by Noel O’Connell
On 15th June 2015, media reports raised questions about Rachel Dolezal’s background. A scholar of race and African-American culture and daughter of white parents, Dolezal had identified as Black. Stories of black people “passing” as white or white people as black have been a fascination for researchers and historians for many years. Racial passing is generally understood to mean identifying oneself as member of another race (historically the white race). In its simplicity, the practice of passing – presenting oneself as someone one is not – may be so intuitive or natural that people may not bother to ask: “What do you mean you’re black?” I would argue there is much to discover behind this simple question. We need ask why some people desire to transform their identity even while it is clear their persona contradicts the image of their original identity. I believe the issue around ‘passing’ mirror the experiences of deaf and hearing people. Ironically though this topic has rarely been given attention in Deaf Studies research. We actually know very little about what constitutes ‘passing’ or about how deaf and hearing people may want to claim an alternative identity.
In schools where policy prohibited sign language communication, deaf children were trained to ‘pass’ as hearing children in order to achieve a desired outcome. To pass as ‘hearing’ means to behave and act ‘normally’. The practice involves imitation – copying and displaying hearing people’s cultural traits, norms, and values. In postcolonial terms, we know that mimicry is the act of imitating the language, behaviour and attitude of the coloniser. Under oralism (an educational ideology that outlaws sign languages) mimicry is applied when deaf people copy hearing people’s attitude and patterns of behaviour. In passing-as-hearing or impersonation, the deaf person portrays an image of ‘hearingness’. By speaking, talking and listening to music, wearing hearing aids and cochlear implants, they reflect and highlight socially defined hearingness. Deaf people attending mainstream schools may be inclined to present a persona of hearingness given how are often exposed to hearing culture with little opportunity to learn British Sign Language (BSL).
Similar to what happened under colonialism, we assume people born into one particular category might end up being socialised into another category. Caitlyn Jenner (aka Bruce Jenner), former Olympic champion, for example, took on different gender or sex roles. When it was reported that Rachel Dolezal had been presenting a persona of a Black American, it drew comparison with Jenner. While the link between the two shows that race and gender have much in common, we find identifiable parallels exist with the experience of deaf people. But what does this say about hearing people? Do they claim to be culturally Deaf? I doubt there is any evidence that this is true. We might ask why anyone would want to claim an identity that, in the eyes of society, holds a less than ‘privileged’ status.
In terms of how a Deaf Studies researcher might approach the subject of passing, we might ask: how do people negotiate their identities around the deaf/hearing line? Do we assume we can change our deaf/hearing identities and become ‘hearing’ or ‘deaf’ while still displaying markers of our original culture? Are there obvious cultural markers that can be discarded? More research is required to find answers to these questions. In particular I’d argue that the notion of ‘passing’ should be analysed in Deaf Studies research where we can discuss how one constructs, claims, justifies or resists ideas around alternative identities.
by Jemina Napier
Click here to see this post in British Sign Language
Previous blogs have reported how I am conducting research on experiences of language brokering in the Deaf community, which looks at the communication support that both deaf and hearing PDFs (People from Deaf Families) give to their deaf parents to communicate with hearing people.
This is an under-researched area, I think mostly because of the taboos associated with kids ‘interpreting’ for their parents. Previous research has typically focussed on the negative experiences of hearing PDFs, the ‘conflict’ that arises for kids in taking on a language brokering role, without giving consideration to the deaf parents’ perspective or considering that deaf children (and adults) also broker for their deaf parents. So it is important to explore the positive and negative experiences from the perspective of all the people involved.
So I am working in collaboration with two organisations: CODA UK & Ireland and Deaf Parenting UK, to jointly offer a workshop for children and their deaf parents as part of the project.
The workshop will take place at the Rycote Centre, Parker Street Derby DE1 3HF on SUNDAY 29th MARCH 2015 from 10am-4.15pm.
Using innovative arts-based research and visual research methodologies, encompassing drawing and photo-response (visual elicitation) tasks, as well as vignette methodology, the day will enable participants to explore their experiences of sign language brokering. These innovative methodologies have been previously used to explore child language brokering in schools in the UK and Italy with children from migrant families using various spoken languages.
The day will involve an art workshop for kids (facilitated by me) and a discussion group for deaf parents, facilitated by Nicole Campbell who is Project Coordinator at Deaf Parenting UK.
The workshop is *free*, and lunch will be provided. Families will be offered a £20 gift card to cover travel expenses, and there will be prizes for the kids.
To register for the workshop, email: MARIE@CODAUKIRELAND.CO.UK
Deaf parents with deaf or hearing children are welcome. Maximum 20 places in each workshop, so register soon!
Registration deadline: 15th March 2015
For more information about the workshop content, you can send me a personal message through Facebook or email me at email@example.com
Many people will have seen the video of the cute young girl Claire Koch singing Christmas carols and simultaneously signing the songs in American Sign Language for her deaf parents that went viral in December 2013. The general response was the feel good factor – how amazing, considerate and talented this little girl is.
Children like Claire are often referred to as ‘Children of Deaf Adults’ – Codas. This term is typically used as an overarching term for people of any age whose parents are (or were) deaf; sometimes, however, the term Koda (i.e., Kids of Deaf Adults) is used to distinguish between adults and young people.
Apart from her obviously impressive bilingual skills, the video also highlights one aspect of society that is often hidden from public view – the fact that young bilingual children often function as ‘language brokers’ for their parents or family members. What this little girl was doing was ‘brokering’ to help her parents understand a message that they would not otherwise have been able to access.
The term ‘brokering’ (rather than ‘interpreting’) is used specifically in relation to the experience of children assisting their parents with communication as it “focuses attention on the whole cultural meaning of such an event, in which any interpretation is simply a part” (Hall, 2004, p.285). There is a range of research studies that have explored ‘child language brokering’ experiences with immigrant children in different countries, that reveal how children will often broker for their parents in a range of contexts, and may feel empowered and at other times burdened (Orellana, Dorner & Pulido, 2003) by the experience.
Professional sign language interpreters have, until relatively recently, traditionally been Codas (Napier, McKee & Goswell, 2010), and some will have brokered from a young age. Since the introduction of professional sign language interpreting services, people often assume that children no longer need to interpret for their deaf parents. However, based on anecdotal observation, and Jemina Napier’s preliminary research (in press) with deaf and hearing people that have deaf parents, this is not the case. Napier’s international survey of 240 deaf and hearing Codas revealed that their experience mirrors those of spoken language child brokers: many of them had brokered from as early as 4 or 5 years old, and they felt their brokering experiences contributed to their positive self-esteem.
Claire’s father was quick to clarify in a Vlog post that they do not expect their 5-year old daughter to interpret for them, and that there was in fact a professional interpreter present at the Christmas concert, but their daughter wanted her parents to watch her directly.
For many years, deaf people have asserted their right to a professional interpreter and assured themselves and others that they do not ask their children to interpret for them. Perhaps not, but the video of Claire supports Napier’s research in revealing that Codas still broker for their parents, and they may not have been asked – they volunteer.
Desire to help
The developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello and his colleagues have produced various articles (e.g., 2011, 2013) that indicate that toddlers and young children have a natural instinct to want to help others, and they go to great lengths to cooperate with adults. This may explain why Codas still offer to broker for their deaf parents, even when it is not required of them: the children know that their parents cannot hear what is being said, so it is a natural instinct for them to want to help their parents to understand by signing for them.
Professional signed language interpreters have traditionally ‘evolved’ from the Deaf community (Cokely, 2005), but since the introduction of formal interpreter training programs anyone can choose to be a sign language interpreter (Stone, 2008) and be ‘schooled’ into the profession. Fewer Codas seem to be choosing to work as professional interpreters, or we are experiencing attrition from interpreter education programs as Codas do not complete the course of study, meaning that fewer interpreters come from the Deaf community (Cokely, 2005). So what happens to the earlier ‘desire to help’ that can be seen in young Kodas?
There are still huge supply and demand imbalances in the signed language interpreting sector worldwide, so more people need to be attracted to the profession, regardless of whether they are Codas or not. Many Codas still continue to broker for their parents when they are adults, even if other professional interpreters are available, because it is the only legitimate option due to the family member being the only professional interpreter that can understand the deaf person, for example, due to onset of dementia (Major, 2013).
Plus Codas who work as professional interpreters still feel undervalued in terms of what they bring to the profession, and want to have it recognized that although they may have grown up doing language brokering, they have still worked hard to develop their professional interpreting skills (Williamson, 2012), and can “bring value” to the profession (Colonomos, 2013), but should not be automatically valorised.
Thus it is vital to explore the nature of language brokering that is performed by Codas for several reasons:
(i) to gain a clearer picture of the interpreting needs of the Deaf community, to account for interpreting demand that may currently be ‘masked’ by the fact that supply is met by children rather than professional interpreters;
(ii) to ascertain how the Coda brokering experience can be harnessed into positive linguistic and social competence, and mentor Codas into becoming professional interpreters and translators (such as Angelelli 2010 suggests for young spoken language bilinguals); and
(iii) to draw parallels with the experience of immigrant children to inform community interpreting policy and practice more generally for all languages in the UK, Europe and internationally.
Although Napier’s initial survey study was useful for “sketching the broad contours of the [brokering] practice” (Orellana, 2010, p.51), more research is needed to further contribute to the body of child language brokering research and explore “how adults narrate their experiences as child language brokers, and how their perspectives on their language brokering experience change as they grow from children into adults” (Bauer, 2010, p.127). Furthermore, it is also necessary to explore the language brokering experiences from the young Codas themselves, and deaf parents’ and other stakeholders perceptions of their language brokering experiences (as Cirillo & Torresi, 2010 did in Italy regarding institutional expectations with spoken language brokers). Thus further replication of spoken CLB research is needed.
The next step will be to replicate the work of Valdes et al (2003) with Latino children, and conduct a qualitative, ethnographic study involving interviews, focus groups, non-participant observations and simulated interpreting tasks to observe ‘language brokering in action’ (Orellana, 2009, 2010). This approach will enable us to examine sign language brokering experiences of Codas in more depth, and from different perspectives, and build upon the findings of Napier’s survey study.
2014 and beyond
Therefore as of 2014, Jemina Napier and her research team in the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University will begin the next phase of research to explore sign language brokering experiences in the Deaf community. The research will build on the initial survey study, and involve focus groups with deaf parents, Codas/ Kodas, sign language interpreters and hearing service providers.
The research team includes people that represent each of the key stakeholder groups: (1) Professor Jemina Napier, who is a Coda and interpreter; (2) Clare Canton is a deaf parent of three hearing Codas and a qualified deaf interpreter, who is a PhD student on the project; and (3) Yvonne Waddell, who is a hearing (non-Coda) qualified interpreter and is also a PhD student on the project. See: https://lifeinlincs.wordpress.com/2013/10/08/whos-who-in-bsl-at-heriot-watt-university/ for a profile of each member of the research team, and also the BSL teaching and research team at Heriot-Watt University.
It is envisaged that the project will be carried out in collaboration with key organisations who represent the Deaf, sign language interpreting and Coda communities. It is vital to carry out this project in collaboration with the Deaf community, deaf parents and sign language interpreters in order to ensure that the communities can directly benefit from the research findings.
To see a summary of this article in International Sign click here
For more information, or to participate in the project, please contact Jemina Napier:
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook – Jemina Napier
Twitter – @JeminaNapier
- CODAs: How many? Who are they? Are they ‘Deaf’? (tylerbeardshow.wordpress.com)
- The Adorable Way Little Girl Made Sure Her Deaf Parents Didn’t Miss Out During School Christmas Concert (theblaze.com)