Is it Time to Certify Sign Language Interpreter Referral Agencies?

July 23, 2012

In the ever-growing industry of interpreter referral agencies, sign language interpreters and the Deaf community we serve are often look on as profitable afterthoughts. Stephanie Feyne calls for greater ethical scrutiny and consideration of agency certification.

Alarmingly, sign language referral agencies are sending increasing numbers of unqualified signers to interpret for Deaf consumers, causing harm to the communities we serve and to the interpreting field. Friends, consumers and colleagues around the US have been sharing their local horror stories for years. As this is a national issue it cannot solely be resolved at the local level. It requires a coordinated national response.

I believe that the RID membership should collaborate with Deaf leaders to establish standards for agencies that refer sign language interpreters in order to ensure that the Deaf community receives the best possible service. If an agency does not measure up to the standard, then there should be some public acknowledgment of this fact, so that when they bid for work it is clear that these agencies provide no guarantee of quality service.

No Standards

Currently, there are no standards for being a member organization of RID. Any agency can join RID, no questions asked. It enhances an agency’s status to have the RID brand on their letterhead and helps them bid for contracts – while it simultaneously compromises RID’s name, as it appears we support substandard sign language interpreting services. Why don’t agency members have the same standards and obligations that interpreters have? Why are agencies that have no connection to the Deaf community allowed to earn a profit by providing “signers” instead of qualified interpreters, and still benefit from the privilege of being affiliated with RID? What steps can we as professionals take?

Responsibility for Quality Services

When I began interpreting in the ‘70s, referral agencies were housed in Deaf service organizations (such as NYSD in NYC, GLAD in LA, DCARA in San Francisco) and in religious organizations (e.g.; Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and St. Benedict’s in San Francisco).  They provided community interpreters for medical, legal and social service needs.

The agencies I worked for had CODAs and/or Deaf referral specialists who had years of experience in the field. From my observations, they made every effort to assign newer interpreters (like me) only to assignments that we were qualified for. That was true for both certified and non-certified interpreters. Agencies understood that certification signified only entry-level skills and that they needed to assess the skill level of novice interpreters. They did not assign us to highly sensitive work, but often teamed us with more seasoned interpreters in lower risk environments, providing us support for our growth as professionals and providing reassurance to Deaf consumers that we would not compromise their lives.

Sign Language – A Profitable Afterthought

Over the last several years, however, we have seen the entrance of “language service” agencies into the arena of sign language interpreting.  Most of them tack on ASL in addition to the other languages they provide.  Most of their spoken language interpreters are born bilinguals, whereas many of the sign language interpreters on their rosters are self-professed “interpreters,” who have passed no screening or certification exams. While some of these language agencies may have a commitment to providing quality services to the Deaf community, most have no idea how to evaluate the skills of sign language interpreters or the needs of Deaf consumers. Their knowledge base is in bidding for and maintaining contracts.

Although ethical referral agencies do exist, there has been a marked increase in contracts being awarded to agencies that have no background knowledge of our field or the Deaf world, and no ability to evaluate the quality of the services of the interpreters they send to work. For all appearances, it seems that profit, rather than service, is the overweening motive.

(Recent Street Leverage posts on the impact of working for agencies with questionable standards are Self-Talk: A Sign Language Interpreter’s Inner Warning System by Anna Mindess and The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter by Aaron Brace.

The Human Cost

Sending unskilled workers is a common practice in agencies that provide “interpreting as a business” rather than as a service, but that practice has serious repercussions. Recently in NYC, a call went out from a language agency needing interpreters for an “end of life” situation in a hospital.  A few weeks later, I spoke with friends of the family. They said that throughout the entire weekend the Deaf parents thought their child was “sleeping,” even after all the “interpreters” sent by that agency had “interpreted” the words of the doctors. This is not the only incident. Locally, I have seen language agencies with city contracts send basic signers to evaluations of the fitness of Deaf parents and uncertified interpreters to court, threatening the legal status of Deaf claimants, defendants, and the integrity of the court itself.

The decisions these agencies are making have a negative impact on all parties present: Deaf, hearing, and interpreters. Sign language interpreters who are not appropriate misrepresent themselves and the Deaf parties. Deaf people often do not get their message across; neither do the hearing participants. The only ones guaranteed to succeed in attaining their goals are the agencies, which get paid regardless of the caliber of the interpreting work.  This is not just happening in New York City, but also around the country.

An Ethical Quandary

Professional interpreters are left with an ethical quandary… Do I stop interpreting for an unethical agency and leave Deaf people with poor interpreters? Do I spend hours educating the agency, only to see them ignore the advice and go with lesser skilled interpreters? Do I develop relationships with these agencies? Do I accept lower fees in order to ensure quality interpretation?

Can sign language interpreters solve this problem alone? Clearly, the Deaf communities have been left out of the decision-making process. Local interpreting chapters or collectives that work in tandem with Deaf individuals and associations may be able to make some headway in certain locations, but I believe we should use the power of our national association to address this issue.

Agency Certification

RID certifies interpreters, why not certify agencies? This would imply an ethical practice mandate for agencies that refer sign language interpreters, and an obligation for RID to monitor complaints and de-certify agencies that are not behaving ethically. This could then be written into local and state contracts. There should be consequences if an agency sends inappropriate “signers” to jobs.

We, the members of RID, need to take the first step by developing stringent requirements for the business practices of referral agencies, with consequences for those agencies that are not following best practices. The requirements should state that agencies must:

  • abide by an ethical business model – that would include sending the most highly qualified interpreter, not just a warm body;
  • utilize a valid evaluation mechanism for non-certified interpreters;
  • provide sign language interpreters with relevant information prior to the assignment;
  • protect confidential information, by not including it in the emailed call for interpreters;
  • respect the communicative norms, rights and personhood of the Deaf individuals  by presenting them with the most appropriate qualified interpreters for their needs (which means seeing the Deaf individuals as their clients, not just the hearing contract holders).

If agencies do not live up to such standards they should lose the privilege of being a member of RID, and that information should be publicly available for any potential clients to view.

Let’s Get Started

Let us begin now to discuss the standards and the consequences. Let us engage both locally and nationally. Let us not allow agencies in their pursuit of profits to harm Deaf people.

What other requirements should be included when considering the certification of referral agencies?

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53 Comments on "Is it Time to Certify Sign Language Interpreter Referral Agencies?"

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Member

I agree, I agree, I agree!
When agencies & interpreters are bound by the same ethical standards, interpreters won’t have to work at cross-purposes with employers to abide by our CPC. I have the good fortune of working with an agency that does have interpreters & Deaf people at the top, from screening to scheduling, and it makes a huge difference. Where do we start?
Sign me up.

sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne

Hilary,

Thanks for your enthusiasm!

I think that we can all benefit from the discussion. Places to start are with local chapters and with discussion groups already in existence.

One that I’m involved with is the National Interpreter Discussion Group. This group has collectively created motions that were passed at RID.

To join in click on the link below. Once you’re approved, join in the discussion.

https://groups.google.com/group/nidg/subscribe?note=1&hl=en&noredirect=true

Thanks for your support!

Best,
Stephanie

Member
Other Hilary

Steph, I just saw Hilary’s comment and wanted to make sure you knew it wasn’t me. I thought I was the only “Hilary one one L” out there!

That being said, you already know I agree with you. *grins*

Member
July 24, 2012 HI… I am a deaf advocate and I am in favor of having agencies that serve the Deaf Community hire qualified or certified interpreters to work with deaf clients in community situations. At the NAD Conference held in Louisville, Kentucky two weeks ago, my association proposed a bill on Interpreter Licensure Requirements for Federal Court Interpreting during a meeting of the Council of Representatives. Reason: A few former deaf students from our Deaf Program were incarcerated in the county jail several years ago and they were provided with ill-trained interpreters sent by local interpreting agencies. Communication breakdown… Read more »
sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne
Irene, That’s such a sad story – and one that occurs too often around the country. It certainly was not fair. What was your association’s proposal? I’m wondering what the licensure requirements looked like. Unfortunately, the requirements for interpreters in the courts vary from state to state. Some states require qualified, some don’t. The federal courts require certification unless they can’t find anyone – then they go down to “qualified.” This link is to the law on interpreters in federal courts: 28 USC § 1827 – INTERPRETERS IN COURTS OF THE UNITED STATES http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/28/1827 I’m wondering how Deaf associations –… Read more »
Member

Apart from the problems of agencies sending underqualified people to jobs there is also the serious issue of agencies and commission. I was told yesterday that an agency was going to charge PER HOUR what I charge PER DAY.

That’s here in the UK, and it’s a growing problem – people aren’t willing to name and shame the agencies in case of loss of bookings and because some of these agencies behaving this way are Deaf-led.

sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne
Sophie, Hope you are having a good summer between the golden jubilee and the Olympics. So sorry to hear it’s the same situation on your side of “the pond.” Yes, agencies do make a tremendous profit – and that has been the incentive for those outside of our field who want to cash in. I have seen the issue with both Deaf and non-Deaf agencies. It is difficult. I am happy to say that most of the Deaf- and interpreter-led agencies I know of have instituted procedures to ensure quality work. I’d love to see them recognized with either a… Read more »
Member
Stephanie, I am Deaf and own an interpreting agency…this does not happen with my agency. I instill procedure with the interpreters who work with us to ensure we are providing quality interpreting work to the Deaf consumers. It is sad to see how other agencies do not do this and is driven by money instead of quality of service to the Deaf. I have been there! 🙁 which is why I set this agency up as I got fed up with all the stuff that comes up. As for the lower-bid with lessor skilled interpreters, trust that what goes around,… Read more »
Member

I couldn’t agree more. Your second paragraph talks about acknowledging unethical agencies. Perhaps we also should recognize the unethical interpreters who endorse and represent those agencies.

Member
I support the comments in the article too. There does need to be some accountability but I am not sure RID is the place for it. I feel they have a hard time enforcing/supporting the CPC now for interpreters. I feel that RID is a weak professional organization. We can not turn to them for guidance currently when we see interpreting standards being violated. We can not trust them to do what they say regarding moving forward with various committees they say they are going to establish for various purposes. How would we ever be able to feel confident that… Read more »
sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne
JO, You make some important comments here. Thanks for this perspective. I agree that interpreters do have to make it happen. How united are we? And do we share the same values enough to make change? I wanted to share some interpreting history: During the early 1980s in Northern California the main provider of interpreting services shifted its policies and sent out lesser skilled interpreters to critical locations such as hospitals and Social Security hearings. Certified interpreters gathered together, refusing to work for that agency until it reformed its policies and agreed to contact only the most skilled interpreters first… Read more »
Member

I feel some of my responsibility is educating the agency as well. It is easy to not work for an agency, but, harder to dig your heels in and expect them to adhere to industry standards. I feel I am teaching them as opposed to leaving them to their own misguided information.

Member
Interesting story and one I think hits home. Change in numbers. BUT in this day and age, I am not so sure that the almight dollar is not driving this bus. Your story reminds me of the stories I have heard regarding the evolution of labor unions, the hows and whys they came to be. Not exactly unfair labor practices here but the need for some cohesion and strength in numbers. A strong voice from the Deaf community is a must too. PS- I just realized I never finished typing my name out in the previous post…LOL Senior moment! 🙂
bcolonomos
Member
Dear Stephanie, Once again, you have brought a needed discussion to the table. Thank you for your dedication to the field and your thoughtful pieces, I read all the posts and feel the pain. I believe we must have a published document that takes a strong stand on how agencies should operate their businesses with integrity. We need something in print with respectable endorsement to help us with our local/national battles. It’s people like you who change our world. Some of the questions that need answering are: Who will publish this? Given the low “approval rating” of RID right now,… Read more »
Member
I agree that an innovative solution that takes effectiveness into consideration and considers the current business structures we’re operating under is really important. In fact, I know of agencies taking this approach (partnering with spoken language agencies), and think it’s an important, realistic step to ensure everyone gets quality services. I’ve also seen how our emphasis on cultural awareness & quality control can positively impact the spoken language interpreting side of the house. Given that RID does certify organization members, it seems a concrete place to start to at least pass a resolution which would require organizational members use certified… Read more »
Member

Just a small nit: RID does not “certify” organizational members. They are just a level of membership, support for the goals and mission of RID, much like supporting and student memberships are. Non-voting, to boot.

Interesting discussion, though. The permissible extent of the authority RID could have over agencies (as opposed to individuals) is definitely something to look into as you think about this issue – after all, is RID dictating how a business should be run crossing some unseen line into “regulating commerce”?

Member
I live in Dallas and this is a constant struggle in our area and I am not sure how to fix it. Interpreters are going on assignments and they are not qualified, they say it is okay because the agency sent them. The agency says they sent them because they could not find a higher level Interpreter and the hearing client said “they will take anyone”. Most deaf clients are thankful to have any Interpreter, they do not speak up when they think the Interpreter is not qualified. It is a cycle where every part of the process has an… Read more »
Member
Julie Gould Marothy

Great points. We need all the involved parties to be accountable to the same high standards. There is a different, but related problem I see, however, which is the lack of qualified interpreters to meet the demand. I know there are some agencies that send out “warm body” interpreters, but other well meaning, Deaf-centered agencies that cannot always find a qualified interpreter to fill a request. So the larger problem of supply v demand needs to be included in this problem solving.

Member

Amen! This is happening more and more here in DC and is scary and not ok.

Member
Mark Hardway
I agree there need to be standards that interpreting agencies should follow. There is a group within the Interpreter Service Managers (ISM) member section working on a draft of a Standard Practice Paper for agencies providing interpreting services. We have seen far too many enterprises who have no knowledge or connection to the deaf community or to the sign language interpreting profession insert themselves into our profession. These organizations typically don’t know about the CPC or any of the standard practices that have been set for our profession. In addition to the ethical practice of assigning intepreters with the appropriate… Read more »
sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne

Mark,

So good to know that the ISM is working on standards.

I look forward to seeing your work as it unfolds!

I am very eager to hear what plans are to enforce agencies abiding by them. Perhaps we can all team up to write motions for the next RID conference.

Thanks for all you are doing,

Stephanie

Member

A better question may be, is it in everyone’s best interest to have RID be the regulatory body? It may be a better idea to form a third party organization that regulates the agencies. Especially if you consider that there are other non-RID certifications that exist and are valid.

Member
Becky Stuckless
I ablsolutely agree with Emory’s line of thinking. I still question if it is in the best interest of our profession for our membership organization to be certifying ANYONE. Stephanie, I loved your article. The one thing that hit me, is this is a problem EVERYWHERE. I recently had an interpreter tell me that the agency had been shorting her pay many times. I asked if she had ever thought of a service agreement with the agency (which would allow her to charge late fees, etc…) and her reply was sadly enough, she would probably just keep the status quo… Read more »
Member
I am a consumer of interpreter agencies and have experienced some wonderful agencies and some well… not so great agencies. Through my questioning, I was able to realize that the agency the provider seems to prefer does not have the understanding of a Deaf consumer’s needs to send out quality interpreters, nor do they always have quality terps on hand. Fortunately for me, I have advocated for myself and gotten my preferred agency. It takes knowing how the system works to do this successfully. I am a proponent of some kind of label that allows providers to know the quality… Read more »
Member

Stephanie, this article really hits home and reminds me of my recent experience attending a birthing class at a local hospital. I requested a professional, certified ASL interpreter; the agency with the contract sent me a mother of a child with cerebral palsy and some hearing loss (the mother’s words). She knew some sign but I ended up sending her home before the class was over as it was just embarrassing to both her and to me.

Thank you for writing this article and for bringing this pressing need to attention.

Sarah Martin

Member
Paul Belmonte

The Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (SASLI) already has a register of agencies, which has published standards that agencies are bound to keep to. It’s not hard and ensured only ethical agencies are able to gain the credibility that comes with the SASLI chartermark.

sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne

Paul.

This is GREAT to know. I’d love to get as much info on this as possible. I’m sure it would help us.

I’d love to see the standards.

Are they online? How were they developed? What happens when an agency falls short of these standards?

My email is
stefeyne@gmail.com

I’d love to learn from you – how it was accomplished and how we can use your good work as a model!

Thanks so much for this info!

Stephanie

sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne

Link to Scottish Association of Sign Language Interpreters – the agencies page.

http://www.sasli.co.uk/agencies/

Member

I agree with your article and think a proposal should be made at our next business meeting to start the process of establishing some quality control.

trichards
Member

This is very well-said, Stephanie! It is a scourge on the profession and the Deaf community when unethical or at the very least, uncaring agencies engage in such practices.

Member
Peggy Huber

Yes!!! Absolutely! Even as a certified interpreter with years of experience I’ve been sent to assignments without accurate information about the setting, the purpose or other important factors I would need to determine if I were appropriate for the assignment. Sign me up! I’m there!

Member
As the Director of an Interpreting Agency for 18 years, I have witnessed the watering down of the commitment of Agencies to the Deaf Communities needs. I am thankful and fortunate to work for an Organization that doesn’t operate on financial benefit but on the SERVICE component. We do have to be able to survive, but to charge for an hour what an interpreter is paid for the day, is a sad state of affairs. I am behind some standards for having the RID affiliation connected to our Agency. It could be as simple as specific requirements of Best Practices… Read more »
Member

Please, how to we, as freelance interpreters initiate the process to make this a reality? So many of my ethical conflicts stem directly as a result of various agencies’ policies. How nice would it be to have agencies in line with our best practices and the needs of those we serve back at the top of the priority list.

Member
I totally agree with you. Agencies are not required to follow the CPC and send unqualified interpreters or worse, stab an interpreter in the back by removing them from an assignment when that interpreter was the preferred interpreter for the client. Sadly, RID shows very little support for individual interpreters and this is the main reason for me leaving the profession. I also feel that ITPs are churning out more interpreters, flooding the market, and reducing the amount of freelance work for more seasoned interpreters. This drives rates down to a point where interpreters can’t pay their bills. Higher standards… Read more »
Member

As a practicing director of an agency in LA, as a certified interpreter, and as an ethicist, I actually would be very interested in a conversation about what kind of CPC could be established for agencies. I think a national dialogue about this issue is very important and would love to be involved in that dialogue.

Member
Hi, I am in favor of certifying an interpreter referral agency. I am the CEO of GLAD that oversees LIFESIGNS. From my professional and personal experiences, I often wish that there are ways to eliminate unqualified interpreter referral agencies. Nowadays there are many more IRS that are for other spoken languages and they grab ASL as one of the languages and end up sending a student studying to be an interpreter. I have asked Emory to set up a plan of action for us to be certified as we have strong pride and ethics in sending qualified interpreters to various… Read more »
Member
Marcia Reaver, Manager of Interpreter Services for Lifespan
As a manager of interpreter services and a certified, working interpreter, I am thrilled to see your post Stephanie. The response is phenomenal! I received this yesterday from Street Leverage and two other cross posts. I also cross posted on the ISM list yesterday where the response was, “Let’s use this opportunity and our Regional Conferences to try to get this ball rolling!!” ISM was working on this issue before your post. Now we feel like there is an opportunity to work with the interpreters to make this a reality. Now is the time. RID is only as strong as… Read more »
Member
This is a major issue in my area. I am one of a dwindling number of practitioners who will not work for agencies that don’t have a service-oriented philosophy. This does not mean I don’t work for agencies – I do! There is one in particular that I am happy to work with, because they continue to make their highest priority interpreter/consumer match, and would prefer to have an assignment go unfilled than place an interpreter who is not qualified. They’re ethical. A few years ago, I made a decision not to work for another local agency that engages in… Read more »
Member
Hi, This is a very insightful article and well said! I am Deaf and owner of an interpreting agency in Florida. With my previous experience as a Deaf consumer using interpreters in the past and took stand for myself in many areas, I saw a great need to educate people. This is when I quit my full time job and set up my own agency and established a strong ethical guideline that interpreters have to follow. We only hire state credential or nationally certified interpreters. As far as state credentialed interpreters, I carefully monitor them to ensure they are on… Read more »
Member

Upon more reflection, I think it may be a good idea to consider whether or not RID should/shouldn’t be in charge of this process. Considering various state licenses, EIPA, RID, BEI, etc., would it make sense to give RID certification over their interpreters as well as agencies? It may be too much for one organization to handle. Food for thought.

sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne
Emory, It is a good point that RID has a lot on its plate. And I know that others are concerned that it should be some other organization that responds to this. I’m wondering what organization has the national recognition to have clout in this matter. Currently, RID certification is written into state laws and regulations, which is the reason I think this move should come from RID. Granted, our organization is overwhelmed with what it needs to do – and our office staff is small. Perhaps we need some more volunteers to work on this. And it shouldn’t just… Read more »
Member
Bud Schrader

I believe it’s time to certify agencies.

Member
Tamara Moxham

At the 2003 RID conference in Chicago I brought a motion that agencies – who are organizational members – should be held to the same ethical code that any other member is responsible to. The motion was resoundingly defeated. I was dismayed to watch some very well-known interpreters stand up and speak against it. Since they are popular, the masses went along with it. Isn’t it interesting that – to a person – each of these were agency owners?

Why don’t agencies want this same responsibility?

Member
john hendricks

I think that VRS companies should also be held to the same standard. Though I no longer work in this field, I began to see a decline (just before leaving) in the quality of ASL skills and many cases non cert terps being hired to save money at the detriment of the consumers. Meanwhile, RID takes big money from these folks! Something has got to change and fast.

Member
Pearl Swan Youth
I noticed that more and more interpreting agencies sneaked sending lesser qualified but still certified interpreters to even a court to interpret when they had not been gone through legal interpreting training for courts yet. Some interpreters from some “highly reputatable” agencies have bad paternalistic attitudes even though they are qualified interpreters. The practice of those negative, paternalistic attitudes among those interpreters allowed by those agencies, would affect their ways of interpreting whatever any born-Deaf clients sign into some kinds of negative impressions without their awareness,that leave naive, innocent or ignorant Deaf clients in bad situations with hearing ignorant authorities… Read more »
Member
Toni Padilla
This is a definite problem. I am not sure the most appropriate way to remedy this problem and am not sure that RID is the agency/entity to do so — at leat not at this time. Seems to me that agencies should be held to the same code of professional conduct that interpreters are to adhere. Tenets: Interpreters adhere to standards of confidential communication. Interpreters possess the professional skills and knowledge required for the specific interpreting situation. ** If an agency is not assigning the appropriately skilled interpreter for the interpreting situation then they are not following tenet number 2.… Read more »
Member
Laurie Meyer
Many of the comments here assume ill-intentioned agencies or money-driven, you-fill-in-the-blank interpreters. That characterization leaves us with nothing to offer well meaning, ill-informed agencies and well meaning, unaware interpreters. Who among us can’t look back on our careers and realize how unprepared we were to do work. And, given the influence of VRS providers and the assumption that any VI can interpret for any caller, I think the field, in general, has lost track of the importance of matching interpreter skills with community needs. Can a foreign language agency without culturally competent staff adequately serve ASL users? I suspect not.… Read more »
Member

Fantastic article. Fantastic idea! Perhaps a letter-writing campaign to RID could get the ball rolling.

Member
Dwight Godwin
Wowzer – I love this topic Stephanie, and the number of responses show this is a “hot” topic for sure. I want to echo and add to the Fabulous Ms. Colonomos’ statements. Folks, this is a topic that needs to be approached from a business world perspective. 1.) We already have an organization called The Better Business Bureau. Agencies are businesses after all. I would encourage the Deaf consumers to use it to post complaints if you are getting bad results from an agency regardless of who is paying for it. A business does not have to be a member… Read more »
Member

Thank you for a great article on such an important subject! My impression is that in addition to the issue of language service agencies trying to corner the market on the cheap, the current status of the economy doesn’t encourage agencies (spoken language or otherwise) to respect the professionalism of the field, and encourages less scrupulous agencies to engage in undercutting the competition and reimbursing interpreters poorly. It is terribly frustrating. Thanks for providing the information about the National Interpreter Discussion group – I;ll be sure to sign up!

RSJ

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