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How do Sign Language Interpreters Increase Opportunity in a Weak Economy?

How often do we as sign language interpreters think about the demands placed on an interpreter scheduler? Brandon Arthur challenges us to reach out and become true partners with this integral position in many of our worlds for the goal of our mutual benefit.

One of the main giving hands in the sign language interpreter economy is the scheduler of interpreting services for the local interpreting agency, university, or VRS company.  These daring individuals play an extremely important role in the livelihood of most sign language interpreters.  So, when it can literally mean the difference between thousands of dollars and ample opportunity or zippy, why are they so frequently unappreciated?

Why Ingratiate?

As a sign language interpreter, if you truly consider the impact a scheduler can have on the opportunities presented to you, it is clear that to invest in them is not just a good idea—its’ critically necessary.  These are the folks who control who gets called first, offered the high profile and multiple day assignments, and pair interpreters for requests needing more than one.

So, what do you do to ingratiate yourself to these workers of logistical magic?  How do you ensure you are considered among the first contacted when an opportunity presents itself?

What follows are suggestions for developing the type of working relationship that will position you top-of-mind with the sign language interpreter schedulers you work with.

Return Calls & Email

If you have ever sat near the desk of a sign language interpreter scheduler, you know that they initiate and receive hundreds of phone calls and emails week-in and week-out.  Surprisingly, much of this correspondence seeking to pair artists with opportunity goes unanswered.

Even if you have the good fortune to be booked for the time inquired about by a scheduler, keep the karma of gratitude on your side and return their correspondence.  It will go a long way to build the type of working relationship that will keep you at the front of the line when the sexy work comes in.

Take a Personal Interest

When returning these phone calls, take a few minutes to inquire as to how these logistical talents are personally.  Find out about their lives, their kid’s lives, and the things that get them juiced about life outside the job.  Coordinating logistics is an intense and thankless job. Pausing to take a personal interest shows that you aren’t just a taker, but you are a giver as well.

It’s easy to give to those that give.

Be a Partner

It is important to think of a scheduler as a partner.  As partners, each of you has a job to do and both contribute to the success of any given opportunity. Therefore, do what partners do,

  • Regularly offer appreciation for a job well done
  • Always give them the benefit of the doubt
  • Should a conflict or a mistake occur, address it with them directly before escalating it
  • Take the unsexy job when they are in a tough spot, even if it is inconvenient
  • Occasionally drop by the office to say a hello
  • Extend a small appreciation gift  on occasion (something on administrative professionals day is a no brainer)
  • When encountering information that is relevant to their personal life, send it to them

To be a partner is to have a partner.

A Smart Investment

There are a number of places to make investments in your career as a sign language interpreter that is for sure.  With that said, I can think of fewer investments that costs so very little and pay such a huge dividend.

These logistical field generals do a thankless job and one that makes doing our job more convenient.  Let’s not make the mistake of mistreating or not appreciating them.  It’s bad for the profession and bad form all around.

I double dog dare you to hug a scheduler and see what happens!  

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Will Sign Language Interpreters Remain Silent on FCC VRS Reform?

Censored Sign Language Interpreter Working in Video Relay

With the FCC’s proposed restructuring of the VRS rate structure, the fate of sign language interpreters is called into question. Brandon Arthur suggests the path forward requires mobilization and participation.

In some circles, VRS providers are viewed as the newest of the Coyotes on the scene of the sign language interpreting industry.  Whether you subscribe to that view or not, what the FCC is ‘seeking public comment’ on (i.e. prepared to do unless there is significant feedback in opposition) will have an impact on you as an interpreter—regardless if your position is “I don’t do VRS.”  In the Further Notice of Proposed Rule Making relative to the Structure and Practices of the VRS Program released on Thursday, December 15, 2011, the FCC outlines a dramatic change to the structure of the Video Relay Service.

What is Being Proposed?

Generally, the FCC is seriously exploring the concept of moving VRS providers from the current tiered model of compensation (paid on a per minute basis) to a “per user” model (paid a monthly fee per active user) and having qualified providers bid for one of a small number of contracts to deliver the service.

The reason this is significant to the sign language interpreting industry is because of the 12 eligible VRS providers only one is currently of size and/or operationally efficient enough to operate within the “per user” model.  Therefore, only one is currently qualified to bid for a contract.  Consequently, the FCC acknowledges the necessity of a phased transition plan to give providers an opportunity to restructure to operate within the new model and to obtain sufficient size to qualify to bid.

What Can Sign Language Interpreters Expect?

These structural adjustments to the industry will necessitate a reorganization of the majority—if not all—of the VRS providers delivering services today.  The basis of these reorganizations will be deep cost cutting.  This will be done in order to enable providers to deliver services at a deeply reduced rate and position them to redirect monies into expansion activities.

Falling Compensation

The largest cost when providing VRS is the cost of interpreter compensation.  The FCC knows it.  VRS providers know it.  Sign language interpreters know it.  Consequently, providers will be seeking to accommodate the new model by implementing more aggressive performance metrics (FCC is considering reducing provider required ASA as part of the restructuring), reducing opportunity for higher paid interpreters (most qualified), and/or compensation adjustments.

Further, a reduction to the number of VRS providers will result in a lack of competitiveness on points of interpreter compensation and benefits, which means the continued declination of hourly rates offered to newly hired interpreters.  Worse, it will likely mean an even larger percentage of working sign language interpreters struggling to find work at a livable wage.

Under Valued Credentials

As a result of the immense pressure to fit within the new model, providers will to seek interpreters who command a lower hourly rate.  Logically, these will be interpreters who have yet to obtain their national certification, have fewer years of experience, don’t have the skill-set to effectively do the work, or worse will be qualified, certified professionals simply looking to survive.  All of which will mean that the investments made by sign language interpreters to seek out and/or maintain their certification will be less valuable than it is today.

How to Brace for Impact?

The most important thing is to acknowledge that further change is coming.  In the face of this inevitability, it is necessary for interpreters to mobilize and provide comment to the FCC directly.  Further, sign language interpreters must  insist that those who are paid and elected to represent them do so immediately.

What should we be lobbying for?

There are a few fundamental things that will help contain the erosion of our position as sign language interpreters within the new model.  They are as follows:

Rate Differential for Use of Certified Interpreters

The rate providers are compensated per active user should be subject to a differential for use of nationally certified interpreters.  This differential should be calculated according to the percentage of nationally certified interpreters employed by a provider.   A differential would ensure the continued interest of providers in employing certified interpreters and protect the spirit of functional equivalency for the end user.  Further, it offers a point of competition among providers relative to a “new-to-VRS” user’s election of a default provider.

An example,

           Provider A:

                                Active Users:                            10

                                Monthly Rate Per User:            $175.00

                                Certification Differential:            $5.00                    (potential per user)

                                % of Interpreters Certified:         80%

                                Differential Compensation:        $40.00                  (8 x $5)

                                Monthly Total Compensation:   $1790.00              ($175 x 10 + $40)

Establishing a certification differential aligns the interests of the Deaf community, sign language interpreter, VRS providers and the FCC.  Importantly, it reinforces within the VRS arena that to be nationally certified is a professional commitment and an accomplishment.

Reporting Transparency

There is value in insisting that providers include a line item in their reports that specifically indicates the direct cost, and only the direct costs, associated with the compensation of interpreters.  This would more clearly validate the cost of employing interpreters across the VRS arena.  Further, it provides clarity at the FCC regarding the costs, the largest of all the costs, associated with the provision of the service.  At a minimum, it would mean the cost of interpreters will be clearly considered as the commission works to reduce the overall cost of the TRS Fund.

Qualification Process for Interpreters

As comment is being sought on a qualification process for “new to VRS” users, the FCC should be urged to implement a qualification process for “new to VRS” sign language interpreters.  This should take on the form of a set of requirements providers are to comply with prior to having an interpreter sit in a station.

Requirements should include:

                -Minimum of 3 years of professional experience

                -Credential validation

                -40 hour mandatory training on the provision of VRS

                          Topics might include:

                               -History of VRS

                               -Effective provision of the service

                               -Regulatory compliance

                               -Cultural sensitivities

                               -Whistleblower policies

Further, and to address the continued qualification of interpreters working in a VRS setting, providers should be required to provide an annual refresher training on the topics above and confirm a credential check.

The implementation of a qualification process by the FCC would prevent the pilfering of students from ITP/IPP programs, ensure interpreters working in the VRS arena have some professional foundation for their work, and necessitate that some level of training is provided to working interpreters annually.  Again, this works in the interest of all VRS stakeholders.

Repeal the Ban on Working from Home

In an effort to create an additional option for providers to reduce costs (i.e. not solely targeting interpreter compensation), the FCC needs to overturn the decision to ban providers from delivering VRS from an at home solution.  This gives providers an opportunity to reduce infrastructure costs (i.e. the cost of leases, networks, etc.), which supports their ability to work within the new model.  Further, it offers sign language interpreters the opportunity to reduce the costs (i.e. gas, parking, and time) associated with reporting to a center.  Equally important, it supports the end user by increasing the supply of available interpreters.  Again, this is a win for all VRS stakeholders.

How to Work with Sign Language Interpreters

The FCC is also seeking comment on the concept of their supplementing provider’s outreach activities by campaigning to educate the public on VRS.  These activities would be paid for by the TRS fund.  If the FCC is to use TRS funds, it is important that this campaign include how to work with sign language interpreters.  This will serve to improve the efficiencies of the service (i.e. reduce the costs to the fund) and at the same time provide a better experience for both the end user and the sign language interpreter.

Will History Repeat Itself?

While it is uncomfortable to be faced with continued change on the VRS side of the sign language interpreting industry, it is important that this discomfort not paralyze.  Make no mistake, whether you choose to file a comment with the FCC or not, the changes afoot will impact your local sign language interpreter economy.  The Community side of the industry is quickly becoming a refuge to interpreters seeking greater stability.  This continued migration of interpreters from VRS to Community will serve to establish a new paradigm in most communities—interpreter supply exceeding demand.

The FCC is accepting public comment for the next 45 days (approximately).  Let’s not be found past feeling nor reinforce history by allowing these types of fundamental changes to our industry go on without the voice of the sign language interpreter being heard.

Join the mobilization by filing comment directly with the FCC by clicking here.  Simply add your name, address, and upload your letter.

Note, comments should be address to:

Ms. Marlene H. Dortch
Secretary
Federal Communications Commission
445 12th Street, SW
Washington, DC 20554

As you consider filing comment with the FCC, please review these suggestions.

If you are interested in reading the other comments filed (I found some of them fascinating) on the VRS structural reform, you can find them by clicking here.

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How Sign Language Interpreters Survive a Professional Shakedown

Sign language interpreters are faced with regular challenges to pay rate, employment terms, and changing work conditions. Brandon Arthur suggests that remaining calm and prioritizing values will lead to successful negotiations.

You’re traveling along, like you do on any given day when suddenly you feel the muzzle of a gun pressed against the back of your head and hear, “give me your high rate of pay, all your premium workplace perks, and don’t forget your abounding opportunity.”

It’s a sign language interpreter shakedown. What do you do?

Before you do anything drastic, consider that survival, or in other words maintaining your professional reputation, is most important.

Don’t Panic

When faced with someone grabbing at your rate of pay, industry standard practices, or incidental reimbursement, don’t panic.  There is nothing worse than an inconsiderate, emotional reaction.  In this circumstance, to react with something like, “Seriously, this offer is an absolute insult to me and my profession…”, will do little to help you survive.  It certainly doesn’t position you to rescue your hourly rate, standard practices, incidental reimbursement and/or the potential opportunity.

In fact, it puts your survival and any hope of reaching an agreement at risk.

It’s a Negotiation

After all, at the center of any professional shakedown attempt is a negotiation—albeit a difficult one.  What follows are a few key things for sign language interpreters, Sidewalk-Executives, to remember when negotiating.

Don’t Move First

Always remember when negotiating in a high stakes environment—and a person’s livelihood is considered high stakes in my mind—never make the first move.  It is critically important that you understand all of the demands of the other party first.  To ignore this caution puts you at a significant disadvantage.

What’s Important

Upon understanding the demands of the other party, you have to quickly assess what is most important to you.  Is it rate of pay?  Work environment?  Frequency of the opportunity?  Whatever it is, its important that you be reasonable and cognizant of how it impacts the other party and their proposal.

Counter Offer

After you have determined what is important to you, you have to calmly and respectfully reframe their demands and clearly offer an alternative proposal.  Do this in priority order (most important points first).   Be sure to counter with all that is important to you because attempting to add to these terms later will erode the trust of the other party, which is clearly a no-no.

Done Means Done

Unless something substantive in the agreement changes, once the two parties have agreed on terms there is no more negotiating.  A fatal mistake people make is attempting to revisit aspects of the agreement.  Don’t do it.  Should you attempt, you won’t live to tell the tale and neither will your reputation.

Remember

To act on emotion, move first, or handle the negotiation carelessly will put your professional reputation at risk.  If you can’t make it work in the first couple of exchanges, respectfully decline and walk away.  Don’t force it or continue to negotiate; its professionally reckless and doesn’t leverage the karma of gratitude to your benefit.

Lastly, remember that negotiating a shakedown successfully takes practice.  As you gain practical experience, remember that to error by walking away too early is a preferential outcome to death by way of professional shakedown.

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Sign Language Interpreters and the Karma of Gratitude

It is easy to be disheartened by industry and economic challenges. By recognizing mentors and teachers, Brandon Arthur believes the karma of gratitude can lead sign language interpreters through difficult times.

Unemployment, wage reductions, and scant opportunity are just a few things that can describe the last year for sign language interpreters.  I believe it easy, given the industry turmoil, for interpreters to stumble into the trappings of ingratitude.

Who could blame us, its been rough out there.

Calling On Karma

While the industry has been a bit of a roller coaster this year, I wonder if we can improve our circumstances and avoid the pitfall of ingratitude by inviting karma to help us.  It’s worth a try, no?  Let’s try it by expressing our gratitude for a colleague or leader that has made a difference in our career.  To know them is to have been changed for the better.

I’ll start.

Paul Christie

With the exception of my life partner Tara (who is the most amazing person I have ever met and an incredible interpreter to boot), Paul Christie has had a tremendous impact on my career.  He took me under his wing when I was a young and new to the field.  You could say I was more than a little green behind the ears.

During our time working together in the Washington, DC metro area (DC, MD and VA), Paul regularly emphasized:

  • The importance of balancing one’s Deaf heritage with the standards of the industry.
  • That an artist creates the experience and the receiver determines the impact.
  • The importance of balancing family and career.

In addition to the above, and sharing his life experience, Paul was very encouraging when I had the entrepreneurial seizure that later became Visual Language Interpreting (VLI) and was supportive throughout its tenure.

Thank You, Mr. Christie

Paul—thanks for being an incredible human being and an amazing interpreter.  My career and journey in the field has been better because of your personal interest in me.  Thanks for the invitations to your home, and for listening to a young man while he attempted to figure out his career path and life in general—the goo inside.  Lastly, thanks for always being supportive first and constructively critical second.

Take A Turn

I am sure that each of you has at least one person who has had a dramatic impact on your career.  Again, let’s invite karma to help us through these industry challenges by publicly expressing our thanks for those who have given us the push we needed, when we needed it.

Your turn!

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A Sign Language Interpreter is a Sidewalk-Executive?

Every successful sign language interpreting business has at least one “sidewalk executive.” Brandon Arthur defines these well-connected, insightful practitioners and shines a light on the value they bring to the industry.

The sign language interpreting marketplace is peppered with interpreting companies big and small; some are uber successful and others not so much.  Let’s be honest, they are telling a similar story and selling nearly the same thing—whether it is Community or Video Relay services.  So, what makes one successful and another fizzle?

The answer is simple.

Successful companies have a sidewalk-executive sitting at decision making tables.

A sidewalk-executive is better known in our world as the extremely well connected, highly qualified, in demand, culturally sensitive, professional sign language interpreter.

Why is a sidewalk-executive a substantive advantage?

Lead From the Front

Sidewalk-executives lead from the front.  They are not afraid to get their hands dirty in order to get a job done.   Their “do what it takes” attitude allows them to operate with the speed of trust when working with customers and colleagues.   Sidewalk-executives are relationally oriented and understand the value of effectively managing the intersection where customers and practitioners come together.

The street credit of these professionals enables companies to gain traction quickly with paying customers, Deaf community players, and other sign language interpreters.

Feedback Loop

The connectivity that a sidewalk-executive has to the sign language interpreting marketplace runs deep and wide.  They are a critical feedback loop that assists a new company as they navigate the unfamiliar landscape and allows them to quickly correct any missteps or misperception.  This loop also helps a company stay abreast of the latest developments in the marketplace and position itself to capitalize on opportunities.

The feedback loop offered by a sidewalk-executive is central to a company receiving timely and unfiltered information.

Magic Maker

The biggest challenge in any enterprise is effectively executing its business strategy—making the magic happen.  Because a sidewalk-executive has their finger on the pulse of the interpreting marketplace, they are uniquely positioned to bring these strategies to life.  Their leadership has a tremendous impact on the motivation of colleagues and customers, and as a result they can garner the buy-in needed to make things happen.

The ability of a sidewalk-executive to successfully solicit support to implement strategy makes the difference between success and failure.

To: The Forgetful Decision Maker

To those decision makers who may have forgotten the importance of incorporating a sidewalk-executive into the decision making process, I would encourage you to remember what follows.

When you needed:

  • A guide to navigate the sign language interpreting marketplace, you reached for a sidewalk-executive.
  • An introduction to key community players and sign language interpreter leaders, you looked to a sidewalk-executive.
  • Perspective on industry practices, compensation, and trends, you looked to the sidewalk-executive.
  • An understanding of how to find customers and qualified practitioners, you looked to a sidewalk-executive.
  • Perspective on the worldview of those who generate revenue for the company, you looked to a sidewalk-executive.
  • Guidance on how to get buy-in around the company and with your customers, you looked to a sidewalk-executive.

A Hint

If you own or operate an interpreting related business—and things appear to be going sideways—ask yourself if you have enough sidewalk-executive representation at your table.  I might suggest you don’t.  After all, it was a sidewalk-executive—a sign language interpreter—that helped get the whole thing started.

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The Goo at the Center of a Sign Language Interpreter

 

Complex, reflective and passionate, sign language interpreters consider themselves artists. Understanding the creative & humanitarian forces that create the goo at their center enriches the experience of knowing one.

If a sign language interpreter could reach inside and scoop out the goo that makes them who they are, a mixture of artistic judgment, emotional labor, and organic creativity would drip from their fingers.  This genuine house blend is the very essence of who they are and why they’ve chosen to do what they do.

To those who work with, play or love a sign language interpreter, it is important that you not underestimate the power of the goo because, at times, it can rival Yoda’s “force!”

So, what are you in for if you find yourself connected to a sign language interpreter?  Let’s examine the goo and find out!

Artistic Judgment

Always remember that a sign language interpreter sees themselves as a craftsperson, an artist.  They spend hours—even years—honing their skills of observation in order to understand how to most effectively deliver their art.  So, they are a quick read of people and are pros at identifying a person’s motivation.  As a result of this artistic judgment, interpreters easily make connections with the people they come in contact with.

Emotional Labor

As artists with a keen sense of observation, sign language interpreters become expert at investing in people.  They quickly and efficiently invest small increments of emotional labor (personal, professional, linguistic, and cultural mediating micro-decisions) with those they come in contact with.  By doing this, they earn the social currency needed to make adjustments in work environments, achieve consensus among meeting participants, and to deliver experiences that are truly remarkable.

Organic Creativity

Sign language interpreters are among the naturally creative.  After spending significant time with one, you’ll note they have a high general intelligence and uncanny ability to adapt to nearly every situation.  This is possible because after working long hours in new environments, they follow with periods of reflection.  These moments of creative exploration give interpreters insight into how to better deliver their art and make connections with people in the world.  An interpreter’s inherent creativity is at the root of how and why they are able to comfortably operate in unfamiliar environments.

Goo Ignites Passion

This mixture at the center of an interpreter makes them determined and extremely passionate about their work.  This passion and raw determination serves them well most of the time.  Note, it can be a double edged sword.  On the one hand, a sticktoitiveness sense of being is essential when honing their craft and is critically necessary to survive in their profession.  On the other, it can lead them into advocacy roles that may put their reputation and relationships at risk.  This due to a belief, and perhaps a naïve one, that the interests of humanity will, and should, prevail.

The Take Away

Sign language interpreters come in all shapes and sizes; most of them are passionate and extremely committed to their craft and the community they serve.  Always remember, it is the goo that makes them compassionate, highly self-aware and work to possess a high level of intelligence.  It is also this goo that drives a passion that can be misinterpreted or misunderstood.

All-in-all, to know a sign language interpreter is to know someone who cares deeply about humanity in its many forms.

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Are You an Artist or Just the Sign Language Interpreter?

Are you an artist or just the sign language interpreter?

Sign language interpretation is part skill, part smarts, and a little bit of pixie dust. What are the qualities that elevate a sign language interpreter to an artist? Brandon Arthur provides his perspective on raising the bar.

You know them, the sign language interpreter “everyone loves, everyone wants to hire, and everyone wants to work with.”  Where do people with this perfect blend of supernatural skill and inviting personality come from?  Regardless of the answer, I believe we can agree that these amazing people exist in small numbers—only a handful per community.  Though small in number, the positive impact of their work and interactions is far reaching.  These interpreters clearly approach their daily work differently and in that difference I would call them artists.

Differentiating Characteristics

I know…I know…artists are difficult to categorize and often defy classification.  While this is true, there are characteristics consistently held in common by this group of sign language interpreting artists that the rest of us mere mortals can learn from.

Sign Language Interpreter – Artists:

  1. Believe that art is a choice first, a commitment second, and never a “pastime.”
  2. Understand that it isn’t the size of the stage, number of people, or the sophistication of those they work with that defines their art or its importance.
  3. Subscribe to the notion that art is only created when it is freely given.
  4. Understand that context is everything.
  5. View the sign language interpreting profession as more than a zero sum game.
  6. Take ownership of their humanity and the mistakes and flaws in their work that result.
  7. Don’t minimize the details.
  8. Embrace the concept that meaningful change begins internally.

When you consider the scarcity of the characteristics listed above, it is clear why there are so few artists in the profession of sign language interpreting and why we desperately need more of them.

It Starts With a Choice

It occurs to me that the daily choice to overcome the inertia of a short-term industry perspective is what prevents most of us from being artists.  Regardless of how slow and imperfect the industry progresses lets choose to be among the few in our community with the courage to create art and make a difference.

While aspiring to be a Lou Fant —whose long-term perspective helped establish the early footings of our profession—might be a stretch for most of us, we can be Lou-like in someone’s life today.