Abled Arrogance, Not Linguistic Carework
I’d like to talk about this tweet sent out recently by an hearing interpreter educator about the quality of interpreters graduating from interpreter education programs. They took the position that prospects must be fluent in ASL before admission. They understood this meant shrinking the pool of interpreters but accepted this as the price of having “top quality interpreters.”
I was astounded by that determination; I found it to be arrogant. Let’s look at this claim through a deaf perspective.
First, who gets to make that determination. Who gets to decide that the costs of doing something (trade offs in access, for example) is appropriate? Let’s think about what I know, purely anecdotally, through my relationships within deaf communities and my lived experience.
Doctors decline and delay health care procedures because interpreters aren’t available. Life saving procedures or life-extending procedures are off the table because interpreters couldn’t be secured in time. Parenthood delayed because fertility clinics cannot find an interpreter within a 500 mile radius; VRI isn’t an option given this person’s language background. How many deaf people sit in prison, legal processes indefinitely delayed because of shortages of sign language interpreters. Hearing people get DUIs and get out of jail within hours. Deaf people get the same DUIs and take days to get out of jail because the system wants to wait for an interpreter to be available. Putting our lives and our freedoms on hold because interpreters aren’t available.
Think of the many college students all over the United States, including at NTID/RIT, that cannot take classes they want to take because of interpreter shortages. Educations deferred.
I’ve had to go to the hospital overnight and not be able to get an interpreter in a city full of interpreters. Just that nobody is available.
Mental health services have been delayed for months, placing deaf people at higher risk for self harm. Because interpreter shortages. I could go on. But I think you get my point.
Sure, deaf people complain about long waits for VRS interpreters because of the shortage. That’s an annoyance, that impacts our ability to participate in society and in commerce. That impacts our ability to access emergency calls, emergency care. Our well being, our health, our liberty, our prosperity, are tied in with the availability of interpreters and access. And yes, quality.
If we acknowledge quality matters, we should think of solutions. Before we leap to a solution that significantly shrinks the available pool of an already scarce labor force, why don’t we think about identifying the real problems and more practical solutions that does not limit deaf people’s human rights? This begins with a community grounded, community centered approach to solutions. What are deaf people willing to tolerate in terms of quality and balancing demand/quality? Who should be the gatekeepers?
ASL evaluators? They have biases and beliefs about language that discriminates against non-white, disabled, and other users of ASL that don’t fall within usages determined acceptable by the dominant group. Those assessments are very subjective and heavily influenced by ideologies about language that often are not well informed.
Leaving gatekeeping to such evaluators and to interpreter educators, who are largely hearing and white and ASL educators who are largely white deaf elites, does not serve deaf communities well. This suggestion perpetuates continued systemic marginalization of various deaf people. Absolutely not. Those decisions belong in the hands of deaf people ourselves: those who are most impacted (again, directing you back to Sins Invalid- and this means, also non-white, queer and trans multiply disabled deaf folk).
As a historian, I want to remind us to think about contexts and contingencies. I have several years of experience teaching ASL across different ASL and Interpreter educator programs.
I’m really amazed at the different beliefs that circulates about how language works, how language acquisition works, what is or is not language, and linguistics. And anecdotally, I’ve met interpreters, like this one, who entered college as a freshman. No ASL. She picked up an ASL dictionary, taught herself some signs, went to Gallaudet for an immersive experience, and come out an epic interpreter. Then there were those who came in fluent in ASL, like Codas, who came out of interpreter education programs worse for the wear. We should be careful about ideas on how quickly fluency happens or even what that means.
All this to say that perhaps the problem is more nuanced and complex than we think it is. It’s not just fluency that’s the issue. Problems usually have many causes and thus need many solutions.
Perhaps we should be asking how can we expand immersive ASL experiences for undergraduates? How can we take advantage of 21st century technologies like artificial intelligence, motion detection, and virtual reality to create language immersion and learning opportunities? How can we use those technologies and other methods to build and expand signing spaces for thriving linguistic communities, exchanges, and learning? How can we crip technologies, using deaf centered approaches, to address the problems we confront in interpreter education?
The reality is that traditional approaches don’t work. But instead of staying in old ways of thinking, ASL then Interpreter education, why not think of new ways of doing things? And really, I’m just one person with a sliver of perspective. I’m not even that engaged in AI tech or VR.
Another issue we need to confront are purity ideologies in how we teach ASL and ASL linguistics. I’ve seen so many ASL teachers treat ASL as a strictly bounded language with strict rules of usage, banning certain constructions of sentences, using certain letters with signs, initializing signs, etcetera. All in ways that does not reflect the real signing we see people use on an everyday basis. We all translanguage to some extent. But I’ve had interpreter graduates come to my office saying they were lost, overwhelmed, and unable to interpret because they just couldn’t process from a signed language they didn’t understand- peppered with English letters, mouthing, varied constructions of sentences, gesture, pointing, and so on. Those students didn’t really know ASL. They knew the textbook’s ASL and what their 1–3 instructors taught them. That’s it. Then they were dumped out in the community to deal with a language and experiences that are far more heterogenous than what they were led to learn in ASL/Interpreter education programs. On this note, I encourage interpreter education programs to elevate translanguaging skills intentionally. The ability to calibrate, using a large toolbox of languaging strategies, is a vital skill. On this point, I think it’s important to emphasize that interpreting is linguistic carework. This means, in part, interpreters thinking about how to expand, not narrow access.
What makes a good interpreter, really? Top notch ASL? No. [video flubs]. Now what makes a good interpreter? Or good interpreter education program?
Part of the problem, of course, is that traditionally Deaf Studies is very white centered and elitist. See Shannon Moutinho’s thesis for more on this but I tend to agree, as a scholar of Deaf Studies myself. The people who teach ASL often internalize ideologies and mythologies that are not true but perpetuate harmful practices within interpreting. Interpreting students internalize ideas that there is a very narrow way of using ASL and that deaf communities are monolithic. And if intersections exist, they are additive, not co-constitutive.
Another major problem with interpreter education is the absence of critical disability studies, medical humanities, critical deaf studies. Those are important because I’m tired of seeing interpreters slap on that “altruistic shield” to deflect conversations about power, privilege, and place as our unwanted guests. I called this behavior abled arrogance in a paper a number of years ago but really, I like Gerald’s phrasing and framework. Interpreters need to own the power they have as actors and agents, as meditators of power in spaces where deaf people are: medical, legal, carceral, education, so on.
This is especially driven by an experience where an interpreter educator, allegedly well known for being a social justice warrior, declared to her class of health care interpreting students that she would not interpret for a deaf patient who had been taken to the emergency room at 3 am in a blizzard. Her reason was that the deaf man had neglected the doctor’s prior instructions for care. Therefore he did not deserve access through her that morning.
The nerve. And absolute utter failure to honor their obligations as a linguistic care worker. That is a slippery slope for an educator to tell students: that they have the power to withhold access because of individual value judgments of another person’s life choices. Where’s the line for judgments on alcohol use, drug use, queerness, transitioning genders, being not-white or not-Christian? That’s a domino effect waiting to happen. Access predicated upon individual likes and dislikes rather than upon a moral code of access provision.
And such a shallow lack of reflexivity on the power and privilege she possessed. She did not consider that the health care system and insurance are both complicated to navigate. Even for those without access or linguistic barriers. That health care settings are fraught with violence and trauma for deaf people, and that unanticipated expenses or misunderstandings might keep deaf people away from preventive health care services. And did she not consider that perhaps her prior interpretations had not been effectively communicated to the deaf man in a way that he understood the urgency of handling his condition prior to being sent to the emergency room? It’s this kind of thinking, this arrogance that terrifies me. Knowing that interpreters go into courtrooms and medical settings without any self-awareness, without explicit understandings of power, who have so much power. Such absence of knowledge of power and systems are very dangerous to deaf people. There have been interpreters who cover up their mistakes and refuse to ensure mutual understanding because they think that language is so fixed that mistakes reflects on the interpreter’s fluency rather than on the nature of language/understanding each other. And those mistakes hurt us- get us in jail, fired, let go for incompetence, and so on. Instead of covering your mouth, why not just ask for clarification? It’s all good. As educators, we should have more than a shallow understanding of power and privilege.
A good interpreter education program should have a strong grounding in critical disability studies, medical humanities, critical deaf studies, history so that they can contextualize and understand complexities of structural power, and the liberal arts. Linguistic competency is only a small part of the big picture. Maybe the interpreting part should just be deferred to the graduate level and allow undergraduate education to focus on holistic development. And besides, there are many pathways, many doors, many approaches to this.
Interpreter education has many, many problems. The main one being ignoring deaf people, not allowing deaf people to take the lead in strategies, approaches, technologies, innovations, or values in what interpreting should be for deaf people. To ignore that and proceed is abled arrogance. Not linguistic casework.
References: (links embedded below where available)
Berne, P. & Sins Invalid. 2015. “10 Principles of Disability Justice.”
Henner, J. & Robinson, O. 2021 preprint. “Unsettling Languages, Unruly Bodyminds: Imaging a Crip Linguistics.”
Moriarty, E. & Kusters, A. 2021. “Deaf cosmopolitanism: calibrating as a moral process. International Journal of Multilingualism.” (Open Access)
Moutinho, S. 2019. “Reproducing Whiteness in Sign Language Interpreter Education: A Critical Examination of Curriculum.” MS thesis. University of Illinois at Chicago.
Robinson, O. & J. Henner. 2017. “The personal is political in The Deaf Mute Howls: deaf epistemology seeks disability justice.” Disability & Society. 32:9.
Robinson, O. & J. Henner. 2018. “Authentic Voices, Authentic Encounters: Cripping the University Through American Sign Language.” Disability Studies Quarterly.