This article ethnographically explores how American Sign Language-English interpreting students negotiate and foreground different kinds of relationships to claim legitimacy in relation to deaf people and the deaf community. As the field of interpreting is undergoing shifts from community interpreting to professionalization, interpreting students endeavor to legitimize their involvement in the field. Students create distinction between themselves and other students through relational work that involves positive and negative interpretation of kinship terms. In analyzing interpreting students' gate-keeping practices, this article explores the categories and definitions used by interpreting students and argues that there is category trouble that occurs. Identity and kinship categories are not nuanced or critically interrogated, resulting in deaf people and interpreters being represented in static ways.

"Are you a CODA [child of deaf adults] or a SODA [sibling of deaf adults]?"

(A question that American Sign Language interpreters and interpreting students frequently ask each other and are asked by deaf people)

Introduction: Kinship, Legitimacy, and Communities of Practice

In an interview, Jenna 1, a professional (or paid) American Sign Language (ASL)-English interpreter, told me that one of the best compliments she ever received from a deaf 2 person was at the end of an interpreting assignment when the person asked her if she was a child of deaf adults (CODA). Jenna is not a CODA and she had learned sign language as a young adult. However, Jenna felt that the fact that this man mistook her for a CODA meant that she had passed some kind of test. As I will discuss, being a CODA has come to mean more than being related to a deaf person; it represents having specific (and often positive) orientations towards deaf people. Jenna told me that the implication was that she had good sign language skills and she was able to relate to this man. 3 Jenna's statement that this man's question was a compliment was not unique in the contexts in which I conduct research. While engaging in participant observation in ASL-English interpreter education classrooms and interacting with practicing interpreters in United States-based metro areas, I have been struck by the fact that one of the first questions that interpreting students and practicing interpreters ask each other is about their relationship to deaf people. As I argue in this article, foregrounding either kinship or cultivated connections with individual deaf people—and to the category of the deaf community more broadly—is key to establishing legitimacy as an interpreter, specifically in relation to other interpreters.

Of course, ASL interpreting students 4 and interpreters have different relationships to deaf people and to the category of the deaf community: some have deaf family members while others do not; some have learned sign language from deaf friends as children; some have married deaf people; and others have learned sign language as adults looking for a profession, as examples. Additionally, while the categories of CODAs and SODAs (siblings of deaf adults) are ideologically mobilized to mean that one has close relations with the deaf community, CODAs and SODAs differ in their signing skills and their relationships with their deaf family members 5. CODAs and SODAs are diverse, just as are deaf people (as demonstrated in Monaghan et al's [2003] edited volume "Many Ways to be Deaf."). Similarly, there is not one way to be a hearing person or an American Sign Language-English interpreter. In this article, I analyze how individual students place themselves and deaf people with whom they will potentially work into various (monolithic) categories and I utilize insights from recent research on deaf experiences to analyze how various categories of hearing and deaf people circulate and are understood within an interpreting training program.

Establishing a community of practice as both students and interpreters can be a contested process. In their seminal work on communities of practice, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger examine how learning involves not only learning new skills and activities but also becoming a different kind of person as one participates in "broader systems of relations," or a community (Lave and Wenger 1991: 53). According to Lave and Wenger, as people learn, they move from peripheral to more central positions as they master expertise and inhabit new identities. However, this process of moving from peripheral to central position does not only happen through learning sign language and interpreting skills. Rather, movement also requires that interpreters learn ways of thinking about and legitimizing their relationship to deaf people and to the deaf community; kinship or formed relationships become a key mode of engaging in such authorization.

Interpreting students and interpreters have different kinds of relationships; as such claiming legitimacy through "a broader system of relations" can become a tense process and interpreting education communities of practice—at least the ones I have observed—are not always harmonious spaces, despite administrators' and instructors' emphasizing of teamwork and the importance of supporting each other, as I discuss below. As Davies (2005:571) notes, analysts of communities of practice must attend to the role of hierarchies and gatekeepers in constituting legitimacy; "Barriers to entry and legitimate peripheral participation entail a process of gate-keeping. In order for such a process to function, there must be mechanisms by which the boundary and the internal structure of the community of practice is controlled." In the case of interpreting students and interpreters, I argue that relationships with deaf people and the stories people tell about these relationships become the means by which hierarchies are established and gate-keeping occurs. More specifically, the categories that are utilized to understand these relationships and deaf people in general create boundaries and divisions.

Going forward, I provide an overview of my research site and I track the emergence of interpreting as a profession. I then discuss the role of certain ideas and ideals of deaf culture and deaf communities. Finally, I examine specific tensions around the role of self-analysis, kinship terms, and the telling of stories about motivations for becoming an interpreter. I track the emergence of a new form of identification to and with the deaf community: the NERDA, or the interpreter who is Not Even Related to a Deaf Adult. An analysis of tensions between CODAs and NERDAs foregrounds the complexities of uneasy belonging to an interpreting community of practice as well as the ways that categories come to be ideologically deployed in order to establish legitimacy.

More than this, an analysis of such tensions demonstrates the need to revisit concepts of d/Deaf culture and the idealized ways that deaf people are (re)presented in interpreting education curricula and the education process. It seems to me that such concepts and representational practices enable the maintenance of normative and ideological ways of defining and (re)presenting deaf people as well as CODAs, SODAs, and NERDAs. As I will discuss, recent deaf studies scholarship has attended to "frozen epistemologies" (Friedner 2017; Kusters et al. 2017) in deaf studies and call for critical reflection on taken-for-granted concepts 6. This article builds on this scholarship and argues for attention to the "frozen epistemologies" in/from deaf studies that are adopted by interpreter education programs and working interpreters, thus analyzing how specific epistemologies circulate and are employed in practices of gate-keeping and hierarchy formation.

To be sure, the stakes of such an analysis are high as deaf people working with interpreters negotiate asymmetrical power relations in a world that privileges spoken communication (Baker-Shenk 1986; Brunson 2008; Roy 1992). While the field of interpreter education is expanding in the United States and interpreters are becoming professionalized, there are variations in interpreting quality (including interpreters that are not fluent in ASL) and interpreting ethics are still very much debated. (Cokeley 2000; Janzen and Korpiniski 2005; Witter-Merithew 1999). Discussions and debates around legitimacy are a reflection and manifestation of this fraught terrain. They exist in relation to (and serve as a potential distraction from) pressing concerns about skills, ethics, power imbalances, and commodification of interpreting services.

The site

I have conducted ethnographic research with hearing ASL-English interpreting students at this particular college since the fall semester of 2014; I have interacted with two cohorts in the program from the time they were inducted into the program and engaged in two years of coursework. I conducted participant observation in classes and at events and I interviewed students and alumni of the program. I have observed approximately twenty-two students in classes and I have interviewed twelve current and former students using semi-structured and unstructured interview methodology in order to allow my interlocutors to freely discuss their experiences and their motivations for becoming an interpreter. I also follow interpreting journals, blogs, and other social media and I interact with interpreters and interpreting students at deaf community events. During these interactions, I routinely discuss interpreting ethics, past and current work experiences, and current debates in the field. I have also conducted informal and formal interviews with approximately thirty interpreters around the United States as part of a broader research project on ASL interpreting. 7

The interpreter education program in which I conducted research features economic, ethnic, and racial diversity, and it also tends to enroll a higher than average number of students who have deaf family members (see Cogen and Cokely 2015 on general demographics in interpreting education programs). This program is one of approximately 130 programs in the United States. It is two years in length and students are required to enter the program with demonstrated skill in ASL. Students are admitted after an evaluation process, which includes submitting signed videos and an in-person interview among other criteria. Once in the program, students take cohort-specific courses in which they learn about what differentiates deaf communities from other communities ("deaf culture"), models of and techniques for interpreting, ASL linguistics (ASL linguistic structure and what makes ASL and signed languages more generally different from spoken languages, for examples) and interpreting ethics. The students also have a weekly lab night in which they learn and practice new sign vocabulary. In their second year, students complete an internship in which they observe established interpreters and they practice their skills. Finally, students are required to engage in service learning activities in which they organize and attend deaf social and cultural events such as happy hours and game nights. Students are told that they must socialize and interact with deaf community members; I frequently saw faculty (almost all of whom are also experienced hearing working interpreters although there are deaf instructors, notably for lab and an ASL linguistics class) encourage students to go out and interact with deaf people. Both faculty and students told me that it was through socialization that students would improve their ASL skills and establish relationships and legitimacy. And it was through socialization that students would meet deaf people with whom they would potentially work and vice versa.

The two cohorts that I observed had 12 and 9 students respectively, although students attrite or are asked to repeat courses if instructors feel that they are not mastering the necessary skills or lack language proficiency. Students had varying motivations for becoming interpreters and they also had different strengths: some came to the program after interpreting for family members and friends because they identify as CODAs, SODAs, or otherwise related to a deaf person; others came to seek a second or third career; and still others came because they "fell in love" with sign language. Students also matriculated with a variety of educational backgrounds: some students had already earned Bachelors and Masters degrees at other points of their lives while others were hoping to earn a Bachelors degree as part of the program. Since 2012, the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), the United States-based interpreting certifying body, requires a Bachelors degree or demonstration of alternative criteria in order to apply for national certification (http://www.rid.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/degree_requirements_motion.pdf); the program I observed works to supplement coursework to grant Bachelors degrees to students who do not yet have them. The majority of the students in the program work during the day and classes are held in the evening. The program is not full time per se but it is demanding and students often report struggling with time management and assignments.

I was struck by the collegiality that students in the program aspired towards and the ways that the program administration and other students facilitated this. At the two introductory orientations for the program I observed in 2014 and 2015, the program coordinator stressed the importance of the students working together and operating as a team. He said that different students had different strengths—in English or in ASL, for example—and they needed to support each other. Students were encouraged to connect over social media and there were frequent group projects built into the curriculum. This message about the importance of cohesion and becoming a community was brought home again early in the semester in both first-year cohorts that I observed when the students met with the second year cohort who suggested that they set up a (closed) Facebook group in addition to regularly meeting in person. However, as I will discuss, relations were not always harmonious and despite being urged to become a community of practice focused on improving sign language fluency, interpreting skills, and knowledge of the deaf community, there was tension among the students that was connected to relationships between interpreters and the deaf community, and attempts to establish distinction between different kinds of students. These tensions are also related to the emergence of interpreting as a profession. 8

Interpreting education and professionalization

Sign language interpreting is a relatively new profession. According to interpreter educator Dennis Cokely (2005), the earliest interpreters were children of deaf adults, other family members, or members of religious organizations or community groups who worked with deaf people. These were volunteers who deaf people themselves chose to become interpreters and deaf people were "gatekeepers" of interpreting services. 9 Cokely (2005: 3) writes: "…the roots of the practice of sign language interpreting/transliterating lie squarely within the aegis of Deaf Communities." Interpreting was rarely compensated monetarily and was not considered to be a full time job, an occupation, or a profession; it was considered to be a "contribution" to the community (ibid: 4-5). As Lou Fant (1990: 55) notes:

In the beginning there was only the Watch And Do Likewise University. The preparatory program took place in our homes with our parents as tutors. Our advanced training consisted of watching experienced interpreters at work, then trying to imitate them. Our diplomas were awarded to us by the deaf community in the form of praise and requests for our services.

The professionalization of sign language interpreting began with the founding of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) in 1964 by vocational rehabilitation counselors, deaf community members and individuals currently serving as interpreters. (Cokely 2005; Fant 1990; Hale 2012). Initially, interpreters could become members of RID after having two existing members vouch for them, thus demonstrating the continued role of personal connections in the process. Becoming a member meant that someone was qualified to work as a professional interpreter. However, as RID expanded its membership and the demand for interpreters grew, RID began discussing the need for a national testing process, which it implemented in 1972 (Fant 1990).

The formation of the RID articulated with the passage of the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1965, which mandated the provision of interpreters for deaf employees. Subsequent legislation such as the 1978 Court Interpreters Act and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act further expanded the mandate for interpreters (through the frame of providing communication access) and provided a structure whereby employers and institutions such as schools and medical facilities (among others) were required to provide interpretation to deaf people. As deaf people increasingly accessed higher education and employment, the demand for interpreters grew and interpreting education programs started to emerge (Fant 1990). Currently, the United States Department of Labor has labeled interpreting one of the fastest growing professions in the United States (https://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/interpreters-and-translators.htm#tab-6); interpreting education programs are starting around the country and sign language interpreting research is a growing field. There is a Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education that accredits interpreting programs and from 2006-2016, there were six federally funded National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers.

With this move towards educational programs, professionalization, and the connection between interpreting and disability legislation and mandated service provision, there is a sense that the field is moving away from its roots and that deaf people are no longer the "gatekeepers" they once were. As Rico Peterson (2015), an interpreter educator, writes: "Not long ago, Sign Language interpreting was snug in the hands of deaf communities. Deaf people exerted great influence over the field, as practitioners and as leaders. There was little question then of where interpreting belonged or to whom the benefits of interpreting should accrue." Peterson (ibid) subsequently poses this question: "How do we reconcile the new 'commodity' value of interpreting with the old 'community' value of interpreting?" Here Max Weber's (1978: 425) work on professionalization is relevant: he notes that a move towards professionalization requires a move away from personal relationships towards fixed doctrine and vocational training. Interpreting students and interpreters negotiate this (perhaps oversimplified) tension over community and commodity and/or the ideological valences of these concepts.

Some practicing interpreters with whom I interacted proudly proclaimed that they did not have RID certification and that they were not interested in becoming RID members. They and others often argued that they were "community interpreters" and not "professional interpreters." This tension between "community" and "profession" is also exacerbated at a time when interpreting—and disability social service provision in general—is increasingly privatized and there has been a growth in for-profit interpreting agencies and video-relay service providers (Brunson 2011; Haualand 2011). Instructors' stress on the importance of socializing with the deaf community and the tensions between the categories of CODAs and NERDAs must be seen as connected to this focus on professionalization and the emergence of new privatized models of providing interpreting services. The concept of community is being mobilized both strategically and affectively in order to demonstrate legitimacy. In addition, it is not clear which particular "community" is being invoked.

There are also tensions over what is being tested during the RID certification exam with some interpreters, interpreter educators, and deaf people themselves stressing that the exam evaluates test takers according to "hearing, not deaf values," in that the test does not measure "competency in or awareness of Deaf culture." When I queried interpreters and educators about what this meant, they told me that the test does not measure how well interpreters understand deaf cultural contexts or their investment in the community; both are seen as essential to be a "good" interpreter. 10 And there is increasing concern among both interpreters and deaf people that the RID is a professionalized organization that is hearing-run without input from deaf people. At the 2015 RID national conference for example, there were contentious debates (which I witnessed on Facebook and Twitter) around whether to make ASL the official language of RID conferences. A motion was introduced at the RID business meeting and was passed, although not without some dissent and attempts to reframe the issue in terms of "choice" (see http://www.streetleverage.com/summary-of-2015-rid-national-conference-business-meeting/). The field of interpreting is thus not without tensions, especially in relation to establishing legitimacy as a professional field in relation to deaf people.

Interpreting community/Deaf community

So far I have utilized the concepts of deaf community and deaf culture without discussing their history and stakes. I contend, however, that the use of such concepts greatly contributes to tensions within interpreting contexts as students and practicing interpreters are often taught to understand these concepts as being without nuance; there is not a discussion of different kinds of deaf cultures or communities. In addition, interpreting students are often told that they occupy liminal positions (Turner 1969:95) because of their status as hearing people. I provide some overview of the emergence of the concepts as well as more recent scholarly commentaries upon them as these concepts have important stakes for how interpreting students are taught to see themselves and their work. These concepts are not solely top-down scholarly concepts from deaf studies but they circulate within and are utilized by deaf people and communities around the world (Kusters and Friedner 2015 )

The largely United States and western-based discipline of deaf studies as well as deaf activists have argued for the existence of both deaf culture and deaf community (e.g., Lane et al. 1996; Padden 1980; Padden and Humphries 1988) with distinct cultural practices and traits in addition to the use of sign language. These include introducing oneself in relation to one's place in the deaf world and other deaf people, telling stories, sharing information and news, participating in deaf events and organizations, being collectivist and invested in other deaf people, and (in the US) valuing ASL. Deaf Studies as an academic discipline emerged in the 1970s concurrently with the emergence of the journal Sign Language Studies (Kusters et al. 2017; Murray 2017). In a 1975 conference paper, James Woodward offered a distinction between deaf and Deaf people with the former being a medical condition and the latter a marker of a distinct linguistic and cultural group; this distinction has been widely and wildly embraced by deaf studies—and deaf people— who analyze how deaf people have linguistic, cultural, and ethnic identity status. In the 1980's the field grew with increasing numbers of articles and books written about the concept of deaf community and deaf culture. Carol Padden (1980: 344-345) defined Deaf culture as a "set of learned behaviours of a group of people who have their own language, values, rules for behavior, and tradition […]Members of the Deaf culture behave as Deaf people do, use the language of Deaf people, and share the beliefs of Deaf people towards themselves and other people who are not Deaf." 11

Recent works in anthropology have problematized this focus on monolithic or bounded deaf culture. Preston (1994, 9) writes: "It is, ultimately, impossible to extract Deaf culture from Hearing culture." In a review of anthropological work on deafness and deaf communities, Richard Senghas and Leila Monaghan (2002: 59) stress that the "deaf community" is a complicated and vague category as it is not clear what kind of community is being marked: a linguistic community, a geographic community, or an imagined community? Similarly, recent ethnographic and other works on deaf experiences both in the US and internationally have challenged these (singular) concepts of culture and community arguing that the concepts are exclusionary and that they privilege normative deaf ways of being in the world (i.e., Fernandes and Meyers 2010; Kusters and Friedner 2015; Monaghan et al 2003; Ruiz-Williams et al. 2015). Ruiz et al (2015) in particular stress the importance of moving beyond monolithic ideas of the deaf community and deaf culture in their auto-ethnographic analysis and critique of their experience as Masters students in deaf studies program at Gallaudet University (the US's only liberal arts college for deaf students located in Washington, DC) where ethnic, racial, gender, and class differences, among others, were ignored (also see Kusters et al. 2017).

In interpreting classes I observed that interpreter educators and students embraced monolithic concepts of deaf culture and community. In one class, for example, students engaged in role-plays in which they were interpreting at a doctor's office: one student was the interpreter, one was the doctor, and the other was a deaf patient. The instructor told the mock interpreters to be ready for the deaf person to share personal information because sharing personal information was part of "deaf culture" and maintaining boundaries and privacy was part of "hearing culture." She stressed that the students needed to know both cultural ways of communicating. In this example, the instructor was utilizing a common distinction made between deaf people and hearing people which is that deaf people are more inclined to share information about themselves while hearing people value their privacy (see Mindess 1999).

Similarly, I sat in another course in which the instructor talked to the students about the concept of "cultural difference:" she asked the students for examples of times when they experienced cultural difference in everyday life and then stressed that there is cultural difference between deaf and hearing people that they will encounter and be required to mediate while working as an interpreter. Moreover, during the first year of the program, students read interpreter educator Anna Mindess's Reading between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters, a text that according to the description on the back of the book "provides a perspective on a culture that is not widely understood—American Deaf culture." This text provides a toolkit for understanding differences between "American Deaf culture" and "American hearing culture" without allowing for any nuance in the ways that these concepts and categories might be complex. Similarly, during the 2015 admissions process for the program, prospective students were required to read a short article about differences between deaf cultural and hearing cultural ways of viewing the world and write a commentary on it.

While this focus on what differentiates deaf culture from hearing culture might be considered part of learning cultural competency, a concept that is discussed in the field of interpreting (i.e. Elliot 2013), it is important to consider the ways that in a cultural competency framework, culture is rendered static and "is often made synonymous with ethnicity, nationality, and language." (Kleinman and Benson 2006). As medical anthropologists Kleinman and Benson (2006) note: "The idea of isolated societies with shared cultural meanings would be rejected by anthropologists, today, since it leads to dangerous stereotyping—such as, 'Chinese believe this' 'Japanese believe that,' and so on—as if entire societies or ethnic groups could be described by these simple slogans." This point is of relevance for interpreter training programs where students and faculty discuss "deaf culture" and "hearing culture." How might interpreting students, interpreter educators, and interpreters think differently about legitimacy if the categories of deaf culture and deaf community were nuanced or if these concepts were not the starting (and end) points for understanding deaf people?


Interpreting students were aware of their own positioning in relation to ideas of the deaf community and to other students because of engaging in the practice of "self- analysis." 12 Self- analysis is important because according to current understandings of the field, interpreters are no longer considered to be conduits simply passing information along but they are involved in an interactional process; they are not machines (Wadensjö 1998). As part of self-analysis, students reflect on their own positionality and their strengths and weaknesses: they analyze their own dispositions, identities, and histories and their sign language skills. Instructors often told students that it was important to engage in self-analysis in order to ensure that they are able to appropriately interpret in different situations and that students must know their strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, students must be aware of whether they possess academic ASL skills or if they will be triggered negatively by working in a specific setting as a result of their past experiences and their identities.

Students were also required to reflect upon their privileges and their motivations for becoming an interpreter. For example, students did journaling exercises and a sample question they were asked to journal about is "Why does the deaf community want you as their interpreter?" Students also engaged in self-analysis in relation to their signing skills by watching videos of themselves signing both alone and in groups and they gave presentations in ASL where their sign language skills were assessed by their instructors and peers. As part of the education process, students videotaped themselves signing and shared these videos in class. They also often engaged in group activities and projects and were told that they needed to recognize each other's strengths and weaknesses. In fact, during conversations students often unprompted told me what other students' strong and weak points were and they scrutinized themselves and others in terms of motivations, intentions, and sign language skills. For example, one student told me that she was stronger in English skills while a classmate was stronger in ASL skills; she was able to pinpoint specific areas in which she and other members of her cohort needed to improve.

A student named Paris told me that the program "feels like therapy" and that students were "constantly analyzing themselves, constantly looking for something wrong." Another student named Deepa told me that she knew someone who graduated from the program who was unable to interpret because of self- analysis; it made her feel frozen and she constantly doubted her decisions and her skills. While Deepa told me about this other student, she signed "self-analysis" in a dramatic way in which it looked like she was being ripped apart, almost. Engaging in such self- and other- analysis resonates with Nikolas Rose's (1999) work on governing through community and how individuals are made to be increasingly responsible for themselves and each other (one might think here about governing through communities of practice). In this case, the ITP community was not a harmonious category or space as practices of analysis foregrounded hierarchies. And the deaf community here is a manufactured and static category. Self-analysis was intimately tied to analysis of other interpreting students and (static) ideas of deaf culture and deaf community; it reveals the work in which interpreting students and interpreters are engaged to establish legitimacy in relation to others. Indeed, the following discussions of and by self-identified NERDAs and CODAs reveal the ways that self- and other- analysis results in hierarchies and gatekeeping.

Female-presenting person signing self-analyze.

Image 1: Self-Analysis/Image drawn by Rezenet Moges. This image is a black and white line drawing of a female-presenting person signing self-analyze (she is looking down at two fingers opening and closing and moving down her chest).


I now discuss at length a conversation that I had with a pair of students. I choose to focus on this interaction because when I shared this data with other interpreting students and interpreters, their responses indicated that these students' comments shed light on a broader phenomenon related to the emergence of new categorical ways of aligning oneself with the deaf community. In February 2015, I arranged to meet with Stefan, a first-year student in the program. Stefan had initially taken ASL courses at a local community college near his house and he was a diligent student who commuted a long distance to come to class. When I arrived at our chosen meeting place, another student named Patrick was present and Stefan asked if he could join us. Stefan told me that he and Patrick had similar experiences and backgrounds and he thought it would be good for them to talk to me together.

I asked them how their experiences were similar. Stefan replied that he and Patrick were both NERDAs. Patrick explained that a NERDA is someone who is "not even related to deaf adults" and he said that neither he nor Stefan was a CODA. I knew that in Stefan and Patrick's cohort, more than half of the students were CODAs. I was puzzled, however, by their need to stress that they were not even related to deaf people. Patrick and Stefan told me that there was tension in their cohort between CODAs and NERDAs and that they felt that their instructors and others in the cohort assumed that CODAs have a closer connection to the deaf community and the deaf world. However, they said that CODAs may be biologically connected to specific deaf people but they often do not have jobs working with deaf people. According to them, CODA students "work out in the hearing world doing regular jobs" and they specifically mentioned CODA classmates who were working in the hospitality and retail sectors. In contrast, both Stefan and Patrick stressed that they chose to learn sign language and work with deaf people: Stefan worked as a substitute teacher in a deaf residential school and as a day program manager for deaf adults with developmental disabilities while Patrick worked as a case manager with deaf children. In addition, they told me that they actively sought out experience interacting and signing with a wide range of deaf people while "CODAs only have their own personal experience." 13 Above all, Stefan and Patrick stressed that they did not grow up signing and so they were now working hard to become skillful signers.

Patrick told me that he learned the phrase NERDA from a "Sociology of American Deaf Communities" course that he took before he enrolled in the interpreting program. During a text Skype conversation, the instructor of this course told me that he introduced the concept during a class discussion titled "Membership" in which students discussed what it means to be a member of the deaf community. The instructor said that he showed students a PowerPoint slide with three acronyms: CODA, SODA, and NERDA and he asked them how CODAs and SODAs are members of deaf communities. He stressed that he did not imbue the term NERDA with any kind of valence and he did not want the students to view it as either a positive or negative term. When I asked the instructor if NERDAs could be members of the deaf community, he wrote in reply: "[I]f NERDA's become involved in the deaf community as interpreters or teachers or social workers etc., then there may be a degree of membership granted to them, but it would be a peripheral role…" I see this statement as important because it stresses the role that kinship plays in this conception of the "deaf community": according to this instructor, NERDAs can only be on the periphery, regardless of how good their sign language skills might be, while CODAs and SODAs may be allowed entry.

In a private conversation a few weeks later, Patrick told me that he was struggling to find his "place in the deaf community" because he was a NERDA. He told me: "Deaf culture is all about connections and my struggle is that growing up I didn't have those connections." However, he stressed that he had been signing since he was six years old when he discovered and fell in love with sign language. Patrick said that he was trying to develop connections with deaf people through his job as a case manager and he was working with his cohort to plan meaningful service learning events for deaf community members. He also went to visit Gallaudet University with some of his cohort and he told me about a connection that he made with a deaf student there. In this conversation, Patrick emphasized his cultivated connections with deaf people and his determination to learn sign language as a means of asserting legitimacy.

This positive talk about being a NERDA is an attempt to mitigate and unseat perceived hierarchies within which CODAs appear to dominate. Recall that interpreters often consider being mistaken for a CODA to be a compliment. Stefan and Patrick, and others who call themselves NERDAs, are attempting to carve out an alternative value system in which a lack of familial relationship makes them into legitimate participants in their interpreting community of practice. By claiming NERDA identities and emphasizing their choice to learn to sign, these students are asserting a relationship to deaf people based upon choice, professionalization, and (discourses of) hard work. I now move to a discussion of CODAs, the category that NERDAs define themselves in relation to and against.


As discussed above, instructors often exhorted their students to go out and socialize in the deaf community. Instructors also told CODA students to socialize with deaf people outside of their families. Why were CODAs told that they needed to socialize with deaf people outside of their families? CODAs are considered to exist in between hearing and deaf worlds and thus pose a challenge to how interpreters understand the taken for granted binary between the two worlds; they are never seen as fully at home in either and there is both a celebration and denigration of their roles in deaf worlds (Hoffmeister 2008; Preston 1994). 14 During interviews, I was told that CODAs sign "sloppily" or that they use "home sign" that is not legible to deaf people who are not members of their families; I also saw these themes during participant observation in classrooms. For example, three students did a research project on whether deaf people prefer CODA or hearing interpreters 15, the project title and framing itself already pointing to the contentious politics around this topic. Two of the students were CODAs and the other was a NERDA. In their project presentation, the students said that many CODA interpreters have "bad habits," which they defined as using home signs for words that are not used by other deaf people. One of the CODA presenters shared her home sign for dog and discussed how this was not an ASL sign: her deaf mother had taught her this sign and when she used it with other deaf people they did not understand her.

In the ensuing discussion, another CODA in the cohort gave an example of having a cousin named Monica and using a specific name sign for this cousin. He then used the same name sign for every person named Monica who he met. This, according to him, was a "bad habit." In a meeting of several of the program's instructors, I observed them expressing concern about a CODA student's constant use of the wrong signs; they speculated that she had learned these signs at home and it was difficult for her to change because she grew up using these signs; these were "bad habits." And in my conversation with Stefan and Patrick that I discussed above, Stefan stressed that one of the CODA students always used the wrong sign for a specific word and that she had probably learned this sign at home. According to them and other NERDA students and interpreters, while CODAs are considered to have intimacy with deaf people, their sign skills apparently leave much to be desired and might not be legible to deaf people beyond their immediate circles. In this particular rendering of interpreting worlds, (familial) intimacy has negative effects. In talking with interpreters, I learned that this discourse of the "bad habit" is quite widespread and it reveals concerns about CODAs' ability to operate as professional interpreters.

When I observed the admissions process for one of the cohorts, the admissions committee was excited about a prospective student who was a CODA; her application had seemed strong in terms of her motivations for becoming an interpreter. However, as the committee began to chat with her, it became obvious that her signing was quite limited and that she used unconventional signs. She was also unable to do some of the screening exercises that applicants were asked to do, such as describe a cartoon in ASL or watch a video and then sign what was happening in the video. After she left, one of the evaluators said: "I can just see her at home, easily communicating with her mother. I am sure she makes perfect sense at home." In this case, the student's status as a CODA was not enough to mitigate her poor ASL skills. In contrast, hearing or non-CODA interpreters do not have "bad habits" although the problem presumably is that they do not have any habits in relation to sign language or deaf worlds; they have not been affiliated with deaf people long enough to develop habits.

CODA students and interpreters also told me that they were constantly worried about being told that they "lacked boundaries" and that the stereotype of a CODA interpreter is someone who accepts assignments for which they do not have the right kinds of skills or who behaves unprofessionally by becoming too attached to deaf clients or using a register of sign language that is considered informal or intimate. However, on the flip side, CODA interpreters are also considered to have a greater ability to "culturally mediate" and serve as a bridge between hearing and deaf cultures (Preston 1994: 145). Over lunch with a Giada, a CODA student in Stefan and Patrick's cohort, Giada told me that she was always worried about overstepping her boundaries. Giada has two deaf parents for whom she has interpreted since childhood. As she said: "I started working for an interpreting agency and they said that I could interpret and they wanted to send me out interpreting. I was resistant because I was not certified and was not trained…But then I did go out and interpret a few times and I was always nervous, wondering if I was one of those CODAs who overstepped boundaries." Giada stressed that one of the reasons why she chose to enter into an interpreter education program was because she wanted the legitimacy that came from attending a program; this desire for an "official" degree or accreditation was something that I heard from almost all of the CODA interpreters with whom I interacted. This demonstrates concern that being related to deaf people is no longer sufficient for proving one's worth as an interpreter in the face of professionalization pressures.

Giada told me that she constantly analyzed her own desire to become an interpreter as well as those of her classmates. She felt acutely aware of "making money off of deaf people," something that I heard repeatedly from both CODA and NERDA students. In particular, Giada told me that she had concerns about Patrick because in class one night he mentioned that he was excited to become an interpreter because then he could quit his social services job, which he found tiring. This comment was worrisome to Giada because all of Patrick's clients were deaf and she wondered what this meant for his future role as an interpreter: did he really care about deaf people? She told me that she worried about non-CODA interpreters' motivations for becoming an interpreter: she wondered if they were just doing it for the money (which she thought was not a good reason to become an interpreter) and if they had deaf peoples' interests at heart. In contrast, when I asked her about the CODAs in her cohort, Giada did not seem suspicious about their intentions although she told me that she worried about their boundaries.

CODAs often talked about the program's requirement that they socialize with deaf people. Naomi, a CODA student, expressed concern about this to me by saying, "Why do we have go out and socialize? I already have my deaf connections and I have people who I like to spend time with. It feels fake and forced." Similarly, Giada brought this up in ethics class one day, stating that she felt that socializing with deaf people that she did not know was jarring because she already had a deaf community; she felt like she was ignoring these connections because of the pressure she felt placed on her to meet other deaf people. She wondered how to reconcile the program telling her that she needed to meet other deaf people and her desire to maintain her currently existing ties. Dylan, another CODA student, talked about spending time with his parents and other members of their deaf shuffleboard league; he was not sure why he needed to make an effort to go to other deaf events. In these situations, CODA students stressed that they felt that their currently existing connections, formed over years of interaction, should be enough and that their embodied status as CODAs afforded them a certain familiarity with deaf worlds. However, as discussed earlier, this is precisely the narrative to which NERDAs were identifying themselves in opposition.

A good (enough) story

Interpreting students told me that they often felt pressured to have a "good reason" or a "good story" for becoming an interpreter. A "good story" typically focuses on relationships with deaf people and serves to legitimize one's decision to become an interpreter. While telling me about her reasons for wanting to become an interpreter, a current first year student named Jane apologized for not having a clear story and told me that she felt pressure to create a coherent narrative to share with her cohort and the deaf community more generally for becoming an interpreter. When I interviewed Deepa, who previously did not have any relationships with deaf people before she started learning sign language, she told me that she "did not have a good story" for why she decided to become an interpreter. She said that many of her classmates and other interpreters "have good stories of 'aha' moments, of having light bulbs going off, of getting up in the middle of the night and realizing that they want to become an interpreter but I do not have that." Instead, Deepa told me that she had a boring job as an administrator for a financial services company and she worked long hours. She decided that she wanted to learn sign language, and found classes to enroll in. Through classes she started learning sign language and meeting deaf people; prior to this class, her only encounter with deaf people was as a teenager when she worked in a coffee shop and a deaf family came in and she was struck by how isolated they seemed. Deepa stressed that she was working hard to improve her signing skills and she was also volunteering at a local deaf organization in order to interact with as many deaf people as possible.

In contrast, Dylan, who was a CODA, told me his story for why he decided to become an interpreter: "I was in line at McDonalds and a deaf woman in front of me asked for a pen and paper to order. The cashier ignored her and simply went to the person behind her. I was furious to see this and I went to the front of the line and told the deaf woman and the cashier that I knew sign language and I helped the woman place her order. I then complained to the manager. The woman thanked me for doing this and told me about the program at [the community college]; she said I should become an interpreter. I hadn't heard of the program before." Most of the students with whom I interacted had similar stories, although less dramatic.

While observing screening interviews for a cohort of interpreting education students at the college, I noted that one of the first questions that one of the three (two hearing, one deaf) evaluators asked applicants was "What is your relationship to deaf people? Do you have any deaf family members? Deaf friends? Go to deaf events?" From the very beginning of the screening, relationships were foregrounded. While only a few of the applicants were CODAs, it was clear that there was a correct answer to this question, that applicants who had connections to other deaf people already were more highly valued and seen as more legitimate. Other successful applicants were people who had gone to deaf events and who had deaf friends.

Remaking Connections

Recent research on interpreting reveals that the deaf community is not as monolithic as it has been represented within deaf studies and interpreting education training. In a 2015 report on current trends in interpreting and implications for interpreting training, Cogen and Cokely (2015: 29) demonstrate the increasing diversity and variability in terms of background, education, disability status, and language use amongst deaf people and write:

We have established the need for interpreters to possess a higher level of linguistic sophistication in ASL and English, proficiency in diverse languages and cultures beyond ASL and English, alternative communication strategies and interventions, knowledge and sensitivity regarding immigrant and refugee experiences, cochlear implant users, and Deaf Plus [deaf people with other disabilities] populations of all ages, as well as specialized knowledge and skill for high demand areas of healthcare, legal, postsecondary and graduate education, and professional employment.

In this report made to the United States Department of Education's Rehabilitation Services Administration, Cogen and Cokely stress the need for interpreting students to enter interpreting programs with greater ASL fluency and to cultivate contact with deaf people from a variety of backgrounds. Simultaneously, they stress that the deaf community is changing with increased immigration, an increase in deaf people with diverse communication needs, and the growing numbers of deaf people receiving higher education degrees. In light of this diversification, why hold on to the categories of "deaf culture" and "the deaf community" in the field of interpreting? How might abandoning, or at least nuancing, these categories remake how legitimacy is conceptualized within interpreting worlds and possibly open up more intersectional space for self- and other- analysis as well as the possibility of other kinds of relationships and narratives (with multi-faceted and complex deaf people)? Indeed, Cogen and Cokely's comments above alongside my research demonstrate the importance of moving away from monolithic and idealized categories of "deaf culture," "deaf community," "CODA," "SODA," and "NERDA," as examples.

Currently, interpreting students negotiate the complexities of the varying values attached to (idealized forms of) kinship along with the impossibility of becoming a member of the deaf community. Students are immersed in a community of practice in which legitimacy is always relational on multiple levels—with other interpreting students and interpreters and with deaf people and the deaf community. Indeed, the claims that interpreters make about other interpreters are filtered through negotiations around kinds of relationships: recall Stefan's and Patrick's comments about NERDAs versus CODAs and Giada's suspicions about Patrick, for example, and recall Jane and Deepa's unease about their failure to produce a good story for why they decided to become an interpreter. In thinking of communities of practice and questions of legitimacy more broadly through kinship and other relations, I respond to the provocation raised by the anthropologists Susan McKinnon and Fenella Cannell (2013: 3) in the introduction to their edited volume on kinship in modern economic relations: "What difference does kinship make?" What matters here is how interpreting students and interpreters deploy kinship terms to make claims and establish distinction amongst themselves in relation to individual deaf people and broader imaginaries of the deaf community. This article perhaps makes a simple point: the categories of "deaf culture," "deaf community," "CODA," "SODA," and "NERDA," can be mobilized in strategic ways to establish legitimacy within interpreting communities of practice.

Tom Humphries (2008) argues that deaf studies scholars have focused on (talking about) deaf culture for many years and that the time has come to think about the work that culture actually does, to considering how deaf people exist in the world. He calls for a move from "'How are we different?' to 'How are we being?'" (Humphries 2008:41). In responding to this provocation, Kusters et al. (2017) have argued that deaf studies researchers need to further attend to deaf peoples' diversity and to consider how deaf people might be different from each other (also see Friedner and Kusters 2015). Interpreter education programs and interpreters would benefit from following these trends and more broadly, deaf studies and disability studies scholars might think about how academic discourses, theories, and concepts are adopted by allied individuals, fields, and institutions and what these do in other separate but connected contexts. In this case, the fixing of discourses, theories, and concepts creates static ways of understanding deaf people and the affective terrain upon which to establish connection. We can see both deaf studies and disability studies as value-making disciplines with activist roots; what happens, however, when categories and concepts designed to assign value become frozen?

Acknowledgements: I sincerely thank all of the interpreting students and faculty, the program administration, and the working interpreters who allowed me to interview them and spend time engaging in observation. The program administration in particular were incredibly supportive and always accessible to me. I thank Annelies Kusters, Mara Green, Bharat Venkat, Sharon Seegers, and Joan Ostrove for insightful comments on previous drafts and I also thank Elana Buch, Douglas Baynton, and Theresa Smith for help with brainstorming. Rezenet Moges drew a wonderful image for me. Three anonymous reviewers for DSQ provided helpful feedback and Kim Nielson gave astute editorial guidance.


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  1. All names of people and institutions are pseudonyms. In some cases, I have changed peoples' gender and other identifying features in order to protect identities. Conversations took place in a combination of English and ASL.
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  2. I use "lower case" d to write deaf in all cases except when I am quoting an instance in which "capital D" is used. Apologies if there are any inconsistencies or if it seems like I am not capitalizing when I should do so and vice versa. I trust that readers are familiar with debates around whether to capitalize d/Deaf or not. See Kusters et al. (2017) for a recent discussion on the move away from capitalization.
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  3. Jenna identified herself as a sign language interpreter and not a bilingual sign language-English interpreter. Jenna, like all of the interpreters and students with whom I interacted, seemed more concerned with her ASL skills than with her English skills. This is important because English was seemingly taken for granted, as was the non-deaf party involved in the interpreting process. I did not observe students or working interpreters agonizing over their English skills or their relationship with hearing people in the same way that they did over their sign language abilities and deaf people.
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  4. Not all interpreting students are hearing. There are deaf interpreters and deaf people are also interpreting educators and researchers.
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  5. The terms "deaf-parented children" and "heritage signers" are also used (see Compton 2014; Williamson 2015 as examples), perhaps to move away from the ideologically loaded CODA and SODA concepts. An anonymous reviewer for the journal noted, "In the interpreting profession, we are no longer using the acronym [CODA]…" and urged me to use other categories, perhaps because of the valence that these categories possess. However, I stress that the categories of CODA and SODA were used in interviews and the interpreter education classrooms in which I conducted research; these categories are also used in the public sphere. To be sure, these categories can be fraught and are mobilized to assert and exert legitimacy.
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  6. I draw from Grech and Soldatic's (2014:2) argument that the field of disability and development is uncritical and appears to be "epistemologically frozen."
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  7. I am a non-native signing deaf anthropologist. This means that the students with whom I worked might have felt (more of) a sense of obligation to participate in my research as they saw it as benefiting a deaf researcher and the deaf community more broadly.
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  8. Future research is needed on the role of race, class, and ethnicity in creating disharmony among students and interpreters.
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  9. While this narrative of an ambivalent move from "community" to "professional" interpreting is authoritative within interpreting histories in the United States, preliminary interviews with older interpreters and deaf people reveal that it is possible that this narrative is simplified and that deaf people had complex relationships with interpreters and that there was dissatisfaction with the quality of interpreters in the past. Additional research is needed on these authoritative master narratives, including oral histories with older (and marginalized) deaf people and non-professional interpreters.
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  10. An often-discussed example of the importance of understanding deaf peoples' cultural contexts is when deaf people talk about attending deaf "institutions," using the ASL word for institutions. As Cokely (2001) points out, while hearing people might have negative associations with the word "institution," for (some) deaf people, institutions are deaf schools where they learn ASL and meet other deaf people like them (also see Kowalsky and Meier 2013 on the ASL sign institute).
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  11. In personal communication, Padden told me that her thinking on this subject has changed since this article; however, I cite it because it is considered a seminal article in deaf studies.
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  12. A program administrator told me that she thought that self-analysis was only taught in relation to language skills although when I shared her point with students and alumni, they very much thought that they were being taught to analyze their motivations, intentions, ethics, privileges, and affiliations as well.
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  13. Stefan also told me that the CODA students in the cohort seemed like a particularly close-knit group: "They all know each other but we don't."
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  14. Preston (1994) has written the only full-length ethnographic monograph on CODA experiences in the United States. He (1994:13) writes: "Although hearing children of deaf parents do not overtly share their parents' functional condition, the potentially inherent a sensibility and cultural legacy which is unlike that of any other hearing child…Hearing children of deaf parents are raised on the peripheries and often within the heart of an exclusively Deaf community."
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  15. This language used to categorize CODA versus hearing interpreters is intriguing because CODA interpreters are also hearing. In conversations with interpreter educators and deaf people, they told me that the reason for this is because CODAs have different embodiments; because of growing up using sign language and in deaf worlds, they do not have "hearing bodies" even though they have typical hearing.
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