An Interview with Teresa Blankmeyer Burke, Ph.D.

by Gordon Nary



Gordon: How did it feel as the first signing deaf woman to receive a PhD in philosophy in the world?


Dr. Burke: My accomplishments would not be possible without the support of my family, including my now grown children who were young when I began my graduate education, and all of the advocacy and efforts of those who have come before me, including my late colleague Professor James E. Haynes, who was the first signing deaf person to obtain a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Maryland in 1999. While I do feel satisfied to have attained this professional and personal goal of earning a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of New Mexico, I’m also a little sad that there are so few deaf persons who have achieved this goal. I also recognize that I am enormously privileged to have these opportunities -- many deaf persons around the world are unable to get any kind of education at all. I very much take to heart the verse “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required…” (Luke 12:48 NRSV) and try to use the education I have received in ways that can support members of the signing deaf community and other deaf and hard of hearing individuals.


Gordon: Please provide an overview of the intersection of philosophy and deaf studies.


Dr. Burke: Philosophy is a very old academic discipline, and deaf studies is relatively new. The traditional areas of philosophy include ethics (questions having to do with right action, accounts of the good and value), epistemology (questions about what we can know, and how we know it), metaphysics (questions about the nature of reality), logic (questions about reasoning, such as what counts as a good argument), and aesthetics (questions about beauty and artistic taste). The field of deaf studies is interdisciplinary, with most scholars trained in the social sciences and the humanities. Deaf studies begins in deaf experiences by examining the assumptions and foundations of these perspectives and knowledge.


Nearly all of philosophy has been developed by people who are hearing and do not use sign language, so deaf philosophy (as I call it) brings deaf perspectives and analysis to the philosophical fields I’ve mentioned. A note about the term ‘deaf philosophy’ – while this term may seem jarring to many non-signing hearing people, it is a literal translation of the term in American Sign Language. As a deaf member of the signed language community, I have opted to use this term (instead philosophy of deafness) to center the experience of being deaf, rather than following a medicalized view.


There is a longstanding debate about which way of life is best for deaf people that is at the center of deaf philosophy. The two views that are offered are assimilation into the hearing and spoken language community or primarily engaging with the signing deaf community. Deaf education has historically followed these two approaches. The profession of medicine has historically viewed deafness as a physical condition to be cured. In deaf studies, one question that is asked is whether this assumption that deaf people ought to be cured is justified. My work in deaf philosophy examines the ethical and epistemological underpinnings of this assumption. For example: is a deaf life a good life? Can an individual have a flourishing life as a deaf person that is comparable in goods to what a hearing person might experience? What is a flourishing deaf life anyway? How do we know what a flourishing deaf life might look like?


Shifting to questions of beauty, I am currently working on a series of articles that consider the deaf experience of beauty. Signed languages have emerged from the deaf community and signing deaf people have specific ideas about what beautiful signing looks like that differs from the aesthetic judgments of (nonsigning) hearing people. A common experience for many deaf people is for nonsigners to remark on the beauty of the sign language they have just viewed, perhaps at a performance or interpreted press conference. For nonsigners, the judgment about the beauty of signed language is an aesthetic judgment about the beauty of movement alone; people who understand the signed language typically judge both the movement its relationship to the content.


Gordon: What are some of the ethical issues of sign-language interpreting?


Dr. Burke: There are a number of ethical issues regarding signed language interpreting, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to discuss this. I categorize these ethical issues into three groups: 1) the ethics of who is responsible for providing and paying for signed language interpreters; 20 the ethical behavior of signed language interpreters in professional settings; and 3) ethical responsibilities of consumers of signed language interpreted interactions. Let me give you an example of each.


In the United State of America, the signed language interpreter provision usually falls under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that is now 31 years old. This law addresses many aspects of disability rights, yet these are not all treated equally. I have argued from an ethical point of view that the ADA is discriminatory because it does not make a distinction between disability accommodations that are one-and-done expenses, such as curbside cutouts or Braille signage on elevators, and disability accommodations that involve ongoing expenses, such as sign language interpreting. The ADA is an unfunded mandate – private businesses and local governments are expected to pay for accommodations. While tax credits are available, they are usually insufficient to address long-term ongoing needs, such as sign language interpreting. An analogous ongoing long-term accommodation for some disabled people is Personal Assistance Services for daily living, which is funded by the government under Medicaid. While this issue may seem to be more one of law than ethics, I believe that these are intertwined. The question of who ought to pay for these accommodations is a different question than the question ‘what kinds of access to signed language should deaf people have in our society?’, a question that was brought to the forefront as the current pandemic unfolded.


Signed language interpreter ethics is similar to many other professions – there are codes of conduct that stipulate professional standards and mechanisms of enforcement that vary depending on where one lives, whether an interpreter is licensed or certified, and so forth. A key issue of concern in the signing deaf community is privacy and interpreter confidentiality. Local and regional signing deaf communities can be quite small. Imagine a hearing interpreter who is a member of a deaf family – this interpreter will socialize with deaf people in the community and may know things about individuals in the community that she has only learned on the job. While professionals working in many contexts are required to uphold confidentiality, in a small community this becomes more challenging. Personally Identifiable Information (PII) such as a time and location said to a deaf spouse (“I’m off to interpret at the hospital!”), coupled with other information that the deaf spouse knows, can be put together to easily identify a deaf person. Interpreters are trained to be discrete. And yet, the knowledge that there are many people in your community who possess information about you that was not disclosed intentionally (as in a friendship or in seeking professional consultation from a health care provider or lawyer), can also be viewed as harm to one’s ethical right to privacy.


Deaf people who know a signed language work with signed language interpreters often; this is not often the case for non-signing hearing people. Ethical issues about who makes decisions about interpreted interactions can lead to tension between hearing non-signers, signing deaf people, and the interpreters present. A deaf person’s expertise regarding the interpreted interaction may be disregarded, putting the interpreter in a position of having to determine whether to work as an advocate or to stay in their interpreter role. This can be exacerbated when there are power differentials at pay, including who is paying for the service. A deaf person may feel obligated to settle for a less ideal interpreted interaction because of events leading up to it – if the entity paying for the interpreter was resistant to providing an interpreter and opted for a less qualified interpreter, the deaf person may decide to accept what is provided. This can have enormous consequences on a deaf person’s life in some settings, such as medical settings. I know scores of deaf people, including deaf professionals with graduate-level degrees, who constantly battle for qualified interpreters in medical settings. A factor that contributes to this is that the people selecting the interpreter or interpreting agency do not have the expertise to assess interpreter quality since they do not themselves know ASL.



Gordon: Where do you currently teach and what are the topics that you teach?


Dr. Burke: Most of the courses I teach are applied for ethics courses. I frequently develop new courses that emphasize current topics of concern to our students and fold the core ethics content into these contemporary issues. This summer I have been teaching a course called Pandemic Bioethics, which has focused on real-world issues of the ethics of resource allocation during a crisis when there are limited resources of health care personnel, equipment, and supplies. We have considered the question of whether wealthier countries have obligations to fund the distribution of vaccines to countries with fewer economic resources; the question of whether disabled people have been discriminated against in triage decisions; and the question of whether one is morally obligated to be immunized and under what circumstances that obligation might have exceptions.


I have taught courses on the ethics of social media, ethics of disasters, bioethics and the deaf community, feminist philosophy, and interpreting ethics (virtues). I also teach more traditional philosophy courses to our majors, which focus on the history of philosophy (I mostly teach ancient/medieval history of philosophy and 19th and 20th-century philosophy), ethical theory, and social and political philosophy.



Gordon: What can religious organizations do to improve the lives of the deaf?



Dr. Burke: I hope this is not too presumptuous of me to make this remark, but the phrase ‘the deaf’ while still in regular use, is not preferred. It is thought that using ‘deaf people’ or ‘deaf and hard of hearing people’ is better since it emphasizes our common humanity, rather than setting us apart.


I think one of the most important things that religious organizations can do is to ask deaf people what is needed to improve the quality of our lives. One way to do this is to reach out to religious leaders who are deaf or hard of hearing and ask them for their advice. At Gallaudet University we have deaf religious leaders, including those who are ordained as well as lay leaders. A recent addition to our community is Father Min Seo Park, a deaf Catholic priest from Korea who was served as a priest of the Archdiocese of Seoul for 14 years before coming to Gallaudet to become a Catholic chaplain to our community. Dr. Kirk VanGilder, M.Div., Ph.D. is a religion professor at Gallaudet University who has worked tirelessly to build bridges within the interfaith community locally as well as beyond the gates of the Gallaudet University campus.


Accessibility is one thing that religious organization can do to improve the lives of deaf people – this goes beyond making sure that services are available in signed languages or with signed language interpretation, but also providing support for deaf and hard of hearing people who do not know a signed language. People who lose their hearing later in life have lived a lifetime with a spoken language such as English have rich and full lives that center around the use of this language. For these people, providing support through assistive devices and CART captioning is a better fit. Accessibility should not just be provided at church services and should apply to all of the events and programs offered by the religious organization.


Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional interview that will be helpful to many with deafness