True Allies

This article originally appeared at

I’ve never felt as deaf and alone as I did a few weekends ago.

That’s because I was at the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Region III conference in Milwaukee. The conference itself was fabulous and the workshops were terrific. The committee must be applauded for pulling off such a well-coordinated conference.

There were signs everywhere reminding people that they should use American Sign Language (ASL) (which I think is perplexing — shouldn’t this be automatically the case in any situation involving deaf people or ASL? But that’s another article). The majority of attendees, of course, were hearing interpreters, although there were quite a few deaf people in attendance — like me, a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI), and others who were supporters/allies of the interpreting community.

I’ve been to many RID events, sometimes as a presenter and sometimes as a participant. They’re an enjoyable way to see how far the interpreting profession has come, and a terrific place for me to learn new things about ASL and English. But this one was where I felt the loneliest in my life.

I arrived in Milwaukee on Thursday afternoon, and made my way into a workshop room. As I sat at the end of a row by the doors, five people — I counted — began to sit in the seats next to me. As they squeezed their way by me, they each spoke, “Excuse me.” None of them signed.

Later I walked the hallways browsing exhibits and looking for people I knew. I saw not one single person signing, except for deaf people. I sat down and watched all the conversations from afar. I couldn’t understand a thing because nobody was signing. It was the same on Friday. On Saturday, when I was again in the hallway, one of the exhibitors bumped into me and spoke , “I’m sorry!….blahblahblah.” I looked at his lips, analyzing how they looked while moving. When he had finished speaking a full minute later, I signed, “Maybe you’d like to sign that? I’m deaf.” His eyes widened, and his mouth formed a small “o” before he signed, “I’m so sorry!” I smiled, nodded and walked on.

I talked with several interpreters about this lack of access to communication. Most of them said, “Yeah, that’s what always happens at RID, although it’s usually not this bad.” I had a healthy dialogue with several of them, discussing about when it was necessary to sign and when it wasn’t. I don’t think it’s necessary for people to sign at all times if deaf people aren’t present. But how do they know if a deaf person is there? If you didn’t know me, you likely would not have known I was deaf at that conference. Yet, I didn’t sign because I didn’t know who signed other than the deaf people there. It was almost a catch-22 situation.

At a forum during the conference, deaf people were asked how we felt about the conference. I said I felt absolutely left out, and one of the few hearing interpreters in attendance looked guilty and shocked. Another deaf person said, “In this room, I’m normal. In that hallway, I have no arms because nobody is signing.” The shocked interpreter teared up as she said, “I’m so sorry. When I’m at these conferences, I see old friends and forget immediately about signing. I feel so awful.” An hour later, I saw her speaking to another interpreter without signing, even though a deaf person was within five feet.

A week later, I went to a five-day, intensive legal interpreting workshop. Again, the presenter, and the workshop coordination were fabulous. When the sponsoring agency let me know that this workshop was taking place, I immediately signed up. I then asked about interpreters. “You don’t need an interpreter; the workshop is going to be conducted in ASL only,” I was told.

I was thrilled. Upon arrival, I was disappointed to learn that the other CDI had backed out, making me the only deaf person out of about 30 interpreters. The presenter announced the communication policy, saying that in small groups, people could speak if there was no need to sign (translation: if I wasn’t in the group, they could speak). That was fair enough. I didn’t really want people to sign all the time just for the sake of signing if nobody deaf was there. One of the participants — a long-time community interpreter notorious for habitually signing and speaking at the same time — raised his hand and signed-spoke, “Can we sign and speak at the same time?”

The presenter said to him, “When you tell people that you interpret two languages — ASL and English — and that they’re separate languages, yet you sim-com, you’re contradicting yourself and not giving full credit to the languages.” I stood up and said, “I literally can’t understand when people sign and speak at the same time. I prefer one language at a time. If you prefer to speak, that’s fine, we can work with an interpreter.”

A few days later, one of the participants, a CODA who always signed in my presence — which made me gain so much respect for him — notified me that several interpreters were complaining about how I “demanded” that ASL be used at all times. They thought it was unfair that the entire workshop revolved around my communication needs. I was hurt, because this rule was established by the presenter before I signed up. Besides, as the presenter said, if they wanted to work in legal settings, they’d better be ready to use sign language for days on end.

I also, uncomfortably, had to often politely remind people not to use their voices during small groups, or I had to ask someone to interpret for me. I felt frustrated that I had to ask interpreters, of all people, to accommodate my communication needs when a policy had already been established by the organizers. They had the option of using one or the other language; I did not. Some of them asked me to join them at lunch or after the workshop for drinks, but I always declined, because I knew I’d be the factor that messed up their communication styles. It’s similar to when deaf people go out; it’s just easier for us to be together without having a person not fluent at our language be part of our group.

When I was told of the interpreters’ comments, I realized just how far we have not come in the interpreting profession. There is still that level of disrespect towards deaf people, and this realization is heartbreaking. Interpreters are such valuable allies, such assets to our community.

Even though I felt left out and even ostracized, there were some good things that evolved from these experiences. At both events, I learned who the true allies of our community were. They were interpreters who respected my experiences, my language needs, and my position as a deaf person. They went out of their way to accommodate my communication needs, knowing that I would work around theirs as well. It was a marvelous feeling to see these interpreters who had the right attitudes and levels of respect for such a fragile yet strong community, culture and language.

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