How dare you go out without an interpreter!! Acknowledging alternative and equal ways of communication

Maartje De Meulder and Annelies Kusters

First this: we both have extensive experience with using sign language interpreters and we are very much in favour of using them in specific situations. We see interpreters as central to our professional and personal lives: we use them to participate in meetings, conferences, seminars, to conduct interviews and for parent-teacher meetings at our children’s schools, for social activities, for medical health appointments and for making phone calls (VRS service), to name just a few situations. That a deaf person does bring an interpreter but this is not recognised, or is denied the right to an interpreter, is happening much too often and is important to address. In this blog post though, we address the very opposite situation, namely being denied services when very consciously not bringing an interpreter, which we experience as equally humiliating.

Indeed, sometimes we prefer not to use an interpreter. That does not mean that instead we prefer to speak and lipread. All our lives we have experienced that generally this is not conducive to good and effective communication, especially with strangers. However, in those situations when we are not accompanied by an interpreter, we often get the following responses.

The first one is, yes indeed: “can you lip read?”, to which we reply “no, please write”.  In fact, we are able to lip read some people, but it does not guarantee that we get full information, and people do not realize how little information is gained through lipreading especially when it is not combined with gestures, sign language or writing. People also tend to be misled by our speaking skills, assuming that having (good) speaking skills equals understanding speech. Because we are multilingual people competent in several written and signed languages, we feel that writing notes back and forth is an equally good and effective way to communicate in some situations. It makes us feel more independent, it puts us on an equal footing with the other person, and, let us be honest, it saves us the time and efforts of looking for and booking an interpreter which, as we all know, can be arduous sometimes. Furthermore, when writing, we do not miss the crucial information we unavoidably miss when lipreading.

That is, if people are prepared to collaborate. Because when we ask to write notes, the next response is often a dumbfounded expression and general reluctance. Writing notes?? People behave as if they do not know how to use pen and paper or type on a computer, even when that is in fact a central feature of their jobs.  They say it’s time consuming, not effective, difficult. And they often write too much: full sentences instead of a few words which are often enough. This of course makes it very inconvenient, especially in situations where there is a queue waiting right behind you.

The next response: bring an interpreter. Below, we describe three situations where this has happened, and which triggered this blog post.

Situation 1: Public service counter.

Maartje recently went to wait in line at a public service to request information. The service was open 8.30 to 12.30 and did not work with appointments, so you just had to queue until a staff member was ready to talk to you. Maartje went well-prepared: she had pen and notes ready, and a printed copy of earlier e-mail conversations with that service. First question when she made clear she was deaf by pointing at her ears and shaking her head: “can you lipread?” “No sir, please write with me.” The official shuffled through the papers, clearly unsure about what he needed to do next. So Maartje started writing down again, in Dutch (this situation took place in Flanders, Belgium) why she was here, and what kind of information she needed. Next question: “Do you have an interpreter? That would be much easier to explain everything. Please come back with an interpreter.” When asked if in that case it would be possible to make an appointment, since an interpreter is not someone Maartje can nor does want to have at her side the whole day: “No we don’t work with appointments, please just bring the interpreter.” Basically, the conversation was over then. Maartje asked if there were any more papers she needed to bring the next time, and with an indulgent smile of “here we go again, I will do my last effort”, the official wrote down what she needed to bring. And that was that. Well, he said, “I’m sorry”, as if he couldn’t help it and really didn’t know what else to do.

Situation 2: Gynaecologist.

When Annelies, a Flemish deaf woman with Dutch as her first language, was pregnant with her second son, she was laying on the doctor’s chair, with her legs open, for an internal sonography. The doctor wrote “genetics” on a piece of paper. Annelies was instantly worried: did the child have a genetic illness? She requested more information but the doctor refused to write more, and Annelies felt utterly helpless and discriminated. When sitting with the doctor in her office afterwards, the doctor told her to return with an interpreter. Annelies asked for more information on the genetics issue: what was it exactly? But the doctor refused to give more information. Since this situation happened in Germany, and Annelies does not know German Sign Language, she prefers not to bring interpreters to doctors, but to communicate in written German and English instead. The doctor refused. She went back with a bilingual (German-English) colleague later, who wrote instead. The doctor told her that since she and her husband Sujit are deaf, they should have a genetics test to see if the child is deaf or not. The doctor was very insistent upon this test, saying that it was of utmost importance for the child’s health (!). Annelies and Sujit objected. It was a doubly discriminating situation: the doctor forced them to have this test and refused to communicate directly with them. This is not an isolated incident. On multiple occasions, doctors in Germany have told Annelies that they would not see her if she came without an interpreter. She then found herself in the absurd situation of having to ask colleagues to accompany her (an infringement on her privacy) and write down what the doctor was saying, which was certainly not less time-consuming than when the doctor would have written him/herself (either in German or in English). Often, the doctor said much more than the colleague could reasonably write down, and Annelies experienced this talking over her head as discriminating and infantilizing. It took her several years to identify doctors who were willing and able to write (in English and German).

Situation 3: Town house.

Sujit is an Indian deaf person and Annelies’ husband, and since 2013 they live in Germany with their two sons. Sujit’s residence permit has to be extended regularly and for this, they have to visit the Ausländeramt (foreigner’s office) at the townhouse. Actually, Sujit preferred to go alone and to write in English with the officials (which is not their first language, but neither his), but since many people in Germany are not comfortable writing in English, Annelies accompanied him since she can read German and write basic German. They had prepared all the necessary documents and papers, so their application was perfectly in order. They had an appointment, as had several others. One after the other, the others were called in, but Annelies and Sujit kept waiting, with their second son who was a very small baby then, and very fussy. Suddenly, Annelies got a text message from her boss’ assistant: the official had called her work place (!) to tell them that they could not receive Annelies and Sujit without an interpreter, even though their application was complete and they did not need to have a lengthy conversation, just bring in the documents.

In contrast, Annelies and Sujit have lived in India for three years (and Sujit was raised there). There, in contexts of customer interaction, interactions with officials, and service provision, they communicated via writing (and many people did not have English as their first language), gesturing and signing, even during the delivery of their first baby. Nobody expected them to bring an interpreter, and nobody expected them to speak or lipread. Many people were even illiterate or not literate in English, but in most situations, communication worked out. These ways of communication were performed without question. (These ways of communication are documented in the movie Ishaare, which you can go and watch in Antwerpen on 29 April 2016).

These are just some of the many situations we have encountered in our personal lives, going out on ourselves (how dare we!) without an interpreter. We are receptive, flexible and cooperative women, but we often feel we are punished when we try to make use of our broad range of communication and language skills. If we are denied services when we do not bring an interpreter, we feel that our independence is not respected. This is in stark contrast with our professional and family lives, where we successfully carry out multiple responsibilities; it feels infantilizing and dehumanizing to be sent away if we do not adhere to mainstream communication ways. We do not ask that people try to sign if they do not sign, or gesture if they are utterly uncomfortable doing so. We just have the reasonable expectation that two people literate in a certain language, can and do accept to write in that language and are partners in trying to find alternative ways to communicate (writing, typing, using an online dictionary, which Sujit often does when meeting German-speaking people who do not know English), that are perfectly within people’s capabilities and possibilities.

Doctors, public service officers, and others insisting on bringing an interpreter is not a way to include people in society. In our view, inclusion means trying to cope with diversity (within certain parameters), rather than relaying this responsibility to cope with diversity to a third person (i.e. the interpreter, or a colleague). Do not misunderstand us, it is very important to us to be able to use interpreters, since they enable us to share our work with non-signers for example, and we appreciate and very much respect the fact that other deaf people will have other preferences with regard to the precise contexts in which they wish to use interpreters.

But we feel that in some situations, the scale has tipped, and interpreters in themselves have become tools of discrimination. This, we think, has never been the goal of interpreting services, and has never been the goal of most deaf people either. We do not see interpreters as our extended selves. We want to have the choice and opportunity to not use them in some settings, and we appeal to people to try and be flexible and cooperative in communicative situations. That, and not the forced use of interpreters is, in our view, a feature of an inclusive society.

3 thoughts on “How dare you go out without an interpreter!! Acknowledging alternative and equal ways of communication

  1. Way to go Annelies and Maartje! A great subject to bring to people’s attention.

  2. Clearly more active reflection is needed among officials and service providers about likely, possible and plausible strategies of communication. Focus on how to handle the “opening stages” of the encounter. At the same time, it is surprising to see that in an era of “whatsapp”, “text messaging” and “chat”, institutions have not invested in the presence of keyboards and screens for use by clients during service encounters.

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