Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Instruction in ASL

September 9th, 2007

I should have watched these training clips about using a Blackberry before signing my presentation in class the other day! The discourse structure of ASL is evident in each clip: first, the point, second – the illustration, third, the point again/expanded. One can watch how technical terminology is introduced and then incorporated naturally – with the side effect of contributing to the standardization of new terms in the lexicon. (I notice he does not fingerspell “email” for instance, which will annoy at least a few of my purist friends!) There’s evidence of contextualization: the same sign is used for “escape” and “sprint” – illustrating how meaning coheres in different combinations of signifiers/signifieds within different languages. (Hence, why interpreters, when asked, “What’s the sign for _______?” usually say, “It depends.”) Finally, there is much to notice about the logic of the visual in ASL.
This is an area in which (it seems to me), non-deaf people need serious education. I, myself, am still learning how to shift out of the linearity of sound-based logic to the three-dimensionality of the visual – eighteen years (!) after I began to learn ASL. One of the most common ways this non-knowledge shows up is the curiosity of non-deaf people about whether any particular deaf person can lipread. My hypothesis is that the assumptions behind this question involve a) how much are you similar to me, and b) how far can you come to my way of communicating? Vikki Washington addresses this in her blogpost, Squealing for Attention.
Then, there’s the relational problem between interpreters and deaf folk whom we serve. My issue has always been the way we (interpreters) subtly – and not so subtly – reinforce the dominant model of oppression/discrimination by “being on the deaf person’s side.” We serve the non-deaf people in the room just as much, but few people understand this. It seems normal to assume that we are interpreting “for the deaf person” and no one else. Another view on this issue comes from Jeannette Johnson (a.k.a. Deaf Pundit), writing on fallout from friendships with interpreters: The Interpreter and The Deaf Community Hitman. The misunderstanding she describes sounds painful, although – on principle – I would be inclined to suggest there’s room for growth (forgiveness?) on both sides, especially given the foundation of friendship. The principle I’m thinking of is how to accomplish long-term structural change. Everytime we, as individuals, fail to repair our relationships with each other, I suspect this is a social metonym for the failure of larger groups of people (deaf/non-deaf; racial and ethnic groups with contentious histories; even nations – think Israel/Palestine) – to find ways to stop war and shift systemic oppressions to relations involving more social justice.
So, I am happily encouraged to read (and watch, via a vlog) alternative stories about deaf and non-deaf people become allies on common causes, such as Jack Barr’s union activism.
Complicating the friendship angle from the interpreter’s point-of-view, is the persistence of activist organizations to create inclusion through calls for volunteer interpreters. Not that I wouldn’t do it, but it is the other extreme of the “non-friendship clause” invoked (above) by Deaf Pundit. I’m not sure what happened regarding ASL/English interpretation at the recent U.S. Social Forum, but there was a call that circulated for volunteer interpretation. If I could have gone I probably would have volunteered, but still…. isn’t there a double-standard at work? Non-deaf people still approach interpreting as the work of charity (instead of as a profession that requires years of training, serious testing, and on-going professional development); and deaf people (sometimes) accept our work as volunteers on an impersonal basis. In my own experience, I have never felt unappreciated, even if I have been excruciatingly aware that my presence is undesired (given the intimate nature of the business at hand). So – I’m not trying to generate any accusations toward any one in particular. I am reflecting on the way we talk about the relationship between interpreters and members of the deaf community. Sometimes, there is a disconnect between our talk and our actions; sometimes our talk perpetuates actions that hurt us all in the long run.
Who knows how much of what happens between deaf persons and interpreters is an extension from experiences with parents who themselves were not deaf (90% of deaf people are born outside of the linguistic/cultural community). “Our parents were usually the first to betray us–not knowing how to effectively deal with our deafness,” writes Carl Schroeder, in Betrayal of the Deaf: Grow Up and Get English.
All the links to Deaf blogs and vlogs were shared with me by Amanda. Thanks! 🙂 If you still wanna check out more, click through to the Best of Deaf Blogs and Vlogs. Thriving under threat, if you ask me!

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