- “Your American Sign Language Interpreters are Hurting Our Education”: Toward a Relational Understanding of Inclusive Classroom Pedagogy
A few years after I began working as a tenure-track assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, I taught a graduate seminar on ethnographic methods that was popular with international students and those interested in cross-national research. One mid-October evening after class, a small group of students confronted me in the hallway: “Your American Sign Language interpreters are hurting our education.” Although I am deaf, this class was the first time I had American Sign Language (asl) interpreters with me at my workplace, or in any place for that matter. I grew up speaking and reading lips, and as a newcomer to asl, I set out with fantasies of becoming as eloquent in sign language as I am in spoken and written English. But the more I learned asl and immersed myself in signing communities, the more I realized merely becoming conversant in asl was going to be a challenging enough aspiration. I came to appreciate that learning asl was going to be equally as laborious and as much of a struggle as it had been for me to learn English. I eventually learned that asl is a complex visual-gestural language with linguistic processes functionally equivalent to English phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, and pragmatics (Valli et al.). And I quickly learned that my fantasies of becoming eloquent in asl were just that—fantasies. As a latecomer to asl using sign language interpreters for the first time at work, I also had to come to terms with the fact that I had the receptive language skills of maybe a ten-year-old signer and expressive language skills of about a five-year-old. Strangely in asl conversations, back then as well as now, I was and still am able to more readily recall the handshapes and movements for signing “pedagogy” and “ethnography” rather than “bacon” or “onions.”
On top of my own struggles becoming a sign-user, I was confronted with what felt that October evening like an attack from my students on my right to asl interpreters and full, meaningful community participation. Before coming to Penn State, I “passed” as a hearing person—for the most part. I was a deaf person who acted hearing. I had spent thirty-plus years [End Page 20] of my life speaking, using hearing aids, reading lips, and using guesswork and faking understanding in order to communicate—or not—with hearing people. Without really thinking about it, I accepted that my experiences and interpretations of everyday exchanges in spoken language would almost always be incorrect or incomplete. These were and often still are the inevitable realities of my life as a deaf person living and working in mainstream society. Before I came to Penn State, I did not know any other way.
However, due to experiences and insights gained while writing my Ph.D. dissertation—an autoethnography of growing up deaf and being warehoused in special education in the public schools (Valente, Cultural Worlds)—shortly after accepting a job at Penn State, I also took on my deaf cultural and signing identity which, as I described in my research novel d/Deaf and d/Dumb (2011a), led me to the decision to request asl interpreters for the first time at my workplace. When my college’s administration proved to be supportive of providing me with interpreters, I was optimistic about moving into a situation where mutually successful communication might occur with hearing administrators, colleagues, and students. As it has turned out, working with interpreters brought its own set of complexities—issues that are well documented by deaf writers reporting on exchanges with hearing others (for example, Tucker; Thompson; Brueggemann; Christiansen). The exchange I had with my students brought some of those complexities home to me:
“Your asl interpreters are hurting our education.”
“It sometimes feels uncomfortable when they lean in so close to listen.”
“They are always over our shoulders.”
“I can’t stand it when they keep asking me to repeat what I said.”
“They always ask me to speak louder, speak louder!”
“Sometimes I’m not sure they...