Sign Language Interpreters: Purposeful Change for Power Holders

March 19, 2013

Looking at leadership styles and models informs choices as we act as interpreters or in leadership roles. Dave Coyne explores the nature of leadership and how transformational leadership can positively impact interpreted interactions.

Since I gained professional status as a sign language interpreter, I have witnessed oppression of various types, more than I would like, such as disenfranchisement of Deaf community members, abuse of power by interpreters, and discrimination against Deaf individuals.  These are alarming and call for changes in how interpreters work.

Incorporating Leadership into our Work

Interpreters are in the trenches in many locations in which Deaf members struggle for equality (e.g., homes, schools, hospitals, and other societal institutions).  This situation calls for a specific kind of leadership that personally influences individuals in both top-down and bottom-up approaches, surfacing in interpreters’ roles in day-to-day interactions.

These locations represent where change is most needed, and where sign language interpreters can best work toward reaching the liberative goals put forth by the Deaf community.  Merely acting as spectators or watching Deaf members wage the battle alone, is not enough for many interpreters. Passive involvement is not enough because the way in which interpreters perform their jobs in the midst of community members’ daily struggles, and the approaches used to carry out practices can contribute to or hinder purposeful contributions, contributions that can represent momentum by fostering positive changes.  These purposeful contributions (e.g., allowing others to lead their actions) can humble interpreters yet foster participants’ advancement in most situations.  More importantly, incorporating leadership into interpreting practices can prompt styles that prevent inconsistent approaches.

Collective Causations

Leadership has been at the periphery of many conversations, but for sign language interpreter Amy Seiberlich, this topic should be at the forefront. Seiberlich (2012) in her StreetLeverage article, “Leadership in Sign Language Interpreting: Where are We?” highlighted the idea that historical causation created directions in the interpreting field which have led to many of our current problems.

Today’s daily interactions are often devoid of the collective purposes needed to establish meaningful connections with Deaf individuals.  For many years, attempts have been made to formulate national collective causations at RID’s biennial conference, hosted by the Deaf Caucus.  The Caucus was successful in gathering practices considered important by Deaf members, families of Deaf members, interpreters, and educators. To be used effectively, this information, gathered, analyzed, and shared, requires the support and integration by all stakeholders involved, specifically sign language interpreters.  If integration of preferred practices are not carefully monitored, then community-specific information can be utilized only for convenient position-taking.

Transformational Leadership Theory

In viewing interpreters as leaders, stakeholders hold individuals, institutions, and organizations accountable for their actions: there is simply too much at stake not to consider a transformational approach.

Incorporating transformational leadership traits into interpreters’ work is only one way to address the many struggles that sign language interpreters, systems and institutions, and interlocutors deal with. This method encourages progression toward various kinds of emancipation and prompts active support of Deaf community members.  This approach can prove useful for discovering how to sort through and piece together the fragmentation between professionals and communities.

Interpreters’ practices and their approaches to interpreting are distinctive.  Thus, asking interpreters to identify with social conditions and interactions deemed significant by Deaf members may begin to counterbalance the negative effects coming from interpreters in the field.  Specific suggestions provided by Denis Cokely (2011) in “Sign Language Interpreters – Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain” touched on the social influences wielded by interpreters who are either tightly bound or less bound to the Deaf Community.  Each of his suggestions carries differing implications and results.

Relational-based Change

Individuals who mistakenly believe they can separate language and culture and do not share Deaf community members’ goals and views can be no more than bilingual-monocultural rather than bilingual-bicultural interpreters. On the other hand, those who form strong bonds with the Deaf community can potentially achieve bicultural status (sharing goals, views, and norms), utilizing full bilingual skill sets. Interpreters who work as biculturals are able to co-create relational-based encounters to effect change.

Monocultural individuals who see their work strictly as commerce-based agreements (transactional) for interpreting services, too often fail to consider the additional collaborative components of their work (e.g., discussing strategies for participants’ success, listening to concerns and experiences, and participating in ways that further the greater good) as part of their professional duties.  These critical reviews of interpreter practices are needed to detail purposeful behaviors that are crucial to supporting participants’ needs, values, and expectations.

Leadership Styles

Burns (1978) defined leadership thus:

“the reciprocal process of mobilizing, by persons with certain motives and values, various economic, political, and other resources, in a context of competition and conflict, in order to realize goals independently or mutually held by the leaders and followers” (p. 425).

This quote placed shared goals as a pivotal component in different leadership styles. Due to the very nature of interpreting, interpreters are special kinds of power-holders.  Their collective motives and values can be used to satisfy, or not satisfy others’ individual and shared goals.  The process of reaching these goals may cause internal struggles in interpreters who do not fully understand the motives and values of the individuals they work with.  For others, conversations about leadership theories give rise to the vocabulary needed to address the concerns, needs, and expectations of those working with interpreters. According to Burns (1978), leadership is specifically targeted to everyone involved in interactions (but especially the power-holders).  If all are fully engaging in and discovering the center of leadership itself, they will find that leaders and participants have intertwined practices, perceptions, values, and motivations.

Today’s interpreter leaders are not only in managerial and other upper level positions, but are also interpreters themselves, involved in daily interactions where common goals are supported.  More than ever, we must continue to discover more about the individuals who hold power, those who wield sole power, and the powerless.  Discussions surrounding power have surfaced in national conferences and daily conversations: Deaf members and interpreters convene to raise awareness of the effects of power.   In doing so, they draw back from full power, sharing it instead: thereby contribute to closing the disconnect that exists between some interpreters and Deaf members.  Any conflicts or coalitions that come up have the potential to shape popular opinion and forever change interpreters’ future business.

Transactional Leadership

Transactional leadership emphasizes an exchange between those involved to satisfy solely independent objectives.  The interpreting field, which has boomed into a million dollar industry in a short period of time, has too many individuals who facilitate communication with an “in and out” or “I do this and you give me that” approach.  Transactional leaders’ foci lie in satisfying agreed-upon objectives, regardless of what interlocutors need out from the encounter.  They do not seek mutual support or understanding (in other words, ‘I am here to interpret this information to the best of my abilities for compensation, but not to discuss anyone’s overall well-being because that is outside my professional boundaries’).

This type of ‘service’ carries consequences (e.g., Deaf and hearing individuals are groomed to merely accept interpreters’ practices ‘as is’ to ensure future opportunities take place).  Simply put, when approached as mere contractual obligations, these practices (known or unknown) obligate participants to comply with requests through a transactional leadership exchange process.  This “I interpret, and then I get compensated” approach does not further meaningful dialogue or deepen relationships.  The reality of this mindset between interpreters and Deaf individuals has been shown to foster the negative effects on Deaf individuals, described as ‘ripples’ of disempowerment by Trudy Suggs (2012) in “Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter.”  Transactional-based encounters can potentially cause negative effects which indeed transcend interpreting spaces.  These ripples that remain after interpreters leave, can potentially bring about more pernicious forms of oppression (even if unintentional) than overt discrimination or retaliation.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is predominantly displayed inside rather than outside educational spheres. However, some studies (Burns, 1978) have confirmed that even outside educational spheres, transformational leadership can positively affect one’s ability to create environments incorporating individual participants’ and groups’ desired needs, values, and goals while engaging them. Transformational leadership has been applied most often during crises:  “…in those conditions, a leader can seize the opportunity to identify the deficiencies of the status quo, and promote a future state that will appeal to followers” (In Antonakis & House, 2002, p. 13).  Interpreters, as potential transformational leaders working closely alongside with Deaf members, put forth issues that can directly enhance the quality of lives.  In incorporating these transformational leadership skill sets, interpreters alter spaces to achieve participants’ ends.

Leadership inspires the individuals involved to collaborate in attaining a higher quality of life.  Transformational leadership rests on the idea that leaders are guided at all times by participants.  The emphasis placed is on participants’ beliefs, needs, and values.  Because interpreters manage interpreting spaces, they are central to communication exchanges.  It is vital for interpreters to approach situations with sensitivity because Deaf members are already in the minority. Practices of transformational interpreters include checking in with the participants more often, inquiring about the next steps to take, and ensuring (the best they can) no further disempowerment occurs.

Bass and Riggio (2006) noted that transformational leaders typically display four characteristics:  individual considerations, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, and idealized influence. These traits once learned, promote participants’ visions and goals, bolster intellectual stimulation, hone professional practices and values, promote high performance expectations, and lead to their increased decision-making. In sum, integrating transformational leadership into the field, interpreters take leadership to heart, shifting the emphasis in environments (established by a history of both social and political factors) on Deaf members, away from interpreters.

Next Steps Toward Change

Understanding how interpreters can work effectively with the Deaf community begins by investigating how they currently analyze situations and how they believe they behave as professionals.  Interpreters must initiate potentially uncomfortable conversations with stakeholders in order to learn as much as possible about the Deaf community.  This information can lend insights into needed changes in both the field, and interpreters’ approaches, and create a common purpose for professional work.  Exchanges that merely result in transactional-based encounters can be modified to be more transformational in nature.  This crossover between approaches can be achieved through education, dialogue and discussions, all in which involve shared motives and values that are brought to the table to garner purposeful change.

By learning and implementing transformational leadership traits into our work, we as individuals in the field, can devise purposeful actions to address many current concerns about some interpreters.  Actions from transformational leaders that spur trust, collaboration, and accountability are needed now more than ever to confront current issues.  The individuals who work with interpreters should be at the forefront of any decisions made: it is to be hoped that what results from these purposeful collaborations will contribute to change for the common good.

My ambition has always been to consider a holistic approach to mend real gaps, often unintentional ones, between the interpreting and Deaf communities. I propose, wholeheartedly and assuredly, that interpreters’ practices and approaches to their work be investigated using grassroots and bottom-up methods that progresses beyond the current status quo.

Join me?  


  1. Antonakis, J., & House, R. J. (2002). An analysis of the full-range leadership          theory: The way forward. In B., Avolio, & F., Yammarino (Eds.),    Transformational and charismatic leadership:  (pp. 3–33). Amsterdam: JAI Press.
  2. Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership.New York: Harper & Row
  3. Bass. B.M. & Riggio. R.E. (2006). Transformational Leadership, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. NJ.
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15 Comments on "Sign Language Interpreters: Purposeful Change for Power Holders"

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I highly recommend Ryan Commerson and Alison Albrecht’s Reframing Retreat/workshop, which is open to interpreters, CODAs, Deaf community and Allies, and it is a wonderful way for each group to have productive discussion and work among themselves and with the other groups to effect change in our greater community! If it comes near you, do whatever you can to be there!


Thanks for sharing this opportunity for purposeful discussions and meaningful involvement! These types of workshops and “think tanks” are needed to challenge everyone to evaluate current interpreting practices.


I’m reading “Megatrends 2010. The Rise of Conscious Capitalism” By: Patricia Aburdene and many of the themes in the book overlap with the ideas presented in this article. Thank you for writing on such an essential topic. My hope is that, through open dialogue, we will continue to maintain a notion of humanity, mutual respect, and cultural awareness in the interpreting profession for years to come.


Yes, themes surrounding your values of “humanity, mutual respect, and cultural awareness”, all may be achieved with transformational leadership and allow interpreters to take on more responsibility in their work, shifting the focus and control back to those who we work with. I share your vision and will check out your recommendation (thank you for sharing this). I find that many other fields mirror our current concerns, and we definitely can learn from these resources.


[…] seems to separate the good from the great.  Shortly after writing posting this, Dave Coyne posted this great article on Street Leverage. I’ve been fortunate to chat with Dave about his ongoing research — and […]

Amazing article, Dave! 🙂 As a fellow educator who has worked with others living with various disabilities, I think this line really hit it home: “Deaf and hearing individuals are groomed to merely accept interpreters’ practices ‘as is’ to ensure future opportunities take place.” This kind of “fear” occurs when these services are often perceived as a privilege by society; what gives those struggling with the disability the right to criticize or describe what type of experiences they need? They should be happy they get it at all. This fear stops many from speaking out because they might lose what… Read more »
Elyse, I agree, many behaviors may indeed be rooted in some type of fear due to specific types of grooming (known or unknown) but regardless of the type of professional (e.g., educators, coordinators, interpreters) or identities held by those served (e.g., Deaf, deaf, hard of hearing, etc), or the types of daily struggles experienced – professionals should have the best interest of others in the forefront of their decision making process (empowering each step of the way). Achieving this begins by having open discussions and allowing oneself to learn from others (a humbling experience for some). We cannot afford to… Read more »
Terri Hayes
Good morning, while I agree whole-heartedly with what I believe to the the impetus for this article (the need for interpreters to be less self absorbed and more “deaf”/”deaf aware” in their working relationships), I’m concerned that the waves of “I’m an interpreter, and therefore I can and should be making decisions while on the jobs I’m attending” are rolling over the Deaf people. The fact is, there are a lot more interpreters who were not Deaf-made out there than who were, and just saying “you need to learn and assimilate yourself,” “you need to integrate yourself into the culture… Read more »
Hi, Terri, Thanks for taking time to respond. Making decisions depends not just on how interpreters choose among several options, but how others’ wants guide the process. Decisions that are made by interpreters occur pre/post assignments (e.g., how much preparation time to dedicate, what types of community events should be attended, what attire to wear), and even thousands more navigating the interpreting assignments (e.g., when to arrive, when to correct interpretation errors/mistakes, how to go about correcting those mistakes, what register to use). Although interpreters do make these decisions during their assignments (e.g., sign/word choices, where to sit, when to… Read more »
Scott Van Nice
This is a thought provoking article on several salient points. Yet, it is important to approach this from the other side of the spectrum: interpreters should be cautious about what kind of a “transformational leadership” they would like to provide to their deaf clients (or deaf customers or whatever is the new terminology these days). Personally, as a deaf consumer that interacts heavily with sign language interpreters in my career, I’ve always felt that if there is a need for advocacy then the deaf client has to bear the burden of being an advocate or seek help from a trained… Read more »
Thanks for adding to this discussion Scott. The kind of transformational leadership interpreters showcase is indeed, very important. In the big picture, we are only in the starting stages of co-developing approaches. The aim should not be radical advocacy but rather incremental transformative approaches that, over time, add to the greater good, all based on the preferences of others and not self interest (to the best of one’s ability). Understanding what kinds of thresholds or boundaries interpreters respect will be up to interpreters and, more importantly, those working with interpreters. I find that interpreters already showcase many transformational traits, but… Read more »
Peggy Huber

Yes! I’d love to join you!
Thank you for this excellent article. I am interested in Transformational Leadership resources to share with my colleagues and with my RID affiliate chapter members. I will look up the references used in this article, but would appreciate some guidance in educating myself on this topic. I was unable to find the “Reframing” workshop/retreat, but would be interested in looking up opportunities for joining one. Any help?


Hi Peggy,

Happy to have you on board! You join an amazing group of people. Sorry for the delay, I have been trying to find the best way to reach out to you. If you send your information via the Contact page, then your information can be sent to me. I will contact you personally and send you what I have (with some specific recommendations as well). -DC

Hi all~ Great article. I’ve perused the comments and want to chime in. I think the idea of being aware of your power and using it with as much discernment as you have to promote equal access, open relationships, respectful interactions and avoiding being the sole holder of information creates an empowering environment for people to interact and made their own decisions. I think there is a “Crazy Danger” in attempting to engineer a type of manipulation of interactions based on the interpreter’s view of what is desired by the parties. For example, I had one of the most difficult… Read more »
Dave J. Coyne
Hi Shelly, Thanks for posting and adding to this discussion. Further, thank you for sharing your experience. I am sure many interpreters (and Deaf individuals) can relate to many different aspects in your story and indeed, it shows how interpreting assignments are complicated and sometimes do not end near the original projected outcomes. Transformational leadership is indeed, not based on mere perceptions of the needs and wants of stakeholders (and if there were would cause rise to a “crazy danger” status) but rather based on information learned from stakeholders, e.g., explicit and reflective inquiry-oriented questions/understandings. The needs and wants that… Read more »

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