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

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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.

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