Signing Santa Says the Landscape is Changing (as told to him by his elf…) – Cochlear Implants and ASL

cochlear implants, ASL, deaf culture, sign language

Signing Santa at Deptford Elks Lodge

by Dr. Daniel Swartz, CI, CT, SC:L, ED:K-12, EIPA

Small children, and those who believe in Santa, look away. You were warned.

The secret is out. I, Daniel Swartz, am Signing Santa for 360 Translations. With the help of the Deptford and Millville (New Jersey) Elks, we threw Signing Santa parties for area children. We also paid visits to Durand Academy (Woodbury, New Jersey), and the Swift School in Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey. I had lots of fun being Signing Santa. And none of it would have been possible without the help of many volunteers, as well as a few staff at 360 Translations (Patrice, Empoy, and Kimmi). We all had a good time, and it was a lot of hard work. We will all be back next year, 2017, bigger and better than ever.

But what does that have to do with the title of this article (…landscape is changing…)? Well, I have been acting as Signing Santa for over 20 years now. First in Maryland, and now in New Jersey. Over the years, the demographics of the children who visit me has changed dramatically. Back in the early days in Maryland, we held most of our Signing Santa events in Frederick, Maryland, near the school for the Deaf there (Maryland School for the Deaf). This was in the early 1990s, and very few children had cochlear implants. All kids were avid signers. But things have changed over the years. It has been a gradual change, and I haven’t really taken that much notice of it.  But my son has.

According to an Elf

See, my son is Hermogenes (Empoy) Swartz, one of our elves, and the billing clerk at 360 Translations. He is also deaf. He does not have a cochlear implant, and he signs. As we were driving home from one of our Signing Santa engagements (none of the ones listed above – let me make that very clear), Empoy seemed very down and out. I sensed it (you know how a parent senses those things, right?). I asked him what’s wrong? “Nothing.” Oh come on, you can’t fool me, I know that something is bothering you. What is it? “Nothing.” Okay, I will pull over the car and park it until you tell me what’s wrong. Then he unleashed! He was very sad, troubled, and angry that, in his words “The Deaf Community and Deaf Culture are dying.” He went on to say that most of the kids we saw had cochlear implants, and not a single one of them could sign. The best they could manage was rudimentary fingerspelling. Empoy was very upset. Empoy was right about their signing ability, but I don’t know if he is right about the forecast for the Deaf Community and Deaf Culture…?

Now mind you, I have nothing against cochlear implants. I am not deaf, but I am hard of hearing (stemming from a car accident in 2003). But I have always had the philosophy “live and let live.” A person has to do what works for them and their children/family. I am not in their shoes. There but for the grace of God go I. You know all of the euphemisms. I remember when I was younger, and a bit more militant in my thinking, that I was pretty much with the crowd-swell when it came to cochlear implants – they were the work of the devil. When I taught at an Interpreter Training Program (more than one, actually), I would always make it a point to show the film “Sound and Fury,” a documentary on how different families were facing hearing loss in their children. To me, at the time, I considered the film a shining example of the repression of the Deaf Community. But now, over the years, I am less militant about cochlear implants, and have replaced that with being very militant about Deaf Rights and advocacy.

Deaf ≠ Defective

My son is deaf. My spouse is deaf. I live in pretty much a deaf world. The only ones in my house that are not deaf are my dogs, Hope and Jake. I take that back – Hope, in her old age, has lost most of her hearing and is losing her sight. So it’s just Jake and me, and I’m hard of hearing. I have been a part of the deaf world for more than 30 years. It is a part of who I am. I felt (and still feel) Empoy’s pain. I tried to explain, as best I could, that things are changing, but it is our job to make sure that the heritage of Deaf Culture, and the language we use (ASL), is preserved for all times. Empoy feels the trend of audism, the notion that those who can hear are superior, and those who can’t are defective. My son is not defective. My spouse is not defective. The many deaf people I know are not defective. No more so than any hearing person.

Change can be very difficult.  Sometimes a hug helps.  At least it helps temper the pain.  Maybe the inevitable.  I just don’t know…

signing santa hug cochlear implant deaf culture asl

Signing Santa hugs Matthew Thompson

Access Means A Lot of Things

By Dr. Daniel B. Swartz, CI, CT, SC:L, ED:K-12

Access?  What’s that?!?  It means different things to different people. Merriam-Webster defines it:

Full Definition of access

1   a : onset

     b : a fit of intense feeling : outburst

2. a : permission, liberty, or ability to enter, approach, or pass to and from a place or to approach or communicate with a person or thing

     b : freedom or ability to obtain or make use of something

     c : a way or means of access

     d : the act or an instance of accessing

3: an increase by addition <a sudden access of wealth>

“Permission, liberty, or ability to… communicate with a person or thing.”  I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty profound. Focusing on liberty and ability, to me that’s really the thrust of what deaf and hard of hearing people face when it comes to access. While one may have the ability to access communication, be it via ASL, PSE, SEE, Tadoma, tactile, Haptics, gestures, etc., they may not be at liberty to engage in communication with others because of various barriers (different languages, deaf-to-hearing, lack of intermediary, aka – interpreter). 

And while that precious liberty may exist to communicate with each other, it can be repressed due to insufficient accommodations, such as needing a hearing interpreter AND a deaf interpreter. To me, you pretty much need the ability AND the liberty to gain access to communication cross-culturally. Oh, and permission. I think the Constitution guarantees that, with various laws since providing further reinforcement, i.e. Section 504, ADA, etc.  Permission granted? Yes. End of story? No. 

Still, 26 years after the sweeping, far-reaching passage of the ADA, deaf and hard of hearing people still confront barriers to “access” all too frequently. Frustrating. Exasperating. Numbing. Illegal. 

Yes, ILLEGAL. Not criminally breaking the law, but certainly a violation of constitutional and civil rights. I have heard, ad nauseum, stories of access being denied. Access to communication. Sometimes the deaf or hard of hearing person knows their rights are violated, sometimes they don’t. More often than not they know, but are so tired of fighting the system. Too tired to take on the hospital that refuses to provide an interpreter, instead opting for an iPad or a VRI hookup that is less than dependable. Certainly not ideal. And if English isn’t the native language (rarely it is), an iPad or writing back in forth might be totally ineffective, as well as dangerous, leading down a slippery slope of failed communication. 

More on this later. 360 Translations has an announcement coming soon about access, and how Philadelphia and NJ deaf and hard of hearing folks can flex their muscle. We are with you. Let’s continue to fight the fight for rights!!

Don’t Leave the Deaf Person out of the Conversation

By Daniel B. Swartz, Ph.D, CI, CT, SC:L, ED:K-12, AZ Class-A

Recently, I was asked my opinion by a deaf client on the protocol and etiquette regarding a very specific situation. For the sake of anonymity, let’s call this client Joe. 

Joe was attending a regular staff meeting, all participants were hearing except for him, and there was an interpreter present. It was a fast-paced meeting, with no clear turn-taking when speaking. You know the drill – hearing people talking over each other, though we ask at least once for them to take turns. Rarely works, so we do the best we can. 

But Joe’s question to me was quite specific. He wanted to know if he had the right to interrupt and “talk” over others during the staff meeting?  Joe’s interpreter was requiring him to raise his hand when he wanted to say something, while the hearing staff at the meeting just blurted out their comments at will. So Joe just raised his hand, and his interpreter voiced for him only during a break in the action, often after the matter in question was decided upon. By Joe’s interpreter’s action, Joe was left out of the conversation, frustrated, and silenced by default. 

I did tell Joe how I felt about this, as you can probably tell from what you’ve read so far. Because he wanted to know how I would handle it, I told him, with the added advice that he needed to address this with his interpreter. 

As interpreters, we wield incredible power when it comes to equal access. We do not have the right to take the wind out of a deaf person’s sails, basically handcuffing their communication to our own hang ups on communication etiquette. Nor do we have the right to rewrite a communication event, changing the outcome to something it never would be, if we had simply maintained our neutrality. 

Joe has the right to interrupt. To talk over people. To be crass and ill-mannered, if he wants. It’s his life, not ours (the interpreter).

In Therapy (or most places), an Aside to the Interpreter is so Awkward

I was interpreting recently in a mental health setting.  I have been interpreting for 31 years, the last 10 of which have been spent at 360 Translations.  I have pretty much seen and done it all when it comes to interpreting. When I voice for a deaf person, I take on the personae of that deaf person.  It’s like I become them.  It’s nothing weird or supernatural, it’s simply me getting into character and voicing more accurately ( and believably).  I think I am a good interpreter, but an excellent voicer (the latter I have been told repeatedly over the years).

Anyway, in a recent mental health therapy session, I voiced “rigmarole” and it fit perfectly with what the deaf person was saying/signing.  The deaf person is intelligent (aren’t they all?), well-versed in English, and this word would have rolled off their fingers in a most natural fashion.  As it did that session.  To me, this is the essence of voice interpreting – embodying the intent and spirit of the deaf person, which simultaneously empowering them).

The therapist was taken aback.  “Wow, I’m just curious, you (turning to me) said rigmarole, so please show me how to sign (looking to client) rigmarole.”  Me – eyes glaze over and I think to myself – no, not again, this can’t be happening.  Of course I interpret everything the therapist says.  So now instead of being an almost invisible presence in this communication process, I am now the focus of attention.  I am now involved.  I groan silently.

The deaf person is confused, so I must go into an explanation of why the therapist offered the request in the first place.  I would like to note that almost immediately the therapist realized his gaffe – too late, damage done.  So I come out of role and explain what happened.  Rigmarole.  Damn you, rigmarole!!


[ rig-m uh-rohl]
an elaborate or complicated procedure: to go through the rigmarole of a formal dinner.
confused, incoherent, foolish, or meaningless talk.
We will go with the 1st definition here as what was intended.  I DID explain completely, without wasting too much time, what happened.  Therapist happy but embarrassed.  Client embarrassed and silently begging me not to use any more 50 cent words during the session.  Me? Unhinged.
Note to the therapists and hearing stakeholders out there: please do not ask the interpreter to recreate a sign that struck your fancy for your curiosity and amusement. Resist the temptation, please.  Pretend we are not there, the best you can.  Gracias!
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Delicious
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Add to favorites
  • Email

Nearly Four Weeks of Different Cultures

world-deafPat and I have been on a whirlwind vacation, doing a 17-day transatlantic crossing that brought us to the Azores, Ireland, France, Belgium, Norway, Netherlands, and Denmark. We have followed that with a trip via rail (rail in the US pales in comparison to European rail) from Copenhagen to visits in Berlin, Prague, and now Munich, from where I am penning this current blog.

I have a working knowledge of German, and it is being severely tested here in Munich. Unlike Berlin, Munich is much more “German” with English not spoken as widely. Munich is a magnet for many immigrants as they leave struggling neighboring countries, such as Serbia, Greece, etc. The German economy is the bedrock of the European Union, thus many come here out of necessity.

As we have made our way through several German-speaking countries, I have functioned as Pat’s interpreter in more of a tri-lingual fashion (English/German/ASL).  Needless to say, the residents of most counties we have visited often speak several languages, English often being one of them. But not so much here; not so much Munich. It has driven a point home for me: I am kind of a language snob. I figured being fluent in English and ASL made me pretty worldly in terms of linguistic ability. Not so. I may be the typical American, pretty much stuck on hold when it comes to expanding my language base. I  figured that I will be fine on this trip, as surely everyone speaks English. Most do, and while that’s good for us Americans, it doesn’t speak well for those of us who have yet to meet the world halfway in this regard. My somewhat lame attempt at brushing up on my German really isn’t good enough.

So what does this have to do with interpreting? With 360 Translations? Well, I suppose without the language gap between deaf and hearing people, I would not have a job. I work because there is the need for communication between the two language, peoples, and and cultures. The point driven home on this trip is that we expect communication to happen, and hopefully on our part we will have to exert as little effort as possible to bridge the gap. While it is unreasonable for most hearing people to learn and become fluent in ASL, as most American’s exposure to ASL is minimal. When it does happen, interpreters are there to bridge the language gap. It makes sense, and 360 Translations plays a huge part in doing this in New Jersey, Southeast Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

But as the world’s borders seem to be shrinking and blurring, it becomes more evident to me that knowing only English, as an American, is not enough. More of us should attempt, yours truly included, to pick up another language that will have utility into today’s world (Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, etc.).

On the train from Copenhagen to Hamburg, and then Berlin, a German gentleman was sitting in front of me, and he was talking loud enough that I didn’t have to strain to eavesdrop.  And what  he was saying is probably something that we American’s get tired of hearing. In German, he was saying to a girl he just met that “Americans are snobs and think they are the only civilized people in the world.” That hit a raw nerve with me, because I don’t see myself that way.  But maybe he is right. As I traveled further, and reflected back on what he said, I really do think he has a point about us Americans. True, most Americans are tired of being the world’s whipping post, but when I approached what he said with honest insight, it kind of hit home. Even training today from Prague to Munich I was struck by how clean the towns were, and how prevalent alternative energy is in the Czech Republic and other countries visited. I guess I expected them to be rubbing sticks together – I just don’t know. But I woke up. And I will continue to do so and take stock of my nationalistic thinking.

I am an interpreter by trade, and proud of that. But it is always good to broaden one’s horizons. I am thrilled to be working at 360 Translations and helping to enable people to communicate. But there is still more I can do. There is more we all can do.

My Best,

Daniel Swartz
360 Translations