There exist in America two separate and distinct Deaf Cultures. The organic and the manufactured.
The organic culture developed, well, organically, for lack of a better starting point when Adam and Eve gave birth to a child who is Deaf.
For an interpreter this organic culture is all important because it puts our work in perspective.
Why do we communicate? We communicate so we don’t die. Imagine to Neanderthals crossing a frozen tundra, what would they want to say to each other? “Where can I find safe water?” Or “If I sleep here will an animal eat me?” We communicate so we don’t die. We are part of this life and death process.
Why did Sign Language develop? Sign Language developed because it had to. It is the most efficient means of communicating information visually.
It is necessary to communicate and necessity breeds simplicity.
Let me say that again.
Necessity breeds simplicity.
Sign Language, in its purest form (no matter the host country, in mine it’s American Sign Language) is the most simple and efficient means of communication visually.
Interpreting students often get confused about the complexity of movement, form and meaning, but they don’t need to. It’s not alchemy or a mysterious incantation. It is the simplest, most efficient means of communicating information visually. Don’t make it more than that (that being said don’t ever lose the geeky excitement of how cool it is to know how to Sign. It’s cool. It is!)
The problem appears in the second, unnecessary, manufactured deaf “culture.”
Now we get into my research, not yet completed, but the subject of an upcoming paper. I have touched on it in past posts, most specifically:
I would ask you to read the section of the above post entitled “The Argument” rather than have me reiterate it all here.
This manufactured deaf culture assumes that people who are Deaf are somehow constantly depressed because they yearn to be hearing (see almost everything AG Bell ever write on the subject). I’ve met many people who are Deaf that can list the ways life could be easier if they were hearing, but that doesn’t mean they want to give up who they are or suffer though surgeries or mechanical augmentation for it.
Life would be easier for me if I was taller. But I’m not willing spend time on the rack, have my shins surgically extended or walk with stilts all the time for it.
Hearing and height may be a funny comparison, but the comparison works because world is built by men who assume you are hearing and about six feet tall… and also a man, but I’ve already covered that too.
The problem with the dichotomy of cultures, a problem for both the Deaf community and Interpreters, is that the organic Deaf culture lives in the hearts and minds of the Deaf community and its mores have developed through the realities of their everyday lives while the manufactured deaf culture is built upon assumptions that the majority hearing community can easily digest and regurgitate on people who are Deaf without the need to make any effort to understand if those assumptions are correct or not (the erroneous premise in the hearing mind being “if I was deaf I wouldn’t want to be deaf and so people who are D/deaf obviously don’t want to be either).
The manufactured deaf “culture” is the prevalent view of the majority, “hearing people,” and so will be the starting place for any cultural negotiation.
Cultural negotiations can happen everyday, anytime a person who is Deaf request an interpreter. The problem that we must remember is that the parties to this negotiation are often negotiating from two different cultural perspectives. Perspectives that they each understand to be “D/deaf Culture”-organic and manufactured.
The hearing party in any contact with a person who is Deaf is working from what I call Dysphoric Power. The hearing party have almost all the power but a highly skewed view of the reality of what a person who is Deaf needs because the hearing party’s perspective is filtered through this manufactured cultural lens. A lens that they view as “true” because it matches their worldview.
The practical upshot is we must approach every interaction with the majority hearing community understanding that the discussion is a “two-parter.” First, correcting hundreds of years of manufactured nonsense imbedded in the hearing community as the level of genetic memory, and second, advocate with correct principles.
Well ok, no. It’s not easy. But it’s worth it, because it is literally life and death.
The majority of the reasons the ADA has been less beneficial to the Deaf community than any other group under its definition of a protected class is that it is written almost entirely through the lens of Dysphoric Power. It assumes the manufactured deaf culture is accurate.
As I said, this is literally life and death for members of the Deaf community.
“But,” I hear you saying, “modeling appropriate cultural norms is the purview of the Deaf community, not hearing Interpreters!”
So, what does all this mean for Interpreters?
In his book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People author Stephen R Covey identifies Habit 5 as:
Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
Think about that. It’s a theme to which I keep returning.
Do we, as Interpreters, invest the time and effort required to really understand the culturally norms of the community in which we work?
Not just trite observations on what people who are Deaf do (when you ask a person who is Deaf what they did yesterday, their answer starts with “when I was in kindergarten…”) but a real usable understanding of why the norms of the Deaf community are as they are (people who are Deaf get their information through direct instruction, not overhearing, so they must build context into every discussion in order to make sure the person with whom they are communicating has sufficient background information to understand their true meaning; failing to build this context is considered rude).
True, studied understanding is the only way to overcome the problems created by cultural dualism.
My students hear this over and over, “it’s important to know, but it’s more important to know why you know.”
The only weapon against ignorance is knowledge.
Not gut instinct (psst. Especially if your gut is hearing).
True understanding grows.
Just knowing is sometimes enough to help guide your word choice and intonation when interpreting for a person who is Deaf while they explain what being Deaf really means in the face of Dysphoric Power.
And sometimes, just sometimes, that feather like weight is enough to tilt the axis of the world.