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Giving Back: Have Sign Language Interpreters Forgotten Their Roots?

A reflection on the meaning of reciprocity in the sign language interpreting community and a proposal to extend CEU credit through service to reinvigorate “giving back to the Deaf community”.


[Click to view post in ASL]

When thoughts about volunteering personal time to interpret come to my mind, they are often associated with working with DeafBlind people. For me, it began in 1992 while I was serving as President of Deaf Studies Association at California State University at Northridge (CSUN). A vibrant group of 400 strangers changed my life forever. This group of people communicated in a different mode than I had ever experienced before; they communicated tactilely. When the week ended, I was saying goodbye to new friends who made a difference in my life. People I would still be in touch with twenty years later.

The Times They Are Changing

With legislative protections in place and employers recognizing their responsibility to provide communication accessibility for Deaf and DeafBlind individuals, work opportunities are increasing for sign language interpreters. DeafBlind individuals, in particular, are becoming more empowered and visible. They are coming out of their homes where they have lived in isolation and are becoming socially active and joining the workforce. This represents a new market for the sign language interpreting profession. However, there are still life events and activities where the only stakeholder is the Deaf or DeafBlind individual. No agency is offering a service that would mandate hiring a sign language interpreter or Support Service Providers (SSP).

Have you ever stopped to think about how many SSPs it takes for DeafBlind people to attend an event and listen to a presenter? There are always more service providers than consumers in the room. Why is it so hard to find good and plentiful help? The frustrations that Deaf consumers may have in adequately staffing an event with pro bono interpreters is greatly magnified at DeafBlind events where services are usually needed on a one-to-one basis instead of the one-to-many basis seen at many Deaf events.

Unfortunately, many sign language interpreters do not know how to provide effective DeafBlind Interpreting (DBI) or are apprehensive because they haven’t worked with a DeafBlind consumer before. Working with DeafBlind people is more than just a service. We are often an integral link to their world, which many of us cannot begin to imagine.

We need to consider some solutions as a profession. Volunteerism and pro bono service will help develop some new, potentially long-term revenue streams for service providers and, at the same time, provide needed services in the communities we serve.

Our Actions, Our Values

Our profession struggles with defining the parameters for using a volunteer versus a request for pro bono work. If the IRS views volunteering and pro bono work separately, why do sign language interpreters interchange the meanings? Why does it feel as though colleagues are asking, “What’s in it for me?” When did our profession become so entitled?  Why does it seem okay to ask for volunteers for AA meetings, but not job interviews? Are we saying that recovery is less valued than a person’s career? Why am I left with more questions than answers? And why is it so difficult to get people on the same page?

Pro bono vs. Volunteerism

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines pro bono services as “being, involving, or doing professional and especially legal work donated especially for the public good,” whereas a volunteer is defined as “a person who does work without getting paid to do it.”

Significantly, in the field of sign language interpreting, perceptions about the difference between the two categories are boundary-based. Where pro bono services are seen as professional and follow the same guidelines as paid assignments, volunteerism appears to have a more flexible set of boundaries. This can often confuse and/or blur the lines for both the consumer and the interpreter, potentially creating unsustainable expectations. The significant impact on the physical, emotional and mental state of both parties may act as a disincentive for sign language interpreters to provide volunteer services on a sustained basis. A pro bono service model, which seems to provide clearer boundaries for consumers and interpreters, may encourage more participation.

Donating time doesn’t require sacrificing oneself physically, mentally, and emotionally, yet it sometimes feels as if it does. The inability to say no and the tendency to volunteer too much, combined with the high expectations of consumers receiving free service, can be detrimental to good overall health. If we sacrifice too much, we may lose a sense of our self-worth and find ourselves questioning a job that can seem thankless and where we often feel our intentions are misunderstood.

Defining the Issues

The problem is two-fold: a) we do not have a structured industry standard for providing pro bono services, and b) there is a very real need within the community we serve for daily access to communication when there isn’t an entity to fund the provision. The result: an unsustainable imbalance that taxes the few who do volunteer for any significant length of time throughout their career.

As a volunteer, I fully admit that there are times when my ability to contribute proves to be extremely challenging. I may face periods of emotional turmoil or feel unable to meet the needs of consumers who may over-rely on me because they cannot easily find a reasonable pool of volunteers to cover their needs. At times, I might become angry and question why I continue giving back. But ‘giving back’ is the operative phrase, and more often than not, I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment from contributing to a community that has given so much to me in my life and career via many life-affirming experiences.

It takes a special kind of mentality and willingness to engage in a practice of integrated volunteerism throughout one’s career. It is no wonder the pool of much-needed volunteers is significantly smaller than it should be.

Credit for Service Through CEUs

As sign language interpreting students and interns, we are often required to volunteer an exorbitant number of hours in the community to gain the experience and knowledge that will shape us into better interpreters. Why is it that when we graduate or obtain certification many stop volunteering and only attend professional development opportunities to satisfy CEU requirements? Why are so many reluctant to give back to the community and engage in reciprocity? These are some of the core values which build and define the Deaf community.

What if sign language interpreters could earn CEUs for our volunteer work? What if we could get credit for learning new subject matter, methods, or for expanding our skill base? Why have motions for mandatory hours of pro bono work per CEU cycle been deferred to committees or failed when brought to the floor of a business meeting? (Motion D, RID business meeting August 2013)

RID Continuing Education Units (CEUs) are mandated to ensure awareness of the continuing evolutionary changes in language, community and service provision. Yet, the hands-on experiences expected from new entrants to the profession are not expected of our existing professionals. Why the disparity? Experience over time does sharpen one’s skills, but volunteering offers experiences that grow us exponentially in communication, increasing the breadth and depth of concept development in uncharted topic domains. Don’t we want to ensure that practicing professionals have those same enriching experiences throughout their careers?

Where Does RID Stand on Pro bono Credits?

How can sign language interpreters demonstrate the experience we gain at actual community events where our volunteerism often goes undocumented? How can we quantify these experiences in a meaningful way?

Attitudes on pro bono service need to start with RID. Isn’t it RID’s responsibility to encourage and foster professional growth, much like they do with professional development and CEUs today?

In the RID Vision Statement, “RID envisions a world where…the interpreting profession is formally recognized and is advanced by robust professional development, standards of conduct, and credentials.” Could requiring mandatory pro bono hours help to make that vision a reality? Why is there resistance to investigating the possibilities?

Will the conversation about voluntary membership in RID make it harder for us to enforce professional development of any kind?

In reality, workshops do not always mimic real-life experiences. However well-intentioned the CEU concept was, many interpreters attend workshops to ensure certification maintenance without ever intending to use the tools/concepts learned.  In effect, the CEU concept has lost its way. Volunteer and pro bono opportunities, to a greater extent, contribute to skills development while workshops broaden knowledge base.

Adding a pro bono crediting system to supplement RID’s CEU tracking system, could ensure the value of the profession as a whole, because community service would provide a structure for sign language interpreters to go out and experience a variety of real-life situations. A structured pro bono service process led by RID would address this issue, remedy the unintended failings of the CEU system, create a standard of protection for over-taxed volunteers by expanding the pool of available interpreters. At the same time, the system would raise awareness about important community evolutions through direct and active participation, enhance professional expertise, and provide an industry-wide demonstration of goodwill and contribution to the communities we serve. When you think of these outcomes, can you deny that pro bono accreditation is an absolute necessity for the sign language interpreting profession? The excuses against creating a pro bono system can no longer be the accepted norm.

Additionally, establishing clear professional boundaries in a pro bono environment should motivate more sign language interpreters to contribute time to community events. This will greatly expand the pool of available interpreters, reducing the stresses placed upon the small pool of volunteers that exist today, and the challenges the community experiences in attempting to provide communication access within their own events. The results would be positive for all parties involved.

Pro bono work and volunteerism have their place. We just need to recognize how to create a more effective system in our profession. After all, isn’t the ideology behind giving back be good? This type of work provides a real hands-on experience for situations that may otherwise not be possible.

Parting Thoughts

Nagging questions remain for me: What are the emotional, physical and mental costs of giving my time? How much of my life have I sacrificed to give back? Am I justified in feeling angry when I think people have taken advantage of me? Are my core values that different from those interpreters who don’t serve on committees, boards, community planning teams? Why do we see the same people giving their time to the community over and over? Why do we open ourselves up as volunteers to be ridiculed? Why are we willing to put ourselves out there? Why do people question our intentions/motivations? Why can’t I just punch in my 9-5 interpreter card and be done when my job is over for the day? Most importantly, why isn’t RID, our professional organization moving forward in a determined way to address the important issues stated in this article? Am I simply asking too much?

While I cannot answer these questions fully, I know that giving back comes from a deep place in my heart, a place that feels like home when I am there and when I am with people who appreciate my time, my skills, and me. In those moments when a DeafBlind person sees something for the first time and experiences something they have never experienced before, it is there. It’s a place of peace, a place where, if I were to die tomorrow, I would know that I made a mark on this place we call Earth and I made a difference in someone’s life. I give back to people who have given me the tools to communicate, the skills to have a full time job doing something I love with people I respect and admire. Not everyone can be happy deep down; not everyone can give the gift of connection. I serve because I want to and I am a better person for it.

And while I join with others who call for a pro bono credit system, I promise you that at the end of the day, the feeling of self-worth and accomplishment from a successful contribution will dwarf the value of the actual credit you’ve earned for that day. You have my word.

Questions to Consider

1. What is your community’s stance on pro bono interpreting and volunteer interpreting? What is your personal perspective and why?

2. Why do you think some people oppose credit for volunteer/pro bono service through CEUs?
Would you support RID if they implemented a Credit for Services program for pro bono and/or volunteer work? Why or why not?

3. What are some ways that interpreters can continue to support the value of reciprocity and still maintain healthy boundaries and good self-care?

Related StreetLeverage Posts

5 Easy Career Enhancers by Brandon Arthur

Knowledge Brokering: Emerging Art for Sign Language Interpreters? by Laurie Shaffer

#Doable: How Do Sign Language Interpreters Restore Relationships with the Deaf Community? by Tammy Richards

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Sign Language Interpreter for Hire: Ethics of Direct-Pay ADA Violations

Sign Language Interpreter for Hire: Ethics of Direct-Pay ADA Violations

Proposal to standardize RID Certified ASL interpreter response to surcharges to Deaf/Hard of Hearing or Deafblind clients for auxiliary aids by places of public accommodation in compliance with ADA law.

[Click to view post in ASL]

What motivates interpreters to continue in this field for decades? Lately, I have been reflecting on how integral and motivating social justice is to an ongoing passion for interpreting. Long days, solo days…days when you really do a good job and days when there is much room for improvement.

With both hands on the ruby frame of social justice, I would like to posit a question to our sign language interpreting community, in the hopes of challenging tacit understanding and stimulating dialogue that leads to change at the national RID-NAD CPC level.

(Note: The scenario below is offered as a case study, and is not representative of any particular encounter.)

The Scenario

You arrive to interpret for a client in a court-ordered setting. The per-session rates for the one-on-one and group meetings are posted on the treatment center lobby wall.  The client informs you upon arrival that the cost was excessive, more than double the rate paid by the general public, and had to be made in cash. You respond by offering to interpret for the client and office staff to sort out the perplexing payment issue. The office staff confirms that payments include a substantial surcharge for the interpreting costs including the agency referral fee and cannot be adjusted.  In sinking “Oh no…” shock, you interpret the remainder of the appointment and are left to drive home and ponder what actions can be taken as a RID certified sign language interpreter with a duty to conduct your practice in an ethical manner. A vision of Anna Witter-Merithew gently invoking the mantra “Do No Harm” comes to mind. Your considerations are within the framework of an ADA violation that is unwelcomed by the D/HH/DB client who vehemently does not want to be paying more than the general public for a public accommodation service.

How is an RID certified interpreter to respond?

(Note: the scenario below is offered as a case study, and is not representative of any particular encounter.)

Interpreter A – Response

My job is to interpret. The payment situation is not my issue to address. While I may not agree with it, it is between the D/HH/DB person and the treatment center to work out the financial details. I can encourage the person to contact the local advocacy agency, provide information on the ADA and resources such as the NAD website, and provide contact information for the state Administrative Office of the Courts. To withdraw from the situation would be presumptuous and a demonstration of audism because I would be taking away the D/HH/DB person’s right to pay for services, which would be condescending, a form of advocacy, an interjection of my personal opinion, and inappropriate. I cite the CPC…tenets 2.5, 2.6 and 3.3 as the basis of my ethical decision making process. I continue to interpret weekly meetings for many months, until the treatment is completed, receiving payment for my interpreting services via paychecks from an interpreter referral agency. I am confident other RID certified sign language interpreters would respond similarly.

2.5          Refrain from providing counsel, advice, or personal opinions.

2.6          Judiciously provide information or referral regarding available interpreting or community resources without infringing upon consumers’ rights.

3.3          Avoid performing dual or conflicting roles in interdisciplinary (e.g. educational or mental health teams) or other settings.

Interpreter B – Response

It is unethical for me to collect a paycheck that includes payment in violation of the federal ADA laws prohibiting discriminatory treatment of people with disabilities. I contact the interpreter referral agency and inform them I cannot continue to interpret because the D/HH/DB person is paying out of pocket for interpreting costs in violation of federal ADA law, and it is unethical for me to continue interpreting under the CPC as an RID certified sign language interpreter. I emphasize that when payments are confirmed to be ADA compliant, I will be happy to resume interpreting, but cannot in good conscience accept payment and so must reluctantly withdraw my services. I recognize this puts the D/HH/DB person in a difficult situation, but see my continued interpreting as complicit in discriminatory practices. I approach the board of the local interpreter referral agency and ask them to put a policy in place, if one does not already exist, that requires ADA compliant payment arrangements consistent with federal law, in order to protect sign language interpreters from being replaced and in support of the right to equal access for the Deaf community. I provide a slate of resources to the Deaf client, including state laws regulating court-ordered treatment.  I cite the CPC including tenets 2.6, 3.7, 4.4, 6.3, 6.5, 6.8, 7.2 and Applicability B. I am confident other RID certified sign language interpreters will respond similarly.

2.6          Judiciously provide information or referral regarding available interpreting or community resources without infringing upon consumer’s rights.

3.7          Disclose to parties involved any actual or perceived conflicts of interest.

4.4          Facilitate communication access and equality, and support the full interaction and independence of consumers.

6.3          Promote conditions that are conducive to effective communication, inform the parties involved if such conditions do not exist, and seek appropriate remedies.

6.5          Reserve the option to decline or discontinue assignments if working conditions are not safe, healthy or conducive to interpreting.

6.8          Charge fair and reasonable fees for the performance of interpreting services and arrange for payment in a professional and judicious manner.

7.2          Keep abreast of laws, policies, rules, and regulations that affect the profession.

Applicability B: Federal, state or other statutes or regulations may supersede this Code of Professional Conduct. When there is a conflict between this code and local, state, or federal laws and regulations, the interpreter obeys the rule of law.

ADA law: CFR 28 Section 36.301(c) Charges. A public accommodation may not impose a surcharge on a particular individual with a disability or any group of individuals with disabilities to cover the costs of measures, such as provision of auxiliary aids, barrier removal, alternatives to barrier removal, and reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, that are required to provide that individual or group with the nondiscriminatory treatment required by the Act or this part.

Sign Language Interpreter for Hire: Accepting Self-pay Terms

While this is a sample case study, it is not an isolated scenario. Most sign language interpreters, at some point in their career, will be approached by a D/HH/DB client wanting to direct-pay, and will need to make a determination to accept or decline those payment terms. For example, an interpreter may accept direct payment for a private family event such as a bridal shower or family reunion, but decline payment for a funeral, offering to interpret pro-bono. Neither of those situations are “places of public accommodation” under the ADA. However, there are situations that are blatant ADA violations. For example, an interpreter may decline to interpret for a driver’s education course as a direct-pay situation, knowing that the private driving instructional school has the duty to provide auxiliary aids including sign language interpreting services for education access, and is repeatedly discriminating by expecting the Deaf person to “bring a friend” to interpret the 8 week course. Or perhaps an attorney refuses to provide a sign language interpreter in a civil case, insisting that the Deaf witness self-hire an interpreter directly or depend on family members to interpret in order to participate alongside co-petitioners.

Profiting From Discrimination

Is it appropriate for one RID certified interpreter to recognize discriminatory practices and decline to participate, only to be replaced by other RID certified interpreters who believe it is outside the scope of practice for an interpreter to take a stand against direct discrimination from which the interpreter profits? What about referral agency responsibility to support equal access for the Deaf Community and ethical business practices of sub-contracting interpreters? Shouldn’t sign language interpreters and referral agencies be the first to recognize and reject profit from overtly discriminatory practices, modeling the daily efforts to educate the public on the requirements of the ADA law and equal access?

Input from an Attorney Interpreter Ally

Daryl Crouse is a well-respected, dedicated sign language interpreter and practicing attorney in Long Beach, California. He graciously agreed to provide his perspective on this issue. Here is an excerpt from his response:

I appreciate my colleagues’ initiative of this much needed discussion. Her work adds to and improves the profession. I believe we agree: it is wrong for a public accommodation to coerce a Deaf person into paying for our service in circumvention of the law.

Such that the Deaf person is coerced into paying for interpreting services; the Department of Justice has stated unequivocally a “public accommodation cannot coerce or attempt to persuade another adult to provide effective communication for the individual with a disability.”1 Thus, an ally would not stand silently while someone is coerced against their will to do something. Similarly, an ally takes their cue from others, careful to stand with and not in front of.

An alternate statement of the illustrative behavior may be: “An interpreter may refuse to accept an assignment when reasonably certain a public accommodation is passing on the cost of interpreting services to Deaf individuals as a surcharge. The interpreter should consult with the Deaf person to confirm their decision to self-pay is made [free of coercion.]” The expected behavior is directly linked to a specific fact. Linking to a specific fact provides clarity and would likely survive an enforcement challenge. Also, a dialogue with the Deaf person as to coercion and not the reason for their choice to self-pay the interpreter respects their right to privacy.

Standardizing Our Response

I would like to propose addressing this issue directly in our NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct, and remove any ambiguity for RID certified sign language interpreters. It would be a very simple fix. Add a Business Practices Illustrative Behavior 6.9  Support ADA compliant payment and remove oneself from assignments in which a consumer is being directly charged for interpreting services in places of public accommodation, in compliance with CFR 28 Section 36.301(c). 

Share your thoughts. What is a professional, ethical response to a known, verified ADA payment violation?  What actions best support a social justice framework and outcomes?

Questions to Consider

1.  Why is it important that as sign language interpreters we standardize our responses? How does this benefit the Deaf Community? The public? The interpreting community?  What harm is done when we do not standardize our responses?
2.  Why is being complicit in discriminatory coercive practices incompatible with RID professional standards?
3.  Under what circumstances would you agree to direct payment arrangements with the D/HH/DB individual or group?

Related StreetLeverage Posts

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

Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters? by David Coyne

Beyond Ethics: Rules Versus Values for Sign Language Interpreters by Amy Meckler


1 http://www.ada.gove/regs2010/titleIII_2010_regulations.htm#subpartc (last visited January 15, 2015)