My letter, 26 years later

Video description: TSW owner Trudy Suggs, a white woman with brown shoulder-length hair, is wearing a purple v-necked sweater that ties at the neckline.  She is seated in a corner with brown bookshelves on her right and a sea blue wall on her left.

One of my favorite teachers, Barbara Turner, found an October 1990 letter I wrote to Silent News, a newspaper I later served as editor of for two years. As I re-read the letter (found at the end of this article), I was struck by what I wrote back then, especially given that I was only 15 years old.

My letter to Silent News, October 1990In 1990, I was deep in the trenches of what was then a deeply emotional discussion taking place everywhere. I remember sitting down in frustration after reading a few articles in Silent News, and pecking away on my electric typewriter. My perspectives stemmed from what I saw on a day-in, day-out basis. Today, I have mixed feelings about what I wrote (especially some of my word choices), although I do staunchly believe, as I did 26 years ago, that “a student’s best educational setting can only be determined by the individual — the child.”

I’ve also come to understand so much more about the mainstreaming versus deaf school controversy, and I’ve watched the pendulum swing back and forth. I’ve recognized that one of the challenges is ensuring that each family has full awareness of all the consequences of either choice. Most importantly, I’ve become a mother to four deaf children.

Looking back, I realize now just how oppressive many of the teachers were towards us Deaf students, except for Ms. Turner, in terms of audism, linguicism, and the most basic of respect. To be fair, that was the norm back then and still is the norm at so many schools today. This oppressive attitude spilled over into our daily perspectives of ourselves; I’ve written extensively about how I struggled with my self-esteem and identity because of these teachers. It’s bittersweet to think of how Deaf students, including me, thought we were “lucky” to be mainstreamed when in reality, this was dysconscious audism at its finest. We simply were indoctrinated to believe that hearing was better.

With that said, I was so fortunate to have had access to a Deaf family, the Deaf community, publications like Silent News and Deaf Life, and most importantly, Deaf friends and role models. My classmates didn’t necessarily have this same access, except through the three deaf families at my school. After all, the nearest deaf school was about four to five hours away. The school we attended didn’t really expose us to deaf role models on a consistent basis, although we did have guest speakers and attended a very few events with deaf students from other schools.

Let’s take a quick look at some of what I wrote.

“Some deaf students, in my opinion, will perform at their best abilities in mainstreamed settings, such as I do.”

Actually, I sucked at school. I was never a great student, and I never felt as if I was academically or even personally smart. I would struggle in class, trying to understand why I couldn’t follow along. I had to put up with teachers’ scorn, because they had higher expectations of me given that my papers said I was gifted and had skipped two grades at another public school. Today I realize I struggled because the interpreters weren’t qualified for the most part, and I didn’t have direct communication access. I had attended a deaf school for a year, but it wasn’t the best option at the time; also, my mother got remarried and we relocated to the Chicago area. Even though I was one of those students who participated in a million extracurricular activities and had a lot of hearing friends and even a hearing boyfriend, I never felt as if I really fit in. In between classes and after school, I would always run to my deaf friends and drink up every minute with them.

If I could do it all over again, I would probably have requested better interpreters, or perhaps homeschooling — or found a way to go to a deaf school again. Even with the best interpreters, the access still would not be equivalent to the access at deaf schools.

“I think all the controversy over whether to mainstream or to put a child in a residential school is overly absurd. . .

But I think it is totally ridiculous that people battle endlessly . . . Come on, let’s stop whining about this issue and concentrate on other things such as bringing deaf awareness into the hearing world and promoting deaf rights.”

Yikes. “Absurd,” “ridiculous,” and “whining” aren’t words I’d use nowadays. The controversy, which persists to this day especially in light of so many deaf schools closing, is a very serious topic — especially given the dramatic increase in solitary mainstreaming of deaf children. Even so, I thought, and still believe, that this controversy is putting the horse before the cart. The more pressing issue is ensuring that every child has access in the form of sign language along with whatever other communication mode(s) are accessible, and that every family has full information and is fully educated and aware of the importance of cultural and linguistic access in all aspects of the child’s life. Only when this has been achieved can we focus on educational options.

“Going back to my statement that a child can succeed in a setting that he feels most comfortable in, I can say that I know of many people who are thought of as role models today that come from both types of school. . .I do have a lot of hearing peers. So do a lot of the other deaf students in my school. But those deaf students and I socialize with deaf people outside of school — which counteracts with the often-found misconception that students who are mainstreamed are not proud of their deafness, do not socialize with other deaf people, and are sheltered from the deaf world.”

I still agree, but I also recognize that even with the oppression students at my school faced, we still had access to resources that are not available to many deaf mainstreamed students, such as direct instruction in ASL, Deaf-centric extracurricular activities, and even books and publications about ASL and Deaf people. Unfortunately, it’s even more of a fact today that so many mainstreamed students do not have access to or awareness of the Deaf community.

My high school also had a critical mass of deaf students — about 80 — as opposed to only 5 or 10 students. This was imperative, because it enabled us to have our own sub-groups, our own culture, and even our own vocabulary (just ask me how we signed “fump” or “gross”). The most important thing is that we developed a network among ourselves, and through the deaf families and extracurricular activities at school found other deaf people. Even so, this critical mass is nothing like the one I see at my children’s school nowadays, and I now fully realize just how much I missed out on.

“And I also know that residential schools are very remarkable in producing people that achieve so much for the deaf world. This does not need to be even said because it is almost a granted fact.”

Unfortunately, we do have to say this, because residential — or rather, Deaf schools — have gotten such a bad rap especially in the past 50 years. We need to go back to basics, and recognize that many people’s ideas of what deaf schools offer are often outdated and rooted in the outdated concept of “institutionalization.” Many Deaf schools offer a variety of programs and services, including audiology and spoken language, and offer comprehensive education. It’s also imperative to recognize that most of the community leaders in our storied Deaf history came from deaf schools, and that many community leaders also come from deaf schools. For example, the receptionist at the White House, Leah Katz-Hernandez, attended a deaf school. Claudia Gordon, a White House lawyer, attended a deaf school. Nyle DiMarco, the hottest star to hit Hollywood, graduated from a deaf school. The recent chair of the FCC disability office, who left the position a few weeks ago, Greg Hlibok, also comes from a deaf school. The list goes on and on.

Nowadays, that demographic may be changing — through no fault of our own. With mainstreaming forced upon more deaf students as a result of an increased reliance on technology, the closing of Deaf schools, dissemination of naccurate information, and a general lack of resources in many parts of the country, more and more community leaders will come from mainstreamed settings. Some of them have or will become successful leaders if they have tremendous resources and support at home; others will probably struggle with all the same issues of fitting in, self-esteem, language barriers, trying to do what others expect of them —on top of normal development challenges such as puberty and socialization. So it’s important for us to continue identifying successful people who have happily embraced the Deaf community and its culture, heritage, and language.

“If we could get more people to be aware of deafness and its glorious culture, then we could get parents to make the best and RIGHT decision about where to put their child for the best possible education. We do, after all, have to realize that each child is an individual and each has his own way of learning.”

Even as passionate as I am about the importance of Deaf schools and reviving the critical masses that once existed at every Deaf school, I still believe that each child has to have choices. If we could bring Deaf school numbers back to what exists at schools like Maryland, Texas, and Indiana, we’d have choices at each and every Deaf school instead of “resorting” to mainstreaming as a choice. By choices, I mean choices in educational methods, communication modes, services, courses, social circles, and so much more. Every child should have access to these choices without having to sacrifice full, complete, direct access to education and every aspect of school — especially socialization and world knowledge.

I will say this, though, as a final statement: many of my fellow Deaf students at Hinsdale South High School went on to have Deaf children. The majority of us, including me, have chosen to enroll our children at deaf schools. This alone speaks volumes.

Letter to Silent News Editor, October 1990

Dear Editor:

In response to all the letters about whether to put a deaf child in a mainstreamed setting or a residential setting, I would like to add some of my own comments, if I may.

I am a 15-year-old senior at Hinsdale South High School in Darien, Illinois. Yes, I am mainstreamed for all of my classes with the use of an interpreter, but I am also a former residential school student. So I can safely say I have an idea of what both worlds are like. And regardless of all the arguments I have absorbed about which school gives a student a higher reading/writing level, I strongly believe that a student’s best educational setting can only be determined by the individual — the child.

Some deaf students, in my opinion, will perform at their best abilities in mainstreamed settings, such as I do. Others will find mainstreamed settings too difficult or too easy and lean toward the residential school. I think all the controversy over whether to mainstream or to put a child in a residential school is overly absurd. If one scoffs at mainstreaming and says that deaf schools are the only way to go, or vice versa, then I believe that is a very subtle kind of discrimination. Who is one to say what another can do? This is a free country, and every one of us is an individual. I believe that a child can succeed anywhere he feels like he fits in the most.

My most vivid memory of leaving the residential school I attended was a staff member coming up to me and calling me a “traitor” to my face — simply because I was transferring to a public school with a program for deaf students. I will never forget the disgust and fury in his face as he spelled out that word to me. I was only 10 at the time. I think that’s exactly the type of picture that someone would NOT want a child to have.

Going back to my statement that a child can succeed in a setting that he feels most comfortable in, I can say that I know of many people who are thought of as role models today that come from both types of school. I come from a deaf family; so I know a lot of deaf adults who are very successful individuals and many of them come from public schools with a program for the deaf; and yet others tell me of their residential school experiences. I do not have an outstanding and superior level of speech — I firmly believe in the use of sign language, so do not think that I am a deaf person who marches around in life being oral. But I do have a lot of hearing peers. So do a lot of the other deaf students in my school. But those deaf students and I socialize with deaf people outside of school — which counteracts with the often-found misconception that students who are mainstreamed are not proud of their deafness, do not socialize with other deaf people, and are sheltered from the deaf world.

True, many mainstreamed people do need to be educated about the deaf world, but we are fortunate to have very many teachers at Hinsdale South who are knowledgeable about this. And there are students who have participated in all kinds of sports, such as soccer, basketball, baseball, and so on. And I am one of the editors of the school paper. And there are countless clubs that our deaf students have participated in. The program at Hinsdale South is living proof that NOT all mainstreaming programs are total failures.

And I also know that residential schools are very remarkable in producing people that achieve so much for the deaf world. This does not need to be even said because it is almost a granted fact.

But I think it is totally ridiculous that people battle endlessly about whether mainstreaming or residential schools are the best way to educate our deaf children. Come on, let’s stop whining about this issue and concentrate on other things such as bringing deaf awareness into the hearing world and promoting deaf rights. If we could get more people to be aware of deafness and its glorious culture, then we could get parents to make the best and RIGHT decision about where to put their child for the best possible education. We do, after all, have to realize that each child is an individual and each has his own way of learning.

Trudy Suggs
Westmont, IL

This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the written consent of the author.

A Quick Look at Everyday Disempowerment of Deaf People

A page from NADmag's Spring 2016 issue showing my articleThis article originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of NADmag; download a PDF version of the article.

Video description Trudy, a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, is wearing a navy blue shirt with a red, white, light blue, tan, and navy blue striped scarf. She is seated in the corner with brown bookshelves on her right and a sea blue wall on her left.

Image description: The article as it appeared in NADmag is shown on a yellow page with the headline in yellow text, and the body text in black. Nancy Rourke’s painting of DEAF DISEMPOWERMENT is shown, in her trademark red, yellow, blue, white, and black colors; a woman resembling Trudy is shown in black with a huge hole in her chest.

The Deaf community certainly has come a long way over the decades, even if the pendulum constantly swings from one side to the other in terms of education, discrimination, access, and equality. It is so important that we all are aware of the rights we hold as humans who are Deaf. That itself is a given; nobody would argue otherwise with us. Yet, we allow ourselves to put up with everyday disempowerment, especially for small, seemingly innocent situations. In order to reduce this, we need to first understand what disempowerment is.

Everyday Acts of Disempowerment
The word disempowerment has quite a simple definition for such a powerful concept: to take away power. When we think of disempowerment, we usually think of things like not being provided interpreting services, watching films or TV without captions, being told not to sign, having our lives decided or even dictated by people with no knowledge of ASL or Deaf culture, or seeing hearing actors in roles portraying Deaf people. Yet there are smaller, everyday acts that hold just as much capacity, if not more, to disempower us.

How many times have you logged onto Facebook or Twitter only to find that your (hearing) friends, parents, relatives or even spouses have posted videos that aren’t captioned? Then when you ask them for a transcript, they say, “Oh, darn, I never thought about that,” yet they do it time after time. Another example is when hearing parents speak about their deaf children in front of the children, yet the children don’t realize the conversation is about them.

Countless examples of everyday disempowerment happen in the workplace, of course. Meetings that aren’t interpreted, water cooler conversations where the Deaf person can’t participate, the annoyance factor (when a boss rolls his eyes at a request for an interpreter), being underestimated because you’re Deaf, the office dialogue that takes place over cubicle walls as you’re sitting at your station working; the list goes on and on. Sure, there are accommodations, but it’s just not the same as direct communication access.

How about if you’re writing down something at a fast-food restaurant or even a store—perhaps your order or a question—and the employee, as you’re writing, starts working with another customer? This tells not just you, but also other people, that you’re not worth the wait. Maybe you’re talking with someone who knows that signing and speaking at the same time is combining two separate languages, making it difficult for you to easily access this information. Yet you know if you ask that person to turn off his/her voice or remove his/her speech privilege, that person might be offended. So you end up simply saying nothing as you struggle.

These are minor acts of disempowerment that we’ve become so accustomed to, and we usually don’t do much about them because it’s just not worth the battle. The cycle then continues, because by just accepting these incidents, we are in essence telling the other people that they can continue doing this, even though it’s really not okay.

Disempowerment Through ASL
Teaching ASL is another example of everyday disempowerment that many have come to accept as the status quo. There are thousands of ASL teachers in the nation. How many are deaf? No real statistics exist on this yet. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of certified Baby Sign Language instructors. How many are deaf? A very small percentage. Just go to the bookstore and take a look at all the baby signs books, or look up local baby sign language classes; the majority is taught by hearing people who aren’t necessarily fluent in ASL.

Are all the Deaf Studies and ASL programs in the nation run by Deaf people? No. How about agencies serving Deaf people, state commissions for Deaf people, and organizations focusing on things like baby signs? Are there more Deaf administrators than hearing in these positions? Probably not. How many deaf-run interpreting agencies can you name off the top of your head? What’s wrong with this picture?

A common response to why a deaf person isn’t at the helm of a program or agency working with deaf and hard of hearing people is, “We advertised the position and couldn’t find anyone qualified.” That certainly could be the case. Still, such situations have ripple effects: deaf people aren’t hired, and those outside of the deaf community, in turn, continue to have beliefs and perceptions shaped by hearing people. These hearing people then believe they can educate others about us, rather than bringing in appropriate Deaf community representatives.

If no qualified deaf person applies for a position, there needs to be a short-term and long-term remedy. One possible solution is to keep the position open for as long as possible until someone who is qualified and deaf is hired. Another potential solution is to have an interim director in place, hire someone who is definitely capable of doing the job, and train that person until she or he is ready to take the helm. Is that costly and cumbersome? Perhaps. Cost-beneficial and cost-effective in the long run? Absolutely.

Interpreters: An Imbalance
Interpreters have always been, and likely will always be, a great source of disempowerment. One challenge for many Deaf consumers is at medical appointments, when interpreters go into the hallway whenever the nurse or doctor leaves, instead of staying in the room with the Deaf patient. From an interpreter’s perspective, this is necessary given the many opportunities for ethical dilemmas. For instance, if the Deaf patient says something to the interpreter that is medically relevant, but doesn’t share this information with the doctor, is the interpreter bound to tell the doctor? Yet, is it really fair to keep the patient isolated in a room where there’s no visual access to all the sounds and conversations that a hearing patient could overhear? Many Deaf people say no.

Anita Buel, a Deaf community health worker (DCHW) in Minnesota, has an ongoing frustration. CHWs are certified, trained advocates who accompany patients in their own communities (in this case, the Deaf community) and provide advocacy, information, and clarification for patients who may feel overwhelmed by medical jargon, procedures, and the overall health system. DCHWs, however, are not certified deaf interpreters (CDI); they have as much of a need for interpreters as the Deaf patients. Buel says she gets frustrated when she knows interpreters are in the hallway waiting, and then they come into the room already deep in conversation with the doctor or nurse. This, to her, shows that if the patient already is at a disadvantage, because oftentimes interpreters build relationships with medical professionals and therefore aren’t always perceived as neutral parties. Interpreters, by doing this, also have a rapport established with the medical staff that patients often struggle to establish because of the three-way communication.

An Imbalance in Knowledge
Many people, both deaf and hearing, have appropriately lauded the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) for increasing its standards and professionalism among interpreters within the past few years. Yet there is one act of disempowerment throughout this progress that has been deeply, and easily, overlooked: the knowledge imbalance, which creates a major disadvantage for Deaf people.

The RID requires its interpreters to have bachelor’s degrees, among other criteria; this is a fantastic requirement because it ensures that interpreters are educated. Interpreters, to receive certification, must also have the necessary (even if minimal) training in all the aspects involved with interpreters. Yet, this creates a major imbalance in knowledge, and power. Think about it: do Deaf people have the same access to education as interpreters? No. Are Deaf individuals generally trained to work with interpreters, on advocating for interpreter quality, and on how the interpreting process ideally works? No, absolutely not. Deaf people have had to constantly educate each other on a grassroots level on how to deal with interpreting dilemmas.

Is there any training provided to Deaf people in elementary school through adulthood on how to work with interpreters in various settings, or on self-advocacy? Unfortunately, the answer is no once again. There is a deaf self-advocacy training curriculum available through the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers, but even this curriculum is limited in its contents and availability. On the flip side, sometimes Deaf people aren’t fully educated on the interpreter’s role. Those individuals might mistakenly claim interpreters are oppressive or not doing their jobs, when in reality they are doing exactly what their jobs require.

Keep in mind that most interpreters receive years of formal, professional training in everything from ASL to ethics to business practices. Interpreters are also tested on their knowledge and skills, and then maybe certified. Interpreters are given the knowledge that Deaf people so greatly need and deserve. When Deaf people do not receive this same knowledge, this has deep-seated repercussions.

Whether we like to admit it or not, interpreters have an incredible amount of jurisdiction over our access to people, interviews, medical appointments, education, phone calls, and pretty much everything else. This isn’t necessarily bad, as long as they use this power appropriately and without malice. But this so-called jurisdiction can create even further potential for conflict and division. On top of that, this power imbalance can become magnified in small towns where interpreters might, by default, rule the roost because everyone knows everyone. This has happened time after time, where Deaf people lose jobs, are rejected for jobs, are perceived as unintelligent, and so much more all because they had conflicts with interpreters.

Understand, Analyze, and Act
The NAD has fought for equality among Deaf people for more than a century, and has produced some of the most remarkable leaders in American history. Yet each and every leader within the NAD, both at the state and national level, is guaranteed to have at least three stories of disempowerment running the gamut of minor to major incidents.

In addition to educating ourselves, we need to learn how to come together to prevent or reduce disempowerment in any form or shape. It’s crucial that we recognize that disempowerment doesn’t always happen on purpose; it’s often by accident. Even so, that doesn’t mean it’s okay. As renowned vlogger and blogger Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey says, “It’s not about intent. It’s about impact.”

What can we do, as Deaf people, to help lessen disempowerment ranging from simple acts to in- depth, intentional acts? First, we must understand what disempowerment is, how it affects us, and why it affects us. Even the seemingly small acts of disempowerment that we’ve become so accustomed, almost immune to, have major impact on our everyday lives as Deaf people. It is crucial that we, as Deaf people, become fully educated on acts of disempowerment, the interpreting process, on our roles, on our legal rights, and on how to deal with conflict or oppression. This kind of education should start at the earliest stages of our lives as Deaf people, so that we go throughout life knowing what we’re supposed to do. This would help lessen so much of the disempowerment that takes place. It would also help reduce the ingrained frustration that often comes from encountering such disempowerment, because we would have the tools to take the next steps. We must also be careful to remember that if a deaf person expresses frustration, it doesn’t necessarily mean she or he is angry, divisive or separatist. Rather, take a look at the situation, and figure out how all parties have contributed to the situation.

By understanding the gravity of each situation, small or large, we can then come to analyze the steps leading up to that situation and what we can do next. By understanding all the parties involved and their perceptions, and by figuring out what resources we have, we can then determine steps of action. Finally, we can then act on the disempowerment through appropriate steps. We must always strive for access to the same education as our hearing allies (interpreters, parents, friends, and other supporters). By working to minimize disempowerment, we can then have access to equality, to communication, and most importantly, to being human.

The original disempowerment article can be found here.

Copyrighted material. This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the express written consent of the author.

Giving Credit Where It Wasn’t Due

Video description: Trudy, a white woman with shoulder-length brown hair, is wearing a deep royal blue sweater. She is seated in the corner with brown bookshelves on her right and a sea blue wall on her left.

I was the keynote speaker at a world languages ceremony at a public high school last year, and I thought this would be a fantastic opportunity to highlight American Sign Language (ASL) as a bona fide language along with its history of being oppressed. I sent my speech in advance to the interpreters, and arrived early to ensure that I could establish a rapport with them, since they would be controlling my voice and how I would be perceived by hundreds of hearing parents and students in attendance—many of who had never seen or met a deaf person before. I had shared my reservations about the interpreters’ ability to voice for me with the sign language coordinator, but I wanted to believe they would do just fine.

As I sat through the first part of the ceremony, I was reminded of my years as a mainstreamed student: rather than integrating me into the activities, they were providing me with minimal access — and therefore I was isolated just as I had been in school. One of the interpreters sat at the very far left of the stage, even though I was seated near center right in the front row in a reserved seat. It was very difficult to see her in the dimmed lighting. I discreetly asked her to move closer to me, but she couldn’t understand me. After repeating myself twice, she responded that she wouldn’t move because she was fine where she was. I decided to let it go, since I was more focused on my presentation.

Once I got onstage, I began to sign, only to realize that the interpreter was immediately faltering. The other interpreter wasn’t involved at all, not even in a supporting role. Fortunately, the hearing (and fluent) ASL teacher Ms. Doe, who had invited me to the ceremony, was standing next to the interpreter. I quickly asked her to take over the voicing, so she did, and the speech went well in spite of this initial stumble.

At the end of the ceremony, the director of the ESL, World Languages, Bilingual Education and Performing Arts department came onstage to give closing remarks. As the interpreter signed, I did a double take, but decided to hold any reaction until I could confirm what had actually been said. I emailed that director later on to request a copy of her comments. As I read the copy a few weeks later, I realized with a sick feeling that I hadn’t misunderstood, nor had the interpreter misinterpreted. Below is a direct copy-and-paste from the director’s remarks, which she read from onstage:

Before I start, one thing I need to comment on is the power of Ms. Suggs’ presentation. Aside from teaching us so much about the history of ASL, she and Mrs. Doe performed a very beneficial role reversal for us tonight. So often, as speakers of the dominant language of our culture, we take for granted that we are going to understand everything that is told to us. The broadcast news is geared to us, with the little sign language translation box is in the corner —sometimes. Tonight, most of us were totally dependent on Mrs. Doe for comprehension. That brings about many emotions, maybe even negative emotions. Think about how you felt during that presentation, totally dependent on a translator. Were you bored? Frustrated? Engaged in the challenge of trying to decipher it? What about if Mrs. Doe had not been there to help us? Please remember what you felt tonight when you encounter speakers of other languages, in particular the over 800 students who are currently considered English Language Learners in our [town name deleted] Public Schools family. What you experienced tonight is what they experience every day. I would also like to recognize Mrs. Doe’s extraordinary talents. Simultaneous interpretation is one of the most demanding language tasks, and her interpretation was first-rate.

Her comments spotlighted Ms. Doe and the “helplessness” instead of focusing on the message I shared — which was the incredible history behind signed languages, and their equality to spoken language. Ms. Doe was made the hero of my presentation, instead of focusing on signed languages. To add insult to injury, the two interpreters’ failure to work together or adequately prepare for the presentation was converted into a “challenge of trying to decipher” what I was signing, rather than outright incompetency. And let’s not even talk about the “little sign language translation box in the corner” comment.

To be fair, the way the challenges were framed — “. . .bored? Frustrated” and “negative emotions” — were probably intended to remind people about the importance of respect. Yet these very words seemed to imply that signed language was “boring,” as if I didn’t communicate myself clearly and was difficult to “decipher.” If the interpreters had done their job properly, nobody would be bored, frustrated or negatively responding. Finally, “What if Mrs. Doe had not been there to help us?” is a perfect example of deficit thinking.

Deaf people have always found a way to communicate, and it’s our words that interpreters are voicing, even if haphazardly at times. There is no helplessness involved; there is no dependence involved. Unfortunately, this perception of helplessness remains, even among people who are fully educated on how ASL is a separate language and in no way correlates with helplessness.

How do we address this? I’m not quite sure, because it seems like everything we’ve tried in the past few centuries hasn’t worked. I do know that we must educate people about giving interpreters, or in this case, someone who happened to sign fluently, so much credit. We also must have them start shifting the focus onto the message, rather than the modality or translation process. If only the director had listened to what I said in my presentation: “All this stems from the mistaken notion that one language is superior to another . . . .and one way to combat this is as you continue to study languages, embrace their peoples, history, and cultures, and celebrate all that the language stands for.”

This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the written consent of the author.

sComm: An Update

Read my original article and open letter (available in ASL and English) before reading the below.

Warning: This article includes graphic language.

In March, I wrote an article objecting to sComm’s practice of promoting the UbiDuo as a replacement for interpreters. I then wrote an open letter urging sComm to retract its statements and apologize to interpreters and the community. Several messages I sent to sComm went unanswered. Before continuing, it may help to know a bit about sComm.

About sComm
sComm is located in Raytown, Mo., just outside of Kansas City. sComm promotes itself as being deaf-owned, but in reality, it’s partially owned by Jason Curry, who is deaf. His parents, David and Emma Curry, both hearing, are the other owners. David, credited with devising the UbiDuo concept, is a well-known real estate mogul in Sedalia, Mo.; he does not sign. Emma was an educational interpreter (using Signed Exact English) at one time, but is now the vice president at sComm and is typically involved with day-to-day matters.

The start of sComm (the name stands for simultaneous communication) was discussed in an article in The ExaminersComm “applied for a National Institutes of Health grant. It took five years for the funding to come through. In 2005 the company received a $1.5 million grant.” Curry, now 46, was then working for the federal General Services Administration, and resigned to take the company forward in 2008.

Response to My Writings
After my article and open letter were released, the response was overwhelming. Message after message shared people’s heart-wrenching stories from of being forced or pushed to use the UbiDuo instead of having interpreters brought onsite, especially in hospital and government settings. Deaf Hearing Network also aired a segment featuring a woman who shared her negative experiences with the UbiDuo.

[Read more…]

Doing More Harm than Good

(See the bottom of this page for a link to sComm’s response to this and my follow-up response in both ASL and English. I have also posted updates at the end of this page.)

A friend texted and told me to look at the sComm Facebook page; sComm is the company that markets the UbiDuo device. Saying it enables “the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Hearing [sic] to Communicate without Barriers,” it touts the UbiDuo as “the world’s foremost communication solution for people who are deaf, hard of hearing or hearing.” It also states almost proudly, it seems, that there “is no need for an interpreter with the UbiDuo.”

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When the UbiDuo, produced by sComm, first came out, I was a bit skeptical because the device didn’t seem like anything special; it was like a makeshift set-up of two TTYs connected to each other. Even though some people I knew worked for sComm, I still wasn’t convinced of its value.

Based in Raytown, Mo., the company was founded by Jason Curry, who is deaf, and his hearing father David. The sComm website says, “The UbiDuo was born out of pure frustration.” The story is that the father and son duo “sat down for breakfast one morning and struggled to carry on an in-depth business conversation, free of misinterpretation and confusion.” David sketched his vision of a product, and, “Just like that, one family’s efforts to achieve meaningful and treasured personal connections through communication brought the same life-changing triumph to millions of other deaf and hard of hearing individuals across the world.”

People have the option of getting the UbiDuo 2 Wireless for $1,995 or the UbiDuo Wired for $2,195. Oh, and if you want enhanced security, that’s another $150, and then the carrying bag for the UbiDuo is yet another $50. The sComm website lists along its clients Walmart, Wells Fargo, the White House, Coca-Cola, the Canadian Hearing Society, Goodwill, Pride Toronto, Wegman’s, the U.S. Postal Service, NASA, several universities, and even the U.S. Army and Pentagon.

Within the past few years, sComm has begun aggressively marketing the UbiDuo as a way to replace interpreters rather than as a communication tool. When I lived in Minnesota, a local advocate who worked for sComm allegedly convinced the local hospital — which had been super in providing immediate access to interpreters — to use the UbiDuo for emergency room communications instead of interpreters. Knowing this advocate’s belief system, I didn’t buy that he would actually push for this.

When my husband had to go to the emergency room, we found the rumor was true. My husband texted me, confused, saying that the nurse told him no interpreters were available because it was the weekend. I knew this was not accurate information, and since I had worked closely with the hospital for years in ensuring top-notch interpreter provision, I immediately told him to take photographs or get a copy of the nurse’s notes. The nurse also said the UbiDuo was now the standard for emergency room visits instead of interpreters. When I notified my contacts at the hospital, they apologized and said they would immediately remedy this mistake by communicating with the ER staff.

So after my friend’s text, I looked at the sComm Facebook page and couldn’t believe my eyes. In a post that has since been removed, sComm shared the article regarding Tennessee’s proposed law to use volunteer interpreters, and said: “What are your thoughts on volunteer interpreters dealing with child abuse cases? How is this a good thing? It’s simply not, not one bit.” I thought, “All right, that’s a great start.” But then the next paragraph floored me.

sComm wrote, “For these kind of situations as well, investigators would benefit greatly from a UbiDuo 2 to communicate easily and securely with the deaf and hard of hearing.”

I shared that post on my Facebook page, and added, “Uh, no! A UbiDuo 2 does NOT help if one is physically injured, traumatized, or scared. It also does not help if one is too upset to think straight in English, or is not fluent in English. I know when I’m really upset, I don’t want to have to type my thoughts out, even if temporarily. There have been times where I was too shaky to even hold a pen, much less type.”

I went back to the sComm page and asked, “Are you seriously proposing the UbiDuo 2 as a replacement (even if temporarily) for an interpreter based on this proposed law?” The response was a brief, “Yes, we are.”IMG_6595

Lest anyone think otherwise, this was not the first time sComm had made such outrageous comments. In a Feb. 6 post, sComm posted this:

“What would you do if you were in a life-threatening situation and unable to communicate? Wait hours for an interpreter? That’s not the solution and it’s a very dangerous solution.

The UbiDuo solves that problem. Communicate freely without barriers with anyone you’d like to, without an interpreter.”

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Again, no. In order to use the UbiDuo, one needs to be fluent in English, and of a sound mind and not in any emotional distress. In cases of abuse, especially with children, this is usually not the case. When I saw the response, “Yes, we are,” I immediately thought of my four deaf children who are aged 7 to 3. Although the older two are developing fluency in English, they’re not quite there—and even if they were, I would not want them to have to type on a machine, especially if they’re injured or traumatized. They should, instead, be given a qualified, certified interpreter (and even a Certified Deaf Interpreter), so that they have full access to everything around them and have full access to expressing themselves in their native language.

Unfortunately, sComm has a history of pushing for the UbiDuo to replace interpreters. Just look at the blurb on the American Bar Association’s website:

The UbiDuo enables deaf/hard of hearing people to communicate with hearing people without any face to face barriers. The UbiDuo is a two-screen, two-keyboard electronic communication device. It is completely portable, wireless, operates in real-time, and is completely stand alone.  This device was tested in the 13th Circuit and was very successful.  OSCA then purchased 38 units through the Basic, Data and Training Grants for distribution statewide.  Having this equipment significantly reduces the need for hiring deaf interpreters.  These devices are used in courtrooms and juvenile offices for child welfare hearings, meetings, visitations, trainings, and other related events.

And then there’s the lawsuit brought against a Jacksonville, Fla., hospital:

Caserta said an UbiDuo communication device used at Baptist that allows patients and staff to communicate with keyboards and monitors isn’t helpful if the patient struggles to read, write or type, as several of her clients do.

sComm has also posted comments repeatedly saying they want to replace interpreters with UbiDuos. For example, take a look at this screenshot shared by Jahan Farzam-Behboodi:


Derek Braun, Ph.D., a biology professor and the director of a molecular genetics laboratory, said in a response to my post: “I had a situation last year where I was in the hospital and in bad shape after a surgery that did not go well, and I couldn’t breathe. My head was swollen up. The doctors were trying to figure out if [I] had a pulmonary embolism.” He explains that the hospital brought in a TV for video remote interpreting. “Of course I couldn’t even see the TV because I was in bed and couldn’t sit up (or breathe!). My wife told me later that the connection was crappy anyway. She yelled for a real interpreter. That was almost criminal. What sComm is proposing is worse, and yet another step down the path to depraved indifference.”

Diane Plassey Gutierrez also wrote on my thread, “This is frightening. I recently had heart surgery and was unable to communicate with the medical staff for three days afterwards, due to fuzzy vision and weakness in my arms so that I couldn’t hold a pen. Fortunately the hospital brought in an interpreter and was able to communicate my immediate needs to the staff. I know I would be scared to go to a hospital or clinic that relied mainly on the UbiDuo with its frequent breakdowns, inadequate staff training in its use, and misunderstandings since not every Deaf person and not every medical staff person is fluent in written English.”

After seeing my Facebook post, several people posted comments on the sComm Facebook page, and sComm deleted most of them. I also asked at the sComm page if anyone on the sComm staff had deaf children, since I had four deaf children and knew firsthand the dangers of their mission to replace interpreters. They did not respond.

Given the grave, potentially life-threatening, misleading message sComm is promoting through social media and probably in its business-to-business marketing efforts, it is crucial that CEO Jason Curry step up to the plate and recognize that they need to develop a new marketing strategy that focuses on the truth, rather than hyping a one-size-fits-all solution that puts full, appropriate communication access at risk. sComm must also publicly recognize that the UbiDuo cannot be offered as a replacement, but as an option. Their current stance is dangerous, and puts entities using the UbiDuo in place of interpreters at great risk for misunderstandings, miscommunication and liability.

sComm may also rethink its statement on its website: “sComm is relentless in its efforts to transform face-to-face communication for deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing people and will not rest until it has achieved 100% one-on-one communication equality.” Certainly. sComm has been relentless in refusing to recognize that what they promote is not communication equality. And I will be relentless, too, about that.

UPDATE: sComm released a video responding to the criticism about its post. I share my thoughts on the sComm statement in this video response. The transcript is below.

Hi. When my article was released, I was taken aback by the thousands, actually, almost 20,000 views of the article, which was in relation to sComm and the UbiDuo. Of course, the majority expressed anger and dismay. Just a few hours ago tonight, March 27, sComm posted a video with Jason Curry, the head of sComm; sComm produces the UbiDuo. He said, in sign language, that sComm does not support the replacement of interpreters with UbiDuo; rather, the UbiDuo is ideal for when interpreters are not available. That was the essence of his message. I watched his video, and…I applaud him for responding to the criticism. Still, what he did was spin-doctoring, trying to control the information so that the real issue is pushed aside. I’d like to emphasize this, though. Some people seem to think the UbiDuo is fine. Yes, it’s perfectly fine — if you can use it effortlessly and are satisfied with it. If you don’t need an interpreter, then by all means, use it. But for situations involving hospitals, trauma, police, court, and specifically children — I have four deaf children aged 7 to 3. The older two probably could use it — but in cases of trauma, that’d be a very bad idea. I’d prefer to see an interpreter and even a certified deaf interpreter brought in so that the children can know everything that’s going on around the. Not just the conversation on screen, but also what’s being said around them that the interpreters could interpret. Not just for my children, but even for myself. Even if I’m fluent in English, when I’m upset, I prefer to sign, or when if I’m shocked. In crises, no, the UbiDuo isn’t a good idea. Besides, I don’t want anyone to tell me that I can’t have an interpreter, that I must use the UbiDuo. I get to decide, not them. That’s the essence of my stance.

At a recent workshop I presented, a participant shared the example of another person whose first language wasn’t English. This person went through a court report and marked off areas that were not true, but she wrote “not sure” [the signs for both words are similar]. She thought the word for “true” was “sure.” Obviously she didn’t have fluency in English, so for people like that, it’s not fair to force them to use the UbiDuo. They might think they can write in English, but they’re not in reality fluent. That’s risky. So my point is that I appreciate Jason’s comments, but no, sComm needs to go back and revise all of their messages, all of their website contents, print materials, everything. Even their meetings with everyone — sComm has numerous high-profile clients — governmental agencies, and everyone. They need to go back and inform everyone that the UbiDuo is an option, not a replacement. If they don’t do that, then they’re really endangering a lot of people’s lives. They say they’re relentless; so am I. I will keep on until they improve their message. I don’t want them to put me or my family at risk, period.

March 28: This story just gets more mind-boggling. Someone shared this link with me, produced by sComm.  At about 2:50, this appears:


“Crippled”? Really? And the video also, even if jokingly, promotes VRS fraud. To stay updated, be sure to visit my Facebook page.

March 29: I posted this on my Facebook page tonight.

Hi, everyone! A huge thank you to everyone who has shared their input, and to everyone who has provided screenshots and videos posted by sComm.

Here’s what has happened since I first posted my article/video showing how sComm claimed that the UbiDuo should replace interpreters, particularly in child abuse cases. This article has been seen by tens of thousands of people. 

sComm did release a video clarifying that they did not support having only UbiDuos in child abuse cases (and I posted that on my website); I posted a follow-up video to that on Friday, March 27. Since then:

1. sComm has deleted all of my comments (unfortunately for them, I kept screenshots and copies of their videos). They have also deleted many of their dissenters’ comments. Otherwise, they’ve been staying quiet aside from having their supporters respond to dissenters.

2. More and more people have sent in emails and information demonstrating just how deep sComm’s mockery and oppression of ASL and interpreters has gone for quite some time now. It’s heart-breaking, truly, especially as a deaf business owner myself. I actually have no problem with the device itself; it’s the ethics (or lack of, rather) behind sComm’s marketing and claims demeaning ASL and mocking interpreters that I cannot support.

4. I am releasing a letter to sComm asking for a few things; that will be posted here and on my website tomorrow. 

5. In the meantime, I ask that we all not mock anyone’s signing or communication preferences. When anyone does this, this is no than sComm demeaning ASL. 

If you think what I have posted isn’t enough, here are additional screenshots — from February 2015 — of where sComm states that ASL is a simplified language.











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Getting to the Heart of the Matter

I first saw the term DEAF-HEART at an interpreting conference back in the early 2000s. There was a heated discussion in a workshop, and an interpreter stood on stage saying how important it was to have DEAF HEART—she signed “deaf” over the heart. My friend, a top-level interpreter, quickly looked at me to see how I reacted. I naturally was caught off-guard by that sign and turned to her, saying, “What the…?” She giggled at my reaction, and said, “Yeah, I know. A new phrase that’s catching on.”

I had a sick feeling in my stomach, although I didn’t understand quite what bothered me so much about the phrase. It didn’t help that the newly certified interpreter on stage was not yet fluent in American Sign Language. Later that day, I chatted with other deaf people at the conference and discovered that I wasn’t the only one bothered by this phrase.

Fast forward to the 2013 Street Leverage event in Atlanta, where this term seemed to be all the rage. Even Deaf presenters stood onstage and talked about what DEAF-HEART meant. I wanted to write about this phrase then, but I still hadn’t quite pinpointed why it was such an abrasive phrase to me. Over time, I talked to many people: interpreters, Deaf people, CDIs, and everyone else in between. The same messages kept emerging: they, too, didn’t like the phrase but weren’t sure why. The select few (all hearing) who did like the phrase said the phrase made them feel like they belonged to the Deaf community.

Let’s explore the history of this phrase. While there’s no hard evidence of exactly when DEAF-HEART began being used, the phrase has been around at least 15 years, based on the first time I saw it. I spoke with Lewis Merkin, CDI, who said he and a group (including CDIs Jimmy Beldon, Alisha Bronk, Janis Cole, Kristin Lund, and Priscilla Moyers) had met in December 2008 as part of a Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Deaf Members in Leadership committee meeting. As reported in the Spring 2009 issue of the RID VIEWS:

The best approach to reminding members of the value of an “of Deaf” perspective is to create an atmosphere where this occurs naturally. We discussed “Deaf Heart” [sic] concepts (ASL, visually accessible information, collectivism vs. individualism, culture, history, CODA input, etc.) and looked at how this can be incorporated (at the 2009 RID National Conference, collaborating with NAD, CIT and ASLTA to incorporate allies principles into interpreter training program curricula, revisit the wording of RID’s strategic challenges, etc.).

In that same issue, Bronk wrote in “Interpreters: Gatekeepers for the Deaf Interpreter Community”:

We should all be open to sharing our experiences, frustrations and joys of our work in an effort to improve ourselves and our field. We know that deaf and hearing interpreters, working in teams, can provide the best service to many Deaf community members, enhance all of our skills, and bring what the Deaf community calls “Deaf-heart” [sic] back into our field.

Merkin told me, “I know when we were talking about it, it was to find a way of explaining what we considered positive traits. How it’s been co-opted is another story.”

I continue to be uncomfortable with it for a number of reasons, and I continue to be surprised by how many people have expressed their discomfort with this phrase but are hesitant to share their discomfort for fear of backlash.

With the interpreting field becoming much more professionalized—not a bad thing, in any way—I find that more and more interpreters are trying to use different labels, including “having DEAF-HEART.” John, a friend I shared this article with said it best: “Without having the lived experience of being deaf, you may be able to identify various factors and experiences deaf people have on an intellectual level, but at the end of the day, you don’t have that personal experience.” This is true even for those who are hearing and have Deaf family members; while they may see the good and bad experiences of being a Deaf person, they don’t experience it firsthand.

I remember when I first understood this. Ironically, it was a hearing person who taught me this—a straight, white male who people love to hate: a police officer. Ken and I were co-teaching a course at the Illinois State Police Academy after two deaf men had been killed by police within a month’s span back in 1996. A high-ranking Illinois State Police administrator, Ken happened to be my graduate school notetaker and became a trusted ally and friend. We naturally joined forces, with our work leading to a statewide curriculum addressing how police should communicate with deaf people.

During a class, Ken asked the 60 cadets, “How many of you had met a deaf person before today?” Only five or six raised their hands, which surprised even me. He then asked me, “Trudy, how many times this morning did you have to tell someone you were deaf?” I mentally did the calculations, and said, “Five or six times.” It was only 10:00 a.m. when I gave that answer, and I suddenly understood just how much being Deaf shaped my life experiences, even for simple tasks such as getting gas or buying food.

This illustrates exactly why no matter how “Deaf” a hearing person may be or feel, that person will never have firsthand knowledge of the tension or even fear we have when we are in a situation involving communication. They can empathize, of course, but it’s a completely different experience when you’re actually living 24 hours a day as a Deaf person.

Another reason I bristle at DEAF-HEART is that it seems as if this is yet another way to try and gain entrance to the core of our community. Can you imagine telling someone, “That [white American] interpreter has ASIAN-HEART”? While it obviously is meant to be complimentary, it’s really not.

This is the crux of the problem for me: how interpreters consistently and continuously try to be as integrated into the Deaf community as they possibly can be. I can’t count how many times an interpreter or ASL student has excitedly said to me, “Wow! That person thought I was Deaf or had Deaf parents!” as if this was the highest praise available. And of course there are those who say, “That interpreter really does have a DEAF-HEART.” To me, this is an example of cultural appropriation—even if unintentional. I also recognize that many Deaf people promote this phrase without understanding the weight it holds. One Deaf interpreter said, “DEAF-HEART is like branding. By gaining this label, you’re branded ‘in’ with Deaf people.”

John, my friend, added, “To me, DEAF-HEART has a negative connotation because it implies that one does ‘goodwill.’ We do not need their goodwill, we need them to respect us and treat us equally.  That’s it. Why isn’t having our respect enough?  Why do we need to reward hearing people, who represent the majority, by giving them a name like DEAF-HEART when they are supposed to respect our culture and language, anyway?”

Yet it seems many hearing interpreters and deaf people have become enamored with the idea that it is necessary to be as Deaf as possible to be accepted in the Deaf community. This is not appropriate, nor true. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being an outsider who supports the Deaf community. You may ask, “But what about trust? How can we gain Deaf people’s trust?”

Ah, but there’s a word for this: ally. I think this word is so much more powerful than DEAF-HEART. Ally has been in use for years, and for good reason; most dictionaries define it as coming together for a common cause or purpose and in mutual respect.

One can be an ally and have access to the community by practicing that word’s meaning to the highest standards possible. John added, “To be a true ally, people have to practice humility, which means they do not tell Deaf people they have gotten our respect or share the praises they get from us. Humility and respect are what makes them true allies.”

Exactly. And that’s why I will always choose to work with someone who is sincerely an ally rather than someone who supposedly has DEAF-HEART, because to me, a genuine ally means someone who actually works with you to make something happen, shows respect, and understands better than anyone else that this is your experience.

Copyrighted material, used by permission. This article can not be copied, reproduced, or redistributed without the written consent of the author.

To Lead or Not to Lead? Sharing Power in the Field of Interpreting

This article originally appeared in the spring/summer 2014 issue of the RID VIEWS (Volume 31, Issue 2).

View it as a PDF file: Suggs-Bowen_Article.pdf

By Doug Bowen-Bailey, CI/CT, and Trudy Suggs, CDI

In the field of interpreting, a critical question is how to share power in leadership. While interpreters might often think of this at the organizational level, they also need to see this power-sharing method in daily practice.

As certified interpreters, we have worked together on many projects. We are also both passionate about language, both written and signed. In our partnership, we frequently have had to navigate ways to share power as a hearing person and a deaf person. Our work, however, often focuses on much broader issues than linguistics.

One such example of power-sharing becoming an issue emerged during a video project where we worked with a hearing project manager in creating an ASL version of an English-based curriculum. The project manager did not sign and was relatively new to the deaf community, although he had worked on other deaf community projects in the past. He had tremendously good intentions and was very committed to access. Yet at the beginning of this collaboration, he frequently communicated via telephone with Doug on project details, and Doug would then let Trudy know of the conversations. The conversations were rarely long or substantive, but they put Doug in the role of gatekeeper. As a result, Trudy responded to ideas rather than helping to create them, a significant shift since it was Trudy who had initially advocated for Doug’s involvement in this project.

After a few times, Trudy expressed a bit of concern about this process. Doug agreed, especially since he had also noted this pattern. Together, they determined that using a text-based online meeting platform would allow everyone to have equal access (with the added benefit of having a transcript for notes). Also discussed was who should propose this idea to the project manager; we decided that Doug should do it because, as a hearing person, there was less risk that he would be perceived negatively for challenging a hearing norm. Doug then offered this alternative to the project manager, pointing out the barriers created by the phone calls. The project manager quickly agreed, and the text chat turned out to be very successful in allowing all parties to more fully contribute.

Such instances often are so subtle that they don’t appear as clear delineations of power, but over time, they can become leadership challenges. In exploring such daily opportunities for sharing power, a better understanding of leadership can be achieved. We don’t intend to lift up our choices as the ideal model; however, there are principles in how we responded that may be helpful. The steps in that process consisted of:

  • Understanding the power of gatekeeping
  • Committing to shared decision-making
  • Analyzing the dynamics of power and risk
  • Creating a joint plan of action

Understanding the Power of Gatekeeping

It is important to look at the function and power of gatekeeping. In this example, gatekeeper meant being in a position to allow access to a system or institution. Initially, Trudy was the gatekeeper for Doug by advocating for his involvement in the project. However, in American dominant hearing culture, society is much more comfortable with hearing people in the role of gatekeeper. Whether rooted in audism, or in the ease that many find in communicating through spoken English, or a combination of both, Doug quickly became the gatekeeper.

In an August 2014 interview, Jimmy Beldon identified in the dynamics of opportunities for hearing and deaf interpreters:

…sometimes CDIs will see doors open and invite a hearing interpreter to work — in a team. But then the hearing interpreter walks ahead and goes through the door alone, leaving the CDI behind. When the hearing interpreter enters alone, it means that interpreter starts building a relationship with people and with clients while also building skills. As typically is the case, when people build skills, they naturally become leaders and accept leadership roles.

Such a pattern leads to a power imbalance. Fortunately, we were able to recognize this dynamic in that particular project and managed it in a way that did not leave either of us behind. In fact, for certain projects, it has been critical for Trudy serve as gatekeeper. For example, we have needed to recruit talent who are Deaf and fluent in ASL. Her understanding of and relationships within the Deaf community make her much more effective in this role than Doug can be.

Valuing the Wisdom of the Deaf Experience

A common approach to making decisions about deaf people is to simply exclude them and determine, based on various altruistic and systematic values, what is “best” for them. As discussed in Trudy’s Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter presentation for Street Leverage, disempowerment is the taking away of power. She shares examples of how everyday disempowerment happens at minuscule, yet influential, levels. This, in turn, creates a cycle of situational disempowerment and economic disempowerment — thereby continuing the (unintentional and intentional) oppression of deaf people in every facet of their lives.

In the aforementioned project, Doug’s moving into the gatekeeper role certainly could have had economic consequences. If Doug had ignored or minimized Trudy’s concerns, he could have gone on to build relationships that led to further projects for him while leaving Trudy behind, creating economic and situational disempowerment.

In her StreetLeverage presentation, Trudy pointed out some other approaches:

By refusing to control situations, by deferring to the deaf person whenever appropriate, by allowing the consumers to control the situation, and by ensuring that you don’t speak on behalf of the entire deaf community especially if you’re hearing—you can take steps towards ensuring that deaf people retain their power while you do your job. (Suggs, 2012b)

The idea of hearing people deferring to deaf people is not done out of pity or patronization. The justification for it is not that deaf people have experienced oppression, so therefore hearing interpreters should simply back off. Rather, it comes from a valuing of the wisdom that comes from Deaf epistemology, which is defined as “the nature and extent of the knowledge that deaf individuals acquire growing up in a society that relies primarily on audition to navigate life” (Hauser et al., 2010, p. 486).   In other words, the experience of being deaf in a hearing world provides insights that hearing interpreters can’t have access to unless they are open to following deaf people’s lead.

Another deaf-hearing team experience showcases this deference as a key step. Nic Zapko and Patty Gordon are the creators of StoryBlend, an immersion experience that uses theater to build ASL and interpreting skills. Nic, who is deaf, and Patty, who is hearing, have noticed a consistent dynamic in the process as it moves from the first to the second week. Initially, all interactions are in ASL. By the second week, participants begin to work on translating ASL into English. At some point, the atmosphere shifts from being Deaf-centric to hearing-centric. Nic was the first to notice this; in fact, Patty states that she often doesn’t see or sense it until Nic points it out. She has learned to defer to Nic’s identification of the shift so that it can be addressed for the benefit of all involved with StoryBlend.

Analyzing the Dynamics of Power and Risk

In identifying issues related to leadership and power-sharing, the next step is to make an assessment of the dynamics of power and risk. Valuing the wisdom of and deferring to the leadership of deaf people does not mean that hearing interpreters can, or should, simply step back from taking action or responsibility. In some situations, a deaf person may provide the insight and leadership, but it may be too risky to be the point person in carrying out an action. Consequently, a hearing interpreter may serve that purpose as an ally. This does not mean that the deaf person is giving up power to someone with privilege. Rather, taking an honest assessment of the dynamics of the situation helps figure out the best way to address how to achieve an objective with the least risk.

In the initial example with the project manager, we determined that Doug had less to risk in challenging the hearing norm of phone conversations. One of the ironies of hearing privilege is that hearing people can often bring forward the exact same critique of a situation and be perceived as insightful, whereas a deaf person may be perceived as militant, divisive, or angry.   Trudy shared an example of this labeling in another StreetLeverage presentation (Suggs, 2012a). In that situation, the deaf people involved were simply sharing experiences, yet they were perceived as venting, divisive and angry. (It’s also important to note that anger can be a legitimate response to experiences of oppression and using such labels can be expressions of privilege.)

The dynamics of audism often means the risk can be even more subtle. To use a non-interpreting example, Oprah Winfrey was denied access to a store in Paris. She felt that she had been discriminated against because she was black. The store claimed that they were setting up for a private party and couldn’t let her in. Tim Wise suggests that the reason doesn’t matter. What is more significant is that “Oprah Winfrey, with all her money, all her power, and all her influence, still had to wonder, even if only for a moment, whether her race had trumped all that in the eyes of another person” (Wise, 2008, p. 72). Deaf people frequently have similar thoughts and experiences when encountering systems and institutions that favor the ability to hear, or hearing privilege. No matter how competent or powerful those individuals are, the risk of encountering doubt and insecurity is simply a part of living in a hearing-dominated society.

In this context, there may be situations where it seems too risky for a deaf person to be the lead, such as a deaf-hearing interpreting team. If a CDI brings forward a concern to an agency, the agency may view the deaf interpreter as the problem, choosing in the future to hire only hearing interpreters because they are perceived as safe. In addition, while being deaf in a hearing world can provide wisdom and insight, it also can be exhausting. At times, it makes sense for hearing interpreters to serve as allies in taking action. Yet, this is not a decision that hearing interpreters should make without deferring to the deaf interpreters.

Creating a Joint Plan of Action

If the team decides that the hearing interpreter is to take the lead, this should always be part of a joint plan. With the project manager, it made sense for Doug to raise the concern, but it didn’t mean that he acted on his own or that Trudy somehow ceded power to a privileged white, male, hearing interpreter. While in many respects, Trudy provided the leadership in the situation with insight into what was taking place and how to address the situation, Doug still could share his perspectives.

After an action is carried out, it is vital to evaluate the consequences. Throughout the project and even today, we continued to have conversations about the dynamics of interactions. Such a sharing of power is not something can simply be checked off a list. It is a continuing process.

Although such a process can consume energy and requires commitment, the upside is that sharing power does not have to be a zero-sum equation. Deaf people exercising their power do not diminish hearing interpreters’ power. Working together to create a plan of action that takes into account the value of deaf people’s experiences and the dynamics of a situation can be of benefit to all involved.

Beldon, in his interview, ended with an encouraging point in thinking about deaf-hearing interpreting teams:

Hearing interpreters have to help, serve as allies, and promote CDIs as team members. Share the message that it will ensure equivalent messages. It’s about deaf people’s language. Hearing interpreters can do their thing, and let the CDIs do theirs. It’s beautiful.

Deaf and hearing people working together in everyday situations to share leadership and power is just as beautiful, and well worth the energy to make it happen.


Beldon, J. (2014, Spring/Summer). Opening the door to CDI leadership. VIEWS. (no page number)

Hauser, P., O’Hearn, A., McKee, M., Steider, A., and Thew, D. (2010). Deaf epistemology: Deafhood and deafness. American Annals of the Deaf, 154(5), 486-492.

Suggs, T. (2012a, August 7). A deaf perspective: Cultural respect in sign language interpreting. Retrieved from cultural-respect-in-sign-language-interpreting

Suggs, T. (2012b, December 11). Deaf disempowerment and today’s interpreter. Retrieved from

Wise, T. (2008). White like me: Reflections on race from a privileged son. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press.

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Workshop: June 29, 2013 | Think of a Word, Quick! (New Jersey RID)

Think of a Word, Quick! 
New Jersey Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Eatontown, NJ

Trudy’s thoughts:

This workshop was filled to capacity, much to my happiness. It’s is one I have taught since 2000 in at least 25 locations around the nation.

Although the workshop has evolved over the years, the basic premise is always the same: use it or lose it. What I emphasize in this workshop is that one must use language in order to expand it. This seems like a no-brainer, but too many approach this from an academic standpoint rather than an everyday, basic perspective. To help drive this point home, I provide hands-on activities that help expand interpreters’ ASL and English vocabularies.  They’re activities that can be done anywhere, whether it be at home, on the train going somewhere, or even waiting at an appointment. They are such basic activities that I do all the time for my language development and expansion, because they really do work.

It’s also fascinated me to see how the very same reactions to the activities I present take place every time I do this workshop. It’s a wonderful sociological observation for me, and I always learn so much from those responses and coping strategies (because people who have attended my workshops know I never make the activities too easy–that’d completely defeat the point, right?).

This workshop is my all-time favorite workshop, and I hope to present it for many years to come.   Many thanks to the NJRID participants who made it so much fun, and especially for their kind words, openness, and willingness to discuss stumbling blocks in their interpreting work.

Evaluation comments:

Enjoyable. A combination of education and fun.

Excellent, and enjoyed the safe, fun environment.

Would love to have her back for a full workshop.

Hands down, one of the best workshops I’ve attended in a long time. Helped expand my thought process, made me think outside my habitual box, and made me laugh!

Great! So funny! Love your humor! Thanks.

Great workshop and practice I can use at home.

Good activities. They were fun!

Loved this workshop!! Would love an all-day version!!!

Workshop: June 29, 2013 | Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter (New Jersey RID)

Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter 
New Jersey Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Eatontown, NJ

Trudy’s thoughts:

This group was one of the most attentive, open-minded and supportive groups I’ve ever worked with. I felt so welcomed, and that really helped set the tone for me. And the group was incredibly gracious about my shameful vice: Real Housewives of New Jersey. Such kind people, indeed.

This was a bit different from previous Deaf Disempowerment presentations I had done. Usually, I do a 30-minute presentation, then the participants choose whether to attend the follow-up workshop (which takes on a think-tank format) or the other workshops the conference offers. This time, I was asked to incorporate both the presentation and workshop into a two-hour format, with all conference participants present.

An interesting challenge was that the room was a good size, but not in the right direction. The room was more wide than long, so people were on either side of me–which made for some challenging sight lines at times. My neck actually hurt from having to swivel from left to right so much.  Even so, the overall experience was very positive, and I credit the audience for this. A lot of great questions were asked, and they will be used to tweak future combined presentation-and-workshop events.

Evaluation comments:

Very excellent! Great workshop! The presenters were wonderful, knowledgeable, and professional. Thank you!

Her presentation style was excellent. Truly enjoyed her explanation and teaching style.

Excellent examples. Extremely important topic!

This would be great as an all-day workshop, open and great discussion on topics, would be great to have her back to NJ for an all-day workshop.

Gave me great tools to use to keep evaluating myself, my role and my work. Thank you for highlighting areas for me to watch out…always better to do that than regret in hindsight!

Very open feelings to presentation, not judgmental but mature perspective.

Real-life examples make our own work relevant. Sometimes I ask myself, “Could this situation ever come up in a workshop?”

Fabulous – really got to the meat of the “little indignities” that Deaf people face everyday.

Fantastic! Truly will inspire more thought and discussion on topic. Thank you!!

Workshop: June 8, 2013 | In Search of Interpreter Heart (Minnesota RID)

In Search of Interpreter Heart
(co-presented with Doug Bowen-Bailey and Paula Gajewski-Mickelson)
Minnesota Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, St. Paul, MN

Trudy’s thoughts:

This was a last-minute request that turned out wonderfully, especially with us co-presenting together for the first time. With nearly 40 people in attendance at the MRID spring conference, Doug, Paula and I were thrilled with the overall atmosphere, participants’ open minds and everybody’s honest exploration of different topics within the Deaf and interpreter communities. What I especially liked was the opportunity to interact with participants and listening to their experiences and perspectives. One of the best parts for me was when we went into the ethical decision-making circles, which consisted of anywhere from five to ten people per circle. The first thing Paula had us do was write down our top three values–not work values, but overall values in our professional and personal lives. We had to then choose the top one out of our list. It was harder than I anticipated, because I had so many that I couldn’t figure out which ones to choose. We then shared our top value with each other, and that provided me with such a major insight into each circle participant’s perspectives and even life experiences. That was a great activity.

We three are already refining our presentation and are eager to present this again. I was, and am, honored to work with Doug and Paula especially because they are two of the most sincere, committed and fun allies I know.

Evaluation comments:

Thank you! One of the best workshops I’ve ever been to! Please offer it again for those who missed it today.

Great workshop! The presenters were wonderful, knowledgeable, and professional. Thank you!