The Complexities of Communication

I work with deaf people and interpreters, and my partner (who is leading around disability in RC) is hearing impaired. I would like to address being allies to deaf and hearing-impaired people. I am anxious that we, as allies, make it a priority to work on our own distresses. I also think the RC Community needs more information about interpreting and the issues for deaf people around communication.

Heather makes some important points about being respectful of interpreters' contracts and RCers trying to recruit interpreters while they are working. However, I am concerned that Heather might be questioning employing sign language interpreters, and I want to share why I don't think this is a viable position.

I think it's important to stress that British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters are experts at communication (I don't think the term "professional carers" is appropriate). Sign language interpreting is highly skilled. People train for five to seven years through a gruelling course to do it well. It is simply not possible for anyone who has not done similar training to do this work to an adequate standard. I myself have spent several years learning signing and am nowhere near the level of skill required for this work. It would collude with the oppression if the Community did not provide a paid, fully qualified sign language interpreter for a deaf person for whom BSL is his or her first or preferred means of communication.

People may need to know about deaf people's struggle to use BSL. Deaf people in England have been fighting for many years to achieve the right to use sign language and to have sign language interpreters available to them in hearing contexts. They have fought for BSL to be recognised as a national language. BSL is the only effective means of full communication for people who were born deaf, whose English receptive and production skills are necessarily limited. While many deaf people were raised orally and do function orally, they, too, are now asserting their right to communicate in sign language. Many deaf people see the demand that they learn to speak and lip-read in English as "hearing oppression.' Some have been to oral schools where they have been forbidden to use, or even punished for using, sign language. They may have had a completely oral education (often from hearing parents and carers who believed that the way forward was to help them be "normal'), but then have given up on this when they have become adults. They take a strong stance for using BSL, in which they can communicate fluently and easily. It is also a marker of deaf culture. There is a big difference between deaf people who have been raised orally and those who have been raised by deaf parents within deaf culture, who sign and feel loved and valued for who they are.

Interpreters at RC workshops must interpret material that brings up distress for them. My suggestion would be that if we are really committed to including deaf people in the RC Community, we should talk to interpreters themselves about how to make such inclusion possible. One way might be to approach a limited number of interpreters about taking on RC work and offer a block booking which includes a fundamentals class for which they would be paid. The organiser of the workshop could then arrange for them to have sessions (in paid time, if they wish), after they have interpreted, so they could discharge anything that has been brought up for them.

Alternatively, interpreters could arrange their own supervision or support. This is common practice for interpreters on difficult assignments. Certainly there should always be two interpreters so that they can support each other and relieve each other of the physical difficulties of interpreting for long periods alone.

Hearing-impaired people may rely on both voice and lip-reading. They may or may not know sign language. Lip-reading is extremely difficult, as over fifty percent is guesswork. They may be able to hear some of what is said but miss other parts if the speaker looks away or is unfamiliar. The acoustics in the room can have a big effect. How much they hear can also vary with how tired they are or the pitch of the speaker's voice.

While profoundly deaf people usually have a strong culture and identity built up through deaf schools and clubs, hearing-impaired people usually function in the hearing world and have no strong "identity." They are deaf to hearing people and hearing to deaf people. Hearing impairment is an invisible disability and is sometimes confusing for hearing people.

It seems to me that deaf and hearing-impaired people become skilled at looking like they have their attention out and are "hearing" so that they don't stand out, or make hearing people feel uncomfortable, or get called stupid. Deaf and hearing impaired people may appear "desperate" sometimes (see Heather's letter) when they ask for what they need because they have faced so much oppression in their lives. They often have the expectation that their needs will be dismissed or that they will be ridiculed. They have spent a lifetime struggling against exclusion. That they have feelings about this does not mean that what they ask for is irrational. They are acting despite the distress, not on the basis of distress. A distressed position would be not to ask for what they need for inclusion.

I would agree with Heather that allies need to think about how to make workshops inclusive for deaf and hearing-impaired people. However, that does not mean overriding deaf and hearing impaired people's (or other disabled people's) views on what makes them safe and comfortable at a workshop. First and foremost we need to recognise that deaf and hearing impaired people are the experts on what they need to aid communication and that this will vary considerably from person to person. It may mean having a BSL interpreter; seeing that speakers not cover their mouths or turn away; having loops, radio aids, or a carpeted and curtained room; sitting where they can see who is speaking; or having a communicator/notetaker with them (a job people train for a year to do).

Hearing people need to work on our distress around recognising the communication issues for deaf and hearing-impaired people. It is actually true that most hearing people don't understand these issues (it doesn't just "seem" that way), including most people in the RC Community. We need information and to discharge our own distresses. We may feel ashamed at being an oppressor or feel blamed around deaf/hearing-impaired people's distress at the difficulties of communication - particularly if it seems aimed at us as organisers. We can become confused because we do not understand why hearing-impaired people can apparently hear some times and not others. We may be hearing, but we may have had a lot of oppression ourselves around communication. For example, we may have been scolded for not listening, or for not speaking up, or for being "too noisy" when we were small. We may have learned to fear our own voice so that we talk quietly or cover our mouths when we speak. We almost certainly have learned not to show too much on our faces or through moving our bodies. Our full and natural means of communication have been limited (which deaf people see as hearing people's distress!).

If deaf or hearing-impaired people are upset when communication is difficult, we may try and do something quickly and ignore the need for them to discharge and be listened to about how they themselves can best manage the situation.

To be allies to deaf people, we need to get information and work on our distresses around this issue. Then we can listen to deaf people in a relaxed way and support their thinking about what they need for communication.

I am delighted that Heather has brought this issue to the attention of the RC Community and that Maj Rafferty is coming to England to do some work with us around being allies to deaf people.

Wendy Moss
London, England


Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07