I attend conferences in several different fields. No one laughs as often or as loud as sign language interpreters. Robyn Dean’s workshop, “I don’t think we’re supposed to be talking about this….” Case Conferencing and Supervision for Interpreters, was punctuated with humor a dozen times an hour, and occasionally we would hear outbursts from the neighboring workshop group as they took Steps to Feel More Comfortable Interpreting the Twelve Steps. Having a sense of humor is prerequisite for survival in this field, especially being able to make fun of oneself and teasing colleagues in affectionate ways. In the open comment time after Keynote Presenter Lewis Merkin’s small group activity about the passions we bring to the profession, Betty Colonomos commented on the health of growing pains: instead of staying stuck in comparative judgment, we’ve become more cooperative with each other time, allowing the recognition of each other’s humanity. Her reflection reminded me of Robyn’s definition of “responsibility” as the act of continuing in conversation. Instead of being stopped from communicating because of an unanticipated reaction, to be response-able means finding a way to respond again.
Lewis had just taken us on a journey back to RID’s founding and shown a few clips from the organization’s 25th anniversary video (Silver Threads). RID’s 50th anniversary arrives in 2014; it makes sense that thoughts turn to organizational history. It was fascinating to watch MJ Bienvenu describe her reluctant entry into RID in a calm, almost nonchalant, manner. At first, she explained, she didn’t want to be troubled by all the commotion, but was told that things were “getting better” (because by 1985 there were two Deaf interpreters) and eventually decided that she wanted to invest time and energy in this field. Patrick Graybill was prescient, forecasting ahead from the tumultuous ‘80s to indicators of maturity and stability as we close in on half-a-century of growth and development as an organization representing an increasingly significant profession.
There is no way to know what would have developed if dynamics from the 1980s had not been interrupted, but Video Relay Services happened. Mary Lightfoot’s presentation on Video Interpreting: The State of the Practice and Implications for Interpreters reinforced Janet Bailey’s information from RID’s Government Affairs Program. Although VRS was an industry initiative – a technological and entrepreneurial invention – it brought sign language interpretation to the attention of the FCC. Suddenly, interpreters were confronted with law.
The professionally-engaged American Deaf and interpreting communities are mainly of white/European descent, and thus have been cushioned by the global state of political affairs for several generations. The resulting mindset is the unconscious attitude of privilege. So far, the best way I’ve come up with for explaining “privilege” is the experience of flow. Everybody wants flow – the easy experience of thinking, doing, and communicating when comprehension is not a problem. It seems to me that white people in the US experience uninterrupted flow more consistently than nearly everyone else. This is not to say that other people do not experience flow! Everyone does. You are most likely to feel flow when you are with your own kind (however you define the groups you belong to) and are comfortable in your status/position among the members of that group. It is the presence of difference, often combined with some kind of force, that disrupts flow.
Coming from a background or context of privilege simply means that shocks and disruptions to the experience of flow are minimized. This is the essence of whiteness. At a certain very basic level, ethnicity or audition has nothing to do with privilege, because individually you may have been very well protected from difficult or challenging life events (by chance or design, it doesn’t matter). The problem with privilege isn’t that someone has privilege or comes from a privileged background. The problem with privilege is that it creates an incapacity for handling interactions that do not conform to expected or desired flow.
Beauties of bilingualism
Learning another language, and interacting with people who think in another language, requires us to cultivate the capacity for dealing with differences. But fluency doesn’t necessarily mean we manage the differences gracefully! Experience doesn’t make the relational challenges go away when the pushes and pulls of accommodating difference upset the intrapersonal experience of flow. While RID and NAD continue to celebrate the reunion of the Deaf and interpreting communities after the eighties’ uglies, some of the core tensions persist. The evidence from the large group attending the Region 1 Conference has to do with language policy. Do we use ASL all the time, exclusively and only? Or is spoken English allowable, and if so when and under what circumstances?
Upon arrival to the conference venue on Thursday afternoon, Hartmut Teuber greeted me at the end of the registration table. Did I understand the meaning of the ASL Committed! button? I had already seen – and misread – the button, thinking it was a club membership (for an ASL Committee). When I realized the slogan was intended as a political statement, I had played through the joke about being “committed” to a mental institution. (I wasn’t the only one, an interpreter from NYC made the same joke while arguing passionately in support of the ASL/signing policy after Lewis’ keynote address.) At any rate, in the way that I do this kind of live/action research, I have been watching the group dynamics about language use carefully.
Placing myself with all of those who remember Bob Pollard’s single slide on the liberal-conservative political spectrum of interpreter decision-making (more than the other 75 slides that Robyn Dean has created about the Demand-Control Schema, wink), there are at least two ways to frame the question of language policy for RID. One way is how I’ve introduced it above, as a matter of competition between privilege and disenfranchisement. Another way is as a contest between deontological and teleological ethics. Does RID want to be a rule-based organization (deontological) or an ends-based organization (teleological)? If only the choice was simple! Answers to the latter question (where does the profession base our ethics) are ‘in discussion’ with the former framing of language use in the dynamics of oppression/empowerment.
The way interpreters and the Deaf community talk with each other about privilege and oppression is one discourse. The way interpreters and the Deaf community talk with each other about ethics and effectiveness is another discourse. Each discourse has its own internal patterns, and the two discourses interact with each other in another layer of discursive patterning. Every individual, meanwhile, is situated within each of these discourses in a particular ‘position.’ It is these positions that bounce and bang off of each other or bond tightly with and to each other that result in various kinds of group dynamics.
The way we talk and interact with each other about language policy is another discourse. I would call it a nested discourse, because whether or not to sign or speak is a specific example that can be used in service of either of the ‘larger’ discourses about ethics/effectiveness or oppression/empowerment.
I am a teleologist, which partly explains why I am not wearing the button. I have never been good at ‘going along with’ the dominant, main, or ‘in’ thing. I resist going along with ‘the rules’ just because it is the politically correct or otherwise fashionable thing to do. I am not criticizing people who are wearing the button – I support the cause! Signing in the presence of Deaf people is the right thing to do, and it should be the official policy of RID to use ASL whenever Deaf people are involved. Wearing the button is a symbol of intention, but wearing the button is not the actual behavior of signing in the presence of Deaf people. How does one build the common culture that inspires people to sign whether or not they are surrounded by political reminders?
What I’ve noticed during the course of the conference is that it really matters whether the presenter signs ASL or speaks in English. During the Thursday evening updates, Cheryl Moose and Janet Bailey set the tone by signing from the main stage. They generated enough momentum that when the next presenter used voice instead of sign, the group overall maintained the mode of signing (even though the percentage of Deaf to non-deaf attendees is small). It happened that both the workshops I attended on Friday were presented in spoken English. Please understand, I’m not slighting that choice! I have preferred to present in English too – I am more confident expressing myself in my native tongue. (I am also more competent, as the reparative (clarifying) captioning of my talk to the New England Deaf Studies Conference illustrates!)
During Mary’s workshop, we had several breakouts for small group activities, and I wound up in a group using spoken English. This communicative mode was good for me, as the challenge of taking notes while watching ASL is real. Karen, Julie, Elizabeth and Julaine were awesome: they knew I was double-tasking (listening/learning and watching/recording) and kept me in the loop, filling in whatever I missed, clarifying what I partially understood, and correcting misunderstandings. Other groups were using sign, but as the morning’s session drew on, the switch from ASL to English became more marked. At one point, a woman behind me complained (loudly) that she couldn’t hear the presenter because of the noise from everyone’s chatter. The sudden silence that filled the room was thick with guilt. It was as if the hundred of us had all been ‘caught’ and were stunned into suspended animation, waiting for the punitive blow.
The woman who made the intervention commented, “Wow, its quiet now” (or maybe she said, “Wow, that got everyone’s attention”), which broke the ice. Mary then engaged her around whether it was an issue with the mic and – after a few turns back-and-forth – clarified for all of us that there was so much talking occurring throughout the room at such a volume that Mary’s voice was drowned out, despite being broadcast through speakers from a microphone. The depth and starkness of the group-level silence, combined with the confusion about what exactly the problem was, suggested to me that this moment was about language policy.
Only a short time later, the session ended and I ‘caught’ a guy talking in the lunch line. At least, he made me feel as if I had ‘caught’ him. He said something to the woman across from him and then startled, turning to me and apologized, explaining how well they knew each other. It seemed he reacted as if I might report him for violating the signing rule. Perhaps he had just come out of the same workshop, and was still affected? At this point in the conference, there is probably a roughly equal percentage of signing and speaking. The background buzz of audible conversation accompanies the visual field of multiple moving hands and animated faces.
Discomfort: Adjusting to the Loss of Flow
That afternoon, during a break in Robyn’s workshop, one person walked away from talking with me in a rather abrupt fashion. Was it because I was speaking English or did she have something else on her mind? Probably I was oversensitive. Since I am deliberately trying to ‘tune in’ to these dynamics, I may be ‘reading’ them in interactions where they are not actually operating (especially at the interpersonal level, because one never knows what is going on in another person’s mind). Behaviors at the aggregated group level are a more reliable measure. So I was acutely aware of the stony lack of response to Lewis’ announcement of the target date of 2013 for RID to host a national conference with an all-signing policy.
Given all of the celebratory rhetoric about the special, happy relationship between RID & NAD and between interpreters and the Deaf community, the prospect of ASL as the preferred official language of our professional conferences ought to have been greeted with cheers! Instead, a sense of stillness passed through the room: the hint of displeasure, perhaps even a solidification of resistance. What is the right thing to do? How is one supposed to feel? Why do we have to be reminded – in the midst of enjoying each other so comfortably! – that there are still matters of justice and fairness to be addressed?
Scope of Responsibility
Social change usually involves a combination of breaking old rules and enforcing new ones. Each individual will have to come to terms with your own stance in relation to the changing language policies. The teleological question may be useful in figuring this out. What is the desired end result? Because we are talking about language policy for an entire profession, the end result has to be imagined in terms of the function we want sign language interpreting to play in the larger scheme of world affairs. My stance is that as an organization, RID needs to be positioned further toward the liberal end of the ethical decision-making spectrum. As individual practicing professionals, we may still perform mainly toward the conservative end of the spectrum, but as an organization, we have to attempt to direct the influence of our aggregated decisions within the larger society.
This means perceiving our individual actions from the outside, and projecting the accumulating impetus of our combined individual choices over time and in relation with other people’s choices. We cooperate to generate the social conditions of our work and our world. Whether we cooperate with awareness and consciousness of consequences, or by accident – come what may – is a measure of how seriously we embrace the responsibilities of providing simultaneous interpretation.