Interview with Dennis Cokely: Emerging Trends in Interpreting and Implications for Interpreter Education

Dennis Cokely sits down with Brandon Arthur to discuss Emerging Trends in Interpreting and Implications for Interpreter Education at RID NOLA 2015.

Brandon Arthur: Hi, I’m Brandon Arthur with StreetLeverage. I’m here at the 2015 RID National Conference in New Orleans, and it’s a tremendous pleasure to be meeting with Dennis Cokely. Welcome, Dennis.

Dennis Cokely: Thank you. It’s a pleasure for me to join you.

Brandon Arthur: We really appreciate the presentation you’ve just given at the conference about the trends we’re now confronting as a field. You’ve been involved in the NCIEC, gathering data and doing research on trends. I’m wondering what you’ve found and what is the most shocking or unexpected finding you’ve come across?

Dennis Cokely: Well, that’s a good question. In order to understand what was most shocking or hardest to believe, we must look back at the history of our profession, the context for our report. Remember that interpreting is something that started way back, probably when the first Deaf person was born, I don’t know, but here in the U.S., the profession has only been about 40-50 years in the making.

In the beginning, there was no such thing as an interpreting profession, but Deaf people needed access, whether for a doctor’s appointment, meeting with an attorney, mental health, and so on. So, it went without saying that if a hearing child was born into a Deaf family, that child would serve as an interpreter. These were the first interpreters. Alternatively, a hard of hearing friend of a Deaf person, one who could hear a little and lipread well, would accompany a Deaf person, and in that respect, also function as an interpreter.

As the years went by, hearing people with no Deaf people in their families or lives, such as social workers, priests, and ministers, would learn the language and become interpreters. This way of entering the community was managed by Deaf people who taught, tutored and mentored them. Deaf people molded and shaped this new generation and decided when they were ready to interpret. At first, it was fairly simple. Such hearing people had a Deaf friend to shepherd them into the community. They were invited into the Deaf club, and there they were exposed to an array of Deaf community members, from those who grew up in oral education programs and learned sign at the age of 25, to Deaf people whose parents were also Deaf, to Gallaudet graduates, and so on. These hearing people met all kinds of Deaf people and interacted and engaged with them regularly. As time went on, they would be asked to interpret, say, a phone call, after which the Deaf person would give them feedback on their interpreting. After each small interpreting experience, the hearing person amassed the critiques of the Deaf people. This was a very natural process, because it was the Deaf people themselves who managed and shaped the skills of the interpreters. If the hearing person’s attitude was poor, if his signing skills weren’t up to snuff, if he didn’t attend community events regularly, he wouldn’t be called upon to interpret. At that time, it was Deaf people who arranged for their interpreters.

Then, access became a greater need in the community. A group of people in 1964 established the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, and that fostered a huge change in our field. Now there was an official name for what people were doing, and by joining the organization, you could call yourself an interpreter. Two documents needed to be signed off on in order to join, one stating that the candidate could sign, and the other stating that the candidate could interpret. These documents were signed by two people, one hearing and one Deaf. And voilà, now you’re an interpreter. Extensive vetting by the Deaf community was no longer necessary.

This group grew, but the skills of RID members were not deemed satisfactory. In about 1970, one man who worked in Vocational Rehabilitation knew that a new law would soon pass to require access. He foresaw the need to furnish some proof of an interpreter’s ability. He suggested that RID establish a test, and that’s how certification was born in 1972. At this point, Deaf people had almost no control over who could interpret. The test contained a live panel made up of three people, one Deaf and two hearing. Imagine one Deaf person carrying the vote for an entire community. What a terrible responsibility! If a hearing candidate, whose skills didn’t measure up to the standards of the Deaf community, passed and was hence labeled a certified interpreter, a community uproar would ensue, and the pressure on the one Deaf panelist was immense. That was the moment Deaf people lost control over the process. RID had effectively snatched it away from the Deaf community.

Soon after, Section 504 of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act passed, which meant that the government had now seized control of the process, because the government would define what it means to be a qualified interpreter. Then mainstreaming laws passed, which had a similar effect of wresting control from the hands of the Deaf community. Later, ADA had the same effect. Here we are in 2015, and Deaf people have virtually no control, whatsoever.

So, that’s our history. The trends we’re examining are not new. They have been 50 years in the making. They began with the birth of RID. There was no research that went into the first iteration of the certification test, to be honest. Nobody asked the Deaf community what it wanted. Once the federal law passed, and incidentally, sign language interpreting is the only job that is required by three federal laws — not true for doctors, lawyers, and social workers. Three federal laws! So, once the law passed, there was a sense of urgency to put more interpreters into the field, and the way to do that was to start interpreter training programs in community colleges. Our view of the job at that time was that it was on par with other vocational technical skills, such as heating and cooling, plumbing, and the like. Just teach the students to sign and that’s all they’ll need.

These programs proliferated across the country. They were two-year programs in which a student learned the language for one year and learned interpreting for one year. In addition, not many Deaf people were employed in these programs. Again, we see who has the control. What’s worse is that because the programs were housed in colleges, they followed the scheduling format of two semesters annually with two hours of coursework weekly, as well as fitting in other general academic requirements of the college. This training had nothing in common with what had come before — exposure to and engagement in the Deaf community in all its diversity. In the college setting, students learned from one Deaf teacher in a room with 12-16 hearing students. Where was the socialization? Where was the range of communication styles?

I think that the trends we see from our report made this morning are not surprising in and of themselves. We know these trends have existed, but to have the numbers and the data put before us is powerful. I can’t speak for Deaf people, but the worst trend that I see for Deaf people is mainstreaming. 88% of Deaf students are now mainstreamed, most of whom are alone in their schools or classrooms. Because their parents are hearing, they didn’t grow up signing, so they’re left to learn sign from an interpreter. One problem is that because of the isolation of individual Deaf students in the mainstream schools, we see different sign idiolects forming. Are our college-trained interpreters equipped to deal with and match the varieties of sign they’ll be confronted with in the mainstream schools? No. That kind of flexibility is borne out of interacting with the natural language varieties of the Deaf community. The other problem, one that we didn’t mention this morning, is the loss of the language of the community. In the Deaf club, people would show up from another state and be shown the local dialect of the area. People raised orally would be taught and cared for by the community. The language of the community is disappearing.

I wonder how Deaf people 30 or 40 years ago would respond if they could have been shown what their world would look like today. Would they support the changes made? We no doubt see many challenges for interpreters today, but we also see high risks for Deaf people and for their language.

Brandon Arthur: I wonder about that loss of community and loss of language and the gap left due to Deaf people no longer being involved in the field and the training of interpreters. Given your breadth of experience, how can the system change to involve Deaf people or reconnect with our field’s roots?

Dennis Cokely: Let’s back up again to provide context. Your question leads me to think about technology and Deaf people. Our communications technology has separated the community. First, the TTY gave us one-on-one communication. Then, the pager came along, also one-on-one. Then the videophone, also one-on-one. Oh, and captioning allowed people to stay at home and watch TV. They no longer had to go to the Deaf club. So, these technologies effectively forced Deaf people to split up, such that there was no longer a single large community. The group was obsolete.

Now, I believe we need skilled interpreters. We can learn the requisite skills, but can we teach them? No, because I learned them through interactions with the larger Deaf community, and if that community has been divided, how can I teach them? That presents a huge challenge. Interpreter Education Programs have a responsibility to their students and to Deaf people. IEPs must create opportunities for the Deaf community. Sometimes that means facilitating between students and Deaf people, but other times that means doing something for Deaf people alone, such as a Deaf movie night or, for example, next April 1, Northeastern University will host its 19th annual ASL festival. If IEPs graduate students who will benefit from the community language, we have a duty, an obligation to give back.

I don’t believe that we should expect Deaf people do this on their own. Colleges, universities, and IEPs have the resources, the space. We have to avail ourselves of those resources to partner with local Deaf people. We have to find different ways for our students to interact with that broad range of Deaf people.

Brandon Arthur: How can everyday working interpreters get involved? There aren’t many programs in the US, and what’s more, many of them only have one or two teachers, so it can’t fall just to the IEPs to solve the issue. How can we leverage the resources in the larger community of interpreters to help create partnerships and solve this problem?

Dennis Cokely: I feel that too many interpreters today think that this is just a job. They clock in and clock out in their 9-5 world. Locally, interpreters can teach or mentor in the IEPs, or they can donate money, seeing as how they make upwards of $40-$70 per hour. Meanwhile, many Deaf people aren’t employed since their education is so abysmal. Money can be used to host periodic Deaf events to show Deaf people that we’re invested in our collective future. Figure out ways to set up big brother and big sister programs for those isolated Deaf students in mainstream programs. If you can’t find Deaf adults to be big brothers / big sisters, then interpreters can take that on and bring the Deaf students to Deaf events in the community.

We have to be more creative. We used to have physical locations where Deaf people gathered, such as clubs, schools, churches, and the like. Now, churches and temples might function as the last of these types of places for Deaf people. Do they still contain a broad representation of the Deaf community? We have to do something, as consumers, as a field, and as an organization. For me, it’s sad that PL 94-142, now the IDEA, originally passed 40 years ago in 1975, and some people still believe that a K-12 education with an interpreter is somehow equivalent to direct instruction. Our organization, in line with NAD, must say, hold it; that’s not true. If these modes of instruction are equal, then why are students reading and writing skills still, on average, at a third grade level? Look at Deaf students who have Deaf parents. Their reading and writing skills are off the charts. Why? Early language.

Now, cochlear implants are pervasive, and once the public schools see a student entering with a CI, they assume that the student doesn’t need support services, such as notetakers, tutors, or even interpreters. Only after two or three years of the student’s struggle do they acquiesce to placement of an interpreter. That’s after wasting two to three years! RID still has a standard practice paper on K-12 interpreting, and the worst part is that we, as interpreters, don’t accept responsibility for that system. Therefore, it becomes easier for schools to blame the Deaf child. “He can’t learn because he’s deaf.” We don’t stand up to that. We let it go on. We have to stop acting as if everything is okay. We can’t put a band-aid on every injury. We have to begin fighting for large-scale, systemic change at the local, state, and national levels. That’s what we have to do.

Brandon Arthur: Systemic change is never easy. The trends report is obviously just the beginning of a larger discussion and greater action. Where can interpreters and others go if they want to get involved, if they want to do something to help foment change? What can they do?

Dennis Cokely: My feeling is that you have to think locally. Boston is different from New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, LA, etc. There’s not just one answer. At the local level, what do we need? What can we do in partnership with Deaf people? Start there. Then at the state level, maybe organizations can get involved, such as RID, NAD, CEASD. Then their directors can talk with people at the national level. If we make changes at the local level, that will influence change at the state level, which will in turn influence change at the national level. But we must first recognize the current situation. This morning, Cathy used the term, mess. It’s a mess, and it’s messy. If we don’t change things at the local level, it will be a mess, and it will lead to chaos.

These kids are out there alone in their schools. We have more and more Deaf kids with an array of disabilities, as well. Interpreters must be flexible. Not only must they interact with a variety of Deaf people as part of their education, but that must include Deaf people with disabilities, Deaf people with CIs, Deaf people in the K-12 environment, etc. IEPs, whether they’re two-year or four-year programs, must make that a part of their curriculum. Yet, we’re already graduating students who don’t possess even adequate ASL skills. Some students get there, but most don’t. So, on top of that issue, how do we promote exposure to and experience with the variety within today’s Deaf community? Do we change the curriculum? Do we bring education on those discrete varieties into the classroom? That would be impossible. We must figure out how we can find and create multiple, real-life opportunities for interaction and engagement between students and the wide variety of Deaf people out there.

Brandon Arthur: Thank you. Thank you for taking this opportunity to help us more clearly understand the value of the trends report, but also the broader context and how it applies to current circumstances and how we might incorporate it in future changes. Thank you.

Dennis Cokely: My pleasure. Thanks.