Michele Lamons-Raiford is a hearing American Sign Language (ASL) teacher at Pinole Valley High School in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. She has been a High School teacher for the past nineteen years, as well as an Adjunct Instructor at Solano Community College for the past fourteen years. She has a BA and MA in English from Cal State University Sacramento, and teaching credentials in English and ASL from Cal State University East Bay. She considers herself to be a devoted ally and advocate for ASL and the Deaf Community.
The excitement in the voice of one of my hearing American Sign Language (ASL) students was contagious. “Ms. Lamons! Did you see the interpreter at the White House briefing?” I am constantly in awe at the newfound advocacy of students who have just begun their journey into Deaf Culture. Being the only high school that offers ASL in our district has already given them a sense of pride, but the ways in which they are more aware of the injustices that too often deny the Deaf Community access is so inspiring. Marissa Brown, alumni of our ASL Program, Child of Deaf Adult (CODA), and the interpreter said the following: “As a CODA, finally seeing the same access I receive reach my mother’s community is beautiful.”
How can we claim to want to evolve into a culturally affirming community without considering the basic human right to communication sought after by the Deaf community? I think about the frustrations of the constant fight to gain access to information in their efforts to receive the culturally affirming and equitable right to something many take for granted: communication. I think about how my students are becoming more and more aware of the need to use their own powerful voices for advocacy and continued change. I think about my student who was so excited to see a break in the barriers that have kept the Deaf Community from some information that could mean the difference between life and death. I think about what it would be like if everyone were indeed “treated equally”.
“I am so thrilled to see that we are finally feeling some sense of equity,” said Professor Gwen Gallagher, the first deaf full-time professor at Solano Community College. “It’s about time that people know that we are just like everyone else, with just as diverse and differing lifestyles.”
Tyler Thornton, Interpreter, and Deaf Advocate said the following: “Without the aid of a live interpreter, the Deaf are then dependent on third party sources to gather the information hours after the original briefing…[interpreters] provide the Deaf with the SAME access that you and I usually take for granted.”
The newfound focus on equity in education seems to focus more on multi-ethnic diversity than multicultural identities that are often the epitome of intersectionality. We as a country need to realize that one way to affirm identity is to make sure people are connected in every way, especially via simple access to vital information. So much so that “By federal law, the televised version of briefing[s] must include closed captioning. But that is prone to error and can be difficult to follow, especially for deaf individuals whose first language isn’t English“ (Huffington Post, May 2020). One would think that the millions of deaf or hard of hearing individuals would have access to more than just the oftentimes inaccurate closed captioning. “The provision of life closed captioning frequently contains errors and omissions that make it difficult or impossible for [deaf and hard of hearing] individuals to understand the information being provided in the briefings, particularly if they are not fluent in English” (CNN, August 2020).
Providing sign language interpreters is arguably the most important and equitable way to provide equal access to communication to the million people in the United States alone who use ASL as their primary language (Newsweek, April 2019).
Jac Cook, Community Resource Coordinator at California School for the Deaf in Fremont, and Deaf Interpreter stated the following in a Facebook Post from January 20, 2021:
I so loved to see so many people using Sign Language today! Our amazing Deaf Interpreters on screen, A Signed Pledge of Allegiance, and our newly appointed CA Senator Padilla with an “ILY” as he got sworn in. That is a true definition of signing community right there! I can’t tell you how so validated I am as a Deaf person when our language is being celebrated on national television. This is OUR time…in this lifetime. I feel so lucky to be alive to witness this today.
We affirm Deaf Culture by being purposeful in our effort to include every community. Antoine Hunter (Purple Fire Crow) is a deaf actor, dancer, and advocate said, “We all want to be included. We all want to be in the same space where everybody can receive the information!” Unfortunately, whether it be Politics, Pandemics, Random Acts of God or a plethora of important or emergency, information is not readily accessible for all. “I travel around the country and world, and I watch many different news [outlets] from different states and countries, and I find it fascinating that they always have interpreters there. America seems a little bit behind with that,” said Hunter in a Facebook Live video posted on January 26, 2021.
Why was it necessary for Deaf New Yorkers to sue for equal access to daily briefings on Covid 19? Why did The National Association of the Deaf (NAD), Stein & Vargas, and Iglesia Martell Law Firm have to represent Steven Beyer in his lawsuit for refusing to provide effective communication to him? (NAD, December 2020) “The president is committed to building an America that is more inclusive, more just and more accessible for every American, including Americans with disabilities and their families,” [Biden’s] White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced (Washington Post, January 2021).
To go further, many in the Deaf Community are asking for not only multicultural diversity in the choice of interpreters but the addition of Certified Deaf Interpreters (CDI). Native users of ASL understand the significant difference in the use of hearing interpreters versus CDIs. Marissa Brown went on to say “The topics at hand are so important and now, the Deaf community can see more representation through CDIs…This [also] gives more exposure to ASL as a language.”
Trilingual interpreter Melvi Valencia works with linguistic nuances that come with interpreting in multiple languages at the same time in various settings. Miscommunications can be a tremendous hindrance and barrier as it is, but when one is denied access in their native language, these issues are even more apparent. “CDIs provide access on a different level to the Deaf Community. They are so necessary to provide a clearer message that can only come from the experience of a native signer.”
I am hopeful for the days when articles like this are no longer necessary to amplify the voice of the Deaf Community. In the words of freelance interpreter Tracy Wilson, “I pray that the equity that we are beginning to see will continue”. Until then, I will revel in the use of interprets in this new administration, while continuing to pursue equity through culturally affirming access to communication.