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.”

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Comments

  1. Joanna Witulski says:

    All I can say at this time is ‘WOW’ and ‘ME SURPRISED…NOT’

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this. As someone training to be an interpreter, your thoughts are beyond valuable and educational for me. I must understand different perspectives, and rely on blogs like this to learn from. Thank you for sharing!

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