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Sign Language Interpreters: Team Interpreting and its Ethical Consequences

Sign Language Interpreter Considering the Ethics of Her Team

Accepting team assignments with sign language interpreters who continually violate the CPC is tantamount to approving and participating in ethical breeches. How can we better hold our colleagues – and ourselves – accountable?

For various reasons we, as interpreters, decline assignments. These reasons may include, but are not limited to: one’s level of familiarity with content, a conflict of interest, a lack of availability, gaps in training, and a respect for the interpreter preference of the communities we serve. How many times is it that we decline work based on the ethics and integrity of our team?

We are all accountable for ourselves and for the ethical challenges we are faced with while working. Within this accountability is discretion about teaming – discretion that employs itself when we accept or decline work.

When an interpreter continually violates the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct (CPC) (1), that interpreter blatantly oppresses the communities we serve and is harming peoples’ lives; we are all affected. I have often heard “I work with ‘so-and-so’ interpreter, and even though I know and have seen these behaviors that interpreter has done nothing to me.”

These are comments I do not understand.

The rationale behind the comment, “ . . . that interpreter has done nothing to me,” is astounding. When interpreters are destructive on the job and breach the ethics they are bound to uphold, they are directly affecting our profession and, consequently, the communities we serve. These behaviors imply to all parties involved that this is what interpreters do and should be doing.

Doing Nothing is Doing Something

To do nothing is to passively accept unethical actions.

To do nothing is to shirk the responsibility of holding each other accountable.

Unethical behavior takes all shapes and sizes: fraudulent business practices, threats of retaliation, withholding information from the parties involved, stealing information from the parties involved, disregarding professional boundaries while on the job, disclosing confidential information, accepting work continuously in a setting for which one is unqualified… the list goes go on and on.

While the above-mentioned acts all violate the current rules-based (2) CPC, I would like to go one step further, to acts where one asserts their power and privilege while interpreting. This unethical behavior is audism. Examples of audist behavior could include, but are not limited to: using spoken English to co-opt an interpreted interaction for the interpreter’s benefit, making side comments to the hearing participants unbeknownst to the Deaf individual(s), having rudimentary language fluency, ignoring the request for a Deaf interpreter, and possessing minimal Deaf world cultural context, all of which are tactics of disempowerment (3).

As Lewis Merkin points out in his recent vlog (4), audism can be experienced in many forms, some even covert. As we take a deeper look into why and when we turn down work, we also need to consider that accepting assignments with an unethical interpreter as your team is a form covert audism.

While working in a teamed situation we are seen as one. When we choose to work with unethical interpreters we are clearly showing, to all parties involved, that we have consented to work with these individuals and that we support each other. This consent condones past behaviors, supports current ones, and perpetuates the opportunity for further occurrences. When we accept work with unethical teams we are complicit in the infractions; what’s more, we are reinforcing the offers of work available on teamed assignments.

The Current Frame for Ethical Guidance

During the 2012 RID Region I Conference in Atlantic City, NJ, RID Ethical Practices System (EPS) (5) representatives gave an overview of EPS policies and procedures, as well as the occurrences of grievances filed within the past few years. The number of accepted complaints was in the single digits.

These representatives explained that, though they receive dozens of grievances, many grievances are not accepted due to the following: time lapse since the occurrence, complaints against working, but not RID-certified interpreters, and/or complaints against interpreter agencies.

In my mind, the EPS procedure is inordinately lengthy. In order for any person to file a complaint, one must have a comprehensive understanding of the 37 page handbook, and trust the system from which it originated.

Could this be the reason the number of grievances are in the single digits?

Case in Point

A couple of examples.

Example One

(reference at approximately 3:04 and 5:20 into video)

As is indicated in example one (6), RID’s response to the grievance was that the 90-day time limit was up, and that “This case will now be dismissed and she [the interpreter] will not be notified of this.” What is the rationale for not notifying the interpreter that a grievance had been filed against her? Notification would make the interpreter aware that the decisions she is making are causing harm and, albeit past the 90-day limit, a grievance has been filed against her. Instead, by doing nothing, her behavior has been endorsed.

Example Two

As we see in example two (7), the grievance was filed and a request was made for expediency due to the severity of the situation and extenuating circumstances. Even so, the process took two years for a final decision. Within this final decision the interpreter was cited to have violated four of the seven tenets within the CPC. The resolution to the matter – the interpreter is to take an online course.

Unfortunately, this system sends a clear message that the Deaf experience of prolonged encounters with egregious and oppressive interpreter behavior, two years of costly waiting, and four serious violations of the CPC, all amounts to a measly slap on the wrist and an online course.

To me, this is hardly a resolution.

While the number of public grievances may be small, unethical behavior is still running rampant. As it stands, RID is the sole vehicle to certification. Revoking someone’s certification as a sanction for unethical behavior is critical to protecting the value of certification.

What Should be Done?

As interpreters, we have the duty to make decisions based on discretion. This discretion is powerful. We have the ability to choose where, when, and with whom we team and work. If the people with whom we work create discord in our ethical conscience, it is time to reevaluate.

Suppose we were to reframe the ways in which we accept work? What if we all stood on the grounds of doing the most good and upholding the linguistic rights of the communities we serve and ultimately are a part of, (8) each and every time?

We may be faced with discomfort in telling an agency or a requestor: “I am available, but I have an ethical conflict with this interpreter. Therefore I am unable to accept this assignment.” In doing so, we are taking the initiative to create change (9) and shift the paradigm.

We may be met with resistance since we are “that interpreter” who questions teaming decisions made by the gatekeepers in our profession. The beauty of that resistance is the opportunity for dialogue and deeper exploration as to why ethical teams and practices matter.

I invite you to be the catalyst for an ethical support community and delve into this idea of declining work based upon the unethical history of our potential team. In this ethical support community, let’s talk about how this idea and practice affect us as individual practitioners, affect the communities we serve, affect our overall working rapport, and ultimately, reflect our accountability.

What lasting impression will you create?


Works Cited

(1) Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct, May 2013

(2) Kidder, Rushworth How Good People Make Tough Choices New York: Harper, 2009. Print.

(3) Suggs,Trudy Street Leverage, Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter, Posted December 11, 2012 Retrieved May 2013

(4) Lewis Merkin You Tube personal vlog, Posted April 24, 2013 Retrieved May 2013

(5) Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Ethical Practice Systems Policy Manual, May 2013

(6) Dottie Stafford Griffith personal vlog, Posted April 22, 2013 Retrieved May 2013

(7) Paul Shreeman You Tube personal vlog, Posted January 14, 2013 Retrieved May 2013

(8) Cokely, Dennis “Exploring Ethics: A Case for Revisiting the Code of Ethics”, 2000

(9) Street Leverage, Sign Language Interpreters Embody the Change You Want to See, Posted May 8, 2013 Retrieved May 2013

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Allies: Sign Language Interpreters and a Bigger Picture View

Are sign language interpreters unconsciously holding back Deaf professionals’ careers? In her article, Holly Thomas-Mowery emphasizes the need to recognize context-driven interpretation and flexible service models to reach true partnership.

We know Deaf people who have advanced to mid-level ranges in their respective careers, who are more than competent at what they do and could easily be leaders in their realms of expertise. I wonder what trajectory any one of their lives would have taken if systemic biases weren’t around practically every corner on their paths to where they are today. And we all know Deaf people who have reached for the stars and made it.

Obstacles and barriers occur for all minorities in a variety of contexts. Oppression – which includes the gamut of “isms,” and in this case audism – is rampant. In an unjust world, the addition of an aware and keyed-in sign language interpreter doesn’t make everything magically better. Just consider: any one Deaf person may have grown up with a family who didn’t believe their child to be fully capable, in an education system that treated the child as a special-education spectator—but not a fully-competent participant, and with medical professionals who saw “deafness” as something to be rectified or at least mitigated. Interpreters may be present throughout a Deaf person’s life, and are often the only person in the conversation with a (hopefully, potentially) informed view of Deaf culture and hearing culture and a lens for recognizing audism.

A keen awareness of our vantage point and a thoughtful approach to our work leads a good interpreter into becoming a great one. Discussed here will be two thoughts: both what a freelance interpreter might do as an ally supporting a Deaf employee’s journey, and if “good-enough” accommodations (an occasional freelance interpreter brought onto an employee’s work site) are indeed good enough to support a Deaf professional’s path to greatness.

Working as an Ally

Informed sign language interpreters take a deeper and wider look at what they do and what the end goal is – not only the aim of a specific interpreting assignment, but how the outcome of the current assignment potentially impacts the overarching direction of a person’s life (e.g., health, career, pursuit of happiness, quality of life). An ally interpreter’s work isn’t to stack the cards in favor of the Deaf person; rather, it is an attempt at being purposely transparent about the larger systems at play, and empowers the Deaf person to choose her next move. I appreciate Aaron Brace’s article, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter, specifically how it highlights that while not malicious, sign language interpreters can unwittingly cause a Deaf person to miss an opportunity to reach a higher rung due to the interpreter’s own blinders.

One of the most influential speakers I’ve seen on this topic is Dr. Flavia Fleischer, Associate Professor and Chair of Deaf Studies at California State University Northridge. She graciously allowed me to interview her for this article and include her thoughts. “Because our society is not designed to include Deaf people,” Fleischer states, “we have to jump over more hurdles than your average American to simply get equitable access and opportunities.”

At the 2012 RID Region V Conference keynote address in Honolulu, Dr. Fleischer outlined seven forms of “capital,” as researched by Tara J. Yosso in her white paper “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth.” While Dr. Fleischer expanded on each of these forms of capital as being directly applicable to the Deaf community, I’m particularly interested in the concepts of social capital and aspirational capital.

Fleischer posits,

“Often Deaf children are not explicitly taught to believe the sky is the limit, nor do the adults around them believe this to be the truth. The well-meaning adults around them, including interpreters, unconsciously allow barriers to remain that lead the child to grow into adulthood believing his aspirations are just that – aspirational, but not achievable. And while a Deaf person may be perfectly capable of achieving success in whatever ways make sense to him, navigating social and physical spaces (that are designed for and by people who hear) to attain that success can be maddening if not exhausting.”

An Example

Let’s consider an example from the corporate world.

A Deaf engineer is scheduled to propose his design at this week’s team meeting. Unbeknownst to him, the other members of the team have informally vetted their proposed designs in hallways and on the golf course for the previous two or three weeks, and a design has been unofficially selected. The Deaf engineer is unaware of this social norm. He later learns the team had no intention of listening to and choosing his proposal. Not only does the Deaf engineer not capture this opportunity for a promotion – he now looks the fool for being unaware of business politics and “wasting their time.”

This is quite the conundrum for sign language interpreters – trying to keep our eyes and ears open for all potential references to hallway politics so that in those brief moments, the Deaf employee can be in-the-know just a little more. Let’s also suppose the sign language  interpreter(s) in the above situation notice small grunts or deep breaths coming from hearing peers as the Deaf engineer presents his design, which can be interpreted as impatience and “eye-rolling.” When an interpreter is hyper-focused on content, these noises and shifts might be left by the wayside, further disenfranchising the Deaf engineer as “not getting it” or not “fitting in” to the corporate culture. People who don’t fit corporate culture are rarely promoted to senior-level positions.

Often the sign language interpreter in the room is the only person who has a strong level of understanding of both of the major cultures in the room (e.g., American hearing culture and American Deaf culture). What about interpreting for an African-American Deaf gay female in a corporate environment? The contexts and subtexts of oppression often go unnoticed by unassuming interpreters who show up at 9:00am and start interpreting the meeting content. In comparison, consider an aware sign language interpreter going to a particular site several times and gaining access to more context and interrelational layers.

Something previously heard but discarded from the interpretation as inconsequential may now seem to have bearing. An interpreter ally builds an atmosphere of trust by sharing information with the Deaf employee even at a later date, and perhaps apologizing if this omitted information has had an adverse impact on the Deaf person’s life or career. Of course, this information would not be withheld maliciously; rather, sign language interpreters are inundated with bits and pieces of conversations. In Jules Dickinson’s doctoral thesis on designated interpreters, Dickinson discusses the complexity of an interpreter’s task when “discerning what to include and what to omit, given that what might be pointless discussions or gossip to the SLI [sign language interpreter] could be essential information for the deaf employee.”

In-House/Designated Interpreter

Might sign language interpreters potentially be a detriment to the Deaf employee?

Should an employer rightfully get to say “we provide accommodations” to the Deaf employee because they bring in an interpreter for one two-hour meeting twice a month? And yet the Deaf employee is passed over for promotions and projects time and again. Ubiquitous pieces of information surround a Deaf employee, much of which is not the type of information sent in an email or communicated in some other formal way. How much access does she have to it? And if the once-a-week interpreter sees his role as content-driven, as opposed to relationship or context-driven, the Deaf professional is left even further behind the pack.

Deaf professionals working with designated interpreters have much greater access to idioms, jargon, and ongoing office banter. The ability of the Deaf professional to wield these opportunities equal to her peers has a direct impact on her aspirational capital. A designated interpreter model isn’t the only answer – there is much to be said for a Deaf employee’s frequent access to a tight pool of 2-3 interpreters who pass-down workplace norms, conversation threads, jargon, and specific phrasing so all of the interpreters are always ready. This offers the Deaf employee that consistent face – so she “sounds” the same day in and day out, regardless which interpreter is there.

It could be said that some of the geographical regions of greatest success for Deaf professionals are in the greater DC region, Rochester, NY, and in parts of California. Perhaps the fact that many of these Deaf professionals have designated interpreters or at least much more daily communication access to their workplace and coworkers, speaks in part to their upward mobility and success.

What’s the Answer?

A one-size-fits-all approach certainly isn’t going to work as the variables are abundant and include geography, population centers, pervasive audism, and insufficient resources. While interpreters must be diligent, this conversation also needs to be encouraged in and among the Deaf Community, interpreting agencies, employers, and others.

As Dr. Fleischer stated in Honolulu, “The fate of the Deaf and Interpreting communities are intertwined.” Since this is the case, let’s work together to investigate these dynamics more closely, and hold ourselves to a benchmark of something well above “good-enough.”



Dickinson, Jules C. “Interpreting in a community of practice: a sociolinguistic study of the signed language interpreter’s role in workplace discourse.” Heriot-Watt University. (August 2010): 160. Print.

Fleischer, Flavia S. “The Meaning of ‘Ohana: Working Together.” Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Honolulu. 13 June 2012. Address.

Yosso, Tara J. “Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth.” Race, Ethnicity and Education 8.1 (2005): 69-91. Print.