Would you let a chef perform open heart surgery on you with a Ginsu knife? Sounds silly, right? But think of it logically. He is a skilled professional using only the best cutting utensils out there. He has had years of training, much practice cutting, and has a way with his hands. What's that you say? You would not because he has not had all the training needed to do the surgery. He doesn't know the ins and outs of surgery, hearts, medical field, etc. Ah, now I see. That makes perfect sense. What about letting a brain surgeon perform heart surgery? She knows the ins and outs of medicine and surgery. What's that you say? She doesn't know the ins and outs of heart surgery and hearts? Ah, now I see.
Silly as this rhetoric sounds, I use it as an example to set a point. Often, we think we know just enough about a topic and then believe we are the experts. Have you seen people that know about computers who start tampering with your PC, only to make your problem worse? Have you had a neighbor that loves to work on cars in his garage who works on yours, only to have your brake fluid leaking all over the driveway? Have you had a great cook promise to cater a dinner party, only to realize she can't cook in mass quantities, so things are burnt or dried out??
American Sign Language is becoming the rage. Hearing parents of hearing children are using it. Hearing parents with Deaf/HH children are using it. Deaf parents of Deaf or hearing children are using it. There are new laws stating that facilities need to provide an interpreter if they get federal funding. People in rural areas, especially, have commented on the shortage of interpreters. While the laws and willingness of companies or schools have increased the usability of interpreters, there is a shortage. This is where the breakdown occurs.
I have been in situations too often where people say, "I know how to sign my ABCs" or "I can sign a few songs at church- I'll interpret!" I have to caution you. Think about the above scenarios or think about if you took a foreign language in school. Can you really sit and have a conversation in Spanish or French with a native speaker? Can you translate what people are saying into English and back again? Do you know the code of ethics? All of these things apply to interpreting. Interpreters have to go through an accredited college program and pass a test. There are tests to become licensed in the schools and a different test to become licensed to interpret in the "real world". Interpreters have to not only learn the language and how to interpret, but they also have to learn their role and the code of ethics. Their job in a school may entail interpreting (translating from ASL to English and back again), but also it may include tutoring or helping a child. Their job might be a pure conduit for communication in the "real world". It is not their job to offer advice, give suggestions, or be a friend with the Deaf person.
While I applaud anyone who is willing to open his/her heart to reach out, I ask you to stop. Not only are you breaking the law, you could be also doing damage. Support the person with hearing loss by helping them find a licensed interpreting service. They have local and even remote services these days. You can most certainly use your ASL skills to help someone order a meal at lunch if someone seems to be struggling and asks for help, but it is not okay to offer to go to their dentist appointment to interpret. If the information is too difficult to be written on notes back and forth and warrants an interpreter, then a person deserves a qualified, licensed interpreter. We need to be advocates for Deaf/HH children and adults and teach them to use only licensed professionals. We also need to be good role models for the hearing community and teach them what is not only best practice, but now also the law.
I invite you to share your thoughts. Keep up the good work signing, but please leave the interpreting to the pros!
Allison Schley has been in the field of deaf and hard of hearing education for 20 years. She founded a nonprofit for families with hearing loss. She most recently wrote a children's book, entitled Forever Friends. This book shows the how a deaf dog and deaf boy teach the world that all kids are good and being deaf is okay.