As the seasonal time for the annual bioethics meeting approaches, I’m thinking hard about how to make things better. This time, after several less than ideal experiences, I’ve decided to offer my assistance in helping the organization identify local interpreters who would be well suited to this assignment. So I reach out to my fellow deaf academics (the Deaf Academics listserv is a wonderful resource) and get a list of names that I offer to the bioethics organization and the association management company. As has been their pattern, my offer of assistance is ignored. As is now a typical result, I go into the conference not knowing whether I will have real access or the dog-and-pony show variety, where all the hearing nonsigners ooh and ahh over the “beautiful signing” while I grit my teeth.
Here’s the thing that many academic conference organizers and academic/professional organizations are unaware of – the landscape for signed language interpreting agencies is still pretty untamed, and over a decade ago, this was even more true. Agencies in places where there is little regulation of signed language interpreters can sign up pretty much anyone who claims to be an interpreter. The best agencies vet their team members; the worst agencies exploit the lack of regulations and quality control by signing up unqualified people to interpret.
Now add to this mix the issue of competitive bidding for jobs, and I think you can guess where I am going with this. Those agencies that hire competent and qualified interpreters will set their rates to a sum that provides market compensation for qualified professionals; fly by night agencies can underbid and often get the job. This definitely counts as a structural harm inflicted on deaf people, but also on all of the people receiving the interpreted product. It always goes both ways — communication access is not just “delivered to deaf people”, but involves the dynamic process of sending and receiving for deaf and hearing people.
Deaf professionals and deaf academics in a particular city or region of the country learn which agencies are to be trusted and which ones are not. We share this information with each other, as we also share names of interpreters we think might be a good match to our deaf academic colleagues on content and style (more on this in a later post).
Hearing nonsigners do not have easy access to this community knowledge, and they usually don’t even know that it is important knowledge, operating instead on the fungible interpreter model, aka “If they’re moving their hands, they are interpreting, right?” Unscrupulous agencies take advantage of this, often marketing their services to institutions that require signed language interpreting on a semi-regular basis, whether this is a medical practice or professional organization.
A twist of epistemic injustice is not unusual here, where the nonsigning hearing person assumes because an interpreter or a representative of an interpreting agency is pleasant, professionally dressed, and competent in English, then the agency must be professional and competent. The deaf person’s protestations to the contrary are disregarded.
So here’s a question: given the shortage of qualified signed language interpreters in the nation, and the signing deaf community knowledge of skilled interpreters and the agencies that provide their services, why not first go to those who so have the expertise to assess whether the interpreting product fits their need?
The reality is that signing deaf people who have provided such feedback are often dismissed by the nonsigning hearing person who has hired the interpreter. This dismissal can take the form of “oh, you just want your friend to interpret” or “oh, you’re being a difficult patient/client/customer” to “oh, I’ve done my due diligence and found the agency with the best prices, and you just want a Rolls Royce instead of a Ford”.
So if you are a junior member of a profession, and you know you have to play the long game, you push to the extent that you gauge is to the edge of being deemed a troublemaker, and then you hover around that edge, not daring to take chances with your career. You know that invitations to small conferences, to colloquia, to write a book review, to contribute to an anthology, to join a conference panel – these all hinge on how people perceive you. Are you a team player? A troublemaker? Are you a good kind of ‘diverse’ addition to their panel? (For yes, people are often looking to add diversity to a panel, and if you are under-represented re: gender, ethnicity, and disability, people take note.)
And then you arrive at the bioethics annual meeting, exhausted from all of the tricky calculations and advocacy gamesmanship that you’ve had to play in order to get something that is guaranteed to you by law.
You meet with your interpreters – they are a mixed bunch, and you are greeted by members of the bioethics organization board of trustees. The president pulls you aside, and tells you this: “We’re glad that you are here and that we can provide access.” He pauses. “But you should know that you are the most expensive person here, costing even more than our keynote speaker.”
What’s the right way for a junior member of the field to respond?
I chickened out.
I did not give him a lecture about diversity, equity and inclusion. Instead, I nodded and changed the subject, blinking to keep my tears of righteous indignation from spilling out of my eyes.
The message I got was that I was being seen as a troublemaker, no matter how much I played the game of working with the organization. My time and efforts to assist with quality control and expenses were not viewed as helpful, but problematic.
I was being seen not as someone wanting to help change an unjust system that had been designed from the start to benefit a certain kind of person. I was seen not as a new member with expertise that could make the organization more inclusive of all. No, I was seen as someone whose very presence impacted the organization’s bottom line more than anything else.
This is not a great message to send to a junior member of the profession who is hoping to bring a different (and missing) perspective of deaf bioethics to the mainstream bioethics conversation that is occurring around her.
So I decided to quit the organization. It was clear that I was not welcome – why fight it?
*Some of the details are altered slightly because my aim is to tell the story, not to call out any individuals, especially those who have since made amends. I think we are at a moment of social consciousness where there is more willingness to look at what we have done and where we have been, and to consider what we need to do to make things better.