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Your Regulations are Written in Blood

There is a story, perhaps a bit apocryphal, that tells of two sailors aboard a ship loading the ship's cargo and laughing together over the safety regulations manual. They mock the lack of common sense the authors had to include such prohibitions like not storing toxic waste in the crew quarters. Overhearing the sailors, the commanding officer quietly cuts into the hilarity.

"Your regulations are written in blood."

Startled, the confused sailors lapse into silence. The officer continues, "someone once did that as a way to save money, valuing profit over human lives. They did it simply because no one told them that they could not. People died before that regulation was written into that manual. Your regulations are written in the blood of those lives lost."

In the controversies that have sprung up from the submission of a bill on licensing in the State of Maryland, I found my head echoing with the reverberation of this lesson. While there were some genuinely good discussions that were collaborative and filled with collegiality, many more of them were unnecessarily hostile, attacking the bill's authors and supporters instead of focusing on the content of the proposed legislation. Sadly, a number of commentators held forth opinions that were entirely selfish and self-serving and seems to have forgotten that the Deaf community we serve was watching.

Licensing of interpreters cannot be reduced to arguments against government oversight. Ideally, we could trust people to simply do the right thing and, surely, the right thing would be to always find the qualified interpreter for the job. We know that this just doesn't happen. Whether it is the weary late-night ER nurse tasked with finding an interpreter at 2 AM or the beleaguered event planner told two days before a massive event that there will be a Deaf participant, there is a legion of hearing people out there who are keeping the gates of access without any training or knowledge on how to handle the requests for entry.

To put it more succinctly: licensing is not about YOU. As an interpreter, you know the intricacies of our profession and what the credentials floating around mean. Expecting these gatekeepers of access to understand all of that is ludicrous and dangerous for the Deaf people seeking to access services via interpretation. Much like the tale told at the beginning, these people are prioritizing other values (i.e. profit, time, convenience, etc) over the right to qualified access. Licensing provides an interpretation of the word "qualified" (which is all the ADA says about us) for the states to use in a meaningful way.

Like all regulations, licensing is not a panacea. For every ten cases of a Deaf person using licensing to gain access previously barred to them, there will be a dozen more examples of people flouting laws, finding ways to skirt the requirements, or even leaving the state entirely in order to practice in a jurisdiction that is unregulated. However, licensing provides a powerful new tool in the arsenal of Deaf advocates.

One of the truths of the interpreting profession is that vicarious trauma is a real and present danger for us. Every interpreter I know can sit around a table and share story after story of places where we witnessed or even inadvertently participated in the oppression of Deaf people that lead to terrible consequences. Lives lost. Bodies damaged. Trauma caused.

Licensing of interpreters is a regulation written in blood. We can laugh at it, rail against it, attempt to skirt it. But doing so mocks the memories and experiences of the Deaf people who have suffered damage at the hands of unqualified and/or unethical people claiming to be interpreters.