How did you use your skills to help KIND’s client?
The challenge was momentous, because for those of us with a complete foundational language, we can use familiar words and descriptions to help define new vocabulary and abstract concepts. But this client had missed the opportunity to naturally acquire language at a young age like so many of us do without even thinking about it. Therefore, language alone was not sufficient to help her understand her role in the legal process or to tap into her visual memories from a time when she had no means of labeling what she was seeing.
I had to find a deeper way to try and connect with the client to help her navigate the complexities of the asylum process and tell her captivating story of how she came to the United States. The initial American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter on the case at the time several years ago was not successful in helping the client understand the information presented to her because of the client’s very limited language abilities.
My friend, and KIND attorney in Baltimore, Alejandra Morisi, reached out to me to see if my skills as a teacher working with deaf children would be a better match than an ASL interpreter.
Interpreters are trained to receive information in one language and deliver it in another, which may include altering word choice or grammatical structure of a statement so that the intended meaning of the speaker is also included. However, with this particular client, the need was so much greater.
What did you find unique about interpreting for the case of an immigrant child?
Initially, I knew that my goal was to try and use modified and expanded language to explain this very unique situation and novel law vocabulary to someone who had only begun to learn ASL five years ago.
I was also new to immigration law myself, so I had to ask lots of clarifying questions to make sure that I understood not only what the lawyer was saying, but also the whole concept of what was being discussed. I knew that if I didn’t understand the reason for all the meetings, the intended end goal, or how long the process took, then the client likely did not either, but may not have the courage or the right words to ask these questions.
Along the way, I had to learn some of the conditions of my role, such as making sure to not lead the client in the way I presented questions or checked for clarification. What I interpreted to the lawyer needed to be her story as she told it, not what I assumed that she meant. And I had to recognize my own limitations as we got deeper into the asylum process. I realized that I could not complete this task alone.
Luckily through the grace of God and connections with others in the field of Deaf* education, I was able to locate a team member named Carol Stevens who was a certified ASL interpreter with years of experience working with deaf immigrants with limited language abilities. Through our collaboration and teamwork, I was able to witness the power of language immersion.
Immersion is more than simply the passing of a spoken or signed message back and forth to communicate, but rather it is the incorporation of actions, gestures, pictures, drawings, and any other modality possible to help someone fully understand an intended message/concept and formulate a response. It was through true language immersion that we were able to capture a remarkable story based solely on what the client had observed visually or the few simple gestures used by her family members to direct her in order to create her declaration for asylum. Language is powerful when it creates a shared understanding of the message being conveyed.
* “deaf” refers to an individual with the physical condition of hearing loss; “Deaf” refers to someone who embraces the culture and language (American Sign Language) of the Deaf Community.
Please describe a moment in your work at KIND that impacted you.
The moment that I realized the power of the work being done at KIND. The fact that the lives and futures of the children served by this great organization are based on the ability of the attorneys to present a suitable defense that warrants that child staying in the United States. And in doing so must gain the trust of fragile children and make them feel comfortable enough to open up and share what may be painful, terrifying, and/or heartbreaking memories.
It was also impactful to hear firsthand the story of a deaf child growing up in a Central American country. It is difficult to fathom such a passive existence, being taken from place to place without the ability to ask, “Where are we going? What’s going to happen? Who are these people I am with?”
When a child is born deaf in the United States there is a buffet of services and supports available to parents to help their child learn an accessible language and receive a quality education. In many other countries those opportunities do not exist, or they come at such a high cost that families are not able to access them. An individual’s ability to communicate fluently, learn how to function in an increasingly complex and intellectually demanding world, or simply have meaningful engagement with other people can be severely impacted by a lack of accessible language.
What has been rewarding about working with this client?
It has been extremely rewarding to be able to use my skills to benefit someone in need. What good are skills or knowledge if we don’t use them to support the greater good? I am also thankful that I was given the opportunity to work with KIND and learn more about what they do. Their wealth of knowledge and resources will be helpful for my area of work as I serve many immigrant families. I am hopeful that the knowledge I gained through this experience can be utilized again in the future to assist others in a similar situation.
How did the client change throughout your relationship?
Over time the client became more willing to open up and provide longer responses to questions. She saw me as someone who she could connect with in a way that she was unable to with the attorneys at KIND or even with most of her own family, given the fact that most of them were not able to communicate with her in ASL. And since I was brought in as a support person rather than a formal interpreter, I was able to develop more of a rapport with her through conversation and taking the additional time to try and assist her in understanding the information presented by the attorney. I am sure that the client could read my initial anxiety over the situation because I am not an interpreter. I was nervous about making sure that the information I provided to either party was clear and accurate, especially since the client had limited language. When we brought in Carol Stevens to assist, and she and I were able to work together as a team to make sure that there was a shared understanding of the information presented by all parties, that’s when I think that the relationship between truly improved and allowed the client to express things that were personal and difficult to recall.
How did you enter into your profession?
I spent several summers as a child volunteering at the Maryland School for the Blind with their deafblind students to fulfill my community service hours for school. That is where I realized how much I enjoyed working with this population and what drew me to becoming a Teacher of the Deaf and eventually the Coordinator of our state DeafBlind Project.