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Casting Stones

There has been a lot of static in the field of ASL interpreting lately.  Street Leverage, in particular, seems to have sighted down the barrel of "deaf heart" and decided to blow away any and all targets that don't conform to their particular world view of how interpreters should fit into the Deaf world (or even IF we fit into the Deaf world).  The consensus from their parade of blogs?  Hearing interpreters (except CODAs) all suck and can never hope to be competent, much less skilled.  That's depressing.

As an interpreter working in this field for over 15 years, I am dismayed at the idea that I have given so much time and effort to a profession that is suddenly unappreciated and scorned by the very people we strive to serve.  I understand that a lot of the negative criticism is not necessarily aimed at me.  I've long seen the stories of the atrocities committed at the hands of unqualified quacks (I won't call them interpreters because they're usually not) and they make my heart hurt for my clients.  Those stories give me guidance on how NOT to be an interpreter.  They bring me inspiration that I can do a necessary function well, bringing solace to people's lives, and make a small difference every day I go to work.  Now I'm being told that those ideas are wrong, that I suck, and that I am a part of the oppressive regime holding down Deaf people.

The problem is I'm not that guy.  I treat my job as a practice profession that I am dedicated to improving every day. I didn't get into this field because I wanted to help those "poor deaf people" or even because the money is good.  I got into it because my parents were spoken language interpreters and language has always fascinated me.  I liked ASL because it was something different (French? *yawn* Done that.  Japanese? *yikes* No thanks).  I stuck with it because the job opportunities were amazing (not the money, you jaded wag.  The experience.).  My first gig out of school was with a dive school teaching a Deaf student to be an underwater welder who later went on to work on the oil rigs in the Gulf.  I spent six hours a day in a dive suit on the floor of Puget Sound interpreting between the student underwater and the teacher in the control booth issuing guidance over a radio.  I've climbed ice mountains, jumped out of planes, stood next to Presidents, been to the Middle East, cruised all over the world, danced with rock stars, been on international television, and learned more about every conceivable subject than I could ever possibly have imagined.

Do I do this job altruistically?  Of course not.  I make a good living that I can use to support my family and my own goals of travel and entertainment.  The work itself is titillating.  Not only do I get to sample knowledge from an indescribably vast array of sources, but I get to play with language in the process.  I get to find shiny pebbles on the beach of language and share them with my clients and colleagues.  And, in the process, I get to help really important outcomes occur.  I get to be a part of babies being born, dreams being reached, worlds discovered (figuratively AND literally), and great, glorious connections being made.  Sometimes, I even save lives.

I once had a battle royale with an ER nurse who wouldn't let me in to where the patient was being taken because he'd "already been intubated."  It took a lot of arguing to get her to understand that a conscious patient always had a right to know what was being said to them, regardless of what language they used and that a Deaf patient could still communicate freely while intubated when they still had use of their hands.  I got into the room mere seconds before they injected the patient with penicillin, which I happened to know from working with the guy before that he was allergic to that drug.  I saved them from killing him or maiming him.  I did that.  And, yes, that felt pretty good.  We can argue about whether my interjecting was a violation of the Code of Ethics (as it was then) or of the Code of Professional Conduct (as it is now), but my intervention saved his life and I would willingly take that action every time I was put in that situation.

Because here's the secret that this new anti-interpreter movement isn't telling you: most of us are human beings.  We do our work because we believe that what we do is mutually beneficial.  We get a good living doing something that matters and our consumers get access to each other's thoughts and ideas in a way that is (hopefully) transparent and smooth.  We make mistakes.  This field is new and the theory and practice is evolving at a frightening speed with which it is difficult to keep pace.  Taking to the internet to vent the rage and frustration against interpreters is perfectly understandable and I will gladly attend and learn what I may so that I do not commit similar offense.  Lumping us in with the hacks and quacks and dismissing us all as hopeless?  Not an effective way to bring about positive change.

The only change I see this vitriol causing is the quiet departure of some of the best and brightest in our field.  Aye, there's the rub. If you constantly cast aspersions upon us, we will get so beat down that we'll simply....leave.  And then what?

Edit Update #1:  This blog was translated to ASL and presented at the 2014 RID conference.  This translation was not authorized and the specific use of this blog was not approved.

Edit Update #2: This blog was previously titled "Saving Lives" as an attempt to focus on professional interpreters making decisions that violate our rules, but do so for the sake of the Deaf community.  However, this has been widely misinterpreted and most of the criticism I have received has focused on the perceived ego this title implies.  I agree that this is easily misinterpreted.  I have changed the title to "Casting Stones" to re-focus the argument on the public pillory we subject professional interpreters to while ignoring the fact that most of the worst stories feature individuals who are not interpreters by any yardstick we have available to measure and determine the awarding of that title.