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#iamleverage: Sign Language Interpreters Honor Their Mentors

Jonathan Ramos - #iamleverage tribute

Jonathan Ramos - #iamleverage tribute

As sign language interpreters, each one of us can point to a single person who most influenced our career. These mentors, formal and informal, extended us perspective and learning that has shaped our view of the practice of sign language interpreting. For this gift of career altering leverage, we are and will remain grateful.

[View post in ASL]

In an attempt to honor these quiet giants of the field, we invite you to grab your smart phone (or camera) and join with StreetLeverage to recognize these amazing people with a photo tribute.

StreetLeverage will be showcasing your photo tributes both online and at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 in Austin, TX May 1-4, 2014.

Here’s How it Works

1) Take a Photo. Have a picture taken of you holding an 8.5 x 11 piece of paper (landscape orientation) with the name of the person who most influenced your career written on it.

* The focal length of the photo and the size of the name on the paper in the tribute above works well.

2) Write a Description. Write a Facebook status description of approximately 35 words about how your mentor influenced your career.

* This step is not required, but encouraged.

3) Upload, Tag & Hashtag It. Upload your photo and description to Facebook. It is important to tag your mentor (if possible) and StreetLeverage. Also include the hashtag: #iamleverage

* This step is key. If StreetLeverage doesn’t know it’s there, we can’t showcase it.

It is our hope that by paying tribute to the mentor who changed your career, you will feel inspired. Inspired enough to extend leverage to a person who is following you into the field of sign language interpreting.


By tagging StreetLeverage on the photo tribute of your mentor you are granting StreetLeverage the express permission to share your image online and at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 May 1-4, 2014.


* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox?

Simply enter your name and email in the field above the green “Sign Me Up!” button (upper right-hand side of this page) and click “Sign Me Up!”

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Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for Language Competence

Sign Language Interpreter on a Quest

Developing fluency in ASL is a lifelong process. Marlene Elliot encourages sign language interpreters to remain observant, embrace linguistic diversity and practice incorporating what they see.

For interpreters, developing sign language fluency is work that is never done. This is true whether we are native signers or learned later in life. Some second language learners naively think that our Coda colleagues don’t have to work for their skills. My Coda friends have assured me, this is not true. As one friend said, “It’s not like my mother had a degree in engineering. I had to work for this!”

Potentially every situation we enter may have new content. We regularly encounter variations of region, race, gender, and age – as well as variations in residential school and community influence. How do we go about developing our fluency to work with all this variation? And once we have a modicum of comfort how do we sustain our efforts to continue to learn? It’s a process that never ends.


It starts with simply noticing. At least, that’s what I’ve found. The old adage that “the best way to learn sign language is to hang around with Deaf people” is still true today. That learning can be available to us every day. It merely requires us to engage and bring awareness to what is in front of us.

What you see may or may not match what you’ve been taught, especially if you’ve had formal education. This is an important point. Often we see what we’ve been taught to see, confirming what we’ve learned. If we want to grow it is most helpful to notice what we see that does not match what we’ve been taught. This is where the greatest potential to develop resides.

As a student many years ago I was taught to see Deaf people as belonging to one class or another –either English or ASL. It was the first thought in my mind when I met any Deaf person. Years of experience have taught me that this is not a helpful mindset.

I remember clearly an early experience where the concept failed me. A Deaf woman, whom I knew fairly well and judged as an ASL user, was in the middle of a long comment when she fingerspelled D-I-D. I thought it was the most English thing she could have done. I was completely thrown off! I was flustered and started signing straight English to her. In my either/or thinking I assumed that everything else I had concluded about her must have been wrong. Looking back on that day I am so embarrassed. I had so little language competence that I didn’t even know D-I-D is simply an emphatic in ASL. Yes, this was a student’s mistake but how many other similar mistakes have I made over the years without knowing it? I’m sure it’s too many to count.

Other things I noticed early on included the large number of sentences Deaf people sign in Subject-Verb-Object (S-V-O) word order. I was taught that ASL does not have S-V-0 word order so I saw every instance of this as an intrusion of English. How wrong that was! In the third edition of Clayton Valli’s book Linguistics of American Sign Language (2000) he states that ASL does have S-V-O sentences with transitive verbs (p. 134). That’s good to know! My noticing that S-V-O sentences were present in Deaf people’s language didn’t mean they weren’t signing ASL. It simply meant that I am less than competent in sign language myself and was depending on research to guide me. My noticing then shifted to learning when and where S-V-O sentences were present in ASL and how they are used. Since it is unlike English, where nearly every sentence follows that strict order, I had a lot of noticing to do.

Later on as I continued to work on my fluency I learned to shift my focus from sentences and began to study discourse. I learned to notice markers and social cues that I had previously overlooked completely. It was like a whole new world opened up. I call this the “new car effect.” As in, if you previously had a Ford but then buy a new Honda, suddenly you notice Hondas all over the place. You may ask yourself, “Where did all these Hondas come from?” In truth, they were there all along. You just didn’t notice them. So it is with language. So much is right in front of us and we don’t even see it unless we intentionally work to notice.

Beyond Labels

I once saw Carol Padden tell a wonderful story about an early research experience. She had passed out a survey to Deaf people asking them what kind of language they used. Among the options to check-off were, American Sign Language, Pidgin Sign English, and Manually Coded English. An elderly man approached Carol in a conundrum. He definitely wanted to participate in this research, elevating sign language and celebrating its status as a language, but he could not endorse any of the labels. American Sign Language seemed to represent the young radicals – that was not him. Pidgin Sign English was a foreign term to him; he couldn’t endorse that. He definitely didn’t want to endorse English. Also, the idea of not participating wasn’t an option either. He looked at Carol and signed, “I SIGN.” Just that, SIGN. In the past, all of these labels for types of sign language did not exist. This man came from a time where sign was just sign.

In some ways the modern labels help, but in some ways they hurt. I have found for myself that I am much better off if I simply accept that what Deaf people do is sign language. If I focus on that and the person in front of me I have a better chance of noticing and a better chance of using what I notice. I try to be with the person in front of me. When we move past thoughts of right or wrong, we are more able to see what is.

It complicates matters that today more hearing people have access to formal ASL instruction, and especially ASL Linguistics courses, than Deaf people do. Today it is not uncommon for sign language interpreters with not much fluency to judge Deaf people as “not ASL enough.” It sometimes seems things have not changed much from the old days when hearing people judged Deaf people by the clarity of their voice. This perpetuates the old dynamic – the hearing people with access to information, power and privilege judge Deaf people. This is another important reason to check our labels and our judgments and assumptions about those labels. Not only is this judging not helpful to the interpreters, it can be truly hurtful to the Deaf community.

If we can accept that each Deaf person is a legitimate variant of sign language just as each speaker of English is a legitimate variant of English then we are much more free to learn from the people we are with. I don’t have to speak English like anyone else; I speak like myself. So it is with the Deaf people. They sign the way they sign and we can learn from that. With each new person we encounter we increase the number of variations we are familiar with. If we notice well, we can constantly increase our repertoire.

Put it in Your File

Somehow I have to keep track of all that I’ve noticed. Once I’ve seen without judgment I need to know if this is just one person’s idiosyncratic language or something that Deaf people, in general or in specific sub-categories, do that I hadn’t noticed before. Your own archive can be either an actual physical file or simply a mental one. Mine is mostly mental. When I keep seeing the same thing repeatedly I can compare it to what’s in my file. Then I can fine-tune my noticing to when and where this new learning can be used.

Use It

Probably the trickiest part of developing greater fluency is using the things I’ve noticed. This requires becoming vulnerable because it naturally means over-using and using in the wrong places an aspect of the language that is new to me. Just as an English speaking child is likely to say “runned” when they mean to say ran, because they have over-generalized the rule of adding –ed to verbs to create past tense, so do I overuse what I’ve learned. It’s part of the process. I can’t get to fluency if I’m not willing to experiment with usage and make some mistakes.

Fortunately, sign language makes this easier on us since it is a natural feature of the language to share linguistic space. We all know that we have to “get on the same page” with other signers. What we often sign as MATCH, the two hands of the sign moving back and forth before coming together, is an important skill that cannot be learned from a book. It comes from experience. When we are on the same page with someone we can take what they give us – specific vocabulary, a style, spatial referents, etc. – and use it ourselves, adapting to the specific conversation. Taking specifics from another person in a signed conversation and building upon them is part of sharing the language. You may feel your signing is even changed by taking on characteristics of the other person. That’s good! This is the way we experiment, expand, and broaden our repertoire, by sharing language with Deaf people.

Understand the Limits

If we use academic resources to inform our growth it is crucial that we both keep up and understand their limited usefulness. The research process in any field means that people are developing hypotheses, testing those hypotheses, then reporting and interpreting their results. Some research affirms prior findings. Some advances prior findings. Some contradicts previous research and calls those former findings into question.

It is also helpful to understand the entire framework of the field of linguistics and the strong divisions within it. Robin Tolmach Lakoff wrote a brilliant summary of the framework and tensions within the field in the introduction to her book The Language War.

Understanding the framework of research and the academic world increases my competence because it frees me from trying to hold real live people to a hypothetical academic construct. Now when I have to choose between believing the research and believing my eyes, I trust what I see and the Deaf people who live the language every day.

Trust Your Eyes

In a previous article, Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for Cultural Competence, I talked about using our eyes and our noticing skills to improve our cultural competence. So too improving our sign language competence is always available to us. We can learn by this process – bringing awareness, dropping our labels and instead being with people, making mental note of what we see, watching over time what else we notice, and experimenting with using our new understandings to fine tune our usage. Of course, this is not a linear process. We can engage any part of it at any time. It can be happening any time we spend with Deaf people as long as we stay aware. It is always available.

All we need to do is bring our awareness to begin.

Posted on 19 Comments

#Doable: Creating Safe Spaces for Sign Language Interpreters

Creating Safe Spaces for Sign Language Interpreters

Creating safe spaces for sign language interpreters can satisfy a need for community, connection and cohesion. Jean Miller provides simple steps for creating a safe space in your community.

Throughout my career as a sign language interpreter, I have been fortunate to have the most generous and giving mentors imaginable. I have always had a safe place to land when I needed support or professional advice and have always been given room to grow as a practitioner and professional. While I didn’t set out to create a “pay it forward” opportunity, I realize that was exactly what this adventure had become.

A Deeper Connection

After working as an interpreter service manager for nearly a decade, I missed a deeper connection to interpreting and decided to find ways to reintegrate that part of my work life. Engaging practicing sign language interpreters and student interpreters in conversation, I found that there was a similar need to connect with other interpreters but very few ideas about how to create those opportunities.

At the same time, I noticed novice and student interpreters were finding it difficult to network with experienced interpreters which was leading to limited observation and mentoring opportunities (both formal and informal) and some disenchantment with what was seen as a lack of welcome for them in the field. This is a huge concern.  In Brian Morrison’s article, It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter, he discusses the need for all of us to participate in the raising of future sign language interpreters. Finding ways to bridge the gap between the students and the professional interpreters in meaningful and non-threatening ways is daunting, but not impossible. Careful thought and good intentions can take you farther than you know.

In November 2012, after the death of good friend and colleague, Amy Fehrenbacher McFarland, I knew it was time to act. Amy was a warm and welcoming interpreter, mentor and friend. She believed in reciprocity and mentoring and made student and novice sign language interpreters feel welcome in our profession and community. In some small way, I thought that I could find a way to honor her commitment to creating safe spaces for interpreters.  After gathering feedback from friends in the community, I developed a plan and set about implementing it.

The Birth of TerpTalk

WestSide TerpTalk was created in February 2013. It is a three-hour interpreter gathering on the first Saturday morning of the month in our local area. The gathering is “drop in” style and folks can stay as long or as little as they would like. General topics are related to sign language interpreting and the lives of interpreters but anything is fair game. While we don’t have a theme, I try to come prepared to open the conversation if needed. It hasn’t been necessary up to this point. Some months, the ITP students may come with homework or burning questions from their studies, but more often than not, the conversations are lively and free-flowing.

On March 1, 2014, WestSide TerpTalk celebrated a milestone – thirteen months and counting! We have had up to 18 participants with a lovely mix of seasoned sign language interpreters, newer interpreters and students. Interpreters have driven from across the state to attend our little group. Conversations have included interpreting Shakespeare, the recent Wall Street Journal article and response about sign language interpreters, the new NIC news from RID, the FCC summary from Shane Feldman at RID, local business practices and many other topics. Driving away from the event this past Saturday, I realized that my selfish plan to reconnect with my interpreter identity had become something completely different. In my tiny corner of the world, I have been able to put my hand out to help create a safe space for interpreters.

#Doable Action: Creating a Safe Space for Interpreters

If you are looking for opportunities to create safe spaces for interpreters and interpreting students, if you are looking to join the village in raising our future sign language interpreters or if you just want to reconnect with your sign language interpreter self, I hope you will consider creating a discussion group of some kind in your community.

What follows are suggestions for creating a discussion group in your area,

  1. Study the current needs in your community.

There may be other opportunities, but is there a gap? Consider days of the week, time of day, venues, static versus dynamic locations, etc.

WestSide TerpTalk is the opposite of our local IPAHH (Interpreter Professionals at Happy Hour). I didn’t want to take anything away from IPAHH, but there was still a need. For WestSide TerpTalk, we have a static location every time, set in the morning in a non-alcoholic environment. The goal is professional conversation so if a significant other or child is present, they should be prepared to endure shop talk. All are welcome – students, novice interpreters, seasoned interpreters, CDIs, as well as Deaf and Hard of Hearing community members.

  1. Consider venue carefully.

Do they have a minimum per person spending requirement? Do they allow “loitering”? What times of day would be most accommodating for the needs of your group? What is the parking situation? Will it fit the budget of students to well-established interpreters? Is the venue lighted well? Is there loud or live music? Knowing the reasons people aren’t attending other social opportunities helps inform you when creating a new one. Is there an area of town where sign language interpreters live but few events take place?

  1. Consider continuity.

The idea of going to a new place every month is appealing to some people, but for some, consistency is the key. In our busy lives, one less thing to look up or look for can be the determining factor in someone attending. For me, the ever-changing location of IPAHH is a deterrent, even though I acknowledge my desire for social connection with interpreters.

  1. Social Media is your friend.

Getting the word out on Facebook, Twitter or any other popular social media outlet will help increase your success rate. Set a date for the first event and start getting the word out well ahead of time. Include the location’s address every time.

  1. Enlist the local ITP for help.

Find out what their needs are and try to figure out if you can meet some of them. Ask them to post announcements on their events board – students are great at getting the word out about something that will benefit them in their studies and future careers.

  1. Patience is a virtue.

I was fully committed to showing up for WestSide TerpTalk for four months with book/journal/magazine in hand, just in case no one showed up. If, after four months of trying, no one ever showed up, I would know that this wasn’t what our community was looking for. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Thirteen months and going strong!

7. Choose a memorable name.

I don’t love the term “terp” as a general rule, but it came in handy when I was trying to come up with a name for the gathering.  I picked WestSide because we meet on the West side of Portland, Oregon.  TerpTalk was my other selection because I wanted the name to indicate that we were interpreters and we were probably going to talk shop.  Pick a name that suits your community, but make it memorable.  I am finding now, that many folks just call our gathering “TerpTalk”. I’m good with that.

8. Have Fun!

WestSide TerpTalk has allowed me to connect with interpreters I’ve known for a long time but don’t see often, with interpreters new to the area, student interpreters and interpreters I have known by name but had never met until they attended. It’s lively and fun and I find that I always leave with a huge smile on my face.

Final Thoughts

We each have the opportunity to create safe spaces, large and small, in the sign language interpreting community and everywhere. It doesn’t have to be complicated or grandiose. I’m very grateful to be able to have embarked on this journey.  In keeping with Brandon Arthur’s article, Sign Language Interpreters and the Karma of Gratitude, I’d like to take a moment to thank the people who have made WestSide TerpTalk such a success – Lydia Dewey Pickard and Erin Trine for making me think this crazy idea just might work, Portland Community College’s Sign Language Interpreter Program and the students who have faithfully attended since the beginning, and all the professional interpreters who have given their time and energy to supporting this endeavor and the intention behind it.