Black-and-white rainbows: Learning from Deaf people

Chip Green (2003).

A rainbow that is half black and white

(The image above is modified from, which is no longer extant.)

The title means that I don't see the world as black-and-white. Deaf culture, professional interpreting, ASL, and so many topics we discuss have too many variables to be nailed down. Few "cultural characteristics" apply to a majority of deaf people. "It depends" is raised to a surrealistic level in interpreting; no single metaphor for interpreting really works well. ASL is a creative language, and the "rules" can be taught too absolutely for my liking; creativity can be stifled.

Some people do try to make things black-and-white, and that diminishes us as a profession in the world where I work. One INVALUABLE asset for learning sign language, ASL, or interpreting from Deaf people is this: the hearing person is lower in the social hierarchy than the D/deaf person.

Sounds simple.

I, like some other writers, started very young. I have a Deaf couple I call my "Deaf Mom and Deaf Dad." They took an interest in me when I was a child. There were many times when I, because I was a child, was submitted to their leadership. That fact gave me the basis for the attitudes I carry with me today. They were intelligent, articulate, and self-determining. When I "interpreted" for them, they treated it as a favor, always expressed gratitude, and did not take advantage of my hearing.

Sam's advice on subjects like "women" and "dating" was better than my real dad's. I learned to respect him for his wisdom. He and Clara demonstrated a lot of Deaf Values in the way they ran their lives, but I was a youngster, and, although I thought their thinking odd, I had to go along with it. Today, one can graduate from an ITP, enter the field of interpreting, and become a decision-maker over D/deaf people without ever having to be "trained" by the experience of following Deaf leadership. Some of us started on the bottom rung and moved up as the culture validated our leadership, including interpreting.

They dismissed us, black-listed us, and hated us when we violated some cultural more. They, however, adored us, used us exclusively, gave us tips (wisdom and finances) and rewarded us when our attitudes, styles, and "professionalism" were what THEY affirmed. We learned! Boy! Did we learn! ... what Deaf people wanted. We were not always TAUGHT: we CAUGHT the values and either responded to them or didn't work.

Today the paradigm has changed and Deaf opinion is diminished. Today, one can go to an ITP, pass some state or national test, maybe get licensed, and enter each interpreting situation on a rung HIGHER than D/deaf people. One can "educate" Deaf consumers: "I'm a professionally trained interpreter; I'm trained to assess the situation and make choices; here is the proper way for you to use me." New interpreters may have no incentive to learn how to interpret from Deaf people because of a power shift. Some of us had to find a way to be approved by the Deaf Community, or we didn't work. The SOURCE of our income was resident in the Deaf Community, and our goal was to "pass the test" with them. Power to determine who would interpret belonged to Deaf people.

Today, the SOURCE of the approval is most commonly RID, hearing people. It's a new power center. One now feels a need to be approved by RID, or he won't work. The SOURCE of income is resident in certification by hearing people and folks bust their butt to pass the test with them. Power to determine who can interpret now belongs to hearing people. And it's easy to bypass the old power source. No need to validate that one; you'll easily get jobs without ever even looking in that direction. If hearing people say you're qualified to work -- you work.

Something needs to be said for those that want to interpret at some of the most intimate moments of a Deaf person's life, counseling, grief, terminal illness, litigation of an embarrassing nature. You'll compromise, in my opinion, the dynamics if you don't show the status markers of someone who has earned her stripes, gotten AND SUSTAINED, approval from Deaf people. It's one of the only places I disagee with James. I would NOT support a meeting where the interpreters, socially posturing above Deaf people, have a meeting to train Deaf people in how to properly use interpreters. I WOULD, however, advocate for meetings where interpreters meet with Deaf people and assume a posture below them, the posture of a student, just to listen, listen, listen, to what THEY applaud in interpreters.

As a great example: ALL of the research I've seen for the past thirty years mentions that Deaf people want interpreters that either "have a good attitude," "are trustworthy," or "can read (and respect) my language." We KNOW that Deaf people want those characteristics. But, although not many people are recognizing it, interpreters may tend to set aside Deaf preferences, the heartland Deaf opinion, to make the new "cause celebre" getting college degrees. It has the taint of a subtle disrespect for Deaf Culture values. Do D/deaf people care? If they do, how MUCH do they care? If Deaf people you know do want interpreters with college degrees, how widespread is that? Is it an indigenous cultural value?

Maybe not.

If their preferences are "attitude," and "reputation," what are we doing to insure interpreting students make THAT a priority as strong in their thinking as Deaf people are in theirs. Can we make college degrees as strong (or as weak) as Deaf people want them to be. Can we define the value system of Deaf Culture and make our training, and then our behavior, congruent with that.

My opinion? The best interpreters reflect Deaf values, at least externally. Of course, one advances a great deal by further study. Of course! Getting a degree is an important milestone that intrinsically has great value. I passionately support furthering one's education. But...

Getting degrees may be something that advances our credibility as professionals with Hearing people; they may be duly impressed. It may be seen as a hearing culture value. On the other hand, I'm not so sure it's going to be a selling-point with a bunch of Deaf leaders whom I serve. One you see past the "cause celebre" you may still find D/deaf people who want -- more than college degrees -- "good attitude," "trustworthiness," and "ability to read ASL." I doubt those values have changed.