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.

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 http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/08/a-deaf-perspective- cultural-respect-in-sign-language-interpreting

Suggs, T. (2012b, December 11). Deaf disempowerment and today’s interpreter. Retrieved from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/12/deaf-disempowerment-and-todays-interpreter

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

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