Work as Sign Language Interpreters is a Privilege, not a Right

Dear Sign Language Interpreters, when you accept a large public facing job, you accept the criticism that comes with that job. This is the other side of the coin that you love so much- public adoration and praise for your beautiful signing performances and charity toward the hapless deaf.

Let’s have a conversation about Heather Mewshaw’s behavior as of late.

She is a professional. As a certified professional interpreter [her emphasis, not mine], she should well know this discussion is about her ethical choices, not her politics.

Repeat. This is not about her politics. This is about her decision making in whether or not to accept this specific job on a public platform with a large national audience at this specific political moment.

Ethics are subjective and open to interpretation. Was her decision good or bad? Many of us viewed her decision as a bad choice. Mewshaw herself pointed to RID’s Code of Professional Conduct so we’ll begin there. The CPC itself is subjective and open to interpretation. The CPC states that interpreters hold a position of trust.

If we communicate we cannot trust an interpreter, what should the interpreter do? Bully the deaf person, go on all the national tv networks to promote further violence toward deaf people, and twist people’s understanding of how interpreting works? That is what happened. FYI, interpreting is not neutral. There is a lot of research on the topic. There’s a whole book by Melanie Metzger, 21 years old, on this in sign language interpreting. Deaf people have always known interpreters are not neutral although they strive to be. Absolute neutrality is impossible. Especially with deep seated beliefs and ideas.

And, this type of reactive behavior, like we’ve seen from Mewshaw, only lends to further distrust, not rehabilitation of trust.

We have interpreted her conduct as a violation of CPC Tenets 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. Rather than trust Mewshaw’s interpretation of CPC, because her interests are involved, we should read and judge for ourselves. Here’s the RID document.

In a nutshell, she has violated Tenet 1 by breaking our trust. She violated Tenet 2 by not staying informed of “evolving language use and trends in the profession of interpreting”. Otherwise, she would know interpreting is not neutral & she did not use discretion with regard to setting and consumer needs in accepting this assignment. She violated Tenet 2.6 by not “judiciously provid[ing] information without infringing upon consumers’ rights.” She went on to violate Tenet 3 which is to avoid situations that result in perceived conflicts of interest. Her behavior since then has been ongoing and repeated violation of Tenet 4, respect for consumers. This is self evidentiary by her decision to go on Fox and Friends and the news circuit to tell her side of the story. I argue that the deaf person who first critiqued the ethical issues of Mewshaw’s interpretation is her colleague as he is a scholar who works in fields related to signed language interpreting. She’s also disrespecting many of her colleagues who happen to be deaf interpreters. The last but not least is to maintain ethical business practices, Tenet 6.0 is open to interpretation but I would argue her misrepresentation of news reporting on her personal site and the use of her personal website to incite violence toward deaf people are both unethical business practices.

People like Heather play games with words and actions to avoid responsibility. So let me be clear.

Who made the choice to appear on Hands of Liberty and interpret news widely known as propaganda? She did. The ethics of this is a separate and complicated discussion. But it is not unreasonable that the ethics involved in her decision to interpret for Hands of Liberty would influence our perception of her overall ethical decision making.

Who made the choice to wear a MAGA hat? Heather Mewshaw.

Who made the choice to establish a public image as a right leaning interpreter? Heather Mewshaw did. Repeatedly. Many, many, many times.

Who made this choice knowing that this would shape our perception of her as a right leaning, and therefore not neutral interpreter? Heather Mewshaw made this choice.

Who made the choice to accept the job at the White House despite establishing a public image of this nature? Heather Mewshaw said yes, eagerly showed up, and collected a paycheck.

Those were all Heather Mewshaw’s decisions. Nobody made Heather do any of those things. Heather just does not want to accept responsibility for making the decisions she made. She intentionally created a perceptible conflict of interest regardless of her political leanings or beliefs in interpretation as a neutral act.

Now let’s look at this from the view of deaf stakeholders. The RID code of professional conduct was created by, maintained by, and overseen by the RID. The RID is a primarily hearing led organization serving a majority of hearing stakeholders. Interpreters are dues paying members. Deaf people, generally, are not. So the RID serves the interests of its members, not deaf people.

So we should not be relying on the RID as the final decider on what is right or wrong for deaf people. At this point, we’re practically pulverizing a dead horse here, but let me repeat one more time clearly for everyone involved in this conversation.

Deaf people are the experts on our own access needs. Thank you very much. If you are not a signing person who uses signed languages for full access to public conversations and political life, then this is not your space. Do not comment. You don’t know the first thing about how signed languages work, how nuance and bias are captured in thousands of ways that extends beyond what the hands are doing, that our brains processes around 17 or more layers of visual information per second while watching signed language, or the importance of synergy between listener and interpreter in order for the deaf person to be able to process the messaging.

And this sidebar is for those who said we should wait until she actually misinterprets something before we react. You don’t have our lived experience as deaf people. There are many stories circulating in our communities about how a beloved deaf person has died because of a misinterpretation error. Because of an interpreter’s bias. Because of an interpreter’s refusal to admit they couldn’t understand something or accept they made a mistake that required repair. Must we remind you of what happened in Texas last summer during Covid-19? An interpreter deliberately signed that deaf people did not need to wear masks and could continue to attend mass gatherings. Too late means. Too. Late. We don’t want any more “too lates”.

Mewshaw’s behavior has made it very clear that our ability to understand the messaging of the White House is less important than her ego. Rather than accept feedback with grace about her ethical decision making, she twisted things. She made this into something it was not about.

And then she didn’t just offer her perspective on her ethical decision making. She attacked deaf people. Heather Mewshaw suggested that the RID’s authority outweighed deaf people’s agency- our right to make decisions and judgements for ourselves. Heather Mewshaw is telling us that we need to know our place because we know nothing about interpreting.

Because she thinks we cannot read or interpret the Code of Professional Conduct. Because she thinks the CPC potentially places her above deaf people.

And now she is actively pursuing national platforms with a known history of setting the far right’s violence on individuals with small platforms and little-to no recourse for defense from said violence.

Every time Heather Mewshaw shows up on one of those shows, she is actively, deliberately, and continuing to incite violence upon deaf people at large and encouraging violence toward one individual for expressing his view of her work in a public forum.

If she gets away with this, who’s to say more won’t follow her? Meaning a complete shut down of any public critique or discussion of interpreting, ethical decision making, or quality of work of signed language interpreters? We all should shut up? The people with very little power here are deaf people.

Heather Mewshaw’s conduct has shown, to date, that her interpretation is not centered on deaf people’s best interests and full inclusion. If this was what drove her to offer “both sides” perspectives by interpreting content on Hands of Liberty, then the counterbalance to that commitment to equitable access would be to gracefully accept criticism and to view this as an opportunity for reflection on professional judgment. She would also call for an end to harassment of deaf people. Mewshaw is no innocent victim in all of this. She got fame, she got national platforms, she got a national fundraiser, and because in the United States, hearing people decide which interpreters to hire and are responsible for making the payments, it is likely her agency will not experience long-term negative effects. Those payers don’t really pay attention nor do they usually care as long as there is a warm signing body in the room to handle the deaf person(s).

So my dear sign language interpreters, I believe everyone has the right to food, shelter, and warmth regardless of their beliefs. But you do not have the absolute right to be a sign language interpreter. Serving as a sign language interpreter is a privilege because we welcome (not always willingly) you into the most private aspects of our lives. If you abuse that privilege, we have the right to ask you to depart. Effective interpretation requires both a speaker and a listener; if we cannot listen because of the interpreter, then the interpreter has to go.

For the rest of you curious onlookers, the purpose of the interpreter is for us to be able to participate in the public sphere as fully engaged citizens. The interpreter is not there for your entertainment or feel-good about yourselves moments.

The job does not exist to gratify egos or validate self-worth.

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