Emancipation of Deaf Voice

Deaf people can’t learn to hear, can you learn to provide access?

by William Albright on February 24th, 2014

Speaking for yourself is one of the free world’s greatest promises. Talking to a doctor about your private health issues, presenting to an audience about a noble cause, working with a lawyer to defend your case, and negotiating for a new job’s salary are everyday conversations most people take for granted.

The simple act of communicating one’s ideas to another is as human as it gets. For most people today, barring language differences, all it takes is the activation of the voice box and relevant body parts in the presence of a compliant ear and then boom! Whatever it is that was in your brain is now in another. Pretty regular stuff, but at the same time amazing too, right?

Hearing people by definition can hear and usually can speak. This leads to systematic and structural barriers to people who cannot hear or speak — otherwise known as hearing privilege. Generally, the word ‘Deaf’ refers to a broad group of people with little to zero hearing ability, and have varying abilities to speak. In this article, the word “Deaf” describes people who use signed languages on a daily basis.

Like how white supremacy is real, hearing privilege pervades Deaf life. Fact is, the world’s environments are designed with the assumption that all people can hear. Announcements at public places like airport terminals are voiced. Showings at movie theaters stuffed with subwoofers aren’t captioned. Emergency dispatches everywhere are carried out by a person behind a microphone.

There is no shortage of situations where Deaf people are denied access to people and things just because they can’t rely on auditory information. Apart from special social situations like deaf-focused schools, clubs, and events where sign language is used, Deaf people are often reduced to bystanders who seem to have no language in the sense of those around them. Never mind that deaf people are fully capable of using language – many believe that signed languages are just fancy arrangements of monkey gestures. Just ask any Deaf person if they’ve ever had people minimize their use of hands by telling them to ‘stop moving their hands so much’, mocking legerdemain, or even seemingly well-intentioned things like saying “Wow you people are using your hands; that’s awesome! How do you speak ‘fuck you’ in sign? I want to be able to say that to my boss without her knowing, tehee.”

(By the way, we don’t ‘speak’ sign and the ASL sign for ‘fuck you’ is exactly the same as yours.)

Including Deaf People

There are plenty of ways to include Deaf people. Captions are a good way if the information is being broadcasted. Written methods work for 1-on-1 communications. Deaf people appreciate it when people ask them for the best ways to accommodate them.

However, accessibility takes time and sometimes money. Oftentimes that’s the reason why folks mean mug Deaf people when they request reasonable accommodation. Many just don’t want to take the extra time to make sure that a small group of people are able to enjoy their product on the same level as other so-called ‘normal’ people, and to some, the thought simply never occurs to them. However, what most don’t realize is that general accessibility is a step towards universal design – environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people with and without disabilities, and other groups. For example, TV captioning at a bar will be beneficial for people that sit away from the speakers, the elderly, those who don’t identify as deaf but cannot hear well, or are new to the spoken language.

To add insult to injury, some go out of their way to not accommodate Deaf people. The scale of this is unbelievable, ranging from restaurant cashiers who refuse to let Deaf customers write down their orders, medical schools denying Deaf students access to interpreters even if they paid for them, to Netflix, Inc., arguing in courts until recently to avoid the responsibility of enabling ready-made subtitles from original content for all of their online videos!

Albright, the author, typing. Their face is turned in profile.

Albright, the author of this piece

For interactions with 95% of people and institutions on the planet, we just live and roll with it. We hope that the people we talk to possess open minds and are willing to accommodate us by using alternate methods of communication. The ability to just show up to any random gathering and being able to absorb 100% of the information is within hearing privilege, and we are okay with that. But there are plenty of important situations for which jury rigged communications are unacceptable. As a limited remedy, deaf people use sign language interpreters.

Sign Language Interpreting: Benefits and Challenges

Sign language interpreting is a wonderful concept that tears down the barriers of communication. Deaf people for the most part appreciate interpreters who have taken the time to learn sign language, understand Deaf culture, and follow the rules of professional interpreting. Indeed, sign language interpreters are a great example of true allies because they alleviate the fact that most hearing people can’t sign by understanding the world’s present state and their privileged position within it, and leveraging their skills to equalize the playing field for Deaf people.

But as with anything when money is introduced, sign language interpreting can become less about helping people to the maximum, and more about protecting privileged interests while providing the bare minimum required by law. Many interpreting agencies that employ sign language interpreters and assign them jobs prioritize their own comfort and needs over those of their Deaf customers. This includes playing favorites and assigning jobs to the interpreters they like the most personally, rather than on merit, employing the most cost-effective approaches to service, and avoiding mechanisms of customer feedback. This is bad customer service.

Today, there are 200+ agencies employing some to all of the 16,000+ RID-certified interpreters in the US, serving about 5,000 requests per day. The number of agencies that are run and owned by hearing people easily dwarf the number of agencies owned by Deaf people, 100 to 1. Furthermore, the number of agencies that are transparent to the point that the Deaf person knows exactly what they’re getting when they put in an interpreting service request is precisely zero. This means a few non-obvious things to the Deaf person when making an interpreting request through an agency:

  • The interpreter is likely to be chosen by a hearing person.
  • The interpreter’s identity is likely to not be revealed until the day of the assignment, and if the interpreter’s identity is revealed, it’s just the first and last name. No mention of skill, style, qualifications and/or certifications.
  • Prior record of the interpreter in interpreting assignments with other Deaf people is unavailable.
  • There is no legitimate way to hold interpreters accountable for whatever actions they may take, whether positive or negative.

Transparency and choice are the interpreting industry’s lingering issues. Deaf people should be able to access information about interpreters, along with the ability to choose their own interpreters for themselves, period.

Unfiltered Access to Communication

The demand for unfiltered access to communication isn’t some quixotic ideal. Can you imagine having a Spanish interpreter that was assigned by someone who didn’t speak Spanish fluently and/or didn’t have real knowledge of the cultures that speak Spanish? Having to acquaint yourself with the interpreter’s face, style, skill, qualifications, and whatever else on the spot, during the interpreting assignment? Finding that the interpreter actually is not skilled in Spanish? Imagine that when you actually complain to the agency about the interpreter via a compliant dropbox of some kind, they will send you a thank-you-for-your-feedback note and simply not assign you the same interpreter again, but continue to use the interpreter for other clients without going down to the roots of the issues.

Now, think about dealing with this stuff for everything important that you do: doctor appointments, lawyer depositions, job interviews, meetings with bosses, anything you imagine to be possibly problematic.

Deaf people take on this kind of stuff daily. To highlight an extreme example, consider the Nelson Mandela Fake Interpreter debacle. An “interpreter” with zero working knowledge of South African Sign Language (SASL) went on stage to interpret for world leaders during Mandela’s funeral, an internationally watched event! If the South African Deaf community had chosen the interpreter, you could bet any amount of money the impostor snafu wouldn’t have happened. In fact, the Deaf people there already knew that the fake interpreter was full of bullshit before the funeral.

Towards Community-Based Sign Language Interpreting

It wasn’t always like this.

There used to be a time where sign language interpreting was community-based. Interpreters were friends, acquaintances, or some kind of stakeholders in the Deaf community, and had personal connections with Deaf people. Interpreters would be referred to Deaf people by other Deaf people. This would mean relationships were built on trust – and that interpreters would be held accountable for their interpreting. This isn’t the most scalable model, but it did some things right that should be brought back.

Not all present-day interpreting agencies are awful or even prosaic. There are some awesome ones, and surely we wish all interpreting agencies were like them. Still, most of those good people only do enough for a good night’s sleep. This means that they do their best to keep interpreting quality high, go for the best interpreter and client matches, and not much more.

This is why Linguabee was founded – an online marketplace for interpreting services where Deaf people, and anyone else, can search for and request interpreters themselves. I’m a software engineer for Linguabee, along with Chad Taylor, former CTO and founder of Convo Communications, and Bobby Cox, former founder of Brillant Echo and the Moonlight interpreting scheduling platform. Because of the Linguabee team’s lived experiences, we have an idea of how things should be done and are more than willing to go the extra mile.

Screenshot of the Linguabee homepage. The two main options are to find an interpreter or find a job.

What does that mean? With technology and passion, we can make the connection between the interpreter and the Deaf person as pure as possible like it was back in the day. When a Deaf person needs interpreting services, instead of contacting an agency to assign an interpreter, the Deaf person can go straight to the interpreters though the Linguabee webapp. When the request is made, the interpreters in the area are notified, and asked if they are interested in this particular assignment. If an interpreter is interested, they will put in her bid for the assignment, for the Deaf person to approve or deny.

A screenshot of the Linguabee dashboard, which shows the name of the person requesting interpreting; information about the event and a map to it, and a conversation between the requester and the ASL interpreters bidding on the assignment.

Before and after the request is submitted and interpreters made available, the Deaf person is able to view interpreter profiles, communicate with the interpreter for clarifications, and choose the interpreter they decide will best fit their needs. On the interpreter profiles, vital information like qualifications and certifications are displayed to visitors, along with video samples to show signing skill. Eventually, we plan to introduce a feedback and ratings system to enable Deaf people to hold interpreters accountable for their actions, both positive and negative.

In our infinitely scalable platform, the Deaf person has 100% control over their interpreting experience. We stay the hell out of the way, stepping in only when required.

There is something inherent in shared experiences that contribute to problem-solving. This is why Linguabee feels that Deaf people are in the best position to change the industry that serves Deaf people, not anyone else.

Top Five Ways the Tech Community Can Support Deaf Tech Workers

1. For events, provide an easy way to request accommodation

When we want to attend events, we have to manually make arrangements with the host and that requires more work from both ends. For example, a recent Twitter event had no way to even contact Twitter to arrange accommodations. We had to engage in a campaign on Twitter to get ahold of someone. Make it a seamless experience by providing accommodation request mechanisms for people to inquire whether accommodations are possible. An example would be a request form page on your website.

2. Consider Universal Design in all your tech products and spaces

Don’t ever make voice activated commands the only way to do some functions in your product (looking at Microsoft Kinect and Apple Siri). Allow text input for communication, like in multiplayer video games. Use the right colors to accommodate people with low vision. Identify all potential access problems and address them.

3. Caption all audio

Caption or provide a transcript of all of your movies, videos, presentations, talks, public interviews, everything. Turn on the captions on TV at physical locations.

4. Provide job and representation opportunities

Hire members of underrepresented groups for your company. Give them chances to talk at conferences, parties, and other events. Let them shine!

5. Learn basic American Sign Language and Deaf culture

Learning essential signs like “thank you” and those relevant to your job like “french fries?,” or most likely “programming,” “computers” and “software” for those reading this article, can go a long way in bridging communication gaps. Learning about Deaf culture and sign language, as well as the impact of systematic hearing privilege (as well as able-bodied privilege) can make a huge impact.

Albright, the author, looking at a computer, appearing focused, with a slight smile.

Don’t stop there! Check in with us from time and time, and listen to us. As a minority group, we experience life differently so we may have conflicting views on things. Don’t try to speak for us, or decide things for us. Support us instead, and we’ll be sprinting in no time. After all, we live in the free world – let us sign for ourselves.

Lastly, it may seem that this piece is overwhelmingly negative, that Deaf people have it entirely bad so we must hate being deaf. This is not true. In fact, many of us enjoy being deaf and would never trade being deaf or Deaf culture for anything else! However, we do face challenging situations because of hearing privilege, and you can support us. The tech community can support us. All it takes is genuine inclusion of Deaf people at organizations, events, and even in media content. Consider universal design in everything you do. Ask if you aren’t sure; we’ll appreciate it!