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Sign Language Interpreting—An Industry Past Feeling?

In an ever-changing field of engagement, sign language interpreters seem to have lost their collective voices. Brandon Arthur explores the factors which inhibit practitioners and gives hope for regaining agency and confidence.

It is often said that the anonymity of living in a big city and the effort to avoid feeling imposed on by the crush of humanity, makes people hard and unfeeling. After all, it’s only in the big city that a person can be attacked 3 times in a 30 minute period—as 38 witnesses look on—without single person placing a call to 911 that would save their life, right?

As I consider the staggering pace of change the sign language interpreting industry is experiencing and the magnitude of the challenges we confront, what is striking to me is what appears to be a sense of indifference and a dismissal of our need to be responsible industry citizens.

Why Do We Just Look On?

Why do we standby as our practices and standards are attacked by short-sighted colleagues, industry business and associations, and local and national regulating bodies?  Why do we look on as the quality of life that has taken decades to achieve erodes as regulation after regulation is legislated without us?  Why do we willingly sit quiet as our credentials and professional organization are increasingly viewed as unnecessary or irrelevant?

Is it because we have grown complacent under the 3 squares a day provided by staff employment?  Is it because we believe someone who better understands the issues will take the time to file a comment?  Is it that the part-time Government Affairs Program at RID is sufficient to ensure interpreters interests are represented in every city and every state and that every piece of legislation is crafted so we remain eligible to do the work?  Or, maybe it is that the hundreds of our colleagues who are recently underemployed/unemployed—as a result of industry regulation and change—is really someone else’s problem.  While these maybe true for some, I believe it is something more alarming.

We have lost our confidence.

The Confidence Crisis

For the first time in our collective history, the bigger challenges facing our industry are not directly related to moving the act of interpreting from an occupation to a profession; so we find ourselves feeling unprepared.  This feeling of being unprepared has given us an awareness of some sizable blind-spots in our field of vision.  We no longer intuitively understand the rules of engagement.  We don’t have direct access, in most cases, to the decision makers and people of influence.  We are unfamiliar with proper protocol and the process to meaningfully get things done.  We don’t know where to go to understand the issues or stay informed in real-time.

In short, we are unsure what to do.

So, we look on questioning our ability to help, believing someone else will make the call that will stop the attack.  We look on fearful that to act may result in our being numbered among the unemployed/underemployed.  So, we ignore the reflex to act and begin the internal chase for justification.

What Now?

Simple, we commit to stare down our discomfort and act.

We recondition our reflex to sit out by recognizing that the choice not to act is an action itself and only perpetuates the conspicuous absence of our collective voice in shaping the future.  We seek out information to understand the implications and consequences of the actions being taken by us and around us.  We conduct ourselves in a way that we are counted among the artists in our communities creating positive change.

Like the responsible citizen who hears the plea of a person being attacked, we endeavor to make the situation better.  Like this responsible citizen, each of us has a valid contribution to make.  So, let commit to make it and remove the perception that we are indifferent to the outcomes of the actions swirling around us.

We do care and we are not past feeling.

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What Characteristics Should the New RID Executive Director Have?

Someone Pondering

The search is on for a new Executive Director of RID. Brandon Arthur provides his perspective on some of the critical skills the new ED should possess.

The removal of longtime Executive Director, Clay Nettles, on the eve of the 2011 RID National conference came as quite a surprise.  See the official information release here.  A change in leadership at the top of any organization has many considerations.  It is my hope that—in the end—both RID and Clay can find a mutually agreeable way through the transition.

During the conference Cheryl Moose, outgoing RID President, stated, “it’s a new day at RID and we look forward to moving things along with the hiring of a new Executive Director.”  Clearly, this position is important to the success of RID and its representation of the sign language interpreter community.  In my mind, because this position is so important, the Search Committee should be seeking specific characteristics.

Specific Characteristics

  1. Keep the organization in sync with its members, and work with the Board to get ahead of the issues confronting the industry.
  2. Passionately tell the story of our industry.
  3. Recognize that both the organization’s success and their success—ushering in a new day—depends on their ability to identify patterns of change and position RID accordingly.
  4. Reshape the way the organization, its members, and industry businesses/organizations work together.
  5. Work with the Board to mold a future group of leaders in order to multiply RID’s ability to make better decisions and get things done.
  6. Anticipate external forces that may limit the forward movement of the organization.
  7. Insist on accountability throughout all facets of RID.
  8. Consistently recognize the contributions of the current and past artists within our field.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, I believe—based on my purview of the industry—RID would be well served by someone with these skills.

Roll-up your sleeves Search Committee; you’re going to need to get dirty on this one.

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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.