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Should Sign Language Interpreters Unionize?


Unionization of sign language interpreters continues to be a topic of discussion in our field. Author Anthony Goodwin presents some pros and cons on the impact of establishing a union for interpreters.

In today’s economic downturns and upswings, representation in the labor market is paramount to the success of any profession.  The profession of sign language interpreting is no different.  Without understanding the influence unity bears, sign language interpreters all over the country, dare I say the world, will not realize the import of their services as a group of professionals.  Individually, we who are in private practice or in some type of hybrid practice thereof, will always be on the weaker end of the negotiating table.

From negotiating with mega agencies to any type of employment negotiations, the individual sign language interpreter often lacks the leverage of any good negotiations:  information.  We keep quiet about our rates. We are afraid that someone will undercut our bids. We undercut other interpreters just to get the contract for that one day job.  Often, we are unaware and unconcerned about the greater repercussions of such actions:  how will our acceptance of lower rates and non-support during extensive interpreting assignments affect the industry, affect our colleagues, and even ourselves for the next assignment?

Time For a Union?

As I have traveled around the country, I’ve had the chance to work with a variety of sign language interpreters in a myriad of settings. Conversations about having a union that represents sign language interpreters in the labor market inevitably crop up.  I have yet to meet an interpreter who disagrees with the idea.  Does that mean we should rush out and establish a union? No.  But it does mean we should be having serious conversations about what it looks like to be represented in the labor market of sign language interpreters.

There are both pros and cons to forming a union.  On the surface it seems like a great idea, but what are the hidden pitfalls?  First, the cons.

The Cons

Unions often can become beasts in and of themselves.  Like any corporation, they intend to survive. Those who run the organizations seek to preserve their positions and jobs.  Self-preservation can very easily and inconspicuously become the driving factor.  If this happens, and it will, then professional concerns will take a back seat although any activity will be couched in terms of benefitting the constituency.

Second, unions can often demand salaries or rates that the market will not bear.  If that happens, then corporations that higher a significant number of sign language interpreters and doctors’ offices and other smaller venues may seek ways to avoid hiring interpreters.  Moreover, the deaf community may suffer adverse affects of such consequences.

Third, unions can have a polarizing affect within companies and workplaces.  They support an “us” versus “them” environment and often work best in adversarial environments.  For example, union members versus non-union members, or union members versus employers or management can be an adversarial environment.  Because unions work solely for their constituents, such an environment can create salary and pay discrepancies among other sign language interpreters in the same work place.  This dynamic can have negative affects on the working environment within the profession as well.

Fourth, there may be an argument for redundancy.  The work that our professional organizations such as the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), the National Alliance of Black Interpreters, Inc. (NAOBI, Inc.), and Mano a Mano are doing can be viewed as empowering sign language interpreters such that they feel that they are already represented in the labor market.

The Pros

Unions can provide representation in the labor market for sign language interpreters.  It allows professionals to be united in terms of fees, qualifications, labor standards for the sign language interpreting industry, and so on.  RID, NAOBI, Inc. and Mano a Mano already work toward influencing and establishing industry practices.  These organizations, however, are not labor market representatives.  All three organizations support industry standards related to certification and testing.  All three organizations weigh in on licensing as it relates to particular states where chapters of these respective organizations are established.  A union, however, takes up as its sole cause the proactive work of the protection of its constituency from unfair business practices, disadvantageous working environments and inequitable wages, fee schedules, and benefits. In fact, unions can be quite beneficial in establishing, maintaining and ensuring fair market value for services rendered.

Second, unions can be an additional source of pension security for sign language interpreters.  Currently, private practitioners (freelance) sign language interpreters can set up self-directed retirement accounts.  Those who also work in some capacity for corporations or for any type of government agency may have access to a 501K plan.

Last, unions have the potential for maximizing leverage within the sign language interpreting profession.  As sign language interpreters, we tend to be lone rangers.  Divided we fall.  A possible benefit of a union is that of agreement.  Sign language interpreters as a group have the unique ability to be able to provide direct work as well as the ability to sub-contract and/or to be employed.  This is a form of empowerment. Awareness and understanding of this fact means we are a strong professional group able to ensure the quality of our industry and the fairness of the market value for our services.

Conclusion of the Matter

Some thoughts to consider: how can dialoguing about unionizing increase awareness and understanding of our industry and of the service we provide? What types of workshops along these lines can initiate a dialogue about sign language interpreters understanding the power of their service?    What are the gaps in our profession that impede this type of dialogue?

Maybe we should consider the example of other organizations:  the Writers Guild of America; the Directors Guild of America; the Screen Actors Guild.  What about the history and functions of these organizations can we benefit from in the sign language interpreter profession?

My hope is that we can begin a national dialogue about how to foster agreement, unity, and empowerment within our profession so that we continue to ensure quality service and fair market value for services rendered.

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Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility


Sign language Interpreter presence vs. interpreter invisibility represent two sides of the same coin. Anna Witter-Merithew encourages practitioners to recommit to more culturally-aware practices.

Some time ago some Deaf colleagues were talking about a familiar topic of conversations with and about interpreters, interpreter attitude.  As has typically been my experience, their use of this phrase carried a negative connotation.  Essentially, they perceived the interpreters who interpreted an event they attended as aloof, detached and largely disinterested.

What Happened?

When I inquired about specific behaviors, they described how the interpreters arrived for the event, let the event coordinator know they had arrived, briefly introduced themselves to the Deaf consumers, and then isolated themselves at the front of the room where they began texting and chatting while waiting for the event to start.

During the event, there was little if any effort by the interpreters to check-in with the consumers to verify whether things were working well or not.  During breaks the interpreters disappeared or were observed in the front of the room texting, talking on the phone or chatting with each other.  There was no initial interaction to break-the-ice and allow the consumers and interpreters to become acquainted or to explore logistical considerations and preferences. There was no inquiry into consumer preferences or the effectiveness of the services that were delivered.

At the end of the event, the interpreters said a quick good-bye and left. These behaviors—or lack thereof—were perceived as culturally rude and representative of a poor attitude.  Further, these Deaf individuals reported being distracted by these perceptions during the event being interpreted.  Their thoughts were on the challenge of working through versus with interpreters instead of the subject matter being interpreted.

This one specific example of interpreter attitude has really stuck with me. I find myself paying close attention to how we as sign language interpreters establish our presence and relate to consumers prior to, during and after interpreting assignments.  As a result, I have become increasing aware of just how deep the roots of the interpreter as invisible remain embedded in some of our professional acts and practices.  Even though we strive to move forward theoretically and philosophically in deepening our relationship with Deaf people, some of our professional acts and practices demonstrate that we are still working in the shadow of invisibility.  And, what these professional acts and practices communicate to Deaf people may be counter to our intentions.

Interpreter as Invisible

Historically, in an effort to minimize the potential for the sign language interpreter to step outside their role and take-over a communication event, the field-at-large has encouraged practitioners to perform their duties in the least obtrusive ways possible—even to the extreme of behaving as if they were invisible; merely a conduit for transmitting information from one language into another.  Interpreters may assume they must be detached to be impartial and/or appear professional. Interpreters might instruct speakers to proceed, “as if I am not even here.”  Unfortunately, such a restricted view of the role of an interpreter has proved fraught with misconceptions—the presence of an interpreter in the midst of what would otherwise be a direct human interaction will always have inherent implications.  There have been studies in the field of spoken and sign language interpreting that illustrate the degree to which interpreter presence impacts the outcome of communication events—often in unexpected and unintended ways.

In reality, the view of sign language interpreters as merely conduits has always been faulty primarily because the interpreter must be physically and intellectually present in the interaction to be successful. The interpreter cannot behave as if invisible because there are clearly times when there is a need for the interpreter to manage the flow of communication and facilitate or seek clarification of messages, as well conduct more active interventions when appropriate. Further, facilitation of and access to communication is at the heart of interpreting and is dependent on forming rapport and relationship as part of the interpreting process.

Nevertheless, assumptions that perpetuate the interpreter behaving as if invisible still exist and are evident in the experience of the Deaf colleagues when confronted with an interpreter team who is detached and functioning as disengaged. We still have work to do in terms of stepping out of the shadow of invisibility—focusing on how we establish our presence is just one opportunity.

Interpreter Presence

Interpreter presence relates to the manner and conduct of a sign language interpreter in the midst of interaction with consumers.  Ideally, this presence is evident in the quality of poise and effectiveness that enables the interpreter to achieve a productive and collaborative relationship with consumers.  This quality is much like a spirit or a manner that is felt and received by consumers as genuine engagement, attentiveness, readiness, acceptance, respect.  It is predicated on the desire to offer performance that facilitates a successful outcome—where consumers are able to achieve their goals for the communication event.  It should be evident in all phases of an interpreted assignment—pre, during and post.

Interpreter presence involves the state of mind and level of attention a sign language interpreter brings to his or her work—the state of being closely focused on the relationships and communication at hand, not distracted by irrelevant thoughts or external events.  This clarity of thinking and attention to the task at hand is an important part of the interpreter’s ability to deliver accurate and meaning-based interpretation. Establishing presence is central to creating rapport and establishing trust with consumers.

To illustrate, consider the importance of establishing presence in the healthcare setting where a strong rapport between the healthcare professional, patient and sign language interpreter will enhance the amount and quality of information about the patient’s illness transferred in both directions.  This can enhance the accuracy of diagnosis and increase the patient’s knowledge about the status of their health, thus leading to greater compliance with the proposed treatment plan.  Where such a relationship is compromised because the interpreter fails to create a functional presence, the potential for misunderstanding and risk increase.

Let’s Make the Commitment

It is important to acknowledge that consistently creating an effective presence requires a conscious and deliberate commitment—something that is not always easy to attain in the busy and fast-paced world in which we live.  There are many demands that compete for our attention. The intersection between the linguistic tasks associated with interpreting and the interpersonal dynamics involved in an interpreted interaction are indeed challenging to manage. However, if our intention is create and sustain meaningful relationships with Deaf consumers, this is one way we can make a difference.

Where do we begin?  A first step is self-assessment—we all benefit from a personal check-in with ourselves to examine and monitor our interpersonal behaviors.

  • Do I take time to meet Deaf consumers before assignments to become acquainted and discuss logistical considerations?
  • Do I touch base with Deaf consumers regularly throughout the assignment to make sure things are progressing effectively?
  • Do I make myself available to Deaf consumers during breaks to see if I can be of assistance?
  • Do I avoid using technology during assignments so I remain open, available, and approachable should I be needed?
  • Does my affect and demeanor reflect attentiveness, alertness, engagement and readiness?
  • Do I make myself available at the conclusion of assignments to connect with Deaf consumers should they be interested?
  • If I must leave immediately after an assignment, do I touch base with the Deaf consumer first, letting them know I need to leave and extending my appreciation for the opportunity to work with them?
  • Do I regularly talk with Deaf individuals, outside of interpreting assignments, about their perceptions and expectations of interpreters?  If I do, am I a good listener?

This is one practical way in which we can work to improve the experiences of Deaf consumers with sign language interpreters—and thereby improve our relationship with Deaf people. Let’s make the commitment to continue to step out of the shadows of invisibility and demonstrate our respect for the interactional and cultural norms of the Deaf Community.  Might this lead to less discussion of interpreter attitude and more discussion of Deaf-heart?

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Vanquished Native Voices — A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?


Native Coda interpreters form the roots of the field and RID. Dennis Cokely urges us to respect Coda voices as sources of understanding and leadership. Maintaining these connections is critical for the field moving forward.

As sign language interpreters we have the difficult and challenging task of straddling two languages/cultures (Michal Agar coined the term “languaculture” to highlight the fact that language and culture cannot really be separated.) But I suggest, as others have (see Bill Moody’s 12/11/11 comment), that the vast majority of us approach this daunting task only partially prepared. To fully understand and appreciate this reality I believe we must constantly examine our roots and acknowledge the valuable resource we have around us.

Our Roots

When the RID was established in 1964 Codas played a prominent role in rendering sign language interpreting services for Deaf people and in the establishment of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). Indeed for the first two decades of RID’s existence the president was a Coda. For the first decade or so the majority of interpreters were related by blood to Deaf people. (“All-in-all, to know a sign language interpreter is to know someone who cares deeply about humanity in its many forms” — this from an earlier post on this site by Brandon Arthur in “The Goo at the Center of a Sign Language Interpreter”). In the last twenty-five years, however, Codas have not been as well represented in the elected leadership of RID as I believe they should be and as I believe we need them to be.

Native World-View

As the ranks of RID members who were not-Codas swelled inexorably (in large part because of federal laws as I have suggested in “Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain”), it has become less and less a given that we will have the insights of Codas on the RID Board of Directors. This would prove to be a significant loss for our organization and for the future direction of our field.

For those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — the DEAF-WORLD and ASL are neither our first culture nor our first language; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — our initial societally reinforced perceptions of Deaf people are that they are “disabled” and are therefore inferior to those of us who can hear; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know the feeling of experiencing firsthand the communicative oppression of our family members; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know the pressures of family members depending on us to facilitate communication; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know what it is like to grow up in a Deaf household; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know what it is like to grow up in a visually-oriented world-view.

I suggest that the experience and world-view gap between Codas and non-Codas may best be encapsulated by Egg Drop Soup who posted on the website: “Sometimes it’s the worry that gets to me; that one day, I won’t know where they are and won’t have any way of getting in contact with them. Sometimes, it’s the clash of cultures – my adopted American individualism colliding unpleasantly with their traditional Eastern values. Other times, it’s the frustration of constantly being their ears and mouths, translating for them for friends, doctors, teachers, car salesmen, and even the occasional police officer.” This is unquestionably an experience and world-view that those of us who are not Codas can only experience vicariously in our wildest imaginings. Codas also represent a rich cultural reservoir from which I believe those of us who are not Codas must draw because Codas are connected to Deaf people in an intense and intimate way.

It is precisely this intense level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant presence as a guide to our work; it is precisely this level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant presence in the regular and secured leadership of RID; it is precisely this level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant reminder of the roots of our profession.

Don’t Feel Inadequate

All of this is, of course, is in no way intended to make those of us who are not Codas feel inadequate as interpreters. Our experiences – Codas and non-Codas — are simply quite different. Our experiences are neither better nor worse, they are just different. And, no, I am not suggesting that all Codas are effective and successful interpreters and neither do I believe that that one must be a Coda to be an effective and successful sign language interpreter. However, I do believe that to be effective and successful as an interpreter one must absolutely have deep and sustained connections to the Deaf Community. And since 54% of us spend less than 10% of our time socializing with Deaf people (see my 1/5/12 comment on “Complicit With a Devils’ Bargains” post), this is a serious problem for us as a field! I absolutely am suggesting that listening to and ensuring a presence for the native voice of the Coda-experience is one incredibly vital way that we as individual practitioners and as a field can begin to re-connect with Deaf people and can connect with the experience of the communicative oppression that Deaf people experience on a daily basis. Perhaps more importantly we can develop a fuller and enriched understanding of and appreciation for what it is we do as interpreters.

A Coda on the RID Board

This past July at the RID Conference a motion was passed by a significant majority that would create a dedicated position on the RID Board of Directors for a certified member who was raised by one or two Deaf parents. I absolutely and unequivocally believe that we must ensure that RID, our organization, does not lose the vital Coda link to our past. I can think of no compelling reason why we, as an organization, would not want to ensure this irreplaceable link to our past and its presence on our Board of Directors. Some would argue that RID (us) would incur additional expenses by adding an additional seat on the Board. I would argue that the price of doing so definitely does not outweigh the cost of not doing so.

Further, I would encourage the leadership of any association serving sign language interpreters to work to ensure that the Coda link to our past is represented as they move their respective organizations forward.

In Sum

I urge every member of RID to honor our past, cherish our present and enrich our future by voting in the affirmative to create a dedicated Coda seat on the RID Board of Directors. When the vote is called for next fall I urge us all to vote to ensure that we always have a Native Voice on our Board of Directors!

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How Practicing Sign Language Interpreters Protect Against Legal Liability

Sign Language Interpreters: Protecting Against Legal Liability

In order to protect their livelihood, sign language interpreters must consider the risks and costs of doing business in a practice profession. Carla Mathers addresses some commonly expressed concerns and considerations to explore.

As we have seen from the discussion of whether sign language interpreters are complicit in the statutory bargain with the devil, interpreters are in a practice profession in which trust, reliability and heart are important attributes. While these characteristics might seem at odds with the concept of running an interpreting practice, there are a number of important considerations for sign language interpreters to weigh when thinking about how best to protect themselves as practitioners. While each state varies in their regulatory environment for small businesses, and this post does not purport to offer legal advice, several general questions should be thought through in establishing and running a practice.

What Risks do I Face?

All businesses face risk of one type or another. Simply stated, risk is the probability of an event happening and an understanding of the event’s consequences. The insurance industry exists to help people minimize the effect of the unforeseen event. There are different types of insurance which should be considered by sign language interpreters. Other than the obvious, health insurance, sign language interpreters most often question whether they need professional indemnity insurance. An interpreter can be sued for malpractice if they undertake an assignment and do not follow the standard of care in performing that assignment. If this breach of the standard of care causes damages to any of the parties, the interpreter can be liable. Professional indemnity insurance covers you in case a judgment is awarded against you.

However, a judgment is not the only risk involved in a professional liability claim. An interpreter should ensure that their legal expenses are covered and this is typically a different policy which covers the litigation costs when either initiating a suit or defending a suit. These are the costs that can truly be devastating to any small business.

Further, it is important to think about what would happen to you and your practice if there were an interruption of your business because of a catastrophic illness or national disaster. Various types of insurance are available such as income protection insurance in the event of illness and business interruption insurance in the case of a disaster which prohibits you from doing business and the resulting loss of income.

Mandatory Reporter

Finally, sign language interpreters working in any setting around children need to know whether they are considered mandatory reporters under the state in which they are working. While all states have laws regarding mandatory reporting, according to the Federal Administration for Families and Children, “[a]pproximately 48 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands designate professions whose members are mandated by law to report child maltreatment. Individuals designated as mandatory reporters typically have frequent contact with children.” While sign language interpreters might think this only applies to educational interpreters, some states require reporting from mental health professionals, law enforcement, court appointed special advocates, members of the clergy and domestic violence workers. New Jersey and Wyoming require all persons to report suspected neglect and abuse regardless of profession. Because sign language interpreters, at times, have a somewhat rigid view of their confidentiality mandate, a review of the relevant legal authority in the state in which one works is strongly suggested. A state by state statutory chart is available here and would be a good place to find the statutes applicable in your state(s) of practice.

Do I Need to Incorporate?

The most common forms of business are the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, and S corporation and the Limited Liability Company.

Sole Proprietorship

Most sign language interpreters probably function as a sole proprietorship. A sole proprietor is someone who owns an unincorporated business by himself or herself. This form of business organization has many advantages. It is the simplest form of organization because there are no set up costs, no complicated bookkeeping and no separate tax return to be filed for the proprietorship. The income is attributed to the individual and the business expenses are tallied on the individual’s tax return. The dangers of a sole proprietorship derive primarily from the liability of the owner for any of the proprietorship’s debts, including legal judgments.

Limited Liability Company

Another option is the Limited Liability Company, (“LLC”). An LLC is the least complicated and has several advantages. According to the IRS, “A Limited Liability Company is a business structure allowed by state statute. LLCs are popular because, similar to a corporation, owners have limited personal liability for the debts and actions of the LLC. Other features of LLCs are more like a partnership, providing management flexibility and the benefit of pass-through taxation.”

Hence, the LLC’s income is passed through to the individual owner and taxes are paid in the normal course as an individual. The major advantage to the LLC is that liability for the corporate debts, including legal judgments, is limited. The federal government does not recognize an LLC as a classification for federal tax purposes. An LLC business entity must file a corporation, partnership or sole proprietorship tax return.


The S and C corporations are more complicated and involve significantly more paperwork and accounting requirements. There may also be state imposed fees annually to maintain the corporation in good standing. Separate tax returns are filed for the corporations and employment taxes must be paid for employees of the corporation. The major advantage is that the owner is not liable for the debts of the corporation, though the downside is that there is double taxation: the corporation must pay taxes on its earnings, and the owner pays taxes on his or her wages.

Again, according to the experts at the IRS, “S corporations are corporations that elect to pass corporate income, losses, deductions and credit through to their shareholders for federal tax purposes. Shareholders of S corporations report the flow-through of income and losses on their personal tax returns and are assessed tax at their individual income tax rates. This allows S corporations to avoid double taxation on the corporate income. S corporations are responsible for tax on certain built-in gains and passive income.”

Traditional corporations are called C corporations. The IRS explains, “[i]n forming a corporation, prospective shareholders exchange money, property, or both, for the corporation’s capital stock. A corporation generally takes the same deductions as a sole proprietorship to figure its taxable income. A corporation can also take special deductions. For federal income tax purposes, a C corporation is recognized as a separate taxpaying entity. A corporation conducts business, realizes net income or loss, pays taxes and distributes profits to shareholders. The profit of a corporation is taxed to the corporation when earned, and then is taxed to the shareholders when distributed as dividends. This creates a double tax. The corporation does not get a tax deduction when it distributes dividends to shareholders. Shareholders cannot deduct any loss of the corporation.”

Employer Identification Number

One of the corporate actions that is beneficial to sign language interpreters, even to sole practitioners, is to obtain a Federal Employer Identification Number (“FEIN”) which can be used on tax returns, contracts, responses to requests for proposals and invoices and which protects the interpreter from having to supply a social security number on these items. A FEIN can be obtained from the IRS website.

Speaking of taxes, as private practitioner, the interpreter should file estimated taxes quarterly on the 15th of January, April, June and September annually. If you are not well schooled in tax preparation, it is a good idea to retain a CPA to assist you in ensuring that your taxes are filed properly.

What Else Should I know?

It is helpful to make sure you obtain contracts for interpreting services in writing. Among other things, those contracts should indicate that you are an independent contractor and not an employee of the hiring entity. Contracts should list your terms or conditions of working, and be tailored to each client and each assignment. Contracts should be read carefully and if particularly complex, the interpreter should consider retaining legal counsel to review and to advise on the documents. Speaking of documents, you should maintain organized business files and keep your records at least seven (7) years.

In some states, you must register to do business if you offer services in the state. In others, sign language interpreters are regulated by a state entity and more defined licensing as an interpreter is required. If you are in a state with a commission, you should consult with its staff on your licensing and registration requirements. In other states, you should contact the executive branch agency responsible for licensing and regulations to determine whether you need a business license or whether you need to register your trade name if you are using a fictitious business name.

There are several good books out there for organizing and running an interpreting practice. I would recommend Tammera J. Richards’ book, Establishing a Freelance Interpretation Business: Professional Guidance for Sign Language Interpreters, currently in its 3rd edition. More information can be obtained at her website.


This post is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.  Access to this post does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the user or browser.