The Power of Langauge and The Langauge of Power

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.)

HELLO

“Hi, oh we’re still setting up.”

FINE-FINE. ME FLOAT-OUT #Back.

“yup”

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.

HI.

HI.

YOUR NAME? (oh thank goddess, sign language!)

MARY. YOURS?

TERP-PERSON (confidentiality purposes). FROM?/Interpreter. Where you from?

(ok sim-com…)

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!

HEARING-BLIND

Over this last weekend there manifested several instances of chaotic thought vying for a spot on this blog. There are two thought experiences that won out, their common thread: identity politics, of course!

[Warning: the following blog assumes a general acquaintance with identity politics in Deaf and Queer communities and includes some ASL (American Sign Language) glosses. Please enjoy with a grain of salt!]

Funny, you’d think by now I’d have a general grasp on the intricacies of identity having struggled with my own for several years prior to and during university and ultimately studying the stuff (hehe, as though it were a substance). The truth is that identity is fluid and especially in moving to a new place with new people and new micro-cultures… I’m finding myself having to reassert and re-examine much more regularly than prior to the move. In a lot of ways I think this is freeing and educating, not allowing me to become TOO comfortable (addressed in a bit) with any situation at any time. Traveling will do this to a person–force you to re-evaluate constantly and if you want to locate a support system or common bond to really search yourself and your experiences. If all of this has you nodding in agreement and waiting for the point well then you’ll enjoy this next bit. With that! . . .

I spent the weekend at the Seattle Deaf Film Festival (the details of that experience you’ll be able to read about on Vagabonds shortly, if you so choose), and after two rounds of films we joined a group for dinner near the University of Washington campus. The topics of the evening harkened to the film content which of course included Deaf and Queer/Trans (capitalization? hmm… future topic!) identity issues. In a conversation with Austin of ‘Austin Unbound’  I mentioned the ballots that were passed out asking the audience members to rate the films. I expressed my discomfort with the identity labels provided in the ‘who are you’ section of the ballot which attempts to glean the demographic of the audience:

  • Deaf; Hard of Hearing; Deaf-Blind; Non-disabled (which we all promptly crossed out)
  • Male; Female; Trans; Other

After a brief lament on the insufficiency of identity labels in general I stated that I simply crossed out ‘non-disable’ and wrote in an ‘other’ box and marked it, remarking that -gloss- HEARING DIFFFERENT++ HAVE, my intended point being that simply ‘hearing’ would also be an insufficient label for the various types of hearing members of the Deaf community (topic for another blog). However, Austin’s response was at once unexpected, heartening, and intriguing: YES, LIKE HEARING-BLIND, with a thoughtful look on his face.

Hearing-Blind. Of course, what a natural parallel with the familiar Deaf-Blind identity label (silly Mary, why shouldn’t this occur to you?). But hearing people would never identify this way, certainly hearing people outside the D/deaf community would never identify as ‘Hearing’ either. Hearing is certainly, if you’ll allow the allusion to countless Deaf and disability theory writings, an invisible identity. However, unlike invisible disabilities, hearing as an invisible identity is theoretically invisible to itself; not attempting to define itself but seeking only to identify all those which it is NOT and placing itself in opposition to those classifications. This unconscious practice often results in hegemonic ideologies. This is the position of a hearing person who does not know oneself to be hearing. This is the ‘hearing’ I believe D/deaf individuals to invoke in their articulation of HEARING. Because of this, when I or someone in the community identifies me as Hearing, I only feel a separation between myself and the D/deaf individuals with whom I’m trying to connect. I do not identify with this word: HEARING. Perhaps I should? Perhaps those of us with an eye on this invisible identity should move to give it form and meaning? Are hearing and Deaf mutually exclusive identities? (Topic for another blog.)

The interesting thing for me about Austin’s effortless articulation of HEARING-BLIND is its function in obscuring the paralleled identities of DEAF/HEARING in a linguistic subversion of the existing hegemony. This instantly (and temporarily) replaces the identity Deaf as the dominant paradigm. Ultimately, this subversion simultaneously directs the Deaf identity toward the established status of… non-disabled*, and therefor requires that the hearing identity disambiguate.  This is a fairly typical mobility for ‘Deaf’, indicative of its multi-faceted nature and its evolution from a finite oppositional classification to a cultural-linguistic identity label, but a refreshingly simple and relatively novel demand made upon ‘hearing’. -smile- So what the hell does hearing mean anyway!? Dumb word! (HAHA, oh the multiple turns of that phrase!)

Some concluding questions:

Would language serve more egalitarian purposes if currently invisible identities (i.e. hearing, white, straight, male) gained cognizant cultural identities effectively joining the masses of mediated and performed identities?

Or, would it be best to dispense of identity labels entirely–or at least their faithful performance–and compel individuals and communities to perform disidentification(1) practices to this end?

*How very ironic, I wonder if anyone checked both boxes? Deaf; Non-disabled…I wish everyone just checked that box!! Non-disabled… or maybe… hmmm oh what are some other fun labeling games we can play with all of that? List below please!

And so is concluded part 1 of 2. The second topic which won its place in my mind and on the blog is shortly to follow. In the meantime let’s play a game! It’s kind of like… pin the tail on the donkey. This being my first post (although I will always remain open to criticism) I’d love to hear from anyone who reads: where are my most pressing assumptions? Please, if you have questions of just want to point out what an ass if been in making a blatant assumption, post below! I have just appointed you my peer editor, thanks in advance for playing the part.

If you can hold on…

So, here it goes. My first non-travel related blog post. I have an inkling that it will in fact include tids and bits of travel but it is not the subject of the post. I have been pondering this moment for a while (as in years) but have never seemed to see the point in blogging myself… I suppose I don’t really think anyone will read it. Nor, do I think it necessary that they do. Still, without a readership why should one ‘publish’ anything? I suppose the answer is for one self. And, I suppose that several things I’ve read today or recently have started my mind spinning a little faster than my human hands are capable of pulling out along paper with pen and so the ‘seal is broken’ 😉 (that’s for Kev in case he ever reads this, and if he does he should send me a copy of that song so I can post it somewhere and link it to this page.)

If any one does find these posts worthy of skimming or studying I’ll note the following disclaimers:

  • I by no means promise eloquence or precision. In fact I can likely furnish the opposite: an inarticulate chaotic rumbling resulting in dystopics (can I coin this term? – accidentally articulated topics of conversation or writing often dealing with systemic unrest or corruption and having manifested via disorganized thought processes or semantics.) and a potential feeling of dysphoria.
  • I am a hypocrite, and not in the sense of having taken the Hippocratic oath because those two words have different etymologies my friend/hypothetical-reader!
  • I am reactionary; I try to but am not always perfectly successful at vetting my sources–most of which will be linked to when possible;
  • This is not intended to be a source for anyone or anything, I am a young enthusiastic, often angry and frustrated, spirited, argumentative middle aged youth (a youth falling near the center of the spectrum of accepted age designations for ‘young’–and in my case with a feeling of being old and useless at times. It’s the quarter life crisis stage although whoever decided I was going to live to be 100 might be a little deranged) and most often find myself writing when I am feeling dejected and confused or enlightened and anti-apathetic. That’s right ANTI-apathetic as in against apathetics. And let’s not forget as previously stated that I am a hypocrite.
  • I am under and sometimes misinformed. Again, not intended to be a source, but if you feel that my comments have been either way informed, I welcome your feedback and your assistance in  rectifying my discombobulated state.
  • I check spelling (I’m a terrible speller maybe blogging will help) and correct word usage via google (at least at the moment).
  • I welcome challenges and people who are (or believe themselves to to be) smarter and/or more well read than myself. You can define the word smart however you like in this context.
  • And finally, while my thoughts may be disorganized and sometimes seem non sequitur, I appreciate clarity. Working definitions in responses are highly respected on my receiving end and I will try to define my usage wherever possible or I feel necessary.
  • Oh yes, and I am rather verbose.

Now, I’ve been told that I don’t need to be quite so apologetic, although I’m not sure I’m attempting to be apologetic. Still, I do think it is important to state my intentions even if I’m not quite sure of them just yet.

Now, here’s another reason why I haven’t started this section of my blog yet. When I started this post this afternoon I intended to follow my caveat with an actual post, which I began to compose and which itself proceeded to get away from me. I think I was a little distracted with worry around my hypothetical readers reactions. Unnecessary I suppose but at least I’ve gotten that bit out of the way and from here we can start to see some real rambles. I guess the goal of this little blurb is to start finding my new voice and just ask you (if you’re reading, which you know… you are at least at the moment) to hold on tight and get ready for the ride, ’cause it throws me sometimes too and I’ve been riding it for years.

So now I’ll settle in, write down some of the ideas that have cropped their way into my mind over the course of this lovely day and ponder which of these thoughts have reached readable. Wish me luck and hold on tight!