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Tribal Communication: Evolving Expectations in the Field of Sign Language Interpreting

Tribal Elders Within The Field of Sign Language Interpreting

As membership in RID has grown exponentially, so has how we communicate between leadership and members. Dora Veith’s research examines changing communication norms from interpreting’s tribal roots to today’s “container” method.

San Francisco, 2007. My very first Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) national conference. I had been working in the field for two years and I was thrilled to be attending the national business meeting with my heroes in the field.

As I entered the meeting room, I heard a rumbling. Members were agitated. There was a recent leadership decision and members were unhappy. I heard, “How could they make that decision without including us? That is not our culture, our roots!” I understood. RID is a member-driven organization and leadership decisions should reflect member needs and goals. But, wait – I also heard leaders saying, “We did ask you! We sent emails asking for input. We posted requests for feedback on the website! We printed articles in RIDViews!” Hmmmm. I left the meeting wondering: how could such drastic miscommunication happen in an organization filled with communicators?!

Fast forward to 2012. I am sitting in front of my computer reading the course materials for my online class, Leadership Principles, through Regis University in Denver, Colorado. There is a brief lesson in the course about communication models, specifically comparing Tribal and Container communication models. I read how tribal communication is person-to-person, oral traditions and history passed on from mentor to mentee, how elders are revered and sought out, how decisions are based on what’s best for the community. I instantly think about RID’s history, a history rooted in reciprocity, mentorship, service, and partnership; the tribal description resonates.

Then I read about container communication and its dependency on technology, general announcements and reports, feelings of hierarchy in leadership, and how the decisions are often made for individual benefit, not the community. I am instantly transported to the 2007 business meeting. That’s it! That is what happened! We had container communication trying to satisfy tribal expectations. No wonder we struggled!

From Tribe to Container

Since 2007, I have heard mention in casual conversation that the sign language interpreting profession has changed because so many practitioners do not come from Deaf roots. Many, like me, have entered the interpreting profession through training programs and had no connection to the Deaf community before pursuing this career. Deaf consumers and practitioners complain that the cultural competency of practitioners is in decline because of this lack of connection. In her article, Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart, Betty Colonomos highlights this in a poignant way.

RID started with a tribal communication model. I have heard more than one of our seasoned interpreters say, “I used to be able to go to conference and know everyone there!” We have grown from that small founding group to a large organization. In addition, where we used to train other sign language interpreters through one-to-one mentorship, we now have formal degree programs. Out of necessity, we have become reliant on technology to communicate, and organizational communication comes in the form of general announcements and reports. We have become a container organization at the national level.

I think concerns about the change in RID, and the sign language interpreting profession as a whole, are valid, but I also suspect we are being a bit myopic. I am curious: if we step outside the cauldron of Hearing heart vs. Deaf heart and look at RID as a whole, what might we find? Is it possible that we are simply experiencing the results of unplanned organizational transformation caused by simple rapid growth as a profession?

Communication Style and Participation: A Closer Look

In 2013, when it became time to pursue my senior capstone at Regis, I was still haunted by the tribal vs. container lesson and decided to make it the cornerstone of my project. I tried to find other research about tribal and container communication, but other than a brief blurb in my old textbook, Leadership: A Communication Perspective (Hackman & Johnson, 2008), I was unable to find any research directly tied to this phenomenon. Most of the research is focused on proving or disproving Putnam’s theory of decline in social capital (Bowling Alone, 1995/2000) – that there has been a national trend of decline in membership organizations, resulting in fewer people building connections and supporting their community since 1952. I was unable to find any research about communication changes as grass root organizations grow and transform and the impact of this change on membership.

Consequently, I decided to do my own research. I developed a research question and a survey to see if there was a link between communication models and membership participation. I posted a link to the survey on the RID and BLeGIT Facebook pages. I also posted it to my local chapter, ColoradoRID, Facebook page and emailed it to local members.

What We Found

There were 70 respondents to the survey. Participants ranged in age from 20-something novice interpreters to 70+ -year-old semi-retired working sign language interpreters. Education levels ranged from associate degrees to master’s degrees. The survey participants were required to be ASL-to-English interpreting practitioners. Survey respondents remained anonymous.

With respect to experience, the respondents were split evenly: 50% had 0-10 years of interpreting experience and 50% had 11-30+ years of experience. This demonstrated a balanced perspective among respondents with significant history within the RID structure. 80% of respondents were trained in an IPP/ITP and 30% grew up in the Deaf community. 17% of respondents were introduced to the Deaf community through mentors, while 60% were introduced through their training program. While 97% of respondents were current RID members, only 76% belonged to their local chapters. 46% could not identify organizational leaders.

Communication Preferences

In terms of communication habits and preferences, the most significant findings were that 63% prefer to network in person at community socials or events. However, when asked to identify preferences, the number one preferred way to receive information from national and local RID groups was email, with social media a distant second. When I discussed this contrast with a colleague she said, “Of course! We want personal contact, but we don’t have time for it!”

While the data I collected was interesting and informative, it did not really answer the research question. However, I continued to analyze RID communication in light of the tribal model, since I was relatively new to the profession and had less personal experience with it.

The Tribe: A Closer Look at Who’s Who


So who is our tribe? Tribes have elders, water carriers, and general members. Elders can be defined pretty quickly as our most experienced interpreters and RID members. I also suggest that every interpreter with a Deaf parent is an elder by nature of their cultural intuition, regardless of their “professional” interpreting experience. In addition, every D/deaf person we meet is an elder in our tribe. They are the culture we try to serve, it is their language we use, who better to be offered the respect of a tribal elder?

Water Carriers

Max De Pree (1993), in Leadership Jazz, defines water carriers as those members who introduce new members to cultural norms and who share oral history. They help the new members of the tribe acclimate and avoid embarrassing pitfalls. As we have evolved, we have abdicated the water carrier role to our training programs. Maybe it is time for the local tribe to reclaim its water carrier responsibilities. The act of unpaid, casual mentorship of new interpreters strengthens connections and community ties while supporting the continuity of our cultural roots.


The other, very important part of a tribe is that each member has a place – a role – and is a potential leader. We have identifiable leaders in our organization, people who have been vocal and visible for decades. It is easy to leave leadership to others. However, for a stronger organization, each member needs to take an active part in defining, contributing, and creating their local tribe and how their tribe interacts with the organization as a whole.

Bridging Container Communication and Tribal Expectations

As I apply the theory of tribal and container communication to our professional organization, I think logically—at a national and regional level—RID must continue as a container organization. Its efforts to engage members with social media have a role, but they don’t replace personal connections. Members have an opportunity to respond to RID issues in real-time, but the result is often a point-counterpoint interaction, not a real discussion.

I see that many local chapters have modeled their communication after the national office of RID; mass emails and social media have replaced personal interaction. I believe there is a better approach. The local chapter would be well suited to bring the benefits of tribal communication to members, acting as a bridge between container communication and tribal expectations. The local chapter can create a meaningful personal connection.

An example of how the tribe could bridge the container is the recent vote regarding the Deaf Parent Member at Large position on the RID Board. Almost all of the information regarding the motion and discussion about the motion rested on email and social media technologies (unless you were fortunate enough to attend the national conference). Even after Adam Bartley made an elegant plea in Mea Culpa: We Failed RID & Sign Language Interpreters with Deaf Parents, our container communication failed the second vote too. The fact that less than 10% of members voted nationwide is evidence of a system failure.

What would have happened if local chapters had offered this issue as a discussion point during local meetings? I suspect members would have become more invested in the outcome and more willing to cast a vote. Members might have felt invited into the discussion. It is easy to ignore an anonymous electronic invitation to, but that invitation has strength and impact when it is paired with an experience involving friends and colleagues.

Tribal and Container: The Best of Both

I believe RID has more options than just a container or a tribal communication model. I believe there is an ‘and’. It is a blend of both models that will lead us from the conflicts of organizational transition and toward a better, healthier, and effective professional organization.

Beyond the tribe. Beyond the container. We can become something more. After all, regardless of personal background, a commitment to effective communication is the common heart of every sign language interpreter.


De Pree, M. (1993). Watercarriers. Leadership Jazz. New York: Dell Publishing Company: 51-58 (kindle edition).

Hackman, M. & Johnson, C. (2008) Leadership: A communication perspective (5th ed). Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc. 238-241.

Putnam, R. (1995 & 2000). Bowling alone. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.

Regis University. (Fall, 2012). COM 470 Leadership Principles.

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Treachery: Why Sign Language Interpreters Don’t Correct Each Other’s Work

An Act of Treachery for Sign Language Interpreters

Many sign language interpreters follow an “unwritten rule” that prevents us from intervening when a colleague’s interpretation is insufficient. Our silence contributes to Deaf oppression – it’s time to speak up.

As I submit this, some time has passed since the incident of the “fake interpreter” at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. While this was an event of historic proportions, it was not an event where the life, liberty, or future prospects of the participants were placed at particular risk. Do not misunderstand me – what happened was fundamentally wrong. Deaf people were excluded from sharing in the memory of a person who has had a profound impact upon the world that we all share, as highlighted by Brandon Arthur in his post, Nelson Mandela: Have Sign Language Interpreters Disappointed the World? It was a major injustice and it is upsetting to witness access being denied in such a way.

There are no two ways about it: the events at the memorial were appalling, yet, in some ways, the level of attention that this single incident has received is nothing short of amazing. On a daily basis, Deaf communities put great energy into the fight for equality, yet this particular incident seems to have captured the imaginations of many people. Here in Ireland, Deaf people and sign language interpreters took to social media to express their condemnation. Judging by the reactions of the more traditional media (in the English speaking world at least), there appeared to be some understanding of why this was wrong. It was a positive thing to see such an outcry about the inequalities that are faced by Deaf people, and hopefully this will become a turning point.

Having said that, something is not quite right.

The Unwritten Rule

Someone pretended to be an interpreter, and Deaf communities reacted – as did sign language interpreters and society at large – and so they should have. An emphasis has been placed on using a qualified interpreter, and the situation has highlighted the importance of access. The arguments for using qualified interpreters are certainly supported in light of the events in South Africa.

Yet we should not allow the discussion to stop there. There is another issue that is arguably as disturbing: there are numerous anecdotal examples of qualified interpreters providing suboptimal interpretation, but the profession handles those events differently. The responses are often more subdued or fragmented than we have seen in the case of the memorial service.

Many of us are held back by the “unwritten rule” telling us not to get involved, not to draw attention to an interpretation that is not working. We have not been explicitly taught this during training – it is something that we learn. We learn it by watching Deaf people complain about sign language interpreters who do not understand them, or whom they cannot understand; we learn it by seeing how easily those complaints are deflected because the interpreter is qualified; we learn it when complaints are turned into issues about the personal preferences of Deaf people, rather than issues about the performances of the qualified interpreters.

Use of Credentials to Control

What we are actually learning is the power of credentials, and this is not something that is unique to the sign language interpreting profession. Charles Tilly, amongst others, has discussed how professionals use credentials to control entry into professions and, more importantly, to control and silence debate. The status of being qualified can supersede all other considerations, even taking away the right to ask questions of the professional. Indeed, at times, being qualified can even take the place of being competent.

In addition to raising awareness of the importance of qualified interpreters, the memorial service should also give interpreters something more to reflect on. If we step away from the fact that this person was unqualified, we can ask a more meaningful question: “what is the difference between someone who stands there making a series of gestures and a qualified interpreter whose interpretation Deaf people struggle to understand?”

For someone to purport to provide access when he or she is not an interpreter is foolhardy, disrespectful, and a gross insult to Deaf people – not to mention dangerous. When qualified sign language interpreters are involved and Deaf people struggle to understand the interpretation or make themselves understood, then we are in similar circumstances to those of the memorial service for Nelson Mandela; yet it is far easier for us to discuss the issue of the “fake interpreter,” as we are discussing an outsider.

There is one significant difference. The Deaf community has not invested in the “fake interpreter” and has not allowed him into their space. The betrayal is all the worse when qualified interpreters are involved.

Equality Framework

In Ireland we are fortunate to have a Centre for Equality Studies, where an Equality Framework has been developed [Baker, Lynch, Cantillon and Walsh (2009) Equality: From Theory to Action]. The framework has five dimensions of equality:

•           Power

•           Respect and Recognition

•           Resources

•           Love, Care and Solidarity

•           Work and Learning

The application of this framework to our work as sign language interpreters is far greater than can be discussed here, but just choosing some aspects of the framework can certainly give insight into our thinking. We can use it to analyze situations, and I intend to do this by sharing some reflections from personal experience.

Treachery Against Colleagues

I once attended an interpreted event with around ten off-duty interpreters present. Throughout the event, there were numerous instances in which the interpretation was not working well, with inputs from Deaf participants incorrectly or poorly translated into English.

At these times, there was discomfort, but no intervention: not from the other members of the interpreting team, not from the organizers, not from the audience. My discomfort came as a result of my position as a hearing person and as an interpreter. I was fully aware of what was happening, yet I chose not to act. I sat in uncomfortable silence hoping that the problem would be resolved.

At one point, I stood to make a comment. I chose to sign rather than speak. Afterwards, I realized that I had done something that I did not like: I had listened to the interpreter voicing my input, and I had modified my comment on the fly to correct the interpretation.

Even though I believe in equality, this was unegalitarian. I benefited from being a hearing person who could make sure that my message got across, even though the interpretation was not always working. Yet I was silent when it came to the other breakdowns.

Later at the event, another breakdown happened. A Deaf member of the audience stood to ask a question and the interpretation did not work well. The Deaf person asked the interpreter if she had signed clearly and the interpreter shrugged.

In a room with almost 15% of the sign language interpreters in our country present, this was unfolding before our eyes – and we were letting it happen.

We were sitting back. I was sitting back. It went against everything I believe in, yet I was listening to the voice in my head saying, “Don’t say anything. Just be quiet. You’re not working here. It’s none of your business”. I decided to ignore that little voice and say something. It had happened too many times already without intervention. I clarified with the hearing presenter by standing and sharing my understanding of the question. I was left with a bigger question to deal with: “Why was it such a big deal to intervene?”

I appreciate that it is easier to be an observer than to be actively interpreting. We can analyze the decision-making processes of the working interpreters and try to understand what happened for them, but to do that is to miss the point. The focus should be on the rest of us and what was happening for us that led us to be complicit in those inequalities as we sat back and allowed them to occur.

I have asked myself why it took me so long to say something and I have rationalized it in any number of ways: “The interpreters will correct the issue themselves;” “The organizers will  intervene soon;” “Someone else will say something before me.” All of those explanations fail to get to the crux of the issue: why was I hoping that something would happen without having to act myself? The real reason is that I know the rules as well as anyone else. I am aware that speaking up is seen as an act of treachery against colleagues, and even as undermining the profession.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

The power dimension of the Equality Framework is especially interesting here, at least for me. When witnessing the injustice of an incorrect interpretation, I allowed the power placed in an idea to hold me back from speaking up. This idea that has come from somewhere – it is an idea that serves some interests, just not the interests of equality or Deaf communities. Indeed, it doesn’t even serve the sign language interpreting profession, as it makes us question whether we should intervene when something blatantly wrong is happening. It confuses us into thinking that, by addressing a problem, we are causing a problem; yet these problems already exist. A wiser person than I refers to this type of situation as a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes: sign language interpreters can be in their “altogether” and be totally exposed. We can see it, but we cannot say anything for fear of how we will be perceived – after all, it is only a fool or a crank who does not recognize the credentials that we wear.


The love, care and solidarity dimension is also interesting as it is frequently misused to protect the status quo. In the example above, I had Deaf friends and colleagues who were having their ideas misrepresented and I was weighing what to do. While it is true that everyone deserves the benefit of love, care and solidarity, the unwritten rule is a distortion of what this should be. We are instilled with the idea of protecting and fostering a “safe space” for interpreters, but the safety of interpreters should lie in our competencies, not in the fear fellow interpreters have of speaking up. Perhaps there are interpreters who consider my intervention as oppressive of the interpreters working at the event. Well, my answer to that is simple: look at where the power lies and you will see where the oppression is coming from. Correcting an interpretation is not an oppressive act. The marginalization and misrepresentation of Deaf people is oppressive, and our complicity in situations like that makes oppressors of us all.

The Takeaway

If there is one thing that we should take from the incident at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, it is that real access is more than the appearance of access – qualified or not, the interpretation must be working. If we are equality-minded, “they are trying their best” is not good enough. The voices in our heads should be telling us to fix the situation, not stopping us from standing up. It is time to “rewrite” the unwritten rule.

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How Do Sign Language Interpreters Avoid Mentoring’s Dodgy Undertow?

Avoid the Dodgy Undertow of Sign Language Interpreting

Can mentoring relationships among interpreters avoid common pitfalls? Lynne Wiesman describes ideal traits of mentoring partnerships to result in success for both experienced and novice interpreter.

We have all had someone who “took us under their wing” at some point in our careers. These people that we say changed the trajectory of our careers and pulled us up by allowing us to stand on their shoulders. These people, whose quiet grace, wanted nothing more for their trouble than for us to become the best sign language interpreters, professionals, and humans we could become.

Unfortunately, some of us have also had the type of mentor, who had goals that were not transparent and altruistic; where we sensed that the goal was to push us down. Those mentoring relationships sought to further intrinsic, selfish agendas.

Although the latter may have inherently negative connotations, it is not automatically unscrupulous for a mentor to want a mutual benefit from the relationship. Quite the contrary, agencies have a need to cultivate more interpreters. Veteran interpreters, for whom the work has lost some of its original appeal, may long for a burst of energy and enthusiasm. Interpreters want to model for a newer interpreter. Mentoring is an excellent way to bring a fresh, new perspective, while providing a way to give back and pay it forward.  All are necessary and vital for the preservation of our field!

Unchecked Assumptions

These aforementioned scenarios could be detrimental if they contain a motivation or element of conscious or unconscious deception or inauthenticity. If the primary goal for entering into a mentoring relationship is anything other than supporting mentees (students or working interpreters) to realize their goals of becoming an effective sign language interpreter, it may still be a successful relationship, but may not be a mentoring relationship. The chief objective for all stakeholders of mentoring is for newer interpreters to be pulled up, not pushed down.

If either in the relationship has motives other than to pull up or based on unchecked assumptions, the relationship exists with a dodgy undertow.  Assumptions can occur on both sides of the relationship. Newer interpreters must “pay their dues”, “can’t possibly have Deaf heart”, “can never possess the foundations of what it takes to be a good interpreter from mere classroom learning”, or “are just in it for the money”.  Veteran interpreters “owe me”, “can’t possibly know as much as me since they never attended an ITP”, or “have been in the field so long, they can’t be up to date on current research.”

It is not my intent to insinuate that either have ulterior motives or agendas to push down. It is my intent to raise awareness of an effective and powerful approach to mentoring that pulls up all stakeholders of a mentoring relationship.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Members of professions (e.g., nursing, teaching, and interpreting) receiving mentoring, report that mentoring is a formidable and effective intervention for induction into an industry. For years, as Lynette Taylor in Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field reminds us, interpreters with more experience have been paired with those will less experience as a way to “navigate new waters.” We are where we are today, in part, due to mentoring by the Deaf community, agencies, and veteran sign language interpreters.

Unfortunately though, some also report being mentored in ways and by people who were untrained and unclear on the purpose and goal of mentoring. There are those who have never received formal training because it was not available or it was deemed unnecessary. A percentage of those may also believe that formal training is not an effective path to becoming an interpreter (or mentor.) This belief can permeate the mentoring relationship. Those who, perhaps, sought to mentor to further a gatekeeper role. Whether or not there exists a need for interpreters to become gatekeepers beyond those who truly own the keys and who live beyond the gates, this should not be done under the guise and pretense of mentoring.

Using ones personal or professional power to leverage control of someone’s dreams and goals can cause harm and ultimately does not result in any gains for society. Having the position power and exercising that ability to prevent access and advancement under the guise of mentoring is deceitful, defies the goal of mentoring, and is tantamount to abuse.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Not all mentoring should be altruistic but all mentoring relationships should be driven by an agenda that is co-created and negotiated, transparent, and authentic.

The foundations of quality mentoring hold a premise that a mentoring relationship is ultimately forged and maintained by open and honest communication. It would follow then, the lack of quality communication, communication conflicts, or even deceptive communication can set the stage for a dysfunctional mentoring relationship. Ott (2012) characterizes communication problems in mentoring as having an origin in intergenerational communication conflict, which may result in horizontal violence. Horizontal or “lateral violence occurs within marginalized groups where members strike out at each other as a result of being oppressed. The oppressed become the oppressors of themselves and each other” (Findlay, 2013). While interpreters are not, as a group, considered a marginalized group; many individual members are. Considering also that a large percentage of veteran interpreters have roots that are deep in the Deaf community either by familial, religious or other types of alliances, they have born witness to the impacts of others’ experiences and collaterally been harmed by their marginalization.

Ott sets the line of demarcation between generations of sign language interpreters at those who pre-date the requirement by RID to require a Bachelor’s in interpretation. Others have posited that line lies at the enactment of the ADA in 1990 or the establishment of ITPs as a turning point forever changing the landscape of interpreting. Where the line is that distinguishes generations of interpreters is open to debate and not the point of this article.  The reality is that the interpreting landscape has changed dramatically since those first days of family members providing volunteer services. There exists now an “interpreting space” (Taylor, 2013) shared by those who learned via the “school of hard knocks” and those who learned in a formal classroom. This is progress, right?

The paradox of progress is that to move toward one thing (pulling us toward a new understanding of professionalism), we move, or are pushed away, from another (our alliances with the Deaf community).

Unconsciously Competent

In the case of interpreting, progress pushed us away from the fledgling industry comprised of people with rich cultural experiences, knowledge of ASL, and values that were not formally or academically taught. Many of these early entrants into the field provided interpreting and are now the “veterans” who learned by association with members of the Deaf community who pulled up each and every person willing to facilitate communication. The learning was largely informal and by trial and error. Many mistakes were made; people were often put unwillingly and unknowingly in situations where irreparable harm could have been done (and may have been). Learning occurred as a result of these mistakes, not from an interpreter educator’s red pen or feedback on homework but during and after the work in discussions with consumers and team members. Learning occurred from those mistakes and veterans grew into the professional roles without ever stepping foot into a college classroom to study interpreting. Veterans could (and still can) culturally mediate and produce an effective product but can not explain how they did it. In a sense, veterans are, as Maslow (1940) would describe, “unconsciously competent.” Someone having so much experience producing interpretations, to the point of it becoming an innate task, characterizes this stage of learning. However, because they are unconsciously competent, they may also not be able to describe the discrete and multi-layered processes or decisions made leading up to the production of the task.

Consciously Competent

Herein lies a peek into what may be part of the communication conflict. Veterans are now being asked to mentor newer entrants into the field. Entrants who are afforded this opportunity based on that very same progress that pulled the field away from its cultural and linguistic roots. That progress that moved us toward professionalization of sign language interpreters was a result of ever-increasing academic and certification requirements. These newer interpreters lie somewhere on the continuum near unconsciously incompetent to consciously competent. These newer entrants to the profession have acquired a set of tools & processes, vocabulary, and research-based approaches & theories to be able to articulate the decisions made completing an interpreting task and analyze their work. They do this with a level of academic sophistication that can, as frequently reported, leave veterans feeling less competent or intimidated.

Mentors have frequently commented that “students can’t have Deaf heart” as if there is a formula or some secret membership card that they don’t yet possess. I challenge that assumption! In my experience as a mentor and educator, students in the program and just having graduated, may not have all of the cultural experiences that veterans do, but they definitely are passionate about the work, excited, enjoy socializing with Deaf people, and are still very interested and hungry for feedback from consumers. They are closer to having Deaf heart than many interpreters who have been in the field 5 years. It is then when we need to seize the window of opportunity, give them exposure to the community and culture that also paved the way for our induction into the field, and pull them up, as we were pulled up.  In my experience, that bright light dims after roughly 5 years in the field and seems to be replaced with the reality of the work, competing demands for time, or exposure to others whose light has dimmed or who may never had have a “Deaf heart”.

Finding Commonalities

Yes, our interpreting space and the landscape has changed. Let’s use this newer space and maximize the synergistic benefits for all. Veteran interpreters possess a different, and valid, perspective and ownership of the work. At the same time, newer interpreters possess a different motivation for having entered the field with a justifiable deep sense of pride in their educational accomplishments. The intersection of the two, provided by the mentoring relationship, can reap some very positive and mutually beneficial opportunities to unpack and discuss each other’s paradigms and to learn from and with each other. Find the commonalities!

As StreetLeverage’s mission is to effect positive change, my challenge for all is to leverage the powerful potential in the strengths and challenges of each group. What one set possesses, the other lacks. One set of interpreters possesses cultural and linguistic knowledge, experiences, and competencies. The other set possesses the academic knowledge, new experience, energy and enthusiasm.


Both veteran and novice interpreters have the same goal of wanting to provide effective interpreting. The best path to competency does not have to be recreating traumatic experiences for the mentees. Just as doctors used to give people a shot of whisky to pull out a bullet and saw off a leg, we too moved away from archaic methods and have made progress and created better tools to educate and mentor new interpreters. Pushing away the future of our industry does not benefit the community.  For all, incorporate approaches that pull new interpreters up and not push them down.

Pulling Up

Pushing Down Behaviors

Welcoming, open and authentic sharing of knowledge, information, and resources Withholding access (assignment, or consumer-related info)
Open and authentic communication throughout the process. Co-creating and negotiating motivations and agendas. Non-verbal & verbal behaviors (facial expressions, audible displays of displeasure, use of sarcasm and teasing, aggressive statements, etc.)
Sincerity & involvement in all opportunities. Accountability to the agenda. Undermining & sabotaging activities that make oneself unavailable for team support or deliberately setting up negative situations
Direct, authentic, and transparent communication. Posturing (infighting, deliberate betrayal, rumors, bickering, and unhealthy approaches to conflict management, not speaking directly to a person but speaking about them.)
Team accountability and discussion. Censuring (attributing the product of the teamed effort to the work of one person)
Respecting relationships and boundaries established as a result. Boundary violations (disclosing private or confidential information)
Inclusive behaviors Exclusive behaviors
Acceptance of a newer interpreter’s skill or knowledge deficits Intolerance for a newer interpreter’s skill or knowledge deficits
Embracing Intimidation
Supporting toward competence Blaming for incompetence
Validating experiences that got us both to this place Imposing one’s own experiences as the best or only route to competence

Adapted from Corgan, J. “Lateral Violence in Nursing”.

Extending a Challenge

My challenge to all –  PULL UP:

  • students, recent graduates, and new interpreters: pull them in early, while they are still so eager, willing, impressionable, and will benefit from your attention!
  • veteran interpreters: they have a wealth of experience, establish those invaluable relationships as early as possible and will benefit from your knowledge!
  • the entire community: we are only as strong as our weakest link!

As in the words of J.F.K., “A rising tide lifts all boats.”  Are you on board and willing to change the tide? Commit this year to entering into at least one mentoring relationship and pull up our profession!



Findlay, D. (2013). Kweykway Consulting.

Original Maslow, A (1940) replicated Broadwell, M. (1969). Unconscious Competence. Teaching for Learning (XVI). V 20 February 20, 1969 – NUMBER 41, (PAGE 1-3a).

Ott, Emily K., “Do We Eat Our Young and One Another? Horizontal Violence Among Signed Language Interpreters” (2012). Master’s Theses. Paper 1. 

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Mental Health Settings: Are Sign Language Interpreters at Risk?

Sign Language Interpreter Needing Support

Sign language interpreters are rarely equipped to deal with the trauma sometimes incurred in mental health settings. How can interpreters find support and prioritize self-care for themselves and their colleagues?

Friendlyville is a mid-sized city (population 85,000) in a Midwestern state with a Deaf (ASL) population of about 200.  Janice is one of the few RID-certified sign language interpreters in Friendlyville. She is the child of Deaf parents, and chose to become an interpreter after graduating from an ITP in Bigtown in a different state.  Janice works with a sign language interpreting agency in Friendlyville, and she tends to be called upon for the most challenging assignments.  She travels in a multi-county area, sometimes going as far away as Metrocenter (population 1.3 million), a distance of 120 miles from Friendlyville.

On July 14, Janice was contacted by the Emergency Department of the Friendlyville Community Hospital and asked to interpret for a deaf man.  Janice asked for specifics regarding the individual for whom she would interpret, but the person who called Janice stated that this information was confidential and she would need to sign a HIPAA Compliance form before any PHI could be released to her.  So, Janice arranged for daycare services for her two preschool children and rushed to the hospital.

Upon arrival, she signed the necessary confidentiality forms and was escorted to an examination room where she found Dr. Wilson and a 27-year-old Deaf man she had never met before, James.  Dr. Wilson had a notepad with which she had been attempting to communicate with James, but the attempts at writing back-and-forth had not been successful.  James had exhibited several violent outbursts (screaming and hitting the bed) but had not hurt anyone.

Since Janice had never met James before, she asked Dr. Wilson if she might introduce herself to him. The doctor agreed. As Janice introduced herself, she voiced for Dr. Wilson and tried to identify common “deaf introduction” items, such as James’ school background, where he had grown up, and the name signs of several local Deaf community members.  None of these topics elicited any “connections.”  Janice then informed Dr. Wilson that James was unknown to her.

Dr. Wilson informed Janice that James had been brought to the ER by police officers (who were still outside the door), and that he had been arrested in downtown Friendlyville while making strange noises and pounding his fists against the brick walls of a homeless shelter.  James was dressed appropriately for the weather, but had noticeable body odor and needed a shave.  His hands had some fresh bandages on them, but he was able to sign unimpeded.  No one seemed to know much about him, but he had a driver’s license which was used to identify him.  No outstanding warrants or medical history had been found on a quick records check.

Dr. Wilson began asking questions, and James’ level of agitation seemed to diminish in the presence of the interpreter.  James knew his name, but when asked where he lives, he replied that he has no home, that a flying object (spacecraft?) had brought him to Friendlyville, and that he had been forced to have sexual relations with unfriendly life-forms from another galaxy.  He was a Messenger to Earth and warned of imminent destruction unless all people on Earth agreed to have sex with the inhabitants of “Xylic.”  He also asked Janice and Dr. Wilson if they would like to have sex with him.

James’ signing was rapid and disjointed, and often it was difficult for Janice to voice for him because of his sign speed and the rapid changes of topics in his discourse.  She did her best to provide an exact verbal interpretation of James’ signs and the strange incidents he tended to describe.  James used some signs which Janice had never seen before, and when she asked him to explain he replied, “You’re stupid!  You don’t know my alien sign language.”

At one point in the session, Dr. Wilson received a crisis call and left the room.  As soon as Dr. Wilson departed, James exposed himself to Janice and demanded sex “before the doctor gets back,” adding, “we need to create offspring for the Xylic people.”  Janice handled the situation well – she immediately left the room and asked the police to step in.  She didn’t return to the room herself until Dr. Wilson came back and she was able to tell the doctor what had happened.

Dr. Wilson quickly arranged for James to be admitted to the hospital. Janice accompanied James to a locked treatment unit where paper work was completed and he gave a brief personal history.  He objected strongly to medication, but the doctor insisted that he MUST take it either through pills or through an injection.  James agreed to take the pills because, he said, “I hate needles.”

Janice left the hospital after several hours.  She had assisted by interpreting for James’ orientation to the rules of the Mental Health unit of the hospital.  She had also made arrangements to return for James’ therapy sessions and his medication management meetings with staff.  When she left the unit, she saw James sitting alone, watching a news program on television.

After leaving the hospital, several thoughts occurred to Janice:

– Did I do my job effectively and appropriately?

– Did James REALLY need to be locked up in that hospital?

– Did James get the same treatment as the other people on that unit?

– Would a CDI have helped with really comprehending James’ language?

– Does James really belong in that place?

– What will happen to him there?

– What if that had been my dad?

…and so on.

The Follow-Up

“What if that had been my dad…” begins to strike at the core of the issue, even if a sign language interpreter isn’t the child of Deaf parents.  What has been happening inside Janice’s own mind and heart are rarely part of the mental health services delivery continuum.  Social workers, counselors, and psychiatrists have professional support networks available to them where they can receive “supervision” from clinicians and colleagues, and where they discuss problems that are affecting them personally.  But interpreters are sometimes constrained from seeking personal support by obsessive adherence to a Code of Professional Conduct.

Sign language interpreters who have worked in mental health situations can probably empathize with Janice better than anyone else in this scenario.  Janice can’t get help from Dr. Wilson (who is probably too busy to offer the time anyway) or from other interpreters who don’t work in mental health settings. It’s not the same as educational interpreting, and it’s not the same as legal work.  It’s not even the same as medical interpreting.

This is not to say that mental health interpreters should not participate in their personal therapy sessions to better understand their own feelings and reactions to very non-traditional experiences.  Hearing mental health personnel may be accustomed to such things as patients propositioning them, but sign language interpreters are rarely confronted with such events when all alone, and such experiences may leave traumatic scars on a person’s psyche.

How Can Sign Language Interpreters Care For Themselves?

The major concern here is for Janice, and for the trauma she may have experienced through this event.  As shocking as it may be, sign language interpreters are human beings and, as such, they are vulnerable to psychic insult as a result of the work they do.  An interpreter does not usually encounter overt sexual trauma such as this as a regular part of a normal assignment.  In this case, events transpired which were unexpected.  Janice is unlikely to find much consolation from the mental health staff, since they are trained to deal with such events and may experience similar things on a fairly routine basis.  How can interpreters prepare for these realities?

Below you will find a few suggestions for interpreters in such circumstances:

1) Colleagues With Experience.

If an interpreter is fortunate enough to know other interpreters with a great deal of mental health experience, such people can be a valuable resource to tap into.  As with all such connections, of course, strict adherence to confidentiality and professional codes of conduct needs to be observed.  But codes of conduct do not prevent a person from discussing strategies or receiving the assistance and support they need to function as a healthy and happy interpreter and continue to provide a valuable resource to Deaf people and the larger professional communities.

2)  Debrief.

Debriefing with a supervisor or trusted colleague may offer an opportunity to share feelings and hear the perspectives of other professionals.  Care must be taken to preserve the confidentiality of the deaf consumer, as well as the reputation of other professionals in the incident.  Sometimes we have a tendency to take a judgmental position and offer advice in the form of, “You should never have done… .”  Not only is such unsolicited advice unhelpful, it does little to offer alternatives or solutions to the interpreter directly impacted by the incident.

3) Online Support Group.

A confidential online support group might be a possible solution, especially for interpreters who have few “local” resources, or when confidentiality would be compromised by using such resources.  Situations like a widely publicized event or involving well-known Deaf person(s), for example, might be better handled in a more anonymous setting online.  Each situation will dictate the best approach to take.

ITP Encouragement

Typically, Interpreter Training Programs don’t include much coursework on caring for one’s own psychological health (although this may be an area to consider for curriculum enhancement).  Seeking professional counseling from a generic therapist or psychiatrist is sometimes avoided because, “They don’t understand what I do as an interpreter, and I don’t want to waste expensive hours educating them.”  But even though a mental health professional isn’t an expert in Deafness or ASL, they are trained to deal with people who have had negative experiences, and they are usually well-equipped to offer strategies for recovery from such trauma.  ITPs would do well to encourage a commitment to one’s own health as a possible investment in burnout prevention.

Another way in which ITPs may assist is through offering advanced training to working interpreters, allowing them to learn from mental health professionals and other interpreters regarding situations such as those described here.  Better collaboration with professional communities can provide opportunities for all collaborators to learn from one another.

Mental Health Service Ineffective Through Interpreters

The incident described here with James is a classic example of an individual experiencing symptoms of a severe mental illness.  The fact that James is Deaf is really not the fundamental issue; James likely has a major mental illness separate from his Deafness.  This is an important distinction to make.  James was not subjected to anything unusual during the admissions process;  he was “treated” in much the same way as people with mental illnesses who can hear.  As he becomes stabilized on the unit and on his medication, he will probably benefit from interpreting services throughout the day.  But, as we know, it is unlikely that the hospital will provide such services as frequently as he needs them.  Because he will not be included in the daily interactions and communications on the unit (formal and informal), James will probably need to stay longer than most of the hearing patients on that unit.  Within a couple of weeks, however, James will likely be discharged to “somewhere” for community-based services.

Community mental health services cannot usually be delivered effectively through sign language interpreters, but in most communities, interpreter services are the only option. If mental health planners honestly asked interpreters, they would learn that sign language interpreters are wholly incapable of providing the same services to Deaf people as hearing people receive.  First and foremost, clinicians who are fluent in ASL are required to meet the needs of Deaf people with severe and persistent mental health issues.  Ideally, Deaf people who are in recovery from mental illnesses should be the primary service vehicle for other Deaf people.

In The End

As interpreters, we are part of some of the best, and some of the worst, times of Deaf people’s lives and, like it or not, we become part of those occurrences.  The impact that these events has on each of us can be personally and professionally profound.  Although we may tend to act as if we are immune from human feelings and reactions to things like child abuse, major disasters, addictions, marital disharmony, etc., it is vital that we take care of ourselves and our colleagues when asked.  We will not be of much value to our customers, our families, our partners, or ourselves if we ignore the fundamental humanity that makes us who we are and allows us to function as the consummate professionals we all wish to be.  It is hoped that this post will lead to a broader discussion of these issues, and to a solution that each interpreter can feel comfortable engaging.