Sign Language Interpreting: The Danger of the Idea That Transformed the Profession

March 8, 2012

How has the push for the professionalization of sign language interpreters affected our influence on larger systems, and on our related stakeholders? Brandon Arthur asks us to reflect on how we got to where we are, and how to redirect our engagement to the industry.

Decades have seen the sign language interpreting profession quietly transformed by a single, powerful idea—sign language interpreters are professionals.  This single idea has created the momentum necessary to move the field from a hand written list of volunteers to a vast web of public and private entities, interest groups and regulation—an industry.

Is it possible that the power of this ideal has left us, the sign language interpreter, with a dangerous blind spot when engaging with the broader industry? Meaning, has the dogged determination to qualify as a profession prevented us from seeing what is necessary to effectively govern one?

What follows are a few things that gave me pause as I considered this possibility.


It occurs to me that the opportunities and threats faced by our profession is no longer the result of industry stakeholders (consumers, sign language interpreters, associations, businesses, service providers, educational institutions) being divided, but rather as a result of them being connected.  One might consider the sweeping impact FCC VRS reform has had, and will yet have, on the sign language industry as an example.  If this interconnectivity is real, and I believe we have examples to demonstrate that it is, we could logically conclude that the industry has evolved into an integrated system of stakeholders; where each is directly or indirectly impacted by the action of another.

If the industry is in fact integrated, wouldn’t the very basis of our engagement with other stakeholders need to change? Might this suggest that we are attempting to address current issues with an antiquated approach.

If yes, have we, the profession, stumbled over our own feet?

Weak Engagement

In seeking the specialized knowledge and skills to qualify as a profession and as professionals, it occurs to me that we appear to be failing to prioritize an important aspect of our long-term viability—expert knowledge of the broader industry.  One might consider state licensure laws passing in the face of outraged interpreters as an example of why this is gives me pause.

Is late or weak engagement by sign language interpreters on broader industry issues because we are indifferent to what occurs around us or is it that we are simply unaware that the issues even exist?  Or, is it because we don’t have the know-how to obtain the information needed to form an opinion? Worse yet is it our view that, “there is no industry without the interpreter” and it will work itself out?

If we are unable to effectively form an opinion and engage on industry related issues ourselves, is it possible to collaborate with industry stakeholders on broader issues?

In my view, for the profession to be effective long-term, ignorance can’t possibly be bliss in this instance.

Sparse Information

In an environment where the stakes are high and the pace of change quick, it seems important that sign language interpreters are able to quickly equip themselves with information.  Do we have the channels necessary to effectively deliver information across the profession and industry?  Can these channels effectively mobilize interpreters if necessary?  If no, does that suggest our infrastructure is insufficient to effectively administer the profession?

If we don’t have an infrastructure of size, does it mean we have information siloes and expensive duplications of effort brewing?

What I do know is that if people don’t have sufficient information to form an opinion regarding the system they are part of, they will feel overwhelmed by it, homogenized by it, and/or unwilling to invest in it.

I don’t believe interpreters are any different.

A Refocus

As a profession, we have made great strides over the past 40+ years.  Again, the early momentum of the sign language interpreting profession was possible because of our dogged determination to be recognized as a profession.

In my view, we need to refocus this determination on a few things.

How to:

-Leverage our interconnectivity to other industry stakeholders

-Remain aware of industry threats and opportunities in real-time

-Effectively distribute information across the profession and industry

-Extend our passion for skill development to the acquisition of broader knowledge

A focus on these items will assist us in effectively navigating the challenges of administering the profession long-term, which I believe is necessary if we are to maintain our position and success within the industry.

Is there other action we should consider?

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19 Comments on "Sign Language Interpreting: The Danger of the Idea That Transformed the Profession"

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Do you really think that the SL interpreting industry has evolved into an integrated system of stakeholders? Are you giving us too much credit as an interconnected body of professionals/stakeholders with similar goals? Do we sign language interpreters, consumers, associations, businesses, service providers, and educational institutions really agree on our goals? Do we even agree on the definition of “professional” (neutral, engaged, or ‘it depends on the situation’)? Seems to me we are still pretty divided: Is money/career-as-an-interpreter AS important, MORE important, or LESS important than supporting the Deaf community? What, in fact, is the Deaf community? Do we really… Read more »
I believe we do need to communicate more effectively with each other, as you say, and to several ends. All that you have stated, Brandon – Leverage our interconnectivity to other industry stakeholders, remain aware of industry threats and opportunities in real-time, effectively distribute information across the profession and industry, extend our passion for skill development to the acquisition of broader knowledge – and to continue to assess our impact on and relationship with the profession and each other. It calls to mind Ella Lentz’ poem “The Dogs” – divided and remembering we are, if not chained, are definitely relationally… Read more »
sandra bartiromo

There are many issues to consider in response to the deficits mentioned in this article. I’m glad to see that we are finally looking at the bigger picture than just interpreting and the isolation of this mind set. We need to look at one issue at a time and that will probably lead to other sub issues within. But I want to say that we may implode if we don’t do it soon. Let’s look at the ethos that interpreters believe are true, when in fact they may not be true at all.

Milie Stansfield

Brandon…could you give specific example , ESP as relates to threats/ opportunities.

Are you suggesting this kind of broader exposure be included in training programs?. Or post certification CEUs?
Thanks for your contribution.

Kati Lakner
Hello Brandon, this is just a quick note to let you know that I’m reading both your article and this conversation with huge interest although on the other side of the Atlantic… The service system(s) we have in Finland are naturally quite different from yours (not to mention the society in general!), as is the size of sign language using population as well as the interpreter population. The history of the profession is a few decades shorter, too, but we seem to be going through very similar stages here and I must say the disconnection with the community is very… Read more »
Hello Brandon: I very much enjoyed reading this piece. I must say it is refreshing to read something that addresses the “big picture”. All too often we become quickly absorbed in only what we perceive as affecting us personally at the moment. After reading this article I began to think about something that I had tabled for many years. Where there is a “ying” there is a “yang”. What one person perceives as a “good thing” for the profession another might perceive as a “yang”. An example of this is from an above post reiterated by others. “Ironically, it seems… Read more »

[…] that was there both before and after them, and that their actions do have an impact on the broader system of industry stakeholders. Further, they utilize this connectedness to better position themselves to partner with […]

Hello Brandon, I am quite pleased to read your article. Your explanation of the cost of growth really hit home with me. More specifically your allegory about sitting down with the profession. When my wife and I started mentoring fellow interpreters we thought long and hard about why we were doing it. We both felt that it was important to give back to the community what the community was so willing to give to us. At our very first presentation about mentoring we emphasized that we wanted all future interpreters to not be as good as we are, we want… Read more »

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