Moving Forward for a Noble Cause (RID 2009)

Philadelphia, PA
Biennial Conference
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf

“Are you with that RID group?” I was chatting with the hotel staffer who was so proud to have delivered our waitlisted refrigerator. When I answered, “Yeah,” he exclaimed, “You people are all right! You can stay as long as you like!”

Cat (“It’s 5:00 somewhere!”) and I arrived the night before the conference began, which allowed a bit of reconnoiter before the press of nearly 3000 conference attendees reached full peak. This is the largest conference in the organization’s history – which means it is the largest gathering of sign language interpreters ever, anywhere in the world. dream ally.jpgThe conference program includes workshops on linguistics, ethical decision-
making, and interpreting in medical, legal, educational, and social service settings, among others. There are interpreters here from across the United States, Canada, and Colombia (Welcome!), as well as representatives from the National Association of Black Interpreters, the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters, the World Federation of the Deaf, and the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). I have already said hello to interpreters and Deaf colleagues from my training days in Indiana, professional work in Vermont and Massachusetts, the Allies conferences . . . the sense of ‘coming home’ is palpable: a quality that is both poignant and comforting.
From casual conversations to professional presentations, I am re-encountering familiar themes from the past and noticing new permutations. Technology is big Big BIG and there is so much to say about the unfolding practices of using video relay services, including scandal (an FBI investigation into fraudulent billing), and the reduction of face-to-face interaction. One workshop participant in the NAD forum on “Trends and Challenges within the Interpreting Profession,” described it like this:

“With video relay Deaf people have the choice to turn on and turn off an interpreter in an instant . . . We see many young Deaf people who don’t want to be bothered by a relationship with an interpreter, they want to be able to turn us on and turn us off.”

Spoken language interpreters at the European Parliament know all about that! What’s different is that they have always worked through a machine as their main mode and smaller face-to-face type settings are the anomaly (they call it whispering). Meanwhile, what sign language interpreters have going for us is the active involvement of consumers, something which the system of interpretation in the European Parliament is designed to minimize. NAD President Bobbie Beth Scoggins, along with two Board Members, Judith Gilliam and Nancy Bloch, ran an impressive forum which elicited many interesting observations from the hearing and Deaf interpreters present. They set a great stage for the public signing of the “Memorandum of Understanding” between the current Presidents of RID and NAD formalizing the commitment to collaboration and reaffirming the commitment of the two organizations to work together that was initiated in 1994.peacedoveMouthtattoo.jpg
As I watched the three Deaf community leaders respond to questions, comments, and suggestions from the audience, I was struck by themes that remain unchanged… and by the steadfast refusal of Bobbie, Nancy, and Judith to be dragged down by the persistence of problems. Instead, they choose to celebrate success and focus on attainable goals for the future. The NIC certification testing, for instance, is the result of a hard-won cooperation from RID with NAD. When I entered the field, RID was so institutionally resistant to Deaf criticism that the NAD went about creating its own separate certification system. Now the NAD is focusing on the increasing professional status and diversification of employment possibilities for well-educated Deaf people in every field imaginable – this requires more highly-skilled and specialized interpretation services, and expands the reality of Deaf people becoming professional, certified interpreters themselves.

“As long as there are Deaf people on this earth,
there will always be interpreters.”
~ Bobbie Beth Scoggins

Her statement is a play on the famous statement by George Veditz, who claimed, “As long as there are Deaf people on the Earth, there will always be sign language.” The two quotes reveal the tenor of respective eras: Mr Veditz lived in a time of international bans on sign language, miscegenation laws, and forced sterilizations to try and eliminate Deaf populations. I always wonder about the absence of hearing consumers from most of the conversations about sign language interpreting, but I realized today – perhaps more clearly than ever before – that hearing people do not have to be here advocating for the quality of interpretation. “Not needing to be here” is sure evidence of institutional, status-based power. But the absence of the third party in interpreted interaction consistently warps comprehensive understanding of the intercultural communication practice of participating in simultaneous interpretation.
Meanwhile, Ms Scoggins lives in a time when technology makes language difference seem easily surmountable. The attitude that just because a hearing person is auditorily equipped to learn languages, then they simply should, is a manifestation of the privilege of the powerful. Why should minority or immigrant spoken language speakers not receive interpretation when needed?
There were other highlights and lessons of the day. I caught the first hour of Paula Vance15000th.jpgGajewski-Mickelson’s “preliminary preliminary” (smile) report on how interpreter training programs (ITPs) are teaching and training “ethical fitness.” I had lunch with Larry, Mo, and Curly (supposedly from Kentucky), who accused me of wanting it all (I do, I do!) but did not tell me about the knife (I don’t think I really want to know!) Current RID President Cheryl Moose described going to her first RID convention in 1993 in Evansville, IN, where I also contributed my first-time attendance to the grand total of 475. RID gained our 15,000th member recently, a Deaf interpreter from Chicago, Mr. Vanous Washington.
Finally, nothing could have outshone Ms. Lillian Beard – neither in the film footage shown by Bill Moody nor her own irrepressible, one hundred-year-old self on stage. She told us everything we need to know about how to do this job, based on her decades of work as a volunteer until her first paid assignment – as the first interpreter to pull a shift at the historic meeting in 1964 at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana when RID was born.
“I learned a lot,” she said, “by not feeling that I knew it all.” The audience applauded nearly every statement she made, recognizing in her simple diction the truths that motivate us to help each other serve each other and together accomplish what none of us can do alone.

RID 2009 Conference Schedule
Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC)
World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI)
World Federation of the Deaf (WFD)
National Association of the Deaf (NAD)
National Association of Black Interpreters (NAOBI)
FBI Warrants and Warning, Ed’s Telecom Alert
vision: a future for interpreting, Reflexivity
RID Testing Process: Steps to Certification
The Preservation of Sign Language, George Veditz, 1913 (ASL on youtube)
GEORGE VEDITZ, 1861-1937,
People of the Eye weblog entry
FAQ: Audism, Gallaudet University
ASL/Interpreting Course Descriptions, St. Catherine’s University (includes a course on ethics)

3 thoughts on “Moving Forward for a Noble Cause (RID 2009)”

  1. The “for a noble cause” phrase is a quote from RID’s Office Manager, Elijah Sow. President Cheryl Moose explained that even with his background in a completely different field, Elijah finds working for RID his best job, because he “is working for a noble cause.”
    And, the first part of the title, “Moving Forward,” is taken from the workshop title from the NAD forum on Trends and Challenges for the interpreting profession, as seen from the Deaf point-of-view.

  2. We’ve discussed my objections to the powerful vs. powerless discourse before and in this context, too, I am not convinced by your reference to power differences as an explanation for the absence of hearing party representatives at the conference. Used in this way, the power concept becomes a blanket under which all sorts of mechanisms may be covered, it’s simply not precise enough for me.
    The issue, as I see it, is the imbalance of stakes in the (outcome of) communication among the actors. The ones most acutely aware of having a lot to gain (or loose) in the communicative event, are naturally the actors who will take an interest in what is needed to guarantee the quality of the process, in this case, the interpretation process (which is, I gather, the red thread in the conference).
    In the end, it may come down to the same thing: the actor on the ‘demanding’ side is in a less powerful position, but by phrasing the issue more precisely the mechanisms at the origin of the perceived problem can be more clearly shown, which offers a lever for change.
    P.S. I noted down this comment before you published the post on Logical Teaming and I noticed that what I wrote has already partly been taken up there, so it seems we are thinking along the same lines, after all.

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