Ethical Choices: Educational Sign Language Interpreters as Change Agents

April 2, 2013

Educational sign language interpreters often view their role as conduit or machine. Deaf children benefit when interpreters instead become agents of change, advocating for students and following their Deaf hearts.

I have the pleasure and challenge of working with educational sign language interpreters around the country: pleasure because I generally find these interpreters extremely committed to the best interests of students,  challenge because I generally find them frustrated by their work settings. Their experiences resonate with Gina Olivia’s post, Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged, which identifies that interpreters often witness the tragedy of ineffective education for deaf students, yet feel impotent to create change.

While there are plenty of issues in need of fixing related to Deaf education, our challenge as interpreters is to recognize what indeed we do have power over and use that as our classroom leverage to make a difference.

To do this, we need to step out of the shadow of invisibility and realize that, when we are at our best, we bring our full sense of humanity to the work. Part of that humanity is a Deaf heart, as described by Betty Colonomos in Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart. I think of Deaf heart as a commitment to bringing the concerns and values of the larger Deaf community into mainstream settings.

From Machine to Human Being

My introduction to the Deaf community and interpreting came in 1988.  At my summer job, when I was 18, I encountered Deaf people, sign language, and interpreters for the first time. This was after the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet and the Deaf people I met felt empowered to act to change their world.

The message I heard about interpreters was exactly the opposite.  Interpreters, when they were functioning at their best, were invisible.  The “conduit” model reigned supreme.  I remember seeing a t-shirt that boasted: “Interpreting:  Just talk, it happens,” as if interpreters were some type of automaton.

In hindsight, the prevalence of the conduit model makes sense.  Interpreter education was greatly influenced by the ascendency of empowered bicultural and bilingual Deaf leaders who were not in need of help from hearing interpreters. Instead, these leaders simply wanted communication access.

What we have discovered is that, while an interpreter as a conduit has its usefulness, in many situations the results are negative.  In education, they have often been disastrous.  The silver lining is that some of our problems in the educational system are self-imposed and thus within our ability to rectify.

Anna Witter-Merrithew, in two previous posts, illustrates the negative impacts of interpreters functioning with the faulty notion that we can or should be “invisible.”  Further, Anna argues that we must be as concerned about ethical omissions as we are about commissions.  In other words, as professionals, we must practice due diligence in being aware of when our failure to act has negative consequences – just as much as monitoring the impact of our actions.

My article is a reflection on the ways we as a profession have failed to act in the educational system and the ways that we might re-envision our presence in classrooms and in schools to better serve the purposes of the students, the systems we are hired by, and ourselves as human beings interested in providing a meaningful contribution through our work.

Removing the Gag

In working with educational sign language interpreters around the country, I’ve encountered a recurring theme: that interpreters do not function in the role they think they should and regularly feel guilty about it. Frequently, I hear things like:

  • I “add” things to my interpretation because I know the student just won’t understand without it. I know that’s wrong, but it really seems to help. 
  • I sometimes help the hearing students during work time. The classroom teacher appreciates this support, but I know we shouldn’t.

When I respond not by questioning their actions but by asking whether or not their choices led to successful consequences, the interpreters are incredibly relieved to learn there is a framework for understanding their choices as ethical.  Further, I think they begin to see that no one else is asking them to cling to such a restrictive role.

Finding Role-Space

The profession as a whole is heading in this direction. Robyn Dean and Robert Pollard, through the Demand-Control schema, have moved us away from ethics based on the rightness of an action in itself and toward ethics based on the consequences for those involved.  They have also given us a continuum of ethical decision-making with a range of options from conservative to liberal.

In this context, “conservative” means taking a “wait and see” approach and “liberal” means taking a more active approach to addressing the demand.

Building on this, Witter-Merrithew, Johnson, and Nicodemus have begun a conversation about decision latitude and relational autonomy. As practice professionals, we need to take responsibility for making decisions with an understanding of how the systems we work in actually function. In the past, sign language interpreters often acted with disregard for the system and, as Johnson and Witter-Merrithew found, were perceived by others as being uncooperative and detached.  Interpreters may have acted in this manner thinking our codes of ethics and professional conduct required it, but the consequences were negative perceptions of interpreters.

Relational autonomy offers further insight to understand Dean and Pollard’s continuum of ethical behavior. We need to assess the relative autonomy of the people involved in the interaction as a guide for our decision-making. In general, if the participants have a balanced sense of autonomy, more conservative approaches are called for. If the level of autonomy between participants is imbalanced, liberal approaches merit greater consideration.

So, rather than seeking to be invisible, in situations with a power imbalance, interpreters need to seek to be more active and visible. Can you think of a situation where there is a greater power imbalance than when one deaf student is mainstreamed into a school that is totally designed for English-speaking students who cannot sign?

Taking more active approaches fits in with the work of Robert Lee and Peter Llewellyn-Jones, who have offered a new way of understanding our actions as interpreters.  Using three dimensions of interpreting (presentation of self, interaction management, and alignment with participants), they offer a framework for understanding the roles that interpreters inhabit and the way that different situations and different consumers call for different roles.  For interpreters working in schools, we clearly need to find a new role-space to lead to more success.

Interpreters as Change Agents

Part of redefining role-space includes the need to embrace a more active approach. At times, we are many things in the classroom:  interpreter, language model, tutor, aide, and consultant. We also need to be an agent of change within the system as a whole, which is part of what I think it means to have a Deaf heart: recognizing that the system is not designed to serve deaf students and that we cannot simply shrug our shoulders, wave our hands, and collect a paycheck. Instead, we need to take an active role in changing the situation.

Here are some examples of what that can look like:

  • Connect the student to the broader Deaf community.  This can happen by attending community events or, if not possible (as in many rural areas), use video and web resources to let students see there is a Deaf world that they can be a part of.  One interpreter in rural Alaska connected students via video and email with students at the Deaf school in Texas.
  • Enact roles based on the needs of students.  At times, we may need to be tutors or teachers or social guides. One interpreter I know has frequently taken on the task of teaching deaf students how to play games because they weren’t getting those skills any other way. In the shadow of invisibility, we might lament that teachers aren’t doing this and watch the students fail. As an agent of change, we can step forward and support the students in acquiring the requisite skills for success.
  • Facilitate sign language instruction for peers. Deaf kids need the chance to talk directly to their peers. We don’t necessarily have to be the teacher, but we can’t ignore the need. If you’re interested in a resource on this topic, you can check out this free curriculum.
  • Take responsibility for literacy. Educational interpreters need to understand the ways to foster language development in both ASL and English. This means intentionally being a language model through direct communication when appropriate.  It also means understanding the importance of fingerspelling in building English literacy.
  • Advocate for more accessible classrooms.  This includes creating excellent interpretations and making sure videos are captioned, but it goes far beyond that.  Work with teachers to ensure key vocabulary and concepts are visually accessible.  Additionally, support classroom teachers so that having an interpreter in the classroom is a benefit to all the students, rather than an annoyance. Too often, sign language interpreters with their restrictive role have been a thorn in the side of the teacher rather than an added asset in the classroom. Having a teacher who wants the deaf student to be there is a key factor in it being accessible.
  • Be part of a supervision process. Interpreters operate in isolation. As Robyn Dean argues in Ethical Development: A Sign of the Times for Sign Language Interpreters?, supervision that provides a framework for talking about our work is an important part of a practice profession and long overdue. Having a colleague or team to discuss these actions with is critical to ensuring that we maintain our effectiveness. 
  • Be willing to advocate ourselves out of a job.  Some of the best interpreters I know have advocated for students to leave mainstream and go to the Deaf school. While this may seem to be economic suicide for interpreters, I have seen that those professionals who so clearly put the interests of their consumers first end up landing on their feet because an educational system can recognize the value of that type of commitment. They also sleep better at night.

In the end, this approach to educational interpreting is a stretch from what I learned in my schooling. In other ways, it is a return to our roots.  Both Amy Williamson, in The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession, and Dennis Cokely, in Vanquished Native Voices – A Sign Language Interpreter Crisis?, write about the historical importance of codas to our field. That came home to me as I was leading a workshop on this topic and a participant with deaf parents said she felt like she had permission to be a coda again. What I perceived in her comment was that she could bring her Deaf heart into the mainstream. If we do likewise, our flexibility and willingness to act for change will lead to improvements for students, parents, teachers, the systems we work for, and even ourselves.

Other suggestions on how interpreters in educational settings can be change agents?

 

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26 Comments on "Ethical Choices: Educational Sign Language Interpreters as Change Agents"

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Member

One word….Bravo.

Member
Irene Tunanidas
Every deaf student in all grade levels ahould have accommodations as explained in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990… educational interpreters, tutors, note-takers and deaf mentors. However… many contracted educational interpreters were “grandfathered in”. A few have passed the EIPA for interpreter licensure for educational employment. In my opinion, primary-level deaf children should be accompanied by a deaf mentor working with an educational interpreter in a classroom to help the deaf child increase attention span. This type of partnership will help a deaf child gain effective cognitive abilities needed to function in the Regular Program. I believe energetic young… Read more »
Member

DBB, you’ve knocked it outta the park! Thank you.

Member

I ‘2nd’ that! The article and following comments are insightful and priceless for interpreters (and agencies) working in the field of education. I’ll be sharing with our network as it’s important for educational interpreters to know they are not alone in their feelings. Thanks DBB!

Member
Lynetta Martin
Excellent article, Doug! As much as I’ve enjoyed interpreting in K-12 settings over the years, I’ve gone home frustrated feeling marginalized and feeling their was nothing I could do to change the situation. Everything you wrote will help those working in this setting to overcome that feeling of powerlessness. Now my question is how do we get educational systems to recognize us as no longer invisible? Because the ‘conduit’ role was advocated BY INTERPRETERS for decades, it is very difficult to change minds. How do we re-teach teachers and administrators? How do we show them that we aren’t automated, ADA… Read more »
Member
Very interesting point Lynetta. The school system where I work is constantly pushing its teaching staff to stretch their horizons. They push the older more “set in their ways” teachers to grow as educators and try new techniques. I feel, and more importantly, see that the ideas of what some educators have about EIs, that are decades old, are becoming more and more easily changed. They have to change, grow, and stretch their ways. They have to mold to the ever changing times when it comes to teaching so why should it be hard for them to accept that we… Read more »
Member
Hi Doug~ Thanks for posting! I’ve done bunches of ed terping over the years from pre-K to college. I guess my first reaction is that interpreters work within established relationships and the roles/duties of the interpreter are within a context of a job description and expectations of students, parents, staff and admin. What I’ve seen is that the interpreter may actually be the most effective teacher and can offer those skills for use by the staff and students, while keeping a respectful deference to the limitations of the role of interpreter. There is a bit of a “union” feel…people have… Read more »
dbowen-bailey
Member
Doug Bowen-Bailey
Lynetta: It is a good question about turning the tide of what has been our history within educational systems. I have found that schools, for the most part, are receptive to these types of changes because we actually fit better within their system. In some ways, I have thought that our loyalty for a while seemed to be to our codes of conduct or ethics. The emerging model, I think, is putting our loyalty back to serving the needs of the people we are working with. I think part of this is interpreters starting to develop a new set of… Read more »
Member
“The emerging model, I think, is putting our loyalty back to serving the needs of the people we are working with.” THAT! I’m a CODA interpreter. I’m also a veteran elementary educator (general ed.), and I can tell you that the above sentence holds true for great teachers as well. The “turning the bus around” question begins with the common ground of this question: “What is best for the student?” With the current changing tide in education to Common Core State Standards and Response to Intervention models (RtI), this is an opportune time for interpreters to contribute to the answer!… Read more »
Member
A bold thesis, building on the insights of the many people you have cited (and others, on whose shoulders they rested), with a clear way forward, making the interpreter an active member of the educational team. The Devil is in the details, though. Most of these crucial points are predicated on the idea that the interpreter has a foundational skill set to forge ahead with this program. In order to “connect the student to the broader Deaf community,” the interpeter has to already be engaged with the community. Advanced ethical decision-making regarding classroom rôles requires a real understanding of classroom… Read more »
dbowen-bailey
Member
Doug Bowen-Bailey
Dan: I agree about that ideas like this offer some hope, but their impact is really determined by their implementation. For me, I think that is why Robyn Dean’s post about supervision – and having a network of colleagues to discuss how to do this is so important. Too often, in my experience, interpreters in the classroom have worked in isolation. I think we have a long way to go as a field until we are really at the point where this can be implemented consistently. (But that’s true of best practices in teaching, too.) I do think, though, that… Read more »
Member

It’s true. We’ve long suffered from isolation… either in educational settings where we’ve suffered from Ronco syndrome (“Just set it — and forget it!”), or being (or seeming) The Smartest Person In The Room. That sort of isolation, coupled with self-imposed ethical exile makes progress difficult, if not impossible. Like many, including yourself, have been saying: time to step out of the shadows.

Member
jenny robinson
I appreciate this article and the comments! I think we need to continually evaluate our role and the dynamics we bring to every interpreting situation, whether it’s a school environment or a business meeting, with children or with adults. I began my career as an interpreter struggling to stay as invisible as possible, and felt guilty when that didn’t always happen. (or when I did succeed in being invisible, but knew I was ineffective) Over time and through great discussion with colleagues (both in educational settings and in other work environments) I’ve been able to accept that I AM a… Read more »
dbowen-bailey
Member
Doug Bowen-Bailey

Jenny:
Thanks for that example of a situation that is working. When I was in an elementary setting, I had the pleasure of working with a classroom teacher two years in a row. (She transitioned with students from Kindergarten to First grade.) It really set up a great model for having an interpreter be integrated into the classroom – much like you are sharing with your situation.

I hope that more and more, we can share those experiences and have those become more of the rule, rather than the exception.

Member

Hi,
Will you please share in detail what was successful so effective in working with that teacher and student(s)?
Thank you.

dbowen-bailey
Member
Doug Bowen-Bailey
J: I will give a few specific examples. An important one was teaching ASL to peers of the students (and to the school staff) so that all communication did not need to rely on the interpreter for all of communication. (I offered an ASL class after school for staff with college credit and continuing edu credits applicable toward re-certification that was well-attended and appreciated.) Certainly, when it was critical for the information/content to be accurate, it was necessary to have the interpreter. But having peers and staff know some sign was helpful in facilitating the social relationships which got in… Read more »
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[…] Doug Bowen-Bailey mentions in his article Ethical Choices: Educational Sign Language Interpreters as Change Agents it is important to look not just at “right or wrong,” but also the consequences of the […]

Member
The article makes some good points. But also incorrect assumptions. I have worked with mainstreamed students in various districts where the general education staff have been there for years with experience with the Deaf. These are people holding masters degrees or even more advanced degrees. I caution my interpreters, most of whom have not even been to an ITP but passed the interpreter certification tests required, NOT to make educational decisions or try to ‘influence’ students. That is not their role nor why they are hired. Encouraging a move to a residential school would be economic suicide as a school… Read more »
dbowen-bailey
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Doug Bowen-Bailey
Don: Thanks for your comments and perspective. I think a very important part in the discussion. And a piece that got left out of a posting that had a limited number of words allowable. There certainly are programs like the one that you describe that have more history and experience to offer Deaf and Hard of Hearing students. It wasn’t my intention to paint all mainstream programs as ineffective. That said, my experience in working with interpreters is that such programs are more of exceptions to the rule. They tend to exist in larger urban areas – where there is… Read more »
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[…] Bailey-Bowen, D. (2013) ‘Ethical Choices: Educational Sign Language Interpreters as Change Agents’ (Street Leverage Blog) http://www.streetleverage.com/2013/04/ethical-choices-educational-sign-language-interpreters-as-chan… […]

Member
In my opinion, if we want interpreters to be all these things (language models, teachers, consultants, advocates, etc.), we’ve got to get them the training to do so! I’d love to work with interpreters that were qualified to do all of the above. In states with minimal/no licensure standards, we’re doing well just to get a decent message across to the student. In my experience, it seems that the interpreters who are truly qualified to “step outside of their role,” are the ones most hesitant to do so. Meanwhile, the “interpreters” who struggle to sign are the first ones to… Read more »
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[…] that results from “full inclusion.”  Ironic, yes.   Doug Bowen-Bailey, in “Ethical Choices:  Educational Sign Language Interpreters as Change Agents” says that “for interpreters working in schools, we clearly need to find new role space […]

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Rebecca Rhoads

I’ve been in this field for 21 years. The thing that really bugs me is the fact that DHH teachers seen to view is as personal aides. I will NOT clean her desk Ave I will NOT take her lunch to the kitchen because she is running late. Really wish DHH teachers would work with us!

Member
Rebecca Rhoads

I’ve been in this field for 21 years. The thing that really bugs me is the fact that DHH teachers seen to view is as personal aides. I will NOT clean her desk Ave I will NOT take her lunch to the kitchen because she is running late. Really wish DHH teachers would work with us!

dbowen-bailey
Member
Doug Bowen-Bailey
Relationships, like you describe Rebecca, that are not based on reciprocity and mutual respect, are really frustrating. I think that building more positive relationships is really crucial. From my experience, it is important to focus on the skills that we can develop in nurturing professional and respectful relationships with the other people we work with. I think that is part of building our power as interpreters is looking at what is within our control and what we can do to shape relationships. So, I think it makes sense to be frustrated with the situations you describe and also can be… Read more »
dbowen-bailey
Member
Doug Bowen-Bailey
Relationships, like you describe Rebecca, that are not based on reciprocity and mutual respect, are really frustrating. I think that building more positive relationships is really crucial. From my experience, it is important to focus on the skills that we can develop in nurturing professional and respectful relationships with the other people we work with. I think that is part of building our power as interpreters is looking at what is within our control and what we can do to shape relationships. So, I think it makes sense to be frustrated with the situations you describe and also can be… Read more »

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