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Is it Time to Certify Sign Language Interpreter Referral Agencies?

In the ever-growing industry of interpreter referral agencies, sign language interpreters and the Deaf community we serve are often look on as profitable afterthoughts. Stephanie Feyne calls for greater ethical scrutiny and consideration of agency certification.

Alarmingly, sign language referral agencies are sending increasing numbers of unqualified signers to interpret for Deaf consumers, causing harm to the communities we serve and to the interpreting field. Friends, consumers and colleagues around the US have been sharing their local horror stories for years. As this is a national issue it cannot solely be resolved at the local level. It requires a coordinated national response.

I believe that the RID membership should collaborate with Deaf leaders to establish standards for agencies that refer sign language interpreters in order to ensure that the Deaf community receives the best possible service. If an agency does not measure up to the standard, then there should be some public acknowledgment of this fact, so that when they bid for work it is clear that these agencies provide no guarantee of quality service.

No Standards

Currently, there are no standards for being a member organization of RID. Any agency can join RID, no questions asked. It enhances an agency’s status to have the RID brand on their letterhead and helps them bid for contracts – while it simultaneously compromises RID’s name, as it appears we support substandard sign language interpreting services. Why don’t agency members have the same standards and obligations that interpreters have? Why are agencies that have no connection to the Deaf community allowed to earn a profit by providing “signers” instead of qualified interpreters, and still benefit from the privilege of being affiliated with RID? What steps can we as professionals take?

Responsibility for Quality Services

When I began interpreting in the ‘70s, referral agencies were housed in Deaf service organizations (such as NYSD in NYC, GLAD in LA, DCARA in San Francisco) and in religious organizations (e.g.; Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and St. Benedict’s in San Francisco).  They provided community interpreters for medical, legal and social service needs.

The agencies I worked for had CODAs and/or Deaf referral specialists who had years of experience in the field. From my observations, they made every effort to assign newer interpreters (like me) only to assignments that we were qualified for. That was true for both certified and non-certified interpreters. Agencies understood that certification signified only entry-level skills and that they needed to assess the skill level of novice interpreters. They did not assign us to highly sensitive work, but often teamed us with more seasoned interpreters in lower risk environments, providing us support for our growth as professionals and providing reassurance to Deaf consumers that we would not compromise their lives.

Sign Language – A Profitable Afterthought

Over the last several years, however, we have seen the entrance of “language service” agencies into the arena of sign language interpreting.  Most of them tack on ASL in addition to the other languages they provide.  Most of their spoken language interpreters are born bilinguals, whereas many of the sign language interpreters on their rosters are self-professed “interpreters,” who have passed no screening or certification exams. While some of these language agencies may have a commitment to providing quality services to the Deaf community, most have no idea how to evaluate the skills of sign language interpreters or the needs of Deaf consumers. Their knowledge base is in bidding for and maintaining contracts.

Although ethical referral agencies do exist, there has been a marked increase in contracts being awarded to agencies that have no background knowledge of our field or the Deaf world, and no ability to evaluate the quality of the services of the interpreters they send to work. For all appearances, it seems that profit, rather than service, is the overweening motive.

(Recent Street Leverage posts on the impact of working for agencies with questionable standards are Self-Talk: A Sign Language Interpreter’s Inner Warning System by Anna Mindess and The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter by Aaron Brace.

The Human Cost

Sending unskilled workers is a common practice in agencies that provide “interpreting as a business” rather than as a service, but that practice has serious repercussions. Recently in NYC, a call went out from a language agency needing interpreters for an “end of life” situation in a hospital.  A few weeks later, I spoke with friends of the family. They said that throughout the entire weekend the Deaf parents thought their child was “sleeping,” even after all the “interpreters” sent by that agency had “interpreted” the words of the doctors. This is not the only incident. Locally, I have seen language agencies with city contracts send basic signers to evaluations of the fitness of Deaf parents and uncertified interpreters to court, threatening the legal status of Deaf claimants, defendants, and the integrity of the court itself.

The decisions these agencies are making have a negative impact on all parties present: Deaf, hearing, and interpreters. Sign language interpreters who are not appropriate misrepresent themselves and the Deaf parties. Deaf people often do not get their message across; neither do the hearing participants. The only ones guaranteed to succeed in attaining their goals are the agencies, which get paid regardless of the caliber of the interpreting work.  This is not just happening in New York City, but also around the country.

An Ethical Quandary

Professional interpreters are left with an ethical quandary… Do I stop interpreting for an unethical agency and leave Deaf people with poor interpreters? Do I spend hours educating the agency, only to see them ignore the advice and go with lesser skilled interpreters? Do I develop relationships with these agencies? Do I accept lower fees in order to ensure quality interpretation?

Can sign language interpreters solve this problem alone? Clearly, the Deaf communities have been left out of the decision-making process. Local interpreting chapters or collectives that work in tandem with Deaf individuals and associations may be able to make some headway in certain locations, but I believe we should use the power of our national association to address this issue.

Agency Certification

RID certifies interpreters, why not certify agencies? This would imply an ethical practice mandate for agencies that refer sign language interpreters, and an obligation for RID to monitor complaints and de-certify agencies that are not behaving ethically. This could then be written into local and state contracts. There should be consequences if an agency sends inappropriate “signers” to jobs.

We, the members of RID, need to take the first step by developing stringent requirements for the business practices of referral agencies, with consequences for those agencies that are not following best practices. The requirements should state that agencies must:

  • abide by an ethical business model – that would include sending the most highly qualified interpreter, not just a warm body;
  • utilize a valid evaluation mechanism for non-certified interpreters;
  • provide sign language interpreters with relevant information prior to the assignment;
  • protect confidential information, by not including it in the emailed call for interpreters;
  • respect the communicative norms, rights and personhood of the Deaf individuals  by presenting them with the most appropriate qualified interpreters for their needs (which means seeing the Deaf individuals as their clients, not just the hearing contract holders).

If agencies do not live up to such standards they should lose the privilege of being a member of RID, and that information should be publicly available for any potential clients to view.

Let’s Get Started

Let us begin now to discuss the standards and the consequences. Let us engage both locally and nationally. Let us not allow agencies in their pursuit of profits to harm Deaf people.

What other requirements should be included when considering the certification of referral agencies?

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Sign Language Interpreters Seek Clarity to Defend RID NIC Certification

Sign Language Interpreter Seeking Clarity

Dennis Cokely shares the RID/NAD written response to his initial letter requesting clarification on the “enhanced” NIC test with annotations on the report provided by the governing entities.

I want to thank StreetLeverage for creating a forum where issues affecting sign language interpreters and the field of sign language interpreting can be raised and discussed thoughtfully and respectfully. This forum has allowed me the opportunity to share my communications with the RID Board on questions I believe need to be answered regarding the “enhanced” NIC certification test. My last posting on this topic resulted in a rich and stimulating discussion.

The questions raised in my post, Defenders of Certification: Sign Language Interpreters Question “Enhanced” RID NIC Test, and that will be raised here, are not raised out of nostalgic ties; not raised out of a desire to cling to the past; not raised out of a desire to foment dissent. In truth, I raise these questions to provide certified sign language interpreters (and, indeed, all members of RID) with the information and facts necessary for us to serve as defenders, not critics, of the current NIC evaluation. Sadly I believe that, to date, we have not been provided with such information or facts.

What follows is a letter I sent to the RID Board on June 25, 2012 in response to the “comprehensive report” that was released by the Board on June 7, 2012, which was in response to my March 18, 2012 letter questioning aspects of the “enhanced” NIC test.

My Intent

I want to explicitly state my intent in writing these letters and raising these questions is not to spur divisiveness but rather to garner transparency and to seek the underlying rationale for decisions that were made without full involvement of the certified membership. To date I have not received a response from the Board to this letter, although I have received an acknowledgement that my email letter has been received.

I truly hope that a meaningful response to the issues I have raised will be provided in a timely and public manner. If such a response is forthcoming, I would suggest that the approach of “It is because we say it is” is decidedly not a useful strategy in addressing an issue as important to RID certified members as this is; the response must be one that comports well with the more than forty years of experience RID has assessing interpreting competency and that comports with the real world experiences of practitioners.

My hope is that my postings on this issue can, and will, spur discussions that can better inform our decision-making process and, ultimately, improve our assessment of who is qualified to become “one of us”.

My Letter

June 25, 2012

To Presidents Prudhom and Scoggins and members of the RID Board:

Thank you for your letter dated June 7 and for the “comprehensive report” that was attached. Following you will find my response to the report and some additional issues/questions I have that were raised by the report.

You are correct that my letter was made public. But, please know that it was made public only after more than a month had passed after I had sent the letter to all members of the Board during which time its receipt was not even acknowledged by the Board. While I appreciate the demands on a volunteer Board, I would suggest that the serious questions I raised deserved a much more timely response (and at least the courtesy of an acknowledgment of receipt by the Board) and the answers which I requested should not have taken three months to assemble. I also believe that the “community discussion” its release created is definitely a positive discussion and one that should have occurred as the “enhancements” were conceived and most definitely before they were implemented. I hope that continued, open and public discussion will only help to strengthen our decisions and more fully engage the RID membership in these critical decisions and programs. I must tell you that I do intend to post this letter to you in a public forum in a couple of weeks – I firmly believe that providing a forum for members discuss these issues not only allows a fuller airing of issues, but also allows the Board to have a more accurate picture of the pulse of the membership than it appears to have on this issue.

I am sure you can appreciate the fact that the report that was generated in response to my letter is, based on the numerous emails I have received and numerous postings on social media, viewed by many as quite a defensive, reactive and inadequate response. My intent here, and throughout, is not to create an atmosphere of confrontation or to incite divisiveness. Rather, my intent is that, unlike decisions taken in the past, we can all agree that the decisions we make in the certification program are based on empirical data, not the feelings or beliefs of a small group that may not well-represent the membership. In your letter to me you state “NAD and RID fully support the work and direction of the enhanced NIC…”. I humbly and respectfully strongly disagree. At the very least in the case of RID, I think it is much more accurate and truthful to state that the RID Board fully supports the “enhanced” NIC. I say this because there is considerable discontent and unrest among the membership regarding the “enhanced” NIC. I also believe there has been anything but acceptable and appropriate levels of transparency regarding decisions surrounding these “enhancements” which is quite surprising for what the Board claims is a “membership driven” organization. I think that it is fair to say that for many members there is a clear sense that critical decisions that define who we are as interpreters have been made without significant and meaningful involvement of, and engagement with, the members and most definitely without meaningful discussion at our regional and national conferences, again belying the notion of RID as a “membership driven” organization. I certainly urge you to make good on your pledge to “…dedicated communication effort…now and in the future” and hope you do so proactively rather than reactively.

The “comprehensive report” provided many statements that asserted that the “enhanced” NIC was valid and reliable but provided no empirical or psychometric data to support such assertions. Unfortunately I see no proactive involvement of the membership in many of the issues I have raised; I see no checks and balances built into the current “enhanced” NIC that can ensure impartiality and objectivity; I see no independent checks and balances of the design and implement work off the consulting group; I see no concern for the negative reactions and responses of members that this “enhanced” NIC is not based on sound empirical data; and unfortunately I see no evidence in the Board’s actions that can support its claim that RID, in this arena at least, is a “membership-driven” organization.

I fully appreciate the pressures and demands on an all-volunteer Board having been there myself. I trust you will accept my response and the questions I raise below in the spirit of moving toward a stronger and more cohesive RID.  However, as I stated before, the fact is that there is growing discontent among the membership with the manner in which decisions are taken within the organization and a growing feeling of complete disenfranchisement within the organization. There already is a growing number of members and an increasing number of states in the US who believe that RID certification has become meaningless and irrelevant. More importantly, there is an increasing chorus of RID members crying for an alternate organization and that chorus grows as members take the “enhanced” NIC. I, for one, am saddened to see that number grow. But if sound, logical answers to the questions I have previously raised and also raise below cannot be provided then, unfortunately, I would have no option but to join their number and advocate loudly and passionately for creation of an alternate organization. I would be incredibly saddened should that come to pass.

I thank you for your willingness to engage in this discussion and I am willing to continue this very important discussion in any forum you feel will be beneficial (email, VideoPhone, phone, face-to-face meetings, etc.).

I eagerly await your response.

Sincerely,

dennis

Dennis Cokely, Professor
Director, American Sign Language Program
Director, World Languages Center
Chair, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures
Northeastern University
Boston, MA 02115
 

My Response to the June 7, 2012 “Comprehensive Report” on the NIC “enhancements

1) Before raising specific questions generated by the report, I ask that the Board offer an explanation to the membership for why the same consultant firm that was directly responsible for the design and implementation of the “enhanced” NIC was also asked to write the interim report which asserts that the “enhanced” NIC is valid and reliable. While I, in no way, intend to cast aspersions on the Caviart group, I believe it is incumbent upon the Board explain why this is not a clear conflict of interest and why an independent psychometrician was not engaged to review the overall process and write the report? Given the catastrophic recent NIC history and the absolute appearance of a possible conflict of interest, I would urge the Board to address this as quickly as possible. Why should we have faith in the validity of the Caviart report? Why is this not a conflict of interest given that Caviart has a vested interest in convincing the Board and members that its initial test development is valid and reliable?

2) It comes as quite a surprise to me and I am sure to most RID members that, on page #2 of the report, we learn that the profile of a “certified NIC (level 1) interpreter” was developed by 14 members of the NIC Task Force, an NIC Scoring Group (whose composition is unknown) and an unidentified group of “subject-matter experts”. This means that, if one includes the Board (which, I assume, approved the profile), it would appear that fewer than 100 members had a hand in determining this profile. This represents less than .009% of the membership. Why was this profile not circulated to the membership for comment and input? How is not circulating this profile consistent with claims of a “membership driven” organization?

3) It is also troubling is that the profile of a “certified NIC (level 1) interpreter” is offered without any rational, explanation or justification. What empirical basis is there to support this profile? What data is there to suggest that a “…vocabulary at a first year undergraduate level…” is appropriate? What is meant by “…quickly adapt to different situations and communication styles”?

4) But what is even more troubling on page #2 is the incredibly dismissive tone in the report intended for those who might question or challenge (“That is fine.”). While it is certainly true that “…no profile will satisfy everyone”, I believe that the leadership owes it to the members to create an environment in which questions and challenges are welcomed because, presumably, the leadership has data to support its choices and decisions and thus can appropriately respond to such questions and challenges. The tone here smacks of “it is because we say it is”. If this tone emanates from the consultant group then perhaps we have retained the wrong group. If the tone emanates from the leadership, then the situation is even worse that I thought and we definitely have a crisis of leadership. How is such a tone consistent with a “membership driven” organization? Does the membership not, at least, deserve the courtesy of opportunities to discuss the definition of the threshold that marks who is “one of us”?

5) Also, on page #2, it appears that a decision has been made that there will be “levels” to the NIC (“currently called Level 1”). If this is indeed the case, this represents a significant departure from past practice (the recently aborted iteration of the NIC notwithstanding) in which we have had a “generalist then specialist” approach to certification. I ask that the Board release the overall comprehensive master plan mentioned on page #3 for the certification program as well as the specific criteria for determining “…higher and specialized levels”. What is the overall master plan for the certification program?

6) Again on page #2, I believe it is totally inaccurate to make the claim that “…this statement summarizes what both organizations believe…”. At the present time I believe that it is accurate to say, in the case of RID at least, that this statement summarizes what the Board, the NIC Task Force and an NIC Scoring Group whose composition is unknown believes. The membership were not at all engaged in this discussion nor invited to provide feedback on this issue.  Can the RID Board explain how it purports to represent the membership on this issue when it has not fully engaged the membership?

7) On page #3, it is extremely troublesome to read that the claim “…more interpreter/consumer interactions occurred remotely…” is based on the feelings of the NIC Task Force rather than on empirical data. In fact, according to a recently completed survey of RID Certified and Associate members conducted by the National Interpreter Education Center, 70% of interpreters who responded report they do absolutely no work in VRS and 92% do no work in VRI. These data make it clear that it is still the case that from interpreters’ experience, the overwhelming majority of the work that interpreters do is conducted in face-to-face interactions.  While it may be that Deaf people are using more VRS/VRI, at this point in our history the fact is that the vast majority of interpreters do not work in those settings. This begs the question of why we developed an assessment approach that appears predicated on beliefs, settings, assumptions in which only 30% and 8% of us work?

8 ) Given the fact that some members of the NIC Task force have VRS/VRI ties, one also has to wonder again about the wisdom of relying on feelings rather than empirical data. Why are feelings used over empirical data? Again I do not intend to cast aspersions, but when segments on the “enhanced” NIC have durations of three to five minutes (which resemble durations found in VRS calls), one wonders what response the Board might have to the fact that there is the appearance of a conflict of interest for members of the NIC Task force who do have VRS/VRI ties?

9) On page 5 the process by which the “content and format” of the “enhanced” NIC is described. The logic of this process seems, to me, to be somewhat circular and rather flawed. If I understand the process correctly, raters used the previous NIC exam, material with which they were intimately familiar having viewed the material dozens and dozens of times. They were then asked to identify portions of that material that they believed “…most effectively discriminated the skills of interpreters at the level described”. From a linguistic and sociolinguistic perspective, what is critical is that they selected these portions from within a larger context and those portions were taken from within a larger sample of a candidate’s work. Thus raters had significant background information influencing the choice of segments that they believed “…most effectively discriminated the skills of interpreters at the level described”.  Scoring criteria were then identified using a “proven algorithm”. While the algorithm may be “proven”, the elements (and the empirical support for those elements) to which the algorithm was applied need to be known. This is especially true since the previous iteration of the NIC listed rating elements that conflated language elements (e.g. articulation, use of space) with interpretation elements. What are the elements to which raters will apply the scoring algorithm and what is the empirical basis for those elements?

10) Having demonstrated that portions from within a larger context and taken from within a larger sample of a candidate’s work could be reliably rated, how then is it reasonable to conclude that portions generated with no larger context and from no larger work sample could or would suffice as a valid indicant of a candidate’s competence?

11) Having the Scoring Group finalize the profile, develop the scoring criteria, rate previously rated samples and then discuss their holistic ratings, places enormous and unchecked power in the hands of a small group. Why was there no independent confirmation of the Scoring Group’s work? Why were not different groups engaged in segments of this undertaking? How large was the Scoring Group? Who were its members?

12) On page 6 we are told that the final vignettes were “…believed, by the Scoring Group, to have the most appropriate content, vocabulary and stimulus material”. The Scoring Group then developed new scoring criteria – again enormous and unchecked power in the hands of a small group. Is there a rationale for this? Are we to believe that there is a different set of criteria for each vignette? If so, what is the full set of criteria used to rate a candidate and what is the empirical basis for each criterion? Why should we believe the Scoring Group is qualified to make such determinations?

13) I submit that the assertion that “While content validity is critical, face validity is not” critical completely ignores the recent past with regard to the NIC and reflects a complete lack of understanding of our assessment and institutional history. Certainly face validity is unquestionably important for market acceptance. And most certainly one incredibly important segment of that market is the RID Certified and Associate membership and students in Interpreter Education Programs. If certification is to have any value, these stakeholders simply must feel and believe that the high-stakes assessment that is the NIC, at least looks like what interpreters do regularly. While it may be true that an assessment of interpretation skills does not have to look like what interpreters do regularly, one would think that, given the last significantly flawed iteration of the NIC, the Board would most definitely want the assessment to look like what interpreters do regularly. Given the incredibly negative issues surrounding the last iteration of the NIC, why would the Board, the NIC Task Force and the NIC Scoring Group endorse an assessment approach that most clearly lacks face validity and seems not to be widely supported?

14) On page 8 the dismissive tone of this report continues with the assertion that there is “…absolutely no merit to this suggestion.” In the present climate, I assert precisely the opposite – if the members of RID do not believe that the assessment is valid and looks valid, if we cannot defend it, if we cannot/will not encourage those who are not yet certified to seek certification, then the assessment process is seriouslyflawed. I believe that there is incredible merit to the need for face validity of the NIC. The report asserts that the “enhanced” NIC “…has significant face validity…”, but this is just another example of “it is because we say it is”. No empirical data is offered here. However, candidates who have taken the “enhanced” NIC and who have contacted me almost unanimously say that they think that the “enhanced” NIC did not fairly sample their interpreting skills, did not look like what they do on a regular basis and did not allow them to demonstrate what they do when they interpret. Can the Board, the NIC Task Force or the NIC Scoring Group provide empirical data that candidates do indeed feel the “enhanced” NIC fairly samples and assesses their work? What percent of those who have taken the “enhanced” NIC report that it “fairly sampled” their interpreting competence? I doubt such data even exists or is collected.

15) On page 8 the report states that panels were asked to “…identify the amount of time that it takes to accurately assess a candidate’s skill.” Again I ask whether there is any empirical data to support this approach; what we have is self-report data, drawn from an individual’s various experiences that are based on samples that are highly contextualized. If I state that in a given real-world context I can determine in two or three minutes whether I can accurately assess skill for this particular situation, I cannot validly apply that determination to other contexts. Why have we have taken timing information based on contextualized self-reports and applied that timing information to de-contextualized vignettes? Is there any empirical support for doing so? Are we asking raters trained to assess the former NIC to make this determination? If so, by what justification? Or is this another instance in which the ubiquitous Scoring Group

16) The unidentified subject matter “experts” (number and qualifications unknown) believe that “niceties” can be excluded because they “…provide little information about a candidate’s skill”. It certainly is true that, from an interpreter’s perspective, the beginnings of interactions are often not challenging and thus may not be fully representative of a candidate’s skill set. However, there is clear linguistic empirical data to show that these “niceties” are often essential to an interpreter’s overall ease, comfort and comprehension of a speaker/signer and thus important to rendering successful interpretations. Indeed, one cannot “…go right to the heart of the communication encounter.” Linguists and Sociolinguists have shown clearly that successful communication is an evolved and negotiated interaction; one cannot properly and fully understand “the heart” of an interaction while ignoring or not having access to the “skeleton” and the “flesh” that surround the “heart”. We return again to the face validity question. How is it that we can warrant that those who pass the NIC can “…relay the essence of a message…” when our assessment strips away all of the context, linguistic background and interactional unfolding that leads up to “…the essence of a message…”? What is the empirical data to support this decision? Certainly the “comprehensive report” does not address this question.

17) The use of “tower crane operators” is an insulting and ignorant analogy at best (no offense intended to tower crane operators). Granted there is considerable pressure in being a crane operator. However, there is also a clear “right and wrong” result, the ball is manipulated correctly or it is not; the result is black or white. The results on a crane operator test are plain for all to see – the wall comes down or it does not (true some might be more efficient than others; but ultimately if the wall does not come down the operator has not been successful). However, as any interpreter knows, interpreting is anything but a “black or white” cognitive task. There are a finite number of moves that are possible with a tower crane. However, as any interpreter knows there are myriad possibilities for rendering successful interpretations in any interaction because we are dealing with people not machines. And while the obstacles through which crane operators must move to demonstrate their skill are finite, interpreters clearly know that because communication involves a range of human beings, a range of situations, and a range of communicative goals, the obstacles through which we must maneuver are virtually infinite. It does not follow logically that because tower crane operators can be assessed by an examination that lacks face validity that interpreters should accept, much less endorse, any examination that lacks face validity. Why should we accept a lack of face validity?

18) The use of “police officers” is also not an appropriate analogy for our purposes. Police officers spend months and months training at the police academy; they do not get to take their performance exam until/unless they have performed well in their training routines during which they have fired their guns countless times. The police officer test itself is valid because it presumes months and months of training that is specific to being a police officer. However, in our case, the claim that NIC “…standards include requirements for education…”(pg. 6), make using police officer testing a false analogy. Our forthcoming “requirement for education” is, at this point, only a BA/BS degree but not a degree in interpreting. So, even though the police officer test may not be indicative of what they do on a daily basis, police cadets have had months of training and practice to demonstrate what they will do on a daily basis. RID has no such warrantied, specific interpreter educational background requirement for NIC candidates. Lacking the focused, specific training/education that is required of police officers (and tower crane operators) and that forms the foundation on which their tests can rest, why would we adopt an assessment approach that presumes such focused, specified training/education when we do not yet have such focused, specified training/education?

19) On page 9 the report asserts that a testing program is fair if “…every candidate has the same opportunity to demonstrate his or her competence.” Again, based on the numerous comments I have received from those who have taken the “enhanced” NIC, the majority feel they did not have an opportunity to demonstrate their competence. All candidates may be presented with the same logistically structured opportunity with the NIC, but if that opportunity is believed by a majority of candidates not to afford them an “…opportunity to demonstrate his or her competence” or is believed by them to be a flawed opportunity, how can such a program be judged as fair? How does the Board respond to candidates who feel they did not have an opportunity to demonstrate their competence?

20) Page 9 states that there is “…no evidence…that suggests that physical endurance is required for the job.” This patently ignores significant research in signed and spoken language interpreting research on this matter.  It patently fails to realize that physical endurance is not the critical issue in interpretation — cognitive endurance definitely is!!!! This is extremely well documented in the literature. With the “enhanced” NIC vignettes ranging from only three minutes to five minutes in length (although one LTA emailed me saying that they carefully timed each scenario and the actual range was between 1:20 and 3:20!!), it is virtually impossible to see how we assess cognitive endurance. This is, after all, one of the most important reasons why we advocate for the use of teams in many situations. If there is no evidence in the “Role Delineation Study” that speaks to cognitive fatigue, then I suggest that that study is seriously flawed. If there is such evidence in the Study and the “enhanced NIC” ignores this, then the program is seriously flawed. Why do we think that cognitive fatigue is not a critical factor to assess? And why was the “Role Delineation Study” not more widely vetted and shared?

21) Page 10 states that “…RID has carefully specified the testing conditions…”. Based on information I have received from candidates who have taken the “enhanced” RID, this means that candidates must be seated and must remain so for the duration of the test. As any interpreter knows, when an interpreter is seated, his/her range of motion is severely restricted and thus his/her use of space for semantic/linguistic purposes is also restricted. Given that we have never restricted candidates in this manner, what empirical evidence is there that placing interpreters in such restricted conditions will produce samples of their work that are indicative of their overall competence? Why would we want to restrict/constrain the use of semantic/linguistic space?

22) Page 11 proclaims the hope that the “enhanced” NIC will “…earn the value and respect from consumers that it deserves”. I submit that the “enhanced” NIC cannot earn respect from consumers until and unless it is accepted, embraced and valued by practitioners. This status report references a number of reports and studies that, to my knowledge, have not been made available to the RID membership. When can members expect release of all reports that are referenced in the Status Report?

My Previous Questions

In my initial letter to the Board, I asked nine questions. I was told that a “comprehensive report” would be issued that would address these questions. Unfortunately, I do not believe that any of the questions has been answered satisfactorily.

1) RID members need a more thorough explanation of why time and a simple mathematical formula should be the primary drivers behind the format of the certification test; if this is not true, then a clear explanation should be provided for how the current 4-minute per vignette test segmentation was determined.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

2) An explanation for the process/principles used in the selection of and/or development of the vignettes be made known to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

3) A full explanation of the empirical justification for this 4-minute approach must be provided to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

4) A clear explanation of the rationale and justification for placing candidates at such an interpreting disadvantage must be provided to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

5) A detailed explanation of the rational for, and empirical support for this decision and this deviation from forty years of experience is also needed by the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

6) If there is evidence that supports the claim that a 4-miute sample can validly and reliably assess a candidate’s ability to assess sustained quality over time, then it must be made known to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

7) What are the various English and ASL grammatical and semantic features in vignettes that raters will be assessing and do these five 4-minute vignettes provide sufficient linguistic and discourse variation to elicit an appropriate range of English and ASL grammatical and semantic features?

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

8 ) Since using discretion in selecting assignments is one of the core operating principles of our long-standing Code, the rationale for adopting an “all or nothing” approach must be made clear to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

9) A clear, empirically supported explanation of why the current NIC assessment is valid and can be reliably assessed by raters must be provided to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

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Self-Talk: A Sign Language Interpreter’s Inner Warning System?

Sign Language Interpreter - Scales of Justice

As a sign language interpreter, how do you know when something isn’t quite right? Anna Mindess discusses the importance of heeding our inner dialogue both on and off-the-job.

As my team interpreter and I stood outside the courtroom, red-faced, sputtering and hissing at each other like a pair of angry snakes, it was clear that I could have handled this situation more effectively.

A confluence of factors led to this stressful scene. Our RID Regional Conference had taken many of the legal sign language interpreters with SC:L’s out of town for the week. As one of the few remaining interpreters with legal certification, I was overbooked and had to arrive late to the court proceeding that afternoon: a jury trial with a Deaf defendant. This county’s court interpreter coordinator knew about and accepted my tardiness, as she was desperately trying to find SC:L’s to cover cases and had turned to an outside agency to fill the gaps.

Better Judgment

Thus, as I entered the courtroom, my teammate was already in the midst of interpreting the proceedings. I sat down quietly in the chair behind the defense table. The District Attorney was questioning a witness on the stand. The members of the jury were focused on the testimony. At that point, I did not have time to confer with the other interpreter, whom I had never even met before. Probably, if I had, I might have approached the judge with my concerns prior to the start of the afternoon’s proceedings. Inwardly, I knew that it was not the best idea to go ahead without context or preparation, but given the inconvenience of my entrance, I pushed aside my better judgment and tried to assess the situation at hand.

My attention was immediately drawn to my teammate, first for wearing extremely casual clothes (a T-shirt and khakis) in a formal legal setting and second for their obvious unfamiliarity with basic legal terms such as objection, sustained, overruled, and stipulation which they chose to fingerspell.

“It’s Only Jury Selection”

During a short break in the proceedings, I asked my team interpreter whether they had legal certification or legal training and when they answered in the negative, I asked why they accepted this assignment. The reply, “The agency told me it was only jury selection,” did not assuage my concerns. Ironically, the agency that hired this interpreter specializes in sign language and should have known better than to send an unqualified person to a legal assignment. So I followed up, “Once you arrived and found out that it was the actual trial, why did you continue?” The answer was, “If I didn’t go ahead, they would have had to stop the whole trial.” (As I learned long ago in my legal training, sometimes that is actually the most appropriate option.)

What Are My Options

My team interpreter did not seem to grasp the gravity of a trial and the potential life-altering consequences for the defendant given their lack of legal training and legal certification (one of my state’s laws requires an SC:L for legal proceedings.) Before I arrived in the courtroom, the interpreter had self-identified as “RID certified” because they possess a CI/CT. Most judges are not aware of the difference, unless directed to the specific statute.

At this point, our ten-minute break was coming to an end and the jury was filing in. My mind was racing as I considered my options: write a note and ask to speak with the judge, ask for the other sign language interpreter’s legal credentials (or lack thereof) to be put on the record, slip outside to call the interpreter coordinator? The responsibility to decide on the best course of action in a few seconds had me frozen, until my window of opportunity was gone. Testimony resumed and the other sign language interpreter and I continued trading off tensely.

I decided the best I could do in that moment was closely monitor my teammate and feed signs for legal terms so that the Deaf defendant would have the best chance at accessing the proceedings. I’m sure this only made the situation more stressful for my teammate.

Who Do You Respect in RID?

During our hissing and sputtering encounter at the end of the day, the interpreter accused me of lack of respect, taking the entire matter as a personal insult. I insisted my concern was totally about their lack of legal training. I don’t usually confront my colleagues in this manner, but when the interpreter didn’t seem to get my point, I stated that an SC:L requires hundreds of hours of training and passing a very hard test. “Did you think you could come into a courtroom and improvise?” I asked. No response. Then I inquired, “As an RID certified interpreter, who do you respect in RID, Sharon Neumann Solow? Anna Witter-Merithew? Do you think they would approve of your choices?” The interpreter refused to continue the dialogue and stormed off. Stalemate.

 It Can’t Be that Hard, I’ll Figure it Out

On the drive home, I tried to fathom how this sign language interpreter could have thought it was okay to proceed in a situation with potentially grave consequences, without the qualifications to do the job? After all, the second tenet of the CPC specifies that interpreters should “possess the professional skills and knowledge required for the specific interpreting situation.”

I tried to imagine what thoughts went through their head. Perhaps first, the thrill of being in a new situation, the desire to learn about it, coupled with a sense of confidence from interpreting for 20+ years. Maybe they quieted any inner doubts with thoughts like, “I can handle this, I’m an intelligent person, a skilled interpreter, if there are new vocabulary terms, I can pick them up.” “I like challenges.” “It can’t be that hard, I’ll figure it out.” “They can’t find anyone else, so I’ll just have to do my best.” “I wouldn’t want to stop the whole proceedings and admit any lack on my part. That would be embarrassing.”

Or maybe it was as simple as, “I need the work.”

Examining this hypothetical inner monologue, I noticed there was no mention of the Deaf client’s needs at all. “Ahh,” I thought, “That’s a red flag right there. It’s all about the sign language interpreter.”

A Litany of Excuses

And then, with a start, I realized, there was a reason that I could so easily imagine the rationalizations from that inner voice. In all honesty, I probably have conjured up a similar litany of excuses myself. And in all likelihood, most interpreters have also done so at one time or another–in legal or non-legal settings–if they are willing to admit it. In my case, this occurred–and hopefully it does so much less now–in situations where the Deaf party requires the services of a CDI.

Turn Down the Volume

My current strategy is to be extremely sensitive to the onset of this inner dialogue, so that it acts as a warning system alerting me to stop, assess the entire situation, and consider what is needed to give the Deaf client complete access to vital communication. Yes, it’s true that calling a halt to a meeting or legal proceeding is awkward and may provoke the ire of the lawyers, the judge and the other people involved. But when I cannot, in good conscience, convince myself that the present configuration best serves the needs of the Deaf person, I turn down the volume on that inner emotional voice, so that I can speak up and take action to do the ethically appropriate thing.

Call a Time Out

As a sign language interpreter how do you increase your sensitivity to that inner warning system?

– Monitor your physical responses to the situation. Breathing faster? Stomach tightening up? Your body may be telling you something.

– Are you not comprehending the signs? Resorting to fingerspelling to cope with unfamiliar vocabulary? Do your clients keep repeating themselves?

– Getting distracted by thoughts of how you are being perceived, instead of just focusing on the work?

It’s too hard to think objectively, and plan how to handle a situation that is not working while you are in the middle of interpreting. Call a time out. Breathe. Assess. This will give you a moment to collect yourself and ask the important question, “Should I continue?” Equally important, it will give you an opportunity to consider how to best proceed should the responsible and ethical decision be to stop.

Lets Share Our Collective Wisdom

What strategies do you use to remain sensitive to the alerts of your inner warning system? When have you taken the courageous step to stop the interpretation when you knew something was not working?

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Overcoming Challenges as a Sign Language Interpreter of Color

Overcoming Challenges as a Sign Language Interpreter of Color

Sign language interpreters bring a variety of personal and professional experiences to the field. Sherry Smith explores the unique challenges and contributions of interpreters of color.

At times we may question whether our peers value what we bring to the sign language interpreting profession. Regardless of our confidence level about what we bring, I believe we would likely agree that it is a diversity of backgrounds that makes the tapestry of the sign language interpreting profession so beautiful.

On my road to becoming a sign language interpreter, I, like you, have had my share of unique challenges, and struggles. You see, my race and my beliefs position me in the minority. This has brought along challenges that I have had to overcome.

Where We Come From

Growing up on the Southside of Chicago with gangs, drugs, crime, and the fast pace of city life was not easy. It taught me to speak up for myself, not to be intimidated, and not to be afraid to travel alone. These lessons helped me have the courage to explain my beliefs at an early age and why I would not join certain events or activities.

As a young person, I devoted a lot of time each month to a volunteer ministry in my community. My volunteer work helped me keep a positive attitude amidst the struggles of living in a difficult environment.

Volunteering and learning from trials since childhood has helped my work as a sign language interpreter. As a result of these experiences, I am better equipped to advocate for appropriate assignment conditions for my consumers and for myself. I have also been able to help Deaf friends and consumers see the need to advocate for themselves.

Adapting to New Environments

As a person regularly in the minority, I have learned to adapt to environments very different from the ones I grew up in. For instance, working from time to time in different educational settings, I have learned that struggles may vary from city to city or town to town. One thing remains the same in that Deaf students need and deserve proper interpreting services. Whether I work in an inner city school, or a small neighborhood school, as an interpreter, I must overcome myself and deliver the services my consumers need.

We Want to Relate

Sometimes, when among other sign language interpreters, I have felt my race and background have prevented me from “fitting in.” There was a time when I preferred to accept assignments that allowed me to work around other interpreters of color. The ability to relate to their struggle gave me a similar feeling to being back in the environment I grew up in. I have learned through the years though, that even if my background is different, I can still learn and benefit from the experiences of others. Furthermore, they can benefit from my experiences as well.

A Struggle is a Struggle

I recently had the privilege of teaming with an interpreter whose race and background is quite different from mine. We were able to support each other in our work and in our ethical responsibilities. We discussed the various struggles we have each been through and even though they are different, a struggle is still a struggle. Hearing how she was able to overcome her struggles encouraged me. I realize that regardless of our skin tone, where we grew up, or our convictions, we may all have felt like we were in the minority at certain points in our sign language interpreting journey.

We should never assume that someone won’t be able to relate to us just because their skin tone is different. We likely have more in common than we realize.

Recognizing One’s Limitations

Through the years, I have had to recognize and accept my own limitations. Personal experiences, tragedies, morals, and beliefs have influenced my choice of interpreting assignments. Regardless of our skills, training, or experience, we must know and respect these personal limitations.

An example of a tragedy I have had to overcome is the murder of a childhood friend. I found myself tensing up in certain environments while on the job. During an interpreting assignment, I even had a flashback of sad memories because of a topic that reminded me of this tragedy. I have had to learn to avoid certain assignments as they sometimes prove too emotionally taxing for me.

Find Advice

The advice of others has helped me to cope with my limitations. At one point, I was living in an area where I felt isolated from other interpreters of color. I also felt misjudged because of my beliefs. In signing up to work with a local agency, one of the owners made an unprofessional comment to me because of my religion. In fact, on my initial interview, one of the owners brought up religion and wanted to know what my faith was. As a result of feeling uncomfortable working with that agency, I would drive to the closest big city to work around other interpreters of color. Clearly, this decision only held me back from working closer to my home. Not to mention that I was overextending myself.

During this difficult period, I received pointed advice from a sign language interpreter who did not know me well. We had a brief conversation in which her advice helped me to realize that I should not limit myself unnecessarily. I have since learned to overcome hurt feelings. There may be times when unprofessional comments are made. I should not allow them to hold me back from success.

Benefiting from Differences

Even though my background is different from many sign language interpreters, I have learned that my background can provide a benefit to them. As sign language interpreters, we benefit the profession when we encourage one another with candid expressions of how we have succeeded in spite of our trials and challenges.

We may at times feel uncomfortable as a result of our inability to directly relate to a person or environment. During these moments, we must have the confidence to believe our experience is worthy of contribution. After all, it is our personal trials that make us who we are.

In an eBook I have written, Diary of a Happy Black Sign Language Interpreter, I share with my readers embarrassing moments, hard times, and times of success. I hope it can be a benefit to all of you and leave you with a positive feeling inside.

An excerpt from Chapter 5 is offered for your enjoyment below:

V.  Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda….How About Now?

No one can change the past. What we do with our past experiences can be very helpful though! Consider my certification journey.  For a while, I became sullen and unmotivated about pursuing my National Interpreter Certification. I passed my NIC written exam in the winter of 2007. Before I relocated to Texas, I rushed to take the performance test. Big mistake! I was not ready and I failed.

Remember that video relay company? Less than two years after my first experience with them, I decided to reapply but not at the same center. I wanted to relocate to a warmer area of the United States for a while. I applied and flew down for an interview in Texas. I did not want to tell the director in Texas of my past experience with the company, but I realized that as soon as they looked up my social security number, they would see that I was a past employee.

I opened up and told of my past experience with the company. The director proceeded to evaluate me again. After watching me evaluate, he said that he did not know what to do with me. He expressed that he couldn’t believe I traveled there for that. I remember thinking that I hope that was a compliment! It was! He proceeded to tell me that he didn’t know if he should hire me into the special training program again, or just hire me directly as a Video Relay Interpreter. He spoke to other directors, and in a short time, I had my answer! I was officially hired as a VRI!

You can find the book and author spotlight here.