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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.

Dear Younger Me,

Right now you are about to graduate from your Interpreter Training Program and you have NO idea what you are getting yourself into.

You don't know that your work will take you into the darkest corners of the human experience possible.  You don't know that there are monsters who walk among us and disability does not discriminate in making those monsters.  You are blissfully unaware of that oily, contaminated feeling you will get when you are forced to do things in your work that make you want to go home and wash your eyes, mouth, and hands in bleach.

Right now you have no sense of what it means to be present when someone is on their knees, weeping the tears of the broken because of something that YOU said to them.  You will not remember that those words weren't yours because you were the one looking into their eyes when their entire world imploded around them.

You will learn to wear your hair in different styles so that rapists cannot easily control you by grabbing your braid or ponytail.  You will select clothes that are contrasting and have suitably high necklines, but (more importantly) are easy for you to run and kick in and have pockets to carry to carry your links to freedom, a.k.a your phone and keys.  Even your underwear will reflect your unwanted education as you choose bras without underwire that may be used as a weapon.

At around ten years in, you will be so burned out from not having a voice and from not even realizing that the cumulative load of the emotional burdens you've borne have overbalanced the weight of Atlas on your shoulders.  You will struggle to get back up again and keep going because now it's been a decade and you've fallen in love with the Deaf community and can't bear to think of leaving them.

Even after you stagger back to your feet and learn to gird yourself against some of these psychic assaults, the tablecloth will be pulled out from you in ways you never even saw coming.  It will come at you in the form of hate for interpreters from your beloved Deaf community.  It will slap you in the face while you're voice interpreting and a Deaf person jumps up on stage and tears apart your mentor, a person you deeply care for, in front of a giant audience of colleagues, teachers, and students.  And yet you had to put voice to those sentiments that make you shiver in recollection because you are a professional and you had to keep going.

You will be forced to interpret for racists, for religious zealots, and for people with opinions on subjects that are VERY different from yours and you will do it, to the best of your ability, because you are a GOOD interpreter and could do nothing less than your very best.  Even when the message makes you want to hurl.  Even when you fear your complicity in ideologies that you would shield your children from with every bone in your body.  Because Deaf people are not children and it is not your job to stand between them and things you think are bad.

You will do all this, my darling, and so much more.  And you will keep on doing it.  Because it is WORTH IT.  Because so many of your happy adult memories were made through interpreting.  They were made with the friends (Deaf and hearing) that you connected with over jobs.  They were made through the Boards you served on and the organizations you supported.   The on-the-job memories that bring you such joy often made no one else happy, but you will be about to burst with the joy of seeing Deaf people achieve in Sisyphean conditions.  It will occur to you afterwards that you contributed in some small part and you will feel pride swelling your chest, but mostly you'll remember the smiles on their faces and the glow that it brought to your heart.

You will do this for the babies you saw birthed.  You will do this for the people who shuffled off the mortal coil while you stood in the room and watched the doctors frantically try to save them.  You will do this for the 5-year-old Deaf child who flew into your arms in the emergency room because the parents were in surgery after an accident and you were the first friendly face to show up.  You will do this for the moments when you find yourself standing on top of mountains, on ocean floors, inside laboratories, crawling through nuclear reactors, skydiving out of airplanes, mushing on dog sleds, swimming with dolphins, climbing glaciers, and going to so many other places you would never have seen if a Deaf person hadn't taken you along for the ride.

You will do all this because you love them all and you need no praise nor platitude about what you can bring to their lives.  The fact that you were there at all will make your life rich beyond compare.  You. Were. There.  A silent witness.  A fly on the wall.  A living record of the best and worst moments of other people's lives.  And nearly twenty years in, you will know what the burned out version of you had yet to figure out: You might change lives and you might not, but the effort will change you.  And you will love it.

So, buckle up, my dear.  It's gonna be a bumpy ride.


Older Me

In the summer of 2015, the RID National Conference was a battleground of controversy fueled by anger and heartache over the extreme growing pains being suffered by our national organization. One of the issues that was addressed was the sunsetting of the Oral Transliteration Certification (OTC). The issue was swept up alongside RID's decisions to move for a moratorium on certification. The outcry was loud and largely resounded with a single theme: You didn't ask US first.

Faced with a loss of authority and fear of what would surely be significant changes, people at the conference rallied around issues where some small measures of power could be wrestled back into the hands of the membership. Two individuals passionately spoke onstage about their OTC credentials and the importance of serving this population. Seeing an opportunity to take back some power, the membership voted to overrule the board of RID and reinstate the OTC exam.

One of the arguments that struck me at the time was the notion that there was a significant population of people using the particular services verified by the OTC credential. Since 1999, the first year the OTC was offered, only 86 people have achieved this certification. That averages out to about five per year and represents only .6% of the total membership of RID. With such a vanishingly small number of providers, I think the argument of a significant client base for this skill set is unfounded from the beginning. In addition, there are arguments to be made that RID's name suggests that we serve people who are culturally "big D" Deaf and, therefore, users of sign language. Certifying oral methods of communication seems to be in conflict with that goal. I don't want to get too far into the politics of branding, but this line of thinking had me considering another option.

Cued Speech.

Cued Speech Chart

If you don't already know, Cued Speech is a system that allows access to the phonemes of English. That often shared statistic of only about 30% of English being visible on the lips is made moot by 8 handshapes, some locational specificity and mouth movements.

As a service provider, I have begun to see requests for Cued Speech as the generation of users first exposed to this method have aged into the marketplace. Cued Speech began to take hold in the 80s and, combined with the advent of mainstreaming programs seeking options to educate the deaf and hard of hearing children now mixed into their classrooms, means we are now seeing increasing numbers of adults embarking upon their professional lives using Cued Speech as their preferred accommodation.

Unfortunately, there are shockingly few providers of Cued Speech at this time.  Even in the D/M/V (a.k.a Deaf mecca), there is not yet a critical mass of users to warrant training and certification of this skill set.  I believe that to be changing and the market for Cued Speech will increase significantly in the next few years. Fortunately, there is already an organization supporting the training and certification of this skill set. In addition, there are training classes being offered around the country, including this one.

I don't think that hanging onto marginal credentials is the best way to serve the community. Looking towards the future and trying to position our skill sets to meet emerging needs is a better use of our time.

I am about to begin my studies with the EUMASLI program next week.  This program, the European Masters in Sign Language Interpreting, brings participants from all over the world to pursue graduate studies in visual language interpreting.  It includes an overview of the languages used by the three partner universities (English, Finnish, German, and their corresponding sign languages) as well as International Sign Language.

I really can't tell you how excited I am for this opportunity.  I think the field of ASL interpreters has had too narrow a focus for too long.  Even worse, we have become complacent in our privilege.  We are floundering right now as we argue and struggle with our identity and what "Deaf heart" means in our practice, but we forget about the dozens of countries where we don't even exist!  We forget about the dozens more where interpreting is still in it's infancy.  And, while we may be only toddlers at this point, we still have an awful lot to share with our colleagues across the globe.

I will be spending my time developing relationships and finding the gems of knowledge I can incorporate in my practice from all of the people in the program, especially those from developing interpreting paradigms.  I hope that I will be able to advance their knowledge as well.

What part of our work do you think should be exported around the world?