What does the US DOJ tell police to do when working with Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals? I found a hard copy of the following flyer the other day at an assignment, and then found a PDF version online. What do you think of the content? What would you change? Add? Remove? (link here also)
If there’s anything that bridges my work as an interpreter and my research as a graduate student, it’s court interpreting. While I don’t do any court interpreting myself, I have had the privilege of working with court interpreters and talking with those who work in immigration courts.
We may think that justice is justice and that’s that. But for thousands of people each year, justice – in the traditional, legal sense – remains illusive because they aren’t able to understand court proceedings in their most proficient language. This is where court interpreters come in. Even though interpreters do not truly provide equal access to court proceedings, they soften the gross disparities by at least bridging some of the linguistic gaps.
In the New York Times article below, there’s some great information on court interpreters, mostly voicing concerns about the costs of interpreters. There’s no question: the costs are not insignificant. But what is the cost of justice? Or worse, what is the cost of injustice?
At worst, it can be death, as Alfred Weinrib (see previous post) reminds us.
(Reposted from the New York Times)
There have been many instances of law enforcement have mistreated Deaf suspects, everything from being generally rude and inconsiderate to injuring or killing Deaf individuals without justification. I’m glad to see the ACLU and HEARD team up to raise awareness.
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”?
May Day is a unique international celebration of labor rights movements. On recent discussion boards, interpreters have been discussing the detrimental impact that comprehensive interpreting agencies have been having on sign language interpreting services. However, much of the discussion continues to view this problem within the potentially limited framework of what is best for the Deaf consumer or best for the interpreting field. On May Day, I think it’s important to remember that worker rights – including the right of interpreters to provide quality services – is an international struggle within the economic system known as capitalism. To understand what’s happening in the interpreting field, we have to understand labor and capital more broadly and recognize that no efforts to improve the quality of interpreting services will be possible without organizing across professions. Unfortunately, a countervailing trend in the interpreting profession is to view interpreting as a unique and often solitary profession. I hope that we can reflect on these problems on May Day.
The intellectual history of ASL and Deaf studies is a fascinating one. It has yet to be written. But if I get to tell that story, here’s how part of that story will go.
Interpreters and hearing scholars, often working alongside Deaf collaborators, recognized that “Deaf gesturing” was much more than gesturing: it was an actual language. To legitimize calling it language, these scholars drew heavily upon the structural linguistics of their day to show that ASL could be studied and described as any other language, albeit without a written form. While Deaf advocates have always existed, this linguistic research drew upon the anthropological idea of culture to reinforce their claims that ASL belonged to a social minority and could be studied alongside a study of the everyday life of the Deaf community. A powerful idea was born, which, alongside the commodification of interpreting services and social service in general, created a relatively coherent and internally consistent argument about Deaf difference, oppression, and justice.
There was just one problem: much of this literature, for very good reasons, uncritically assumed the ideas of majority academic research and popular thought at the time. Until today, these ideas have been relatively unchanged. (I would argue that the early articles in Sign Language Studies are an un-mined source of new ideas for us today.) Much like geography departments today, interpreting programs and Deaf studies programs are under constant pressure to justify their existence. They must answer the question: why does ASL matter? Why do we need to know anything about the Deaf community? The usual response about Deaf people being an oppressed minority is true, but insufficient. I think Giorgio Agamben provides a very thoughtful way forward. This thought came to mind as I was reading selections from his book Potentialities (1999).
In his essay The Idea of Language, Agamben describes language as revelation like this:
“…the content of revelation is not a truth that can be expressed in the form of linguistic propositions about a being (even about a supreme being) but is, instead, a truth that concerns language itself, the very fact that language (and therefore knowledge) exists. … humans see the world through language but do not see language.” (40)
And in a later essay On Gesture, he describes
“If speech is originary gesture, then what is at issue in gesture is not so much a prelinguistic content as, so to speak, the other side of language, the muteness inherent in humankind’s very capacity for language, it’s speechless dwelling in language. … gesture is always the gesture of being at a loss in language…” (78)
These two quotes matter for the following reasons.
First, they show that despite many years of recognition, visual languages still haven’t made a strong impact in precisely the most important philosophical circles that they should. You can see that Agamben’s notion of human language is still very oral/aural.
Second, don’t be too harsh on Agamben, because within these short excerpts you can already see that there is great potential here to extend these arguments to ASL. In fact, I think we can start to see why visual languages have been resisted for so long. It’s not just longstanding prejudice against the body and against sign languages. It’s also about the historic understanding of being as the one who responds to the event of spoken language, even when one can’t decipher language. Philosophers have always been fascinated by sign language communities — if only marginally — because they represent the limits of linguistic communities.
ASL matters because it is the point where gesture, which is typically the loss of language, becomes language itself. We should not try too hard to equate visual languages with spoken language, but to demonstrate how they push philosophy beyond its ontological limits.
Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities should be required reading at all interpreter training programs. (I just added it to the Interpreter’s Library.) The thesis is quite simple. The idea that you and I belong to a community called a “nation” is an enormous stretch of reason, given that we can’t possibly be in daily relationship with the other people in this “national community”. Yet, this is precisely the ideology of nationalism, which seeks to collectively represents people on the “inside” against people on the “outside”. Anderson never says that imagined communities aren’t real simply because they are imagined. On the contrary, imagined communities have even more power because they are imagined. If this seems trivial, take a quick glance at the news coming out of Crimea this morning.
Politics of Language
Language is central to Anderson’s argument. The bulk of Imagined Communities is about how nationalism took off and where nationalism got its start (spoiler alert: its not just about Europe). One of the major players here is language, because language became such an important element of nationalism. Even in the U.S., where the dominant language of English is hardly owned by U.S. citizens, English-only policies have been regularly introduced for well over a century to distinguish so-called “assimilated” immigrants and foreigners from “native” residents. Yet, Anderson reminds us that what is truly at stake in the politics of language is its ability to create a strategic boundary around a political community.
“It is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that certain nationalist ideologues treat them — as emblems of nation-ness, like flags, costumes, folk-dances, and the rest. Much The most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined communities, building effective particular solidarities.“ (133)
Why should interpreters care?
Here’s why I think this is important for interpreters to think about.
First, we know that Deaf communities have always experienced social oppression in various forms. What hasn’t been sufficiently explored is why much of this has taken place within the field of language. In my view, the literature in Deaf studies and interpreting studies has over-emphasized the direct anti-Deaf discourse by people like A.G. Bell, but hasn’t sufficiently challenged the nationalist ideas that makes language discrimination possible in the first place. When the English language is used as a “national bond” for U.S. citizens, it justifies the exclusion of non-English speakers (Deaf individuals included). In other words, the U.S. as a “nation” is an imagined community – it is not simply “real” in any everyday empirical sense. (As a side note, it is fascinating to me how many Deaf and hearing ASL users have made anti-immigrant comments to me, always failing to recognize that every argument against immigrants in the U.S. – true or not – has been used to discriminate against Deaf people, too.)
Second, the politics of language isn’t just about hearing English-speakers. As I said in my previous post, Deaf consciousness in the U.S. emerged alongside ideas of culture and nationalism in the 1880s. Sign language in the U.S. (even before it became “ASL”) became a signature feature of the U.S. Deaf community, and for very good reasons which my readers probably do not need explained to them. But the story isn’t quite as clear-cut as it seems. If we want to take Anderson seriously, we should recognize that language identity is always a political strategy, not just an empirical reality. And like all strategies, it includes some things and excludes others. ASL research — again, for very good reason — has tended towards ASL purism in the confines of a media room with Deaf-of-Deaf participants. No significant research exists on the everyday diversity of language use in mixed Deaf-hearing workspaces, for instance. So I wonder how this imagined community that Anderson talks about also applies (as he says it does) to minority social groups like the Deaf community. It’s not just about dominant groups; it’s about the conditions of political recognition for minority groups, too.
Third, this starts to provide a more interesting context for understanding Deaf advocacy. The value of the strategy of rigid Deaf cultural distinction (see Mindess 1999) and ASL purism is that makes it possible to advocate for recognition of ASL as a real language at a time when many people are still ignorantly skeptical that ASL should count. ASL has justifiably been seen as probably the marker of the Deaf community, or as Anderson says, an “effective particular solidarity”. But in doing so, we should always be cautious about believing in the idea of linguistic or cultural purism itself, an idea that is tied to the conditions of Deaf oppression in the first place.
Deaf Community as Imagined Community?
Calling the Deaf community an “imagined community” sounds risky. Many people have lobbed misplaced and ignorant criticisms at the Deaf community for not being a “real” culture, a “real” social group, not using a “real” language. The reaction has been to dig our heels in to the slippery soil of the “real”. And we respond. Yes, Deaf people are a “real” culture. Yes, Deaf people use a “real” language. Yes, Deaf people are a “real” oppressed social group. Indeed, much of the research on ASL, interpreting, and the Deaf experience has defended this position. This is somewhat unfortunate, in my opinion, but entirely understandable. But the side effect is that we are less and less capable of challenging oppression on its own conceptual grounds. We end up playing a game in which the rules are already set against us. Suggesting that we understand the Deaf community as an imagined community (per Anderson) doesn’t compromise the credibility of Deaf advocacy. Instead, it advances advocacy a step further by suggesting that not only do Deaf individuals not need to justify themselves to hearing individuals, hearing critics themselves don’t have a foundation for judging what a “real” language, culture or social group is in the first place. But it may also mean that as interpreters, we need to let go of simplistic divisions between what we think of as “Deaf” and “hearing”, what we view as “pure” ASL, and to challenge the ideas (such as some versions of nationalism) that make Deaf oppression possible.
Empiricism. Now that’s academic-speak if I’ve ever seen it. Yet the idea of empiricism – whether we know it’s name or not – is one of the strongest ideas of the 20th century, the century in which, by the way, what we now call “interpreting” and “Deaf studies” became viable fields of study. It is no small matter, therefore, to consider what this terms means and how it might effect us today.
In 1974, economic geographer David Harvey asked, “Why is it that so-called neutral studies of population and resources often end up with such conservative prescriptions?” The answer is one most people would accept today: science is never completely ethically neutral. But that only gives us an assumption to work from. It doesn’t answer our question.
Harvey suggests that part of the answer lies in the methods of 19th Century scholar Thomas Malthus, best known for his claim that (to put it simply) population growth will surpass resource growth. Harvey shows how Malthus’ relies on scientific empiricism to whitewash his own anti-socialist and anti-revolutionary bent.
Here’s how Harvey describes empiricism:
“Empiricism assumes that objects can be understood independently of observing subjects. Truth is therefore assumed to lie in a world external to the observer who job is to record and faithfully reflect the attributes of objects. This logical empiricism is a pragmatic version of that scientific method which goes under the name “logical positivism,” and is founded in a particular and very strict view of language and meaning.”
Skipping over a detailed argument about Ricardo and Marx, Harvey goes on in the conclusion to explain why this empiricism mattered:
“The political consequences that flow from these results can be serious. The projection of a neo-Malthusian view into the politics of the time appears to invite repression at home and neo-colonial policies abroad. The neo-Malthusian view [based on empiricism] often functions to legitimate such polices, and thereby, to preserve the position of the ruling elite.”
I can’t think of a more concise statement about empiricism and its potential consequences.
I point this out for two very simple reasons.
First, I think it is relevant to notice the fundamental relationship between empiricism and language. Interpreters are language professionals, and we cannot help be influenced by ideas about language, even those ideas we don’t know we have. It is worth pondering the relationship between empiricism in the century and the influence of this conceptual framework on the interpreting profession. (See article: Language, Power and Models of Interpreting.)
Second, if Harvey is right that empiricism often justifies repression, then it is important that we understand how our ideas about language and politics may have repressive effects. As Harvey indicates elsewhere, the role of thought in social change is to “formulate concepts and categories…which we can apply in the process of bringing about a humanizing social change.” (See article: All Interpreters are Philosophers.)
This year we celebrate 50 years of RID. We remember, as we should, so many important Deaf and hearing leaders in our history who have helped make this profession a viable — although far from perfect — way for providing language access for Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Alongside that celebration, it might not be a complete waste of time to think about the growth of the interpreting profession within it’s larger historical and conceptual context. (See article: What do sign language interpreters need to accomplish?.)
Some questions for pondering:
- What ideas – recognized and unrecognized – did/do interpreters bring with them into the profession?
- Where do we see empiricism today, and does empiricism have the negative political effect that Harvey suggests?
- Which conceptual frameworks are dominant in research on interpreting and sign language?
- What positive and negative political effects has research had on the recognition (or repression) of the human rights of Deaf communities?
For my part, I tend to think about how contemporary literary theory and authors such as David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon provide at least some provocation for different ways of thinking about language. See article: The unGishable David Foster Wallace.
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.