Hearing Fragility-See you later

ID: A white bald, bearded man signing a vlog in ASL on a black background.


Hi, I want to discuss the concept of hearing fragility. I want to be clear that we do not support or endorse the usage of the phrase “hearing fragility.” That phrase comes from white fragility. That meant that deaf people observed behaviors from hearing people, especially interpreters and educators of deaf children, drawing parallels between those behaviors and white fragility. There was this idea that the behaviors were the same so the words and ideas were interchangeable as well. We suggest that shouldn’t be the case because the logics and the structures that animate race and disability are different. We examined those behaviors labeled as hearing fragility to understand the logics, structures, and ideologies that drives those emotional responses from hearing people toward deaf people. What we found was that those behaviors and the driving logics were different from that of race and white fragility. So this means we need to have a better understanding of what is behind those behaviors we know as “hearing fragility” and to more accurately name those behaviors. Do we need a fancy esoteric term or a cute euphemism for this behavior? Hearing fragility, abled resistance, abled arrogance? Nope. This is good, old-fashioned ableism. This is how ableism functions. Must we encapsulate all of this behavior, guilt, explosive losses of temper, defensiveness, tears, and resistance into a single word or phrase? Well, if we had to, why not just call it ableism? Do we need an euphemism to make you, hearing people, feel better about your behaviors, your loss of temper, defensiveness, tears, until we concede the floor and coddle your feelings while dismissing your structurally-enabled ableism with a cute little euphemism? No. We’re beyond that. See ya later. 

Interpreters are the uninvited guests in deaf people’s private lives

ASL Version: Click here

About eight years ago, I was with a very close friend in the hospital when he declared his wishes for no further medical intervention to save or extend his life. When the doctor left the room, so did the interpreter. I also walked out because I did not want my friend to see me crying. In the hallway, I burst into tears. The interpreter turned around to ask if I was okay. I went to cry in her arms. She held me for a few moments. I met this Coda interpreter only a couple of days earlier when I flew in to be at my friend’s bedside. And here she was holding me as I cried. I was not her “assigned” deaf consumer. A few hours later, I texted her tearful gratitude for holding my pain. Her response: “No, thank you!” I was surprised; she explained she is daily thankful for being a guest in deaf people’s private lives. That comment stuck with me ever since. She gained my appreciation. 

Interpreters who show humanity (read about access intimacy here) can profoundly improve a deaf person’s quality of life in highly stressful situations. Once, during a medical procedure, I tremblingly clenched my hands on the surgical bed. The interpreter, who I had never met before, noticed my anxiety. She gently rubbed my hand, telling me she had also had this procedure. That moment shifted the experience for me. I was no longer alone. Never again did I see her but that moment struck a chord. Those are moments I appreciate.  

I had a conversation with a deaf man when I was starting out as a Deaf Interpreter. His harsh words, “hate interpreters,” made me step back. Hate is a powerful word. Full of emotion and rage. Where does this rage come from? I asked him. What he said made me see things differently. He viewed interpreters as unwelcome intruders in his private life. They knew everything about him: his private identifiable information (i.e. social security numbers, birthdate), his financial information, his legal battles, his educational performance, his health issues, his emotions, etc. For me, interpreters were always a given in my life. For all they know about me, I know very little of them. This perspective often surprises my colleagues when I share this anecdote. 

Bare vulnerability is an expense of access we are forced to pay. Perhaps if more interpreters recognized this challenge, we would be gentler with the emotional expectations we place on deaf people. 

This is why I struggle with Interpreter Appreciation Day. Joshua Jones, who is DeafBlind, proposed we observe this day in 2013. Since then, we have observed the first Wednesday of May as Sign Language Interpreter Appreciation Day in the United States. But I see this observance as problematic. 

Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that we should not say thank you to interpreters. By celebrating a day in honor of interpreters, without dismantling the harmful structures within which we operate, we further interpreters’ savior complexes. Simply put, access is a right, not a privilege. Provisions of access should not require or even expect  gratitude. As Lisa Cryer stated in her May 1 Facebook post: 

Indeed, not all interpreters deserve appreciation. By commemorating a specific day to recognize interpreters across the country ignores systemic issues. 

Instead, this day should be spent on appreciating deaf people for sharing their private lives with interpreters who are uninvited guests. And perhaps this would be a good time for interpreters to do some introspection on gaining deaf people’s appreciation.

Elevating Deaf People’s Power of Choice in Video Remote Interpreting Settings

If I have to use video remote interpreting (VRI) for my appointments and meetings, do I have to use interpreters within my home state? Not necessarily. When I was a college administrator, I had to make decisions about service providers’ pay (interpreters and speech-to-text providers). Those decisions were discussed in meetings with non-deaf administrators within the college.  Unfortunately, a couple of local interpreters we regularly worked with broke confidentiality, sharing private information discussed in those meetings. After that violation of confidence, I decided my meetings had to be handled using VRI with an agency outside my area. The interpreters from the VRI agency did not care about what happened in our area because it was outside their area of familiarity. Their services were more effective and trustworthy. 

The pandemic has shown us what the world IS capable of doing if it embraced an ethos of disability justice….work from home? sure. accommodations for crip time? sure! flexibility on this and that? sure! 

The pandemic has also shown us yet another avenue of where ableist systems can bend for deaf people. Preferred interpreters. For example, my partner’s favorite interpreter in the world lives in Boston. Now that organizations are willing (and have to at this time) meet via Zoom, hypothetically, he can now request his favorite Boston interpreter for all meetings using Zoom. What does this moment yield in future possibilities for creating a more accommodating world and communication equity for deaf people?

The pandemic forcing us to communicate remotely has given deaf people the power to handpick their interpreters who best serve their access needs. When I realized this one morning recently, I started making requests for interpreters I trust for my meetings/appointments in the subsequent weeks without constraint on geographic area. I’ve worked with my favorites who are not based in my local area. I’m so relieved my wishes have been honored. 

Thus, if deaf people are concerned about confidentiality and trust in interpreters, I think this time gives us a ripe opportunity to exercise our preferences.

COVID-19’s Impact on Communication Access

ASL Version

It is so hard to believe that almost two weeks ago was what may be my last on-site interpreting job for a while.  Sadly, that last job left me gobsmacked. It was in a huge medical office building. I felt like a rat trying to navigate an unending maze. I was unable to even find the directory! Sign languages should be getting accolades nowadays because we can communicate easily from six feet away. I approached the Information Desk while maintaining a distance from the person at the desk. Unfortunately, she could not understand my gestures asking where a specific department was located. Gestures failed but I had a backup plan.  In olden days, deaf people would resort to a notepad and pen to communicate with people unable to understand sign language or visual gestures. Nowadays, we have effective apps on our smartphones such as Big and Cardizilla. I typed my question in the Big app on my iPhone with its black background and thick white text. As I lifted my hand to show her my phone screen, she screamed at me, “STAY AWAY!!!!” I felt mortified upon feeling eyes surrounding us in the lobby. I mouthed, “I need your help.” She shook her head as I tried to point to my phone but she was not having it at all.  I took off through that rat’s maze of a building to find the department on my own. As I walked in, I was nervous about approaching the receptionist or how she would react to my attempts at communicating despite a barricade of chairs set-up in the area between her counter and me. I typed the patient’s name on my Big app and showed the screen to her. She smiled, looked the name up on her computer, and wrote big on a piece of paper, “the appointment is cancelled.”  

This experience left me reeling. In an instant, COVID-19 has impacted how deaf people communicate with non-deaf people. Not always, but often, non-deaf people have willingly communicated with deaf people using paper, pen, then text as technologies evolved. Deaf people, over time, adapted to navigate nondeaf spaces. And as we’re struck by a global pandemic, I wondered where the humanity was in this situation as communication barriers were thrown up without a thought to alternative access pathways? DeafBlind and other DeafDisabled people have talked about distantism. This reluctance to have closeness, to have physical closeness to disabled people, is not new. COVID-19 has reminded us that disabled people’s humanity and need for communication access, along with many other issues for disabled people such as access to ventilators and health care, teeter on the edge of goodwill. On distantism, here’s some wisdom from a DeafBlind person, Mindy Dill.

COVID-19 has further perpetuated ableism. How will ableism manifest in the post-COVID world? We can still connect and communicate during this trying time. Efforts to maintain communication access is an act of love in the spirit of Mia Mingus’ work on access intimacy.  The burden should not be left on disabled individuals to figure how to adapt our communication strategies in the current state of affairs.  Abled individuals have a duty to engage with us to figure that out.