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Civility matters for ASL interpreters, and everyone else

Published: Friday, Sept. 28 2012 10:45 p.m. MDT

The topic of the conference is civility conference for American Sign Language Interpreter Educators at the Robert G. Sanderson Center of the Deaf in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 28, 2012.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Note: Though the term "deaf and hard of hearing" is more inclusive, the word "deaf" will be used through most of this article for brevity's sake.

People who are deaf or hard of hearing listen with their eyes. They see little smirks that others might not notice, and body language that sends negative messages. That's one reason why the people charged with linking the non-hearing and hearing worlds — American Sign Language interpreters — need to know much more than how to translate sign language into speech.

Just imagine going to a doctor's office for an invasive procedure, and needing to bring along a third party who must remain in the room. It's a communication triangle fraught with tension and possibilities for ruffled feelings. Making such an awkward situation work out well for the doctor and the patient is the interpreter's job. Doing it well calls for tact and compassion, as well as expert signing skills.

Smoothing interactions

Civility is a hot topic throughout today's business world, and is as pertinent to the interpreting profession as any other, said Carolyn Ball, director of Salt Lake City's VRS Interpreting Institute. Ball conducted a symposium on civility and leadership for educators who train ASL interpreters in Salt Lake City this weekend.

"If you are a freelance interpreter, you work for yourself," Ball said. "Without being a civil person with good business skills, people are not going to ask you to come back and work again. I've got to be that person who is very civil, very good to others, so I can get asked to work again."

Smoothing interactions between hearers and signers is one goal of the symposium, which. Improving civility in the ASL interpretation industry, and beyond, is the broader aim.

On Friday, a group of ASL interpreter trainers introduced themselves by signing stories of remembered moments when thoughtful behavior improved an interaction. The incidents were simple: about a hearing person who wrote a good-luck note to a deaf person about to walk on stage for a performance, or another who unfailingly acknowledged and included people with differences.

The interpreters at the symposium are fluent in spoken English as well as ASL, but they used ASL to communicate. Funny stories expressed in animated sign language brought bursts of laughter, the only audible interruptions to the silence in the room.

Choosing civility

P.M. Forni's book “Choosing Civility: The Twenty-five Rules of Considerate Conduct,” provided a jumping-off point for Ball as she planned the symposium. The book identifies 25 steps toward making human interactions more pleasant and effective. These are rules parents and teachers have been trying to inculcate for generations, such as "Don't shift responsibility or blame," "Accept and give praise" and "Refrain from idle complaints."

Forni's simple rules could improve social interchanges of all kinds, Ball said.

Pamela Mower, who is deaf, said patience goes a long way in communication between deaf and hearing people, noting that sometimes hearing people avoid deaf people because they are unsure of how to act. Mower, who is Sorenson Communications' studio producer, spoke to the Deseret News by telephone using the Sorenson Video Relay System.

Mower said it's important for hearing people to realize that deaf people are not all alike in their way of communicating. Some use sign language and others lip-read. Hearing people need to be sensitive to this and avoid assumptions.

"Pay attention to how the deaf person is trying to communicate," Mower said. "Some prefer to speak, some write and some prefer gesture and can make it work with body language."

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