Allies: Sign Language Interpreters and a Bigger Picture View

May 20, 2013

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.

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18 Comments on "Allies: Sign Language Interpreters and a Bigger Picture View"

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Hello Holly and all~ Thanks so much for taking time to post! Absolutely! That is exactly right…another example could be job interviews. How the interpreter handles the cultural interactions have as much/more? weight as the on-paper credentials. I love that explanation about content focus (which is typical and understandable when the content is novel, dense or technical) and the relationship or context content co-occurring. Also love that insight about follow-up conversations to ensure that all the elements of the interaction are conveyed. I do that frequently. When I leave an assignment I am aware of self-debriefing: whether I am the… Read more »

Shelly, I appreciate the comments. The self-debriefing is a critical piece – even having the awareness that one must debrief.

The interview scenario is also a great example. Much more is conveyed during an interview between two people than what is explicitly spoken, noted on a resume, or typed in the discussed job description. These intanglibles are make or break moments for anyone.


Hi again one more quick thought…also for one interpreter to capture the grunts, eye rolling and feedback from 20 professionals who all know each other and work together daily is…not possible. The interpreter can work to include those bits of feedback/shop-talk/collegial banter and networking, but much of it is occurring outside the perception of the interpreter who is focused on the content of the speaker etc…


Absolutely. We can only do what we can do, and can only act on what we perceive to be happening. This is also a great opportunity for an interpreting team to work in tandem, with the supporting interpreter providing back channel feedback, and tone or tension that the active interpreter and the Deaf professional may not be noticing.


As an educational interpreter, these are practices to include – not just conveying data but fully the language and undertones that we often hear and feel in a classroom setting. Thanks for helping good interpreters striving to be great ones (especially where limits or bars may first be felt or the sky may first be seen).

Julie R, I couldn’t agree more. Educational interpreters who work from an ally lens certainly may increase a student’s social and aspirational capital. What other settings of sign language interpreting do we see this come into play? Other than the easy answer “all of them” – would love to see some comments on how to employ these strategies specific to other situations and settings. One that jumps out is performing arts interpreting. Theater-going is a quality of life, upward mobility activity, and is often not enjoyed by the Deaf community, either because there is no access, or because the provided… Read more »
Scott Clegg

Great article! Sometimes especially during school time frame, the challenges for designated interpreter become more difficult with a shortage of interpreters. It would be nice to hire and maintain a designated interpreter to avoid schedule conflict. Again great article!


Scott, I wonder how Deaf professionals in other metropolitan areas schedule a regular cadre of interpreters, especially when university/K-12 schools are in session (and interpreter resources are more limited). What strategies can be shared? One idea is to encourage management to book out ongoing meetings as far in advance as possible so that the opportunity for consistency is greater. Another idea is to schedule a meeting with management to discuss this very issue, and perhaps share this article showing it is a concern nationwide among Deaf professionals.

I appreciate the intention of this article and the clearly articulated and achievable goals that interpreters can put into practice. I think that recognizing the effect that interpreting agencies have on this process is an important feature to building an ally or designated interpreter model. All too often, the companies winning contracts are large conglomerates or even foreign language agencies. Beyond questions of competency lie the problems of companies that market their services as a stable of interchangeable interpreters ready to provide service at any time. This “warm body”syndrome makes it impossible to serve the Deaf community in the way… Read more »
Andrea, fantastic that you’ve teased out the interpreting agency piece of this puzzle. I would like to see Deaf-owned or sign language interpreter-owned interpreting agencies use this approach as a selling point – that they are Deaf-client centric, thereby promoting aspirational and social capital. There is great disparity among these agencies nationwide – from a stable of warm bodies as you eloquently posit, to agencies who work hard to provide consistency and follow the preferences of the Deaf professional. It’s a wholly different story with foreign language agencies who add sign language interpreting to their cafeteria style offerings in order… Read more »

Interesting thoughts. Makes you also wonder about hard of hearing people who also miss these cues, and don’t have an interpreter letting them know either! If they are VERY lucky, they might have a sympathetic co-worker who tries to keep them in the loop, but if the business is competitive or cut-throat, forget it.

Brent Davis, D. Mgt.
Nan, Great question concerning hard of hearing individuals in meetings! Before I answer, please let me take a moment to introduce myself: I am hard of hearing, use hearing devices (over the ear hearing aids). Professionally, I have just retired from 25 years in management and leadership. Academically, I have recieved an earned Doctor of Management degree in 2011. A portion of the degree work included my dissertation which discussed the attitudes and perceptions of hard of hearing employees in the workplace. That said, and while there are several avenues that might be persued to resolve the hard of hearing… Read more »

Is it possible that respectable spoken language agencies expect/assume that people who have been certified by NAD/RID are competent? How would they know? That’s why we must to make the case that Sign Language interpreters need to be solicited and assigned for jobs based on other criteria (such as L2 competence, interpreting competence. ethical practices, feedback from consumers, etc. Spoken language agencies cannot assess these things and are therefore not an appropriate place for serving the needs of the Deaf Community.

Betty Colonomos

Absolutely agreeing, Betty. What approaches do you use when a spoken language agency calls you for a one-off assignment or for ongoing work? What words of wisdom do you have? Here’s an additional take: my eleven-year-old, who is Deaf, has several medical providers who have big all-in-one contracts with spoken language agencies. Interpreters in my area often turn down these opportunities because of the hassle and inadequacies inherent to working with them, as mentioned by Andrea K Smith and you. Interested in your ideas on how the Deaf community and ASL interpreters can advocate for the ASL interpreting piece to… Read more »
Aaron Brace
Hi Holly and Betty, As folks here in the San Francisco Bay Area have been grappling with these issues, including 2 panels of agency reps (1 for foreign lang. agencies, 1 for ASL agencies), it has become clear that in many cases the solution has to involve convincing organizations to unbundle the services in their RFPs. If the reputable foreign lang. agencies don’t bid on these bundled RFPs out of respect for the ASL agencies, they lose significant sources of income. Some are keen on sub-contracting to ASL agencies, but can’t work with a 72-hour cancellation policy, which is apparently… Read more »


Not hijacked at all.

Thanks for teasing out the spoken language agency piece further, and sharing the Bay Area’s strategy to transparently look at systemic change. I’m curious about other areas of the country – if there is a concerted effort to look at RFPs and bundling/debundling the ASL piece. This expanded role of interpreters as allies can easily play out at the RFP level, especially when we partner with the Deaf community to be heard.


Anonymous (to protect the IDs)
I was shown this article by somebody who said I may have something to say. And indeed I do. I have a few reservations about this article about being “allies” because of the fallout I had with one of my interpreters. My experience told me that we need to be very careful about getting too close to the border of being “personal supporters.” Some interpreters could awkwardly overstep the borders once allowed a bit of room to do so. In my case, I shouldn’t have asked my interpreter to speak her opinion. My boss of almost nine years once requested… Read more »
Anonymous, You make a great point. It is the sad truth that some people take an ongoing mile when offered an inch (one time). I too have occasionally seen an interpreter feel authorized or justified to become the spokesperson for a Deaf person upon being asked (and authorized) to offer an opinion just one time. Not only am I not advocating for this free licensure to speak on behalf of someone else, I am advocating for the exact opposite. Empowerment and an ally model, when applied ethically with careful intentionality, can work really well – with the Deaf professional *always*… Read more »

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