The Cost of Not Having an Interpreter, or the Loss of Alfred Weinrib

Sign language interpreters — most that I know, anyway — place a great deal of emphasis on professional qualifications and excellent skills. So when we see an incident like the fake interpreter at Mandela’s ceremony or the substandard services provided at the Seattle Men’s Chorus performances, we are outraged even when we are not necessarily surprised. Many of us are aware of the daily injuries that Deaf individuals face in the area of language access. We have seen other interpreters provide not-quite-100% access. If we are honest, we know that we have all had moments where we wanted our best to be much better.

To worry about the quality of sign language services implies that a sign language interpreter — or someone getting paid as one — is present. Just as dangerous, if not more so, are the thousands of moments where no interpreter is provided in the first place. The difference is, it is often much more difficult to identify when no interpreter is provided at all. It is difficult to do a survey of an absence. (“Please rate the quality of the interpreter not provided to you on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being unacceptable and 5 being excellent.”) And it is also difficult because these situations are often the result of more institutional problems outside of the interpreting field directly. But these situations still exist, and none more heart-breaking than a story I read today about Alfred.

Alfred Weinrib. You might not know his name. But Winthrop University Hospital, Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, and Good Samaritan Hospital should never forget the name of the man whom they failed to give even basic access to medical counsel by refusing to provide interpreting services. There is at least some indication that the timing of his death may have been different if he would have been able to understand his condition and his medical options. According to the NYPost, the family has filed a lawsuit against several of the medical service providers. You can see part of the actual filing here.

Now, I don’t want to be in the business of rating injustices. Injustice is injustice. But in my mind, if I were thinking about industry-wide priorities, I think a vigorous defense of the right to interpreters in medical situations is near the top. Compared to the media attention around the Mandela memorial service, Mr. Weinrib and his family will probably not attract the attention of international dignitaries, receive newspaper headlines, or be interviewed on national TV. But the situation strikes me as no less urgent. In fact, it is upon us to make this injustice perhaps even more urgent, for the lack of care under medical supervision is a heinous and egregious abuse.

What should interpreters do to respond to situations such as this? What strategies and tactics should our professional organizations use to defend the right to access to interpreters? How can one stand with the Weinrib family through the case?

I don’t have answers. Like any family, we may argue among ourselves about what kind of family we want to be. But when things like this happen, I hope we can muster the solidarity to speak with power against these pathetic abuses of human rights. And I also hope that we can extend this lesson to ourselves, too, and see the need to promote the rights of Deaf individuals in our profession.


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