Little Deaf Girl

The little girl was sitting at the classroom table with her friends. At the end of the table sat her “interpreter”. The teacher asked the class to write about their weekend and the “interpreter”, signing effectively, relayed this information to the girl. The little deaf girl nodded and got cracking. As she worked the “interpreter” assisted other kids around her table. They asked questions, the “interpreter” clarified what needed to be done. There was chatter around the table and the kids traded stories with each other about their weekend and what they were going to write about. The little girl watched this chatter but the “interpreter” strangely interpreted nothing of this. The little girl looked at the “interpreter” hoping for a little bit of information but still the “interpreter” did not interpret. The teacher said something and the “interpreter” decided that this was important information and interpreted this for the little girl. It was all very strange.

Recently I was asked to observe a young deaf girl in her classroom. The deaf girl uses Auslan as her first language, has deaf parents and is well adapted with excellent language skills. The mother wanted someone to observe her daughter in the classroom who had some knowledge of deafness, particularly in regard to interaction and learning. I was more than happy to help out, took a day off work and drove out to assist. What I saw actually scared me.

The school principal actually contacted me to invite me to the classroom. The mother had requested that she do so. The school principal asked me to sit in the classroom and “reassure” the mother that her daughter was doing fine and that there were no problems. She didn’t ask me to give an honest assessment, she asked me to “REASSURE” the mother. This in itself raised alarm bells in me.

What I did witness was an obviously very intelligent young girl making the best of a less than ideal situation. During the opening activity, where the kids were writing about their weekend, I actually asked the “interpreter” to check with the young girl as to whether she had understood anything her class peers had been talking about. Not surprisingly the little girl said she had not understood anything. What was puzzling is that having made it clear she did not understand what her peers had been discussing the “interpreter” still did not interpret anything that the little girl’s peers said.

The little girl demonstrated some classic deaf behaviour. Deaf people will know that when they are in a large group of hearing peers and doing an activity, whether it is learning or physical, they will be constantly looking around them to make sure they have not missed anything and are doing the right thing. As the little girl worked she would take quick glances around the room to make sure she had not missed anything.

 As she wrote you could see her looking out of the corner of her eye just in case she would miss the action. She could “hear” her teacher when the teacher spoke but not understand. If the teacher spoke she would look up to see if the activity had finished and if she needed to be somewhere else. Even at this early age she is aware and has developed coping strategies. It was like looking back to my own years being deaf in a hearing classroom.

It was fascinating to see the strategies that she had developed. For example if she was working with a group of peers she would focus on the one student that appeared to talk the most and take her cues from that student. During one such activity I signed to the little girl that I was deaf and needed her to interpret what her friends were saying. She admitted to me that she could not because she did not know.

During another activity the class were reciting number patterns in the form of multiplication tables. The teacher had the multiplication tables on the board and would point to the first number and the children would recite the pattern 2 – 4 – 6 … and so on. To the casual observer it might have looked like the girl was fully involved but if you have a trained eye you will see that the little girl joins in at about the third number. She watches the teacher point to the board, catches the rhythm of the class reciting the numbers and then joins in.  You will see her counting and listening, just moving her lips slightly, until she feels she has the rhythm and she will join in – 6 -8 – 10 … It was fascinating to watch.

It was also frustrating to watch. Story time is something most kids love. The kids gathered round to listen to the teacher read the story. The “interpreter” interpreted what the teacher was reading. The teacher asked the class a question using prediction strategy. Prediction is a teaching tool where you read a story and then to test whether the kids are following the story ask a question like, “… and when the lizard scurries up the tree how do you think the cat will feel? ..” At this all the kids will put their hands up to give their views. The problem is that in the little deaf girl’s classroom when the kids answered the “interpreter” did not relay their answers to the little deaf girl. Of course this means that the little deaf girl misses out on language and ideas that are provided by her peers through this natural interaction.

The little deaf girl, despite the less than ideal learning environment, was doing really well at school. A lot of this is down to the fact that she has come to school with a solid language foundation from being able to interact easily with her family. She is doing really well and in the school’s eyes that is all that matters. But how much better could she be doing if she could access the banter of the classroom and not just what her teacher is saying?

I really could not understand why the “interpreter” did not interpret everything. After all is that not what interpreters do? I wrote a report for the school. In it I outlined that the “interpreter” was more correctly a communication aide and did not interpret. I highlighted the good stuff. For example the classroom teacher went out of her way to ensure the little deaf girl was a respected part of the class by allowing her to lead things like “sign singing”. She also spoke very clearly and structured the class so that the little deaf girl could see and be involved. BUT, I pointed out to the school, peer interaction and access to what peers are saying is an integral part of learning. I emphasised that the “interpreter” was an efficient signer but needed to INTERPRET.

Apparently this wasn’t what the school wanted. They wanted me to provide REASSURANCE so that the mother would relax. The “interpreter” upon reading the report threatened to resign. The mother felt the school was dismissive of her daughter’s needs. Apparently it was not my place to write such a report and that my assessment was “tinged” by my friendship with the mother. It really was sad because the school would not acknowledge any of the issues that were raised.

Is this what our deaf kids are facing every day? Well if it is it’s a tragedy that needs to be addressed quickly. Doing well is not enough, deaf kids have the right to achieve their full potential. If this is to happen access to peer interaction is a must.


29 thoughts on “Little Deaf Girl

  1. This little girl has done well in her situation, but that interpreter should relay everything. Thats what I would expect.

  2. This is par for the course with most interpreting. The main problem is there is often no discussion prior to interpreting happening that defines the level of information required. You book a terp you often have no time to tell them in any depth that level you want, do you want EVERYTHING translated ? highlights ? main points only ?

    Some terps with children automatically assume “They won’t understand that bit..” which is an horrific assumption to make, and prevents deaf children learning properly, it is not for the terp to decided what is or is not relevant. This then raises the other problem what level can the terps provide ? Signing to a child is not the same as signing to an adult.

    I’ve actually never had a sign interpreter for my partner who even asked what level my partner needed. As such I spend most of my time telling my partner via my diminishing LR skills what the people are saying and what the terp isn’t,and desperatekly trying to tellthe Terp to slow down or speed up and to include this or that aspect.

    Personally I do bot trust interpreters via sign language and insist on text support. Then I can go home afterwards and explain in even more depth the terp has failed to convey, the informations and explanations of what was discussed. I think BSL translation loses near 60% in an open meeting.

    As regards to education they should be omitting nothing, including teacher asides to other pupils, as this allows the deaf child to feel involved with other children there and promote interaction. They must stop treating the deaf child as if they are ‘special needs’ and don’t need full inclusion, because a teacher is assuming the terp is doing all that.

    • Ethically an interpreter should interpret everything they hear. How well they interpret it depends on their level of skill which is, admittedly, variable. Setting up the scene is tricky. Someone who is proficient in the use of the interpreter, like myself, will take control and ensure their needs are met. They will also provide good and constructive feedback to the interpreter where possible. When a person is less experienced, such as a school student, there are definate shades of grey. It is probably an area that needs a lot of work.

      No argument from me on your views of the school terp. You are absolutely right in your assumption that the teacher thinks the interpreter is relaying the informattion that is needed and puts an enormous amount of trust in the Terp withput knowing exactly what is happening. It is not helped in Australia by education departments employing “interpreters” who are anything but and then asking them to support other students in the class as well.

  3. Unfortunately this happens in many places. Here, for example, there is no bench mark for the skills that an educational ‘interpreter’ is required to have. Many ‘interpreters’ have no interpreting qualifications and many have no Auslan qualification either. When you apply for an STA position here in Canberra, you can put ‘Auslan skills’ on the application form but no one will assess those skills nor even check out your qualifications. I have seen examples of 1st year Auslan students applying for, and being accepted into, positions as ‘interpreters’ with Deaf students.

    It is indeed criminal what the education system will accept when it comes to communication and education access for Deaf kids.

  4. I felt that way with my bodyworn FM system. I can only hear the teacher, but the FM system blocked out classroom discussions. It was made that way. Some FM is meant to make teachers sound more closer and background and students talking more faint.

  5. “selective interpreting” is a bone of contention in many Deaf communities because it is viewed as a way to control the individual and his decisions and thinking. This issue has been brought up many times in the past, but to my knowledge there has been no consideration of this in interpreting guidelines. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

    Ethically, it is not okay. No matter the age of the individual, or his level of participation, if he is THERE, he has a right to “hear” what is being said around him just as any hearing person would. The interpreter may amplify, define or translate, but never select. The objective is to equalize things.

  6. I will have to agree with the blogger…
    I grew up Deaf in a hearing primary school using my oral skills. I must say, although I had a happy childhood, and was well educated, however there were aspects in the classroom where I missed out. Discussions between peers, banter, storytime, even playtime where I felt left out. Not to mention that it did hinder some of the essential interaction that is part of a childhood’s learning experiences. I often had to ask people questions, even later in life about this or that, and most people were surprised that I did not know these things, that were a “given” in the hearing community simply because they could hear things happening around them, and thus learnt at an early age.
    I went to an intergrated secondary school where they provided interpreters, and I found that my life in the classroom was SO much easier! I could finally understand what the teacher was saying when she had her back to the class writing stuff on the board. However, I’d have to agree with the blogger again here, the interpreter did not interpret everything that was happening around me, what my classmates were discussing, only what the interpreter thought was “important and necessary” for me to know.
    I decided to get rid of my hearing aids around then, I thought, “why should I bother…” You know, hearing people have the benefit of being able to choose what they want to hear, and 95% of the time, they can not be bothered to make sure that the Deaf person understands, or relays what is happening around them. So, as a Deaf person, I have the choice whether to stress about it, and strain to “hear” what is happening around me. I choose not to stress. I choose to be “oblivious” to my surroundings. If someone wants to communicate with me, they then must make the effort. They must make sure I am looking at them, and if I decide it is too hard to lipread that person, they will have to write it down.
    It does make life easier, I don’t have to worry about masses of people falling over themselves talking to me. *sarcastic!*
    In the education aspect, however, I do have to join the advocating in the push of better interpreters, PROFESSIONAL ones, even if they are interptreting for a kinder student. Early intervention is the most important part to build confidence, education, awareness and even friendships.
    All parents should have the right to know that their child is being educated at the same level as every other child, and every teacher should make sure that ALL students are getting equal education.

  7. FM systems and selective interpreting is why public school/mainstreamed sucks and why some deaf people feel why deaf school is much better – Everyone is included. I don’t think deaf school should be just for deaf but for any visual learners or people who first language is sign language (as long as they teach and use spoken language somewhere in the school). Public schools is too focused on auditory and less on visual.

    You know, It got me thinking about the time when I was a Independent Fundamental baptist, and anything that visual was bad- movies, how you dress, how you move, etc. They rather focus anything on auditory (musics, preaching, radio, etc) of course what they hear could be bad because it can put a visual image in their head. I decided not to be IFB although I’m still a baptist.

  8. It’s amazing but most deaf have no idea HOW to use an interpreter at all. Too many assume total subservience to the terp and not aware what they are missing. I use text support and the deal is 100% of everything or I stop them typing and make them start again. Deaf seem to sit there and accept everything, and you cannot expect a child will feel confident to stand up and say “I didn’t get half that can you start again ?”

    It doesn’t take much awareness to see 4 people talking and only one person being interpreted either, so another message for the deaf is to demand they all SHUT UP and only one person speak, and one person sign at a time. Hearing are extremely inept at ‘listening’.

  9. One of the things I have noticed in my current workplace and others, is exactly how the above affects students’ learning and development.
    I am witnessing the following happen:

    A 17 year old student who uses Signed English / Auslan cannot think. Literally cannot stretch her mind to expand her thoughts, comprehend ideas and connect them to her general, social, emotional knowledge. This has happened because answers were always given to her by teachers, aides and she was never challenged. She also never had the opportunity to be a part of peer social and academic interaction and see how thinking occurred because it wasn’t interpreted. Only the most necessary information was relayed to her. Even now when we try to include other dialogue, it is too late to make an impact on her scholastic opportunities.

    A 10 year old student – now has limited understanding of what is going around her. She cannot use her hearing aids/ cochlear implant effectively but I do not blame her for that. She cannot understand something if she has never grasped the concept first. She sits in the classroom with a blank, disinterested look. She does not know how to engage in a conversation or analyse hers and others learning in class. Even at home, she is given only the bare information. Talking, signing and making her understand is too hard. I strongly insisted she should go to a deaf school where she would be immersed in natural signing conversation. The backlash I got from the other teachers of the deaf, support staff and my Principal was AMAZING!! None would see her for what she really was – they were more concerned with their funding dollars and retaining their jobs. In the meantime, she has slid back further academically and socially.

    Any wonder I want to get out of teaching and move up higher and try and force change to happen from the top down? Problem is, no one wants to hear the truth or spend the money or change policies. It’s too hard and will upset the apple cart.

  10. I refer to MM’s comments…

    “…. I think BSL translation loses near 60% in an open meeting…”

    I think you’re missing the point; perhaps you’re either hearing or Deaf.

    Back in my old TAFE days in classroom, I was fortunate to be involved with the hearing students during the breaks and classrooms or even attending their places that help me understand what is happening around me. The interpreting support is a must for me. That’s how I gathered this vital information below.

    My hearing lecturer was speaking to the whole class of students in a computer programming language. Lot of people assumes that the class of hearing students understand in what’s the lecturer says. Yes they do, but that doesn’t mean they understand the “concept” completely. So they’ll lose about 20 percent of understanding of what the lecturer says in the classroom. The thing will help you is called HOMEWORK, so they study at home with class notes and books etc. to fill the missing gap of understanding the classroom’s subject. The duration of the studying at home for hearing students will probably take at least 2 hours to gain the full understanding. This is normal.

    For me, I’ll lose about at least 50 percent of my understanding of what’s the lecturer says, because of the interpreter presented in the classroom. The interpreter will lose the understanding of what the lecturer says, because that interpreter itself is hearing and it is in the same category as hearing students. That’s how the brain works. The duration of my study time at home was long hours, I normally finished between 2 am and 5 am every night. Few times, I stay awake!!!

    It is my responsibility to understand it, not the interpreter. Can you imagine that what if the lecturer is Deaf, then I will lose 20 percent of the understanding and the interpreter will lose 20 percent as well? Then the hearing students will lose at least 50 percent of the understanding of what the Deaf lecturer says via the interpreter. I am always cooperating with interpreters before, during and after the classroom or meeting to improve the “interpreting mechanism”.

    DON’T BLAME THE INTERPRETERS!!! But I do blame the Deaf education in Australia for the stuff up since 1880.

  11. One thing that any good business learns is that the person who SHOULD matter most is the client/customer. When I say business, I mean everybody and every type of organisation out there, be it Government or private enterprise. Without the client/customer there is no business. Without that focus on the client needs, there is no organisation, simple as that. If you satisfy or exceed the requirements of client satisfaction, the client benefits and so does the business. If the needs are being meet, the fedback and the growth in business should occur of it’s own accord.

    Yet time and again, I see businesses and individuals neglecting to make their primary goal to make sure all the client needs are met, simply because the people want to protect themselves or minimise cost to their bottom line, or justiy their own position. When are they going to understand that, if you train staff properly, ensure their rights and OH&S obligations are covered, ensure the rights and respects of the clients are met, do the job you are meant to do and do it with full commitment, even to the point of learning from feedback, then everything else will grow from that – because the client/s and others will see how good the job is being done and will recommend more people to the service. Forget abut politics, forget about vested interests, forget about your own ego – focus on the client and their needs and be the best you can be in service provision. Too often I’ve seen lip-service done to our clients, especially to clients with a disability. A true professional will listen to the other professionals and will respond in a truly professional way – by learning listening ang growing. A lesson many don’t learn!

  12. This is exactly why my Deaf daughter does not go to school. The education system stinks and the interpreters are not qualified. The school and district office is like talking to a brick wall. So instead of putting energy into advocating I put it into my children’s education. Just tested my Deaf daughter the last week and a bit and the school report tells me she has B’s and A’s but she can’t even do Year 5 maths and english yet she is in year 7. Shame on the education dept. Now she gets one on one and we don’t need to fight for the right to get qualified interpreter’s and TOD. I have a much happier , confident child.

    • Gail, I applaud you for taking action to your daughter’s education, I do have concerns for her isolation from her peers. Does she have interaction with children her age, whether hearing or deaf? I think this is very important for a child’s confidence in interacting with other people. She may be the best educated child, but how will it benefit her if she doesn’t know how to communicate or interact with other people. Forgive me for probing into yours and her lives, I am just curious how you are approaching that situation.

  13. gaz i challenge this statement of yours.

    there are actually 2 main schools of of thought re. interpreting – verbatim and cultural transference (bibi). it all depends on the need of the client (the deaf person) and interpreters are trained in recognisign which mode to employ. the quesiton is, is the “interpreter” trained enough to make this decision

  14. This is a pretty much a recap of what happened in the early years of my schooling. I was enrolled as the only Deaf child at a public school in a very small town located in Central Queensland, and I was allocated a teacher aide/’interpreter’ for my classes. I was lucky that all of my classmates were able to sign, but when there were verbal interactions going on in the classroom, I was left out most of the time, thus not getting a chance to interact with my hearing peers within the classroom. It’s really sad how education departments would allocate teachers aides who were capable of signing, but not have the skills of a qualified Auslan interpreter.

  15. Your comment

    In this instance it is just giving the child access to as much information as you can by interpreting all or as much as you can that is happening around them. Perhaps sometimes Verbatimm perhaps sometimes with explanations toi ensure clarity, depending on the circumstances BUT never excluding information. A child’s development depends on as much access to language and discussions that are happening around them as is physically possible. In the case of this story it did not even come close.

  16. Gaz – I’d like to challenge you here. There are 2 schools of thought in SL interpreting – verbatim and cultural transference (bi-bi). The interpreter needs to have developed the required skills to be able to identify when it is appropriate to use either mode, or a mixture of both. It is sometimes not appropriate for the Interpreter to interpret everything, however they need to convey everything to the deaf person using whatever method suits the person best. Time is often a factor especially in classroom situations, the interpreter need to make sure the deaf child understands first before interpreting the next item, by this time it could be too late and he/she could be lagging behind.

    This is a highly contentious issue and no two viewpoints are ever going to agree with each other. However one thing that everyone will agree upon is that the education authorities need to be persuaded that using anything less than the highest possible qualification an interpreter can gain is unacceptable. would you put your hearing child in a class where the teacher only had english skills equivalent to a 7 year old? This is going to be an expensive option but there is no doubt that this is the only way forward.

    • I get what you are saying Paul but in this instance it was quite plain . The interpreter only interpreted what the teacher was saying .. There was no effort to interpret the banter of the kids in the classroom. As you say they need to convey the message, and the message is a combination of the communication that is happening in the classroom and whatvthe teacher is saying … whether this is through verbatim or sitting with the student to explain what is happening around them so that they can understand the discussions and actions of others is, as you say, contentious. In this case none of this occurred except to convey instructions from the teacher.

  17. Oh, yeah, many schools are more concerned about reassuring the parents than dealing with serious issues in need of fixing. It is easier that way.


  18. Paul – you’re correct with this statement “Time is often a factor especially in classroom situations, the interpreter need to make sure the deaf child understands first before interpreting the next item, by this time it could be too late and he/she could be lagging behind.”

    Which is precisely why everything needs to be interpreted from as young as possible and the student given the tools to develop a relationship with interpreters and interpreting styles and become an advocate for their access to learning. When that is happening, then the above issue won’t be as prevalent as the student already knows what is expected – it becomes second nature. They can choose when to drop in on peer conversations and when to drop out. When they don’t have that choice is when the issues arise.

  19. Arent there any ethnics or codes set by by an overseeing body (ASLIA?) that school interpreters are subject to, for maintaining their professional qualifications? If there is, then that would be one avenue for addressing the concerns raised in the article over the interpreter’s performance (regardless of whom their employers are).

    • @jas – it appears not. The schools can hire whoever they want to provide communication support in classrooms, many don’t even have a minimum standard of Auslan required. ASLIA’s code of practivce is an entirely voluntary mechanism and has not been enshrined in any legislation or code of practice by any statutory authority in Australia. It is really up to the teachers themselves or the education authorities to screen suitable personnel toprovide communication support in schools, and it is up to the deaf communtiy to influence both parents of deaf kids and the education authorites as to what is and is not acceptable.

      In a perfect world the interpreting profession would be regulated like it is for the medical and teaching professions. For example in this scenario it would be illegal to contract an interpreter if he/she did not have the right qualifications and/or registrations/affiliations. All this boils down to the formal recognition of Auslan as a bona-fide language – an Auslan Act, anyone?

      • Deafness Forum were doing a survey on this – getting Auslan recognised as a national language before Deaf Australia had a hissy fit over ‘ownership’ issues of the language if you recall?!

  20. Wow..what a totally one sided view! Perhaps you should do some homework on the fact that the interpreter is there to interpret EVERY conversation without a break or support. I didn’t read that there was support for the interpreter. Plus the pitiful wages that interpreters get is ridicuous!! I also wonder if you made any more than ONE visit to be able to judge on all of her schooling so far?? Shame on you

    • Oh Collette – you can do better than that. If your angry at the wages look address your anger to DEECD who set the fee and employ “interpreters” and set the working conditions. As I said in the article the girl is doing fine but is being prevented from accessing the whole class and school experience by an inflexible system. My assessment is based on information from my observation and information from the mother. I offered further support to the school but they failed to even acknowledge the initial report. You need to talk to the mother too about responses to her efforts to improve the situation for her daughter. Its not pretty.

      By all means be passionate and angry but target that passion and anger at the right people … Oops your Mark arnt you! or is that Collette … Im confused.

      • It is understandable that mothers of the failed CI children cannot speak out the disadvantages due to the clause in their binding contracts with the CI agency or business to protect the CI’s business interests. Back in the oralism and Signed English school days, there were a lot of unhappy Mothers of the Deaf children who went to schools. Those feedbacks from the mother of Deaf children are not being processed properly by the Education department. If that’s the case, then the Education department is being neglect of duty or gross misconduct. Any process within the government departments must be in transparent mode.

  21. Educational Interpreters do need better pay and better working conditions – its the State governments and education departments you need to direct your anger towards….and i have worked at different schools in NT, Vic and SA and can testify that this is the norm and not the exception in attitudes towards deaf kids learning in Oz.

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