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FCC VRS Reform Part II – Sign Language Interpreters File Public Comment

Censored Sign Language Interpreter Working in Video Relay

When there is an opportunity for sign language interpreters and stakeholders to participate in creating the direction of the VRS industry, participation is critical. Brandon Arthur suggests that even more importantly, that participation should be well-informed, well-framed, and professionally presented. 

The charge of emotion sign language interpreters received at the hand of VRS Reform, while important in prompting us to action, can be detrimental if not checked when filing comment with the FCC. Though appreciative of the sign language interpreter who overcame the inertia of apathy and filed this comment with the FCC, I believe their filing would be taken more seriously were they to have checked their emotion and considered what follows prior to submitting comment.

When Filing FCC Comment

First Things First

When filing comment with the FCC, remember you are submitting comment in a public forum. To dispense with formalities is poor form and a demonstration of one’s lack of competency related to public proceedings. Consequently, please be sure to address your comment to:

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

Further, it is important to reference the docket number for which you are filing comment. The FCC and the general public need to be able to quickly reference the matter upon which you are responding. Yes, this should be a given. In this instance the docket number for the Structure and Practices of the Video Relay Service Program is:

CG Docket No. 1051

Be Specific

When crafting your comment, please be cognizant that the readers of your submission will not have the reference points found in your head (crazy I know). Therefore, be specific in your comments and recommendations. Comment without sufficient context and specificity are of no use to FCC when considering the impact and development of their proposed rule-making.

The No-No

It is critical to remember when filing a comment that to villainize the FCC, VRS providers, your employer or any organizations is inappropriate and frankly misguided. While we may feel justified in doing so due to the negative impact a proposed rule may have on sign language interpreters, it is important that we refrain.

Callout the Benefits

It works to the merit of your comment to specifically point out the public and stakeholder benefits—which includes the FCC—in all recommendations offered. Further, it is important to consider that recommendations must work on a broad scale, which means any recommendation will inherently work to the exclusion of some.

How to File Comment

To file a formal comment via letter, you need to use the ECFS Expert Form.

The following is required:

  1. Proceeding Number (already entered if you click on the link above, if not enter 10-51)
  2. Name of Filer (your name if filing personal comments)
  3. Type of filing (‘Comment’ should already be selected)
  4. Address
  5. Upload document
  6. Review & Confirm your submission

FCC tips on how to file can be found by clicking here.

Will You Join Me?

In most grassroots attempts to persuade a public entity to adopt a certain perspective, people talk a tough game, but fail to support the effort with their time and/or resources. Well, here goes less talk and more walk.

I have drafted a both a comment to file with the FCC and talking points (at the end) that you can freely incorporate into your own FCC filing.  You can find them both here.

I am hopeful that you will join with me in filing comment on this important issue.  Remember, we only have approximately 35 days to get our comments in.

Let’s not let our careers be victimized by our own apathy.

 

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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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Sign Language Interpreting, Leadership, and Messy Relationships; What They Have in Common

Leadership and relationships for sign language interpreters

Sign language interpreters regularly perform complex interpersonal tasks which require presence and energy. Amy Seiberlich suggests self-awareness and openness are required to achieve personal and professional success.

Sign language interpreting and Leading are alike – the success of each is largely dependent on one’s quality of character and ability to navigate complex interpersonal dynamics. Yet when we talk about either we generally focus our attention on the technical skills required to accomplish the task ahead. Technical skills aside, there is much to learn about improving the quality of our interpreting if we simply turn our attention towards matters of leadership.

Worldview

Leadership involves managing people, and people are messy. Each person is a system of individual experiences, memories, belief systems and values that form a viewing window for the world. No two people combine these elements in the same manner. Even siblings who grew up in the same family of origin and who share these elements have formed different windows. We are each a unique expression of how our journey has unfolded and that impacts our work as sign language interpreters. At its core then, leadership is about managing complicated and messy relationships – with others, and with self.

Developing a Relationship with Self

A teacher once told me that you must first be able to lead self before you can lead others. I later realized what he meant was that I needed to understand and develop a strong relationship with myself before I could expect to do the same with others. So the authentic leadership journey begins at our own front door!

Starting with these simple tips is a first step towards deepening your relationship with, and successfully leading self.

  • Attend to matters of the heart. The heart is where we carry our wounds, and our joy. Identify, work through and clear your being of emotional wounds, then consciously choose to fill the space with joy. Bring this joy into every sign language interpreting event and observe the quality of your interactions and work improve!
  • Spend time in reflection. Take time during the day to reflect upon how you are feeling about the life you have created, and how you participate in that life. Do your daily activities generate or deplete your energy? Be honest about how living in a depleted state affects your ability to be present in sign language interpreting interactions. Then take measures to eliminate or restructure activities that deplete your life force.
  • Tap into your inner five year old. View the world around you with childlike curiosity and wonder. Enter interpreting situations with an “I wonder why I have been placed here today, in this situation…what am I here to learn?” mindset.

Cultivating the ability to successfully lead self gently flows into becoming fully present in each moment, and a clearer channel of communication for others.

Do for Yourself

If you neglect self, you will neglect others – you cannot do for others what you refuse to do for yourself. Leadership efforts may result in some work being done, but the process will be painful rather than joyful. Interpreting assignments will be the same. We must own the quality of our character, and be self and other aware, in order to develop into the leader or sign language interpreter we aspire to be, and the Deaf community expects us to be.

Now is the time to stop focusing our attention outside of self to learn to be a better leader or interpreter…to be either, take an honest look inside.

Your journey begins within, start today.

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Sign Language Interpreters – Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain?

Are Sign Language Interpreters Complicit in a Devil's Bargin?

When sign language interpreting shifted from “social service” to “business”, a chasm developed between the Deaf community & sign language interpreters. How do we regain and retain connection to the community that we serve?

Five decades ago those of us who functioned as sign language interpreters were allies of Deaf people, united with them in fighting for communicative access to the various services and opportunities offered to society at large. Working to overcome the daily attitudinal and communicative oppression that confronted Deaf people was a force that served to unite interpreters and Deaf people. Then the communicative access needs of Deaf people were provided by the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, relatives, teachers, ministers, VR counselors and friends of Deaf people. Indeed, the interpreting scene for Deaf people then was in many ways like it is today for individuals needing spoken language access to society’s services and opportunities.

Communicative Oppression

The communicative oppression Deaf people experienced enabled them to define the work of sign language interpreters in many ways – they vetted interpreters (there were no Interpreter Training Programs or credentialing procedures), they arranged for interpreters (there were no laws requiring provision of interpreters), and they shared their language (there were no formal sign language classes except perhaps in churches) and their “Deaf grapevine” made known to the Community who could be trusted as an interpreter and who could not (there were no referral agencies). For interpreters, supporting the struggle for communicative access was an “other-centered” activity that focused on issues of justice for Deaf people and their rights.

Fifty years later, while audism still persists, the right to communicative access for Deaf people has been ensured by three federal laws (PL 93-112, PL 94-142 and PL 101-336). However, the cost to Deaf people and to sign language interpreters has been quite significant. For Deaf people who, beginning in the seventies and eighties, sought to be viewed as a linguistic and cultural minority, the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that they were to be labeled as “disabled”; the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that they would quickly lose the ability to define the work of interpreters; the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that they would soon no longer be the primary source from which non-Deaf people would learn their language; the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that reputation within the Community mattered less and less. To be sure, this was a true devil’s bargain, one whose terms may not have been fully made clear to, understood nor foreseen by Deaf people. Nevertheless, the cost to interpreters and to our standing as allies of Deaf people may have been even more severe.

The Consequences

Certainly one consequence of the three federal laws was to create an “interpreter for hire” environment in which the overwhelming majority of hiring entities (school principals, interpreter coordinators, conference coordinators, etc.) would not be Deaf. Thus while we, as sign language interpreters, might hold certification from RID, a non-Deaf dominated certifying or credentialing entity, that fact alone does not mean that we have been vetted by Deaf people or had our skills honed in the crucible of the Community. Additionally these federal laws created the “business model” of interpreting which was a decided shift from the “service model” of interpreting according to which we operated fifty years ago. Among other things, the “business model” has lead to interpreters earning a national average of $38.00 per hour (with a two hour minimum) and referral agencies billing on average twice that amount – a 100% surcharge. And when we consider that 51% of interpreters work full-time and 54% of Deaf people are unemployed, one wonders whether interpreters have materially benefited more from this legislated “Devil’s bargain” than have Deaf people.

Another consequence is that an enormous interpreter supply demand gap was legislatively created. While Deaf people used to arrange for and negotiate for the provision of sign language interpreting services according to their schedules, Deaf people are now forced to live their lives according to interpreters’ schedules and work availability. For example, it is worth noting that, according to national surveys, 78% of Deaf people report that medical settings are the most important situations in which they need interpreting services and yet those are the very settings for which they report it is most difficult to be provided with interpreting services. Little wonder since only 30% of sign language interpreters nationwide work in medical settings more than 30% of the time. Our work choices now dictate the rhythm of Deaf people’s lives. Our work choices constrain the life decisions of Deaf people. Our work choices either uphold or deny human rights and avow or disavow human dignity.

Our Roots

Deaf people used to be the primary source of helping us learn their language and they did so by teaching it to us from birth, or because we had familial ties or because they extended opportunities for us to socialize with them. But now according to a national survey 49% of nationally credentialed sign language interpreters spend less than 10% of their time socializing with Deaf people; only 20% of us are members of NAD and only 8% of us are members of their state association of the Deaf. How then do we keep abreast of changes in the language or changes in the attitudes/perspectives of Deaf people? How do we justify learning their language and profiting from it without giving back? In becoming a “profession” have we simply become parasites?

If, as a group, we interpreters are no longer as tightly bound to Deaf people as we were before, if there is no common uniting cause that binds us to Deaf people, if we have begun to view interpreting as a business rather than a response to personal connections, if we have materially benefited from laws mandating the presence of interpreters more than Deaf people, then the questions must be asked – what are we willing to do as individuals to become reconnected with Deaf people? Are we willing to adjust our work choices to accommodate the rhythm of Deaf people’s lives?

What should we be doing as a field/profession to give back to the Community?

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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.