Overcoming Challenges as a Sign Language Interpreter of Color

July 4, 2012

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.


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22 Comments on "Overcoming Challenges as a Sign Language Interpreter of Color"

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Soy colombiano y trabajo como interprete LSC y también trabajo como voluntario de carácter educativo. Felicitaciones a Sherry, interesante tu articulo, lastimosamente no hablo muy bien el ingles. me gustaría recibir mas comentarios. escríbeme

Sherry Smith

Gracias por sus comentarios. Espero lo mejor para ti en tu trabajo de interpretación y de la vida cotidiana.

Having began my career as an interpreter in south central Los Angeles, I understand where you’re coming from. As an interpreter of color and married to the military, I had no idea that I would be exposed to small town America, and eventually make it home. Acclimating myself to this new environment took time, and I had to put my big city ego in storage. Throughout that time, there have been occasions where I’ve been offered jobs based on race, and trust me, the ego wanted to reemerge and snap a neck. However, I kept it bay, and came to… Read more »
Sherry Smith


Thank you so very much for sharing your experience. As interpreters, we truly benefit from such encouragement from one another. I hope the best for you and your family.


Thank you so much for this post. I am currently in school to become an interpreter for the Deaf and have been having a hard time finding a Deaf community in which I can interact and practice. This is the first time I read a post about an interpreter and I was very inspired. Thanks again for sharing. Btw, I will be looking up your ebook! 🙂

Sherry Smith

Hi Julie,

Thank you very much for your comments. I hope the best for you with your interpreting education. Yes, getting to know the Deaf community is very important. The last chapter of my ebook has some good information you will appreciate in this regard.


[…] proofreading your own documents Google Translate: When to Use It and When to Hire Professionals Overcoming Challenges as a Sign Language Interpreter of Color Quantifying the cost of poor quality in translation – sour cherries The Expat Dilemma: Local vs. […]

Hi Sherry, Wow! I have to tell you that I enjoyed your experiences as an interpreter of color and as a volunteer minister, we have both things in common and some of the same challenges. Recently, your article was recommended here in Boston, to be read for our MIG ( Minority Interpreter Group) like you we here to face many challenges as interpreters of color from some of our well meaning colleagues, we will be using your example as we work to develop our story in the near future, hopefully we can be in touch and talk more. All the… Read more »
Sherry Smith

Hello James,

Thank you very much for your comments. It was a privilege to have my article on this site. Many thanks to Brandon Arthur who considered my story worthy of sharing on his site. I hope the article helps at MIG.

My contact info can be found on RID.org. If I can be of any assistance feel free to contact me. I hope the best for you in your volunteer work and secular work.

I enjoyed the article about your journey as an ASL Interpeter. Looking forward to reading the book! I’ve always been interested in ASL. But never had the time to learn, life got in the way, lol! My Brother’s sister-in-law was also in ASL for quite some time. Now she’s teaching English in South Korea. I think it is truly a gift & a privilege to know this most needed & @ times misunderstood craft. I look forward to hearing more from you Sherrie about your journey. Who knows… one day I too, may become an interpeter. Thanks to you &… Read more »
Sherry Smith

Thank you Felicia for your words of encouragement! I hope that you will take the time to learn sign language very soon!

Christine K.
I am super thrilled to find your article so that I can add that to my library to be shared with my ASL students at a local high school. Many of the students are from military families and would appreciate hearing more about interpreters like yourself so that they’d move forward on their career in interpreting. If it is possible for my school to let me do VP, can we call you via vp and have the students talk with you about your experiences growing up in Chicago (my mom and dad were very involved in Chicago community), your experiences… Read more »
Sherry Smith

Thank you Christine!

You can find my contact information on http://www.rid.org. Feel free to contact me. I hope the best for you and your students!

Todd Hodgins
What a nicely written article! Interesting and practical. Both my wife and I have worked as volunteers interpreters within the Deaf committee for many years as well. Then after studying for over 5 months in Patterson NY, we relocated to Tanzania where we also served as Missionaries for 10 years. After becoming fluent in Swahili we focused the ladder 3 years working with the Deaf whereby we had to learn a different Sign Language. It was a challenge but without the past experience of understanding this culture, we would have found it near impossible. We also found that concepts that… Read more »
Sherry Smith

Thank you very much for your comment Todd! I hope that you and your wife will continue to use your Gilead school training to help many people no matter where you live!

Thanks for sharing your experiences as an interpreter of color. As another interpreter of color ” from a different mother” , I can relate. I have lots of stories and experiences that could be shared in a book. I was one of two Black interpreters in Ohio back in the 80’s for many years. It was difficult to pass the RID exam in the past due to racism within our profession. Happy to say there have been huge strides made within the community to increase the number of interpreters. Glad to see that you are working for a VRS interpreter.… Read more »
Sherry Smith

Thank you Pam for sharing your experiences. Learning about the struggles and successes of other interpreters truly benefits the profession. I hope the best for you!



Thank you! I really needed this at this moment in my journey.

Its nice to see others sharing, hurts, triuphms, and personal details with other interpreters.

We people of color, are so blessed to be in a field that we so understand.

I am blessed to be given the opportunity to work, learn and continually grow as a colored women, and interpreter.

Our goal is to keep passing info on to others, so that we become a allied proffesion all working together.

Blessings always,

Sherry Smith

Thank you Shelly!

Many times people are afraid to share their struggles. But as you stated…the goal is for the profession to be allied. It is so important to learn about and share the struggles and successes we have. Take care! I hope the best for your journey!

Hi Sherry. Your article was very interesting to read. I will be starting my ITP in the fall and I am very excited. I recently watched a video on YouTube about the number of certified interpreters of color (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0C__swrNDw). I wanted to see more perspectives and I am happy I stumbled upon yours. Reading of the struggles you had because of your faith as well really touched me especially since there is only one faith that I can think of that goes through that and from reading your reply to comments I think I am correct in my guess. I… Read more »

Thank you Rodney for your comments!

I hope the best for you in your ITP. If you enjoyed the article, you would like the eBook at http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/ssmithterp.

Keep yourself surrounded by positive friends and you will do great!


I am an ITP student currently and also do volunteer ministry work in the community over 800 hours a year. I stumbled across this site and your article while researching. It really helped encourage me to keep going as my certification approaches next year so I just had to write to tell you thank you for sharing your story.

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