Hearing Maud: A Journey for a Voice by Jessica White

“…remember disability activist Stella Young, who coined the term ‘inspiration porn.’ People with disabilities aren’t put on earth to inspire other people; we’re just trying to get on with our day in a world that ins’t designed for us.” — Jessica White in Hearing Maud

— thoughts by Melanie Page, originally published at Grab the Lapels

Understanding Culture

Don’t you love when totally different aspects of your life, for one shining moment, overlap and you see a connection? This happened to me recently. I wrote and published a book review of Tell My Horse by Zora Neale Hurston, an African American. The author is most famous for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, but she was also an anthropologist studying under Franz Boas. He helped change anthropology when he and his protegees looked at cultures and didn’t rank them as superior or inferior to Western culture, nor did he believe race is biological. In order to write Tell My Horse, Hurston traveled to Jamaica and Haiti to immerse herself in the culture and learn about Voodoo as an anthropologist.

In the comments of my post about Tell My Horse my readers and I volleyed back and forth, asking if it’s possible to really know or understand another culture. If culture is a “way of being,” can we understand alternate ways of being? Did Hurston truly see Voodoo culture at its purest, or did the Haitians and Jamaicans leave parts out, misinform the American, or even lie to misdirect her? Simply by examining a culture as an outsider, we change the results of our research. In fact, Hurston finds herself comparing Haitian and Jamaican culture to America.

How does this tie to ASL? Much of my interpreting homework lately has been studying Deaf culture. Not only what is the “way of being” for Deaf people, but a host of factors. Is the Deaf person African American, Asian American, Latino/Hispanic, or from an Indigenous culture? Though my textbook* has not (yet?) covered the Deaf LGBTQ community, there are many ways a person’s culture shifts.

So, connecting back to Tell My Horse, I’m wondering in what ways Deaf culture appears to me as I interact with the Deaf community vs. what the members are like when hearing people are not around. To my knowledge, the key factors are to learn about a culture before engaging with it to avoid embarrassing faux pas, be respectful and defer to the Deaf person, and always be mindful of the privileges I have that create an unfair power dynamic.

Have you studied culture? What is your culture?

*So You Want to Be An Interpreter? An Introduction to Sign Language Interpreting for Deaf and Hearing Students to Become Professional Practitions, 5th edition, by Janice H. Humphrey, William F. Ross III, LeWana M. Clark, and Joseph Featherstone. 2020.

Interpreting and Flexibility

When you have General Anxiety Disorder like I do, you want everything to be thoroughly known, understood, and planned ahead. People like me prefer to plan, put things on the calendar, and if we feel confused and anxious, we study and research far beyond what is asked of us. On the one hand, people with GAD are reliable, knowledgeable, and great at organizing. On the other hand, I’m learning that interpreters need to be flexible! So, now what?

My experience demonstrates that I’m actually good at flexibility because I’ve planned out so many scenarios in my head that I’ve already imagined what an alternate situation looks like. I’m great in emergencies, whether it was that cheerleader who broke her leg at the camp I was working at, or the man who had a heart attack while driving and rolled his car in front of the coffee shop I was sitting in.

But when we say “flexibility,” we often follow it up with “we must roll with the punches.” That negative language (“punches”) perplexes me, but I never thought about it until this semester. The first week of the spring semester went as planned, but then my ASL professor’s child was sick. Then the professor was sick. Then the child was sick again. Then we had a huge snow storm that led to school closures, so she stayed home because her other children had Zoom school and her internet wouldn’t allow her and her children on Zoom all at the same time. Eventually, my class was permanently switched to online/asynchronous.

This past week students in my interpreting class were told the professor’s immediate family would gather to assist with end-of-life care for a family member in a couple of weeks. I marked the days she needed off on my school planner. But then late at night we got an email stating she needed to leave now and class would be cancelled for three days. The event was unplanned because it was unexpected.

To call these situations “punches” feels wrong to me, because it is not me who is faced with the hard choices. I simply have to be where I am needed when told and determine ways in which I can enrich my learning on my own time, making the most of my education. Thinking of my professors and their families emphasizes how very human we all are. We’re people, in it together. Because we are encouraged to see all college professors as prestigious authority figures, deserving of the utmost respect — perhaps even putting them on a pedestal? — it’s hard to view them as humans. And yet re-framing my own instructors as people has made me feel more collaborative in my own learning, more flexible in my thinking, and softer, more understanding in my heart.

How often do stop to think about an individual and truly acknowledge that they are a human in a deeper way beyond acknowledging a biological fact? Do you consider their home lives, cultural background, and how much we ask of them?

Interpreting and Self-Care

My first semester of college was in 2003. I’d never heard of self-care, nor did anyone I know practice it officially. Unofficially, some people were shopping or eating away their feelings, or maybe taking a bubble bath or relaxing with an alcoholic drink. When I first heard about self-care, I was a college professor teaching composition, creative writing, and literature. When students researched self-care, most articles they found on the topic were about how younger Millennials are coddled (I myself am an “elder Millennial”). They need safe spaces and trigger warnings and crayons to color. It all sounded pretty . . . weak.

But after teaching for eleven years, I found myself engaging in strange (to me) self-care behaviors, such as listening to a cat purring on YouTube to help me calm down after a stressful day. At the time, I was teaching college inside of a prison, so there were many hectic moving parts: incarcerated students, correctional officers, the head of the College in Prison program, and teaching research skills without a library or the internet immediately available. I burned out. Eleven years of students changing due to an information-rich, social-media driven society and no self-care certainly adds up, and I quit. Do I miss teaching? In many ways, yes! Communicating our ideas clearly is the key to writing, which ties directly to my interests in interpreting.

In my interpreting program, the other students range in age from 18-20. I am almost 37. We began discussing self-care in Introduction to Interpreting because the interpreting career is known for burnout. As someone who has been there, done that, potential burnout is scary! From what I’m learning, interpreting can be an emotional job, and you juggle a lot while always being flexible. That’s not to say it isn’t rewarding and amazing, too. It struck me that I could ask my classmates, who likely grew up with the concept of self-care, what they do to watch out for themselves. Here were some of their answers:

  • Take their favorite blanket, wash it, dry it, and the roll up in it.
  • Enjoy silence and lack of communication (e.g. don’t talk to anyone).
  • Painting something repetitive.
  • Cleaning/organizing a small space.
  • Pet animals.
  • Play videogames for 30 minutes.
  • Exercise in a way you enjoy.
  • Hydrate so your brain works best!
  • Work on a small puzzle that you can finish in one sitting.
  • Eat regularly, including snacks, to maintain good blood sugar.

How about you? What do you do for self-care? Let me know in the comments.

ASL and Gender Neutral Signs

Today during my Introduction to Interpreting class, the professor asked us to think about how we might get ready for an interpreting assignment. Do you know where you’re going, where you will park, which room you’re needed in, etc.? Do you know for whom you are looking? The professor gave an example of a client with a Hispanic name that ended in the letter “a,” so she assumed the Deaf person was a woman. And yet she was directed to a man in the waiting room. Though I have no experience interpreting yet (this is my first terp class!), I understand what the professor means when she had mentally prepared herself to meet a female participant.

If you think about it, a meeting may go differently if the Deaf person is male or female. Also, the terp’s gender may change the dynamics too, from what I’m learning. I tried to place myself in the situation. What if this were a doctor’s appointment that involved gender-specific tests (pap smear, prostate check, etc.). Are both the Deaf person and the interpreter comfortable with that? We’re all human, so imagining and preparing for a situation can help us be calm. But, what my professor learned is that while this Deaf client had the feminine “a” at the end of their first name, this person was trans, female to male, but hadn’t changed names yet.

We talk about gender a lot now, and it’s important. But ASL doesn’t have gender; he/she/it are all the same sign. And yet, language changes! I’ve seen videos online from the Deaf LGBTQ community sharing signs (here is one from Rogan Shannon) they use for masculine/feminine presenting, gender expression, and gender fluid. But if terps are not sure what to do, there are some work arounds. For instance, I learned you can now sign the gender-neutral SPOUSE. Instead of putting your non-dominant hand near your forehead (HUSBAND) or chin (WIFE), start at your heart and complete the sign. I love it! Or, instead of asking if someone has a boyfriend or girlfriend, which assumes an individual’s gender and sexuality, sign SWEETHEART instead (which I think is a fun sign anyway). What are your thoughts on gender in ASL? Have you seen or do use the sign for SPOUSE?