Why I Am

I don’t usually blog about what it is I do for a living. In fact, the whole point of doing this blog was for me to be able to express everything else about myself besides my job. But here’s the thing about my job: it’s not just a job… it’s a calling.

Those of you with whom I’ve worked know that about me already — which is most of you reading this. However, there are a few of you reading this who don’t have any idea.

I started learning to sign when I was eight. A family who had a daughter who’s deaf joined the church my family attended. I begged my mom to let me skip Sunday School to go to the sign language class Lisa’s mom taught, instead.

For more than twenty years, I have made a living practicing sign language interpreting. Usually, I am going between some form of American Sign Language and English. Over the years, what I’ve called myself has changed, as the general public’s understanding of what it is that’s happening here has evolved.

In the ’90s, it was generally accepted for those of us in the field to call ourselves “interpreters for the deaf.” Then, one day, about ten or so years later, someone realized that, actually, it’s the hearing, non-signing people who need us at least as much, if not more than, the deaf person(s). Now, by and large, I refer to myself as an American Sign Language-English interpreter. It’s important to me to reinforce the legitimacy of ASL as a complete language in its own right.

Then, there’s this other thing I do; in addition to working as an ASL-English interpreter, I also work as a Cued Language Transliterator. I know. Whoa. When I’m working as a CLT, I am using a system called Cued Speech to silently relay the sounds of the spoken language I’m hearing in a way that is completely visually accessible for consumers who are deaf or hard-of-hearing.

Cued Speech is not currently widely used where I live. Actually, it’s not in use at all in a large portion of the Midwest. I think that’s because many people haven’t had the chance to learn about what cueing really is and how it really works. I don’t blame them. The system is called Cued Speech. You don’t actually have to speak or hear at all to use cues, though. Many people who are deaf or hard of hearing have had bad experiences with speech therapy–but that is a post for another day.

I never intended to become an interpreter. I did not take any formal training to get into the field (although I have read allofthethings, and participate in on-going professional development, as should all professionals). Interpreting is something that I fell into because of my love for the languages and my love for the friends who were and are in my life because of sign language.

My initial training was on-the-job and very much baptism by fire. That said, I wholeheartedly believe that those aiming to become interpreters today require formal training. In the 1990s, with the ink still wet on the ADA, people who needed a sign language interpreter were just so happy that their requests were finally being approved, they didn’t care if I could sign my way out of a paper bag, as long as I showed up with a smile and tried my best. These days, it is a completely different story. Consumers have always deserved the most highly qualified interpreters. The supply simply wasn’t there 25 years ago.

I was 18. I was 19. I was 20. I was the intermediary in situations that were beyond my experience and outside of the realm of my emotional bounds. By the time I was 25, I was carrying around too much of the residue of those mediated interactions to be able to continue to function as an interpreter. Social inequity, anyone?

So, I lived a civilian life for three years.

Then one day, I was ready; something just clicked. I called my former boss, who, upon answering the phone didn’t greet me with the customary, “Hello,” but, instead, said simply, “Please tell me you’re ready to come back to work.” We synchronized schedules, and that was that. I haven’t looked back.

I have met some of my closest friends, some of the funniest, smartest, wittiest, sweetest people through interpreting and transliterating. I have traveled across the states as a designated interpreter. I have met and worked with families all over the country that have children who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. And I have learned so much. So much about people. So much about the world. So much about life. So much about myself.

I never intended to become an interpreter. But here’s the thing about my job: it’s not just a job… it’s a calling. It’s Why I Am.

What’s your calling — the thing that drives you? It may not be your job. I’d love to read about it.

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