Why Jim Cromwell argues hearing people should sign for themselves, even when interpreters are present

Posted on May 9, 2014

Dr Jim Cromwell is a clinical psychologist working in BSL for the last sixteen years, and trying to work in BSL for the ten years before that. He has worked with Deaf people in the NHS and for charities, is co-Chair of the Applied Deafness and Psychology Special Interest Group, has been Chair of the British Society for Mental Health and Deafness, and is also a qualified interpreter. He is also an excellent ukulele player. He’s also written a manifesto calling for hearing people who work with deaf people to learn to sign. Here, we explain more…

Jim Cromwell is a hearing clinical psychologist working in a Deaf school, and previously in a mental health service for Deaf people. He is a big supporter of BSL and so as a result makes no friends with hearing non-signers and particularly with hearing signers who choose not to sign…!

Recently he wrote this – Dr Jim’s Little Red Book.

It began when somebody said to him, “I think I understand why you sign for yourself in mixed meetings, but I don’t understand well enough to explain to everyone else why they should.”

So he started off making notes to explain it better, and it became a bit of a treatise. His 16-page informal book is the result of that.

It is written by a hearing person for hearing people, so it begins – uncomfortably perhaps – by talking about what “disability” means, and goes on:

  • to show how BSL is a civil rights issue
  • to explain why hearing people in a Deaf organization should sign whether or not a Deaf person is present
  • to demonstrate why BSL is better than non-fluent signers think it is
  • and why sign-supported English is much worse than non-fluent signers think it is
  • and to explore why interpreters are not the solution to all problems.

He argues that when two people communicate, there is a lot of interpreting going on already. You interpret your thoughts into words/signs, the other person interprets your words/signs into their own thoughts/understanding, they form an idea for an answer and interpret that idea into words/signs, which you then interpret into your own understanding.

That’s without an interpreter. Four interpreted steps.

With an interpreter there are eight steps – and in both cases you are only aware of the shortcomings of one interpretation – the one between your thought and your statement – and there are always shortcomings.

He says that being ignorant of all the other imperfect interpretations, plus the (quite appropriate) cultural as well as linguistic interpretation that interpreters provide, can lead to a misleading sense of easy and seamless accuracy.

This misleading feeling of effectiveness also happens when hearing people use sign-supported English – because they feel like they are saying/signing exactly what they want to say (especially because they can hear their words spoken out loud) – but lots of important grammatical information is lost including tense, who did what to whom and so on.

The visual component of SSE is just a fraction of the intended content, but to the hearing person it does not feel that way at all.

Jim argues that for these – and lots of other – reasons, it is more effective for hearing people to sign for themselves, even if they are not as fluent as the available interpreters, and that hearing people in Deaf organizations should sign even if a Deaf person is not there.

Jim hopes the Little Red Book will enlighten hearing people who make life difficult for their Deaf colleagues and for themselves by misunderstanding the issues.

As he says – true communication is a meeting of minds not a meeting of words.

 Download it for free here http://bit.ly/drjimslittleredbook and leave an opinion in the comments. What do you think?



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