On Voicing

This month, I will cycle through my fourth designated interpreter in nine years and begin working with a new interpreter. As the only tenure-track or tenured deaf university professor in Canada without speech privilege and who doesn’t teach ASL, the stakes of working with a designated or academic staff interpreter are different for me than from how they are for deaf professors who speak for themselves in meetings, lectures, and presentations. Some of these issues are discussed in Writing as Being: On the Existential Primacy of Writing for a Deaf Scholar.

A main feature of both being a deaf professor without speech privilege and being a designated or academic staff interpreter is that no one is really prepared for either role or for navigating around what these roles entail. Take an average student in a 3-year community college interpreter training program (give or take a year depending on program prerequisites and format). These programs generally focus on a machine model of English-to-ASL interpretation. Along with promoting ideologies regarding standard ASL varieties that signal affiliation with particular institutions, these programs generally seem to view deaf people as consumers, patients, and clients rather than as collaborators and professionals. Interpreter agencies further entrench these ideologies and regimes of behaviour.

In short, interpreter training program graduates are generally not prepared to work with deaf professors for whom the conveyance of information from ASL-to-English has particularly high stakes. In other words, the deaf professor may not sound (much) like a professor. However—and I cannot emphasize this too strongly—if interpreters only signed up for the jobs that they are trained for, then there would be even fewer deaf professors.

We learn how to be deaf people in this world not from normative standards for language and behaviour but from other deaf—and deafblind—people. This is why John Lee Clark’s Against Access resonates so strongly. All too often for deaf and deafblind people, access is placed at the centre as if it was the only aim of an encounter, instead of connection and dialogue. A machine model of sign language interpreting means that an interpreter can be a barrier to connection instead of facilitating it. Instead of confronting the world on our own terms, deaf people can be held hostage by systems that view us as a means to an end, of access for its own sake.

Thinking this way, as John wrote to me, can we abandon the idealized notion of equivalence? What if the goal is not (only) to sound like a hearing professor but to construct understanding as a mutual endeavour on all sides? What would “fumbling toward articulation, toward a message” look like in the classroom, faculty meeting room, or conference room?