Note from Uncle Dale: Sometimes You Need to Walk Away

I am sitting on a plane on the last leg of an 11 day family vacation. Nope not a typo. Eleven.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Actually it was. They call vacations like this “the trip of a lifetime,” mainly, I have learned, because you only want to do it once!

My older kids are in college and getting married and so this was the last chance we may have to get out of town with just our own little unit.

Travel has been very important to us as a family. When my oldest was 15 my lovely bride, Aunt SuperTam, started to see the short time we had together and said “we need to take more vacations as a family! We need to have those memories!” In a strange way that is what has driven much of my professional life since. We recall our family vacations with tag lines like “was that RID or NAD?” and “at which college were you guest lecturing when we…”.

This past 11 days was a rare pure vacation (ok one dinner meeting with a Computational Linguist. But that dinner was a pure joy. I have not seen Dan in far too many years and I realize I do not want that many years to pass again before I spend an evening in the presence of his brilliance. That is not hyperbole. And, to be honest I pre-taped an on-line workshop… but that was three hours out of the 11 days).


For 11 days I walked away. I had no email access by choice, no phone or text access for half the time because I was at sea. I walked away.


Everywhere I went I found myself doing the “Sign Scan.” My eyes constantly darted around the crowd, on the ship, in the theme parks, always seeking the marked handshape and intentional movement that sets off my ‘Deaf’dar.

I caught it only once while we were boarding a ride and group of family and friends who are Deaf were exiting. We had a hasty “Deaf? Nope hearing, interpreter. Whq eyebrows “you where you?” We exchanged States and the flow of the crowd carried them away. I saw them only once after that. The ride had a feature that allowed recently disembarking riders to spray current riders with water. They hung out to make sure to baptize our new and brief meeting. We flashed 🤟’s all around and they were gone. (Full disclosure, I also had one encounter with hearing hands as well. At one of the theme parks we visited two ASL students from a local college saw the “Rule One” shirt I was wearing-I stand by my swag!-and they asked me, in ASL with hands that could not yet think for themselves, if I “got it from the Uncle Dale’s Rules Blog.” I replied, “kinda.” They both looked at me with WHq eyebrows. I explained, “shirt? Uncle Dale himself give-me himself.” They smiled and both signed, “lucky!” and were gone. I agree. I am lucky).

After the brief at-a-distance meeting with the Deaf family my wife laughed and asked if I felt “better now.”

I did.

I miss ASL when I am away from it, even briefly.

On the first day of our cruise I presented myself to guest services and told them I am a certified ASL interpreter. I explained that I did not know if there were any persons who are Deaf aboard and was not expecting them to tell me, but I wanted them to know I was around if there was an emergency and to let them know that I would be willing and able if needed. I do that in situations where there are large crowds and the possibility of an emergency. It has nothing to do with Deafness or even ASL. It comes from the one and only time I have ever needed to use my CPR training. But that is a story for another time.

This story is about walking away from interpreting. Now I am well aware that Rule 73 states that it is not possible to walk away from interpreting; like the mafia once you’re in you have to die to get out (the fact that I interpret now is proof of that Rule’s truth).

However, at one time or another each of us stands at the threshold and says “never again.”

If you are aghast and saying to me, “Not me! Never! I would never walk away from interpreting or ASL!” Remember, if you are reading this your long life is not yet over. If you have walked away and you are reading this… you left, but you couldn’t leave it alone, could you. Grin.

For those who can’t imagine the idea of walking away I give you this basic truth, you can only visit a land that is not your own for so long before you have to go home. (CODAs, you have dual citizenship. Having never been a CODA I cannot speak to your experience, I can only rely on my observations and I have seen many CODAs take long long walks in the hearing world pausing only occasionally to check-in with their Deaf family at “home.” But again I can only speak from my center not yours).

For the non-CODAs, sooner or later something gets to you. Vicarious trauma, crisis fatigue, or, as it was for me, the emotional distress caused by my consistent proximity to social injustice just wore me out and clouded my judgment.

For many years I worked as a staff interpreter for the State agency. I was sent to interpret in court, or at the jail or at prison. A lot. For a while not a day went by that I was not at one of those three venerable institutions. I was a witness to institutionalized audism that still makes me shudder.

I saw judges and lawyers make agreements before they consulted the Deaf client, before they ever called me in. My job was to interpret while they told the Deaf Client the fate they had decided without the Deaf Client’s input. I interpreted for judges ordering Deaf Clients to parenting classes that I knew would refuse to provide interpreters, or inaccessible drug programs or anger management treatment when the Deaf Client had every right to be angry! I interpreted while Deaf inmates were denied treatment programs because they were “not set up to deal with special needs.” I interpreted for inmates denied parole because of their “attitude” which meant they did not follow the CO’s commands-because they could not understand them. I found it harder and harder to hold onto even the myth of neutrality.

Then came the case.

I will spare you the gory details but at its core was a child for whom a day of just physical abuse was a vacation. When the first report of suspected abuse came through intake someone wrote DEAF in large black letters on the file. It was then passed from investigator to investigator, each of whom apparently thought “I don’t know where to begin, someone else would surely be better suited. So, the report sat, uninvestigated, for years. The damage to this child’s body and soul compounded daily until someone was finally ordered to follow up after an audit.

That case changed me. I was done saying “someone should do something” and decided someone was going to be me.

And that was it. I quit interpreting and went to law school. I walked away with no plan that I would never return.

Ready? I am about to confess a sin. Ready? There was at least one Deaf student (or more) in my law school class.

I kept my hands in my pockets. I hid.

I needed to be single minded on law school. I did not want to be sucked back in or distracted because I had never met a “PLEASE FOR ME” I could turn down. I walked away. For my first year of law school. I hid (except from my train posse… that is also another story).

Just as my second year was beginning I was walking across campus and I passed a Deaf friend from Utah… it took me a second to remember that we were in Boston. We looked at each other so out of context and both of us came to our senses at the same time. After hugs and catch-up (he didn’t know I was in law school. He was in a distance learning grad program and had to be on campus for three weeks each year) we decided to grab lunch. He had a quick stop he had to make, so we walked and talked and suddenly I found myself in the office of Accessibility Services for the University. I walked straight into a group of Interpreters who had seen me, often, but had no idea I was fluent. I was caught. A minute or so later the interpreter coordinator stepped out of her office and gave me a combination death-stare & come-here finger. That was it. I was back in. Before I left I had my schedule for the next semester.

You know what? It was different.

It was fun again.

I had balance. I could feel the joy of interpreting when I was dressed in the solid dark colored shirt and fight all of those social injustices when I put on my lawyer tie.

I am not saying that it has not been without its bumps and knocks. I have to jealously guard the wall between my roles; turning down appointments and referring legal clients to avoid conflicts. However, as I said, what I found was balance.

Wow. I did not start this Note with the intent of writing So You Don’t Want to be an Interpreter Anymore (nothing but love to Bob and Janice).

My intent was to say sometimes even jobs you love can burn you out. And sometimes you have to walk away. Sometimes for a little while and sometimes with the intent that it be forever. But remember, forever is a long long time. There are very few actual forevers in this life.

I love to interpret. It blessed my life every day I can do it. But I could not say that if I had not walked away and gotten my head and heart together.

Sometimes you have to walk away. There is no shame in it. Sometimes you come back and there is only joy in that.

Rule 441

Guilty, Not Guilty or No Contest… hey don’t look at me.

I mean, sure I know you have to look at me, that’s how this works, but don’t look at me for advic… think yourself decide shrug/grin.

Rule 432

Freelance Interpreters get exposed to colds, flu, lice, bedbugs, and a cornucopia of bacteria by going out to appointments. VRS and Education interpreters have these goodies delivered right to them by students and co-workers.

Note from Uncle Dale: “Nothing” May Actually Be Better

Hello one and all!  Uncle Dale (you know me, I’m the one typing on my phone).

This is actually my second swing at this Note.  I posted it once before but I was not happy with it. It was easy to misunderstand the point and it may cause some emotional response.  I am expecting it and ready for your comments.  I ask only that you think about the overall point before hammering me on any single point. Also remember I have a hard time shutting the attorney out completely when I write, and I have invited him in on this Note.

Today is alllll about the phrase “well, it’s better than nothing” specifically when a hearing person uses it to excuse bringing in an unqualified interpreter.

This is a hot issue right now, and I have heard the phrase from hearing people, who have no idea, after they finish chuckling about those videos from the Florida news conferences. They laugh and then get very pensive and say, “still, I guess it’s better than nothing.”


When I have to deal with my brother’s friend who has a small business and spouts off things like:

“Hearing Impaired people are just ungrateful! They keep complaining that they don’t want to write back and forth during appointments, so I brought my niece to help me out with them. I go to all that trouble even though I think we’re getting along an fine, because they keep complaining they want an interpreter (as often as not he still says ‘translator’), so I get them an interpreter and now they complain about THAT TOO!”

You realize you didn’t get an interpreter right?  You got your 16-year-old niece who has had like three community ed “Signing SEE is Fun” classes.  

“She did a real nice job.”

You are evaluating how well she did based on… the Deaf Client complaining?

“Well I think she did fine. It looks really pretty when she does the Sign Language and her mother says her teacher says she could be an interpreter. ”

Could be, not is.

“Anyway,  It’s better than nothing.”

Using an unqualified Sign Language interpreter is actually notbetter than nothing.” If you don’t have a qualified (certified) interpreter then, for several reasons “nothing” is almost always better!

I felt the collective shudder of at least some within the Deaf community.  But, please let me state my case.

When the Client has nothing hearing people may tend to make some little bit of effort or take the smallest bit of responsibility for the communication! (well, hearing people with good intentions may anyway). With nothing hearing people at least feel compelled to invest little time and energy into making sure communication happens, even as a reflex. It’s mostly exaggerated lip movements and yelling but sometimes they will even slow down and start to think. It’s not perfect, but it is educational.

More important however is when there is nothing hearing people may give a little “communication benefit of the doubt” to the person who is Deaf. When there is nothing it’s easier to convince the hearing person that despite all the fish mouth, yelling and modern dance-maybe, just maybe-the whole message might not have been effectively communicated, and maybe, just maybe, they should not expect that the person who is Deaf actually understood everything by magic or divine intervention. The hearing person might not get to all the way to that epiphany on their own, but is more apt to understand that communication was “spotty at best,” when it’s pointed out that there was nothing to make it effective.

But, if you put any person in the room, pick them off the street, and then have that person waive their hands around, you will never convince the hearing person that hand waiving is not a magic incantation that restores hearing.

“They wanted Signs so I brought in a person who Signs; my niece.  They said it would make communication easier, but now they are trying to tell me they didn’t pay on the Amortization schedule because they didn’t understand it!  What an excuse! I explained it very clearly”

So you had your niece Sign this explanation for them?

“Yep and she told me they didn’t even ask a question.”

Ok. We will get to that in a second. Does your niece know what amortization is?  

“She doesn’t need to know, she just had to Sign the word.”

Does your niece know what the Sign for amortization is?

“What kind of silly question is that?  I think she just spelled it out.”

If she spelled it out what would that do for the people who are Deaf except show them how to spell a-m-o-r-t-i-z-a-t-i-o-n and assume that it is a word and that your niece spelled it right. Was she teaching spelling or vocabulary?

“Well I am sure they would have asked if they had questions. Why didn’t they ask some questions?”

You said that twice now. Do you know for a fact they didn’t ask a question?  

“They waived their hands a lot to each other. I’m sure my niece would have told me.”

Only if they understood enough to know the question they should ask or if she understood them enough to understand their question, you mean.

“Why wouldn’t she? She does that Signing for the ‘death’ real well!  No they are just trying to get out of the deal!  They wanted Sign Language and I gave them Sign Language they can’t pretend now that it wasn’t the RIGHT Sign Language. Even I know that Sign Language is universal or maybe not the whole universe but international…”

And so on and so on.

Put a warm body in the chair, no matter how limited their skills, and wham! for all the hearing people realize it’s like the message was proclaimed through a burning bush.

Put a warm body in the chair and I have seen judges and juries begin the trial with the assumption that communication was effective, and then hold on to that assumption despite all evidence to the contrary.  “Nothing” is sometimes better as it shows to juries and judges that there is no POSSIBLE way communication could have happened at all, let alone been effective.

I read a police report once where the officer interviewed the drunk Deaf suspect using the equally drunk hard-of-hearing guy who happened to be sitting in the back seat.  On the stand when confronted with the Defendant’s denial that he understood what the officer said, the officer testified under oath “oh no, he understood every word! EVERY WORD!”

How do you know that for sure?

“Because [the other drunk passenger] was waiving his hands around as fast as I was talking!”


Truth be told, if there is not a qualified interpreter I’m not even a huge fan of writing to communicate. Because it often has the same “magical” impact as nonsensical hand waiving.  In fact written communication proves less beneficial than “nothing” all the time, because hearing people (Judges especially for some reason) seem to have a kind of special blindness that impacts their ability to see words written by persons who are Deaf as anything less than pure Shakespearean poetry.

I’m gonna get all lawyery on you for a minute now.

In a case called Patrice v Murphy for example the Judge found that the Deaf Plaintiff’s position-that an interpreter was necessary for effective communication with the police-was a very narrow view of the capabilities of people who are Deaf (Notice the hearing centric assumption that use of ASL or of an interpreter was somehow a lesser capability-let me point out that you can’t do it, your honor).

In the decision the Judge decided an interpreter was not needed and (I swear this is true) potentially dangerous for the police officers. The Judge stated:

Where plaintiff is able to communicate with the officers using printed forms and her written statements, with no apparent difficulty or loss of meaning (as was the case here), no additional accommodation is required. 

Read that part again for me would you? Got it?  The Judge based his assessment of “no apparent difficulty” on this writing sample taken directly from the police report the Plaintiff filled out. Ready? It said:

Jim thought I use the knife to kill it was misunderstand as I use it to hold the page of cooking book. Jim put knife away I was enough made to hit him He hits me back continue fight. He took my hands squeeze bend fingers all way His leg hold my head and hit my back. My daughter Katherine was the witness. All this morning was hard Jim used bad verbal languages on my both daughters that influence my feelings mixed to carry until now I blow my temper. no weapon. just use my first.

She got arrested and based on this writing sample the Judge determined that she had no difficulty communicating in writing.

Oh, they also gave her a card with the Miranda Rights on it and the officers said they were not sure if she understood it-but the Judge quieted their troubled hearts and found their concerns lacked relevance because she acknowledged that she understood by signing her name at each place the officer pointed.  (Total proof she understood don’t ya think? NOT).

I look at this case and have to wonder, if the Judge can read what she wrote and still say “oh that’s fine!!!” wouldn’t she have been better off with nothing!

I had a case where the police improperly searched the home of a Deaf person (I can’t even say Deaf suspect, because they could not connect him in any way to the matter–quick run down, for reasons obnoxious the police jumped to the conclusion that a murder victim they found was Deaf… she was not… and decided to knock on the door of every person in the area named in a police report along with the words Deaf, Hearing-Impaired or Hard of Hearing. People tend to kill within their own cultural group so lets at least recognize that the police acknowledged Deaf as a culture.)  The Deaf person said he did not understand what the police wanted.  The police said he was being belligerent (which is odd because “belligerent” is not an exigent circumstance allowing for a search without a warrant.)

The police hung their case on a series of written notes between themselves and my Client.  The notes consisted mainly of the police writing questions and my Client either responding “I don’t understand,” or with a non-sequitur.  The Judge (who I respect highly) read the notes and saw, as he said, “question, answer, question, answer, it looks like a conversation.”

I said but the answers don’t match the questions!

The Judge said, “I’m not seeing that.”

In frustration I said that even the police report stated that communication was not effective!

Well.  The Attorney for the police department DID NOT LIKE THAT! He denied that the police report said anything like that.

So, I had him read the police report into the record (ok all you attorneys I know the pitfalls… I was ready for them). The attorney for the police department read, “communication was difficult,” and “communication was very difficult,” and “we struggled to communicate,” and at least 5 other similar references.  I folded my arms in a SEEEEEEEE THERE IT IS, kind of way.

The Attorney for the police department said “difficult and not effective are not the same thing.”


The Judge said, “do you have any case law that says I should interpret ‘very difficult’ to mean ‘not effective?'”

No, I said. But I can give you legal support as to why you should.

The Judge said “Go ahead.”

Ok. In order to gain entrance to this Courthouse a person has to walk up three sets of stairs, five stone steps parallel to the street, a landing, five stone steps perpendicular to the street, a landing, and five more parallel to the street up to the door. Am I right?

The Judge pondered that for a moment and then said “If you want the Court to take judicial notice of that it will.”

Please do, I replied. Now, on the North side of the building there is a long ramp that leads from the street to the old prisoner’s transport door. What is the purpose of that ramp?

The Judge replied, “that is for ADA compliance, because with the steps it would not be possible for persons using wheelchairs to access the building.”

Your Honor, of course it would be possible, it would just be very difficult. A person could flop out of the wheelchair, strap it on their back, and crawl arm over arm up the three sets of steps and right through the door, but! it would be a struggle and very difficult!

Moreover, we would never subject a person in a wheelchair to that kind of humiliation.  It would be undignified and embarrassing.  But the police department is arguing that it is fine to subject my Client to the indignity and humiliation of a communication process that it labels very difficult for him because… well, I’m not sure why. They do however appear to think people using wheelchairs are more deserving of dignity and respect than a person who is Deaf even though the same law is being applied.

The Judge leaned back and smiled (ruefully) and said “I feel a bit like you set me up.”

You asked the question your Honor.

So, there it was in his lap.  He thought for a minute and said, “I am not sure I want to make new law today.”

And that was it.  I also was not interested in making new law, but I was interested in enforcing what I think the law already says. So I filed an appeal. The case settled before we had a real answer.

With “nothing” there would have been no question.  With no written conversation everyone would know effective communication is not happening.

But, as I said, if someone is sitting in the chair, waiving their hands, people assume some magic spell of understanding-or when almost anything is written on a paper the words become some kind of mystical incantation that calls forth the old gods of effective communication.  When anyone tries to point out that neither is true and that effective communication is not happening, then hearing people always seem to blame the person who is Deaf for not understanding.

The Florida unqualified interpreter videos are not funny. They are a tragic symptom of a systemic problem.

One last stop before we’re done.  There will be more than a few of you, Deaf and hearing, who will hate this! But, it has to be said.  Its not just the unqualified interpreters that are the problem.  The ADA and 504 are not magic talismans that create access by their very existence in this world. They must be enforced and if they are not then they continue to be useless.

What does that mean? It means that if a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or a training course says “we wont provide an interpreter but you can bring your own,” bringing your own just makes the problem worse. It means if a person who is Deaf calls a qualified/certified interpreter and says “I asked my doctor for an interpreter and he says I have to bring my own,” or an interpreter calls me and says “can the ADA make that lawyer pay me because I HAVE TO go with my friend to her meeting tomorrow or she’ll have no interpreter.  I know I should get paid but I can’t leave my friend with nothing!


Yes you can. And (gulp) yes you should!

Because NOTHING is the only way to fix this! NOTHING is the strongest basis for a lawsuit that may bring about real change! If you, as a qualified interpreter show up at the appointment then 1) there is no legal reason the Lawyer or Doctor or Accountant needs to pay you; not under the ADA anyway (There may be an argument under quantum meruit but that is a way different topic); and, 2) if you show up it is harder to make the case in court that the Lawyer or Doctor or whatever failed to afford effective communication, because if you were there, then there was effective communication. communication actually happened, it was not denied.  The case all but goes away because the person who is Deaf was not denied access (yes there are actually some other legal arguments under the ADA… but they are so much more technical to argue than “no interpreter = no effective communication.”)

In short, if you show up you are letting the Doctor or Lawyer or Other get away with it-you are a Band-Aid on a gushing artery.

It sucks.  I know. We all thought the ADA would be the end of the problem when it was really just the start of the journey.  Almost 30 years on this road and we are still fighting the same fights. And I know it must be exhausting for the Deaf community, the same old oppressive bull. But it will never end unless you are willing to fight.  From a legal point of view to start to fix the problem, nothing is once again better.  I would so love to get put out of the business of suing professionals for this oppressive petty crap, but I don’t see that happening soon.

Members of the Deaf community, forgive me. I know I just told interpreters not to go with you to that VERY IMPORTANT APPOINTMENT.  I’m sorry.  But, the Doctor or Lawyer you are meeting with is like a bad boyfriend, they are not going to commit to do right by you (by paying for interpreters) as long as they can get it for free.

Before anyone accuses me I DID NOT SAY DON’T VOLUNTEER!  There are many good and worthy causes for which interpreters should provide services for free.  But if the interpreter is the ONLY volunteer in the room it is just another form of oppression perpetrated on the Deaf community.

I hate to tell you all this.  I wish the world was a better place.  I wish the ADA was easy to enforce, but its not.  The ADA is, well, it’s really tough to enforce. But its really important that we actively engage, hearing and Deaf, in enforcement! The only way it will be enforceable tomorrow is if the violation today is so obvious that a hearing judge or a bunch of hearing people on the jury can understand it or, lets be honest, can’t figure out how not to enforce it; and they will search for reasons not to enforce it! It sucks. But… it’s better than nothing?

Ok. I know it’s Uncle Dale’s Rules for Interpreters, and I spouted a bunch of lawyer stuff today but… it’s the water we all swim in.   We need to collectively (both interpreter and Deaf consumer) think more about exactly how much we know about the ADA and 504 and IDEA when we consider how deeply and daily they impact our lives.

I get shocked looks every now and then when I ask a question like, “how does the ADA define a ‘qualified’ interpreter?” And someone says CERTITIFED! and I answer NOPE. I wish. But nope.

I can’t dig into that any more today. Today I am going to bed and fix alll the typos in this thumb typed essay in the morning.  I finally got it typed out though and maybe that’s better than… um, maybe that’s good enough.