Posted on

It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter

The transition from student to working interpreter can be challenging when current practitioners are hesitant to step forward as guides. Brian Morrison pushes back on some negative mindsets regarding passing the torch, and makes suggestions on how to reach out to the next generation.

With fall upon us, students in interpreter training programs all over the country have begun another semester on their journey to becoming a sign language interpreter. Along with the classroom lectures and hands-on practice teachers are planning, they are also reaching out to the interpreting community for one of the most crucial pieces of the students’ development, observation and mentoring opportunities. However, these opportunities are becoming increasingly difficult to find. While some of the scarcity can be attributed to specific requirements of the situation, some of the difficulty is also due to a lack of support by the sign language interpreting community.

“Why would I train students to take my jobs?”

The statement above is a common one given as an explanation as to why sign language interpreters don’t want to work with students.  This statement saddens me not only as an interpreter, but as an interpreter educator as well. Personally, I wouldn’t have achieved what I have today if it wasn’t for the mentors and interpreters that I looked up to and served as models during my early development. As an educator who is striving to find opportunities for students, it’s equally frustrating.

How many of us benefited from these types of relationships that our students are striving to find and often cannot? What if, while we were developing our own skills, interpreters had given us the same reply? Would we be the interpreters we are today?

Where’s the disconnect? All interpreters who have gone through an Interpreter Education Program (IEP) experienced similar requirements for working with interpreters as students are doing now. Has it been so long that we’ve forgotten what it was once like when we were in their shoes?

Overall, students in these programs truly want to become interpreters and be contributing members of the profession. They sacrifice their time to focus on their skills and are committed to that process. As Stacey Webb highlights in her article, The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter:

In order for students to be successful sign-language interpreters, prior to graduating it is critical that they develop a relationship with both the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community (DHHC) and current-working professionals within the DHHC.  This would include interpreters, educators and DHHC advocates. By fostering these relationships, students will create educational, professional and personal opportunities that would not be available to them outside of the classroom environment.”

So while students do make attempts at networking to cultivate these opportunities, it is very often a struggle.

“They have no respect for the elders in the profession”

This statement above, and variations of it, is another common sentiment towards students. While I don’t deny that attitudes reflective of this statement do exist among students, I also have to wonder how much responsibility can be attributed to the current state of the ‘system’?  What I have learned is that students are very observant.  They learn by watching and they often emulate what they see. In our reluctance to work with students, have we conveyed to them that we don’t value them or their work?   Have we somehow systematically disrespected the label “student” through our actions or lack thereof? In her article, What Role Does Civility Play in the Sign Language Interpreting Profession?, Carolyn Ball stresses the importance of civility in the field of interpreting and interpreter education. She states:

If all interpreters, educated through formal training, were given a clear sense of the importance of civility in the workplace and in interactions with colleagues, perhaps more recent graduates would benefit from repeat business and high levels of job satisfaction.”

As educators, cultivating an attitude of civility is definitely something that we can incorporate into our interpreter education programs. In turn, as experienced interpreters, we can also be the models of civility that we want them to emulate by embracing these students and guiding them into the profession.

As a profession, we recognize there is a shortage of qualified sign language interpreters. While several factors contribute to this, the fact is that most of these graduates will go on to work as interpreters. Many of them, like most of us when we started working as interpreters, will not be as prepared as they should be. Additionally, at some point, they will become our colleagues. If, as a profession, we made a commitment to being more involved with students early on in their professional lives, we could be training the team member we will want to work successfully with later. The latter scenario also suggests apossibility, the interpreted interaction as much more successful.

“I can’t believe you don’t know that!”

Interpreter education programs have a finite amount of time. We know that they aren’t able to teach everything we would like students to know before they enter the field. The field of sign language interpreter education has grown in the last several years thanks to organizations such as the Conference of Interpreter Trainers (CIT), the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education (CCIE), and National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers (NCIEC). New research, new curricula, and improved standards for education programs are now available and these programs have access to materials and information which weren’t previously available.  Rather than viewing interpreter education programs negatively or putting the sole onus on them for having not taught students all they need to know, we can shift our focus to building on their existing foundation. To echo Kate Block’s sentiment in her article, Mentorship: Sign Language Interpreters Embrace Your Elders, take advantage of this new information that the students can bring to our work. Imagine the outcomes when the new student and the experienced interpreter learn and grow from sharing their knowledge with each other.

“What can I do?

I think first and foremost, we can be the manifestation of the theme, “I Am Change”, as StreetLeverage challenges us to do through this website. Interpreter education programs and students cannot be ignored, so as a responsibility to our profession, we can decide to step up and support our novices.

How can we make that change? There are several things that as individuals we can do right now.

Remember your passion.

Reflect back on your journey to becoming an interpreter. Remember what it was like to be that student…eager to learn and wanting experiences.

Offer observation.

Offer 2-3 opportunities a month to the local ITP for student observations. While much of the work may not be suitable or possible to have students present, we often do have situations that would be perfect.


Offer to go and speak to students at the local ITP. If you can’t offer them observations, offer them your wisdom in the classroom.

Sponsor a student.

Become a “Big Brother/Big Sister” to an ITP student. I think if we all look back to our early days, at least one name will come to mind as someone who “took us under their wing” and got us through. Be that person to a student. Be the interpreter you want to see the students grow to become.

Host an induction.

As a community and/or alumni association, host an induction ceremony for a graduating group of interpreting students. Acknowledge their hard work and dedication while welcoming them into this sometimes crazy, always wonderful world of interpreting.

Start a group.

Establish reflective practitioner groups that include students and new interpreters. StreetLeverage articles provide excellent discussion material for all levels of sign language interpreters. Case conferencing allows for insightful discussions of the decision making process based on actual scenarios.

I’m a strong believer in the idea of “it takes a village.” This is our profession and as such, we need to actively commit to the next generation of interpreters. Let’s face it, as individuals we will not be in the field forever. In order to preserve our legacy, we can leave positive impressions on the lives of the next generation. Let’s raise them well.

What will your contribution be?

Posted on

Sign Language Interpreters and the Future of Ethical Practice

Sign Language Interpreter Ethics

At the forefront of quality interpreting is a strong ethical practice. Matthew O’Hara reviews the evolution of the RID CPC and relates how individuals can make a difference in understanding and applying its tenets.

The dawn of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) 2013-2016 Strategic Plan and heightened attention on the RID Ethical Practices System (EPS) has brought the perfect time to examine the ethical landscape of our industry.  As we look back and look ahead, we cannot plot any course without remembering the value system that guides our profession – ethics.  RID founders saw the need to codify a set of ethics that would shape generations of sign language interpreters to come.  The minutes of the June 16, 1964 organizational meeting reveal that developing a code of ethics was the second priority listed, with the first aiming to define the purpose of the organization.

Plotting a Course

As the organization embarks on the next 50 years, there is no better time for the consumer and interpreter communities to reflect on the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct (CPC).  A code of ethics, or Code of Professional Conduct in our case, becomes the stated values that shape our practice and communicate to the public what they can expect of practitioners in the sign language interpreting profession.  As we consider the future of the NAD-RID CPC, we must ask ourselves, where have we been? What roadmap(s) did we use to get where we are?  Where are we headed?  What is our “true north?”

The 2013-2016 Strategic Plan commits our association to the goal of “Strengthen the Ethical Practices System efficiency and consistency in its enforcement of the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct.”   Furthermore, RID members voted at the 2013 Business Meeting to commission a group of NAD and RID members to strengthen the CPC. How do we accomplish these organization-wide goals and measure our success in achieving them?

Tools For Our Journey

When discussing the CPC, we must agree that a sign language interpreter’s ethical code is the cornerstone of our industry’s standards.  Certification means meeting a peer-reviewed measure of one’s knowledge, skills and abilities at the time of examination.  Those certified must agree to follow a set of ethical standards.  These standards are, in turn, the individuals, and the certification body’s promise to the public.  NAD and RID have jointly adopted an ethical code whereby consumers of sign language interpreting services can expect professional conduct consistent with values shared by each organization.

The task for each of us – hearing and Deaf – is to consider the values, and principles that must guide interpreters moving forward.  The sun is a critical component in order to calibrate a compass.  Perhaps the “sun” for our industry is the values, principles, rules and aspirations articulated in a practitioner’s “compass” which is the CPC.

The Program

In evaluating the EPS program, RID has pulled together statistics on the program since the adoption of the current CPC in 2005.  We hope that this data will create a dialogue. Adherence to the CPC is a community-wide priority.

We can analyze the philosophies behind confidentiality, professionalism, respect, and other guiding values.  We can talk about how to apply the CPC in various settings and situations.  However, let us not forget Aristotle’s “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”.  The individual tenets of the CPC are woven together and applied as a whole set of values.  Application of one tenet does not occur in isolation. The authors of the current CPC reminded us that the tenets of the CPC “are to be viewed holistically and as a guide to professional behavior.”

As we consider anew the CPC, and what it might look like in the coming years, we need to ask which parts of the CPC are enforceable and which are not.  Are some concepts of the CPC more aspirational in nature, and if so, what does that mean in practice?  For instance, how does one measure or evaluate “Respect”? We know respect, trust and attitude are highly valued attributes of a sign language interpreter.  That said, do we have a shared meaning of professional respect? Does that behavior look the same to everyone? And finally, how is it properly enforced?  Interpreters ought to have internalized the core values that drive their work. 

Looking Back

Beyond analyzing the ethical landscape of our industry, it is time to take a hard look at the ethics enforcement system, too.  It is not solely about what the EPS can do, but what can each of us do.  How should each of us respond to clear or perceived breaches of the CPC?  We all know that NAD and RID have responsibilities to the public, but we need to challenge ourselves to consider what our personal responsibilities are as individuals – abiding by the intent of the CPC, setting an example, challenging those who stray from the code, and contributing feedback to the CPC review process.

Another area ripe for dialogue is the appropriate consequences for violations. In her article, Sign Language Interpreters: Team Interpreting and its Ethical Consequences, Kelly Decker asked a very important practical question about when we should we avoid teaming with a sign language interpreter who has exhibited unethical behavior?  When do we need to go one step farther and report the ethical misconduct?  At what point should RID remove an interpreter’s certification?  And finally, when does an interpreter deserve to be expelled from the industry?

What Does the Data Show?

Starting in 2013, RID has dedicated more resources to the Ethical Practices System (EPS).   Benefits of this renewed commitment to upholding the ethical standards include more timely case management, enhanced customer service, increased public awareness and education, strengthened policies, and program analysis and statistics, with more to come.

Ethical Practice System complaints about sign language interpretersAs part of the commitment to the EPS program, the EPS staff has begun compiling data to help facilitate informed dialogue. The data compiled here reflects the years following the adoption of the CPC in 2005.

From 2006 to 2012, there were 161 complaints filed with roughly 80% filed by concerned consumers who are Deaf.  With over 16,000 members, should we expect more or fewer complaints filed in over a 6-year period? Why or why not? RID recognizes that countless potential complaints may not have been filed because the complainant may not have been aware of the RID EPS, because they knew that their interpreter was not a member or certified and thus the complaint would not have been processed, the consumer may not have known that video complaints can be filed, or other technical barriers. RID is committed to learning more about these barriers and will distribute a survey on this topic.

It is important to note that the average time it took from filing a complaint to resolution was about 7-8 months.  This time frame is something that needs careful review moving forward.   The integrity of the program must be paramount, including how long cases take to process from start to finish and the resources required.

All complaints are taken seriously and efforts are made to elicit the appropriate information to initiate a formal due process.  The RID staff is taking measures to increase access and awareness and is taking the EPS on the road by presenting to stakeholders wherever resources allow.  Most importantly, RID is listening and is open to constructive feedback for how the EPS can be more accessible.

The Grievance Process

Ethical Practice System - Mediator TeamsRID utilizes a grievance system that includes a punitive component and also encourages communication, mediation, the resolution of conflict with a rebuilding of trust and confidence. This process is designed to be both corrective and educational in nature.

The jewel of the EPS is its mediation program and sincere desire to offer the community legitimate formalized process to come together and discuss allegations of misconduct. If nothing else, the mediators, who are NAD and RID members, assist parties with analyzing the problem themselves. Any agreement must be acceptable to both parties or the complaint is submitted to a panel of adjudicators.

Since the mediation program began in 2000, the mediators have worked mostly in pairs all across the country.  Mediators are assigned to cases much like interpreters are matched with consumers – considering the language, culture, backgrounds, and experience of the mediators and matching such with the parties.


The majority of cases are resolved at mediation. Further study is needed about the types of issues brought forth and resolved during mediation to better inform the effectiveness of the CPC.

With the majority of cases addressed at the mediation level, only a fraction of cases escalate to adjudication.  Since 2006, adjudicators reviewed 18 cases.

Ethical Practices System - Adjudication Panel CompositionTo date, there has been no formal study on the correlation between failed mediations and violations at adjudication.  This may be a necessary step to assess the effectiveness of the program, examining whether the adjudication phase lacks rigor. Another possibility is that those cases that do not end in mutual agreement at mediation might be where the parties remain at odds and the interpreter is confident that his/her actions were in compliance with the CPC.People have asked why so few violations are published in VIEWS.  Most cases do not go beyond mediation because both parties voluntarily agree to and embrace their resolution to the situation.  While some might prefer to see more sign language interpreters brought before a jury of peers, the philosophy behind the RID mediation program has always been that the parties should be actively engaged in the EPS process, which often starts with mediation.

All adjudication decisions are made solely on the basis of the panels’ judgment.  The panelists are experts in ethical decision-making.  All adjudicators, hearing and Deaf, are seasoned certified members of RID.  The average number of certified years of adjudicators is almost 27 years.

What’s Next?

What’s next is dialogue! How can we ensure the CPC is relevant and reflects the principles and values interpreters and Deaf people consider essential?  How can we effectively and responsibly ensure fidelity to the CPC?  As leaders in our profession, we must look for strategic ways to move forward. It’s imperative that dialogue happen in every direction – peer to peer, amongst the Deaf community, within affiliate chapters, during regional and national conferences.  Be part of the conversation locally, regionally and nationally by any format that works for you – read articles, engage in conversation, share your ideas, and join a committee.  The opportunity is here. Please grab your compass and head for the conversations to come!



Fant, Lou.  (1990). Silver Threads.  Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc.

Posted on

What Can Groupies Teach Sign Language Interpreters About Social Networking?

Sign Language Interpreters and Social Networking

In a dynamic field it can be hard to keep pace and have deeper engagement in current interpreting issues. In this article, Wing Butler draws parallels between strategies pre- and post- social media and extols the benefits of continued connection to spur change.

Several months ago I watched an edited for TV movie, “Almost Famous”, a story of a young boy on the doorstep of the 70s rock scene, tasked by Rolling Stones magazine to write a gritty behind-the-scenes article of an up and coming fictional band. What ensues is his journey as a “groupie” that captures the essence of the 70’s classic rock movement woven in with a coming of age introduction to the world and the struggle of the young journalist. No doubt history repeats itself, and while our work is a far stretch to musicians in the music industry, I consider many of my sign language interpreter friends “rockstars.”

Before I go on, I have to offer up a confession, I am a StreetLeverage “groupie.” I should also offer up a disclaimer, it was a little over two years ago that Brandon called me with an idea, If you’re reading this as a result of your interest in the site’s content, then it may seem to you a no brainer to pitch in. Although at the time, in the desert of creativity that nothingness was the unknown. I remember late night discussions about content, strategies, and the regular question—were we the only audience of the site.

With my interpreter toolkit slung over my shoulder and a leap of faith in the vision, I got on the StreetLeverage tour bus and provided a couple articles on my favorite business tool—social media—and a year and a half later presented at the first StreetLeverage – Live event. While this article may seem a selfless plug of something I am passionate about, I believe there are lessons to be learned from my backstage access to the StreetLeverage story.

(Thanks to Brandon for graciously honoring the wager that allowed me to publish this article. Never under-estimate the power of thumb-wrestling.)

Dare to Dream

As you may know, the most recent stop for StreetLeverage was in Indianapolis, IN to provide social media coverage of the 2013 RID national conference. The online access to conference sessions via Facebook, Twitter, video interviews and photo sharing was unprecedented in our field, and better, the offsite and virtual discussions amongst sign language interpreters will echo conference topics long after the conference now ended.

Shortly after the event I was talking with an interpreter friend of mine, a rockstar by the way, unable to attend the national conference. She commented that after watching the StreetLeverage coverage from her social-web streams that she was inspired to be present at the next RID conference and to stand and be counted.

I share this because her comment embodies the entire ambition of StreetLeverage when it dared to dream that a community of reflective practitioners amplified by social media could inspire action within the sign language interpreting industry.

To me, understanding the online path StreetLeverage has taken offers a type and shadow for anyone looking to leverage socially oriented communication to coalesce a group of people around a vision.

Be Intentional

What people may not necessarily be aware of is that StreetLeverage began more intentionally exploring the power of social networking beyond blogging with StreetLeverage-Live 2012 | Baltimore, which offered a new format for professional dialogue and professional development within the sign language interpreting field. StreetLeverage – Live introduced a TED-like presentation format with social media coverage on Facebook and Twitter to complement. The event was followed with the posting of the recorded presentations online for free viewing and sharing.

StreetLeverage expanded its exploration of social networking with StreetLeverage – Live 2013 | Atlanta and the 2013 RID national conference in Indiana by creating a content delivery team to better capture and share intelligent, insightful, and germane content with the broader sign language interpreting industry. StreetLeverage will perpetuate further live and digital dialogue on strengthening and building the industry with StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin May 1 – 4 and other projects underway.

Aside from the obvious benefits of immediate access to sharing information and connecting with people on a larger scale, StreetLeverage has intentionally and strategically explored how to use social networking to introduce and connect its vision of change to sign language interpreters.

What I have learned watching all this connecting, amplification, and vision casting is that if people will dare to make a difference and take that challenging first step to share it, others will follow. It is bringing people together to reflect on the field that has made the StreetLeverage story so special.

The positive engagement that StreetLeverage has generated over the last couple of years is proof that using social generosity, connection, and amplification to create a shared vision is applicable to our industry too.

What Has Come into View

Why has StreetLeverage been so successful in bringing people together? To me, it is because there is an understanding four basic principles of social media.

Online Transparency Builds Relationships

The quick one-liner interactions in bits and bytes online may not seem like much, but they can go far in developing trust and engagement. Interacting offers a sense of empathy and understanding, and its only when people feel understood that they will begin to listen to your message.

Strength in Numbers

There are more sign language interpreters “out there” using social media than there are “in here” attending events designed to create change, which should give pause to any organization to prioritize their communication planning. And therein lies one of the greatest benefits, the more an organization communicates “out there” the more likely individuals will join you “in here.”

No Hostages

Crowd sourcing online comments on a particular topic offers a wider cross-section of sign language interpreter disposition, preventing the “one” public comment or the “loudest” to stand as representation of the interpreter masses. Social media provides an outlet to engage those less willing to take the stage or find themselves supporting a more unpopular opinion.


The awareness that anyone anywhere could be tweeting, posting and recording your actions or words increases the level of accountability. While it may sound, “big brother-ish,” it incentivizes industry stakeholders, leaders, and practitioners to say what they mean, mean what they say. And yes, opinions will be formed. With everyone only a mobile app away from broadcasting, our virtual community compels action and professional restraint.

The sign language interpreting profession needs people willing to consider that they are accountable for the future of the field. With all the good that social media can do, it behooves every member of the sign language interpreting profession to sharpen the tools in their social media toolkits and strategically add their perspective.

Where can this knowledge and accountability take you?

The Secret Sauce

Not all individuals and organizations are equipped with the social media structures to pull off fantastic social media campaigns like StreetLeverage did with its coverage of the 2013 RID conference. While there is no “one size fits all” solution, with some strategic thinking you and potentially your organization could be broadcasting with transparency and efficiency. Both individuals and organizations within the field are at a distinct advantage because content grows organically from within, and sign language interpreter niche content isn’t crowded, at least for now.

Assuming that one identifies with the benefits of communicating through social media; greater inclusion, accountability and stronger personal and organizational branding, the question is how? At the risk of giving away the StreetLeverage secret sauce here’s how you and your organization can create an online presence to promote greater communication, thus greater engagement to drive real tangible change.

Create a Platform

Start Small

Create your online presence and focus on communicating within one domain. Once you’ve got it down, expand to another social medium.

Set a schedule

Take a few minutes to consider how much time you can spend focused on social media, sketch out a schedule, and stick to it.

Create a Social Media Statement

Create a statement to help you guide your thinking, both as an individual and as an organization, to proactively think through how you would like to make use of social media. How to respond to social media interactions? How to respond to conflict or negative interactions? What should be posted? Finally, what do we want to accomplish with our social networking?

Content, content, content.

Produce quality content quickly, economically and often.

In a world big on ideas and short on implementation, I hope that you are able to take full advantage of social media communication. How do you know its working? Engagement, measured in the amount of shares, likes, re-tweets and comments are a few of the indicators that gauge effectiveness.

United Strong

Like the bands of the 1970s and as StreetLeverage has demonstrated as of late, our community has always been greater than the sum of our parts. But, it’s the consistent functions of individual components that keep us moving forward.

As Stephanie Feyne so eloquently put it in her recent article, Authenticity: The Impact of a Sign Language Interpreter’s Choices, “This means we interpreters have a great deal of power. And we have a tremendous responsibility. The hearing parties are relying upon our language to help form their impressions of whether the Deaf party is genuine and credible (and vice versa).”

While this speaks specifically to the sign language interpreting process (our language choices), the same could be said about our communication choices online. What kind of impression does your social media activity leave? Are you contributing to the betterment of the field?

<Cue John Lennon’s “Imagine”> Grab your online toolkits and I’ll see you at the next sign language interpreter event.

Do you have any online or social networking tips? Share them with us.