A conversation about ASL, interpretation and inclusion.

With Kylie Brooks, Alex Lu, Sage Nobel facilitated by scout huston

           As someone connected to queer/trans communities, social justice communities, disability justice communities, and Deaf/Hard of Hearing communities, I am often in conversations about “the right ways to hire ASL (American Sign Language), interpreters”. Finding interpreters for events can be a tough process, however building connections with Deaf people/communities is about so much more than booking interpreters! The following conversation is meant to complicate the narrative around access, inclusion and ASL interpretation. The transcript has been edited for the purposes of length, clarity, and flow- with the permission of all involved.

scout: my first question was: what does the idea of “accessibility” mean to you both?

Sage: From my own perspective, genuine inclusivity and accessibility looks like this: Recognizing that each individual may have a different set of access needs and may have various types of accommodations. The best thing is to do, is to simply, ask the participants what their access needs are. Like being Deaf-centric and ASL-centric can be two different things.

For me – Accessibility means the freedom to navigate the world with minimal barriers with the necessary accommodations.

Alex: Well, for myself, the one thing that I’ve been trying to really push back on in my accessibility work is that, I think accessibility has been distorted to mean a checklist of physical accessibility items. Which is to say, when I worked as the accessibility director for BCRAD (British Columbia Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf), every time I had a collaboration, the same question would pop up over and over again – “What is X, Y, and Z that we have to do to be accessible?”

And it’s the mindset that tends to be a bit toxic. You can go through all of the physical motions of having accessibility, but unless you foster a space where people feel like they’re included, it’s not really accessible. I try to look at it more holistically. For instance, culturally, what do people need? Socially, what do we have to do to make people feel like they’re part of a community? How do people feel like they have a voice and say? Do they feel respected in a space?

These are all as important to accessibility as having an interpreter or a ramp.

I think it sometimes goes against conventional ideas of event planning, which is structured and supposed to be very dogmatic in how you follow out a plan.But in practice, the advice I give is – event planning really isn’t like that, it’s super organic. Especially when you’re dealing with the Deaf community, word-of-mouth is really the best way to get people to your event, for instance.

scout: Sage, would you be into talking a bit about what Deaf Spectrum is and why you started it?

Sage: A little bit about Deaf Spectrum – our goal is to bring greater accessibility for Deaf locals in the Greater Toronto Area who use American Sign Language. Right now, we are producing sign language videos that contain event promotion information and grant information. We are planning on expanding our sign language translation video services. In the future, we are planning to host a series of workshops to provide sign language interpreters training to be competent in their field. There’s more to this but I don’t want to give all my ideas away yet.

We also started up tutoring services – and hopefully, some Deaf interpreting services.

Basically, our goal is to have an all Deaf team and to empower each other. One of our goals is to providing training programs in ASL and teach members of the Deaf community usable skills that can increase employment.

Kylie: I work with them re captioning (on hold for now) and booking stuff.

scout: Awesome! So, is there any advice you would give to someone who is trying to make an event more inclusive to Deaf folks?

Sage: To make an event more inclusive – I would suggest hiring interpreters and Deaf interpreters. Providing captioning whenever possible. Scent free spaces. Wheelchair accessible. Gender Neutral bathrooms. And actually reaching out to the Deaf community – produce vlogs and etc. It’s important to distribute the information as much as you can. Get in touch with Deaf folks who have access to networks/community.

Alex: Personally, speaking from experience – sometimes, even at events that have interpreters, I don’t feel totally engaged. A lot of the time, the reason you’ll go to an event is to feel connected to the community and to involve yourself with other people – but I feel like a lot of hearing people aren’t willing to take the leap to bridge a communication gap. It may be experimental, but one thing I would like to see event organizers do is decenter spoken language as the primary mode of communication. Maybe have notepads around, encourage people to approach Deaf people, etc.

Sage: That’s an amazing idea, Alex.

Also, I find myself more comfortable participating in events where I know there will be signers there. It doesn’t matter if they are not that fluent, but it’s nice to have someone to chat with, rather than just wandering around, looking as if I’m lost.

Alex: Yes! This is also why it’s important to engage at a community level, rather than just at an individual level. If there’s a group going, I’d feel a lot more comfortable. But still, it’s important to address how to break down these communication barriers, so it’s not just the Deaf people sitting in a corner all night and talking between ourselves – as enjoyable as that might be still!

Scout: totally- Kylie, you’ve talked about this before- but there is an idea that once you hire interpreters deaf people will feel totally included and welcome, which isn’t always true.

Kylie: Right.

Sage: And – often, I noticed that sometimes when people try to hire interpreters, they don’t ask you who’s your preferred interpreter is. they just refer to the queer & trans friendly list… which is kind of out dated and has heterosexual interpreters. this shouldn’t be the default in queer & trans spaces.

Kylie: Yeah, it’s important to match the right kind of terp to the space. I think it’s important for interpreters getting into this to… well, not just know their stuff but actually take reasonable risks and learn from mistakes.

scout: what are some ways that people can navigate finding an interpreter that is a good fit?

Sage: I think the first step is to ask the deaf people interested in the event, ask them who their preferred interpreters are.

Alex: It’s a little tough because I understand sometimes people don’t have the resources and connections just to directly ask Deaf people. I think that’s one issue actually – that the burden always falls upon Deaf people. I don’t know the schedules of interpreters or all their specialities and everything.I feel like ultimately, people just need to do more research in general. Like, instead of hiring the first interpreter you find, can you try to look up some testimonials? Have them elaborate more about their expertise and experience?Mostly, I think the key issue that people aren’t aware they need specialized interpreters for queer/trans events. I feel like it’s actually a pretty easy thing to verify – look up who’s interpreting for other events, for instance! Ask the interpreters themselves. But it just gets glossed over because people assume all interpreters are the same.

Sage: Like, there are some events where there are poetry and songs. That is more suitable for a Deaf interpreter, I think. Like, performances, in general.

Alex: Definitely. But there also isn’t awareness that Deaf interpreters are a thing. That’s part of the reason why I want to push back against the “accessibility checklist” idea – there’s so many subtle distinctions that it fails to make about the complexities of accessibility. The other thing I want to add in is that – I think we need to be mindful of cultural issues in interpreting too. For instance, poetry or songs have traditionally been handled by hearing interpreters, and I think a lot of Deaf people put up with it because of access – but at the same time, the language, at that level of abstraction, metaphor and expression, really belongs to Deaf people. Sage previously mentioned hiring Deaf interpreters, and I think that’s something people need to do more often. Not only do they do the source material more justice, but it’s just a matter of cultural reappropriation – it has to come from someone inside of the culture.

scout: are there some specific questions that you would recommend asking interpreters to see if there are a good fit?

Alex: I’d say ask them about the previous events they’ve done.But also, just ask them to be honest about their experience, and ask them if they can pass the job to another interpreter if they don’t feel up to it.

Kylie: I’d ask specific questions. hmm, “do you know what pronouns are?”

Sage: maybe, if they have taken some kind of anti-oppression training?

Kylie: Also, I think it’s maybe a good idea to ask the interpreters what they know about disability. Not as in, “do you support disabled people?” Specific questions.

Alex: Yeah, that’s important too. I remember once attending a BLM panel, and there were white interpreters. So I was like, “okay“, because I mean, access, right! But then I started feeling really uncomfortable watching the rage of black women being articulated through white people. That’s another issue here, isn’t it, that we really don’t have a lot of BIPOC interpreters. Again, part of that is the discriminatory nature of the interpreting program. I feel like it’s racially unbalanced too. Actually, that’s a major issue – I remember surveying the Deaf community in respect to HIV healthcare, and part of the reason why STD transmission rates along Deaf- queer men are so high is because they’re embarrassed to bring interpreters to medical appointments due to the demographics – male and queer male interpreters are just so rare. As a result, they don’t get proper medical intervention and counselling. I think interpreter demographics and diversity is at the root of a lot of social problems in the Deaf community

Sage: We need to feel supported as a whole, not just because of our deafness, but as a whole person.

Alex: Sometimes, I feel like people don’t even notice me at an event, lol. Like, I’m in my own bubble with the interpreter, and it’s the hearing people operating in their own world.

Sage: Sometimes, I’m wondering, if they see us chatting with the interpreter, that we’re busy. we’re chatting with the interpreter because we have no one else to talk to!

Alex: Yeah, I feel bad doing that sometimes because I’m like “Oh, do I seem uninviting?” But what am I supposed to do? Stand around and stare at the wall until some hearing person is generous enough to talk to me?

I mean, okay, I would be totally cool with approaching people, but keep in mind I’ve been socialized to literally not know how hearing people start conversations with each other. Like, I don’t have that experience at all. So when I’m in a majority hearing space, I’m suddenly hyperconscious – oh god, what if I violate some kind of hearie norm or something?

Sage: Hearing people have been oppressing us since forever. so we do have some kind of innate fear of dealing with hearing people.There have been some situations where hearing people think that we are so hard to communicate with, that we are not important enough for their energy to try to communicate with us.

Alex: I think it’s less an innate fear for me, as much as it is a bunch of gaps in my knowledge of how hearing society works.

Kylie: Like I’ve had experiences – and others have seen – where I try to ask to clarify but they refuse. Or, people refuse to type on my communication device after being told – for various reasons but still.

Alex: I fake it a lot since I’m oral Deaf, but when it comes down to it, I sometimes have no idea how to behave in a hearing environment. It feels like there’s all of these rules and stuff that I’m not aware of. Because I’ve been missing that context since birth, since no one bothered to include me in things, right? And then the other issue is that sometimes Deaf folks don’t have the language to deal with things right? I’m lucky, but come on, sometimes we have ridiculous standards of language in social justice spaces. It becomes inaccessible. If you don’t know the right words, you can’t fit in.

Kylie: Also, the kind of normative language in the SJ community is my normal way of thinking – my native dialect. So yeah, I think also important to help each other if struggling to explain stuff

Sage: We are soooo excluded from the mainstream community already. I feel that we have a greater need to focus on community building, to gain knowledge about our rights – to be included in more mainstream spaces. It honestly feels like people don’t care.Sometimes, I have those followers on facebook who like my statuses when I post about audism… that’s all they do. they like the status. but they don’t do anything about it. why don’t they learn sign language? Why don’t they invite us to hang out with them one on one?

Alex: Yeah, that’s one other thing. One-on-one interactions are so much easier for Deaf people, in my opinion, if it’s a hearing person. I feel like the one big thing I love about Deaf groups is that is someone goes to the washroom or something, someone else will tend to fill them in the conversation. But I’ve rarely ever seen that happen with a hearing group. It’s more like, they expect you to blend in, rather than ensuring everyone’s on the same page before moving on. I think the other thing is that I just feel so tokenized in these spaces, actually. Like, I’m oral, and a lot of places like to invite me because I can give presentations in formats that hearing people like. And then I’ll be the only Deaf person, and I’ll give like, this presentation on accessibility and it’ll be an annual thing, but then I’ll never ever see Deaf people attending other than me. Even though they’re like “oh, we’re learning! We’re improving!” Where’s the improvement? It feels like they’re using me to pay lip service to accessibility because “hey, I’m the lone Deaf person there! It’s accessible!” When really, it’s not.

Sage Lovell

Sage Lovell

Sage Lovell is a twenty-something Deaf queer multidisciplinary artist and community educator who likes to work their magic. In their work, Sage reflects about their lived experiences of struggling in an ableist, sexist, capitalist and oppressive society that only welcomes those who fit their standard set of expectations and norms.  Through sharing stories and lived experiences, Sage discovered a beautiful loving supportive community full of folks of all identities.
Kylie Brooks

Kylie Brooks

Kylie Brooks is a Black Deaf Disabled queer trans woman, using she/her pronouns. She is an online social justice activist that focuses on the interconnections of oppression.
Alex Lu

Alex Lu

Alex is a graduate student studying computational biology at the University of Toronto. He also serves as a director-at-large for OPIRG-Toronto and for the frank theatre company, where he addresses Deaf/queer issues and advocates for accessibility from an intersectional perspective.