The RID Situation has brought the question “are ASL interpreters Allies or Oppressors?” to the mainstream. The U.S. News published an article by Natalie Delgado and S. Jordan Wright. I found it to be simply and clearly written. Some more context and proper attribution to lead their readers to more discussions on the issue, especially Holcomb and Martin’s new book Deaf Eyes on Interpreting, would have been more beneficial for educating readers not familiar with the discourse about deaf people, power, privilege, and interpreting.
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.
Proud of Rhode Island Association of the Deaf and Rhode Island RID for partnering together to pass a vote of no-confidence in the national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf organization. See the video here.
Deaf Women United condemned the RID for their recent history of sexism and audism. Proud of DWU for standing behind our community of Deaf Women.
The NAD conference was wild. The discussions about the new association for ASL interpreters was hot. The best line of all? “welcoming interpreters home.”
Melvin Walker was right. The on-ramping to the interpreting profession used to be centered in the Deaf community. But not anymore. We need to fix that. His words, but hey, a broken clock is right twice a day.
We need to fix that by opening up our own space for sign language interpreters.
Howard Rosenblum, the executive director of the NAD, showed some fierceness in his responses to the discussion. He was right that the details should be left up to the NAD. We can and will figure out how to make this work. Let us tidy up the living room, throw the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, hide the laundry then you can all come over for pie and coffee.
I’m all in. I have a ton of ideas for the AASLI. Some of which includes economic justice for deaf people (more work for Deaf Interpreters), disability justice (of course), and racial justice (can’t have one without the other). Stay tuned.
Oh. And RID’s response to NAD’s demand letter. One word for you: insipid.
I don’t see the words “we are sorry” anywhere in there. Do you?
I have a lot more to dissect. I’ll be back after I recover from the last week. See you soon.
The NAD issued a video and letter demanding an apology from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf over its past audist behavior. Stunning information about multiple cases regarding the testimony of Anna Witter Merithew that have hurt Deaf people’s right to language and access. Check out the link!.
Proud of you, Melissa Draganac Hawk, Howard Rosenblum, and all the others at NAD for making this happen!
The National Association of the Deaf (NAD) published their thoughts on the need for updates to the interpreting code of professional conduct. You can read it here.
I agree with everything the NAD said in that update. Interpreters need to stop stealing jobs from Deaf people. Interpreters need to defer to Deaf people as authorities on Deaf lives. Interpreters need to stop profiting off ASL while Deaf people continue to be marginalized.
There’s something that repeats through the NAD publication. Divide. Divide between deaf, hard-of-hearing, and interpreting communities. That divide is there. That divide is very real. I feel that divide as do many of my friends.
Even Melvin Walker mentioned that in his response to the controversy surrounding their CEO pick. He acknowledged that this divide must end. He acknowledged that the on-ramp to the interpreting profession is less and less from the Deaf community.
The question is How do We Fix this Divide? The logical next question is Who is responsible for doing this work?
Deaf people and disabled people are the original life hackers. Life hacks is when we hack something to make the world work better for us. Some great examples here.
Anna Witter Merithew’s deposition said she couldn’t “for the life of her” imagine how to provide interpreting to a deaf person learning how to drive a commercial truck.
Well. Me and my buddy saw that line. In less than 30 seconds, we had three different ideas on how to make interpreting work in a semi truck cab. It. Can. Be. Done.
Why didn’t that court consult a Deaf expert? Is that idea really that unfathomable? That we have no clue how to make the world work for us?
Did Anna refer them to deaf people for their expertise? Gallaudet’s Deaf Studies department must have people that can testify as expert witnesses.
I can think of a few names.
And this woman was in charge of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf? Doesn’t seem like she did a very good job advocating for the interpreting profession. Or Deaf people. This is stunning incompetence.
This is why you go to Deaf people. This is why WE must have full charge of our lives and WE must always be THE experts on OUR own lives.
Nothing about us without us.
The former executive director of the RID (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf) and Coda Anna Witter Merithew has earned blood money by testifying against deaf people’s rights to access. Interpreting is a very important part of those human rights of Deaf people.
I provide court depositions from ONE case (There are many more- do your research! Let’s work together to find more). Reading them make me feel sick. It is hard. I can only read a little at a time. Good luck with them.
Anna Witter Merithew’s legal depositions are here.
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, whoever you appoint as your CEO is given a lot of authority by Society as an expert. He has EXPERT status by virtue of being your CEO and he wins the sympathy, boo-boo pity card too, because his parents are deaf.
You can deny all you want, but society is ableist and audist. They will always go to the hearing expert. They will go to the CEO of the organization that “represents” Deaf people’s interests. And the cherry on the top? He’s a Coda. So we will assume he would never do anything to hurt deaf people. Codas don’t hurt deaf people, ever! Gosh. (Sarcasm here my friends). Looky at Anna Witter Merithew. There is a special place in hell for people like her.
So Melvin, your message where you used your Deaf parents as an example to us that you would never hurt Deaf people? Actions talk. Your actions showed. By the way you talked about Sheneman in your response to our concerns. You got work to do before Deaf people can trust you.
Is Joey going to do this kind of shit too? Or will the Board Muzzle Him?
Or does RID agree with Anna’s actions and think it’s okay for the RID leadership to work with the system to deprive Deaf people of access and belonging?
Kelby Brick says a lot of pretty fuzzy things about the RID.
Before, I thought we should reform. Before, I thought the RID had a chance to redeem themselves.
But after the way they handled Joey’s announcement and put down Sheneman in the process, I think the place needs to burn to the ground.
Then a Phoenix should rise out of the ashes. Will the NAD get back in the gatekeeping game?
Or should Deaf communities, who know what works best locally, do their own thing on the local/state level to dump RID certification requirements for interpreters to work and come up with local/state licenses or other screening procedures? I have thoughts on this. Stay tuned.