A few years ago, when I was struggling to get interpreting services set up for a Pagan Event I wanted to attend, I asked a good friend of mine – who is herself a certified interpreter and has interpreted such events for me in the past – if she would be willing to work with me to write a letter trying to advocate for such services. She agreed to do so, and below is the wonderful letter that she wrote, with some input from myself.
Yes…I admit it is lengthy – but it’s well worth reading.
Truthfully, much of what is written here doesn’t just apply to Pagan Events…it applies to ANY type of event that a Deaf person might want to attend – be it religious, social, educational, business, whatever. Yes – we all know that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) says that such events should be made accessible…but we also know how many of these event planners balk at having to pay such an expense, or end up providing less than ideal services.
I think event planners everywhere…be it Pagan Organizations or Social Organizations or Educational Organizations or Business Organizations or whatever should read this letter – please feel free to email the link to any and all individuals you know!
Dear Pagan Organization:
I am writing this from the perspective of a professional, certified, and licensed interpreter since 1973. I also have worked as an instructor at various Interpreter Training Programs since the 1970’s.
In addition, I am the granddaughter of Deaf, daughter of Deaf, mother of Deaf, and the aunt, niece, and cousin of many Deaf family members. I also have two cousins, a brother, a daughter, and a niece who are all professional sign language interpreters. I know my stuff.
I turned down a request to work at a national conference sponsored by a national Deaf organization a couple of years ago because they asked me to interpret for eight hours a day at $15.00 an hour, a rate far less than the standard rate for interpreters with my years of experience and level of skill. The hourly rate was not the issue; the issue was that they expected me to provide my own airfare, hotel accommodations, meals, AND pay for two days of registration. This was NOT pro bono, but a paid assignment. I declined, in spite of my many years of supporting this Deaf organization.
On the other hand, I have interpreted weddings and funerals, and would be willing to interpret handfastings and other “Rites of Passage” on a pro bono basis. The reason I do this is because the hearing family members are often so overwhelmed with the costs of catering, flowers, photography, and other considerations that they either forget about the Deaf person in the family, or decide it isn’t “important” for him/her to have full participation rights. What many people do not understanding is that it is not uncommon for Deaf family members to be treated more like the “family pet” than a real human being with equal needs to other family members. Many family members do not even have the necessary sign language skills to effectively communicate with the Deaf family member, and yet they balk at the idea of paying $75 for interpreting services, seeing it as unnecessary.
Some people would call my pro bono services as being codependent. I call it giving back to the community from which I come. Getting the memorial service card, and then sitting soundlessly next to one’s grieving family does not, through osmosis, give the Deaf family member respect, consideration, and inclusion; nor does it constitute closure. But hearing people don’t always seem to recognize that fact. They see it as $75 they could have spent on a photographer…an expense they will often pay for without a second thought.
What I offer when I accept an assignment, paid or pro bono, is my skills. I have had over thirty years as a professional to hone them. I have had all those years to learn that I simply am not qualified to interpret everything I walk into. I have had all those years to learn that I need to get as much pre-event information as possible in order to do a good job.
My personal knowledge of Paganism is rather limited, and I do sometimes worry about the potential that my own Judaic/Christian background could be a hindrance to providing effective communication. To take on an assignment that I don’t feel qualified to handle would be oppressive and unethical. However, I am fortunate to have a good friend who is herself a Deaf Pagan, and quite understanding and accepting of my limitations in this area, and willing to work with me to overcome some of these obstacles. I have no qualms about serving as an interpreter for her and her friends when necessary, but I would not be willing to risk offending a group of Deaf Pagans whom I did not know with my lack of full comprehension of the subject.
There are many well-meaning persons out there who attempt to provide what skills they have to creating greater access for Deaf Pagans, but who in the long run, may be doing more harm than good. Perhaps they do know how to fingerspell, or may have even taken a few classes in sign language. But it needs to be understood that one sign language class – even two sign language classes – does not an interpreter make. In addition, many individuals do not have the necessary knowledge about interpreting to know how to secure the appropriate services. Oftentimes they will attempt to secure so-called “interpreting services” with no consideration for the Deaf Pagan’s wants or needs. Does the Deaf Pagan prefer an ASL interpreter, or a CASE transliterator? If you don’t know the difference, then you better think twice about your qualifications to be setting up interpreting services.
One does not build a wheelchair ramp at a 45 degree angle simply because somebody is able and has offered to do so. One checks into the safety requirements and the accessibility guidelines and regulations as mandated by law to determine the requirements, and thus the proper angle. Where does one check for this. With the experts. Who are those experts? Oftentimes, they are the people who utilize such services themselves, or are in the business of providing such services and/or information. People who use wheelchairs know what is needed to assure their access. Well meaning contractors might have every good intent, but a ramp will not serve any purpose if it’s not built properly. By the same token, well meaning event coordinators might have every good intent when they locate “signers” to provide interpreting services, but these services will not serve any purpose if they don’t provide the effective communication the Deaf person is seeking.
While I have met many well-meaning, best-of-intentions people over the years, as one who has served on many planning committees over the past three decades, I have frequently encountered the attitudes of individuals when it comes to having to pay what they see as the prohibitive, exuberant cost of interpreting services. However, such costs, which seem so intimidating to many, can usually – with proper planning – be easily covered with a minimal increase in registration fees…those same fees which are paying for the other expenses of the event, such as facility rental, meals, and the like.
Let’s say that you are putting on a weekend conference for which you are charging $50, and you expect 125 people to attend. You find two individuals willing to interpret this conference for $25 an hour. Please understand that it is standard policy in the Interpreting profession that any job that is longer than two hours in duration will generally require more than one interpreter. SOMETIMES you can get by with one, depending on the nature of the job, the number of Deaf participants, how many breaks there will be, etc. – but for an all day job, you will need two people. Interpreting is hard work, both physically and mentally.
You determine that you only need 1 interpreter for Friday evening for 2.5 hours, 2 interpreters all day on Saturday for 10 hours, and 1 interpreter on Sunday morning for 2.5 hours. That is a total of 25 hours of interpreting services. At $25 an hour, the total cost is $625. If you raise the registration fee by $5.00 per person, you will have this cost covered. And if after advertising that interpreters would be available upon request, you find that you have no need for such services, that’s money that can be put into an “interpreting fund” and used for such services that might be needed in the future.
This is one of the common errors made in event planning, and I’m not just talking about the Pagan Community, either. I see it happen again and again with various types of events, when one doesn’t think about the possibility that a Deaf person might want to attend. Suddenly, a month before the event, they get a request from Jane/Joe Deaf asking “will you be providing interpreters?” and they are scrambling to try and meet a need they had not anticipated nor planned for. The result often is that the Deaf person is cast in the role of being a “financial burden” – more trouble than s/he is worth, rather than the organization accepting responsibility for overlooking a potential need and necessary cost. More than once, the message that comes back to the Deafie is “sorry, you’re shit out of luck.” And even if the event planners do find some good-hearted volunteer “signers” willing to TRY and “interpret” this event, Jane/Joe Deaf is STILL shit out of luck.
I recommend, if at all possible, that one contracts directly with the interpreter rather than going through an interpreter referral agency. Interpreter agencies will tack on additional fees to cover their own overhead costs. If you can find qualified interpreters and negotiate directly with them, you will usually get a better deal. If you can find qualified interpreters who are themselves Pagan, all the better! Sometimes these individuals are willing to reduce their fees considerably – sometimes they will even donate their services if expenses are covered (registration, room and board, meals, travel costs, etc.)
Where does one find such qualified individuals? The first recommendation is to ask the Deaf Pagans directly. Many Deaf people have worked with various interpreters in the community, and can provide a list of those individuals qualified and possibly willing to provide services for these events, and perhaps do so at those reduced costs. By working directly with the Deaf attendees, you can find out what the needs and expectations are, and how best to provide the most appropriate services. For example, perhaps the Deaf Pagan only wants to attend one or two specific workshops, and does not need interpreters for other programs occurring during your event.
Of course, the above calculations assume you will only have one or two Deaf Pagans attending, which is often the case. It becomes more complicated when one has a migration of Deaf folks attending your conference, gathering, etc. The harsh reality of it is…the more Deaf participants, the greater the need – and the more interpreters you may need to provide. Why is this? Don’t assume that all Deaf Pagans are glued together at the hip, and are all going to want to stick together for each and every workshop. Deaf Pagans are as diverse a group as any other…they have varied levels of knowledge and skill, varied interests, varied paths, and the like. If you are offering various concurrent workshops happening at the same time, and you have six or more Deaf Pagans attending, you may find that they wish to attend different workshops, thus requiring more planning…and more interpreters. This, of course, becomes much more costly. Here is where pre-conference planning becomes a necessity. Communicate and work closely with the Deaf Pagans and find out what workshops they wish to attend, and what their needs are. By working together in such a manner, you can assure that the necessary services are provided where and when needed.
Actually, such pre-conference planning can be very helpful even if you only have one or two Deaf Pagans showing up…especially if you will only be providing one interpreter, who cannot be expected to handle a full day’s worth of interpreting. Such planning can determine when services are desired and needed, and when the interpreter can be allowed to take a well-deserved break. Most Deaf Pagans will be understanding and happy to compromise if given the chance to be involved in the planning process. Don’t just assume that you know what their needs are. And please…don’t just talk to the interpreter and forget about the Deaf Pagans. While certainly the interpreters need to be heard also as they may have specific needs of their own, planning and providing interpreters for a Pagan Event should be a team effort consisting of the Pagan Event coordinators, Deaf Pagan attendees, and Sign Language Interpreters working together.
Now…is such planning and effort and expense worth it? I can’t answer that question for you.
Now…let’s look at an analogy here which might help to clarify the issues surrounding the use of “signers” or students as opposed to qualified individuals:
Suppose you were offered the services and equipment of a sound system technician who might have the basic knowledge and skills, but is still a student and doesn’t have all the experience or expertise (or proper equipment) to deal with every possible situation that could occur. In spite of his best efforts, the equipment doesn’t always work effectively, and the system goes on and off during the presentation, with the result that it is difficult to hear everything that is being said effectively – the speaker’s words get omitted often, without warning, and on an irregular basis. You feel like you only got half the message. Would this be acceptable to you after you have taken the time to attend and paid the registration? Suppose you went to the event coordinator and complained that you were unable to participate at the level that you expected when you paid your money? Then, to add insult to injury, the coordinator tells you that you should be grateful that a sound system was provided at all? Wouldn’t you be upset? Wouldn’t you want your money back?
And yet, this is exactly the situation that Deaf individuals are often put into when they attend events which provide less-than-qualified individuals attempting to “interpret” for an event they hardly have the skills for. The Deaf individual has paid the same fees as everyone else, and yet gotten perhaps half the message (if they are even that lucky). Then, when they dare to raise their voice and express their concerns, they are criticized as being “ungrateful, demanding, hard-to-please complainers.”
And please…don’t think that offering free admission to Deaf Pagans desiring to attend your event solves the problem. It doesn’t. You might as well be paying them to stay home. Nor does telling the Deaf Pagan s/he “can come for free, and bring a hearing friend to sign for you.” Securing the necessary access to participate in the event isn’t the Deaf Pagan’s responsibility – that’s YOUR job.
As an Interpreting Instructor, I can assure you that neither sign language students or even Interpreter Training Program students are prepared to deal with the in-depth accessibility needs of most Pagan Events…simply due to their lack of vocabulary, speed, or stamina. Their conveying of the message would be as “in and out” as the faulty sound system of that above-mentioned student technician. In addition, these students don’t even know what they don’t know, so accepting this kind of assignment would be inappropriate…and they don’t even know it. Furthermore, I can assure you that Interpreter Training Programs do NOT teach signs which are appropriate to Pagan content (you would be lucky if the instructors even know what Pagan vocabulary includes, and the proper signs to be used for such vocabulary).
Most states have a state Interpreter Certification System, which evaluates and ranks the skills of the individuals desiring to provide professional interpreting services in the community…or at the very least, requires that such individuals must hold national certification (obtainable through the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf or similar testing system).
State Interpreter Certification Systems are usually a five level system, with 1 being the lowest, and 5 being the highest. When students graduate from an Interpreter Training Program, they are rarely able to achieve more than a Level 2, are better than average if they achieve a Level 3, and are considered exceptional if they achieve a Level 4. If this is the expectation of a recent GRADUATE, what do you think would be the result of one who has only taken 2 ASL classes, and has yet to even enroll in, let alone graduate from, an Interpreter Training Program? In some states (such as mine), it is illegal to even provide interpreting services (at least without on-site mentoring and/or supervision) without a minimum of a Level 3 certification. Even Level 3 certification is no guarantee that the individual can accurately and effectively convey the entire message…there’s still room for plenty of error.
Please bear in mind that a professional interpreter is exactly that – a PROFESSIONAL, who abides by the National Interpreter Code of Ethics, pays professional dues, holds professional certification/licensing, attends regular educational opportunities to maintain such certification/licensing, and has spent years honing his/her craft.
Should Deaf Pagans wishing to attend Pagan events where they can hone their own Craft be expected to settle for anything less than the best that can be provided? Should they be expected to settle for only 50% of the message?
If you wish to avoid such problems, the best solution is to include Deaf Pagans and Professional Interpreters on your planning committees. Work together on creating effective access, and then promoting that access within the Deaf Community.
The only other option would be to close your event to Deaf participants. It won’t be the first time, or the last time that Deaf individuals have had the door slammed in their faces when they attempted to participate in the world around them with others who share their interests and beliefs.