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Overcoming Challenges as a Sign Language Interpreter of Color

Overcoming Challenges as a Sign Language Interpreter of Color

Sign language interpreters bring a variety of personal and professional experiences to the field. Sherry Smith explores the unique challenges and contributions of interpreters of color.

At times we may question whether our peers value what we bring to the sign language interpreting profession. Regardless of our confidence level about what we bring, I believe we would likely agree that it is a diversity of backgrounds that makes the tapestry of the sign language interpreting profession so beautiful.

On my road to becoming a sign language interpreter, I, like you, have had my share of unique challenges, and struggles. You see, my race and my beliefs position me in the minority. This has brought along challenges that I have had to overcome.

Where We Come From

Growing up on the Southside of Chicago with gangs, drugs, crime, and the fast pace of city life was not easy. It taught me to speak up for myself, not to be intimidated, and not to be afraid to travel alone. These lessons helped me have the courage to explain my beliefs at an early age and why I would not join certain events or activities.

As a young person, I devoted a lot of time each month to a volunteer ministry in my community. My volunteer work helped me keep a positive attitude amidst the struggles of living in a difficult environment.

Volunteering and learning from trials since childhood has helped my work as a sign language interpreter. As a result of these experiences, I am better equipped to advocate for appropriate assignment conditions for my consumers and for myself. I have also been able to help Deaf friends and consumers see the need to advocate for themselves.

Adapting to New Environments

As a person regularly in the minority, I have learned to adapt to environments very different from the ones I grew up in. For instance, working from time to time in different educational settings, I have learned that struggles may vary from city to city or town to town. One thing remains the same in that Deaf students need and deserve proper interpreting services. Whether I work in an inner city school, or a small neighborhood school, as an interpreter, I must overcome myself and deliver the services my consumers need.

We Want to Relate

Sometimes, when among other sign language interpreters, I have felt my race and background have prevented me from “fitting in.” There was a time when I preferred to accept assignments that allowed me to work around other interpreters of color. The ability to relate to their struggle gave me a similar feeling to being back in the environment I grew up in. I have learned through the years though, that even if my background is different, I can still learn and benefit from the experiences of others. Furthermore, they can benefit from my experiences as well.

A Struggle is a Struggle

I recently had the privilege of teaming with an interpreter whose race and background is quite different from mine. We were able to support each other in our work and in our ethical responsibilities. We discussed the various struggles we have each been through and even though they are different, a struggle is still a struggle. Hearing how she was able to overcome her struggles encouraged me. I realize that regardless of our skin tone, where we grew up, or our convictions, we may all have felt like we were in the minority at certain points in our sign language interpreting journey.

We should never assume that someone won’t be able to relate to us just because their skin tone is different. We likely have more in common than we realize.

Recognizing One’s Limitations

Through the years, I have had to recognize and accept my own limitations. Personal experiences, tragedies, morals, and beliefs have influenced my choice of interpreting assignments. Regardless of our skills, training, or experience, we must know and respect these personal limitations.

An example of a tragedy I have had to overcome is the murder of a childhood friend. I found myself tensing up in certain environments while on the job. During an interpreting assignment, I even had a flashback of sad memories because of a topic that reminded me of this tragedy. I have had to learn to avoid certain assignments as they sometimes prove too emotionally taxing for me.

Find Advice

The advice of others has helped me to cope with my limitations. At one point, I was living in an area where I felt isolated from other interpreters of color. I also felt misjudged because of my beliefs. In signing up to work with a local agency, one of the owners made an unprofessional comment to me because of my religion. In fact, on my initial interview, one of the owners brought up religion and wanted to know what my faith was. As a result of feeling uncomfortable working with that agency, I would drive to the closest big city to work around other interpreters of color. Clearly, this decision only held me back from working closer to my home. Not to mention that I was overextending myself.

During this difficult period, I received pointed advice from a sign language interpreter who did not know me well. We had a brief conversation in which her advice helped me to realize that I should not limit myself unnecessarily. I have since learned to overcome hurt feelings. There may be times when unprofessional comments are made. I should not allow them to hold me back from success.

Benefiting from Differences

Even though my background is different from many sign language interpreters, I have learned that my background can provide a benefit to them. As sign language interpreters, we benefit the profession when we encourage one another with candid expressions of how we have succeeded in spite of our trials and challenges.

We may at times feel uncomfortable as a result of our inability to directly relate to a person or environment. During these moments, we must have the confidence to believe our experience is worthy of contribution. After all, it is our personal trials that make us who we are.

In an eBook I have written, Diary of a Happy Black Sign Language Interpreter, I share with my readers embarrassing moments, hard times, and times of success. I hope it can be a benefit to all of you and leave you with a positive feeling inside.

An excerpt from Chapter 5 is offered for your enjoyment below:

V.  Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda….How About Now?

No one can change the past. What we do with our past experiences can be very helpful though! Consider my certification journey.  For a while, I became sullen and unmotivated about pursuing my National Interpreter Certification. I passed my NIC written exam in the winter of 2007. Before I relocated to Texas, I rushed to take the performance test. Big mistake! I was not ready and I failed.

Remember that video relay company? Less than two years after my first experience with them, I decided to reapply but not at the same center. I wanted to relocate to a warmer area of the United States for a while. I applied and flew down for an interview in Texas. I did not want to tell the director in Texas of my past experience with the company, but I realized that as soon as they looked up my social security number, they would see that I was a past employee.

I opened up and told of my past experience with the company. The director proceeded to evaluate me again. After watching me evaluate, he said that he did not know what to do with me. He expressed that he couldn’t believe I traveled there for that. I remember thinking that I hope that was a compliment! It was! He proceeded to tell me that he didn’t know if he should hire me into the special training program again, or just hire me directly as a Video Relay Interpreter. He spoke to other directors, and in a short time, I had my answer! I was officially hired as a VRI!

You can find the book and author spotlight here.