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Institute on Legal Interpreting: Backstage Access for Sign Language Interpreters

Anna Witter-Merithew Bids Farewell to ILI Attendees

Anna Witter-Merithew Bids Farewell to ILI Attendees

Is it possible to create a learning environment that effectively supports taking 220+ sign language interpreters on a guided exploration of their work, while offering real-world advice on how to enhance this work, and do it all in three days? Prior to attending the 2014 Institute on Legal Interpreting (ILI) in Denver, Colorado August 21st-23rd, I would have said, Possible? Yes. Likely? No.

If you attended the 2014 ILI you know, not only is it possible, it happened and was amazing!

Behind the Scenes

StreetLeverage is excited to have partnered with Anna Witter-Merithew and the good folks at the MARIE Center to extend backstage access to the 2014 ILI. What follows is a summary of the StreetLeverage coverage.

How ILI Got Started

Anna Witter-Merithew sat down and shared how the Institute on Legal Interpreting got started, the important role of Deaf interpreters at ILI, and the significant contribution made by Diane Fowler in the promotion of advanced legal training for sign language interpreters.

Anna Witter-Merithew Sits Down With Brandon Arthur From StreetLeverage


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Setting the Tone

During any type of guided exploration, it is important to set a tone of collaboration and safety. This task was left to keynote speakers and meta facilitators, Carol-lee Aquiline and Sharon Neumann Solow.

They sat down and shared their hopes for conference attendees and their excitement to see Deaf and Hearing interpreters exploring strategies to effectively work together.

Carol and Sharon 2

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You can watch both their keynote and endnote addresses below.

Keynote | Looking Out – Looking In – Reaching: The Role and Function of Critical Analysis of Interpreting Performance

Keynote Address: Carol-lee Aquiline and Sharon Neumann Solow

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Endnote | Looking Out – Looking In – Reaching: Next Steps

Carol-lee Aquiline and Sharon Neumann Solow - Endnote Address

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Interpreters at the Core

At the center of the conference was the examination of the work of 5 teams of sign language interpreters comprised of Deaf-Hearing and Hearing-Hearing interpreters. This served as the basis of examination for all sessions and group discussions.

These good interpreters shared insights into their teaming and work experience during two panel sessions. You can watch them here:

Panel One: Deaf-Hearing Interpreting Team Reflections

ILI Panel One: Reflections on Deaf and Hearing Interpreter Teams

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Panel Two: Deaf-Hearing Interpreting Team Reflections on Preparation Sessions

ILI Panel Two: Deaf-Hearing Interpreter Team Reflections on Preparation Sessions

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Better with a Deaf Team

A prominent theme running throughout the conference was the importance of Deaf and Hearing interpreters working together effectively as a team. Jimmy Beldon, Carla Mathers and Kelby Brick share insights into how to this can be done effectively.

Jimmy Beldon Offers Insight on Supporting Deaf Interpreters and the Importance of the ILI

Jimmy Beldon Offers Insight on Supporting Deaf Interpreters and the Importance of the ILI

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Carla Mathers Shares About the Work of Bringing the 2014 ILI to Life

Carla Mathers Shares About the Work of Bringing the 2014 ILI to Life

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Kelby Brick Sits Down With Brandon Arthur at the 2014 ILI

Kelby Brick at the 2014 ILI Conference

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The Diane Fowler Award

With the passing of Legal Eagle, Diane Fowler, founder of the Iron Sharpens Iron conference (the precursor to the ILI), the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Legal Interpreter Member Section (LIMS) Chair, Liz Mendoza, announced the establishment of the Diane Fowler Award.

Liz Mendoza Announces the Creation of the Diane Fowler Award

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There are a couple of real standout developments at the 2014 ILI.  The ILI had 54 Deaf interpreters attend over the weekend. This is the largest of gathering of Deaf interpreters in the field in recent memory (maybe, ever). Perhaps, it is because, in the words of Jimmy Beldon, “The ILI is a ‘home’ for CDIs.”

Deaf Interpreters at the 2014 ILI

The 2014 ILI had 26 facilitators working throughout the weekend in order to support and encourage meaningful discussion and learning. These folks deserve a medal of honor for their tremendous work.

2014 ILI Facilitators


The coverage at the Institute on Legal Interpreting was only possible with the support of several amazing and talented people. I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to those magic makers that brought the ILI coverage to life.

StreetTeam - 2014 ILI






Special thanks (left to right) to: Lance Pickett, Jean Miller, Kristy Bradley, John Lestina, and Wing Butler (not seen here).


I would like to extend my thanks to Anna Witter-Merithew, Carla Mathers, and the good folks at the MARIE Center for their vision and the opportunity to partner with them to extend the reach of the ILI to the broader Deaf and sign language interpreting communities.

Brandon Arthur | Closes up the StreetLeverage Coverage of the 2014 ILI

Brandon Arthur Closes up the StreetLeverage Coverage of the 2014 Institute on Legal Interpreting


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Are Hearing Interpreters Responsible to Pave the Way for Deaf Interpreters?

Hearing Sign Language Interpreters Advocating for Deaf Interpreters

Although the number of Certified Deaf interpreters continues to grow, there remains misunderstanding about their role, as well as a shortage of work. Anna Mindess discusses the unique skill set that Deaf interpreters bring to the profession and actions hearing interpreters can take further the inclusion of Deaf interpreter colleagues.

Deaf interpreters are marching up the road to take their place as equal and valued professionals alongside their hearing counterparts. As more Deaf interpreters are trained, become certified and collaborate with hearing teammates, it will inevitably alter our way of working. We can welcome this evolving development and cherish the new opportunities it brings or dig in our heels and resist.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Two Street Leverage posts have addressed the gathering momentum of this movement. In Deaf Interpreters in the Blind Spot of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession, Jennifer Kaika documents the increasing numbers of Deaf interpreters and challenges us to support Deaf interpreters as “a long-standing and lasting part [of our profession], present since the inception of RID.” In Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion, Nigel Howard, a Deaf interpreter himself, urges us to truly realize a team approach by “working together toward a shared and collaborative target language interpretation that is an equivalent to the source language.”

Recently, when revising my book, Reading Between the Signs, for a new edition, I added a section on Deaf interpreters. With the book’s focus on the cultural aspects of our work, it struck me that the resistance some hearing interpreters seem to feel to this “new” development in our field, might be rooted in cultural values (more about this later). First, let’s confirm the fact that Deaf interpreters belong to a tradition with deep roots.

Long Tradition

Eileen Forestal, a Deaf interpreter who has been at the forefront of research and training, contributed a chapter to the new book, Deaf Interpreters at Work: International Insights. While awarding official certificates to Deaf interpreters may be a relatively recent development, Forestal writes that, “as long as Deaf people have existed, they have been translating and interpreting within the Deaf community.” It goes back to the residential schools, where “Deaf children, both in and out of the classroom, would frequently explain, rephrase, or clarify for each other the signed communication used by hearing teachers.” Once out of school, this supportive activity did not cease. “Deaf persons would interpret for each other to ensure full understanding of information being communicated, whether in classrooms, meetings, appointments, or letters and other written documents” (Forestal, 2014, 30).

My Experience

Researching the history of Deaf interpreters allowed me to look back at my own career and see it through different eyes. After discovering the Deaf World via theater in the mid 1970’s when I was an actress in Los   Angeles, I found CSUN where I took all four(!) classes offered at the time: ASL 1 and 2 and Interpreting 1 and 2.

Clearly, I was not prepared to work as a sign language interpreter, but with encouragement from my Deaf theater friends, I cautiously began community interpreting. In hindsight, I recall that at several Social Security or VR appointments, the Deaf person I was supposed to meet brought a “Deaf friend.” And if my interpretations were not clear enough, the friend would succinctly convey the point, assuming the role of unofficial “Deaf interpreter.”

In the mid-1980’s, I got a full time job at a large TDD distribution center in downtown Los Angeles to handle the crush of new customers thrilled to get the latest communication devices. When walk-in customers arrived, my co-worker, a Deaf woman named Sue Lee, would greet them and demonstrate their choice of equipment. My job was to interpret the registration process between Deaf customers and the hearing phone company reps on-site. As LA is a city of immigrants, it often happened that the Deaf person and I needed some extra help going over the rules of the program. I’d ask Sue to join us and she would come up with a way to best convey the information. Once again, everyone benefitted from the skills of a “Deaf interpreter,” although we didn’t label it as such at the time.

After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, I continued community interpreting, but returned to CSUN in 1991 for a 6-week course in legal interpreting. Our class of two-dozen seasoned interpreters included 3 Deaf interpreters and we enjoyed figuring out how to best work together in the legal scenarios we practiced.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve specialized in legal interpreting and often team with Deaf interpreters (now CDIs). Most of my peak moments interpreting have occurred while collaborating with a Deaf interpreter to achieve the shared goal of optimal understanding.  To me, it feels like dancing with the perfect partner. Having the benefit of teaming together repeatedly, we can often anticipate each other’s needs and intentions and seamlessly move as one.

For a new chapter in my book, I interviewed five very skilled Deaf interpreters with whom I have had the privilege and pleasure of working in court: Linda Bove, Daniel Langholtz, Priscilla Moyers, Ryan Shephard and Christopher Tester.

What We Found

Probably the Deaf interpreter’s most important skill is the ability to provide language access to a range of Deaf clients. But since the theme of my book is culture and my space was limited, I narrowed my focus to cultural aspects of Deaf interpreters’ work.

In analyzing the techniques DIs used for cultural adjustments, we discovered that besides the same kind of adjustments that hearing interpreters employ (including those I previously labeled “Highlighting the Point,” “Context Balancing,” and “Road Mapping”) Deaf interpreters also employed several other techniques, which we tentatively called “Empathy,” “Setting the Stage,” “Directive Form,” “Deaf Extra Linguistic Knowledge,” “Enlarging the Perspective” and “Deeper Understanding.” Further research will undoubtedly refine, redefine, and add to this initial attempt at classification.

Cultural Adjustments Only Deaf Interpreters Can Make

This discussion about techniques may prompt you to wonder, “Why can’t hearing interpreters just learn to do whatever the Deaf interpreters (DIs) are doing?”

In his seminal chapter, “Deaf Interpreters,” Patrick Boudreault, specifies that besides having sign language as a first language, DIs “share the Deaf experience with the Deaf consumer; this ‘sameness’ is an important factor in establishing rapport and communicating effectively.” He adds that the cultural identification “can generate a sense of empowerment within the Deaf consumer with which to express her thoughts to other people whom she could not previously communicate with” (Boudreault 2005, 335).

A classic example of “Directive Form” in legal settings occurs when a line of questioning posed to a Deaf witness requires only “yes” or “no” answers. Since ASL is highly dependent on context, the witness is often tempted to add some background which he or she probably assumes will clarify the “yes” or “no.”

Sometimes a reminder from the attorney or judge is all that is necessary for a Deaf (or hearing) witness to reluctantly confine their answers to a single word or sign. But it often happens that the Deaf witness repeatedly tries to include additional context in their answer. In these situations, I’ve seen DIs sign a very direct, ASK-YOU-QUESTION, ANSWER YES, NO, FINISH PERIOD. [The question.] ANSWER YES, NO, WHICH?

In this instance, it seems that coming from another Deaf person, the directive style is accepted, but if a hearing interpreter delivered the same command it could well be perceived as patronizing or controlling.

In Deaf Interpreters at Work, the authors describe a division of strengths: “DIs have a better understanding of sign language nuances, hearing interpreters have a better understanding of spoken language nuances…”(Adam et al. 2014, 7). This would naturally extend to nuances of cultural expectations. With mutual respect, these distinct spheres of expertise can become a source of synergy.

Here’s the Problem

This is a fascinating area of study and fertile ground for more research. But presently there are more pressing obstructions and potholes in the road ahead for CDIs.  I’ve seen many CDIs describe their determination to get trained and become certified, only to find that they cannot get enough work to make a living (unless, perhaps, they are willing to zigzag across the country to follow the work). So things may be changing, but at a snail’s pace.

I don’t believe that hearing interpreters have the luxury to shrug off this situation and stand by “neutrally.” It is up to us–the majority–to enable this transition and encourage the use of CDIs. Although the Deaf consumer sometimes requests a CDI, most often the hearing interpreter acts as first responder and gatekeeper. If communication is not going smoothly, we need to be honest with our clients and ourselves, stop the transaction and explain the need for a CDI.

This post ends with a few actions each of us can take to further the inclusion of DIs in our profession. But first, another bump in the road: our own attitude. Are we open, proactive, apathetic, threatened or resistant to increasing numbers of Deaf interpreters?

Taking Responsibility

As an interculturalist, I often look beneath the surface to see if there might be a cultural basis behind a persistent conflict. In collectivist Deaf culture, ensuring that the rest of the group has full access to information is a primary value.  For those hearing interpreters who feel threatened by the influx of Deaf interpreters, I wonder if this could this relate to the competition that permeates American culture or the value we place on individual accomplishments? Is it our fear of judgment?  Not wanting to give up our power?

Why does asking for a language specialist to bring expertise to a tough situation make some hearing interpreters feel like they are admitting failure or deficiency? Can we shift that view to see that together we can co-create meaning and provide the best possible language and cultural access?

5 Steps You Can Take:

1)     Take a workshop or class in teaming with DIs. If you can’t find one in your area, organize one.

2)     Find out who are the CDIs closest to your location. Make contact with them; ask for their availability and any special areas of expertise.

3)     Ask agencies you work for if they have contracts with CDIs. If not, urge them to put everything in place. (Often when a CDI is needed, it is discovered during an assignment with some urgency, e.g. medical or legal).

4)     Recognize the, often subtle, signals that a CDI is needed in a specific situation or for a certain Deaf consumer, (e.g., head nodding, repeating back your signs, reticence to reply in depth). Ask yourself, “Am I ‘working too hard’ to get the meaning across or fully understand the signs I see?”

5)     Be brave enough to stop the proceeding and explain why a language specialist (CDI) is required. Give appropriate resources, if needed. Stand firm; it may not feel comfortable.

What else can we do to bring Deaf interpreters back into their traditional cultural roles?




Adam, Robert, et al. “Deaf Interpreters: An Introduction.” In Deaf Interpreters at Work, edited by Robert Adams, Christopher Stone, Steven Collins, and Melanie Metzger. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Press, 2014

Boudreault, Patrick. “Deaf Interpreters.” In Topics in Signed Language Interpreting, edited by Terry Janzen, Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2005.

Forestal, Eileen. “Deaf Interpreters: The Dynamics of their Interpreting Processes.” In Deaf Interpreters at Work, edited by Robert Adams, Christopher Stone, Steven Collins, and Melanie Metzger. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Press, 2014

Howard, Nigel. “Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion.” Street Leverage, April 16, 2013,

Kaika, Jennifer. “Deaf Interpreters: In the Blind Spot of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession.” Street Leverage, March 6, 2013,

Mindess, Anna. Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters, 3rd edition, Boston, MA, Intercultural Press (forthcoming, October 2014).

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Sign Language Interpreters: Attire Leaves a First & Lasting Impression

We only get one chance to make a first impression. This article explores how interpreter’s attire choices are more than just a reflection of themselves, and provides one question every interpreter should ask before stepping out the door.

Do you mind your ABCs (Appearance, Behavior, and Communication) as you prepare for every assignment? Can you think of an interpreter who has professionally mastered her or his ABCs and the impact that mastery has had on the Deaf community members with whom that interpreter has worked? What about an interpreter who exhibits what are referred to as Toxic Traits?1 These may include a “way of being” that drains the energy in the room, dandruff, bad breath or body odor, hair dyed unnatural colors, cleaning teeth or biting nails in public, entering a room with more bags than your local grocer, loud makeup, dangling or sparkly accessories, wrinkled clothing, bright nails or French manicures, worn out shoes, and/or an appearance that is inappropriate for the given environment. Dare we say that every practitioner out there has a Toxic Trait story to recall? This begs the question: did you say something to the Toxic Trait offender?

[View post in ASL]

We have been conditioned over the years to believe that someone else will handle it: our team will tell us if we cross the line ethically, Deaf people will tell us if they don’t like our clothing or accessories, and RID will manage ethics and punitive measures.  Someone else will tell me if my appearance disempowers the Deaf person(s) in the room.  What if you’re that “someone else”?  Consider this a call to action, to collectively shift our culture to one of appearance accountability: both for ourselves and for one another.

The impetus for this article comes from nationwide conversations with consumers and colleagues.  In 2012, we gave a presentation to 70+ ASL interpreters, designed in response to the trend of interpreters’ appearance and attire selections reflecting poorly upon the Deaf community.  We believe this topic isn’t being taken seriously enough given the consequences it carries. Our hope is that by the end of this article, you’ll understand how the inappropriate appearance choices of sign language interpreters serve to further oppress Deaf people, potentially limiting their workforce participation and mobility.

Why First Impressions Are So Important

It’s no secret that outside of our community, the field of sign language interpreting is not yet fully accepted as a legitimate profession.  We struggle for consistency and predictability in our national testing system, our business practices vary from one practitioner to the next, our ethical code prescribes behaviors instead of enumerating bedrock principles, etc. How many times have you been asked whether or not you’re the Deaf patient/candidate/employee’s relative?  Like it or not, the non-deaf majority sees us more as an extension of Deaf people than as professionals performing a cognitively complex task.

When we presented in 2012, we sought testimonials and perspectives from Deaf consumers and our colleagues to share.  We find what Dennis Cokely had to offer particularly poignant:

“It is certainly undeniable that society in general has become much more casual in dress and “casual Fridays” have, like a virus, crept into the rest of the work week.  I think this has given many interpreters “permission” to dress and act much more casually than I think they should. … The fact of the matter is that interpreters are definitely seen by society at large as aligned with Deaf people and present to help Deaf people; this despite our assertions that we are “neutral” and are there to serve both parties.  Society in general certainly believes that it is Deaf people who need interpreters, not the hearing bankers, lawyers, doctors, sales clerks, teachers, counselors and wait staff Deaf people are interacting with.  Society in general judges Deaf people by the company they keep – and that company is US!!!!”

In 2012, Anna Witter-Merithew shared this perspective in a post (note Anna’s comment on January 18, 2012 at 12:16am): “How we dress does impact on how we are perceived AND how deaf people are perceived. …Dressing according to the system norms is one way to improve how we are perceived in that system.”2  It is fair to say, from Anna and Dennis’ thoughts, from empirical research about impressions, and from our collective observations, that our appearance and behavioral decisions reflect upon Deaf people, for better or worse.

Research tells us that “others immediately form stereotypical associations about you that are frequently emotionally based, and that once those impressions are formed, others’ rational and emotional brains seek to validate those impressions.”3  Studies show that you have as few as six seconds4 when you meet someone to create a lasting impression.  This impression will impact their relationship with you and, more importantly, with the Deaf individual for whose interview/appointment/etc. you’re booked to interpret.  “After the fact, it’s easy for someone to tell whether you are a rarity who actually tends to every detail.  But before you get the opportunity to prove yourself, people will have to draw that conclusion from the way you look, [communicate], and act.  If your hair isn’t combed, your clothes aren’t neat, your shoes aren’t shined and you don’t [communicate] in a logical and orderly fashion, why should they assume your work will reflect any greater care?”5  If they are making these judgments about our work, and our work is Deaf people’s lives, then what reflection does that cast and what’s the ripple effect?

Judging a Book By its Cover

There are countless studies done by business, law, and medical schools across the country about the impact of attire on the customer, client, and patient’s perception of the respective professional’s expertise.  In one healthcare study, respondents were shown to overwhelmingly favor physicians in professional attire with a white coat.  Wearing professional dress while providing patient care by physicians may favorably influence trust and confidence-building in the medical encounter.6  In the legal field, the impact of appearance has long been taken seriously and there are consequences when one fails to satisfy the expectation.  “Certainly by becoming a member of the bar, a lawyer does not terminate his membership in the human race, nor does he surrender constitutional rights possessed by private citizens. … However ‘[membership] in the bar is a privilege burdened with conditions.’”7  We believe that the nature of our work and invitation into the lives of Deaf people is also a privilege burdened with conditions, including that of adjusting one’s appearance to suit the environment.

We are not suggesting sign language interpreters wear physicians’ white coats to their assignments in healthcare.  What we are suggesting is that working in the interpreting profession, your casual attire may not impact your future success.  Instead, it is more likely that it would impact opportunities for success for the Deaf people with whom we work.  When we’re invited into the lives of Deaf people, we are guests and we should treat those experiences as such.  To dress down as a default undermines the very respect we purport to uphold.

So What? Why This Matters

When was the last time your attire choices could have impacted whether or not the Deaf candidate got the job?  Will you ever know for sure?  Has your desire to express your personality ever overshadowed the Deaf researcher’s presentation to her or his non-deaf colleagues?  How do you know if the way you entered the room impacted the energy – did you add to the tension in the business negotiation?  Or if the Social Security worker thought differently about the Deaf applicant when your colleague wore jeans and boots to the appointment?  How many times has your (or your colleague’s) appearance been a distraction, a deterrent or a detriment?

We will never know the impact of our decisions with certainty… until we ask with an open mind.  In our research, we received numerous counts of impact from Deaf community members.  Once we started asking, the stories were virtually never-ending.  Below is a handful of what was shared.

  1. On a doctor’s impression of this Deaf parent: “I was recently at a doctor’s appointment for my daughter.  The interpreter walked in with a loud, low-cut top.  She had long nails and WILD hair…I had to keep asking her to repeat whatever she said – I was severely distracted by the amount of skin she showed.  I wonder what the doctor thought of me, having to ask her to repeat herself so many times…”
  2. A Deaf professional and her/his strategy for requests: “I mostly prefer that interpreters look neat and well put together…there have been occasions when I am in a situation where impressions are important and I will not use certain interpreters because their attire/presentation CAN impact the perception of me and my expertise.”
  3. On accessories, from a Deaf instructor: “It’s very rare for me to make an issue of their clothing choice of the day, but if it really irks me, I would approach the interpreter after the interpreting job is finished.  I can’t make the interpreter to go back home and change; it’s rather late and so I must accept the choice of clothing.  But with accessories, I can ask.”
  4. From a Deaf professional: “I was invited to serve on a panel and dressed in a suit and high heels, as did the other panelists.  My interpreter showed up in shorts, late, standing her tennis racket on the side of the panel table while she interpreted.  I was so embarrassed…”
  5. On the desire to express oneself: “You want to wear a tongue ring, lip ring, nose ring, etc.?  Take it out, go to the job, and then when you’re done, put it back in.  Draw the most attention to your work, not yourself.  It may bug the hell out of you because you want to express yourself, but you’re hired to work for a situation, and you don’t make the rules.”
  6. On trying to open the conversation: “Once an interpreter showed up wearing a low-cut dress and when I asked her about her choice she responded with an attitude that I wasn’t the one hiring her.  I asked her if they found out, what she’d do without them and she replied that she’d just find another job.  Then I asked her what she’d do without me, and she was suddenly at a loss for words.”

These behaviors are noticed by interpreter coordinators as well.  Here are a couple of their thoughts:

  1. “I am careful about who I do and do not hire to work in certain situations, based on what I know certain interpreters to wear.  My clients cannot afford to have the interpreter draw positive or negative attention – the work is too sensitive to allow for inappropriate first impressions.”
  2. “I have had people show up to an assignment in t-shirts and jeans and it MUST be addressed.   Sadly, I now have a clause in my booking email: ‘All assignments are considered business register, please dress professionally.’”

What do these behaviors say about our respect for consumers and their lives, our profession, and ourselves?  What does it say that interpreter coordinators need to manage our attire choices?  And so we ask, when is the last time you asked, with an open-mind, your team and/or the Deaf individual(s) about your appearance or attire choices?

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s time for change.  We do not believe sign language interpreters need to revert to the CSUN smock days.8  We believe that regardless of our attire choices, most interpreters share the same goal of rendering excellent interpreting services that provide communication access for people who do not share a common language.  We also believe that we have allowed ourselves to become complacent when it comes to holding one another and ourselves accountable.

Matt Etemad-Gilbertson wrote an article entitled, “Polite Disregard – Does It Serve Us?” which was originally published in a VRS newsletter.  In it, he eloquently paints the picture of our current state of affairs, which we believe is still relevant today.

“It has been my experience that the interpreting community is filled with caring professional nurturing, thoughtful mentorship and amazingly talented and ethical practitioners of our shared work…it has also been my experience that “polite disregard” rules the day among us on many occasions…  Polite disregard is the fear of not knowing how to share what we’ve seen or heard in the work.  Polite disregard is that moment during or post assignment when our team turns and says “any feedback for me?”  Polite disregard is when you actually have noticed a troubling pattern that you’d like to point out but it’s too hard to say.  In a practice-based profession like interpreting, polite disregard inhibits us from having difficult conversations that ultimately serve to compromise the integrity of the work.”

The only way we will get from where we are, in a state of complacency, to where we would like to shift the field, is by insisting on a culture of mutual accountability where dressing appropriately is the norm.  We need to stop dancing around conversations and collectively commit to embodying a “way of being” that subtly blends in with interpreted encounters, regardless of our personal preferences.  It’s time to step up and ask the hard questions of ourselves first, and then of one another that keep us all accountable.  We propose that before every assignment, sign language interpreters ask themselves:

Do my attire and overall appearance reflect my commitment to appropriately represent the Deaf people with whom I will work, and the environment in which I will work?

If the answer to either of those questions is uncertain, or a clear “no,” then it’s time to go home and change before stepping foot into the lives of Deaf people.  After all, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.



Dimitrius, J. E. and Mazzarella, M. (2000) Put Your Best Foot Forward: Make a Great Impression by Taking Control of How Others See You. New York, NY: Fireside.

2 Witter-Merithew, Anna. (January 18, 2012). Response to Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping out of the Shadow of Invisibility. Retrieved from (comment from January 18, 2012 at 12:16am)

3 Dimitrius, J. E. and Mazzarella, M. (2000). Put Your Best Foot Forward: Make a Great Impression by Taking Control of How Others See You. New York, NY: Fireside. p.76.

4 Winerman, Lea. (March 2005). ‘Thin slices’ of life. Monitor on Psychology, volume 36. Retrieved from

5 Dimitrius, J. E. & Mazzarella, M. (2000). Put Your Best Foot Forward: Make a Great Impression by Taking Control of How Others See You. New York, NY: Fireside. p.62.

6 Gosling, R. & Standen, R. (1998). Doctors’ dress. British Journal of Psychiatry, 172, 188-189.

7 Keasler, J. (1974, July 31). Tied to be fit? The Miami Newspaper. Retrieved from:,5108664

8 Solomon, S. (1987, February 26). Deaf Students Follow the Signs in CSUN Classes. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from:



Lena Dumont, Matt Etemad-Gilbertson,  Laura O’Callahan, Kristy Moroney, Jackie Emmart, Will English, and SooJin Chu are the team who created the original First and Lasting Impressions presentation, shared with the Greater Boston community in March 2012. Together, the first six represent 85 years of interpreting experience, and work or have worked in many arenas of the interpreting world including, but not limited to: general community,  K-12 and post-secondary education, healthcare, VRS, business, government, and conferences. SooJin is an independent fashion consultant and an expert in successful dressing that fosters positive first and lasting impressions. They all strongly believe that tailoring an interpreter’s appearance and behavior to a given situation is not only possible, it is essential.

The authors wish to extend their sincere gratitude to Carol-lee Aquiline, for her time and energy invested in the translation of this article. Thank you, Carol-lee!