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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Education in America: Voices of Children from Inclusion Settings

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   My interpreter is pretty cool. She likes to joke around a lot, so I like that kind of interpreter. She is pretty good.

   I had a different interpreter nearly every school year. Sometimes they were flexible and friendly and easy to get along
   with; other interpreters were more strict and reserved . . . they were more difficult to work with. The perfect interpreter
   would be one that was flexible, aware of different ways to communicate, and knowledgeable about deaf culture. Not just a
   signer, but someone who knows about deaf culture.

In the field of interpreting, the focus has been on interpreter skill. It is generally assumed that the skill level of the interpreter is the indicator of what makes someone a good interpreter. However, in these interviews a very different theme emerges. Interestingly, nearly all of the students interviewed identified social skills as an important factor. They also mentioned personality, physical appearance, skill, and cultural competency.

Do the majority of deaf students not regard skill as important? While it seems highly unlikely, their emphasis on the interpreter’s social skills may represent their ability to survive in the highly charged social environment of school. It also would support the theory that the deaf students see the interpreter as an extension of themselves. This extension theory contends that the extent to which the interpreter is accepted socially by the hearing peers and by the hearing teacher directly influences the extent to which the deaf student will be accepted. The deaf students may develop very strong opinions about the mannerisms, personality, and clothes of their interpreter because they feel these factors directly reflect on their social acceptance within the school. This extension theory is discussed further in the next section.

The collective opinion of the students interviewed also suggests a friendship relationship with their interpreter as being most effective. In fact, not one student shared a concern that the interpreter maintain a more distant professional relationship. In contrast, the students described good interpreters as those who were fun, friendly, and approachable. Julie, in particular, seemed to revel in the fun working and playing relationship she has with both her interpreter and her deaf education teacher. She found joy in their closeness and mentioned that they do lots of fun things together, but curiously, she adds, “more than we probably should.” In the interview, Julie seemed particularly upbeat when speaking of her relationship with her interpreter and deaf education teacher. She directly attributes her success in high school to their close relationship. Jasmine, however, insisted that even friendly interpreters did not make an integrated education enjoyable.

Ashley expressed the need for interpreters to be more than just signers. She insisted that interpreters need to know and understand deaf culture in order to be effective. To her, it is this cultural understanding and competency that serves as the basis for not only effective communication but also effective relationship building.

This call for friendship harkens back to the themes that emerged from the 1995 New Orleans Allies Conference, held in Nashua, New Hampshire. The conference brought together facets of the deaf community and the interpreters who served them. The issue of power was expressed through a perspective of allies. The deaf community seemed to say, “Either you are our ally, or you are an ally to the hearing person. But it is impossible for you to be neutral.” From this conference, a resulting discussion was sparked in the interpreting field, a sociopolitical discussion of whose side the interpreter is on.

The deaf students in the study are saying to interpreters, “Be our allies. We need you on our side.” Clearly, the interpreters who were seen as allies were also seen as most effective.

Describe your favorite kind of interpreter.

The deaf students had a strong understanding of the social impact of their interpreter. When asked to describe the perfect interpreter, they answered as follows:

   Well, there aren’t any men interpreters . . . they are all women, so it’s kind of embarrassing.

   I guess I liked the ones that were younger.

   She would be young and fun!

   It’s important that the interpreter sign what people are saying. . . . I don’t care what the interpreter looks like. Interpreters
   can’t be stuck up; they should teach people signs and about the right ways to interact with Deaf people.

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