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Mentorship: Sign Language Interpreters Embrace Your Elders

Partnership between new and seasoned sign language interpreters

Pairing newer interpreters with seasoned mentors – selected based on wisdom, rather than credentials – encourages mutual learning and true growth in the sign language interpreting profession.

I was talking with a fellow sign language interpreter and she mentioned another colleague of ours who had just received her national certification. I commented that it was a good thing and that I had been mentored by this particular person. This fellow interpreter I was speaking with looked at me in horror and asked, “Why would you mentor with her?! She is way too ‘old-school’ to provide good mentoring.”

Value Experience

Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have heard that comment about some of my mentors. I came into the field from another career that was developed based on hands-on experience and learning from a professional with more years in the field. I brought that philosophy with me to sign language interpreting and I have never regretted that decision. Some of the most valuable lessons I have learned are from interpreters who have lived and breathed this field for 30+ years. Most of these people did not go through interpreter training programs, were interpreting before RID even existed, and helped establish the first RID certification exams. These are the sign language interpreters that have been tested by life and work and have a wealth of knowledge because of that experience. As shared by Stacey Webb in her post, The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter: to be successful, young interpreters need to develop a relationship with both the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community (DHHC) and current-working professionals.

Yet in this field, we do not seem to value those experiences unless the interpreter has the right letters behind his/her name.


For the life of me I cannot figure out why we, as a field, have become so credential-obsessed. In focusing so much on certification, we ignore what truly makes a good interpreter: experience, language skills, and wisdom. Wisdom is defined as: “the quality or state of being wise; knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action.” A person can only gain such a quality by working in a profession for an extended length of time. This is not a skill that can be taught, read about, or tested. Our obsession with credentialing causes us to push aside our founders, original teachers, and valuable living resources of these experienced and wise interpreters. These are the people that have worked to establish this field as a profession and, in turn, have allowed many of us to interpret for a living. With all the uncertainty and anger surrounding certification, why do we seek out mentors that are specifically certified? Why do we rely on certification standards that are in question to improve our own skills when we have a plethora of seasoned interpreters still working in our field?

The drive to seek out a mentor who has received national credentials could be motivated by fear and desire to  “pass” the test.  The testing process is expensive and time-consuming. Many states do not have a permanent testing site, so candidates have to take time off of work and accrue travel expenses in order to sit for the exam.  With the inconsistent results seen from the test??, interpreters are frustrated and angry at being stuck in a circle of uncertainty that affects their ability to work.

I am concerned about this newly-established testing system that does not value the experience and knowledge of the seasoned working interpreter.

Newer interpreters have to prioritize passing the test over actually gaining critical knowledge, experience, and the people skills required to be a truly competent interpreter in the field. The shifting of priorities is causing a split within the field that is affecting not only sign language interpreters but our consumers, as well.

Pairing Professionals

If interpreting is considered a practice profession, why do we not follow the lead set in other practicing professions of our time? Lawyers, Doctors, and skilled craftsmen learn from the most experienced members of their field, not the newest professionals that have just passed a certification test. Each of the professions mentioned have standard certifications that are well-known and respected inside and outside their field. Learning in a practice profession comes from those who have “practiced.” In his post, New Lamps for Old Apprenticeship in Sign Language Interpreting, Rico Peterson argues that exposure to real work in real settings is fundamental to mixing and refining the palette of skills that sign language interpreting requires.

Mentorships and skill development are based in the pairing of a newer professional with a seasoned one and allowing them to learn from each other. No one ever said you have to agree with your mentor 100% of the time. The key is to observe, question, and discuss in hopes to gain insight into decisions. Only then can we truly grow as a profession.

The Value of New

This does not mean that newer interpreters have nothing to offer the profession– far from it. The newest research and interpreting theories are being taught in the ITPs. Interpreters who are working in the field every day can greatly benefit from working with someone who has just learned that information. Also, newer interpreters are hungry for knowledge, language, and experiences. Those of us who have worked in this profession for several years get tired and can sometimes lose the passion we had for the field when we first arrived. Being around newer interpreters can rekindle our desire to learn and further develop. I often find working with an intern causes me to analyze my work in a deeper way and that benefits me greatly. The partnership of newer and seasoned interpreters can be a win-win for all of us and the profession as a whole.

Mentor Qualifications

Our ITPs have a limited time with new interpreters and can’t teach them everything. Further, there is a limit to what one can learn in a classroom and from a book. At a certain point, new sign language interpreters have to get out in the field and do the work with an experienced mentor that can help them navigate the bumps along the way. Mentors do not need to pass a specific exam to prove they are qualified to interpret or mentor. Their qualifications are proven in the stories they share, the horrors and joys they carry, the language skills they have developed and the wisdom they can pass on to those growing in this field. These interpreters are our teachers and deserve our respect for what they have accomplished.


Seasoned interpreters also have an obligation. They have an obligation to remain present in the field, to keep learning and growing and striving, and to join the younger generation in continued research and development of the field. Stating “I am too old school for that” is not acceptable, but is a cop-out for striving for what is best for both the sign language interpreting community and the Deaf community. Learn alongside newer interpreters and add your wisdom and experience. Offer to mentor a new professional in the field, audit a class at your local ITP, or just make yourself available to newer interpreters for questions and discussion. Your skills and knowledge are valuable; the current teachings and research are a benefit as well– for each of us.

Some Wisdom

A Mentor is “a wise and trusted counselor or teacher; an influential senior sponsor or supporter.” Let us not forget this definition as we continue to progress the profession of sign language interpreting forward.

We must learn from our past, which includes the people who lived it. Because an interpreter does not have the perfect certification letters behind their name does not make them insignificant to our community. Our predecessors have much to teach us about language, community, and culture, and we must not forget to include their wisdom in our daily practice.

How has a seasoned professional helped your work?

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Mea Culpa: We Failed RID & Sign Language Interpreters with Deaf Parents

Sign Language Interpreter Lamenting the Failure to Pass IDP Seat

How do sign language interpreters show our values in our RID vote? Adam Bartley comments on the question of creating an Interpreter with Deaf Parents Member-at-Large position on the RID board, and the implications of a disengaged membership in determining the course of our profession.

Part of my motivation in writing this article now is that I so poorly dropped the ball when the time came to vote on establishing a position on the RID Board of Directors that dedicated a seat to an Interpreter with Deaf Parents (IDP), the IDP MAL (Member-at-Large) position. I could cite my business at work, or the back pain and subsequent surgery as excuses, but the truth is I could have made time somewhere in there to attend to my business and vote! I failed to exercise my democratic power when the time came, and I failed in what I consider to be one of my personal and professional duties. I believed in the need for an ‘IDP seat’ already, having thought about the issues and arguments carefully, but by the time I got to putting my coins on the table, the hand was already dealt and done with.

I know there will be another opportunity for our community to debate and vote again on this issue, so I am ante’ing up now for the next hand and putting my arguments here in the public sphere to contribute to our next shot at getting this right.

The Who

Before going further, I want to state that I address this letter from the perspective of a Hearing interpreter (I.e. not a Child of Deaf Adults, CODA), to all of my fellow Hearing interpreters. I welcome all members of our community, Deaf, CODA, and Hearing interpreters, Deaf and CODA consumers of sign language interpreting services, and anyone else to read and respond to this writing.  However, I feel it important to state that I am directing this to my fellow Hearing interpreters.

Any Position Will Do

In the interest of keeping my long-windedness at bay, let me begin by starting off with the seemingly strong and seemingly logical argument against having a dedicated IDP-MAL position on the RID Board of DirectorsA CODA can always run for a position on the Board anyway! When I first saw this statement in discussions, it made sense and I had to ‘chew the cud’ as we say in the South, to figure out what bothered me about it. So chew I did and here is what I came up with. It is an absolutely true statement, but it is not an argument at all. It argues neither for a position nor against it.

So I chewed a little more, and I presumed that what was intended to be argued is that a need for the seat has not been shown. Having wrapped my slow but hopefully able wits around this nugget, I started to construct what arguments I could bring to bear to clearly establish that need and why it is important to the future of our field.

Running for Office

The first step in establishing a need for the position requires that we look at the assumptions underlying the “IDP’s can already run for office” argument. The fact that a thing can happen, does not mean a thing will happen.  Sheer numbers can greatly reduce the likelihood that a given thing will happen in fact. The United States of America could have a dozen Hmong Representatives in Congress, but the probability of that given the current populations and geographic positioning of Hmong people in the United States, is extremely low. Given the changing demographics of our field, IDP’s are a shrinking minority within our ranks. The proliferation of Interpreter Training Programs and ASL as foreign language offerings in High Schools and Colleges has brought an influx of Hearing interpreters in greater numbers than ever before. Alex Jackson Nelson’s article, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege, offers some great insight on the need for practitioners to be aware of their privilege. In my mind, one demonstration that the need exists is because the math is against the continuous occupation of non-dedicated seats on the Board by Interpreters with Deaf Parents.

Affinity is Not Membership

As Hearing interpreters, we will never be members of the Deaf Community in the same way as a Deaf person is, or in the still different way that a CODA is. I say this without prejudice, or any sense of rejection by the community. We exist within the scope of the larger Deaf Community and are accepted into the fold to varying degrees throughout our lives, but we do not share the same experiences. It is vital that we address and accept that as the simple truth that it is. Laurie Nash offers excellent perspective on the value IDP’s bring to the profession in her interview with Brandon Arthur about the retraction of the referendum that would have established a designated position on the RID Board for IDP.

In other writings in other venues, I have spoken about my own background as child of a white mother and Mexican father. I have written about my experiences in the foster care system with a wonderful set of foster parents that were Black in the early 1970’s when such things just weren’t done.  I have also written about the amazing couple (he, Lebanese, she Cherokee/Choctaw) that turned my life around, and about the many ways that the Deaf community has been in my life since I was a child.

In those writings, just as here, it was all to make the point that affinity does not create membership.

Given my experiences, I have unique insights to many communities, but I cannot have full insight into any of them.  I was ‘interpreting’ for fellow children in the system at 12 years old, so I can relate to some experiences that an IDP has, but there are infinitely more that I can never understand or give voice to. If you want insight into the CODA experience, read Amy Williamson’s article, The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession. Affinity does not create membership, and if ever the Board does not have an Interpreter with Deaf Parents seated at the table, that voice will be absent.

IDP’s Are Consumers

IDP’s are not merely our colleagues, against whom we sometimes compare ourselves, or whom we envision en masse as the fulfillment of some stereo-typical image of ‘the CODA interpreter’.

IDP’s are also the consumers of our services!

I cannot stress this enough. IDP’s are the children whose IEP we are interpreting for directly or for their Deaf Parents. IDP’s are the performers in the school play or the Broadway production their loved ones are attending. IDP’s are the scientists and educators that we are working with in many educational settings. CODA children are sometimes directly using interpreters in critical care situations where Hearing Interpreters and Deaf Interpreters are working as a team to provide access just as they would with a young Deaf child. IDP’s are the presenters and performers that we are working with. IDP’s are our consumers.  Few among our numbers would suggest that RID does not need to have a dedicated seat for a Deaf Member at Large on the Board, because we rightly see the need to have consumer/practitioner perspectives guiding our work and our future. Our field is also fortunate to have another community of consumer/practitioners in our IDP colleagues, and we should ensure that their unique perspectives are always part of our governing body.

The Gist

In short we failed to recognize and embed the value IDP’s bring to the governing table of our profession. The demographics of our field create a greater likelihood that Hearing Interpreters will always be present but IDP participation on the Board will be absent or intermittent at best; that no matter the level of affinity a Hearing interpreter may have, we can never bring the full experience of a Deaf person or a CODA to bear in shaping the future of the sign language interpreting field; and that as we recognize the necessity of having practitioners of all types on our Board, we must similarly recognize the imperative to ensure that IDP’s are also at the table.

Please join me in preparing for the next time we have a chance to ensure that our organization always has a team at the helm who can provide valuable insight on the work we do and the perspective of the people we endeavor to serve.

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Vulnerability: A Collaboration Killer for Sign Language Interpreters

When embracing our role as teammates in the larger sense of the word, sign language interpreters create more successful and positive interactions as colleagues and service providers.

As calls for volunteers went out to test a platform that could ultimately provide live ASL interpretation for any TEDx conference—TEDx events are community organized events that bring people together to share ideas—two groups of sign language interpreters emerged, a Deaf and hearing team in New York and a group of hearing interpreters in Baltimore. This opportunity was a chance to interpret portions of a streamed TEDx event live via the Internet to an audience of self-selected individuals volunteering to provide feedback on the technology and approach for these events.

This call for volunteers by Sarge Salman—an innovator leading the Conference ASL (CASL) group to improve accessibility at TEDx events—set off a round of discussions among sign language interpreters about vulnerability and fear of ridicule, especially online. Apparently, this fear kept many highly qualified interpreters from volunteering, a shame since a healthier climate would have brought more hands, more minds, and more opportunities to help get this worthy goal off the ground.

Risk Averse

Sadly, so many of us fear being mocked, criticized, and torn to shreds by fellow practitioners that we avoid taking worthwhile risks. We fear we are never good enough, and by exposing our vulnerabilities, we will be labeled weak or unqualified. We often do not know who to turn to because it seems so unsafe to open up to anyone but our closest friends. Still, we know many of our sign language interpreter colleagues are secretly wishing for the same nurturing professional support. In the absence of such assistance, we ignore our needs and find ourselves stagnating.

An Admission

I must admit that when initially presented with the request to interpret TEDx live online, I caved to the immediate knots that formed in my stomach as I imagined fumbling in front of a live camera. Secretly, I wished I was that interpreter, one of the super-skilled who everyone knows is perfect for this kind of job. As far as I could see, those interpreters were already represented on the list. Who was I to add my name? I didn’t see myself as confident and competent enough to tackle the challenge and do my part in this bold attempt at access. So, I ignored the request as if it was meant for someone else.

Obviously, I wasn’t thinking big enough. I also didn’t realize that by refusing, I was collapsing under a fear of ridicule that is causing aspects our profession to stagnate. Even worse, I was ignoring my own advice. In mentoring student interpreters, I regularly say the first thing to work through is the nerves, to take feeds and support until you reach a point where the process is no longer intensely painful. Once there, we can focus on growth. Yet here I was, running from the hot-seat, unwilling to work through my own nerves because I feared the pain of open criticism.


What is it about this job that invites such fear? Anna Witter-Merithew in addition to her sound advice, describes how our working in isolation can lead to hostility and defensiveness in Anna Witter-Merithew’s, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice. It is widely known that hostility creates more hostility, fear, or both. Indeed, sign language interpreters have witnessed or have been part of hostility and defensiveness as we humans, making mistakes, sometimes fail to communicate responsibly.

We are so used to working alone that we can easily forget to include other perspectives, or we forget that we reach better results by supporting one another in our moments of vulnerability while giving advice. Sometimes we perceive real or imagined hostility from consumers who are often understandably on guard because they face issues with interpreters and access. Other times we are to blame because of serious errors in judgment. Yet all of us so easily forget that hostility and defensiveness are human reactions to something much bigger than whatever happens in a given moment. We need to be mindful that the reactions we sometimes see are quite often responses to a grossly imperfect system more than they are about our actions or abilities. Those of us on the receiving end could use some thicker skin in a profession where attention is by nature focused on our every move.

Fear Prevents Progress

As it is, our fears, while real and understandable, are preventing progress. We can work to reduce them by reaching out to one another and by being a model of humility. I know this is easier said than done since I almost caved to fear and doubt in my recent experience and will likely face these feelings again. It was only because another interpreter cornered me in person and asked me to volunteer for this TEDx project that I agreed to do it. At that moment, I realized the request had gone out for support because the highly skilled interpreters already on the team wanted it. I must say I do not regret taking this risk. The day of the conference, we acted as a supportive team, which made interpreting live online an amazing experience and helped us perform at our best.

Collaboration is Key

And it is this concept of supporting each other to create a positive sense of team that shapes us as interpreters. We are more than members of a community or communities. We are also very diverse and at present, isolated members of a particular team called “interpreters”. All of us function as members of this team whether we realize it or not. We are a team when we do or do not participate in the Deaf community; when we do or do not provide feedback to others; when we insult, gossip about, or embrace a struggling colleague; when we meet, exceed, or ignore standards; when we accept or deny an assignment, and when we are or are not able to heed calls in the name of humanity, integrity, or duty. These decisions not only affect the even wider community that includes those we work with, but also affect our collective interpreting team.

And we are a team whose only adversary is a failure to perform our duty, meaning we are better suited as collaborators. Each member of our team must be ready to take our positions on the field. This implies that the interpreter “hot-seat” does not belong to the “on interpreter” alone. Nor do the Deaf and hearing interpreter team “seats” belong to the individuals occupying them at a given moment. Each of these interpreting “seats” are equally ours at all times because as sign language interpreters, you and I represent one another. As a team, we are all responsible for creating an environment that encourages the growth of whomever occupies these positions. We can only do this if we disarm ourselves and each other through openhearted and supportive communication.

Reach Higher Together

Our team is what we make it since you and I shape its image together. The question is, what kind of team do we want to be? Let’s embrace a new norm where we reject fear and defensiveness in order to seek and give support when needed, where our team always strives to help one another reach for something better–together.  This is by no means our only hurdle, and healing will take time, but I can imagine a safe community of sign language interpreters where teamwork and access are pushed to the limits of what is possible and where backbiting and deconstructive criticism are rare.

I invite you to continue this conversation and “Embody the Change” that makes this vision real!

Join me?