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.
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.
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."
Cindy Volk traveled to the symposium from her home in Tucson, Ariz., where she teaches ASL and deaf studies classes at the University of Arizona. The topic of civility has been on her mind since the tragic shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford and several others in Tucson, which caused the city's residents to start talking about being kinder, and looking out for each other, Volk said.
"Since the shootings, we are more civil to each other," Volk said. "I've noticed a difference. What happened was horrific on one hand, but on the other hand, it brought about a real change."
Now, Volk wants to bring the discussion of civility into her professional life. She said that being an excellent ASL interpreter depends on more than just technical skills in signing.
"A lot of it is about interpersonal skills," she said. "You're in (a deaf person's) life, many times when they would rather not have someone else there. There are ways to make it easier for everyone."
Anytime people from different cultures interact, there are clashes, said symposium attendee Glenna Ashton, president of the national ASL Teachers Association and a professor at University of Florida.
"When you teach language, you teach culture," Ashton said, through an ASL interpreter. "An interpreter must learn how to interact, and show respect for both cultures. We need to establish that attitude early on, while students are learning the language."
The issues that create challenges to communication are universal, Ashton said, as is the need for civility. Her ideal for all of American society is that people will meet each other with open-minded acceptance and without pre-conceived conceptions.
The conference on civility and leadership is sponsored by Salt Lake City's VRS Interpreting Institute, which provides continuing education for graduates of interpreter education programs and their trainers. The conference began Friday, and runs through Sunday at the Robert G. Sanderson Center of the Deaf.
The VRS Interpreting Institute is a division of Sorenson Communications, a Salt Lake city-based ompany that is the leading provider of video relay systems that enable telephone calls between deaf and hearing people through a link-up with a professional ASL interpreter.