Interpreting for deaf parents

Karli Dettman
In the past many hearing children had to interpret for their Deaf parents. They interpreted at bank, school and doctor appointments. As adults, they now say that interpreting often made them feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. They felt like they were acting as carers for their parents. Today there is less need for children to interpret as we now have better accessible services. But some Deaf people still ask their hearing children to interpret for them. I think Deaf people should leave their children alone and let them translate as little as possible.
Posted by: 
Karli Dettman on 28/09/2012
A woman staring directly at the camera and using sign language.
A woman staring directly at the camera and using sign language.

Should our children act as interpreters?

In the past, Deaf people missed out on a lot of information due to a lack of technological or interpreting support. As a result of this they often relied on their hearing children to interpret for them, including at important appointments such as at the doctor, bank or school.

At my hearing high school I was the only deaf student. One day I remember very well that a deaf mother arrived during lunchtime. She took her son to the principal's office so he could translate for her. I thought this was very unusual. I remember thinking my hearing mother doesn't do that to me. She sees the principal on her own.

Support services

Today many Deaf people do feel on par with the standard of living of hearing people. We have almost full access to social opportunities and medical services. An example of a medical service is the recent government initiative of the National Auslan Interpreting Booking and Payment Service (NABS). This service provides interpreters for our medical appointments. Cultural and social opportunities have improved too. For example, there are many more festivals and films that are now accessible.

Yet I know some of us still do rely on our children to interpret for some situations. Is this OK and will it impact our children's emotional health?

Relying on our children

There are some CODAs (children of deaf adults) who are now between the ages of 50 and 70. They have spoken about the enormous responsibility they felt to interpret for their parents, often in difficult situations when they were only five to 10 years old.

As children they interpreted for their Deaf parents with the bank manager or the doctor, which could be too personal and a translating challenging for them. They say they often felt frustrated or embarrassed. These kinds of translating experiences caused conflict for some people as they felt they were acting more like a carer to their parents rather than being allowed to be normal care-free children.

On the other hand some CODAs, as well as children of non-English backgrounds, do say that by translating for their parents they learned patience, empathy and independence at a young age. They also felt capable and responsible, and are now proud of their dual identities and of knowing two languages.

Some CODAS are also great interpreters as they have a wonderful insight and empathy towards Deaf people's struggles. Certainly CODA interpreters are popular in the community.

My experience

As a Deaf mother of three beautiful hearing children I was determined to not let my children translate for me. Unfortunately however, sometimes awkward and last minute situations do happen.

For instance, I organised a party for my five year-old daughter recently with about 11 hearing children, most of whom don't use Auslan. So I asked my Deaf husband who has clearer speaking skills to organise the games to amuse the children, but he declined on the day.

I turned to my eldest son Bernhard who is now 11 to lead the games. By chance, he was the one who had previously discussed the game ideas with me and was very keen to be involved. On the day of the party he asked if he could do this or that so I delegated some party host duties to him. I signed some and he voiced mostly, adding his very own ideas. I also observed he appeared mature enough to be able to take on translating responsibilities.

All went very well and smoothly but I felt a bit guilty at the end of the day. I talked with a friend about it who is also a deaf parent of three hearing kids. She replied, I think it was perfectly fine to delegate some to him as all children love to help. My son was like a party host, interpreting very little if I wanted to add something. I praised him afterwards and gave him some pocket money.

Taking control

There are other situations that happen occasionally where people assume my children can be translators. A certain neighbour approached my sons and talked to them directly about a body corporate issue, omitting me as if I was an invisible person with no feelings. When something like this occurs, I usually deal with it by waving my sons away and encouraging the adult to talk to me, using gestures or writing if needs be.

I have developed delightful and meaningful relationships with other neighbours and the locals who have learned a bit of Auslan. I feel included as they are eager to communicate with me. A direct relationship between two adults is so heart-warming, genuine and can be playful too.

However, I think, in the end, we cannot expect our children to interpret all situations. We should leave them well alone if they are playing happily with their friends and we can try to manage it by ourselves, as we did before our kids were born.

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