After graduating from the American Sign Language program at Northeastern University in Boston in 2011, Drew Pidkameny started his professional career as a state-screened freelance interpreter in Massachusetts. Since then he's worked in a variety of settings, including higher education, medical and technical settings, and theater. In 2017 he received BEI certification from the Illinois Board for the Evaluation of Interpreters, then in 2019 life brought him to Seattle, Washington, where he's primarily been working in VRS and higher education. When he's not interpreting, Drew enjoys practicing music, meditation, games, and exploring the outdoors.
1) How did you become interested in sign language and the world of deaf people?
I'd always been interested in language and linguistics in general, but while I was in high school in 2001, I think it was purely on a whim that I picked a book off of the library shelf called Train Go Sorry. It's a memoir by Leah Hager Cohen that describes her experience growing up as a child of Deaf adults (or CODA) in the community surrounding the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City. I was intrigued by the idea of having membership in a world that overlapped with the everyday hearing world and yet was distinct and unintuitive to outsiders, with its own language, customs, and history running parallel to the mainstream culture. I decided I wanted to learn more about that world, and after some self-study I took my first formal American Sign Language class at Hampshire College in Massachusetts in 2005.
2) What kind of difficulties, if any, did you encounter while learning ASL?
Since I began my interpreting career, a few times I have gone back to read the evaluations from my first ASL teacher, Ruth Moore. I think it's valuable to be reminded that, while I definitely had enthusiasm from the start, I did not have any special talent for signing, nor was I an especially responsible student. It was only through the patience and generosity of my teachers and friends in the local Deaf community that I was able to become competent in their language. My talents weren't always apparent in the classroom, but I tried to apply myself and get involved in other ways. I remember organizing events with the ASL Collective at Hampshire College that ended up being very successful, but I was ignorant about things like how to hire interpreters and properly create spaces that were welcoming to Deaf performers and the Deaf community. That took some learning, and I definitely made missteps early on. I still do, and I hope I continue to learn from my errors.
3) Is it possible to learn a Sign Language online?
I think it's possible to get started that way (I would especially recommend Dr. Bill Vicars and his ASL University curriculum), but in order to make progress you're going to need hands-on experience with a dedicated teacher, as well as real interactions with folks in the Deaf community. I think it's possible to get some of that online, but it is absolutely not ideal and for some students I imagine it just won't work. I bet it wouldn't have worked for me--I'm too easily distracted and always had a hard time self-motivating without close interaction with a teacher. In-person interactions are also especially important because ASL is a visual-spatial language. Think about all the linguistic and paralinguistic learning opportunities that come from sharing a physical space with someone and interacting with your environment together. You look at each other, you look at things together. Conversations start and stop in a natural way. Things happen around you that capture your shared attention. You can move from one space to another and observe others in conversation. The whole experience is quite different when you are having a pre-scheduled interaction that is confined to and mediated by a screen. I can't make any definitive statement about the size of that effect or how to mitigate it, but I suppose that is being tested now by hundreds of ASL teachers who continue to work remotely during the time of COVID-19. We'll have to wait and see what the results are!
4) How did you become an American Sign Language interpreter?
As I mentioned above, I took my first two ASL classes at Hampshire College, worked on the ASL Collective there, and also got involved in local ASL meet-ups that met downtown and attracted a mix of Deaf and hearing signers. I went to a week-long immersion program in Connecticut, then continued with a class at nearby Holyoke Community College. I did an internship at a local Deaf school called The Learning Center and soon after that I decided to transfer to Northeastern University's ASL interpreting program, where I more or less had to start again from scratch academically. Many of the music and linguistics classes I'd taken at Hampshire didn't transfer, which was a bummer, but I think that may have been a blessing in disguise. It meant that I was able to start my path at Northeastern with a good chunk of world knowledge (essential for any interpreter!) and a clear goal in mind, leaving behind many of the usual distractions of college life to focus on the skills I still needed to develop. I volunteered at an amazing local Deaf-run organization called Deaf Inc; I participated in the NU Interpreting Club; and I joined the state chapter of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf as a student representative to their executive board. I graduated "on time" (don't be fooled, from start to finish it took me eight years and two transfers), and soon passed the Massachusetts state screening and began accepting work through the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
5) How would you describe your experience at Northeastern University?
In some ways it was a mixed bag. I was really there for everything in the ASL department, and everything else felt like a distraction. I balked at some of the required classes that I had to take outside my major, including statistics, computer science, and English composition, but managed to get through those well enough. I poured the bulk of my energy into my ASL and interpreting assignments and probably took up more than my share of airtime in those classrooms. The instructors were great and the program really felt integrated with the local Deaf community. I'd often see my professors out at Deaf events and I regularly saw community members at programs hosted at Northeastern. I had rich, supported practice opportunities interpreting in the community as part of their formal practicum program and also through other opportunities that arose closer to graduation. Unfortunately, being a private university, Northeastern was also very expensive. I had to take out a lot of loans and even once came close to dropping out for financial reasons until a classmate helped me get a better paying job at a local restaurant. When I graduated the sense of accomplishment was long in the making but I was really pleased overall. Even though some parts were frustrating at the time, I'm grateful for the experience as a whole.
6) Which is your preferred field of work?
My favorite work is probably anywhere I'm able to team with a Certified Deaf Interpreter, especially in the medical area. I love working with a team to unpack the nuanced, quasi-ritualized interactions that can happen in medicine and the challenging process of making technical jargon visually intuitive. I find it most satisfying when I'm able to witness a real connection and collaboration flourish between Deaf and hearing consumers, the most important members of any interpreting team!
7) Does this sole occupation earn you a living?
It does! At least, I earn a better living interpreting than I did scooping ice cream, which was the last job I had before I quit to work as a full-time freelancer.
8) Are there, in your opinion, common aspects in both deaf and LGBTQ communities?
Absolutely. In an astounding book called Far From the Tree, Andrew Solomon describes a model of identity that is intuitive and applicable to Deaf communities, LGBTQ communities, and some others as well. He describes certain parts of identities as being either "vertical" or "horizontal," with vertical identities comprising those aspects of ourselves we inherit directly from our parents and our home environment, and horizontal identities describing those aspects of ourselves that draw us to connect and identify with others outside of that bubble. Most LGBTQ children are not born to LGBTQ parents, and the same is true of Deaf children and Deaf parents, respectively. These and other factors give rise to some striking parallels in the experiences of Deaf children, LGBTQ children, and their families. Children in both groups commonly go through a process that leads them to discover and develop the important parts of their identities that distinguish them from their parents and siblings. They often have to look outside their home and intentionally claim their place in a supportive community of people who share certain attributes and values in order for that identity to fully mature. While there are important differences between Deaf communities and LGBTQ communities (I speak of them in the plural as neither one is a monolith in itself!), I think there are lessons each can learn from the other. Also folks who do not identify with either community themselves can and should look at both to better understand their importance. See here for a review of Solomon's book that focuses on horizontal versus vertical identities: https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/06/12/andrew-solomon-far-from-the-tree/.
9) Has ASL evolved into Signed English in recent times?
I actually would object somewhat to the premise of the question, in so far as ASL is a natural, evolving language whereas Signed English (like other forms of manually coded English) is not. ASL cannot "become" Signed English any more than spoken Spanish can "become" Egyptian hieroglyphs. The reality is more complicated and more interesting than that. I will say that, like any two widely used forms of communication that share an overlapping geography, ASL and spoken English do influence one another, and English-based signing is a phenomenon that plays a part in that exchange. The changes that have happened in American Deaf education, disability rights, technology, and the legal and cultural trends surrounding those changes over the last 150 years have absolutely left their mark on the way people sign today, for better or for worse. As with many human cultural behaviors, language exists as a constantly-evolving multiplicity and it often does not conform to the discrete categories that educators and legislators try to impose on it. There is no one at the wheel when it comes to the reality of language change, though people may try to steer it anyway (as in the case of the Académie Française and its pronouncements about French language). When education systems and other institutions exert their power in an attempt to "correct" the language of the people they serve, it can lead to far-reaching, long-term harm. If I had to take a position, I would say that there is no stopping language change as a whole, but we should do all we can to document and understand language as it is actually used in everyday life and in creative culture without trying to intervene and wrench it toward some presupposed ideal form. We should also give people the license and the skills to develop their own language as far as they want to take it, and acknowledge and embrace the differences that actually exist between languages like English and ASL, and between the ways individuals may use those languages in daily life. A vast majority of people have the inherent ability to become masters of more than one language. In fact, learning more than one natural language enhances our communicative and cognitive abilities, and we do serious harm when we deprive a Deaf child the opportunity to learn the natural language that is most accessible to them.
10) What could your motto be?
There's an exception to every rule.
In questo articolo si parla di cultura, università, amore, genitori, medicina, asl, figli, lingua, membri, sordi, interpreti, team, identità, articolo, lingua dei segni, Michele Peretti, udenti, linguistica, espressioni, committente, Solomon
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