(With acknowledgements and apologies to Ben Braithwaite, co-author of the fascinating Language Blag, and Dylan Kerrigan of the University of the West Indies, for setting me off on this train of thought. My views probably don’t reflect theirs etc.)
1. Open questions
What is power? What does it look like? Are we participating in it?
What is learning? Who decides what should be learned, how it is learned?
What is class? Where is the class analysis in Deaf studies, interpreting studies?
2. The power-brokers
Regular visitors will know that I lost my faith in NRCPD some time ago. New guests and aliens may not know that NRCPD is the made-up UK organisation that holds a “register” of Deaf Industry workers and claims to “regulate” them. By “made-up” (isn’t everything?) I mean insubstantial, dependent: NRCPD is really just a committee, a board of voluntary trustees, that meets quarterly under terms of reference defined by Signature, a charity known to a very small section of the public as a BSL qualification awarding body. NRCPD does have approximately one dedicated employee but they are presumably on Signature’s payroll, and registrants pay their fees directly into Signature’s bank account, because NRCPD has no commercial or legal existence that is independent of Signature.
Signature itself is only a brand, and a relatively new one: it’s the trading name of ye olde Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP), the actual legal entity incorporated by law as a charity and a limited company. Signature pays for the more-or-less virtual existence of NRCPD from the registration fees that it collects: approximately £212,000 in the 2013-2014 period, although for reasons which are unclear, that isn’t as much as Signature actually spends and the register has to be bailed out to the tune of half as much again by Signature’s other commercial activities, creating a convenient dependency. Let’s just call this tiny power complex “Signature” as a kind of shorthand for the surprising and arguably redundant complexity it represents.
Signature, in turn, is part of a consortium of organisations that collaborate with each other under the banner of the UK Council on Deafness (UKCOD). UKCOD derives its income and mandate – its power – from its member organisations, who are mostly either third sector “organisations for d/Deaf people” or commercial/professional “affiliates” who sell products and services to d/Deaf people or the professionals who work with them: in this sense, the interests are vested. Like NRCPD, UKCOD has very little in the way of physical presence or staff: only one employee is currently listed in its “organisational team”, stretching the definition of “team” somewhat. Signature’s chief executive is one of eight non-executive trustees of UKCOD. It positions itself unilaterally and rather grandly as “an interface with government” (I wonder if government knows). Other well-known Deaf Industry influencers within UKCOD include representatives from national charities like Action on Hearing Loss (formerly RNID), SignHealth, Sense and Action for Deafness.
Action! Everything that is done in the name of the UK’s “Deaf world” is performatively mediated by these power structures. The language, the terms of reference, the objectives are set from the top and “trickle down” to the populace. Obviously, they do consult and survey – in their own language, with their own preset multiple choice answers – because that activity legitimises them, gives them the semblance of a mandate, despite the dodgy conclusions drawn from bad statistics. It’s revealing that when they do manage to gather some evidence of disagreement, the summaries of it divert some effort into explaining why our perceptions as workers on the ground or consumers of Deaf Industry services are just “confusion” on our part, therefore requiring yet more strategising and consultation. Hearts and minds: consultation as placatory ritual. The direction was decided long since.
This week I received an e-mail from Signature (not UKCOD) boasting that after “less than a year”, these organisations have managed to create a “statement of common purpose” (I wish I were free to achieve so little in a year). All that remains is to set up “steering groups” and “mission groups” and then, apparently, something very loosely defined will actually start to happen. We are supposed to understand that what we need most of all in 2015, on the brink of the total annihilation of public services and after decades of research into best practice, is more middle-management, more committees, more strategising.
Don’t get me wrong. The many organisations that are members of UKCOD each contain many good people, skilled people. The sudden loss of their work would ruin lives. But those workers don’t have any genuine power to decide what needs to be done: in class terms, they don’t own their work nor the tools they need to do it. When good things happen it’s in spite of, not because of, the top-down power-brokering committees.
In the Deaf Industry, power doesn’t look like anything. It is deliberately hidden from view.
Best not to think about it too much and just get on with it.
3. The cuckoo
Part of the original definition of a “profession” was autonomy and self-regulation. That was then.
A short while after I threw my yellow badge out of the pram, I was being a bit annoying on social media, suggesting that Signature should be boycotted and that we should reboot BSL/English interpreting professionalism from scratch. I was in a very bad mood – it was around the time Signature went on record as having no interest in representing interpreters despite depending on them for their income. I was slapped down by a senior academic who I otherwise have a lot of time for. He warned me that had I been around as long as he – not at all patronising – I would know not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
You’ll forgive the slip into American vernacular but that would be some old-ass baby. It’s been about 33 years since the establishment of a register of sign language interpreters in the UK. And yet, just like Maggie Simpson, a decades-old baby it apparently still is. A suspiciously bigger, fatter, ever-hungrier baby; a cherubic personification of arrested development. Does this seem likely? I would suggest that instead, we have been the victims of a bait and switch. At some point when our backs were turned, a cuckoo got into the nest. The cuckoo looks a bit like an infantile profession, especially if you’re forced by instinct and necessity to spend most of your time sitting on it, scanning the horizon for predators, trying to scratch up a few worms. But on closer inspection, you realise your baby died on the distant ground a long time ago, your entire genetic legacy with it: what you’re really nurturing is a parasite.
We shouldn’t blame the parents, the previous generations of interpreters and Deaf activists. Cuckoos are selected by evolution to be very good at what they do.
Best not to think about it too much and pretend it’s still ours.
4. The learners
“Power” and “authority” are related: authority is a mandate to exercise power. Authority is perhaps cousin to the concept of a “right”, in that it has to be conferred or at least ratified – without the plural will of the people, a voluntary gift of power, you cannot exercise authority, you do not have any rights. Despite what people say every day, rights can’t really be conferred by individuals on the spot, and authority isn’t immanent unless you believe in the supernaturally-derived right of kings.
There is another sense of authority linked to knowledge – we talk about “being an authority” on a topic or field, such as interpreting or stamp collecting. You become one through long study and practice and being an effective teacher: hearts and minds. Like good interpreting, good teaching relies on trust. No trust, no authority.
If what you’re trying to teach is keenly personal, a part of your own identity, a perceived loss of authority is going to hurt. People do strange things when they’re bereaved. It can explain, if not fully excuse, such things as hunting for scapegoats to explain language change (in what other setting would it be considered remotely sane to suggest that students don’t discuss their studies with each other but only consult prescribed authority figures?) and the destructive warring of rival professional membership bodies. For myself, the state of the interpreting profession only makes any kind of sense if it’s framed as pain. Loss of authority: loss of trust.
The Deaf community and hearing interpreters have clashed in the past and will probably clash again. But they have this in common: they do not have the power to decide what they learn or how they learn it, unless they take that power for themselves. We are merely raw material for the use and profit of the education industry. The curriculum is decided on our behalf, far away. We practically force Deaf learners like bricks through the hearing-shaped holes of Functional Skills programmes that are ludicrous in the context of a visual language modality; we teach new languages and interpreting by ticking off a dizzying grid of criteria in an exercise that was originally designed for master carpenters and commercial metalworkers. Deaf adults don’t decide what they learn: hearing adults do. Baby interpreters don’t decide what to learn or have any real choice in how and where they learn it: the Industry chooses for them for its own benefit regardless of what might be more useful or effective. In this domain, the power is not merely hidden but actually invisible.
And for both groups, when the curriculum and methods are shown to be problematic, it’s suggested that we fake it. In this lurid 1970s cocktail of rote learning and puppetry, “outcome” is now a dialect term for money.
Best not to think about it too much. Like any other pain, it’ll feel better when it’s over.