Transcript: American Sign Language and Deaf Communication

Eddie Ytuarte: Good afternoon this is Eddie Ytuarte here on Pushing Limits on KPFA at Berkeley. This is disability radio by people with disabilities and for disabilities, but this program though, especially we like to have it appeal to all of our listeners at wonderful KPFA, it has to do with sign language. HANDS Multicultural

The whole arena of sign language suddenly became an international consideration during the Nelson Mandela memorial service December 10th when an unqualified sign interpreter stood next to the world leaders and performed very badly. This, according to all the reaction we have seen coming from the international Deaf and sign language community.

In this country sign language is being used more and more with hardly a complaint or hint of controversy as occurred in South Africa. And here at Pushing Limits we thought that this would be a good time to talk about this sign language and how and what makes for good provision of deaf interpretation services at public events.

Today we have Jim Brune who is the Executive Director of Deaf Counseling Advocacy and Referral Agency or DCARA as we often refer it to. Translation for Jim Brune will be provided by Aaron Brace so that will be the voice that we will be hearing as we conduct this interview. Thank you for both of you for coming in.

Jim Brune: Thank you Eddie. It’s a thrill to be here today.

Ytuarte: First of all, what is DCARA? If you could briefly explain that, Jim Brune.

Brune: I’d be happy to. DCARA has been in existence for, now, 51 years. We were founded by a group of teachers for the California School for the Deaf when it was located here in Berkeley; it’s since moved to Fremont. And these teachers at the School for the Deaf noticed that many of the graduates, upon going out into the world, returned to the school to look for help with housing and employment and the like. They saw that the need was great enough that they wanted to establish an organization to provide those services and that was the genesis of the DCARA more than 50 years ago.

We’re currently based in San Leandro with offices in 14 different counties. We provide a wide range of services such as employment services, working with deaf people to find employment. We work with parents who have deaf or hard of hearing infants that were recently diagnosed. We also work with a variety of Deaf adults to provide advocacy. We work on things ranging from access to medical services to legal services, we provide a wide range of community education opportunities as well. We offer independent living classes, workshops, and the like.

Deaf and CODA (children of deaf adults) kids making Mexican hat at a DCARA Cinco de Mayo event

Deaf and CODA (children of deaf adults) kids making Mexican hat at a DCARA Cinco de Mayo event

Ytuarte: Okay, and you have been there 12 years, 8 years as Executive Director? Is that correct?

Brune: Yes, that’s right.

Ytuarte: Okay. Now going to South Africa… the big controversy in South Africa has raised awareness of interpretation for the deaf community like no other event I can remember. In your observation or of what you’ve seen, what was that controversy about, Jim Brune?

Brune: Well, this was during memorial service for one of the world’s most respected leaders…or Nelson Mandela that is, of course. The Deaf people in South Africa were watching the service on television and they saw this man come on stage to start moving his hands in what should have been their native South African sign language, but what they saw was someone who wasn’t signing in a language.

He was signing the equivalent of spoken gibberish and of course they were rightfully outraged and they took to social media to alert the world that during this very important memorial service watched by millions of people we had the services provided by someone who is not only not a professional sign language interpreter, but who wasn’t using a real sign language at all. That started a firestorm on social media. Many people made their displeasure known to the government.

Ytuarte: Now, the event was over a half an hour. Do we know how long was he translating?

Brune: He went on for quite a long time, a good while.

Ytuarte: Because my understanding this that an interpreter will sign language for about half an hour and then he’s relieved, or she’s relieved, by another person. Going over half an hour seems like that would be quite a chore.

Brune: Yes. Here in the United States and industry-standard is that interpreters do swap out every 20 or 30 minutes.

Ytuarte: 20 or… okay yeah.

Brune: Because one of a few reasons: the profession of sign language interpreting is a taxing job on the brain and on the body. You often see interpreters in situations that go longer than half an hour working in a team where they swap out. You might have an interpreter working alone for as much as an hour, and it’s depending on the setting, but if it goes much longer than they’ll need to schedule two interpreters.

Ytuarte: It seems like whoever organized, whether it was – I don’t know if it was the government or the ANC or the African National Congress- I mean they really screwed up by hiring…by going through a really bad process. That just seems like things that don’t even happen under our government even and its worst. I mean somebody really messed up there.



Brune: It’s true. The thing though, it gets to the issue of hiring sign language interpreters. Clearly in South Africa there was no vetting process. If there was, I would like to know what it was and how they went about selecting this man.

But I can’t say that it never happens here; unfortunately such things do happen here in United States. Often we’ll see the hiring process does not include deaf people in the vetting. So what we see is different companies that say have a deaf employee, one or more deaf employee, the HR department are the ones that go out looking for interpreters or the procurement department. Sadly to say, so very often what they do is contact an agency that works with various spoken languages.

Maybe they want a one-stop shop because they have other employees that speak other spoken languages. In hiring such an agency, that leaves deaf people out of the process of selecting the interpreter. How else can I say this? They look for the cheapest service that’s available which isn’t always the right service. It isn’t always the right interpreter for that deaf employee and that’s just one example.

Another one is that often people think that once an interpreter is certified that means they’re appropriate for any deaf person in any setting, which isn’t true. What makes an interpreter appropriate for a given deaf employee is many other characteristics, not just having certification.

Ytuarte: So are there some interpreters that, say, are more attuned to a senior audience than a teenage audience then?

Brune: Well, I wouldn’t say that age has a whole lot to do with it more like…let’s see… what would be a good example? We are in a very technologically oriented age now and we need to have people who are up on the technology that people are using. A deaf person working in that field needs interpreter who has great facility with both the signs and the English words for their technical field. And again that goes into the issue of someone having a generalist certification that doesn’t mean that they have the necessary world knowledge in every possible field of endeavor.

Another example might be you have interpreting services that require an interpreter to be standing on a stage for platform interpreting as we call it. Some interpreters are better suited for low-profile interpreting. Where they are, say, in a medical office one-on-one kinds of settings. They might work very well there but not so well in high-profile sites. Some interpreters are better suited for academic interpreting because they have appropriate academic knowledge to hear what’s spoken in English and convey that message in an academic register to the deaf person in appropriate sign language.

Smithdas and Dowdy signing in unison through the Tadoma method.  from

Smithdas and Dowdy signing in unison through the Tadoma method. from

Ytuarte: Okay. Say I am a director of a nonprofit and I have to contract someone out for deaf services and I don’t know anything about where to go. Could I go to DCARA or some other organization to give me some guidelines, some tips on how I should go about hiring a company or an individual to provide that service?

Brune: Absolutely. That is one of our highest demands for information in referral is when people need to contact sign language interpreters or interpreter referral agencies. There are more than 10 sign language interpreting agencies in the Bay Area and DCARA has all the necessary information to help you select an agency that will help get you in the interpreting services that you need.

Ytuarte: What is American Sign Language?

Brune: American Sign Language is a language by any definition just like Spanish, English and just like Mexican Sign Language is its own sign language separate from American Sign Language having its own syntax, its own grammar, its own facial expressions that connote different parts of the grammar.

Ytuarte: Okay, so it’s the most, would you say, is the most common language used in this country among the English-speaking people?Sign in various languages

Brune: Well, I would say it’s the fastest-growing language in terms of in terms of people taking ASL classes to qualify for their foreign language credit both in high school and college. We definitely see it as the fastest growing language for academic credit. But the great irony there is that while we have many, many people who can hear taking sign language classes in droves in their high school and community colleges and others settings, at the same time we have parents who can hear teaching their babies who can hear simple signs to help communicate earlier, but when it comes to the education of deaf children we have a number of institutions saying that sign language is inappropriate for deaf children.

In the Deaf community we call that The Great Irony, that it is okay for hearing people of any age to take sign language classes but often that’s the very thing that is denied from deaf children and they’re pushed instead into oral-only education, which denies them access to their language.

Ytuarte: Okay I want to get back to that. I mean, to me, that is really key. First, I want to remind our listeners that you’re listening to Pushing Limits on KPFA in Berkeley. We’re pleased to have today Executive Director Jim Brune from DCARA, the Deaf Counseling Advocacy and Referral Agency a 50-year-old organization based in San Leandro and the translation and the voice you are hearing today is being provided by Aaron Brace.young people signing

So, Jim, you started talking about what’s called oralism in that people have pushed this communication between non-hearing people based on lip-reading or some other thing and not sign language. Is that still a practice?

Brune: It is. It really began in the year 1880. There was a congress held in Milan, Italy- The International Congress on the Education of the Deaf. At this congress in 1880 there was a big push for, and unfortunately it was successful, to change deaf education around the world. Prior to that there was a long history of schools for the deaf in this country having deaf teachers where the students could have direct instruction from those deaf teachers in American Sign Language and it grew throughout the 1800s until this World Congress in 1880 when everything changed.

There was a huge push for deaf children to receive instruction only in an oral method and we’ve seen more and more…at that time many deaf teachers losing their jobs because they could not provide education in that manner. That was pushed as the one and only method to educate deaf children. And so after 1880 we saw a big decline in the quality of deaf education for kids who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Ytuarte: Even now some institutions still are discouraging the use of sign language among deaf people?

Brune: Yes, absolutely. We still have it to this day.

Ytuarte: Are there any kind of sectors? Because I am a little bit surprised. Are there any kind of sectors or businesses or groups that we can identify as still pushing oralism? Brune: Well, there are a lot of them out there. There are companies that make cochlear implants who will encourage parents to go straight for the cochlear implant for their newly diagnosed deaf infant rather than having parents get information about letting their deaf child develop organically as a human being who happens to be deaf which can happen fully through sign language and that is one of the frustrations and what one of the challenges that many schools for the deaf are seeing now.

Many of the students by the time they come to the school for the deaf they’ve been through these other programs, the infant programs, listening and speaking programs where they were not successful because those programs did not provide them full access to visual language. And by the time they’ve passed the critical period for language acquisition which is around from birth to age 3 they cannot perform well in these other programs and their brought to school for the deaf when it finally able to start to catch up in language development.

Thank you

Thank you


Ytuarte: Since you mentioned cochlear implants, Jim Brune, what is your impression of them or do they work sometimes or what?

Brune: I have seen deaf adults thrive upon getting a cochlear implant. These are people who got it when they were old enough to make decision for themselves. I have seen such people thrive. What I’ve also seen, is parents who can hear get their first, and sometimes only information, from professionals in auditory fields, from medical professionals, who don’t have the expertise in the raising of a whole child- a whole deaf child- as they are. They encourage the parents to pursue a course of action that will make their child “like them.”

But the thing is that even if the person performs relatively well with a cochlear implant, when they take it off they’re still deaf. They’re not going to be like their parents. Even if you are using a hearing aid or cochlear to the best of its advantages, it’s still a guessing game. You can’t be completely certain and completely confident that you understood what someone has said. Whereas, if you are fluent in a sign language and you are receiving information in that manner you can be confident in it.

Also, we have seen deaf children who are raised with American Sign Language can later develop fluency and literacy in written English; they can read and write English very well. If you get a deaf child exposed to American Sign Language from the beginning both academically and socially and in family, they become productive citizens of society.

Ytuarte: Okay this is Jim Brune the Executive Director at DCARA which is the Deaf Counseling Advocacy and Referral Agency. Translating for him and the voice you hear is that of Aaron Brace.

This kind of leads me up to the broader question in the Deaf community: is “deafness” a disability or is it a culture or both? What do you think Jim?

Brune: Well, particularly after that World Congress that I mentioned in 1880 with the shift towards the oral-only approach to education and that sort of research on educating deaf children, that definitely ensconced a medical model of viewing the deaf child as being a child who needs help, who needs to have their hearing and speech repaired in some way. That typically is what is meant when you see the word “deafness”. “Deafness” it does not validate the concept of the culture that deaf people have. It does not validate deaf people’s rights to their full and natural language to call their own.

That’s why now we see many different organizations such as the Deafhood Foundation and DCARA trying to educate the general public that deaf children have human rights.One of those rights is the access to their language and culture. And you do see more and more of us fighting for a shift from that medical model back to a cultural-linguistic model so that we can reclaim our language and reclaim our culture.

Ytuarte: And what are some correct or incorrect terms? Is “deafness” then kind of a word that maybe has some flaws in it but “deaf” is certainly okay and “deaf culture” is certainly a wonderful word…but is “deafness” not that good of a word to use?

Brune: Well “deafness” is one. Another one is “hearing impaired.” That is not a politically correct term. It is not one that we in the community use anymore. It implies a deficit, which we don’t experience. Another term is deaf-mute, which again implies a deficit. Those are the three that come to mind. Also, many people within the community identify themselves as Deaf/deaf, or perhaps Hard of Hearing or as Late-Deafened or also we have people who identify as DeafBlind.

Ytuarte: Let’s go back maybe to the provision of deaf interpretation services. What’s the elements of a good sign interpreter?

Brune: Well, first to clarify the terminology. The interpreter interprets for deaf people but they are not a deaf interpreter necessarily. They are a sign language interpreter. So being qualified as an interpreter goes beyond merely being certified. The interpreter must know how to prepare well for any individual assignment; the interpreter must know the names of the deaf consumers. A good interpreter will be open to feedback from the consumers and will discuss with the deaf consumer before and after the assignment to make sure they have performed well.

Quality interpreting services mean that the interpreter is also involved in community. They know the community members, they know what the services are that are available in the community, they have that knowledge of their local community. Also, a good interpreter is very well versed in Deaf culture.

Ytuarte: In going back into different cultures…

Brune: One more thing if I could just add in. A good interpreter also internalizes and abides by the code of professional conduct, which requires a very high level of ethics. Interpreters also need to have a good sense of personal boundaries to know what their role is and how to stay it without becoming a “helper,” if you will, or without speaking to the hearing person without signing so that the deaf person can be a part of what’s going on. Those are just some examples.

Photograph of Marlee Matlin with captioning under it saying "That's because I'm always saying things I feel need to be heard."

Deaf actress Marlee Matlin


Ytuarte: And it would seem to me, especially from experience in the Latino community when we used a hire interpreters for language, that interpreters to me they shouldn’t… they should report what they hear and not read into anything else that is not being said.

Brune: Exactly. And on that…how do I say this? With spoken languages inflection and tone of voice are very important. There is an analog to that sign language interpreting in the use of facial expressions. If the hearing person I’m meeting with is clearly upset or some other clear emotional state, the interpreter will convey that through facial expression as well so that the deaf person doesn’t only get the content of what’s being said but also the emotional tone of it.

Ytuarte: So, what if I am in the… if we are at a public meeting and a lot of people show up from the Latino community and a lot of people are Spanish speakers. Do they hire… would you hire an ASL or American Sign Language interpreter or would you hire somebody that…that is another words is there a dialect that is for Spanish speakers in sign language?

Brune: Okay, let’s see how I can answer that. I think I want to address it in two different ways. One of them is that there are not many but there are a few interpreters who have sufficient fluency in both spoken English and spoken Spanish such as they can hear Spanish and interpret into American Sign Language.

These interpreters might more often be found and stay in the courtroom if it happens to involve a Spanish-speaking family that have the deaf child, for example. We often call these interpreters trilingual interpreters. Because then, again this is an example, if the mother speaks Spanish the interpreter can understand that and then interpret it into American Sign Language so that the deaf child will understand. That’s one way I can in answer that question.

But another way is getting at the issue of dialects in sign language. Of course there are dialects. The Deaf African-American community has some signs that are used particularly in the community. The Deaf LGBT community also has its own signs that you would not see in the more mainstream Deaf community. In addition to identity-related signs, there are also regional differences.

Ytuarte: We talked about, there were a number of organizations that provide sign interpreters to people who need it. Are they run and is it important that they be run by non-speakers, by sign language people themselves?

Brune: Hmm. I think, well… I think today sign language interpreting services run by deaf people is indeed starting to thrive and it a wonderful model because, really, who better knows the language than the end-users themselves? We deaf people are the ones who experience the end product, so yes I would say that it is very useful to have sign language agencies run by deaf people. It is a very valuable quality in an agency.

Ytuarte: We are speaking with Jim Brune who is the Executive Director of DCARA, the Deaf Counseling Advocacy and Referral Agency. Aaron Brace is his interpreter and the person that you hear the voice of. We are coming close to the end of Pushing Limits.

So maybe one more question, Jim Brune. How much should people be expected to pay for either an individual interpreter or somebody that we hire through a company? What is a reasonable cost?

Brune: Well, that is a tough question to answer, of course because we don’t want to be perceived as a financial liability although of course that is the question, and the rates that you pay interpreters will vary. It may vary depending on whether you hire the individual through an agency or if you contract with the interpreter directly. If you happen to have access to sufficient number of individual interpreters that you can do that, it will cost less than if you hired agency. The agencies will have varying rates. It may be a rate for daytime jobs versus evening jobs versus weekend jobs, weekend night jobs and very often agency will charge a two-hour minimum and they also may involve some charge for travel.

Individual freelance interpreters, some do charge a two-hour minimum, some don’t and so all I can really say is that it varies.

Ytuarte: Okay, that is the last question we have for Jim Brune who is the Executive Director at the Deaf Counseling Advocacy and Referral Agency. Thanks so much for coming in, Jim Brune.

Brune: My pleasure.  Thanks for having me.

Ytuarte: And thanks so much to our interpreter Aaron Brace and this has been Pushing Limits.

“Pushing Limits”
94.1 FM KPFA Berkeley

Original Air date 1/03/14

2:30-3:00pm PST

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