Beyond Ethics: Rules Versus Values for Sign Language Interpreters

June 17, 2014

Ethical dilemmas rarely have a one-size-fits-all solution. Amy Meckler explores the benefits of a values-based approach to ethical decision making for sign language interpreters.

When asked to consider an ethical quandary, most interpreters will give the same answer: “It depends.” Every situation is unique—a never-before-faced combination of demands and controls situated in a specific setting, among specific consumers and negotiated, possibly, between two or more sign language interpreters. While the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct provides guidance, it rarely can give a definitive answer to the question of what actions should be taken in any specific situation.

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No written code meant to guide ethical behavior could encompass every situation. What standard, then, do we use to make decisions in the moment, or to examine our behavior in retrospect, and that of our colleagues?

Consider this situation: During a medical appointment, the hearing nurse says, while examining the patient’s ears, “This is kind of pointless, since he’s deaf.  Wait, don’t interpret that.” What do we do? I, and I’m sure many of my colleagues, do interpret that whole statement, and everything else that we hear during the assignment.

Now consider this situation: During a medical appointment, as the nurse walks into the examination room the Deaf patient says, “Oh, not this nurse. She’s never very nice to me. Wait, don’t voice that.” What do we do here?  I, and I’m sure many of my colleagues, do not voice that statement. Why not? The CPC never distinguishes between Deaf and hearing consumers in its tenets; each directive regarding consumers is assumed to apply to all consumers, Deaf and hearing. And yet, I feel that both actions, though they seem conflicting, are the correct ethical responses to each respective situation. Clearly, the CPC is not enough to evaluate our decisions. Adhering to the CPC is necessary, but not sufficient, to truly conduct ourselves in an ethical manner.

The Values of Our Profession

We must ask ourselves, what values do we hold that undergird our work as sign language interpreters? How does our work as interpreters help create the better world we envision? How we determine our ethical duty in any instance must be filtered through these values. The decisions we make must reflect our higher sense of how we serve the greater good with our work.

The values of our profession are expressed in the philosophy and mission statements put forth by RID, and each individual practitioner has her or his own intuition of what values underlie their decisions. It is a worthwhile exercise to articulate what values you uphold as an interpreter. As I considered this question, I came up with this list:

  • Justice
  • Self-determination
  • Transparency
  • Using hearing privilege to benefit those who are marginalized,
  • Never being silent or immobile in the face of audism.

These are the values I strive to uphold with my work. When ethical issues arise for which the Code of Professional Conduct offers no clear guidance, I filter my possible actions through the values I hold, and make decisions that support justice, that resist audist assumptions and actions, and allow the Deaf consumer to make his or her own choices. While value-based ethical decision making is no guarantee of a practice that always leads to complication-free results, without second guessing in retrospect, it is a good basis for justifiable actions and offers direction where no other directive exists.

Value-based Ethical Decision Making

Let’s reconsider the scenarios I posed earlier. While the CPC sees no difference between a Deaf and a hearing consumer, using a values-based approach to these situations can explain why they feel different to me and many of my colleagues. When a hearing nurse speaks in front of a Deaf patient expecting the interpreter not to relay her statement, she is reflecting an audist society, where Deaf people are barred from accessing information on a daily basis, even information spoken right in front of them. When a Deaf patient signs privately to the sign language interpreter, he is building trust between him and the only other person who speaks his language in the room. Are the two consumers being treated exactly the same? No. But are both being treated justly? I believe so.

When a Deaf person sits in the room with a hearing nurse and a hearing interpreter, he can either be one Deaf person in the presence of two members of the hearing majority, or he can be one of two ASL users, sitting with a hearing individual who does not sign. I prefer Deaf consumers to feel the latter is true, that they are not alone, that they are not the only people who recognize the power imbalance that inherently exists in a society that arbitrarily grants one group privilege, and disempowers another. The old models of the interpreter as invisible, neutral and uninvolved have been debunked. The antiquated doctrine of decision making based on the standard of “what if I were not there?” is not only outdated, it denies reality. You are there. Your inaction is not a default but a choice. Inaction has an impact and consequences as surely as actions do.

A realistic view of our work, of ethical practice, is sign language interpreters making conscious decisions based on the required ethical standards put forth by NAD and RID in combination with the values that drew us to the Deaf community and the interpreting profession in the first place. As Dave Coyne states in his Street Leverage article, Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters, “Interpreters must be able to describe what kind of future they want. Can you describe to your neighbors, friends, and Deaf community members your vision? Can you think how behaviors, specific behaviors, may get you to that vision?”

Regularly Re-examine Our Values

Dennis Cokely wrote in his 2000 article, Exploring Ethics: A Case for Revising the Code of Ethics, “As individuals, and certainly as interpreters/transliterators, we face choices that can have profound effects on other people and their lives, choices of how we will or will not act in certain situations. The choices we make, and the actions that follow from those choices, can uphold or deny the dignity of other people, can advocate or violate the rights of other people, and can affirm or disavow the humanity of other people. Given the potential consequences of our choices and resultant actions, it is reasonable to expect that we constantly re-examine those values, principles, and beliefs which underscore and shape the decisions we make and the actions we undertake.”

Fourteen years, and a complete overhaul of the RID Code of Ethics later, Cokely’s words are still true. It’s worth asking yourself: will the action I take uphold or inhibit justice? Will my actions be transparent or shrouded in secrecy inaccessible to my consumers? Will my actions reinforce hearing privilege or help balance the power in the room?

Novice interpreters, experienced interpreters and students of sign language interpreting alike must ask themselves: What is my vision of the world as it should be, and does my work contribute to that vision becoming a reality?

 

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26 Comments on "Beyond Ethics: Rules Versus Values for Sign Language Interpreters"

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Member
Adele Harth

Thank you, Amy– that was excellent.

ameckler
Member

Thanks, Adele. I’m glad it resonates.

Member
I LOVE that you clearly debunked and demystified the “invisible” interpreter. Can I send this to every interpreter in the universe so as to make it clear that this is an IMPOSSIBILITY? It is difficult to believe that even in this day and age that interpreters still believe that hogwash. I believe that Deaf people have been marginalized for too long. I have seen it happen. I empower the Deaf themselves to DO themselves because they CAN. But if they don’t want to get involved or “make waves” I usually do take a minute to “educate” the clueless hearing client.… Read more »
ameckler
Member

Thank you, Kevin. “Social justice meter” is a great way to say it. Those interpreters who try to remain invisible out of fear or feeling conflicted are not in fact invisible–they are a living, thinking person in the room who is willfully doing nothing. They need to think hard on whether that choice really comports with their values. Thanks for your comment.

Member
julie berner

Amy….

thanks for this article. I look forward to using it in my classroom to spark lively discussion with my students.

ameckler
Member

That’s wonderful! I’m glad that student interpreters are considering these issues. Thank you.

Member
Raymond Baesler

I recently presented a workshop on the Demand-Control Schema and the shift in our profession from rule-based toward goal-based ethical decision making. Your comments regarding professional values as a part of that model fit nicely. I will be referring to your work next time I teach on this topic. Thanks!

ameckler
Member

Thank you! I love to hear how teachers will incorporate these idea in their classrooms. Let’s start these conversations early with student interpreters to grow a profession of value-conscious practitioners. Thank you for your comment.

Member
Kristen Callahan

I think this is a great article. As an ASL interpreting student, I believe these are things that need to be taught in the classroom. I like that you stated one of your values as “never being silent or immobile in the face of audism”. I think that most hearing people have no idea what audism is and interpreters, being bi-cultural, should be aware of this and make sure the Deaf client has equal and fair access.

ameckler
Member

Thanks! I hope these conversations are happening in ITPs, but if they’re not, we have to initiate them out in the professional world.

Member
Christine Walsh
As an ASL Interpreting Student we are currently learning about the Code pf Professional Conduct and how to apply in it real life situations. This article has brought up a lot of things that I think all of us need to consider and maybe have answers for ourselves as we head out into the workforce and start encountering these types of problems. We all have to be okay with the end outcome and know that we did our best for all involved in the end. I have to say this article really made me think a lot more about values… Read more »
ameckler
Member

It’s wonderful that young interpreters can start their careers already thinking about these issues. The next generation will undoubtedly provide more ethical service by carefully considering their values.

Member
I too am a student taking Introduction into Interpreting. Your article resonates with me. We were just discussing in class about interpreting what the hearing person says even though they ask for it not to be. We did not discuss if the deaf person says something that they did not want translated. I am grateful for another point of view of the situation. I try to consider all scenarios when we read about different situations and what I would chose to do. As our professor states some situations do not have a right or a wrong choice of action but… Read more »
ameckler
Member

Yes–I believe we have to lead our lives, not just do our work, with these values always present.

Member
Cayle O'Brien
As an interpreting student, this article really stood out to me. I often find myself asking questions on how to handle a certain situation. More often than not the answer is “it depends”. At first this was very frustrating to me, how could every situation depend? Can’t I just have an answer? Now that I am further along in the program I finally understand and can completely agree, it does depend. No two situations are the same. You need to analyze every scenario and decide the appropriate course of action to take. The CPC is not an answer sheet, but… Read more »
ameckler
Member
While there are certainly some acts that would be clearly in violation of the CPC and unquestionably unethical, you’re more likely going to come across situations that have so many factors and nuances that there’s no clear answer. In those situations I try to trust my gut, because my gut is most in touch with my values. The better we understand our own values, the better we can make the “gut-right” decision in the moment. I’m glad students are thinking about these issues. It’s daunting to think of how many difficult situations we will confront in our careers, but we… Read more »
Member
Kayla Fairbrother

I am also currently an interpreting student and I really enjoyed reading this article. In one of my classes we learn about the CPC and all seven tenets. We are given scenarios and we have to choose what we would do if we were in that specific situation. After reading this article, I never thought of the point of view of a Deaf person not wanting something to be voiced. You have to make the right approach to each situation and the CPC is certainly a helpful guide.

ameckler
Member
I think you’ll find that, as a guide, the CPC is only helpful to a point. Certainly it has some clear boundaries and prohibitions, like revealing the names of your consumers and accepting jobs for which you are unqualified. When it comes to less clear-cut issues, like the one you mention regarding not voicing what the Deaf consumer signs, the CPC is silent. That’s when value-based ethics is most valuable. Most ethical issues are fuzzy and hard to respond to in the moment. Developing an ethical intuition can help guide you in these sticky situations. Good luck with your studies!
Member
Colleen Geier
I teach at an interpreting program and what I hope my students will always keep in mind is this: “How would you want the interpreter to behave if it were your Deaf mom, or Deaf brother? Are you being the interpreter you would want them to have?” Even in terms of ethics, are you being the interpreter you would want if you were Deaf? Would you want that interpreter to talk about your private issues? Make decisions for you? Treat you as if you were less important or capable than the hearing person in the room? These guiding questions won’t… Read more »
Member
Becky Szeghi
Amy I thoroughly enjoyed your article. When I went to college for my ITP degree we were taught to be that “invisible” presence at the assignment, which is impossible. I especially liked the idea of a “balance of power.” If I remain un-involved and neutral during an assignment, there is a good chance my actions will reinforce the hearing privileged. I want to be the person who comes along side the Deaf consumer and becomes “one of two ASL users, sitting with a hearing individual who does not sign.” It definitely shifts the “power of the privileged” to a more… Read more »
ameckler
Member

Thanks, Becky! ITPs need to rethink how they teach ethics, indeed, how they teach everything about our practice, if they haven’t already. The model of the invisible interpreter needs to be put to rest. I appreciate your comment. Thank you.

Member
Alexander Postilio

This is a big thing I’m learning abut in my interpreting class this year and feel that ones values are always being affected by what the profession looks at as a rule. This article really helps put some things into perspective. One really needs to have everything working in their head to determine what is right for the situation they find themselves in.

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[…] language interpreting (Bienvenu, 1987; Cokely, 2000; Dean & Pollard, 2013), including here on Street Leverage (Meckler, 2014). My research attempted to take what we know about values and collect information via an online […]

Member

Thank you Amy. I am going to use this as a part of my presentation at the upcoming International Deaf Muslim Conference.

ameckler
Member
Amy Meckler

I’m so glad to hear that! Best of luck with the conference.

Member

I am currently in college for ASL Interpretation and I have a paper due soon, I was hoping to pick someone’s brain about the topic I have chosen. If anyone is able to help me with my question I would appreciate it, it has a lot to do with the code of ethics and a potential violation.

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