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).

2 replies
  1. Robin Reusch
    Robin Reusch says:

    More than once I have blurted out my clients opinion. What usually happens, interestingly enough.. The hearing people
    Become quiet and look at me, at which point I smile and say ” thats mr so and so’s thought, I ‘m just the Interpreter” They usually take turns after that.

  2. rhonda abbott
    rhonda abbott says:

    I like this no nonsense reply where the writer is 100% sensitive, to the access needs of the deaf/hoh individual.

    I recall asking a CART Provider, to cart out whom was speaking when multiple people were communicating in close proximity to one another. The matter at hand, was extremely important. Sadly, the CART Provider lacked the professionalism to consent to my reasonable request.

    Thankfully this CART Provider’s non-compliant attitude is not the norm, as I usually receive professional and responsive CART Providers.


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