390: Working While Deaf; or, Existential Deafhood
Thursday at work my friend RD, whose daughter is at Gallaudet now, stopped me to tell about Sophie, Miss Limousin of France. This go-getting Deaf girl was fighting for the crown of Miss France when an interpreter got in her way. Not to be floored, she kept her smile and chose to try speaking for herself when she encountered a barrier. Shane Feldman has the goods, and a link to the video.
It's funny. I keep thinking about the word assimilation while watching the film. In my head I always sort of interpret words: assimilation always comes across as a sign that looks like fitting you into our puzzle. A few times in the last weeks I've seen the "Hearing World" abomination around, again. I'm starting to understand why people say that. It is only partially about doubts about ASL and Deaf culture. Mostly it's because, in this world, you often have to give something up, to get something else done. Miss Limousin had to make such a choice - when the interpreter failed her, she needed to find some way to get her message across. Some might say she should have asked for her rights and fought for a certified interpreter; others might say she should do what is right in the moment. To me it was always clear that she was Deaf and she was a Person. She was very much in control. And in some ways, it was a good opportunity for her to show she would try no matter what. That took courage, I think. Would YOU be willing to use your voice in front of millions? *eep*
The Hearing World Abomination is this: when people say you must do X because you live in a Hearing World! When you're working in TEH HEARING WORLD!!!!! and living in TEH HEARING WORLD!!!!! and fighting your ass off to keep up with and even be better than the huge assortment of jerks in TEH HEARING WORLD!!!! you just can't help but wonder what all the fuss is. We hear the words every day, without explanation. (They said it was a man's world at one point, too.) None of this, you think, is actually designed to make me happy or feel comfortable or anything like that. We should be able to tell people what we need in terms of communication and have that respected, or at least have that start a discussion on how to handle communication needs. We should also fight to find answers of our own. It is essentially a problem of "How do I make sure the mirror is reflecting me properly?" How do you make sure YOU are coming through the way YOU want to be seen, when you are no longer in control of your own words? I'm sure soon people are going to criticize Limousin, either for speaking or for signing: someone always does. But whether she was speaking or signing, Sophie Vouzelaud was trying - with passion - to create a clear picture of her self for judges - something we struggle with every day, we Deaf people fighting to work in environments with a majority - in most cases a huge majority - of hearing people.
New York has a reasonably-sized interpreting community and though I am sometimes thirsty for communication I am never parched. I can go to a hospital and know I'll have at least some visits interpreted. (I think the rate in NY State is something like 60% of medical appointments are interpreted, disappointingly low in terms of simple volume - should we only understand 60% of our health information? Isn't 60% a losing grade in high school?) And I can figure out how to get interpreters for events and venues more easily than those in states with less people to justify the cost. But I have no way of guaranteeing an interpreter will be able to take my words in ASL and make them very palatable words in English. That 60% of appointments are filled by quite a variety of interpreters... now I'm a writer. I care about my words. It hurts me when I go to gender studies classes and sign "The determination of gender roles is entirely arbitrary, but certain types of biologically-determined behaviors which have been classified as part of those roles are not," and have this terped to (and I had to lipread every word of it, and wince) "I want to decide what is the gender role, is it maybe, is it definite, biology decides, we behave in class to divide those roles, don't we?"
This is where existential deafhood comes in. How do we find our own answers for this problem? Deaf studies and deafhood give our lives and existences validity. All of our experiences should be recorded because they all feed into and are fed by Deaf culture in some form - from acceptance to resistance to celebration. ("It is what it is," my younger sister says, in the Deep Voice which means she's just uttered something from the Lifetime Channel.) We struggle for a perfect way to make the worlds fit together, but they don't. They did not come cut from one and the same puzzle; their edges do not meet. There is no deaf world and there is no hearing world. There is one world, with many inhabitants.
And it's okay. You don't have to force them to fit. (You don't have to accept what happens because they don't fit, either.) You don't have to jam the thing that looks like a thumb into the piece that looks like it has an eye socket. You can make your own collage, shapes of your own device, pieces lying on top of each other in three dimensions, layer on layer. I respect Miss Limousin for her choice. (What else should she have done?) I regret she has to make it. She had to make it because the OTHER clients - the judges - had no understanding of, or way to assess, the level of skill of the LSF interpreter, who might look perfectly competent in spoken French. Both sides in this instance need to realize the interpreter is there for both people. That LSF terp was there for the judges as well as the candidate... just as an interpreter in the Deaf person's working environment is there for the employer as well as the employee. Terps aren't at fault here. There's not enough of them-even today. But-accepting the least-common-denominator of access isn't a solution. And we don't have to let ourselves be pushed into impossible situations - like that of Miss Limousin. I admire her strength. Vive la France!
(P.S. Happy Holidays.)