Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged
by Gina Oliva
February 21, 2012
Published with permission.
[Click to read 57 comments:
I am sure that most readers are well aware, that the entire “system” for educating hard of hearing and deaf children in mainstream settings is generally a mess, the kids are suffering, and no one person or entity is really in control. Included in this “system” is the entire state of affairs with regards to sign language interpreters in K-12 classrooms, across the United States as well as elsewhere around the globe. Let’s call it the “illusion of inclusion” as Debra Russell has so aptly put it.
Alone in the Mainstream
My K-12 experiences, along with the things I learned in my 37-year long career at Gallaudet and during my 46-year long relationship with my “deaf” (e.g. “hearing on the forehead”) father came together to prompt me to write “Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School” (Gallaudet University Press, 2004). I am now working on a second volume of that book with Linda Lytle, from Gallaudet’s Department of Counseling, which will focus on the experiences of younger adults (currently age 18 – 35) as they look back on their mainstream years. Naturally, this book will include comments and probably whole chapters about Educational Interpreting and the role sign language interpreters play in the lives of deaf children.
Interpreter on a Megaphone
This sense of the need for a second edition had been with me for a while when I found in my inbox the most recent of many letters received. The one quoted below was a serious gem that convicted me of the need for an entire new volume rather than simply a second edition. It was a megaphone so to speak of the dire straits America’s (and the world’s) hard of hearing and deaf children are finding themselves in. It is used with permission, and serves as the basis for this post.
Hello! My name is ________________ and I am a Sign Language Interpreter. I do some freelance work but mainly I have been an Educational Interpreter in ________________ for eight years. I attended your book presentation several years ago and am finally getting around to reading your book “Alone in the Mainstream.” So far I am only on Chapter 6 but am already greatly impacted by what I have read. I have worked with all ages from Kindergarten up to high school. In all those settings with all different students I have used ASL, PSE, and/or Cued Speech. Some of the kids I have worked with have had mild hearing losses, some profound. These children come from hearing families who sign, hearing families who cue, hearing families who do neither, and a couple of families where the parents are deaf themselves. One thing remains the same with each child I have worked with. I feel inadequate.
Even though I am a highly skilled interpreter, I wonder if the mainstream setting is ever a social success, even with an interpreter, and everyday that I see the kids struggling I feel just awful. It is very hard to watch day in and day out.
True, I have witnessed a few hard of hearing students who can speak clearly for themselves and are able to follow conversations quite successfully using their hearing alone. I have seen them flourish, feel included, and have high self-esteem. What is much more common however, and is so heartbreaking, is witnessing my students having the “dinner table syndrome” (as you put it), where they fake interest in some task to avoid looking lost. I see a lot of “superficial participation” where onlookers think the d/hoh student is “just fine” (as you also put it) but really they need to look deeper. My point is, this stuff still happens EVEN WITH AN INTERPRETER PRESENT!
In fact, what really kills me is how awkward it is when I am in a “social situation”– it’s just a no win kind of thing. For example, I am sure you realize that kids will alter their talk if there is an adult around. So it’s really not “normal kid talk” when I am around. And if some brave kid attempts to “talk normal” when I am there (such as swearing or saying something they would never say in front of another adult), then the rest of the kids are uncomfortably giggling. Then, I, the interpreter and the deaf kid by association is in the spotlight – and it is just so ICKY for all involved — it is not authentic at all! It is tainted and altered by the mere presence of the interpreter.
More often than not, the Deaf student only wants to chat WITH the interpreter; not with their peers THROUGH the interpreter. For years I’ve heard educational interpreters talk about trying to encourage their students to ask the other kids in class what their weekend plans are, or what good movies they’ve seen lately, but then the D/hoh student either says “no that’s fine” and looks crushed as if no one wants to be their friend, not even the interpreter OR they go and ask their classmates a few engaging questions, but the conversation quickly fizzles and nothing comes of it. I think an entire book could be written on the subject of Interpreter/deaf student relationships and how complicated it can get.
It never fails that every year I work in education, I say to myself “I can no longer support this. I need to quit and do only freelance and Sorenson work.” I especially feel this way after reading your book, but then I remember that a lot of participants [for that book] did not have the “luxury” of an interpreter. Another voice inside me says, “_____, you need to stay working in the schools. Parents will always mainstream their kids, so it may as well be someone skilled and competent working with them. ”