The Power of Sign Language

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This past few weeks have been tumultuous for me. I’m constantly reshaping my view on sign language and interpreting for the Deaf. When I started studying ISL, I was determined to acquire the skills and credentials of an ISL interpreter because of a combination of my love to Mother and my life-long infatuation with the Deaf, mainly as a result of reflecting the love I have for Mom and Dad on the entire Deaf community.

At the onset, Cocoon stated firmly that “wanting to help the Deaf” is a dangerous agenda for an interpreter. The Interpreters’ code states clearly that objectivity must be had in relation to both Hearing and Deaf. In every interpretation event, the Hearing are my clients too, and as a professional sign language interpreter, I must avoid any biases against the hearing just as much (and equivalently so) as I should avoid biases in favor of the Deaf.

So how do I do it?

At first, I thought that it is impossible for me to uphold the Code without turning against my own ideals as well, but I’ve come to reshape this thought in the past week:

The best thing I can do for the Deaf is to be as professional an interpreter as possible.

This is not to say that there aren’t any ethical issues to be had, but as a basic principle, it does absolve me of the self-torturous occupation with my agenda as an interpreter.

This week’s article was all about interpretation ethics. Besides from recapping the code as we’ve discussed it in class, it brings some real-world examples of collision between the Code and a person’s own ideals and moral principles.

I will use one such example to clarify the remaining dilemma I have with the ethical code:

An interpreter was sent to interpret for a deaf patient who was visiting a gynecologist about having her uterus removed. The interpreter notices that clearly, the doctor is not giving this patient all the care (he believes) she deserves, and it is easy to see that the deaf patient hasn’t a clue that she’s being mistreated.

What would I do?

Well, if it was Mom and Dad, I’d probably turn the table and use loud-volume complaints and admonition, as my agenda is clear: I’m here for Mom and Dad, and I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about the doctor’s interests so long as he takes care of them.

As soon as I do that, I’m no longer a sign language interpreter, end of story. I’m a “signer representing my deaf parents”. Cocoon firmly stated that anyone who’s ever signed to his family (or even his friends!) has never “interpreted”. Knowing how to sign does not perforce mean “being an interpreter”.

The article offers one interesting possibility of upholding the code without hurting the interpreter’s conscience: resigning the instant there’s a clash between ethical and personal principles.

The issue, however, remains for me unsettled. In my case, I would resign and then immediately become very, very subjective and particular about what happened. I would admonish the doctor for his malpractice, I would feverishly explain to and negotiate with the deaf patient, even to the point of arguing with her that going through this or that length of research and so on would be the best thing for her.

I would be making a stand, I would be appointing myself as an advocate and guardian without receiving this appointment from my deaf client.

My instinct would probably be to self-appoint myself as a guardian for the deaf without their consent, merely because it’s a life-long habit. I’ve yet to find a deaf person who didn’t happily accept that, by the way. I’m sure that a lot of deaf people would refuse to be belittled (although I don’t actually belittle, not consciously, anyhow), and I will immediately cease playing “Signman” at their expense if they ask me to, but still, this is what I would do by default, unless requested otherwise. I highly respect and revere the Deaf, and I only feel obliged to appoint myself as their “savior” because I’m horribly empathetic to them, not because I think they’re weak or incompetent.

So, in conclusion, I would still be breaking the code, or be improper by exploiting the information I received (the doctor being an ass) to promote my personal (and the deaf patient’s) agenda.

As of right now, I have no idea what I would do that aligns itself both with the Code and with my moral principles. And that, frankly, keeps me awake at night.

In class, Cocoon suggested that it is proper (and okay with the Code) to not so much as intervene in anyone’s favor in the interpretation-scene, but to simply supply the patient with some healthy advice that doesn’t assume any actual responsibility or, heavens forbid, requires contamination of spoken content with agenda-ridden signs.

She suggested, for example, to cordially ask the patient if she’s sure of what she’s going to do and humbly recommend her to consider her actions (such as signing the form that authorizes her surgery) well before anything potentially harmful happens.

This is a prudent and somewhat cunning alternative to breaking the code or letting a deaf person rot in the course of upholding it, but I still think it’s problematic. In a way, I AM breaking the code, or at least jabbing it hard enough to leave a crack. Personally? I’d do just what Cocoon suggested because I haven’t thought of a better idea. Perhaps I’d be a bit more adamant with my “cordial suggestions”, but I admit that I wouldn’t replace Mom and Dad with the deaf patient, I have to remain professional, for everyone’s sake.

Getting more intimate with sign language and the deaf is like a dream coming true for me, but I’m appalled as I wrestle with the horrible acknowledgment of the fact that sign language interpreters and the Deaf can never be friends and “work together” at the same time. The power to mediate between the hearing and the Deaf creates a chasm between Hearing and Deaf. The all-encompassing notion that one side is impaired and depended on the other makes the politics of this situation too cumbersome. I believe that although not impossible, being a professional sign language interpreter to a Deaf friend is highly unlikely.

I find this notion to be the most tragic conclusion from this course imaginable.

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