In A Perfect World

Some weeks ago, I watched this clip from ABC Family’s Switched at Birth:

Then, yesterday, I saw a Facebook video of a deeply upset Deaf man in a hospital waiting room as one of the nurses held up an iPhone with a VR interpreter on the line:

Transcript, with original commenter’s permission to copy-and-paste:

Nurse: ..can’t be in the video.
VRI (assumingly SIM-COMing): Hello, my name is Kathleen; I’ll be your ASL interpreter #664403
Nurse: I can’t be in the video.
Interpreter: And I’ll interpret everything you say and keep… (not audible due to nurse speaking)
Nurse: You’ll have to delete it if I am, it’s-it’s against the law.
Nurse: Can you see her?
Interpreter (voicing for Deaf patient): Yes. The internet is not .. is very, very slow. I can see the interpreter; it’s very, very slow. It’s not a valid fair communication because the internet is not working.
Nurse: Ok well then you’ll have to tell him our director is coming. You’re our only option. I don’t know what else to do, this is the best we have at the moment.
Interpreter: Ok, um, just for your information, I don’t.. I don’t need to see you. If you could just keep the video camera on the Deaf patient, that would be great. … I only need to hear you, can you say that again please?
Nurse: I just said that this is the only option that we have until our- my director gets to the facility. I understand that the internet is slow, but this is the only thing that I have at the moment.
Interpreter (voicing for Deaf patient): It’s not the only option, period. It’s not the only option. VRI is not the only option because the internet is not working. It’s not the only option. We need to get (unintelligible) here now.
Nurse: OK we don’t have one.
Interpreter: This is the interpreter speaking, could you put the camera lens down on the patient and keep it there. Because right now it’s going all over the place so I cannot see his hands. Could you please stabilize the camera and keep it there. Make it stop moving. (Voicing for the Deaf patient: ) See this is an example: the interpreter can’t see because the camera keeps moving around and around and around. And so do you think this is fair communication?
Nurse: Yes ma’am I understand that.
Interpreter: What’s your name?
Nurse: My name is Tanisha.
Interpreter: Could you spell that for the interpreter please?
Tanisha: T-A-N-I-S-H-A
Interpreter: Tanisha, T-A-N-I-S-H-A, Tanisha.
Tanisha: Yes ma’am.
Interpreter: And what’s your last name Tanisha?
Tanisha: Akins.
Interpreter: Could you spell that for the interpreter please?
Tanisha: A-K-I-N-S
Interpreter: I’ve got K as in Kathleen, I, N-S. Is that N as in Nancy or M as in Mother?
Tanisha: N as in Nancy.
Interpreter (voicing for Deaf patient): So,.. can we go ahead with this appointment? (unintelligible – “I’m fed up with this?”)
Tanisha: If, if that’s what he, I mean if he’s okay with this, until we can get someone here. I-I’m just doing what my director told me.
Interpreter: Can we still get an interpreter to be on the way and use VRI to communicate until the interpreter er.. uh.. until the live interpreter gets here..
Tanisha: Exactly.
Interpreter: It’s already been an hour and a half. So… I’d like to, I would like a live interpreter to come here and uh.. and we’re waiting for an hour and a half. Can you call and request a live interpreter. We need an in-person interpreter.
Other Nurse: [unintelligible]…you can’t be recording.
Cameraperson(?): We are.
Tanisha: You’re going to have to delete that.
Other Nurse: I’m going have to del-
[END OF VIDEO]

Ech.

I have such mixed reactions to these clips.

Legally, both the Deaf man and Daphne from Switched at Birth are in the right. The ADA does mandate accommodations, and there’s probably no other scenario more important than when your life or health is at stake.

Pragmatically… they didn’t really help the hospital find any workable solutions. Honestly, I felt sorry for the nurses in the second video, who genuinely seemed to be doing the best they could with what they had at the time.

But d/hh people shouldn’t have to deal with this!  

You’re right. They shouldn’t have to. In a perfect world, they wouldn’t. But this isn’t a perfect world: internet connections fail; on-site interpreters aren’t available, or take a long time to arrive; the call comes in at 2am; hospitals struggle with budget and staffing limitations.

In all the times that I’ve wound up in the hospital– fortunately none of which were immediately life-threatening– I had an interpreter maybe twice. The on-site one took about an hour to arrive. I didn’t request one; the hospital took the initiative and called one in when I showed up. That is how long it took for him to come in at short notice. The other one was a VRI on an iPad, and that one actually worked really well.

The other times, I either talked directly with the doctors/nurses, or we wrote back and forth. Because English is my native language, I didn’t have any language barriers with the written communication; it just took more time. It wasn’t ideal, but like the doctors and nurses there, I was doing the best with what I had. We all were.

That’s why reactions like these bother me. Sure, they rile people up, but they don’t really change anything about the financial or logistical challenges that institutions face in providing accommodations for deaf and hard of hearing clients, especially last-minute. It’s all complaint and no solution.

Worse, they reinforce some harmful perceptions. First, many d/hh people prefer accommodations other than sign language interpretation. Case in point: I am OK with sign language interpretation for basic conversations, but for in-depth medical explanations, I really prefer exact transcription (and Signed English usually doesn’t really cut it). Moreover, I really don’t want to have to wait an hour for an on-site interpreter to show up when we can have the whole business done in fifteen minutes of writing back and forth.

Second, these reactions can portray a very simplistic, adversarial stereotype of d/hh people as angry, demanding clients– and with the power of the ADA behind them to boot. Yeah, it’ll probably get you accommodations, eventually, but at what price– especially when dealing with institutions that are already overstretched and under-budgeted?

Fundamentally, communication is a two-way street. And no matter which route you go, it’s going to take time, effort, and patience– for everyone involved. This much I can guarantee you, though: being argumentative, confrontational, or otherwise difficult isn’t going to get you a solution any faster– and in some cases, can even impede your communication access.

Cued Mandarin: Planting the Seed

After four years of studying Mandarin through Cued English, the two finally intersected, and I got the kick I needed to really tackle Cued Mandarin.

This is what happened: Candace Lindow-Davies, a mother of a deaf-plus son from Minnesota, went to a d/hh rehab center in China, and met a Chinese mother of a deaf-plus child. She had successfully used Cued Speech with her son, so she told the Chinese mother and rehab staff about Cued Speech.

She also invited the teachers and mother to attend the National Hands & Voices Conference last weekend in New Braunfels, Texas. Two made it, along with an interpreter.

Naturally, the news floated through the grapevine, and cued speech people started asking me to go. Mostly because I know both Cued Speech and Mandarin, AND I happen to live four hours’ drive north of the H&V Conference.

So out came my Mandarin Cue chart, the one that was developed by Cornett and a Chinese speaker several decades ago. After experimenting with the tones, I tweaked the Cued Mandarin system to better merge tones and diphthongs– double vowels, like mai, jie, luo, etc.– and drew a new chart showing these. (The old system’s way of cueing tones was OK with monophthongs, but awkward for diphthongs.)

That Friday, I left right after work for the conference, got there entirely too late at night, then the next morning, I met up with Tony Wright, who’s the regional representative for the Southwest branch of NCSA. Neither of us had any clue what to expect that morning; all we knew was that there were Chinese people here who were interested in learning Cued Speech, and we needed something to show them.

That morning was a mad scramble to compile a PowerPoint presentation along with some Cued Speech materials; Candace had hoped to introduce us to her Chinese friends over lunch. When our meeting got pushed off to later that night so their interpreter would have a chance to eat and rest, Tony and I spent the rest of the day chatting on various Cued-Speech-related things, going to lectures, and grabbing updates from Candace as she flitted in and out.


We finally met Miss Ma and Miss Cong in a small, quiet office on the second floor of the resort’s main building—a much-needed repose after a full day of lectures.

I still remember that nervousness, trying to figure out the best way to communicate. It’d been years since I had seriously immersed myself into Mandarin, and I’d forgotten so much; and there was my deaf accent, and then should we cue or sign or simcom or…?

Eventually, I sat down across from the Chinese women, with Tony voicing for me.

On the left, Miss Ma was tall and thin, with this sharp, intelligent face. On the right, Miss Cong, broad and round with curly hair, and wide eyes. Right between them was their translator Amy, tiny and wispy. And all three pairs of eyes fixed on me as I took a breath and jumped in.

I opened my laptop to show pictures of my family and introduced myself. I told them about minoring in Mandarin alongside my English degree, studying abroad in Beijing for four months, my childhood, my mother’s fight to get Cued Speech for me, and how Cued Speech had helped get me where I was today. In the meanwhile, Miss Cong jotted down several notes in her little book, and Miss Ma in her phone.

I then pulled out the copies we’d made of the Mandarin cue chart and exercise sheets, and walked them through how the system would work.

It’s funny, but after so much resistance or apathy in the US, I was struck by how remarkably receptive these women were to Cued Mandarin. After a couple of rounds, they understood how it was supposed to work.

In fact, Miss Ma would pick out things on the chart and explain nuances in Mandarin, or dive into a quick discussion with Miss Cong about how to cue particular sounds. Miss Cong asked several questions—good ones, I might add. One in particular—Miss Ma pointed out that when you have two tones next to each other, the second one will be emphasized while the first one is not. I said yes, Cued Mandarin can show that, and demonstrated.

I gave them the chart, and told them, I am not a native speaker. Although I’d practiced with children’s books, I hadn’t had the chance to test the system as thoroughly as I would have wanted. I encouraged them to tweak the chart as it best fit their language.

Soon they will be back in China with copies of the Mandarin cue chart and materials. I have Miss Cong’s email; she has mine. I told them to contact me if they needed anything, and I’ll be emailing them soon.

The seed’s been planted. Now, we wait and see.

Llanflafalalapwa– wait, what?

So this video of a weatherman pronouncing an insanely long Welsh name went viral:

And fellow cuer Benjamin Lachman accepted the challenge:

For reference, here’s the name all spelled out: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch

And yep, I’ll admit it: this is straight-up filler. On that note, while I do plan to keep updating a Croaking Dalek at least once a week, postings may become intermittent due to an upcoming busy season at work. If I skip a day (or a week…), rest assured I haven’t died; I’m most likely passed out under a mound of papers and emails.

Cued Speech and Sign Language: Spoken Language Accommodation

Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a value comparison between ASL and Cued Speech. I’m sharing my personal experience with both in different areas, and it depends on several factors.

For spoken language accommodation, my personal preference is Cued Speech, hands down. Not ASL, not Signed English, not CASE, not LOVE.

Since leaving college, I’ve usually used sign language interpreters because that is what is available here in TX, but it really is not my preferred method. Captioning is fine for lecture-based presentations, but a bit slow for discussion-type forums.

It’s my opinion that signed language cannot accurately represent all of the nuances of spoken language on the hands alone. Or if it can be done, it’ll be difficult and cumbersome. That’s why Dr. Cornett designed Cued Speech the way he did: half of the information on the lips, half on the hands, and all based in phonemes, not meaning.

With Signed English, if you already know English and/or have enough hearing or enough context, or you happen to be a superb lipreader/prolific reader… basically, if you have extra support, you can fill in the gaps. Somewhat.

I have had some less-than-ideal experiences with interpreters because my native language is English, and the other person voicing in English, but we have to communicate through a sign language medium, and it’s quite challenging to be precise… especially when the interpreter is used to interpretation rather than transliteration. It’s worse when the interpreter does not have any background information, especially in specialized fields like medicine or engineering. Often (but not always), she can relay that information to me– even if I have to mentally translate it back into English– but if I try to feed it back through her, it falls apart.

Knowing the context is, I think, more essential for sign language interpretation because you are working with vocabulary and semantics. Context does help cued language transliterators too, but I think there is less demand for it, because CLT is word-for-word (well, really, cue-for-sound) and not concept-to-concept. With a CLT, I usually feel like I have a much solider grasp of the other person’s message than I do with a sign language interpreter; there is far less reliance on her understanding of the subject matter or the context.

Cued Speech and Sign Language: Establishing an L1 Language

Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a value comparison between ASL and Cued Speech. I’m sharing my personal experience with both in different areas, and it depends on several factors.

As a complete language, from fluent users, I believe both ASL and Cued Speech are equally viable.

The most important thing for literacy is establishing a complete L1 language, in any language. ASL, English, French, Chinese, Spanish, whatever, it doesn’t matter; just get that L1 language down. The best-performing ASL signers whom I met, at least in academia, usually came from a Deaf signing family, or had great access to complete language models in their educational system.

The big drawback with ASL (or any other sign system) is that most hearing parents have little to no knowledge of sign language, and most never become fluent in ASL. We won’t even get into the morass of all the variants of signed English (or pidgin signed English). For parents, I think Cued Speech’s greatest strength lies in the fact that it enables hearing parents to use their native spoken language, no matter what that language is, so they can act as a complete language model right away.

Another of Cued Speech’s benefits is that it has a much shorter learning curve compared to ASL. Generally speaking, CS takes weeks or months to attain fluency, compared to years for any sign language system. Plus, once you know the system and develop a good knack for thinking of English phonemically, you can cue pretty much anything without needing (much) instruction. I think the mental shift to phonemic English, as opposed to written English, is the hardest for most people to get past. It often trips me up too, and I’m a native cuer!

Earlier this year, I started working with a Vietnamese mother on developing Cued Vietnamese for her deaf daughter. English is her third language, and she wants her daughter to have access to the language of her heritage. Chances are her little girl won’t get that through sign language exposure within the US; how many deaf Vietnamese in the US are there who also know Vietnamese sign language– if there’s even a standardized Vietnamese Sign Language?

Cued Vietnamese, on the other hand, would give her access to spoken Vietnamese– and by extension, all the cultural nuances that language carries.

Cued Speech and Sign Language: Availability of Services

Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a value comparison between ASL and Cued Speech. I’m sharing my personal experience with both in different areas, and it depends on several factors.

American Sign Language beats Cued Speech in terms of availability, especially for socialization and finding real-time accommodations. Most everyone knows of sign language or some variant of it (Signed English, LOVE, CASE, etc.). Although a lot of cuers, particularly those affiliated with the NCSA, are trying to expand resources so it’s more available, Cued Speech is still very much in the minority.

Hence, you can find sign language interpreters in just about every sizable city. Cued Speech… it depends on the area. That said, Daily Cues is working on this nifty Cue Connector that will show you a geographical concentration of cuers all around the world so you can see what the availability is in various areas.

For sure, I know that Chicago, Minnesota, central Colorado, the East Coast, and maybe California and Seattle, have a sizable population of cuers and cueing service providers. Austin, TX, also has a small cue community.

I am the only cuer in DFW that I know of, and was the only known cuer in Milwaukee– maybe the entire state, since I first learned it in 1994 or thereabouts. That isn’t an unusual scenario for cuers, incidentally: being the only one in the school, or even the entire state, that uses Cued Speech– although it’s getting better as we develop more cue communities around the nation.