Today I bring you enlightenment.
Sparked by this meme, this subject of interpreters came up in a conversation with a friend recently:
I have so many things to say about this. Thankfully, I can say everything without requiring an interpreter. Here I go…
Access to interpreters is essential for the signing deaf community, just as access to education is essential for all. Ever since retiring from the public school system, I have not had regular access to interpreters. When conversing with non-signers, I make do with the old-fashioned paper and pen method or the newfangled way, where I type on my phone or in a word processor. Interpreters are most useful for meetings or when I deal with impatient medical professionals who would otherwise give me watered-down information.
When I was in school, though, they were vital. Imagine going to school and being unable to understand anything the teacher says. What if everyone else in class understands the teacher, except for you, yet you’re expected to perform at the same level as your peers?
So, we’ve all had shitty teachers and good ones. For me, access to education came in four different exciting combinations:
Great teacher + great interpreter = full access!
Shitty teacher + great interpreter = full access, but I suffer like the rest of my peers.
Great teacher + shitty interpreter = I suffer.
Shitty teacher + shitty interpreter = WHAT EVEN IS THE POINT?
There was only a one in four chance I had access to quality education. And that’s assuming the great interpreter was skilled enough to convey 100% of the information.
One of my friends is an ASL interpreter, and it was from her that I learned–more than fifteen years after graduating high school–that I had the right to request a different interpreter if I didn’t like the one I got. I had no idea!
Since my high school had a handful of deaf students, we had access to a potpourri of interpreters for the year. Much like teachers, there were different interpreters for different classes. During my first two years, an interpreter named Jerene had trouble understanding me. She had difficulty understanding my deaf friends too. I could tell when Jerene flubbed either by lipreading her or going by how the teacher would respond. I’d clarify only to receive a meek smirk and, “Oh, sorry!” from Jerene when she should have acknowledged her mistake to the class and repeated what I’d said.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was Elizabeth, who made me out to be an engaged but shy student who always had a good understanding of the material. Someone’s certainly done their homework… and it wasn’t me! Elizabeth was the “long monologue” interpreter in the meme.
Then… there were the rest who were at least all certified ASL interpreters. Before that, I had, ugh… bored moms who had a loose grasp on sign language. From kindergarten until the seventh grade, the “interpreters” I had were people who claimed to know how to sign in their job interview.
Imagine being taught at school by someone without a teaching degree who got the job because they either exaggerated their qualifications or because of limited options.
Furthermore, these so-called interpreters certainly did not know ASL. At the time, neither did I: I learned Signed Exact English (SEE) at home, much like how hearing kids first learn to speak and write at home. Just as written English and spoken English are still one language, SEE was simply a different form of English. Zoée, a former SEE user, tells me that it’s a thing from our generation (the 80s-90s) and claims that the younger generations are baffled when they see signs from SEE.
At school, kids have lessons to help them improve their reading comprehension and language skills. I’d be removed from music lessons to practice speaking with a speech therapist. I never had sign language classes, never mind ASL classes. All the ASL I know now, I learned through immersion. Most of the kids I learned from, especially those who went to my school, did not use ASL as their primary language.
So, it wasn’t until high school where I was exposed to ASL-certified interpreters when I started to move away from SEE. After high school, I stopped using ASL regularly. My primary mode of communication ever since has been written English. I am grateful when I have an interpreter to facilitate communication; however, I am more confident in expressing my thoughts via writing. I don’t have to worry about a Jerene making me look like a doofus or over-selling my genius with an interpreter like Elizabeth.
Still, I’ve been significantly more fortunate than many deaf people. I was born in an area that had resources for deaf people and their families. My parents had money. I had access to language from birth. And, honestly, even though I deserved to have equal access, what I had *was* better than nothing.
Imagine barely being able to communicate with your family. Imagine going to school where all the teachers’ voices were garbled and navigating all the assignments without instruction. You might manage to learn to read and write on your own, but not well. Then, when you leave school and enter the workforce, those around you wonder why you’re barely literate. They’ll dare to compare you to immigrants who went on to master English, not understanding that, unlike immigrants, you were deprived of a language as a child.
TL;DR: Hearing friend shares a meme: I turn it into a long monologue.