Dr. Rashid’s Response to the Wall Street Journal article on Signed Language Interpreting

This originally appeared as a Facebook entry on behalf of Dr. Khadijat Rashid who does not use Facebook and has just recently learned of the article published in the Wall Street Journal. I have received permission from Dr. Rashid to post this on Deaf Echo. It was she and one of her economics majors from Gallaudet University, Tiasha Bera, who were the intended recipients of services that night at the National Economics Club dinner:

Khadijat writes:

I am outraged, as a person, a professional, a client of interpreting services, and as someone who has ironically enough, invested a great deal of interest and energy in interpreter training including writing articles and book chapters on the topic. Reading this article and watching the accompanying video upset me, for reasons you will read below.

Every year the National Economics Club offers metro-DC college students scholarships to attend the annual Economics Club Dinner. Tiasha applied and was thrilled to be selected to participate in such a prestigious event, the opportunity to meet the giants of the economics field, and also to be present at one of the last occasions when Dr. Bernanke would publicly speak before stepping down as Chairman of the Federal Reserve. But the event was practically ruined for her from the beginning because of the conduct of one of the interpreters—Travis Painter—featured in the WSJ article.

From the very beginning of the event it was obvious to Tiasha and I that his behavior did not exhibit the level of professionalism we are used to seeing (even among more junior interpreters). Even when an interpreter is still acquiring the nuances of ASL—as Mr. Painter clearly is—we are used to new interpreters demonstrating respect for us as clients, other participants in the interpreted setting, and to making the interpreted event their first priority. This is the complete opposite of what Mr. Painter did.

I want to give you some detail about that—but first—I want to answer the question that you might posing to yourself right now: why didn’t I, or Tiasha, report his conduct to the interpreter referral agency, and to the RID ethics board. The answer is this: life circumstances intervened in both of our lives, and since I do not use Facebook—I was not aware of the report of and discussion about these events until recently. Now that we have learned of the Wall Street Journal article, we will follow this letter up with strong action. In fact, Tiasha took notes that evening with the intent to file a complaint, so that was in the works even before the article came out.

So here are some of the details of the event:

Tiasha and I entered the National Economics Club and initially met with the two interpreters and introduced ourselves. We were surprised to see Mr. Painter, since the interpreter referral agency had contacted me previously and said to expect two female interpreters. However, life happens, so we took this situation in stride, assuming that there was a last minute change due to unforeseen circumstances. I gave both interpreters a quick orientation to the event and what to expect, and (as an economist myself) briefed them on who the participants were and some of the terms they would likely encounter during the evening. During this time, we began to mingle with the other guests, and made quick friends with several of them. Tiasha was particularly anxious and nervous since this was her first time at an event like this, but she made an effort, which is more than could be said for the interpreter as several times, he left her on her own and I had to call him to attend her.

It was obvious from the beginning that Mr. Painter had a difficult time following what the Wall Street Journal article has called Dr. Bernanke’s “painstaking” word choices. The speech was full of economic jargon, often wrongly translated by Mr. Painter, and I frequently had to supply him with more apropos signs. While he was interpreting and just after making a switch with the other interpreter, someone approached him, took him aside, and started a conversation with him, while he was supposed to be observing and supporting the other interpreter! He then asked his co-interpreter to replace him so he could continue this discussion (this, it turns out, was the writer from the Wall Street Journal).

At this point I was confused as to what was happening—assuming that perhaps it was an event organizer with a problem, but in that case why were they talking with the interpreter rather than with me, since the event had been arranged through me? I later found out that this was when the WSJ reporter approached Mr. Painter about doing an interview on interpreting. Whereas the co-interpreter had better ASL proficiency and professionalism, I was fine with his having been ‘switched out,” however, from the perspective of respect for us as participants in the event, Mr. Painter’s absence and interview with the reporter demonstrated arrogance and lack of regard for our wishes.

When it became clear that Mr. Painter was pursuing his own interests and ignoring ours—I called Mr. Painter back to his “post” and asked him not to walk away from his assigned role and his professional commitment. I made it clear that we were here professionally, with hearing people whom we wanted to talk with and get to know, and his extracurricular adventures could wait. But even at the table he (and the co-interpreter as well) seemed distracted, and my student and I had to continually get their attention to request that they interpret the remarks of our dining companions. As any professional knows, professional socializing involves banter that requires establishing rapport and responding with immediacy, otherwise the moment is “lost.” As it turned out, Tiasha did lose out somewhat on the opportunity to experience herself in smooth social flow of conversation with her economics peers and senior colleagues.

And without Tiasha and I, these interpreters would not have been present at the event. Our request placed them there, and Mr. Painter took advantage of that.

As ASL users we were dependent on the interpreters, and Mr. Painter behaved unprofessionally by agreeing to conduct an interview on a topic on which he had little knowledge. The appropriate thing to do would have been to refer the reporter to us, or to explain that he was new in this context and give the reporter the names of more experienced colleagues for the interview. Mr. Painter’s ASL proficiency alone should have precluded his placement at this event. It was way above his skill set. He made up signs for things—sequestration, fiscal cliff, inflation. He continued to use his own signs, many of which didn’t fit the concepts under discussion, even after I provided him signs commonly used in the economics field.

During and after the event my student and I discussed reporting Mr. Painter’s conduct to both the interpreter referral agency and to RID, but life circumstances intervened in both of our lives—until the article went to press and we finally learned of it. As a final affront , the video that accompanies the WSJ article initially wasn’t even captioned, so it wasn’t accessible to Tiasha and I to verify what was being said. When I checked back recently, I noted that captions had been added but I found the language demeaning – the frequent references to “the deaf” as if we were some sub-category of human being, and the implications that many of us were not familiar with proper English. Nor were most of the signs any that I would professionally use.

I want to encourage those of you who experience an ethics violation—or a situation that feels like it might be—to act swiftly and report it, as Tiasha and I are doing now.

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