Making Research Count 2 – About Me

Images Explained

  1. About Me: This includes two photographs that I’ve taken, the first from Toronto (one of my favorite cities ever), and the second from a sadly decaying house in rural Ohio.
  2. How many?: I learned ASL alongside newly enrolled Deaf children. Here’s me trying to sign “HOW MANY?” as in “How many toy elephants are there?” – which, if you’re five years old and don’t know ASL just looks like “Please take these toys and throw them in the air!” Which the endearing student did immediately.
  3. Deaf Geography: This is from our sessions on Deaf Geography at the AAG in New York City. A beautiful mess of language: hearing people, Deaf people, Deaf people who sign ASL and BSL (British) and QSL (Québéçois) and Turkish Sign Language… some hearing people can speak to each other but can’t sign to each other, some hearing people who can’t speak to each other (different spoken languages) but can sign to each other, some Deaf people interpreting between hearing people… just wonderful! The person on the right is an excellent CDI who was fantastic at working between BSL and ASL.

About Me

I live in Columbus, Ohio. Even though I work as an interpreter, interpreting has never been my main connection to the Deaf community. My first involvement in the community was as a dorm counselor and classroom aid in a school in Puerto Rico. It was here that I developed a passion for language, communication, and cultural context. When I moved back to Ohio I enrolled in an ITP and graduated in 2006. I eventually went on to study chemistry and geography at Ohio State University. I was later accepted into a combined MA/PhD track in geography in 2009, where my research on U.S. immigration enforcement is driven by an interest in space, power, and law. I have had the experience to work with other Deaf and hearing graduate students and faculty who are thinking through the relationship between the Deaf community, space, and language. My own goal in this project has been to assess the ways that the Deaf community is imagined and represented in interpreting texts, and how this shapes interpreters’ behaviors.


Flashback: Does anyone remember Laurent, South Dakota?

When I moved back to Ohio in 2004, I remember hearing a lot about Laurent, South Dakota. Laurent was intended to be a planned community near Sioux Falls where American Sign Language would be held on par with English and where Deaf and hard-of-hearing families would be welcomed. It didn’t work out. Laurent failed to materialize. But that doesn’t mean Laurent was a failure. We should remember Van Cleve and Crouch’s research on Deaf communities in the U.S. in their excellent book  A Place of Their Own. These planned (but never executed) towns have symbolic value within the Deaf community as an “imagined community” in the flavor of Benedict Anderson. (See previous post on this topic.) They are the imaginary geographic solution to the everyday existential distances experienced by many Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. You can see a timeline compiled by DeafWeekly here, and some images below from the original plans.

Just for fun, what elements of the town plans signal that this is a “Deaf town”?





Apache ASL Trails and the Problem of Deaf Space


Apache ASL Trails* is an independent living center in Arizona, one of the few places for sign language users to retire with others who speak the same language. Apache was built in part with stimulus money and opened in 2011 with 75 apartments and a suite of amenities. Early last year (2013), the federal department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) decided to investigate Apache (a story also covered by Limping Chicken) claiming that the complex violated what seems to be fair housing law by specializing in a single “disability”. Here’s what I think this means: if you take federal money for disability-related residential construction you can’t make those homes specifically for individuals who are deaf, autistic, of any other federal category of disability. Just  last week, HUD exercised discretion and dropped their investigation and it looks like Apache will be free – for now – to run the living center as intended. In my view, this is definitely the right choice for HUD and for Apache, although no one should consider the legal problems resolved. An aggressive (or bored) HUD director could cause more trouble for Apache in the future.

While the storm seems to have blown over, I though this an opportune time to reflect on the relationship between Deaf space and the state. Deaf space was probably first solidified as a term at Gallaudet University when architects, professors, and students began to ask the question, “What would a distinctively Deaf space look like?” One of the central conclusions of this question was the recognition that architectural spaces are designed with the assumption that the users of those spaces are hearing, speaking individuals for whom sound is a fundamental element of social experience.

Now, Deaf folks are not, as many presume, unaware of the physics of sound, nor are individuals in the Deaf community ignorant of sound as a social phenomenon. Sound and speech are much more complicated than their physics suggest. The result of this study was the development of architectural principles that have been used to construct buildings that are more photo-centric (I just made up that term, I think). A similar discussion happened in Columbus, Ohio where I live during the design and construction of the new parts of the Ohio School for the Deaf. This is all kind-of mainstream in the Deaf community at this point.

But this is not entirely new. Social space has been central to the identity of the Deaf community as long back as we have record. In fact, Mike Gulliver wrote his MA thesis and PhD dissertation on this topic. Such spaces include, famously, Deaf clubs, Deaf residential schools, Deaf sports teams, (a) Deaf university (Gallaudet, of course), and so on.

The challenge that Apache ASL Trails faced from HUD illustrates an important, often overlooked element of Deaf space: the state. There is a strange tension between the state and the Deaf community. On the one hand, states such as various levels of the U.S. government have cruelly targeted members of the Deaf community for sterilization, forbade immigration of individuals with hearing loss or who used sign language, and wrongfully imprisoned individuals within what used to be called “insane asylums” for their signing. Yet federal and state administrations have also funded Deaf residential schools, provided funding for places like Apache ASL Trails, provides the disability classification that enables many Deaf individuals to receive social assistance, and passed laws requiring interpreters in public  school and college. None if this is as neat as I’m presenting it, but you get the point: the Deaf community and the state have a love-hate relationship to say the least.

Yet this complicated relationship with state goes almost entirely unmentioned in Deaf studies literature. I think it’s important to remember that communities don’t just “exist”, but that they are formed, in part, through their relationship with the state. This is certainly true for the Deaf community, as is evident in the recent Apache ASL Trails situation. And that’s all I want to point out.

*”Apache” seems to be a strange term to use for the facility. It feels like one oppressed group is appropriating a term of identity from another. Imagine a residential center for Native Americans called “Deaf Apache Dorm”. Just saying.

More Problems with Fake Sign Language Interpreter

When the news that the interpreter at Mandela’s memorial service came out yesterday, I tried to write up a quick analysis that pointed out the systemic problems that led to the now-famous incident in Johannesburg. Today, more information has come out about the interpreter.

Nelson Mandela's memorial service


In an interview, Thamsanqa Jantjie (the “fake interpreter”), made several important statements, which I want to think through. (Articles on CNN, Daily News, and USA Today.)

1. He claimed that he is a schizophrenic and he was suffering from a hallucinatory episode on stage, which explain why his interpretation was gibberish.

I am skeptical that Jantjie’s incomprehensible signing can be explained as the result of a psychological event. I don’t believe that hallucinations lead to apraxia (the inability to produce meaningful language). If anything, hallucinations lead to hyperactive language production. Also, a psychological event would likely impair much more than just language production, and I can’t understand how he could continue for so long on stage under these conditions as if nothing were going on. If we remember the case of the reporter who had the stroke on the air, that was a case where language production rapidly disintegrated into apraxia of speech (see video here). But this isn’t something that you can keep up for hours on stage.

2. He claimed that his hallucinatory episode resulted in temporary hearing loss, which effected his ability to interpret.

This explanation contradicts the last one. In this explanation, the hallucination impaired or conflicted with his ability to hear, in which case he couldn’t interpret reliably. As every interpreter knows, you don’t lose your ability to sign fluently just because you can’t hear your source message. Again, even during a hallucination, my understanding is that your language (spoken or signed) might not make logical sense to other people in the room, but that doesn’t mean that it’s grammatical gibberish.

3. He claimed that his he has interpreted often at public events and no one told him his interpretation was wrong.

The news outlets have already found evidence of prior complaints about this interpreter, so this doesn’t seem to hold up on factual grounds. But this explanation also seems to backpedal against the other two. In general, I’m not sure I can even begin to make sense of what happened on stage, how Jantjie ended up there, and if he even recognizes the gravity of the insult to the Deaf community and professional interpreters.

Bigger Problems than Jantjie

Let’s not get too distracted, however. As I stated in my post yesterday, this entire wretched debacle is not really about Jantjie. It’s about the socially acceptable level of ignorance and injury that the Deaf community is forced to live with regularly. How many times does this happen in South Africa when the cameras are off? How many times each day does it happen in the U.S. when a Deaf individuals shows up to school or a doctor’s appointment with an unqualified “interpreter” who took a few classes at a community library? The media will clamor for a few days over the details of Jantjie, government agencies will point fingers at each other until the spotlight shines elsewhere, and we’ll be back in a world where little has changed.

Will our professional organizations find a way to capitalize upon this moment to publicly point out the egregious ignorance about interpreters and the Deaf community? Can we be ready to use a public event like this to send a message here in the U.S. and everywhere in the world?

Field School in Deaf Geographies

The second annual Deaf Geographies summer institute will be taking place in 2014. Please pass this along to any undergraduate students you know who are studying in the humanities, social sciences, or practice professions (including interpreting), and who also have some experience with or interest in Deaf studies.

Deaf Geographies Field School

What is an interpreter? (The U.S. Department of Labor Can Tell You)

In the course of becoming a recognized profession, interpreting has undergone a number of largely unrecognized transformations. This is the basic thesis of my inquiry into the economics of interpreting.

My driving motivation is not “how have interpreters betrayed the deaf community”, which seems to be Dennis Cokely’s focus in his post on “Sign Language Interpreters – Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain?” on StreetLeverage. Interpreting discourse today seems most defined by public melancholy and myopic nostalgia. (Is there ever a nostalgia that isn’t myopic?, Nietzsche might say.) It’s not for me to say whether this is appropriate or not. I only wish to focus my attention on understanding  precisely what has happened, whether it could have happened any differently, and what – if anything – might be done. [End commentary.]

What follows is an incomplete parody of the Department of Labor’s classification of interpreters within O*NET. This isn’t the usual quality of post: it’s longer and less edited than I am typically willing to share publicly. But that’s the internet for you. In all seriousness, the O*NET classification is just one example of how previously unrecognized labor becomes integrated into the complex relationship between state and economy. It is this complex development that I’m interested in, not just the individual-centered narratives that drive most stories about interpreting history. In the 18th Brumaire, Marx said:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”

This is my pathetically simple claim in short: interpreters did not make interpreting history by themselves. Interpreters are the product of history, and what we encounter is not each other or even “Deaf people” so much as the political and economic world which we create and in which we are created. My hope is that future analyses of interpreting take this as the starting point rather than trying to locate causality and agency within parochial concepts such as Deaf-heart or relative measures of authenticity, such as having Deaf parents. The point is not to undermine these ideas, but to situate them within a broader framework.

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What does it take to become an interpreter?

Answering this question is a perennial passion of working interpreters and the life’s work of interpreter trainers. We are not at a loss for thoughtful answers. But despite many excellent suggestions by leaders in our field, I believe we have overlooked a source of collected wisdom and practical answers: the Occupational Information Network, or O*NET for short.

What is O*NET, you ask? O*NET (pronounced “oh-net” in spoken English or O-STAR-N-E-T in ASL) is an online database of job descriptions developed by the U.S. Department of Labor to replace the outmoded Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT). Yet when one reads the the exhaustively thorough descriptions of job positions in the O*NET database, one suspects that it was designed to flummox guidance counselors in their attempts to point high school seniors towards college or employment. Thinking of becoming a musician? One look at the 300-plus tasks, knowledge, and skill requirements for job 34051 “musicians, instrumental” and a desk job starts to sound pretty attractive. Regardless, O*NET provides complete job descriptions for every imaginable position, and it breaks each job into the following helpful, bullet-point elucidated sub-sections: tasks, knowledge, skills, abilities, work activities, work context, interests, and work values.

Which brings us to job number 39999A, “interpreters and translators”. What does it take to become an interpreter? The gates of Emerald City (or Mordor) open with backlit anticipation.

First, a definition of interpreters and translators: “Translate and interpret written or spoken communications from one language to another or from spoken to manual (sign language) used by hearing-impaired.” I’m glad we cleared that up. So interpreters either interpret between two languages, or between “spoken” and “manual”. Hmm. I don’t think either “spoken” or “manual” is recognized by the Modern Language Association as a language. I would be fine with the “from one language to another” part. But the “comma-or” implies that sign language interpreters don’t interpret between two languages. This is no minor quibble, but we must keep moving. More gems await us.

Tasks. It’s always good for future interpreters to know what to expect in daily work. Task one: “translates approximate or exact message of speaker into specified language, orally or by using hand signs for hearing impaired”. Future students be warned: you will be required to translate as least the approximate message of the speaker. We understand that during difficult assignments, you can’t catch everything. Do you best to more or less interpret what was generally implied by the interlocutors. And if you are translating into “manual”, please be sure to use “hand signs”, as this is the way that the “hearing impaired” communicate.

Knowledge. I rather like this section, all jokes aside. Each of the knowledge requirements are rated out of 100 with measure of importance. “Knowledge of foreign language” (or of “manual”, one presumes) receives a 100/100. Self-explanatory. English language: 96/100. It’s somewhat less important that you know English. (You’re only translating approximately, after all.) You should know geography (25/100), that is: “various methods for describing the location and distribution of land, sea, and air masses including their physical locations, relationships, and characteristics”. I couldn’t have said it better myself, actually. But keep in mind that law, government, and jurisprudence will be somewhat important, as will mathematics, history and archeology, and economics and accounting. Indeed, interpreting is a field of life-time learning.

Skills. Also carefully ranked by importance. Active listening is the top requirement (100/100), as it probably should be for spoken language interpreters. But I would prefer “receptive proficiency” to be inclusive of Deaf interpreters working between sign languages. Information gathering (54/100) and information organizing (54/100) make an appearance here, which I highly commend. But with a 21/100 product inspection (inspecting and evaluating the quality of products) ranks higher than most. This includes checking auditorium steps for that loose snag of carpet which you will surely trip on during the graduation ceremony. An unlikely winner in this category for me is visioning (“developing an image of how a system should work under ideal conditions”), which receives only an 8/100, even though I am very good imagining how various consumers ought to behave. Finally, interpreting-related skills abound: operations analysis, idea creation, judgement and decision making, and (again) mathematics.

Abilities. The first several are oral and speech related, dismissing half of our work out of hand (literally). I linger on “selective attention” (75/100), which explains why I have to keep calling my agency to clarify assignment details. Happily, there are many visual abilities included in the list: near vision (what did I just trip over?), far vision (is that my consumer over there?), night vision (did the electricity just go out in the new wing of our high school?), visualization (I can visualize this presenter actually making sense), visual color discrimination (I thought that was illegal), and peripheral vision (I can see that student copying my signs from sex ed class but I refuse to look at him). And of course, mathematical reasoning.

Deaf Right to the City

The brilliant Gill Harold has a forthcoming article that describes the sound-centric nature of urban spaces. I am reposting the title and abstract below so you get a flavor of the article. Importantly, Gill’s article is published in one of the highest-ranked journals in our profession, which means that – yes – you can get great research on Deaf geographies published and recognized.

Reconsidering sound and the city: asserting the right to the Deaf-friendly city

Abstract: The sensory turn has made a pronounced attempt to broaden the focus in social and cultural geography to encompass the entire sensory spectrum, with the aim of counterbalancing what is perceived to have been the disproportionate attention granted to visual geographies and the act of seeing. In respect of critically understanding the geographies of difference that characterise Deaf citizens’ experience in the contemporary city, this paper calls for a moment in geography to take stock of the signature that visual awareness bears in the social life of the Deaf city, and also to consider the hearingness implicit in geographical commentary on the role of sound in the reproduction of place. Reading urban and public spaces from a Deaf-centred perspective, I draw on parallel discussions from social geography and Deaf Studies to critically deconstruct the phenomena underpinning the aural bias that is deeply embedded in the social fabric, and which finds continuous expression in the intangible aural architectures of modern life. Dispositions and attitudes towards the ‘normal’ hearing body and towards hearing ontological engagements with sound and speech serve to maintain the city’s audist and phonocentric inclinations. Here, the manner in which the right to the Deaf-friendly city is jeopardised is made explicit through empirical accounts from Deaf people in Ireland and England whose everyday geographies are characterised by the negotiation of urban spaces that were designed according to the needs of an assumed homogenous hearing public.