So, you are in a room full of RID certified interpreters awaiting a presentation by an esteemed Deaf professor. The event has been advertised as a workshop held ONLY in ASL. Sweet! GLOVES-ON READY and let’s get down to the nitty gritty of ASL as a scientific language.
Interpreter enters room (a bit early, for concern about the travel time and traffic from a few counties away): The following dialogue is in ASL if it is ALL CAPS, and English if it is not. (you’re thinking… wait why would there be English in this dialogue? Oh you weren’t? Then you won’t be surprised.)
“Hi, oh we’re still setting up.”
FINE-FINE. ME FLOAT-OUT #Back.
Exit me, looking rather confused. I took a little walk and got some air preparing to be indoors for the entire beautiful day (why don’t we hold meetings and classes outdoors in central and southern California where skies are so regularly blue??) and returned about ten minutes later to a room beginning to fill with other terps. Talking. I think to myself…”Okay, the workshop hasn’t started yet… the presenter… isn’t here?” I find a seat, turn to the food that has been provided, and meet someone.
YOUR NAME? (oh thank goddess, sign language!)
TERP-PERSON (confidentiality purposes). FROM?/Interpreter. Where you from?
Right, so you get the point. The presenter arrived and voices slowly turned off and I began to figuratively wipe sweat from my brow. Still, as the workshop began our attention was hailed by way of a loud voice, followed by a English/ASL introduction. Then a second set of introductions in ASL. Finally the workshop was underway. Overall, it was a great workshop. The presenter was wonderful, friendly, informative, very honest about the origins of his signs and sign choices and interested in discussion and collaboration. The audience was for the most part respectful of an ASL/Deaf space. The first question was both spoken and signed because we all faced forward and could not see the signer in the back of the classroom. I posed the second question and prior asked if I should stand or sit. The presenter said he could copy my signing and from then on this is how questions were fielded. At the break, Some of the participants simcom-ed (used “simultaneous communication” utilizing both English and ASL, generally to the detriment of one or both languages) both while talking with each other and while talking with the presenter who is Deaf. I refused to use my voice at any point during the workshop or its interim. I did not catch any grief for this, and most people I signed with reciprocated, but I certainly found myself answering spoken questions in sign a few times. As far as I am concerned the space was intended to be a Deaf friendly, or even centered, ASL dominant space. These are few and far between, and in my mind quite sacred. Everyone attending the event is presumably fluent in ASL (the workshop was provided for certified interpreters only), and the presenter is a Deaf signer, therefor there is no reason why ASL should not be the language signed.
After the break we returned to the workshop. Again, voices waned and people took their seats. The workshop continued as before. Questions were copy-signed, ASL was used. Then, we came to the practice portion. We paired up in teams of 2-3 and practiced voicing for a signed presentation. Let’s be clear, I’m not offended that we voiced during our voicing practice. At the end of each segment we were to discuss with the presenter some of the issues we encountered, suggestions for one another, questions about the lecture etc. Well, now that voices have come on… of course (in a world…dominated by English…where language is a utilitarian feat…) they like to stay that way. So… why is that?
Now, I understand that this is in fact a workshop for ASL/English interpreters and that English is a part of that space. We were interpreting in the practice either from English to ASL or ASL to English. I also understand that for the majority of people in the room English is a first language. Still, we as ASL/English interpreters who are presumably–and I recognize that this might make me seem rather presumptuous–operating under the Ally model should be allied with D/deaf people and therefor advocates for the language of the community that has so long been obfuscated, abused, and frankly oppressed by a hearing English dominant world. Of course, me being the queer lady that I am, my favorite way of doing this is by inverting the hierarchy! It’s so simple. And this is in fact the reason that the workshop exists. A little background:
I attended this workshop in San Jose because it was exceptionally pertinent to my work at present–a workshop on interpreting Chemistry held in American Sign Language. There really is no shared vernacular in ASL for scientific terminology simply because of the lack of first language users currently in the field, therefor workshops and hopefully future conferences that bring together Deaf scientists, first language users, language professionals etc. are necessary. We need to create spaces where ASL is the primary language for discussion around these topics and from these spaces the language can grow. As language grows it becomes an effective linguistic medium for teachers of science, interpreters, and mentors to D/deaf youth! Suddenly, D/deaf youth everywhere are empowered by access to knowledge in their native language, in several generations (or less) we begin to see more Deaf professionals in the fields of Biology, Chemistry, Engineering and so many other industries (why industries control our political-economy is another blog) and fields that rule our world today. You get the big utopic picture.
It certainly helped my indignation as well that I had spent my ride down to San Jose with a wonderful Spanish/English interpreter/translator and member of the organization Translators for Social Change! It’s where my head was at. And it’s true, we must start seeing language for the power it exercises in so many arenas: courts, classrooms, homes to name a few. English has colonized so many spaces whether it be terra firma, or the various other manifestations of space: epistemological, spiritual, cultural etc. Paddy Ladd describes the act of linguistic colonization as enacted upon the D/deaf community in several videos (as well as in his book The Search For Deafhood. His description of colonization in sign language is beautifully accurate and evocative. It can be glossed (written as a literal English translation) as: TAKE-OVER BODY; TAKE-OVER MIND; TAKE-OVER. And here we are, bilingual language professionals letting it manipulate this space too. A space we defined as an ASL space, a place we designated for confirmed bi-linguals and what language do we effortlessly choose: English. Now in this space, it being also a Deaf inclusive space, English also takes on functions of able-ism and/or audism, ideas also addressed by Paddy Ladd (one might argue primarily). So how does all of this manifest? Well, here we go.
So, voices have turned on and boy those powerful, hearing, primarily white, able-bodied voices carry. So, some people chose to do their debriefs with their partners in English, or simcom-ed, not sure which because mine was occurring and my attention was focused there but I heard several voices during the debriefing time. Following, our presenter attempted to get people’s attention. After the first video we watched and interpreted there was a lot of talking going on after the presenter had vied for attention. I don’t know if the voices I heard had hands to accompany them, they were behind me but I turned and waved for peoples attention. This got the attention of our presenter and he waited to see that everyone was ready before he continued with his talk and questions.
After the second practice, the same thing occurred: video stopped, people talked, this time the presenter was wary and solicited the attention of the speaking groups.
After the third practice, the presenter had given up. I could see the frustration in his face and I certainly shared it. People commented in English or with simultaneous communication cause other hearing participants to hear and respond to questions from across the room before the message could be relayed to the group or answered by the presenter for that matter. Suddenly the room is a mass confusion of hands and voices overlapping and competing for the floor in various circles as the presenter concedes to the energy of the space: ‘CLEAR ALL TIRED SINCE LONG DAY. I GUESS FINISH.’ Cut to me looking around to see if anyone caught that…
It is NOT okay with me, simply not okay, that a room full of ASL fluent signers can so easily decompose into an oppressive exclusive English space. Don’t misunderstand me here, I love English as well, it is a beautiful language in its own right but it is quite literally taking over the world. It has certainly controlled and policed the D/deaf community for generations. All of our legal documentations are in English, medical resources, teachers. A Deaf person or a Spanish speaking person or a German speaking person or Wolof, or Kiswahili or whatever other language taken to a court room would be thrust into a situation that does not have the patience or understanding for interpretation. Already individuals may not understand the charges held against them, the intent of a course as listed in the syllabus, the name of their ailment etc. and here in the face of their professional or authority they will be made to answer as though they do, as though that information had in fact been provided to them in their native language. English in this country is sacred. We cannot teach our children to speak many languages for fear of tarnishing the purity and clarity of English. -cough cough- one of the most heavily borrowing languages on the planet not to mention the most dispersed and with countless dialects. We hold the belief that there is a ‘correct’ form or English, or for that matter a correct form of language. Public school teachers is Arizona are not allowed to teach if they speak with a discernible accent! But surely, only people who do not know language can truely believe these cultural fallacies. Language is an organism, growing and dying and evolving with cultures and people and lands everywhere. But this is not how we treat it, we treat it as a tool with quintessential American utilitarianism. And so we wield this tool in spaces we have created with power. We USE English to teach our children, and no other language creating knowledge accessible only to those who use English; we USE English to build a legal system, and no other language creating a legal system that is accessible only to those who use English. I can go on and on. We have created a monolingual system and monolingual culture: mono-accessible. So this is my rant about the so-called ‘sanctity’ of language. I do not understand these rigid boundaries for appropriate behavior we construct with our world, our need for absolutes and definitive boundaries that has extended itself into the realm of language. Well, I suppose I understand it, its origins in the human psyche… only I do not feel it in myself nor do I see its utility, only its hypocrisy that in such a utilitarian culture we can advocate such rigid exclusive structures that breed distrust, misunderstanding and conflict (or to fish for some neo-librals … cost. Did I catch any?).
Now to turn an eye on the ablism and audism in this setting (how funny that this computer doesn’t have those words in its dictionary either *red squiggly lines*) we needn’t look too far. I’ll even allow that this outcome was predictable because the physical setting lends itself to oral communication rather than manual. We are in a small classroom at an institution that assumes hearing participants. The desks are arranged–certainly by necessity–in rows facing the front of the room without visibility to the back or center rows for front row participants. The lights have only one setting. There are no windows (which has interesting environmental and also psychological implications as well). This space is not naturally conducive to visual language communication. This is the world in which we live. It is not built for a variety of communication styles or languages. But, beyond that we have presenters beginning the introductions in both English and ASL. What purpose does this serve in a bilingual room other than showing deference to the dominant language of our culture and creating “more” access for the hearing audience? People speaking over one another before allowing for a signed response could be likened to interruption when viewed as an act of patriarchy: using the privilege of English (or the male voice) to gain weight in the conversation. All of these things and more manifested in this space.
Leaving a space like this I find myself further understanding the hesitation which generally meets hearing participation in Deaf events and spaces, even the participation of fluent signers as most of these individuals were. Not to criticize the workshop and its intention at all. In fact I believe that everyone at this workshop was there for a commendable purpose. I believe that everyone there had, at the very least, benign intentions. If this is the result of an event offered with the intent of empowerment or advocacy… where does that leave us? Or perhaps I misread the intentions of the space, perhaps advocacy and empowerment were not their underlying goals. In this case, I question why not! In a space that is so readily prepared to perform such a function why would a community who values empowering and advocating with and for the D/deaf community refrain from doing so? What is holding back a group of fluent signers from choosing sign language? It is with these questions I will leave you, and with a plea: if you are a a D/deaf person, interpreter, or fluent signer… lift up your hands!!
*I recognize the irony in this post. I hope to soon complete a vlog on this subject and several others. My barriers currently include: technology, fear for the loss of anonymity, space, and experience. So, I am working on overcoming those barriers. In the meantime I seek to express my thoughts and garner further opinions with my blog. Thanks for reading my ramblings! I’d love to hear yours!