deaf people?).

    To address this we need to act collectively, assume that interpreters – given the chance and opportunity- would be deaf-hearted or wouldn’t last long in practice, and unite with deaf colleagues in addressing the institutional and societal structures that serve to quash deaf-heartedness and, indeed, Deafhood.

    • Hello Kyra,

      Thank you so much for posting. I wish I could agree that things are different here, but I cannot. These large agencies who are swallowing up the market are a huge problem here. I hope that Sign Language interpreting agencies will fight back. National and International interpreter organizations need to get involved and advocate for quality services. We need to educate and convince clients on a massive scale. Any ideas floating around the U.K.?

    • Kevin Lowery says:

      Speaking as a more recent interpreter, I wish I had the mentorship to understand this dynamic better. As a result, I am leary to work for a company that will not screen me. I did not realize that agencies would prefer to pay me a pittance in order to make major profits themselves. I prefer to work for a Deaf/HoH company. Where that is not possible it is incumbent upon ME to seek my own moral compass (which hopefully is attached to a Deaf Heart.)

  23. Kelly Decker says:

    This piece is a beautiful illustration of how rich and complex the embodiment of Deaf Heart is. In reading this and in conversations with other colleagues, and the Deaf community it has become obvious to me that Deaf Heart is an organic living, breathing way of being. Not something you have as an academic understanding, but something you practice as a human being. The more that we converse, dialogue and engage with other human beings who have been nurtured and cultivated within the heart of the Deaf community, the further we can take these discussions.

    Betty – Thank you for your wisdom, courage and ability to tie in all of the before mentioned ideas. This, for me, further creates the space to share and more so, that I have something to share.

  24. Joe McCleary says:

    Although I understand and appreciate being a compassionate human being, I think we need to be careful not to be paternalistic. Certainly understanding our role, trying to put ourselves in D/deaf people’s shoes, and being member of the community not just “daily visitors” is vital. I also agree that we need to do a better job of listening to what D/deaf people have to say.

    The example used about the juvenile in court, to me that is an example of we as a profession doing a bad job of understanding the role of Deaf interpreters and when/why one is needed. It could also potentially be an example of hearing interpreters not valuing the work of Deaf interpreters but it is hard to determine.

    One more point, CODA’s can be members of the RID board. They can hold every position (except the one reserved for a Deaf person). Deaf people can be members of the RID board in any position. CODA’s bring a unique perspective to interpreting that should be valued but not worshiped.

    My two cents….

    • Joe,

      I respect your viewpoint and agree about the facts. However, given where we have taken the field, we need to admit that what should be happening is not. Codas do not want to be worshiped…they want to be welcomed to the inner circles of power where they can offer another perspective.

    • Bill Moody says:

      There are, of course, CODAs who are Deaf and one will certainly be, eventually, on the Board in the Deaf person’s seat!
      As to being paternalistic: as an interpreter, the Deaf consumers’ responses to my behavior usually tell me immediately when I have overstepped boundaries that they prefer to keep. And for regular consumers, I immediately know where those boundaries are. It would be foolish of me to advocate for Deaf people who can perfectly well advocate for themselves!

  25. Michael Labadie says:

    I recall in my earlier days of interpreting being on the elevator with a deaf consumer. I was expressing concern about my own skill, when she told me I had something more important than skill- I had the right attitude. We talked about it on the short ride and then standing in the lobby for awhile.

    Your points about Deaf Heart resonate with me. I’ve encountered my share of interpreters who have it, and those that don’t. The title of your article includes the word ‘quest’ and this is where the course of our field forks into different roads taken. The quest for Deaf Heart within each of us is dependent on individual experience and exposure to awareness and understanding of the power held by the interpreter to tip the scale of social injustice in the moment or not. And how to do it?!

    Thank you for addressing such an important issue! As a profession, we need to have these conversations!

  26. Michael,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. It has been decades since the NAD survey clearly showing that Deaf consumers put ATTITUDE above skills, while interpreters put skills at the top of the list. Things haven’t changed much. I believe what Deaf people label as “attitude” can also be explained as the “potential to embrace Deaf heart.”

    Keep your thoughts coming.

  27. Julie Berner says:


    thank you for this — I feel a fire has been lit and it’s time for me/us to keep it stoked and blazing big with these difficult discussions. I have worked as an interpreter for 15 years and often find myself in cognitive dissonance as my “interpretation” of the CPC (and deep fears of violating it) and my gut feelings are in conflict. This ugly feeling in my heart/gut/mind have made me want to jump ship and change professions… but the other side of my heart has kept me aboard to face this very dissonance. I am inspired by your article. I have work to do. People to talk with. Discusions to be had!

    You said: “How can interpreters who hide behind their interpretation of the Code of Professional Conduct–instead of taking responsibility to intervene–employ strategies that are culturally appropriate to solve problems?”

    YES YES YES!!!! I want to discuss this until the end of time!

    And now, as an educator, I am trying to figure out how to help students (some as young as 18 or 19 with little life experience under their own belt) understand the CPC AND “employ strategies that are culturally appropriate to solve problems”. The answer, “it depends” is mostly true and yet, not enough.

    Thank you, Thank you for inspiring me/we to engage in these hard conversations.

    heart, Jules

    • Dear Jules,

      I appreciate your sharing an all-to-common experience…the pull between what makes sense and what is viewed as “the rules.” Frankly, I believe that the whole CPC needs revisiting at some point. Perhaps not right now, but certainly after many long and difficult discussions.

      I believe the CPC is written the way it is because, as you rightfully point out, most interpreters are a) very young with little life experience, b) not comfortable with making decisions that are not clearly scripted, and c) do not have the bilingual and bicultural abilities needed to recognize or intervene when problems arise.
      Restricting interpreters from the type of decision making that comes with maturity, a well-rounded education, emotional and psychological well-being, and the judgment to examine/analyze options makes sense. It is too premature to assume these qualities in working interpreters across the board.

      How does our field accommodate this variability in interpreters? That is another topic for discussion. The interpreters who are able to manage these challenges struggle with trying to explain “it depends” to those who ask. How can we (if at all) have a way to measure, “certify”, or even identify which interpreters can and should and which ones need to develop these abilities?

      Ideally, we should all be able to do this as professionals. Our field is very young compared to other professions. I believe in time the field will evolve to these levels of professionalism and accountability. What do we do in the meantime? Patience is hard to sustain when we see the harm that is done.

      If enough like-minded people do the work, we will move forward.

      Thanks for your post.

      Betty Colonomos

    • Bill Moody says:

      Betty’s “ideally, we should be able to do this as professionals” reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Theresa Smith, which goes something like: “professionals are paid as professionals because they have proven their ability to make difficult decisions when there IS no right and wrong.” It is Deaf heart and whatever years of experience we have, as well as working with mentors with MORE experience, that gives us the skill to make difficult decisions on the spur of the moment, despite the ‘deep fears’ of violating the CPC (which exists for very good reasons) and our gut feeling that a consumer needs a little help… It is, says Theresa, the reason we are, or aspire to be, PROFESSIONALS.

  28. Anne Braun says:

    Thank you for this thought-provoking article. I agree that the Deaf heart is often lacking. I also agree that it is something that can’t be taught but I firmly believe it can be cultivated. I think back to when I entered the field of deafness, first as a ASL student, then as a friend, a teacher of Deaf children and later as an interpreter and an interpreter trainer. When I first entered the field in the 1980s things were different. I had the privilege of being allowed to see into the lives of Deaf individuals. I worked alongside Deaf people, both children and adults, I had (still have) Deaf friends, I had Deaf housemates. I was allowed access to the Deaf experience, the “Deaf story.” I heard the struggles and successes Deaf people encountered on a daily basis.

    There are many people who are entering the field of interpreting today without ever knowing a Deaf person before taking an ASL course. Often their interactions with Deaf people are limited to the classroom. When interpreter places sixteenth in U.S. News 100 Best Jobs of 2013 we can see where the field is going. There are many who are entering the field because it is a good career. There is a high demand for interpreters and it is a lucrative profession. The reasons people are becoming interpreters are changing.

    I believe that those interpreters with Deaf heart can help cultivate a Deaf heart in others. Through modeling and discussions cultivating can begin. By talking about the decisions one makes when interpreting, not only about the interpretation itself, but the dynamics surrounding the communication event such as power imbalances, attempts at leveling the playing field and gaining and holding the floor, by acknowledging power and privilege the discussions can be fruitful and eye-opening. However, without intimate knowledge of the Deaf experience, the Deaf story, this falls short.

    Those entering the field must understand the Deaf experience. However, attempts at gaining insight are often elusive. Where are the Deaf Clubs? Where are the social gatherings? Where are the Deaf people who take those just entering the field under their wing? With the advent of video phones “face to face” interactions within the Deaf community are confined to living rooms. Where does one gain the insight needed to have a Deaf heart? It can not happen in a classroom. I don’t believe it can happen by simply working alongside interpreters or codas with a Deaf heart. Conversations are a good starting place but I believe one has to have the privilege of being allowed into Deaf people’s lives. By being allowed access to the struggles and triumphs we can more clearly see live through the lens of a Deaf person. Interpreters, both codas and non-codas, and Deaf people must work together. Avenues such as Street Leverage Live and perhaps more Allies Conferences are a good place to start.

    • Hi Anne,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree that it is much more difficult to get involved with groups of Deaf people than it was in the 1980s. Yet I have faith that those who are in search of the Deaf heart will find a way. We may need to help create more opportunities, but people on a mission don’t give up too easily. Many, if not most, interpreters who read and comment on are already plugged in and they are actively working to cultivate their own Deaf hearts.

      I am not as optimistic about the thousands of RID members who may not think this is important, desirable, or even relevant to their work. We should at least talk in depth about what to do as a profession and a community to deal with the potential harm to future policies and positions we support as a field. How can we assure that our national organization and interpreter preparation programs honor the role of Deaf heart in Sign Language interpreting.

  29. Stephanie Merchant says:

    Thank you Betty for your insightful writing.

    In regards to Deaf Heart my thoughts go to the discussion groups the years ago in response to the violence that pervades our cities. Pacem in Terris is a organization for which I served as a board member for many years conducted these kinds gatherings for diversity training. People from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds gather together and then proceed through a series of guided discussions over the course of 10 weeks. Remarkable things happen in these groups; people who have grown up with privilege their entire lives suddenly have awareness that they have been blessed with a position of power. This understanding naturally allows for compassion and respect for those in a disadvantaged position and plagued with all of the burdens that comes with.

    Perhaps our allying with these kinds of social justice groups that have been successful in bridging some of these troubled waters could then cultivate the Deaf Heart.

    The first step is awareness. Awareness does not require education, it merely requires openness on the part of the participant. If an interpreter is willing and open, amazing things can happen.

    • Hi Stephanie,

      Thanks for your post. I agree that there is much to learn from groups addressing social issues. Not too long ago I attended a retreat led by two Deaf people from Fecundo Element. They work with social justice communities and brought an analysis of privilege that formed the basis for many stimulating discussions. These interactions are the stepping stones to greater understanding. It’s up to us to keep the issues in the forefront.
      Take care.

      • Michelle says:

        Stephanie and Betty,

        I agree that the first step is awareness. Most of us in the privileged majority have little understanding of oppression. We need to have our blinders removed. For me that happened when I witnessed the struggle of an intelligent and talented Deaf professional to advance in a career. It broke my heart, and that’s when, I believe, a Deaf heart was born in me. We need to remember that we are a “service” profession. We serve a dynamic, historically rich population. When we lose sight of that, we are no better than machines.

  30. Katherine Coutanche says:

    Hello. One of my tutors posted this article for us to read as part of our Deaf Studies degree. I found it very interesting and it is a concept that I can identify with. I recognise how I struggle sometimes to put aside my hearing viewpoint to see things from a Deaf perspective and to empathize with and work towards an understanding of that worldview.

    One point I will make: I am from the UK, so had to look up what RID meant. The name of the organisation could well be a place to start in terms of showing an understanding of Deaf Heart. The Deaf people I know would be offended by ” … for the Deaf” and find it quite patronising.

    I am looking forward to reading more on this website now I have found it.

    • Hello Katherine,

      It sounds like the article resonated with you. I smiled reading your comment about the name of our national organization, RID. Many years have been spent debating about the name and there have been attempts to change it. The acronym RID took hold many years ago and folks are reluctant to forgo the name-recognition factor. RID is written into many laws and published works. Any ideas on a way to replace “for the…”? Thanks for writing.

  31. Kevin Lowery says:

    Having a Deaf Heart starts with the pure unselfish reason why each and every one of us BECAME an interpreter in the first place. (And if you said “money,” you’re in the wrong business for the wrong reasons.) Sometimes along the journey through college, certification and professional development one can lose the focus on their Deaf Heart (after all, we take our own human heartbeats for granted, don’t we?) Engaging the Deaf community on their level and at their events not only has shown me to be a responsible and trustworthy person but it has given me the pleasure of hearing their stories, laughing together and even crying together.

  32. Hello Betty and everyone,

    I’m holding my breathe because the 2012 JOI is going to come out soon with an article in that (I hope) might help make Deaf heart a little less mysterious.

    In “Deaf Voice and the Invention of Community Interpreting,” I reflect from my position as an outsider entering the field in the early 1990s, when individual sign language interpreters and RID were being constantly challenged by activists within the Deaf community and their allies. I take a step back to explore those dynamics as a large-scale social process in terms of of historical time. I also draw on recent work by Eileen Forestal and Christopher Stone about Deaf interpreters to suggest that the intercultural lesson Deaf people have been trying to teach us for decades can be inspirational for everyone, including majority and minority language speakers all over the world.

    The term “Deaf heart” is not used in the article although I remember it from the BiBi Committee at the Indiana School for the Deaf back in 1991-1992 or so. If my dissertation ever turns into a book, it will be dedicated to ISD’s BiBi Committee – you are the ones who showed me it is possible to have very different identities and still share the same heart. Thank you for enriching my life and inspiring my hope!

  33. JO says:

    Nice article. Keep up with writing here.

  34. Jennifer Kaika says:

    Thank you for this Betty, for the eloquent expression of such an important topic. I wish there were a “ditto” button so I could second many of the comments already made.

  35. Mariela says:

    My Terp teacher for INTP4010 had our class read this article. Definitely a great piece that touches on a subject that is too often overlooked!

  36. Emily says:

    Beautiful piece. “It is something that can’t be taught. It is difficult to explain, yet palpably absent.” I agree that it cannot be taught and is very difficult to explain and rare to find. I am 25 years old and currently in an ITP in the metro Atlanta area. I truly believe I have and have always had a ‘Deaf Heart’. I have no Deaf in my family but somehow I have always felt something deep inside that has drawn me to the Deaf world. I grew up in a wonderful church that has a large Deaf Ministry and that Deaf Community is what lit the fire inside me at a very young age. That group of people continues to keep my fire burning day in and day out. Especially the Deaf man who volunteered his time to teach a sign class six years ago and is still teaching today. I continue go to his class weekly. He holds a very special place in my heart, as do many of the other members of the Deaf Community, and I can’t imagine moving along in this profession without acknowleding what he/they have done for me. I can’t imagine serving a community of people without understanding who they are and where they come from. For me personally this “career/profession/job” will never be “just” a job. It is my life, my whole heart, all that I am. It is me serving them in a successful partnership that cannot be created without a ‘Deaf Heart’. Thank you again for sharing this piece.


  37. Kathy Rickman Hembree says:

    Wow! Amazing article! Thank you for stimulating and inspiring my thoughts!

  38. Katie Mittler says:

    I think everybody should have a “Deaf Heart” for all the deaf people and in their community as an Interpreter or not. You have to treat them equal with everybody else. You have to have pride in yourself as interpreter and pride with a deaf person. For example, I went to the millneck apple festival and I interpreted and chatted with a sweet deaf women and her child last year. The “deaf heart” came out on me and I was signing. It was an awesome experience. I really cant wait to be an interpreter and come into the deaf community with my deaf heart and be with these deaf people for the rest of my life.

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