#Doable: Creating Safe Spaces for Sign Language Interpreters

March 4, 2014

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.

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21 Comments on "#Doable: Creating Safe Spaces for Sign Language Interpreters"

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Jean, Thank you for your heartfelt and compassionate article. As I read through how TerpTalk came to be I couldn’t help but wonder if what you have created is filling a void that was once filled by our local professional organizations. While organizational meetings typically followed a more formal business format, the type of dialogue you are referring to is the type of conversation I recall having at some of these local meetings. What a beautiful way to connect the community on both a personal and professional level, embrace and support those new to the field, and provide a venue… Read more »
Jean A. Miller
Hi Amy- Thank you so much for your supportive comments. I agree that local professional organizations have and will probably continue to be avenues for these types of discussions to take place, depending on how active the organization is, the players involved, etc. My hope is that some of these informal conversations will lead to the more formal discussions and actions that might take place in our professional organizations. I’m excited to know that this might spark other similar discussion groups in other locations, much the way that Street Leverage has done in the last few years. I’d love to… Read more »

I had you as a teacher many years ago and can always say you were my favorite. You have the warmest personality. Your interpreting skills are incredible- I’ve never seen anyone even comparable. I was so happy to see your name on this article. You are an inspiration and I will always look up to you!

Jean A. Miller

Hi Karlyn-

Thank you for taking a moment to respond to the article and for remembering me so kindly! It’s been a long time, but I remember you from class and afterwards when you were interpreting locally. If you are still in the area, I’d love to see you stop by TerpTalk one month.

Maria Holloway
Hi Jean, Thanks for sharing your story about what led to the creation of the WestSide TerpTalk. You’re absolutely right…we all need a safe space to connect with other interpreters and to engage in conversations about our work – new and experienced interpreters alike. As a member of a full-time staff of interpreters, I feel very fortunate to have opportunities to engage in discussion with my colleagues on a regular basis. (I can only imagine how difficult it would be to do so if I were a freelance interpreter.) The fact that you were willing to draft -and share!- a… Read more »
Jean A. Miller
Hi Maria- Thanks for your kind words! I think you brought up an important point that I hadn’t really thought about when writing the article. I started my career working with other staff interpreters, as well as having other mentors available to me. I do think it makes such a difference to have access to other opinions, perspectives and eras of interpreting and going it alone can be so difficult! I know when I was freelancing that access had more parameters around it. I definitely feel committed to this issue – I think because so many people stepped up as… Read more »
Jean A. Miller

Hi all- I need to ask for a little forgiveness and correct an error that I made in my acknowledgements. In the article above, I mistakenly used Lydia Pickard’s maiden name, instead of her married name. Lydia Dewey Pickard, please accept my sincere apology for the oversight.


Hi Jean,
Thanks for sharing this article. I was surprised when I saw your name. I hope all is well with you.
( I agree with what you shared about Amy) I hope these terp talk colonies sprout up everywhere.

Jean A. Miller

Hi Donna! So good to hear from you!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts about Amy, too. She is held is such esteem and memory by all who knew her.

Colonies of TerpTalks! I love it!

Warm, Welcoming, Level-headed = Safe! YES! Thank you for the article, more thank you for the wonderful WestSide Terp Talk! As a PCC student I was one of the first to attend this great offering. I came away from the first meeting inspired, enthused, and encouraged. Also, I totally agree with the single location idea! As students we have so many homework due dates, projects, workshops, observations scheduled and needing to keep track of… this one-less-thing to be concerned about is wonderful. The venue is great. The talk is interesting, lively, and though provoking. Lucky us, and thank you to… Read more »
Jean A. Miller

Hi Misi-

Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and perspective on TerpTalk and for making it such a success! You and your classmates have been instrumental in building this dream. I couldn’t have done it without you!

Take care! I hope to see you soon!

Catherine Tabor

Greetings, Jean…
Thank you for sharing this article with the larger interpreting community. I am wondering if there has ever been a need within your group to set up discussion parameters…guideline or rules…to insure that ethical boundaries are not violated. I’m also wondering if anyone serves as a facilitator for the discussions, and if the discussions are all done with the whole group or if people sometimes break up into small groups. Finally, would it be possible for you to share a partial list of the types of things discussed in the group?

Catherine Tabor, CI, CT, SC:L
Ventura County, California

Jean A. Miller
Hi Catherine – I love your questions – they are really the details that define a group like this. I know that there are a lot of different groups out there right now – Street Leverage discussion groups, IPAHH-like gatherings and many others. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure what would attract people, so I decided to leave it a little bit open. As I indicated, I usually have some topic in mind – an article, a hot topic in interpreting – something that could spark a conversation and lead to other discussions. For the first few meetings, there was… Read more »

Thank you so much for sharing the birth story of Terp Talk, and the larger connections you have made about the need that this event and those like it fill in our communities. I also really love your VERY doable action steps–it’s obvious you put a lot of care, thought, and heart into this gathering, and it’s so helpful for us to be able to learn from your process.
You are such a bright light in our community–thank you for being a beacon for interpreters, fresh and seasoned alike. 🙂
Much love & gratitude,

Jean A. Miller


Thank you for your kind words. It feels so good to give back to a community that has given me so much in my career.

I’m so excited to hear about the possibility of other TerpTalks forming around the country. Honestly, if I can do it, anyone can! I believe the desire to connect is there, so I hope these easy steps will give folks the impetus they need to start!

Thank you, thank you for your generous support!




[…] Jean Miller offers suggestions on how to create safe spaces for sign language interpreters to connect and discuss the work.  […]


[…] Locations are already being created and discussions are taking place all over the country: Jean Miller’s TerpTalk or as suggested by Damita Boyd in her article, Cooperation Strengthens Sign Language Interpreter […]

Callan Reed

I admire the way that you honored your friend with such a wonderful gathering. It’s truly enjoyable to see how you’re helping the students and professionals connect. As an interpreting student, I have to admit that I get very nervous when I’m around deaf people as well as professional interpreters. I would love to have an opportunity to be able to see them more often to calm my nerves.
Thank you for implementing such a wonderful idea, maybe one day soon I’ll see something similar near me 🙂

Jean A. Miller
Hi Callan- Thank you for your note. Honestly, this endeavor has benefitted me in so many ways, I can only hope the others who attend get as much out of it. I agree that it is difficult for many folks whether they are new in the field or moving to a new city. The kinds of gatherings we had in the past are not happening in most communities so we have to be innovative and create those opportunities to help future interpreters succeed. Do you have a mentor or professional interpreter who might be willing to help you set up… Read more »
Kristen Callahan

I think this is amazing. I am an interpreting student right now and it does seem difficult to network with skilled interpreters that are welcoming and friendly. The idea of a gathering of interpreters to just sit and talk is a great thing. Interpreting seems to be a job that is done alone or in a team but only for a short period of time. I really believe that having interpreters get together with each other and with student will greatly help the field.

Jean A. Miller
Hi Kristen- Thank you for your comments. I struggled to meet professional interpreters as a student, as well. Don’t give up hope – there are plenty of people who will welcome you. Your job is to be sure to listen and observe those folks who are well-respected in your area and find out why they are and what you can do to be like them. Soak in their goodness and skill. If you think your area would respond to a TerpTalk opportunity, see if you can find a professional interpreter or mentor who is willing to work with you to… Read more »

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