Vulnerability: A Collaboration Killer for Sign Language Interpreters

June 11, 2013

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.

Fear

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?

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32 Comments on "Vulnerability: A Collaboration Killer for Sign Language Interpreters"

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Member

Great, well thought out and articulated article! This will hit home for many. Thanks for your candor, Laura!

Beth

lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless

Thank You! I’m hoping it will hit home and spur discussion among team interpreters as well.

Member
Laura Miller
Hello Laura, I thoroughly enjoyed your article and was chanting “yes!” all the way through it. I totally agree that fear and that constant nagging committee in our heads is a huge barrier to our further growth as professional, competent interpreters. I have been interpreting for over 10 years, am certified and am now completing my senior year at the University of Northern Colorado, obtaining my BA in ASL-English interpreting. I am just now gaining experience in areas where I have kept at bay because of my fears that I was not skilled, and of course, that others will finally… Read more »
lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless
Hi Laura: Excellent comments! I can totally relate to your post. First, I have been a lifelong PBS junkie! So the NOVA link was great! I would love to read an article detailing how this might manifest itself in the interpreting process… I was also an interpreter who avoided discomfort for a very long time. This mindset leads to stagnation. We have to get out there and overcome our fear of failure and criticism. I also think you are correct that there are far, far more of us who want support and are willing to give it than there are… Read more »
sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne
Laura, I absolutely agree that our fear can prevent us from accepting work that would give broader access to the Deaf community. I feel strongly that if we are not willing to open our work to our colleagues and to the community, but only to Deaf individuals who may not be empowered to complain, then we are not promoting professionalism – which includes a willingness to receive feedback. I am impressed at the courage of you and your partner. I am also in agreement that we all represent interpreters, although I do think it’s valuable that if interpreters are not… Read more »
lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless
Hi Stephanie: You raise excellent points! First, on confronting interpreters whose skills present as unqualified. This is by no means the only vulnerability I had envisioned but is just one among many. I guess I should clarify that by protecting vulnerability, I do not mean we avoid confronting serious issues such as lack of qualifications. I had intended to say, we must confront, but be supportive in the process–even if we have to say some hard truths. Sadly, I think a large number of us are in a state of avoidance and denial when it comes to direct feedback. It’s… Read more »
sfeyne
Member
Stephanie Feyne

Thanks for that info! I’m enjoying the FB page and the youtube links!!

melliott
Member
Marlene Elliott

Curious about youtube and Facebook links. Can someone share?

lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless

Stephanie:
Great! Feedback will really be helpful as well if you want to post comments.

Marlene:
Here is the link to the FB group in case you didn’t see my reply to your other message below: https://www.facebook.com/groups/TEDASL/?fref=ts

Member
Stephanie Merchant
Great article. Stephanie F., I think the overriding concern that most interpreters face is the FEAR that they won’t bring the QUALITY that is needed. We all make mistakes every single day. This kind of venue means that our mistakes are on display for all to witness. As an interpreting community we have an obligation to acknowledge mistakes but lend an overwhelming support and accolades for the courage to dive into the deep end of the pool. We need to focus on the good in our interactions. The more we do, the “safer” the work environment, the more the work… Read more »
lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless

Yes Stephanie, this is another fear and every pool is not equally worth diving into. Yes, and also making sure that as we improve, we are not growing at the expense of consumers. It is difficult without a bridge from ITP to independent competence. Respectful communication, mentoring, and discretion are key. Yes… let’s stop taking each other down!

Member

I would submit that there is also another inhibitor, albeit slight- the “volunteer” aspect. I support people donating their time to causes they hold near and dear to their hearts. However, volunteering, from what I have seen, is often the place of skills development. I am not sure if I would want to make my development so public. Perhaps hiring at least a few professionals to help with the logistics of the new platform would go a long way in helping other folks feel comfortable enough to “put it all out there”.

lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless
Jayne: I agree that new or struggling interpreters should not put themselves out there for these types of assignments even as volunteers. This is a challenge for more experienced interpreters. You are right that some pro bono assignments, WITH CONSENT of consumers, are appropriate for mentoring new interpreters undertaking skill development. Still many interpreters do not give pro bono interpreting the same level of discretion and respect they give to paid assignments. For one thing, this respect means not backing out of a pro bono commitment simply because we are offered paid work after the fact. It also means appropriate… Read more »
Member
Terri Hayes
I do not believe that our fear of judgement is caused by the fact that many of us work in isolation, I believe it is because few if any of us really knows what it is we’re trying to do. This makes working in isolation actually preferable – much less chance that we can be told how bad we are if we are not publicly visible. Its a very hard problem. RID has committed a grave disservice to our profession by proposing again and again to conduct testing that will “certify” interpreters, and then fail, repeatedly, to produce a test… Read more »
lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless
Hi Terry: You are right that many interpreters do prefer to work alone because it means reduced chances for criticism. However, I respectfully stand by the assertion that working alone can lead to increased fear. In essence, it seems we are making similar points about running from discomfort. Your comments on the trouble with certification are also insightful. We do need a consistent target to aim for, but first we need to reframe what we define as interpreting. This is difficult since in recent years some aspects of interpreting have undergone dramatic change, and we appear to be on the… Read more »
Member
Shannon M. Simonelli

Thank you for opening up this discussion. Having worked previously as an interpreter coordinator I saw first hand how often interpreters would allow unmitigated fear guide their decisions for accepting jobs. The biggest fear of all? Having to interpret in front of colleagues.

Imagine what it would be like if instead of cowering from assignments in which our peers would be looking on, we willingly jumped at these opportunities? Imagine the opportunity for growth in the work that we do!

lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless
Shannon: Too many of us have seen and experienced this fear of being watched by colleagues. It doesn’t have to be this way. It takes a bit of determination and grit to call out people–gently–for backbiting and ask what we can do to support one another. I have the great fortune of working with an amazing team of interpreters who do work together, who discuss process, share fears, seek mentorship, shun backbiting, and work to support our collective growth in the name of access. Of course there is no utopia, but this team is pretty darn amazing both in spirit… Read more »
Member
Rebecca Minor
Great article Laura! I hope this hits home with many. What any interpreter does, sets up expectations for the next interpreter – we are all linked. We should not feel isolated and we should strive to continue to learn through mentors. A mentor does not have to be someone who has been in the profession longer or has more letters behind their name than you do. We all have different experiences and different frames of reference. An interpreter’s greatest strength is flexibility, both linguistically and extra-linguistically. We have so much to learn from each other if we open up.
lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless

Well said! It seems cliche, but I have learned so much from students who come with fresh perspectives. They see some aspects of the process that more experienced eyes overlook. Yes, we are all linked and our actions impact colleagues far and wide.

melliott
Member
Marlene Elliott

I am very interested in volunteering for the TEDx work. I love this kind of interpreting : )

lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless

Great! Try contacting Sarge Salman through the Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/TEDASL/

Member
Bobs Blackwell (UK)
Hi American ‘terp Friends! I’m a Trainee (TSLI) here in the UK and we face very similar issues over here. Laura, your article was a superb read and whilst there are no current immediate solutions, it would seem that fears of being judged by others in our profession is actually an international issue! Supporting one another in a positive and friendly manner, nurturing each others’ journey towards expertise and accomplishment would give a far better service for our consumers. I’ve found the discussions and comments above very insightful too. Perhaps we just need to be thinking about sharing the love… Read more »
lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless
Hi Bobs: Greetings from across the pond! Thanks for your comment. Interesting but sad that we share the same phenomenon. Wonder if this is even universal among visual and spoken language interpreters. Do you find that many students are discouraged by the environment? Do you have Deaf mentors? I am really excited about the discussion here as well. Great thoughts. I hope people continue the discussion and that more join in. That’s a great question about TEDx access for UK audiences. I don’t know if CASL has reached out to other countries at this point. I’m guessing no since it… Read more »
Member

Thanks so much Laura! This hits home!

lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless

Thanks for the comments! Glad you enjoyed it!

Member

I guess I should state that I am MICS 3 Intermediate!

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[…] and nervousness one feels before interpreting in front of cameras or a crowd. As discussed on Street Leverage, the increased presence of cameras and social media at events has created an atmosphere where […]

Member
Spot on, as usual, Laura! Even though we haven’t worked together in a looong time, consider you on of my peer mentors, par excellence by your sterling example and raising the bar ever higher, even if the interaction isn’t in person all that often! You constantly put yourself out there in bettering our profession! I am perhaps, overly judicious in putting myself out there, however, the fear, for me, is long gone. Why? The more colleagues I work with, the larger the pool of healthy collaboration I encounter. The mean spiritedness is still out there, I just have a larger… Read more »
lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless
Hi Meg! Good to see you again online and thanks for those very nice comments! Believe me, I’ve had my share of timidity. I think what you said about healthy alternatives is key. More of us are intimidated than we know, and we walk around in a hyper vigilant defense mode. The more we test the waters and let our guard down, we will realize most of us are seeking support and betterment. We can be there for and with each other. This is one way we will grow as a profession. You are doing exactly what we need to… Read more »
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[…] Laura Wickless mentioned in her article, Vulnerability: A Collaboration Killer, ‘so many of us fear being mocked, criticized, and torn to shreds by fellow practitioners that we […]

Member
Valerie Boerema
Hi Laura, Thank you for addressing this topic. It seems we as a field do not talk about this enough! With your permission, I’d like to use this article for my graduate thesis in the next year. I am currently a Masters student in Behavior Analysis and am currently working on research related to “fear,” feedback styles (in ITP/IEPs as well as mentoring settings), and self confidence as learned and conditioned behaviors. I think these factors impact our work more profoundly than we consciously know and I think, if we can continue to discuss and analyze this topic with empirical… Read more »
lwickless
Member
Laura Wickless

Hi Valerie!

I am delighted that you find the vulnerability article of use for your research! I have absolutely no problem with you including it, so long as you also check-in with the curator of Street Leverage. I’m not sure 100% of who has holds the full copyright claim. Thank you for your comment and interest in the topic because I think it is an area we can all embrace to grow and change! Good luck with your research. If I can be of any help, please let me know.

Laura

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