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.


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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(New York)