Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters?

May 20, 2014

What actions can sign language interpreters take to put the Deaf community at the center of the profession? Dave Coyne explores how applying principles of social justice to our work can result in positive change.

The field of sign language interpreting still finds itself at a very serious and critical juncture as interpreters and educators attempt to put Deaf community members back into its center. Without considering the tenets of social justice and the perspectives of those who aim to proliferate it, sign language interpreters face the reality that they may be contributing to the oppression of Deaf people.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

-Desmond Tutu

[Click to view post in ASL]

A Critical Juncture

The aim of social justice is to prohibit privileged majority members from taking control – accordingly, a significant amount of guidance and support by those in the minority is needed. Social justice permeates daily experiences because practices, policies, and laws perpetuate the very existence of majority members. Though there is little space today for the appreciation of individual efforts toward justice, and perhaps less space to celebrate times of creativity, sign language interpreters need to create the capacity to give meaning to the Deaf experience in socially conscious ways.

Embracing social justice and incorporating its tenets at the center of interpreters’ practice moves professionals away from explanations that people’s outcomes in life (more specifically minorities’ lives) are merely results of their good and bad choices toward a position that highlights the strength and conviction required to create opportunities for positive change. Social justice works to include the experiences of others that showcase both social injustices as well as how to move us toward equality—in the case of sign language interpreters, this process is about keeping or changing behaviors that are supported by Deaf people and support their desires and goals to achieve autonomy.

What is Social Justice?

While the United States Government is responsible for ensuring basic quality of life for all citizens, interpreters know too well that people’s reactions to injustice in situations differ depending on their political background, media influences, and affiliations. Often we use the same terms to talk about differing scenes of injustice (political, social, economical, and the like). We find that these terms can be vague, meaningless, and often leave us with our wheels turning, but going nowhere. Although the terms justice, e.g., political and social justice, are often seen as interchangeable and often used synonymously, but they can also be defined as distinct terms concerning various inequalities experienced by minority groups.

But do not allow all of this wordsmithing to stop you—minority groups’ injustices (regardless of the realm they fall within) are about being targeted, discriminated against, and oppressed; often concerning power rooted in the social order of our society.

An important component of any social injustice is that conversations about minority lives are happening.

Maintain Fairness

Discussions guided by the uses of status, meaning the effects of today’s socially constructed hierarchies (i.e., social ordering), are real and important pieces in sign language interpreters’ productions of interpretations. Taking types of social ordering into account within interpretations can show us how status affects people (their views and how they are represented in the eyes of others, both individually and systematically). We are talking about reading between the lines of language use to show prestige, respect, and esteem for individuals.  In addition to this, those working with hearing interpreters are often from very different communities. To articulate accurate messages, we must consider the real challenges of attempts to maintain fairness based on the myriad relationships (which are symbolic of status used within the exchange) possible within situations.  Status can be used to maintain, leverage, and define the types of relationships between people, e.g., best friends, teachers and students, employees and managers.


Social justice is also a concept that deals with people’s actions to craft equitable opportunities for positive change (Rawls, 1971), so it is vital that interpreters work closely with Deaf community members to support equitable experiences.  These practices can include sometimes-controversial behaviors, yet are critical interventions of oppressive acts found within our professional role, e.g., advocating, supporting, educating. The more we shift control of our field to the hands of Deaf leaders, the less controversial our behaviors will become because appropriate actions will carry the Deaf community’s seal of approval.

On the other hand, pausing or avoiding behaviors that intervene oppression may actually prohibit various forms of respect for individual autonomy. The explanation behind such pauses/avoidance may be due to our understanding of ethical relativism, whereby those experiencing the injustice may have the right to determine right and wrong behaviors based on their cultural norms and individual contexts within situations. Perhaps some of us are too worried about doing wrong that we perpetuate current habitual patterns that support the status quo, and thus, inadvertently contributes to injustices.


Similar worries have given rise to growing public controversy surrounding political, social, and economic institutions, which have centered conversations on social justice since the late 19th century. Though these conceptions related to justice have been formulated and reformulated over the years, we realize that political justice generally deals with equality, while social justice addresses freedom (Rawls, 1971). These forms of justice are actually elements of each other and represent unique challenges of those experiencing injustices.

Because inclusion related challenges exist (which many minorities experience) the Deaf community faces similar challenges about involvement in conversations about roles of social structures.  Special attention to the needs of those we serve, as professionals providing a service, is vital.  These needs are a part of an overarching holistic understanding, not solely based on communication exchanges, because majority members (yes, even sign language interpreters) lack full awareness of experiences of Deaf community members.

So, while sign language interpreters work, they permeate participants’ experiences during the communication exchange. Working between two or more people communicating makes the use of status and its social roots (that are often unfamiliar to the parties involved) visible to the interpreter. All injustices are social in nature, even those within political situations, and are based on the relationships among those involved.  This makes interpreter’s positions in the interaction between people useful in working toward social justice (e.g., addressing, supporting, opposing). Again, most injustices experienced by Deaf people are types that interpreters will never fully ‘get’, because as hearing individuals, hearing interpreters may only have secondary experiences to associate with individuals who experience our world differently.

Social justice emphasizes that privileged majority members do not have full understanding of minorities. This makes minority groups’ involvement, guidance, and support with professionals serving them imperative.

Community Involvement

Of course both social and political justice need to occur under the eyes of the law, but we are far from achieving equality; social justice exposes social deficits and injustices that bring Deaf people’s experiences to the center. The social injustices experienced by the Deaf community create a call to action for everyone, reminding us that we are all part of a much larger battle. Liberating actions cannot be successful without true community involvement because no one can liberate themselves by their own efforts or solely by the efforts of others (Freire, 1971). Interpreters’ community involvement should include being a part of a force attacking the social injustices experienced by Deaf community members.

This support is pertinent in the lives of those we serve, and for most interpreters, this is as personal as it gets.

The Examination of Power

A multitude of personal and institutional concerns surround a fear that the behaviors of sign language interpreters’ will remain static despite the shifting needs of the Deaf community. One example may be the identified need to establish ASL as the language used at interpreting-related conferences as a norm and the historic struggle to achieve it. In the big picture, static and indifferent stances can stymy efforts to overcome systemic injustices (not that they need interpreters, but working both with and beside them supports their efforts tremendously). This makes social justice even more important. A position of indifference creates a critical need to examine the power, inequality, and transformational opportunities central to our work as interpreters in mastering language and culture.

This examination allows for the formation of a bridge between the need of social justice in the lives of minority groups and the practice of sign language interpreting (a significant influence within Deaf people’s lives). This bridge only holds if stakeholders are involved in its design. Grassroots reform movements have historically relied on strong collaborations among members of various groups that come and go from the lives of minority groups. Unfortunately for the Deaf community, interpreters’ involvement in grassroots reform movements are not a given; views of such involvement differ widely from interpreter to interpreter. Even interpreter organizations and educators vary widely in their stance on such involvement.

Both the positive and negative affects relationships have on experiences dictate one’s unique understanding of the world (Fairclough, 2001). Thus, the relationships that sign language interpreters maintain make their positions on issues of social justice even more vital because power struggles are bound to arise among participants who require negotiations through interpreters (this includes relationships between Deaf individuals and interpreters).

Therefore, an interpreter’s understanding of the Deaf community must extend beyond their own experiences, thoughts, and actions (majority-centric) in a way to support their overall wellbeing based on their understanding (minority-centric). The potential to build the bicultural attributes needed to promote the wellbeing of others lies within the social rules, experiences, and signed language of Deaf people, especially in matters highlighting social justice itself. Social justice begins by upholding the belief of minority groups on matters of equality.

A Conscious Choice

Exploring a sign language interpreter’s cultural competencies challenges them to understand their own position within situations as well as the positions of those involved. Critical language study expert Fairclough (2001) indicated that for groups to make real progress toward their liberation, social emancipation of minority cultures is essential. The first step for interpreters to support the progress of the Deaf Community toward equality is to openly evaluate and strengthen their own behaviors. 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 Education Programs.

The need to change the collective stance of interpreters has become a moral imperative today more than ever—this change begins individually. Sign language interpreters cannot expect those we serve to believe that change can occur for the Deaf community if we are not sure ourselves that such change is actually possible.  We must ask ourselves what we truly believe and understand that social justice leaves us with a choice. 

We have to choose to do something about how we position ourselves as professionals.

How can Deaf individuals trust that there is a modest level of integrity in interpreters if they do not see us learning and emulating models that aim to eradicate stereotypes, prejudices, and the discrimination of Deaf people? Exploring the dynamics of relationships among all ages, abilities, religions, races, ethnicities, social classes, sexualities, and genders is more crucial than ever to tackle the current injustices these members face; simply put, we should do this because it is the right thing to do.

Social justice moves us toward supporting autonomy and allows people to one day live in a world that provides unique spaces for minority groups to flourish. Understanding how Deaf individuals view social justice issues allows for majority members to begin looking at the unique needs of individuals, rather than viewing the whole community as another alternative group based on memorized knowledge about minorities in general (although important parallels between minority groups do exist).

The Prism of Social Justice

The concept of social justice wills interpreters to address current social challenges posed by policy, growing inequality, and social exclusion. Many sign language interpreters strive for social justice because of our unique position to witness injustices experienced by Deaf individuals. Examples of how unfair and avoidable differences lead to disparities in the lives of those we serve include how insufficient support and education in our country affects those who use sign language. I sometimes feel we fail to truly recognize and account for how Deaf people experience the world.

Delivering actions through a prism of social justice creates opportunities for positive change. When interpreters lack personal understanding—experience with and knowledge of Deaf culture—they tend to perpetuate, normalize, and widen the divide between hearing and Deaf communities. To avoid this, a framework of social justice minimizes disconnects between communities and positively influences the relationships between Deaf Community members and sign language interpreters.

If interpreters work in a dysfunctional manner (i.e., working passively and remaining unconcerned about personal involvement with Deaf individuals), they are likely to block the grassroots collaborations necessary for change to occur. If this happens, it means interpreters can become a social justice issue themselves. This brings the need for individuals in the interpreting field, and its organizations, to advocate for the equal treatment of Deaf Community members, and recognize their impact on the lives of Deaf Community members: civic, academic, and otherwise.

Continue the Discussion

Social justice is a part of on-going discussions about shifts in our work as scholars, practitioners, teachers, and policy makers. These shifts, in turn, will improve the lives of oppressed people—in this case the Deaf Community. Scholar Rabbi Tarfon perhaps best articulates the nature of this call to action, our task to join Deaf people in a wider battle toward equality for all communities, “you are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it”.

Let’s work together to get rid of structures of hearing supremacy (e.g., stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination) by ensuring professionals in our field uphold Deaf Community members’ beliefs and thoughts surrounding their own self-empowerment.



Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and power. Harlow, Eng: Longman.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. [New York]: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Rawls, J. A. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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28 Comments on "Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters?"

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Hi Mr. Coyne! Thanks for posting. I was just thinking about a situation I recently encountered and how I have handled it and how I should handle it. I am a freelancer who occasionally substitute interprets in a school district that has a high Hispanic population. The elementary schools especially are more of a bi-lingual environment with Spanish being spoken as often as English and with Spanish being the language of instruction in order to support the mono-lingual Spanish students. The heavily Spanish interactions in my community are also found in medical situations, counseling sessions, courtrooms, etc… As an English… Read more »
Eileen Paul

obviously what is needed is an interpreter fluent in Spanish and English as well as ASL. It iisn’t fair to you to be in that situation. You should make the case that they must identify an interpreter who can provide what the people need.

Shelly, Thank you for sharing your story. It appears your experiences are multicultural, multilingual and hold many intersectional relationships; multiple lenses to view our world. This story seems to emphasize our ever-changing world; our educational environments are simply no longer monolingual. You are working in an environment that appears to have demands that past efforts did not successfully navigate (e.g., requesting others to speak in English). These are indeed conversations about what others want from you and what you want from others. As the interpreter, you perhaps had one of the first reactions to the injustice experienced. I’m glad you… Read more »

Just for fun: Here is something I learned yesterday, because why not ask?!!! ;o):
“Yo soy interprete de signes” (may have misspelled)
pronounced : yo soy interpretay dey say-n-yas


Thanks for sharing! 🙂

Hello, and thank you for this article. A fellow interpreter and I were just discussing this very thing last night. Your last line really encapsulates the overarching theme of our conversation: “If interpreters work in a dysfunctional manner (i.e., working passively and remaining unconcerned about personal involvement with Deaf individuals), they are likely to block the grassroots collaborations necessary for change to occur. If this happens, it means interpreters can become a social justice issue themselves.” In particular we were discussing working in K-12 settings, where the parents typically don’t have the wherewithal to challenge the system their child is… Read more »
Hi there, Thank you for contributing to this discussion. I hope more conversations surface about our work and about the strongest force affecting our future leaders: our educational system and those who work within it. Of course, we don’t want to assume people want us to be an ally, but at the same time, we need to be lead by Deaf leaders who we work with and who we SHOULD be working with. We create more questions than answers (which is not a bad thing) and, often, we lack places where we may redefine our work – it makes us… Read more »
Eileen Paul
Important to understand that audism, like racism and other isms is structural. It is built into our society and how it works. And our society is structured to support the superiority of white people, and of hearing people. It is a question of power relationships and changing or shifting those relationships. The interpreter is hearing (so already superior in our structure) and then in a very powerful position. How can I as an interpreter do my job in a way that minimizes the power relationship, equalizes the power distribution and actually powers the Deaf person(s). It has to start with… Read more »
Hi Eileen, I agree that the myth of any sort of actual “level playing field” needs to be eradicated – we are indeed working within a skewed system and our attempts may be toward equity but that does not have to mean that its results will be the same as privileged folk. Only those experiencing the injustice can define it but where there is oppression there can be decisions surrounding social justice: oppression vs. social justice, adequacy vs. equity, equality of opportunity vs. equality of result. Your statement “How can I as an interpreter do my job in a way… Read more »
Hello Dave, I feel I am well-acquainted with (and advocate for) the ideals of social justice. I have an MA in theology from a school which claims to be a forerunner in social justice theology or the social gospel (e.g., Rauschenbusch). Indeed, social justice is usually a construct of social policy and social activism. As such, it is a macro-moral issue. Interpreters, in their day-to-day work attend to issues mostly based in micro-morality. In part, the contexts that we work in come with their own definitions of justice (often based on egalitarian, Kantian, utilitarian). As an example of such, in… Read more »
Hi Robyn, Thanks for posting. I have been thinking about your post today and keep coming back to your comment about hearing individuals’ approaches to injustices concerning Deaf individuals’ issues based in micro-morality. I feel that without the consensus of Deaf people regarding how it should be approached, we (hearing interpreters) may not be supporting their (Deaf individuals) aims surrounding macro-moral issues. I hope more locations, conversations, and acceptance of change occurs surrounding how Deaf individuals prefer interpreters to behave. In regards to your question, I feel that it is not about what they do, but how it is done.… Read more »
Caron Wolfenden
Hi Dave Waking up in the UK this morning and watching the results of our Council elections coming in, seeing the rise in power (in my opinion) of a political party whose underlying ethos borderlines on, I have grave concerns about the current climate of social justice and therefore equality. We are already working within increasing constraints of governmental cuts and starting to see very clever wording using the very framework of our political construct to work against equality…interpreters are being classed as support workers and thereby employment terms and conditions are being eroded to insist that ours should be… Read more »
Hi Caron, Years ago, I first started conversations surrounding these topics by calling what I saw happening (others’ experiences and political influences) “the ugly truths”. These “ugly truths” are real though, and take the form of positions becoming more like support workers (in the UK and here in the US). One current truth is that companies are seeing this trend in changing how they view our positions. Some companies are implementing the change by discussing our positions like support workers and changing titles/roles. It is already happening! Your example of the uninformed ‘advisor’ perhaps disturbs me the most, but emphasizes… Read more »
I have been thinking about Dave’s article (and this being his second or third on this topic – Thanks Dave!)… I am also thinking about Eileen Forestal’s workshop at Street Leverage Live where she provided a role play in which there were four individuals: An M.D., a deaf “patient”, a Deaf interpreter, and a “regular” (eg, hearing) interpreter. Watching this role play I was struck by how it shifted the power from the “hearing side” to the “deaf side,” or at minimum made the situation more of a level playing field. It made me ask myself: When interpreters are on… Read more »
Thanks for contributing, Gina. The experiences of the switch of power that you (and Eileen Forestal) described (and probably represent experiences of Deaf people everywhere) are perhaps are becoming some sort of new norm for hearing folk: some unspoken rule that at the end of arguments, hearing people have the final say and Deaf people need to follow rules to get through the system. If the interpreter doesn’t support or follow it, they can find one or many who will (is that the current definition of being neutral?). A scary thought is one where those who stay working in the… Read more »
Hello all~ Many issues were raised in comments above. I wanted to respond to some of them. 1. I think there is never a time without hope…as long as people are interacting and love one another and can tell the truth, there is hope for justice. Justice is based on truth and what we need is the truth: Deaf people have needs, have dreams, have abilities etc…and deserve the opportunity to live out those potentialities. 2. Interpreting as a profession in a broad sense is a quest for social justice. Our entire career is about providing access. A good interpreter… Read more »

“Why don’t we discuss specific social justice-related responses to the specific situations? K-12 is a whole other ball game from interpreting for adults. Yes, interpreters in K-12, I believe, do have a moral responsibility to educate those who know less (or nothing) about the issues the deaf child is facing.”

This absolutely resonates with me and my dissertation focuses exactly on social justice in the K-12 setting! So excited to see you mention this specific setting!

Julianne Bonta
I was very gratified to see this article, which prompted many thoughts for me. Thank you, Dr. Coyne, for putting it out there. My first thought was that social justice should be a concern for everyone. I would hope that any of us, witnessing social injustice, act to change it. In doing so smartly/well, context matters. In the context of an interpreting job, I believe the proper response of an interpreter is to facilitate communication, period. Doing so promotes social justice by setting an environment where language and communication presumably free parties to engage in higher level interactions. I prefer… Read more »

[…] Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters?  by David Coyne […]


[…] in addition to determining how/where to act in allyship1.  In recent years, the concept of social justice2 and community accountability have become central to the discussion about how we practice the work […]

Amanda Spangler

I feel interpreters should just be there to bridge the communication gap. Interpreters need to be careful and keep the tenants in mind when doing a job. If interpreters don’t and start to stray from them they could be affecting the persons social justice.


[…] Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters?  by David Coyne […]


[…] and if we fit into the Deaf and ASL-using community paradigm. As David Coyne wrote in his article “Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters,” “When interpreters lack personal understanding—experience with and knowledge of Deaf […]


[…] in addition to determining how/where to act in allyship1.  In recent years, the concept of social justice2 and community accountability have become central to the discussion about how we practice the work […]

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