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The Costs Incurred: Hearing Non-Signers and Signed Language Interpreters

Deaf people and signed language interpreters live in an uneasy co-existence. We need access to the hearing world; interpreters need to work for their livelihood. The irony of entering a dependent relationship in order to obtain enough information to be autonomous as a professional has always rankled, but that is the state of play*.

A discussion about signed language interpreter ethics erupted this weekend on Facebook about Gallaudet University economics professor Dr. Khadijat Rashid’s response to the Wall Street Journal article featuring signed language interpreter Travis Painter. [Disclosure — Dr. Rashid is a friend and colleague.]

In a nutshell, Professor Rashid wrote an open response to the WSJ article, which can be viewed here. There are many seeming violations of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Code of Professional Conduct, but I will not take those on in this post. That is for the RID Ethical Practices System (EPS) to take up once they have received the formal complaint. [Second disclosure — I have served as a paid and volunteer consultant to RID re: EPS].

I want to highlight two very important points that are often overlooked. The first is that signing Deaf people often feel powerless to do anything in the face of interpreter bad behavior. Deaf communities can be small, and interpreting communities likewise. (Washington DC is a notable exception to this rule.) Speaking up in a small community can involve huge risk and unwanted repercussions. This is especially the case if interpreters close ranks to protect their own. Sound familiar? It should – we see this happening in other professions. Medicine is a prime example. Academic philosophy is another.

Speaking up and complaining publicly about unethical conduct (note – I mean this in the broad sense of unethical, not just the RID CPC sense) is risky for a deaf person. It is less risky in Washington DC given the large size of the deaf community and the signed language interpreting community. It is also less risky for a deaf person whose accomplishments have earned her a certain amount of respect, but some risks remain, nonetheless. Dr. Rashid should be commended for her willingness to use her place of relative privilege to call out this behavior.

(Kudos, Kubby!)

My second point is that deaf professionals who interact with the hearing world deal with variations of the Interpreter Basking In The Spotlight Syndrome all the time. A reflective interpreter is someone who has considered her motivations for entering the profession, who acknowledges the attention that her work receives, and who understands her place in the interaction, developing strategies for making sure that the deaf person’s access is paramount. I am fortunate to have worked with many interpreters like this. Unfortunately, there are far too many unreflective interpreters who prefer to bask in the spotlight.

Nota bene: the interpreter is not the star. Nor is she a savior.

Discussion of signed language interpreting ethics usually centers on ways that interpreters should behave, and more recently, on expectations that deaf people have of interpreters.

I want to flip this last point and note that we also have expectations of non-signing hearing people.

Mostly, I want to call out non-signing hearing people who behave badly and ask that they consider the effects of their actions.

This point is often difficult for non-signing hearing people to comprehend, but it needs to be said. The presence of a signed language interpreter does not give you carte blanche to satisfy your curiosity about sign language, signed language interpreters, and the deaf community. The interpreter is there so that deaf people and hearing people can interact — not so that hearing people can interact with the interpreter socially.

I repeat: the signed language interpreter is NOT there to satisfy your curiosity.

Not even if you are a journalist hoping to write a human interest story, not even if you are a philosopher wanting to see if there might be something of philosophical interest for you in this bright shiny thing that has caught your attention, not even if you are someone who has always wanted to learn sign language and wants to know how to get started.

The interpreter is not there to satisfy your curiosity.

Got that? OK, good.

I cannot tell you how many times I have been at a professional philosophy or bioethics conference, networking during a break, when a (non-signing) hearing person approaches my interpreters to ask a question about sign language, deaf people, signed language interpreting. The more sensitive ones approach the interpreter who appears to not be working — that is, she is not moving her hands and arms – they do not realize the interpreter’s brain is engaged and providing support to the active interpreter.

Interpreters provide communication access in these venues. For the most part**, they would not be working at these venues without deaf people present. They are charged with providing access to all kinds of content during their shift. In the case of the Economics Club event, the interpreter was providing not just access to the words of Ben Bernanke, but to provide communication access to all of the social interactions that occur at such an event, especially the dinner conversation and the networking.

When Travis Painter left his work to bask in the spotlight provided by the WSJ reporter, he abandoned not just the two deaf people, but all of those who might have interacted with them, had he been at his post. (Think about it for a minute – one interpreter is needed per deaf consumer if each one is having a dinner conversation.)

What infuriates me most about this is the impact on Tiasha Bera, the undergraduate student. This was a once in a lifetime event for Ms. Bera, an economics major thinking of how she might work in this field as a deaf woman of color; undoubtedly looking to and learning from Professor Rashid. Ms. Bera’s evening was ruined because an interpreter put his desire to be the center of attention above her access to communication. Ms. Bera’s evening was ruined because a hearing journalism put her curiosity and desire to write a feature story about the interpreter above her access to communication.

Tiasha and Dr. Rashid are owed apologies, but I hope that something else comes out of this debacle.

My last point is this. Don’t talk to the interpreter, talk to the deaf person! That’s the opportunity you’ve been given.

Seize it.

*Note: this holds even for deaf people with cochlear implants, at least in any profession where much can turn on one word. Interpreters, captioning, hearing aids, cochlear implants – all are imperfect solutions to the problem.

** I have lots of thoughts about dog-and-pony show interpreting and the ethical issues therein, but that’s another post.

Note: I was told that for some reason the post had been truncated! (This may have occurred when I corrected two minor typos.) I’ve pasted the original text from my word document, but there may be some minor stylistic changes between this and the original posted version. No substantive changes were made. TBB

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