Tuesday, October 21, 2014

          Passionate About Deaf Issues: 5 Qs for Alice McGill '91

          Alice McGill is the Deputy Director at NorCal Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Sacramento, California. 
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          Q: Why did you get into law in the first place?

          A: As a recent college graduate serving on the Board of the Directors for Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD), I was overwhelmed by the different incidents of injustice and inequality experienced by Deaf people* and decided I needed to go to law school.  I was horrified that a Deaf mother had her children taken away by Child Protective Services because the children don’t speak as a result of sign language being the primary language used at home.  I was livid about a Deaf man waiting for days in jail while the court arranged for an interpreter for his arraignment.  Right before I started classes at UC Hastings in 1988, the Gallaudet Deaf President Now Protest brought the world’s attention to the Deaf Community.

          * Deaf is capitalized to recognize the Deaf Community as an ethno-linguistic group.

          Q: What is your passion?

          A: My passion continues to be the issues facing the Deaf community.  We are a cultural linguistic minority and among the most disenfranchised groups.  Newspapers continue to mischaracterize us as hearing impaired and deaf-mute or deaf and dumb. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which recognizes sign language as a human right of Deaf people, has been ratified by over 100 countries except the United States.  Deaf people are frequently denied interpreters to serve on a jury. There have been incidents of Deaf people being fatally shot by the police for failing to follow orders that they did not hear. For a Deaf person, having an interpreter at the hospital is hit or miss, depending on the staff on duty, and not the hospital’s policy. 

          In our country, there are many issues facing Deaf children. They continue to be deprived a natural visual language by professionals who dominate the early intervention field, most of whom are not Deaf.  The status quo in Deaf education  in place for the last 100 years  is unnecessarily costing Deaf children the ability to learn language and arrive at school kindergarten ready. It is difficult for policy makers and educators to understand that the lack of academic achievements among Deaf children is a reflection of antiquated practices where the emphasis is on speaking and listening over early language acquisition through a visual language such as American Sign Language. What we understand now is that speech does not equate to language.  My passion is inspired by the progress we make on these issues.

          Q: What was your experience like as a Deaf law student?

          A: I always tell people I went to law school before the Americans with Disabilities Act became a federal law.  I feel like I was just lucky enough to have sign language interpreters in the classroom, and that the interpreters were willing to work there when they did.  I still missed a lot  the side bar conversations in class, the discussions in the hallways and lunch room, and communication in any extracurricular activity or during an internship.  But I admit that was the challenge I had sought: to go where few Deaf individuals have gone.  At the time, I only knew of 4 Deaf lawyers around the country.  There were probably a few others who I didn’t know about at the time.

          When I look back at my law school days, I remember people who enriched my experience such as Student Services Director Patsy Oppenheim, L.E.O.P. Director Richard Sakai, Professor David Jung who could sign with me, my interpreter Robin Mills who stuck with me from first day of orientation to my graduation, and a group of students who were my study buddies and are now my Facebook friends.

          Ed. Note: A moving essay about McGill's experience as a Deaf law student is published in the Hastings Women's Law Journal from 1989.

          Q:What is your most important work/life balance practice?

          A: I am fortunate that I work for an organization that values family and community.  Having three children helped get me out of the door every evening since there was always a soccer practice or a birthday party to attend.  Now that my children are older (in high school and college), I have discovered swimming, cycling and running.  These days, it is my group training with my triathlon group that gets me out of the door.  I take out my frustrations and do all of my best thinking while running, cycling and swimming.

          Q: What is your most memorable experience on the job?

          A: One of the most remarkable experiences I have had in my work is when a group of Deaf people from Argentina came to visit our office with the United States Secretary of State Department.  The Deaf people brought their own sign language interpreters who were fluent in Argentine Sign Language and Spanish.  (Sign Language varies by country). Questions were transmitted through three sets of interpreters from Argentine Sign Language to Spanish, Spanish to English and then English to ASL, and the answers relayed back through these interpretations.  Watching the Argentine Sign Language interpreters, we could discern who was more fluent and who was in training without knowing the language. 

          We sat and listened to their struggles in Argentina for Deaf people to get an education, for their sign language to be recognized as the language of Deaf people, to have people trained to become sign language interpreters, for Deaf people to be able to get jobs and earn their living.  Their fight is our fight though we may be ahead legally, due to laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and programs such as Gallaudet University and formalized ASL interpreter training programs. We shared a collective identity with this group of Deaf people – the common experience of being Deaf crossed and transcended geographical, culture and language differences.

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