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. 

Lost in the Shuffle

ASL Version:

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a widespread concern about sign language interpreters losing work. Sign language interpreters in the United States are mostly independent contractors, which provides freedom but often little economic security. As our local and state governments urge us to practice social distancing, with many mandating stay-at-home orders that are coming to an end soon, many of us wonder what will happen to our livelihoods. Depending on freelance income is stressful and more so scary when we do not have strong social safety nets. While unemployment insurance and small business loans might have helped a few of us so far, many will be lost in the shuffle. In uncertain times for freelance sign language interpreters, as a profession that is already struggling with supply and demand, we wonder about the long term impact of COVID-19 on on our field. 

Technology remains one answer for us. Demand for Video Relay Services (VRS) and video remote interpreting (VRI) have increased. Some call centers allowed interpreters to transition from working in call centers to working within their own homes to continue the provision of interpreting services.  Some interpreting referral agencies were able to make the transition to video remote interpreting (VRI). 

While this offers a respite and some hope for sign language interpreters, Deaf interpreters are left behind.

Unfortunately, VRS companies do not work with Deaf interpreters except for those who are employed in a different role within the call centers. Few agencies work with Deaf interpreters on VRI assignments. It is even reported there is a specific VRI platform that does not allow the use of Deaf interpreters. Overall, video interpreting offers few opportunities for Deaf Interpreters.  

In spite of the slowdown in work, Deaf Interpreters have been visible in press conference work during this ordeal. Press conferences alone is not enough work to sustain professional Deaf Interpreters. What implications might this pandemic have on the future of Deaf interpreters? 

Despite a great deal of resistance, Deaf interpreters were just beginning to establish a foothold in the sign language interpreting profession. 

Will this chaos create a situation that renders Deaf interpreters into a scarce resource or even obsolete? Will we enter a period of even stricter austerity measures where we decide Deaf Interpreters are an unnecessary expense? The landscape for access for deaf people is difficult to predict. We ask you to stay the fight for Deaf interpreters during this time and after we are out of this chaos. 

One important pushback is to repair the outdated perception that Deaf interpreters are only for specific individuals with language “issues”. For example, the National Association of the Deaf’s (NAD) position paper on healthcare access indicated that Deaf interpreters are for those with poor communication and linguistic skills. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) released a standard practice paper on CDIs in 1997. This 23-year-old document describes Deaf interpreters as being ideal for specific communication challenges. 

Those statements (and attitudes) are among the influencing factors for the resistance against Deaf interpreters. The belief that Deaf interpreters are only for a specific type of deaf person encourages lateral ableism and contributes to linguicism. Suggesting that Deaf interpreters are only for a specific type of deaf person creates an “us” and “Other” mentality. Those attitudes are also deterrents to the growth of Deaf interpreters as a profession as well as harmful to deaf people’s discourses on language access. But that’s a discussion for another blog. 

While interpreters are in a panic mode with the significantly lower number of work opportunities, take a pause to remember how Deaf interpreters are getting lost in the shuffle. How will you support Deaf interpreters’ livelihoods through this process?

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.

Access in Chaos

Our world has been turned upside down; our lives are likely not going to return to normal for a long while. As people are urged to remain home and practice social distancing to #FlattenTheCurve, sign language interpreters continue to answer the call for access. They put the health and well-being of themselves and their families at risk to show up and ensure that deaf people receive access. As we applaud and thank those who continue to show up everyday- in hospitals and medical clinics, grocery stores, pharmacies, let us also remember those who work to provide access in a critical time. 

Access is a loving act. And staying home if you feel sick is also an act of love. We thank all of those who can show up to provide access for doing so; and all of those who stay home when ill. 

We hope all of you remain healthy and safe in this difficult time. Wishing you good health and fortune.

The Manualists