In the first half of 2017, a situation in Illinois highlighted the privilege of hearing organizations serving Deaf communities. A new state bill, SB752, was brought forth by Deaf Illinoisans to improve deaf service, yet was halted by Illinois’ top interpreting organization. We will clarify the situation and what has transpired since then.
The Deaf community in Illinois had been working on making proposed changes to the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission (IDHHC), seeking to make the commission stronger in serving community needs.
While the bill was making its way through the Senate, the Illinois Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (IRID) sent a position letter to Senator Julie Morrison. The letter protested that SB752 would delay the appointment process for IDHHC positions, with unnecessary requirements such as fluency in ASL. SB752 was stopped in its tracks and dropped.
The IDHHC is a critical committee in Illinois, at the level of the Illinois Governor. It has many responsibilities, including overseeing Illinois’ interpreting licensure process, screening deaf and hard-of-hearing babies, and producing neutral informative manuals for new parents of Deaf children.
This apparent intervention with SB752 incensed leaders in the Deaf community. Here’s Melvin Patterson with his thoughts about the role of the IDHHC:
Melvin Patterson: There’s one deaf director for the IDHHC and then there’s the entire legislature, made up of hearing people. Including lawyers, teachers, and various professions that the director has to deal with. They’re all hearing. Monday to Friday, from 8 am to 5 pm, we see the public body operating therein is a single individual that is Deaf. This person will experience and face oppression daily, and this person will have the responsibility to explain what is Deaf culture, what the community needs all the while advocating and championing the deaf community to the legislature. This person will need to persevere in the midst of working with so many hearing people. Some of them may have been exposed to Deaf culture, some not. They might doubt what the deaf director is capable of constantly challenging him/her year-round, everyday. Now, that letter from IRID, explained to Senator Julie Morrison that the requirement for the director to know American Sign Language”… is not necessary… Wow. Yes, I am sorry to inform you that I am angry.
Melvin also expressed concerns about IRID not acting as a true ally toward the Deaf community.
Ryan Commerson gave his input as well, and said the letter possibly violated the Code of Professional Conduct under the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). Here’s Ryan on the importance of hearing interpreters recognizing their privilege:
Ryan Commerson: Today’s interpreting profession exists thanks to Deaf people being there. Deaf bodies. Deaf bodies resulted in the development of sign language. Other people did not know sign language, so that led to interpreting as a profession. This created job opportunities, support systems, organizations, licenses, and so forth. All of those now exist due to the fact that Deaf bodies emerged.
On June 15, William Lee, president of IRID, and Corey Axelrod, president of the Illinois Association of the Deaf (IAD) released a vlog. They explained that their organizations exchanged apologies. The IRID president acknowledged that despite their intentions, they had overstepped their role as privileged hearing allies. They agreed on a commitment to focus on safe spaces, community engagement, and outreach.
Based on community conversations and vlogs, the efforts between IRID and IAD are noteworthy, yet the question remains: what will IRID do in regards to the letter that has impacted SB752? Will IRID reach out to Senator Morrison to clarify they overstepped their role and encourage her to listen directly to the Deaf community? Hopefully, the Illinois Deaf community will find out soon as to what IRID supports.