A way of responding: Some thoughts on the Allies Conference

Tim Kinsella

25 February 1996

For those of us who attended the recent Allies Conference in Nashua, NH, it's very possible that our professional lives may never seem quite the same. Deaf people, one after another, took the stage and cast down a gauntlet before us, asking interpreters to be honest about the privileges they are afforded as people who can hear. We were urged to search for alternative approaches to listening and responding, and ways to step away from the habitual views of our role--not only as interpreters, but as members of a majority American cultural group. Too often we ignore the status we are granted through our membership in a group of people that, in their eyes, holds the reins of power. Interpreters were challenged to search their own hearts, to reveal their humanity, and be willing to "show their pain".

The faces we show to any individual are circumscribed by how we view ourselves in relation to that person (black to white, straight to gay, man to woman, foreigner to native, hearing to Deaf, and vice versas for all, etc.), as well as the circumstances we are inhabiting at any given moment. Obvious enough. And in our interactions with Deaf people, we often feel circumscribed by our role, the Code of Ethics, and other classic interpreter topics of discussion. But the result of those perspectives, as hearing people and as interpreters, has precluded the many possibilities for relating our humanity to Deaf folks in the same manner that we would otherwise relate to any individual who could hear.

As a profession we have limited ourselves far too much. Limited the degree to which we accept Deaf culture, language, and ways of living. Limited ourselves by populating Interpreter Preparation Programs with non-Deaf teachers and role models. Limited ourselves by coming into the field without adequate language skills to understand the very people we serve, & by holding onto cultural myths and ways of acting and perceiving the world that are anathema when viewed from inside the Deaf perspective. Limiprofessional interactions to a see-no-evil/speak-no-evil paradigm outlined by the Code of Ethics through the eyes of the machine model. And then we act angry and hurt when Deaf people don't understand how we feel or act, and Deaf folks shake their heads and say, "These hearing interpreters just don't get it, do they?" And have little hope that we ever will.

I think "showing your pain" is a metaphor for a way of responding. We've been so concerned about not "adding to, influencing or omitting" in our interactions with Deaf folks that we've forgotten to be human. Or thought we couldn't be. A colleague once said that she didn't see many interpreters joking and teasing with Deaf folks very often. And what about sharing our lives, hanging out when the job is done, not rushing off like some sort of superhero on a mission? Do we make statements of solidarity that go beyond sloganeering? Do we ask for advice and support in areas of our life that are troublesome? Have we let go of our fears of Deaf people? I think many of us still hold onto the fear of saying the wrong thing, of looking foolish, and consequently appear heedless in our response to Deaf folks. And that looks like disrespect, looks like indifference, looks exploitative and oppressive--looks like most *hearing* hearing people. We are not supposed to look that way, if we truly care. We are supposed to relate differently, and if we don't, I think they must feel betrayed.

In her essay, Margo Adair reminds us that,

Maintaining oppression, for those of us who can hear and interact with minority cultures such as the D/deaf community, is only a matter of maintaining the status quo. It does not require any active intent. It means only taking for granted the earned and unearned privileges we receive as being part and parcel of the majority. We must recognize and speak out against those circumstances when our automatic advantages create the dividing line that disadvantages others. "Social change activism without honoring everyone's humanity will lead us nowhere," Adair says. And she goes on to say that,

We can't be oblivious and pretend the privilege is not there in society, or that what just happened, in this situation or that, didn't *really* happen. And we should not hide our humanity behind the glossy professional veneer of us vs. them. We cannot deny the experiences we have as people, nor the experiences we share, because we do share them to some extent with Deaf folks now, though never *as* Deaf folks. Our lives are inextricably woven together, as long as we choose to perform this task as interpreters. We get to walk away as representatives of the majority, back into the land of the hearing--to our hearths and our kin--but we cannot deny our witnessing or act indifferently towards it, or them. We cannot pull out when the going gets rough. And if we do so, we do so at our own peril. We might as well stick the knife into Deaf people ourselves, and then cry, "Out! Out! Foul spot!" as we attempt to wash our hands clean.

The remnants of the machine model have to be eradicated or it will haunt us forever. We must read as much as possible about other civil rights movements. And we have to listen, and listen hard to what Deaf people tell us of their lives and experiences. And do our best to respond in an honest way. We must strive to keep a compassionate heart, for others and ourselves. Tears with Deaf people, perhaps, but no more complaining of our lot. We can state strong opinions to the hearing folks who cannot, will not, or don't have the opportunity to get the message directly from Deaf folks. It is our duty to respond, even when we think that no one will listen. There is still much work to be done for ourselves, to break down our own internal programming, lack of understanding and knowledge, etc. Least that's true for myself. The Sisyphean rock I'm rollin' is mighty large.

Let me close by once again quoting from Adair's insightful essay:

May we all be well, and free from suffering,

Margo Adair's essay, "Will the real Men's Movement please stand up?" can be found in the book, Women respond to the Men's Movement, ed. Kay Leigh Hagan, HarperCollins Publishers (1992).

Acknowledgement and thanks to my colleague, Susan Stange of Boston, MA, whose insights in our e-mail dialogue formed the basis for much of this article.