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Case Discussion: Sign Language Interpreters Contain Their Inner “What the…!!!?”


Real-life case discussion brings a myriad of benefits to us as sign language interpreters. Kendra Keller highlights how engaging in supervised, structured case discussion can lead to not only enhanced technique but a deeper relationship among us doing the work.

As sign language interpreters, we continue to struggle with the very real human costs, the fallout from the gaps in our professional development and consideration of each other in our work. As we continue to evolve in how we discuss our work with each other, we need to consider a process which will assist us in staying engaged with consumers and all aspects of our work.

Case discussion, in the context of supervision, is an important tool sign language interpreters have available to them for this very purpose. Case discussion is a professional space to hold discussions using our actual experiences, in a shared commitment to uphold ethics, confidentiality and a collective process.

Case Discussion – How it Works

The structured process of case discussion allows for sufficient support without constricting the actual discussion and helps to highlight, tease out and identify the interpreting decisions made in the face of the tasks we are confronted with while on the job.

As a result of this process, case discussions become a mirror of the individual process, reflecting back to the individual the effectiveness and ethicality of their work via the light of many eyes, minds and hearts. This guided self-discovery provides a profound and meaningful learning opportunity.

Redirect Fight or Flight

What is it that keeps us from effectively talking about our work?  As mentioned above, as a profession, we continue to struggle with the very real human costs, the fallout from the gaps in our professional development and consideration of each other in our work. Sign language interpreters, like those in other helping professions, show a trend of being hypercritical of our selves…[and therefore, others]…(Feasey, 2002).  This hypercritical response grows to a tipping point where we are expelled from a process engaged with team and consumers, into some version of a fight/flight defense reaction.  Operating in a state of flight or flight limits our engagement and awareness of others except as the source of potential threat and therefore,  options, thought worlds, culture, and communication dynamics. This stance preempts our awareness of choices, or controls – thus hobbling an effective and ethical decision-making process.  This occurs when we are interpreting as well as in discussion with colleagues.  It could be seen as an inherent ‘system failure.’

Shared Process

When managing the complexity of the task results in a system failure for the working sign language interpreter it can be attributed to two things, if you apply the thinking of Gorovitz and MacIntyre in Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right:

  1. Ignorance. The partial or incomplete understanding of the task and its complexities.
  2. Ineptitude. A failure to apply what we know correctly.

This ignorance may simply be that we may not be aware of what we don’t yet know.  Research shows that in some settings we may be unaware of controls or do not feel we can use them if we are aware of them. (Dean and Pollard, 2010). Alternately, our concept of role and interpreter presence may be constricted; we may not be aware of a demand to be able to respond with an effective control option.  For example, the interpreter who is trying to be ‘invisible’ fails to consult with the Deaf and hearing consumers before and after an assignment or during breaks, overlooking the consumers’ needs.   We may not realize that the decision to spell out the same word repeatedly for which there is an agreed upon sign creates more visual noise and even a foreignalization or word which looks like a new vocabulary item to the deaf person.  We are not aware of the fact that we are responding to many demands, that we are making decisions; nor are we aware of the consequences of them.

Ineptitude can be described here as overwhelm at the complexity of a task.  A pilot who has 20 years of experience flying a variety of aircraft, and is charged with flying a new aircraft with twice as many tasks to perform results in a crash landing during a test flight.   A sign language interpreter who knows how to keep the processing transparent yet in a high stress situation reacts with an “I missed it, what did they say?!” urgency in the middle of a feed from their team.  Our thinking and processing may also be occluded by our own self-criticism or fear of failure, resulting in an inability to hold our attention on the work, much less to discuss it with colleagues.

The importance of a shared process is that it provides a framework, the creation of a schema, systematizing our decision making process, which is inclusive of more factors than one person may be able to retain and respond to in a given moment, aids in recall, recognition, recourse and supports the elimination of this (unavoidable) human ignorance and ineptitude.

Presenting a Case for Discussion

The concern about confidentiality may lead to an avoidance of talking about our work.  Through effective case presentations, sign language interpreters learn to practice confidentiality, by sorting out the important details and a reason for bringing it into discussion.  It might be the more mundane situation which is the greatest gem for discovery.  Situations we interpret on ‘automatic pilot’ – perhaps therefore using a less considered decision-making process and habituated responses, are the most fertile ground for searching for clues to consumer reactions that we are mystified by; or responses from teams or others which appear to be mirroring the opposite intentions we are working under.  It may serve us equally as well as discussing a profound experience.

Important Aspects of Case Discussion

Commitment:  A commitment is to participation in a reflective process, to brooking both the familiar and unpleasant or unwanted aspects of our work for the gain of insight.  Each participant has to be committed to creating a process individually and as a group, “by each member to the interrogation of one’s own beliefs and assumptions as well as of others” (Kennedy and Kennedy, 2010).

Facilitation:  It is the role of the facilitator to jump in during learning moments; redirect, restate, restructure the interaction or reflect back to the group. It is essential to clarify and establish the role of the facilitator – participants discuss and agree on a dynamic set of ground rules.  Remember, the facilitator is responding to maintain the structure of the interaction acknowledging the potential for perceived interruptions and taking the floor as rude and disrespectful, which needs to be clarified (R. Dean, 2010, personal communication).

It is important to work with a facilitator who is trained to lead case discussions in the supervision context.  One who possesses the skills and experience required for supervision – cultural sensitivity, knowledge of the myriad approaches to an interpreter’s professional development and of group dynamics.

Ground Rules:  Creating the safety needed for a vibrant discussion and protection of confidentiality is supported by setting effective ground rules.  Agreed upon rules encourage a ‘scientific’ type curiosity, supported by a critical thinking consciousness and a sharing of perspectives as equals.  Some examples of ground rules are:

  1. Confidentiality:  for example, discussions outside of the formal meeting should be brought back to the group, all case notes are collected and shredded/deleted.
  2. One conversation at a time.
  3. Recognition of the privilege we have as interpreters: sacred place;  serious ethos.
  4. Agree to disagree: recognition of valid but competing values.
  5. Avoidance of the need to ‘fix’ or provide solutions – referred to by Parker Palmer as the Righting Reflex.
  6. Inquiry and clarification to allow seeing the case elements as the interpreter presenting sees them.

Ground rules should focus on supporting the delivery of valuable feedback to the recipient, not on the value or “release” that it provides the person giving the feedback (Lehner, 1975).

Schema and structure:  for example, the use of the demand control schema, developed for sign language interpreters out of concern and compassion, focuses case discussions on identifying and decreasing contributing factors that cause undue stress and contribute to ethical dissonance.

Preparation:  It is important to make the case available before the group meets so that participants can familiarize themselves with its details. Cases may be both retrospective or prospective, looking back or looking forward in preparation.

 Methods: Case discussion groups can use online discussion boards, live video conferencing, and online classroom environments to do their reviews. Of course, let’s not forget that they can be conducted in small groups or 1:1.

Group process:  This process supports the development of interpreters’ ability to dialogue with one another in a deliberate problem solving, community-building manner. “Emphasis is placed on the capacity to remain sensitive to context and the beliefs of others” and “…a community of interpretation which we understand as a spontaneous human discourse form…” (Corrington in Kennedy & Kennedy 2010).

Benefits of Case Discussion

The practice of Case discussion and the associated preparation and analysis help sign language interpreters remember or recognize details, realize that we are making myriad decisions on the fly by responding to a complex constellation of demands, and expands our response options. We better understand the sheer complexity the work and deepen our appreciation of the human elements of what we do.  Vicarious learning with our peers lessens the ignorance, shedding light on the complexity and developing a systematic approach helps to prevent failures of ineptitude.

In short, case discussion creates a process and setting which helps sign language interpreters contain their inner “What the…!!!?” long enough to engage with the person/task at hand and do the most effective job possible.

What Can You Expect?

Sign language interpreters using case discussion can expect to:

  • Develop or enhance individual schema or collection of schema for use by sign language interpreters when working.
  • Develop a common language for describing one’s process.
  • Experience growth in negotiation skills with colleagues and consumers.
  • Participation in and development of  “double- vision” for monitoring the process simultaneously with the content.  This procedural awareness allows for appropriate authorship of decisions and outcomes with direct application to the individual interpreting process.
  • Reveal the complexities of the work, as well as the discovery of similar complexities others are dealing with and similar or common decision making strategies.

Let’s Return to the Conversation

Let’s converse with each other in a manner which does not diminish us by limiting our discussions solely to technique (Palmer 1998).  The process of case discussion in supervision strengthens our relationship to our communities. Case discussion is ultimately a wellspring of shared experience, building upon the natural processes from within our communities in a manner both considered and reflective (including our Deaf and Coda communities). Case discussion assists sign language interpreters in the development of a common language for describing our process, to gain or hone negotiation skills with colleagues and consumers.

The effective use of Case discussion supports growth in a sign language interpreter’s ethical decision making, learning to trust each other to a greater degree…we begin, and return to, the conversation.


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Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged

Can the collective voices of sign language interpreters working in K12 educational settings be the catalyst for a national conversation about the failures of the “system”? Gina Oliva suggests it is our responsibility to take action.

I am sure that most readers are well aware, that the entire “system” for educating hard of hearing and deaf children in mainstream settings is generally a mess, the kids are suffering, and no one person or entity is really in control.  Included in this “system” is the  entire state of affairs with regards to sign language interpreters in K-12 classrooms, across the United States as well as elsewhere around the globe. Let’s call it the “illusion of inclusion” as Debra Russell has so aptly put it.

Alone in the Mainstream

My K-12 experiences, along with the things I learned in my 37-year long career at Gallaudet and during my 46-year long relationship with my “deaf” (e.g. “hearing on the forehead”) father came together to prompt me to write “Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School” (Gallaudet University Press, 2004).  I am now working on a second volume of that book with Linda Lytle, from Gallaudet’s Department of Counseling, which will focus on the experiences of younger adults (currently age 18 – 35) as they look back on their mainstream years.   Naturally, this book will include comments and probably whole chapters about Educational Interpreting and the role sign language interpreters play in the lives of deaf children.

Interpreter on a Megaphone

This sense of the need for a second edition had been with me for a while when I found in my inbox the most recent of many letters received. The one quoted below was a serious gem that convicted me of the need for an entire new volume rather than simply a second edition.  It was a megaphone so to speak of the dire straits America’s (and the world’s) hard of hearing and deaf children are finding themselves in.  It is used with permission, and serves as the basis for this post.

Dear Gina,

      Hello!  My name is ________________ and I am a Sign Language Interpreter.  I do some freelance work but mainly I have been an Educational Interpreter in ________________ for eight years.  I attended your book presentation several years ago and am finally getting around to reading your book “Alone in the Mainstream.”    So far I am only on Chapter 6 but am already greatly impacted by what I have read.  I have worked with all ages from Kindergarten up to high school.  In all those settings with all different students I have used ASL, PSE, and/or Cued Speech.  Some of the kids I have worked with have had mild hearing losses, some profound.  These children come from hearing families who sign, hearing families who cue, hearing families who do neither, and a couple of families where the parents are deaf themselves.  One thing remains the same with each child I have worked with.  I feel inadequate. 

      Even though I am a highly skilled interpreter, I wonder if the mainstream setting is ever a social success, even with an interpreter, and everyday that I see the kids struggling I feel just awful.  It is very hard to watch day in and day out. 

      True, I have witnessed a few hard of hearing students who can speak clearly for themselves and are able to follow conversations quite successfully using their hearing alone.  I have seen them flourish, feel included, and have high self-esteem.  What is much more common however, and is so heartbreaking, is witnessing my students having the “dinner table syndrome” (as you put it), where they fake interest in some task to avoid looking lost.  I see a lot of “superficial participation” where onlookers think the d/hoh student is “just fine” (as you also put it) but really they need to look deeper.  My point is, this stuff still happens EVEN WITH AN INTERPRETER PRESENT! 

      In fact, what really kills me is how awkward it is when I am in a “social situation”– it’s just a no win kind of thing.  For example, I am sure you realize that kids will alter their talk if there is an adult around.  So it’s really not “normal kid talk” when I am around.  And if some brave kid attempts to “talk normal” when I am there (such as swearing or saying something they would never say in front of another adult), then the rest of the kids are uncomfortably giggling.  Then, I, the interpreter and the deaf kid by association is in the spotlight – and it is just so ICKY for all involved — it is not authentic at all!  It is tainted and altered by the mere presence of the interpreter.

      More often than not, the Deaf student only wants to chat WITH the interpreter; not with their peers THROUGH the interpreter.  For years I’ve heard educational interpreters talk about trying to encourage their students to ask the other kids in class what their weekend plans are, or what good movies they’ve seen lately, but then the D/hoh student either says “no that’s fine” and looks crushed as if no one wants to be their friend, not even the interpreter OR they go and ask their classmates a few engaging questions, but the conversation quickly fizzles and nothing comes of it.  I think an entire book could be written on the subject of Interpreter/deaf student relationships and how complicated it can get.

      It never fails that every year I work in education, I say to myself “I can no longer support this.  I need to quit and do only freelance and Sorenson work.”  I especially feel this way after reading your book, but then I remember that a lot of participants [for that book] did not have the “luxury” of an interpreter.  Another voice inside me says, “_____, you need to stay working in the schools. Parents will always mainstream their kids, so it may as well be someone skilled and competent working with them. ”

      That voice always wins out, and I stay. 

      But today I am not satisfied.  I want to do something about this.  I think people will read your book and then pause and be reflective, but then resume life thinking “nowadays schools provide more [and] better services than ever before.”  Well, I firmly believe MORE AND BETTER IS NOT ENOUGH!  Right, your subjects didn’t have interpreters (except one I think) and today many or most do have interpreters.  We need to push forward to ensure a better quality of life for tomorrow’s d/hoh students.   We need to ask the right questions, find the right people to share their stories, and make suggestions for making things better.

Heartbroken and Gagged

And so, this is from a “heartbroken and gagged” educational interpreter.  I am sure most of you readers have heard similar or perhaps even felt “heartbroken and gagged” yourself.  Heartbroken from watching the kids you are “working for” miss this, miss that, day in and day out.  Gagged because the dysfunctional system declares you are not to say anything about this to anyone.  Perhaps the latter is an exaggeration — perhaps you can talk to a teacher or some other school personnel.   Brenda Schick’s work on professional conduct guidelines state that as “related service providers” interpreters DO have a responsibility to be more than just a conduit of talking.

The Road Ahead

How do we get the school districts to accept this, to recognize the great value of the interpreter’s observations, and take these into serious consideration?  And perhaps more importantly, how can Educational Interpreters provide not just in-school support to their individual student(s), but how can they “report to the authorities” meaning the professionals who are concerned nationally and globally about the education of deaf and hard of hearing children.  It may take a village to educate a child but the villages ought to share information with other villages.

First, please find a way to get your collective observations into print, the media, to the Deaf Education arena, to parents, and to Deaf Professionals who are working to impact the “system.”  Secondly, think about the Devil’s Bargain, as suggested by Dennis Cokely, and consider giving back through local level advocacy work – in the EHDI system and in local or regional weekend/summer programs that bring your students together so that their social network can include others who face the same issues.

Should Interpreters Address Inadequacy and Neutrality?

Why is it that sign language interpreters working in mainstream settings feel inadequate?  Is it the expectation that h/she be “invisible” as discussed by Anna Witter-Merithew in, Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?  Is this “invisibility” what h/she was taught in the ITP attended?  Related might be a feeling that she is expected to be “neutral”?  I wonder how much of this feeling of inadequacy and or “neutrality” is from some academic knowledge or industry bias and how much is just plain old being a human being and not liking what they see?

If Educational Interpreters could come together to discuss how as a profession they might address this and related issues in K-12 settings, it would do much to boost the confidence and effectiveness of those working in the isolation of educational settings.  The collective voice of Educational Interpreters could hold much promise for alleviating the suffering of the children for whom we are concerned. The interpreter who wrote to me has become a colleague and we have exchanged many emails.  It is obvious that she is trying her best in her own setting, but there seems to be a dearth of support for taking these concerns and the solutions to a higher level.  What should that higher level be and who can lead this effort?

Should Interpreters Address the “Diffusion of Responsibility?”

In the above letter, the writer refers to the concept of “dinner table syndrome,” which I refer to in my book, where the hard of hearing or deaf student fakes interest in some task to avoid looking lost. This was my life day in and day out in my K-12 years and several of the 60 adults who wrote essays for Alone in the Mainstream extended this concept to another phenomenon I dubbed the “everything is fine” syndrome.   Together these two “syndromes” constitute the concept of “incidental learning,” which is the topic of a yet-to-be-published but complete dissertation by a fellow “AITM survivor,” Mindy Hopper.  In our day, the fact of this missing information was in itself invisible to all except the student.  But now, in the modern classroom, the student’s interpreter is a daily witness.  Not only does the classroom interpreter know the student is missing stuff, h/she knows what the student is missing.  This is so much more than any hearing parent of a deaf child has known unless she also spent all day in her child’s classroom.  Talk about power.

As potential partners with teachers and parents, I wonder if the sign language interpreters working in K-12 settings should have as part of their job description to keep a log of conversations or information that they suspect their “charges” (clients) missed. Wouldn’t this help the teacher and the parents determine if their student/child is missing so much as to warrant some kind of action?  Clearly, this would involve taking to heart Witter-Merithew’s lesson in bystander mentality and the “diffusion of responsibility”.   I wonder if these concepts can find their way into interpreter training programs and standards of practice, and how such could come about?

Advocate and Report

That children in general, especially when they reach adolescence, want and need space to discuss their lives without the presence of adults, is a developmental fact. That an interpreter’s presence in K-12 social environments works against the deaf child is an example of how you just can’t change city hall.  The hard of hearing or deaf child has obviously learned from experience that the “quickly fizzling and nothing comes of it” from conversations with their peers is what “always happens” and they have decided they don’t want to experience that again.   But, now, here is an adult (the sign language interpreter) actually witnessing and understanding what it might feel like.  Now the sign language interpreter is also witnessing the stilted social interactions of their deaf or hard of hearing “charge”. How can the interpreter not be expected to be an advocate/reporter?

In my educated and experienced opinion, the collective voice of Educational Interpreters is our only hope that the issues addressed herein could be remedied.  We, the Deaf Adults who are concerned for these children, need your involvement.  Two areas where you can help, beyond your in-school advocacy and the already suggested work to bring your collective voice to the forefront in Deaf Education, are in the EHDI arena (early hearing detection and intervention) and in the establishment/management of weekend and summer programs that bring the solitaires together.

Elevate Your Voice

Perhaps you are the heartbroken and feeling like you are under a gag rule, smart and articulate, educational interpreter in the Heartland.  Or you know someone who is.  If yes, what are your thoughts on this?  What do you think would bring about change?  What would lead to the day that your insights, observations, and suggestions as sign language interpreters would be taken more seriously?  What would elevate the status of interpreters working in educational settings? Your ideas might be simple, complex, seemingly impossible, step-by-step (we like step-by-step), or philosophical.  Bring ’em on.

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Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?


The consequences of inaction can be high for sign language interpreters. Anna Witter-Merithew contextualizes our reluctance to intervene appropriately with thoughts on a history of opting for “invisibility” instead of action.

Often, when discussing breaches of ethical conduct, the focus is on a sign language interpreter’s commission of some act.  Examples might include a breach of confidentiality, accepting assignments beyond one’s capacity, demonstrating a lack of respect for consumers and/or colleagues.  Equally concerning, although discussed less often, are acts of omission.  Acts of omission refer to instances where a practitioner doesn’t follow expected or best practice in performing their duties.

Examples might include failing to advise consumers when there are barriers to an effective interpretation, failure to clarify information the interpreter does not understand or misinterprets, or failure to use consecutive interpreting when the circumstances necessitate, among many others. Both acts of commission and omission can cause harm to consumers, practitioners and the profession.  However, the focus of this article is on acts of omission and their potential relationship to the persona of invisibility that is deeply rooted in our field.  If you haven’t read my previous post, Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadows of Invisibility, consider it a prequel to this article.

Why Do We Fail to Intervene?

Granted, there may be many reasons that a sign language interpreter fails to act when some type of intervention is needed and within their realm of responsibility. After all, interpreting is a complex process. We all come to the work at different levels of readiness for all that is required of us, as eluded by Dennis Cokely in his article, Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis. However, it is worth exploring the degree to which lingering shadows of invisibility impact our inaction.   Is it possible that our long history of encouraging practitioners to behave “as if not really there” and allowing things to proceed “as if the consumers were communicating directly” has created a diffusion of responsibility?  As a result, do interpreters perceive themselves as less responsible for the outcome of the exchange, even when it is the interpreting process or the interpreter’s presence that is creating the need for an intervention?

This concept of diffusion of responsibility has been discussed by sociologists studying examples of bystanders who do nothing in an emergency situation. Findings show that the larger the bystander group, the less likely one of the bystanders will intervene. According to social experiments, an individuals’ failure to assist others in emergencies is not due to apathy or indifference, but rather to the presence of other people. Bystanders perceive that their individual responsibility is diffused because it is unclear who is responsible in a group situation.  When responsibility is not specifically assigned, bystanders respond with ambiguity.

Is it possible a similar phenomenon occurs with sign language interpreters?  Do we think of ourselves as bystanders—present from a distance, and therefore, not involved?  Have we internalized the neutrality we are to bring to our task as non-involvement and disinterest [versus objectivity and emotional maturity]?  Are we unconsciously promoting the tendency to diffuse our responsibility to act when action is warranted?  Do we believe that if we are to behave as invisible, then any kind of intervention is inappropriate? Do we experience feelings of ambivalence when confronted with the need for an interpreter-related intervention? If so, there may be serious implications for our ability to fulfill our professional duty and there is merit in exploring this concept of intervention further.

Practicing Due Diligence

Like all practice professionals, sign language interpreters have the obligation to engage in due diligence when carrying out their duties.  Due diligence refers to the level of attention and care that a competent professional exercises to avoid harm to consumers of their services. It is a customary process applied by professionals to assess the risks and consequences associated with professional acts and behaviors.  Applying due diligence during our work as interpreters can help us to anticipate potential issues that may arise and/or validate concerns that we are sensing during our work.  Here are some steps that can guide us in the process.

1.  Recognize that there may be a need for an intervention.  There are many potential instances where such a need could arise.  This step requires us to assess the cues within the situation that signal that something is not working and taking the time to examine such cues more fully.  For example, the interpreter may not know what is meant by what a speaker is saying.  Or, it may become clear that consecutive interpreting will produce a more accurate interpretation and/or allow for fuller understanding and participation by one or more consumers.  Or, perhaps a cultural misunderstanding has arisen that was not addressed within the interpretation. By paying attention to the cues that signal the potential need for an intervention, we begin the process of applying due diligence.

2.  Take responsibility.  The next step in the due diligence cycle involves assessing whether we have a professional responsibility to act.  Part of this step requires the sign language interpreter to quickly assess who ultimately holds the duty to resolve whatever risk or potential consequence exists.  For example, consider instances where an interpreter doesn’t understand the source language message.  Since the interpreter holds the duty to accurately interpret the message, it is the interpreter who holds the responsibility to intervene and seek understanding. Passing on the lack of understanding to the consumer (by glossing or fingerspelling for example), expecting that they ask for the clarification, is avoidance that is reminiscent of  that period in our history where we promoted the view of the interpreter as a conduit or machine.  It is an example of diffused responsibility.  As well, expecting consumers to seek understanding when we do not understand may be unrealistic.  If the interpreter does not feel comfortable intervening, it stands to reason the consumer may not either.  This doesn’t mean that the need doesn’t exist, just that there is a reluctance to acknowledge it in a transparent manner.  So, the test is to assess who holds the duty to generate the accurate interpretation. Clearly, it is the sign language interpreter, not the consumer.

3.  Plan a course of action. Deciding how to intervene is as important as deciding that an intervention is necessary.  There are certainly ways of intervening that are disruptive and can alienate consumers.  So, thinking the process through (even practicing and role playing possible approaches) with colleagues can help to identify specific and successful strategies for intervening. It is important to learn to intervene in a way that builds trust and confidence.  Practitioners who are diligent in taking responsibility for the quality and accuracy of their work comment that when they are proactive in creating effective working conditions, or address errors and misunderstandings in an open and authentic manner, it promotes trust and confidence by consumers.  Diminished trust and confidence seems to arise when sign language interpreters attempt to act as if all is well, when it may not be or simply isn’t.

4.  Take action.  Initiating the intervention is the next step in the due diligence cycle.  This is the step that requires the courage and confidence to act. Again, given our historic roots, many of us find ourselves fearful of taking action perceiving it will be viewed as interjecting of ourselves into the situation.  In reality, we are already part of the interaction, and offering an intervention when it is warranted is not interjection of self, but rather carrying out our professional duty.  This difference is significant.  One is about potentially crossing professional boundaries and the other about maintaining the integrity of our work and profession.

The consequence of failing to act when it is our duty to act can be very serious.  In the case of a police interrogation, failure to apply best practices can lead to challenges being raised as to the admissibility of a deaf suspect’s statements.  In the case of an IEP team meeting, failure to articulate observations in a professional manner can lead to an IEP that doesn’t address the real needs of the deaf child.  In the case of a job interview, failure to accurately convey details can mean the difference between a person getting a job or not.

Stepping Out of the Shadows

Part of our process of stepping out of the shadows of invisibility is acknowledging that it feels safer and easier if we just remain conduits.  We then do not have to address the on-going and complex ethical issues associated with role definition and conflicts.  But without grappling with these very issues, we remain merely technicians, not professionals. We cannot insist on professional standing when we do not perform in the customary ways that professionals perform. As well, we cannot achieve a collective discretion without tackling the hard questions and finding ways to make our work more transparent.

Likewise, as sign language interpreters, we must always assess whether the consequence of intervention outweighs the contribution it makes.  Timing and manner of an intervention are critical considerations.  Sometimes we can’t assess this piece until we can reflect on the assignment afterwards.  Thus, learning to be reflective practitioners is an essential part of the due diligence cycle.  A future post will address this topic.

The Hard Question

What do we believe about ourselves, our work and our contribution to the good of the Deaf society? As we explore the answer to this and other hard questions, we must consider the implications of our history of behaving as if invisible and its potential contribution to the diffusion of responsibility.  In determining our answer, let’s hold fast to that which we value—communication access, equality, integrity and our relationship to the Deaf Community and one another.  It is these values that help us continue our journey of career-long growth and development…and are the source of the courage we need to continue our commitment to keep asking ourselves the hard questions.

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Does Social Networking Impair Sign Language Interpreter Ethics?

Does Social Networking Impair Sign Language Interpreter Ethics?

Social media and online behavior is a fact of life in the 21st Century. Wing Butler provides insight on the topic and challenges sign language interpreters to participate in the evolution of the RID Code of Professional Conduct.

The distance between our physical world and the virtual world of social media often invites behavior one would never project in real life. This virtual world introduces a whole new context of social norms and acceptable personal expression. Unfortunately, it appears in many cases that sign language interpreters appear to lack an awareness of the impact of social networking expression on their careers. What’s more, when you combine this lack of awareness with the view that the right to self-expression precedes all obligations, the result is an ethical distortion that undermines the sanctity of the relationship interpreters have with the D/deaf community.

The Ethical Distortion of Social Media

A large part of a sign language interpreter’s skillset is a keen situational awareness that is guided by ethical standards intended to protect consumers, the integrity of the profession, and allow the interpreting process to flow unobstructed.

This professional skillset blends with our personal image and influences how we conduct ourselves publically, even off the clock. Because we identify so strongly with the tangibility of our physical space, what we call “real life,” the consequences of our behavior and personal expression are easy to identify. As a result, we are more easily able to avoid potential conflict.

Unfortunately, the cognitive distance between our physical world and the virtual world combined with this lack of awareness of the impact of social networking expression creates an illusion that impairs a sign language interpreter’s situational awareness. This impairment leads to a distorted view and understanding of what is ethically acceptable online. Sadly, the result is a large number of interpreters who are unaware that some of their social networking activity is a breach of their professional ethics.

The 4 Symptoms of Distortion

Because online communication mirrors our real world experience, identifying the 4 primary symptoms of a social networking induced distortion offers clarity on potential ethical missteps.

The following content is being used to exemplify the symptoms of ethical distortion and to elicit our reaction to them within the framework of our ethical obligations as sign language interpreters.

Symptom 1: The interpreter prioritizes the right of online self-expression above ethical responsibilities.

 Distortion Symptom 1

Symptom 2: The interpreter believes their social media page is an intimate private space.

 Distortion Symptom 2

Symptom 3: The interpreter assumes that only close friends, familiar with their personal circumstances, view them online. Notwithstanding the regular practice of “Googling” someone to obtain a character reference.

 Distortion Symptom 3Symptom 4: The Interpreter views digital content as temporary. They fail to understand that digital content, particularly images, will remain forever.

Jizzed my PantsWhen interpreters telegraph opposing political opinions, an emotional disposition, or intimate windows into their personal life, it may lead to reasons for incompatibility with the consumer, and thus the assignment.  You may have noticed in the comment section of Brandon Arthur’s post, How do Sign Language Interpreters Increase Opportunity in a Weak Economy?, Lucky expresses concern about the social networking activities of sign language interpreters.

This illusion induced ethical impairment is, and will be, responsible for an increasing amount of professional suicides among members of the sign language interpreting profession.

How Do We Intervene?

The premise of the Code of Professional Conduct (CPC) by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) was crafted to offer professional interpreters a behavioral compass of sorts. Clearly, the authors of this compass weren’t considering the impacts of social media when it was drafted. Having said that, in my view, any attempt to use the CPC as currently written to gauge the ethical boundaries of the intersection of social networking expression and sign language interpreter ethics will likely leave you scratching your head.

To answer the invite inconspicuously stated in the CPC, “This Code of Professional Conduct is a working document that is expected to change over time … [RID] members are encouraged to recommend changes for future updates.” Perhaps, we should consider adding an 8th tenet to the CPC to specifically address the ethical behavior displayed by sign language interpreters as a result of the proliferation of social media.

While this proposed addition to the CPC is not perfect, your feed is welcome and encouraged Note, the proposed tenet below is modeled after the American Medical Association’s Policy on social media.

Tenet 8:  Interpreters Conduct Themselves Professionally Online

The Internet has created the ability for sign language interpreters and the sign language community to communicate and share information quickly and with millions of people easily. Participating in social networking and other similar Internet opportunities can support interpreter’s personal expression, enable individual interpreters to have a professional presence online, foster collegiality and camaraderie within the profession, provide opportunity to widely disseminate industry related information and community-centric messages and other valuable communication. Social networks, blogs, and other forms of communication online also pose new challenges to the relationship between interpreters and their consumers. Interpreters should weigh a number of considerations when maintaining a presence online:

8.1 Interpreters should be cognizant of the standards of consumer privacy and confidentiality that must be maintained in all environments, including online, and must refrain from posting identifiable assignment information online.

8.2 When using the Internet for social networking, interpreters should use privacy settings to safeguard personal information and content to the extent possible, but should realize that privacy settings are not absolute and that once on the Internet, content is likely there permanently. Thus, interpreters should routinely monitor their own Internet presence to ensure that their personal and professional information on their own sites and, to the extent possible, content posted about them by others, is accurate and appropriate.

8.3 If they interact with the D/deaf community on the Internet, interpreters must appropriately maintain the boundaries of the interpreter-consumer relationship in accordance with ethical guidelines within the CPC, just as they would in any other context.

8.4 To maintain appropriate professional boundaries interpreters should consider separating personal and professional content online.

8.5 When interpreters see content posted by colleagues that appear unprofessional they have a responsibility to bring that content to the attention of the individual, so that he or she can remove it and/or take other appropriate action. If the behavior significantly violates professional norms and ethical standards and the individual does not take appropriate action to resolve the situation, the interpreter should refer to the EPS (Ethical Practices System) to file a complaint.

8.6 Interpreters must recognize that actions and content posted online may negatively affect their reputations among consumers and colleagues, may have negative consequences for their interpreting careers, and can undermine the public trust in the sign language interpreting profession.

8.7 Interpreters must recognize that the sign language community is a highly compact demography with significant bias to overcome. Therefore greater responsibility and sensitivity on the interpreter’s impact to community culture and consumers is necessary.

Again, feel free to share feedback on Tenet 8 above.

Pause Before You Post

As we wait on the time needed to see industry practices evolve to address current working realities, consider what follows as a guide for staying in bounds when you express yourself online.

First, try the “elevator test.”  You can do this by simply imagining that if you verbalized your post in a crowded elevator would it be considered unprofessional or call your ethics into question?

Second, make sure you can answer yes to the following questions:

1) I have removed identifying assignment information from my post?

2) Are my privacy settings on?

3) Have I considered the professional and ethical impact of this post?

4) Am I following the same ethical rules I would in the “real world?”

Personal Accountability

With the quickening dog years of technology and the increasing convergence of our on-and-offline lives, it is imperative that sign language interpreters are armed with modern day tools and know-how and guidance. We need to work to ensure these tools are present in order to raise the bar in our online behavior and deepen the credibility of the industry.

Because professional ethics are the bedrock of the sign language interpreting profession, we should be asking ourselves what actions can be taken to reinforce the ethical position of sign language interpreters.

What can you do?

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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!