X-Factor plus.

Tim Kinsella

A colleague who had not attended the Allies conferences wrote, saying he did not understand this "Allies business" it seems like just an updated version of the old helper model," and asked if I could explain what I had learned about the ally model. This was my reply:

Dear Colleague;

First, just to give the usual caveats. I don't hold myself up in any fashion as qualified to give a definitive view of this ally vs. advocate vs. helper issue. More than anything I realize how much I *don't* know, and realize that what I understand to be true may indeed be false and guided by my own understanding of the world, solely, rather than that of others. There may be others on the list who are far more credentialled, in life as well as more formally, to respond to this question.  So, with that in mind, let me ramble a bit on this issue and see what surfaces.

You called it "this Allies business".  I like that, because I think it's misguided in some ways to call it a model, as if there were some set of guidelines that one could follow and thus be a more effective interpreter.  In regard to the term itself, it's not without controversy.  During the first evening of the 2nd Allies meeting in Nashua, there was much frank talk about whether the term was appropriate.  Deaf people, in particular, found it somewhat suspect.  Harkening back to their high school classes and lessons of WWII, they didn't quite see the relationship between what essentially were treaty-like arrangements between sovereign nations, and the relationship that interpreters and the Deaf community were trying to address.

They also--as they have time and again--railed about hearing folks (in this case, interpreters) inventing a term without regard for what Deaf people feel about it.  A subtle means by which the colonizer controls the colonized.  And even more pointedly, one Deaf man, Alec Naiman from NY, stood up and said (loose translation here), "The Americans and French were Allies during the war.  American soldiers went to Europe to die alongside Frenchmen on the battlefields.  If you are, as you say, our *allies*, are you willing to, or do you, die beside us?  Deaf people are dying on 'battlefields' every day!"

As the weekend progressed, more often than not people referred to this "Allies business" as the x factor, that quality by which Deaf people defined the good, or skillful interpreter, the preferred interpreter, the person who has earned their trust.   And we struggled to come to some definition of what that was, without ever really achieving a comprehensive sense of such a characteristic.  One thing that has remained with me--and helps me distinguish this quality from those we consider to describe the *helper*--was an openness to the concept of at all times recognizing opportunities for Deaf people, individually and as a community, to take the lead in decisionmaking about the course of their lives. to walk behind or beside rather than grasping control at every instance and defining the situation and its results, subtly or overtly, for them.

Still, there are ways to reconcile this English word--allies--or the concept behind it, with what I believe Deaf people wish us to be.  An alliance, my dictionary says, is a relationship by union of qualities, an affinity or kinship marked by community of interest.  So, if I wish to ally myself to any group, it makes sense that I would have common interests and common qualities as that group, even if I may not necessarily qualify as a member.  Certainly one would hope that this were true of interpreters vis a vis Deaf people.  At the same Allies conference, Deaf people and Codas asked us, "Why are you here?  Why are you associating among the members of this community?"

It is a question that is plain, yet complex all at once.  Because it asks us to be straightforward about our intentions.  If we intend to be more than allies in word, then shouldn't our actions, our beliefs, and our understanding be informed by the same language, manner, social norms, and visual perception of the world as theirs?  Impossible on the one hand because we are raised hearing, yet still possible to more closely embrace than we have.  And this sort of affinity, if you will, is directly in conflict with the helper model, which presupposes an incapacity at some level that must be "helped".  Many of the motives that have led people --non-native and "strangers" to the community-- to become interpreters have been founded upon a corrupt vision of who Deaf people are, and a dismissal of their capabilities as equal partners in life and society.  So Deaf people challenge our position and role in their lives, because so often our relationship to the community is, at the least, misguided, and at worst, dysfunctional from their point of view.

If we are to ally ourselves to ASL users and their community in a more positive fashion, then it means a more functional, humane and interpersonal relationship--not a relationship defined from a medical or provider/client perspective.  It means more than lip service to the idea that ASL is a legitimate language derived from a legitimate culture, and a true acceptance that the Deaf world and way of life is equally as valid as is our own.  The machine model and telephone/bridge-type metaphors overlooked the intimate link between a language and its culture, partly due to the fact that hearing people overlooked the fact that a culture existed.  I agree when Betty Colonomos says that such an approach or model was deficient because it actually was too focused on product, without recognizing the dynamics of interpersonal communication, and particularly cross-cultural communication between two communities that are not functioning on an even playing field.  It was thought that if one could spit out the signs, or the English words while interpreting, that the deed was done and we could walk away from the job satisfied that we had done some good.  And yet, and yet. Deaf people were (and still are) "dying on the battlefields".

With a better understanding of Deaf culture and what it entails, we realize that it is only when we navigate the Deaf World with an open heart and great respect that we begin to develop real relationships and connections to that community.  It is then that we truly begin to bridge the distances between our respective cultures' difference, and approximate the language use necessary to be an effective and respected interpreter to Deaf people.  I believe that the way we fashioned the practice of our profession has thrown real obstacles to becoming skillful users of ASL and "mediators" between the two cultures.  It is only through allying ourselves, through developing a true affinity, that we can nurture that "x factor" so necessary to be successful.

Culture and language are rivers, ever changing & flowing. a dynamic process expressed by their communities' users.  Standing outside, and offering help. being merely a link, or piece of machinery. these things keep us separate.  And, to me, separateness clouds our understanding.  To effectively flow with the river, we must jump in, and try our best to swim.  Because we are not native to the river, we'll make our mistakes, fight the current, get stuck in a snag or swept to the sandbars near the banks.  There is also the danger of immersing oneself and drowning.  But if we trust in the river to hold us up and guide us downstream, we just might have the good fortune to glide along.  And that's what I'm hoping and trying to do.

Does that help??

Tim K.