Justin Read posted a piece on Street Leverage. Justin’s main question and title: Can We Still Call the Sign Language Interpreting Profession Home?
Dear Justin. Sure, Codas can call this place home as long as you know whose house this is: ours (Deaf people’s). That’s my quick answer.
Underlying Justin’s premise is a series of legitimate questions. From a Deaf empowerment perspective, I suggest the better question is “what is the place of Codas in the interpreting profession?”
To build on that question: What considerations should there be? What benefits do Codas bring to the field as interpreters or as researchers, interpreter educators/trainers, and as subjects? How might we envision the role of Codas in the interpreting profession that works toward a model of empowering Deaf people?
My position is this: Coda interpreters bring a wealth of skills that cannot be taught in the classroom. Coda interpreters have that ‘special’ something that makes our eyes go ahh. That ‘something’ isn’t just linguistic fluency or prosody. It’s that cultural sensibility, that synergy that happens between the Coda and the deaf person, and often, simply that empathy that comes from shared cultural experiences. Or as Justin puts it, it’s something intuitive.
However, I must emphasize Not All Codas. Some Codas grow to adulthood with little-to-no exposure to sign language. Some Codas are sheltered from the Deaf world by their parents who think exposure to Deaf people and sign language will cause speech delays or cause social problems for the hearing child of deaf adults. Some Deaf adults are not fluent in sign language or refuse to sign to their hearing children. We cannot assume that being a Coda means automatically that person has the linguistic fluency, the cultural competency, or the various skills that makes a good interpreter. Some Deaf people have very unique language abilities and limitations due to education, language deprivation, and social attitudes about sign language. So their hearing children grow up understanding a very particular strain of sign language and able to interpret for that specific strain of sign language. But those Codas would not be able to understand me or interpret for me without exposure (or formal learning of) to standard American Sign Language and training in an interpreter education programs. Being a Coda does not automatically make one qualified to be a cultural broker or sign language interpreter.
Then there are some Codas who are excellent signers or have outstanding technical skills as interpreters but have other traits that make them bad interpreters. For example, some Codas are more interested in making a profit than making true access happen. Some Codas are deeply invested in the helper model that ultimately disempowers Deaf people. Some Codas are just downright not nice people with massive egos and chips on their shoulders. I have witnessed Coda interpreters override Deaf consumers on questions of access on multiple occasions rather than step back and let Deaf people decide what they need/want in terms of access.
After screening out those not fluent in sign language, don’t have good technical skills as interpreters, or those with bad character, we are left with what I’ll call Good Codas for simplicity’s sake.
Good Codas should have an important place in the interpreting profession. They play a critical role in Deaf people’s success in education and in society at large.
There should be far more interpreting research on those benefits. That research should offer ideas on how to carry those benefits into interpreter education and training for interpreters who are not heritage signers.
There should be serious conversations about how interpreter education programs work and don’t work for heritage signers.
There should be conversations about how we can better design avenues for Codas to assert their lived knowledges and experiences in the work they do as interpreters.
There should be conversations about protections for Coda children so that the law cannot exploit them in order to subvert satisfying legal obligations for access (yo Anna Witter Merithew).
Notice I said should in italics? Because I know much of this is either not happening or is happening but in very limited ways. Su Isakson and Amy Clara Williamson write about those benefits and needs. Their research is just the beginning. There’s a lot more to be discussed, discovered, and disseminated on Coda interpreters.
My personal position on the place of Codas in the interpreting profession aside, the follows is my critique of Justin’s essay.
Justin’s treatment of this question was poorly constructed. The problem with his narrative is that he assumes a lot. His article assumes that all Codas are alike. That all Codas share the same affinity for Deaf culture and sign language. That all Codas are capable of interpreting in a wide range of contexts outside of their parents. He suggests all Codas are bilingual natives even though that is far from the truth. Etcetera.
Justin made a rather arrogant claim. Justin claims that interpreting is the Coda’s by birthright. I argue this is not the Coda interpreter’s profession by birthright. Deaf people have the right to screen a person out of the profession, Coda or not. If you are not a good technical interpreter, if your signing fluency is limited to your family’s style of signing, if your ethics are questionable, if you are judged to be the type that disempowers Deaf people on the basis of their deafness or other intersectional identities, then yes, we should boot you out. When it comes to human rights and access, it is absurd to think that a hearing person, Coda or not, should have more authority than the Deaf person. The same goes for any other human and civil rights question that come up.
Justin suggests a false dichotomy between academic credentials and lived experience. First, Justin needs to explain what he means by “lived expertise.” Does this include Deaf people themselves who have lived expertise living with deafness, sign language, and access issues?
Where’s the solidarity with Deaf people who complain their lived knowledges are dismissed by interpreter education programs? Or is it that only Coda knowledges matter?
Codas who graduate from ITPS do have academic credentials. Your degree confers the same level of expertise it confers upon your non-Coda peers. Did you mean Ph.D. level research and those who hold expert authority in the field as educators/trainers? Who created this hierarchical lens and who maintains this? How is this unique from all other arenas where community knowledges are not valued?
It’s hard for me to accept his claim that lived expertise is secondary to academic accomplishments within the interpreting field. Codas have their own member section in the RID. A Coda is president of the RID. The current CEO of RID is a Coda. The previous executive director of the RID is a Coda. There are plenty of Codas who go around talking down to interpreters who come into sign language and Deaf culture as adults. The argument on this point can easily be reversed. There are plenty of non-Coda interpreters who will charge that Codas act in rather non-egalitarian ways toward their interpreter peers.
Outside the interpreting field, I would agree, to an extent that academic knowledge is considered more valuable than lived experience. That’s the way our society is across the board.
I believe most interpreter education programs are not well designed for a variety of reasons. One element of their poor design is that they aren’t suited for many heritage learners as Su Isakson suggests. They aren’t great either for non-heritage learners either. There’s a weird infatuation with community knowledges and disregard for academic research in Deaf Studies/ASL teaching/interpreter education.
Justin centers Codas in his discussion. Where are the Deaf people? Deaf people were involved in training and raising up interpreters. Late deafened people served as interpreters between their signing peers and hearing people who couldn’t sign. Oral Deaf people have served as interpreters. The historical record shows plenty of evidence that non-Codas were interpreters well before the profession was formally established. Where is the recognition of Deaf people in this entire discussion? Or is it in Justin’s schema of the field that only hearing people- either Codas or the academic elite have any expertise on interpreting? That attitude is common even among Coda interpreters. This seems to be the refrain in Justin’s piece about education of interpreters in Canadian programs. Codas can teach how to broker between cultures. What of Deaf people? Deaf instructors? Or is this exclusively the realm of Codas?
Justin’s discussion of Joseph Featherstone’s perspectives on bilingual natives is also problematic. That involves some assumptions. Like all Codas had positive experiences with interpreting or have the ability to frame their lived experiences for others to learn from. Not always true.
There is much more I can say but the above are my primary critiques of Justin’s essay. He says we owe it to Deaf communities to recognize Codas and make room for them in the profession. I adjusted that to reflect a more Deaf-empowerment perspective.
We owe it to Deaf communities to let them dictate how the interpreting field might best benefit Deaf people and we ask that Codas be considered a vital part of that conversation.
My biggest gripe with Justin’s essay is that it supposes Deaf people are not part of this conversation at all. Perhaps he is correct that we are not having much play in this conversation. But he is not making the argument for both Deaf and Codas or privileging Deaf people in his discussion. That is the fundamental point where his essay fails us in the sense of social justice and disability justice.