When I’m not writing, I work as an educational or freelance ASL interpreter. Lately the differences between those two environments has been a minor source of stress in my life. In freelancing, I am sent out by my agency to do a variety of jobs. Most assignments over 30 minutes I’m sent with a team. I get almost no prep materials, and if I’m lucky I might get a few minutes to chat with the consumers (both Hearing and Deaf). In school, I am sent solo to one 45 minute class after another with only the 5 minute passing time afforded to the students to clear my brain and get ready for the next class. On the plus side I do get prep materials and a chance to get to know the students and teachers.

My current stress is stemming from a single word: Luxury.

I have to be honest and tell you that the stress is all coming from the educational side of my life. In both sides there are many things that would make my job easier, but in freelancing I’m told “there are somethings we just aren’t going to get from our consumers, so do your best.” In Education I’m told “those things are luxuries.” Every time I get that line from my administrators I want to scream “but they shouldn’t be.” Then I realized, they weren’t. The word is being mis-applied.

Let’s start with a definition from

lux·u·ry [luhk-shuh-ree, luhg-zhuh-] Show IPA noun, plural lux·u·ries, adjective


1. a material object, service, etc., conducive to sumptuous living, usually a delicacy, elegance, or refinement of living rather than a necessity: Gold cufflinks were a luxury not allowed for in his budget.

2. free or habitual indulgence in or enjoyment of comforts and pleasures in addition to those necessary for a reasonable standard of well-being: a life of luxury on the French Riviera.

3. a means of ministering to such indulgence or enjoyment: This travel plan gives you the luxury of choosing which countries you can visit.

4. a pleasure out of the ordinary allowed to oneself: the luxury of an extra piece of the cake.

5. a foolish or worthless form of self-indulgence: the luxury of self-pity.

Basically they are all talking about things that are pleasurable in some way or another, but not necessary. Which is how I tend to use the word. Nice things that I can live without but make me feel good when I get them. What it isn’t saying is that there is nothing between barest necessity to survive and luxury. Nor is it saying that every thing that we can live without is a luxury.

I see a great difference between that which we cannot survive without and that which is luxury. In fact I see a continuum of things, some closer to necessary and others closer to luxury all of which might be denied to us by circumstances. Taking an example more universally understood, let’s look at nutrition.

On one end of the spectrum there are those things without which you will die like water, basic foods like rice or bread. Not terribly exciting food, but without it there is nothing. This is the barest minimum needed to survive. By survive I mean stay living, nothing more. There isn’t a nutritionist out there that would tell you that a diet of only rice or only bread is healthy.

At the other end of the spectrum there are things like truffles and filet mignon. These foods too will keep you alive. They will also tantalize your taste buds and run rampant through your budget. Again nutritionists would caution against eating only these things. Of course if these are the kinds of things you can eat, you probably also eat bread and/or rice.

In between those two extremes are a lot of foods that fall somewhere in the middle like fresh vegetables, chicken, beans, noodles, fish, mild, eggs, etc. For truly good health, you need something more than just rice. That is pretty clear. What isn’t so clear is where to draw the line between needs and luxury. Let’s just look at protein for a moment. You need it and you’re not going to get much from just rice. You can get protein from beans, eggs, chicken, fish, beef, pork, tofu or many other options. In our example for luxury we said that filet mignon was clearly in the category of luxury, does that mean that all beef is? What about all steaks? Are hamburgers luxury or necessary foods?

There is a question then about where needs shift over into luxury. This is normal, there are many areas of life where perspective is part of the equation. On any scale the delineations between one section and the next are subject to perspective. There are somethings that are easy to say aren’t luxuries – carrots and spinach for example are cheep, easy to get and provide good vitamins and minerals. So they aren’t luxuries. What about eggplant? It is also full of good vitamins and minerals but is a little more rare.

Here’s the other question – just because you can’t afford it, does that make it a luxury? I don’t think so. I may be poor enough that I can’t afford fresh carrots, that doesn’t make them any less important for my health. They are out of my budget, which tells you a lot about my budget. I may need to find more income or make better choices about how to spend my money. It does not make the carrots a luxury. You see, there is a gap between the absolute minimum needed to survive and the lower bounds of luxury.

Getting back to my situation at work. We are proposing to give our students a proper education, but we are calling the carrots of interpreting “luxuries”. For those of you who don’t interpret, the best practices papers on interpreting say that an interpret can only function at their best for about 20 minutes (less if the language is dense) after that their ability to put out understandable sentences decreases. So for our Deaf students we are really only giving them an effective interpreter for the first 20 minutes of the class. Which is better than nothing, and if there is independent work time in the class you might get more than that, but if the teacher puts in an uncaptioned video (don’t even get me started on this on) you get maybe 15 minutes of understandable interpretation. The administration calls anything more a luxury.

Meaning that even when we have more than one interpreter in a school we can’t find ways to put teams in classes unless there is more than one student in that class (and even then they question why we need that). This isn’t a problem only in the district that I work for – this is standard operating procedure in K-12 education. The hardest part about it is that they have used the word “luxury” to absolve themselves of the need to fix this problem.

Here is where the power of language comes into play. By calling all those more than minimum things “luxuries” they are absolving themselves of the need to find a way to pay for them. There is no need to look at shifts in the budget if they are just trying to pay for luxuries. If every thing more than one poor interpreter in a mainstream classroom is a luxury, there’s no problem.

Schools are perpetually underfunded, so maybe the carrots aren’t in the budget. There are so many things that schools should be spending money on that would provide better education to all the students (many of them are called luxuries too). There are many things that the schools can’t afford. It’s a problem. It’s a big problem. But calling those things luxuries only makes the administration feel better about the crappy job we are doing of educating our children. As long as we let them call important things for our students luxuries, they will not feel the pressure to really solve those problems.

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