Howling into the Void: The [real] Elephant in the Room

Screenshot of a tweet reading “Cynthia Bilderback Roy raising the reality of how our training is failing by taking in sign language interpreting students without Sign Language fluency. The elephant in the room is being named and it is time to address the impact of what we are doing. #1nt #1ntSL @WASLI_tweets @RID_Inc The photo shows a powerpoint slide with text and an image of a person (presumably Roy) speaking.

The former president of the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI), Dr. Debra Russell, tweeted this out 2 April 2021.

The text reads “Cynthia Bilderback Roy raising the reality of how our training is failing by taking in sign language interpreting students without SL fluency. The elephant in the room is being named and it is time to address the impact of what we are doing.”

A few Deaf Twitter users pointed out to Dr. Russell that this is not a new critique. This matters because the real elephant in the room is that hearing people have been ignoring deaf people for a long time and still do not see us as part of the solution.

This is not a Firsties, Credit Due Where Credit is Due tantrum. Rather, this is a reminder that once again, deaf people have been and are howling into the void. How much pain and anguish would we be spared if hearing people listened to us (including parents, doctors, educators…).

Prime Example #1: How many decades [centuries] have we, deaf people, shared our knowledges about signed languages, human languages, and cognition, only to be ignored until a Hearing Knows Best™ person/savior comes along? For the receipts, check out Robinson & Henner, 2017.

Back to interpreting and Dr. Russell’s tweet regarding Roy’s claims. We have been naming this for years [decades]- and probably from the very beginning- that approaches to interpreter education weren’t working- language and interpreting at the same time? lol. We have been telling you [hearing interpreter educators] for a long time that we had those problems and we also had solutions for those problems. And by the way, can I say lack of linguistic fluency is not the only problem we confront?

But solving those problems require courage. Divestment. and willingness to challenge the System™ [Audism, Ableism, Phonocentrism, White Supremacy, Capitalism].

A few of The Problems (as informed by my brief stint in interpreter education and my comrades who are still bravely in the field).

  1. Two-tiered systems for interpreting and language faculty within departments and higher education institutions
  2. Tenure lines for interpreting (hearing faculty) and none for language (deaf) faculty.
  3. CCIE’s requirement that the department chair be a certified interpreter
  4. The role of BICS and CALP in Interpreter Education
  5. Signing Naturally and the inability of senior interpreting faculty to diagnose and repair problems created by using SN
  6. Language attitudes (and audism) among hearing faculty
  7. Interpreting faculty who are so audist and ableist that they see language teaching as “beneath” them.
  8. The absolute and utter failure to enact a humanistically grounded approach to sign language teaching (this is a collective failure, caused by systems, including the nonexistence of a Ph.D. program for sign language teaching, and I won’t lay the entire burden of this on the hearing interpreting faculty although they, too, are accountable).

I could write a book on the above but I’ll sum a few things up for you.

You cannot have a quality undergraduate language and interpreting education if :

hearing faculty do not have mutual respect for deaf faculty as language educators and experts;

hearing faculty cannot and will not defer to deaf faculty as the experts on signed languages and knowledgeable about interpreting;

deaf faculty cannot freely experiment with innovative teaching approaches;

deaf faculty cannot teach with rigor (or exercise academic freedoms such as freedom of political speech) without fearing for their job security;

hearing faculty do not have respect for signed languages as equal to spoken languages;

hearing faculty do not view deaf faculty as capable of teaching upper level courses or of leadership in determining standards, quality, and exit requirements;

hearing faculty insists on using spoken languages in upper level courses, relegating signed languages to the background and sending clear messages to students about language attitudes;

hearing faculty insisting that improving fluency in a student’s spoken language is more important than acquiring fluency in the target language;

lack of humanities and linguistics training (or severe imbalances) among interpreting & language faculty;

siloing language learning from the remainder of the students’ four-years in university;

failing to ground sign language teaching in humanistic methods across the entire four year curriculum;

last but not least, interpreter education needs a complete reimaging. Who has the courage to do this? I wonder. (I’m available for consulting).

Or let me boil this down for you. The problem is hearing supremacy and hearing people’s inability to “hear” the deaf people who are literally and figuratively in the room. Hello. We are right here.

Lots of this wisdom has been shared via academic scholarship by deaf scholars. And we tweet about it. And we’re there in your faculty meetings. Silenced by audism, ableism and exhaustion from the emotional labor of managing hearing-deaf relations.

How about the entire field taking a big giant sit-down and start listening to deaf people?

Anyway, this is why we need a Crip Linguistics (working on it, another Henner and Robinson production coming soon!) and a humanistically-grounded Ph.D. program to prepare faculty for sign language teaching and interpreter education. Any takers?


DeHaan, K. J. (2020, September 2). Ph.D. in Sign Language Education at Gallaudet University: A Viability Study [University of Pittsburgh ETD]. University of Pittsburgh.

Robinson, O. E., & Henner, J. (2017). The personal is political in The Deaf Mute Howls: Deaf epistemology seeks disability justice. Disability & Society, 32(9), 1416–1436.

Robinson, O., & Henner, J. (2018). Authentic Voices, Authentic Encounters: Cripping the University Through American Sign Language. Disability Studies Quarterly, 38(4), Article 4.