Accountability: A First Step to Harmony Among Sign Language Interpreters?

March 25, 2015

Altering our approach to problem-solving by moving from blame to accountability can transform the field of sign language interpreting.

Have you ever felt a great line of divide working its way through the interpreting profession? It seems that recently every group discussion, article, or even online discussion revolves around one group being frustrated with the actions of another group. If I am being honest, I must admit, I am guilty.

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The more I started thinking about my own frustration, the more I realized I was part of the problem. To become frustrated with a group and sit quietly in that frustration or even worse, talk about it with my peers, only allows the problem to fester. It is because of that realization this article started to develop. I realized that I did not want to be a part of the great divide; I would prefer to accept responsibility for my actions and become part of an even greater solution.

The divisions within the sign language interpreting profession are deep and impactful. We have become a field where like-minded individuals group together, spending our time pointing fingers and placing blame rather than accepting responsibility for our own behavior. The great divide extends to many groups:

  • Deaf and Hearing
  • ITP graduates and Interpreters from the “school of experience”
  • CODAs and second language users
  • Nationally Certified Interpreters and Novice Interpreters

There are also many variations outside of and within these groups. Make no mistake; none of the groups listed are perfect. But what good is it to voice our complaints about these groups if we have no solutions? If complaints are constantly being emphasized, without solutions, then the complainer becomes part of the problem.

There are several issues within the groups listed above that we have the ability to control. While this article cannot address every divided group in the profession, let us look at one of the pairings as an example: nationally certified sign language interpreters versus novice sign language interpreters. More and more often, I have heard novice interpreters express frustration at the way they feel certified interpreters look down on them. I also hear certified interpreters express concerns about how novice interpreters are quick to take work they are not qualified to accept. We see the potential problem within each group’s perceptions. Now, let us discuss possible solutions.

Certified Sign Language Interpreters

Certified sign language interpreters should accept responsibility for fostering the growth of those novice sign language interpreters. There are many ways this can be done, such as mentoring, providing positive feedback, encouraging them in the right direction, and being mindful of how we approach them to give feedback.

I have heard the phrase “Certified Interpreters eat their young” more than once. While we may joke about this phrase, there are novice sign language interpreters who are afraid to reach out because they feel this statement is true. As certified sign language interpreters, we must be accountable for our actions. We should not base our opinion on our own beliefs and thoughts, rather, we should reach out to our peers for help when we are mentoring or giving advice. Remember, just because the advice did not come from us does not mean the advice is not valid. We should respect the advice that our peers have shared even if we would not offer the same feedback.

We also need to acknowledge when the novice interpreter is trying to follow the rules and be patient while they continue to advance their skills and knowledge. We are setting the standard those novice interpreters will one day follow.

Novice Sign Language Interpreters

As novice sign language interpreters, we should also accept responsibility by recognizing that we have an impact on the field of sign language interpreting. Our reputations will be made based on the decisions we make as we advance through the field.

When in doubt, it is appropriate to reach out to trusted certified sign language interpreters for their advice. We need to be willing to accept feedback from those who have experience. We also need to be willing to decline work that we are not ready to accept, skill-wise.

When we come across certified sign language interpreters who are not approachable, then we must look for others who are approachable. Just like the certified sign language interpreter who must be accountable for their actions, so should the novice interpreter. Remember, we are also representing the community we have become a part of and our actions could reflect positively or negatively on those communities.

We are All Accountable

Accountability is the key to a successful change. Each of the groups identified have issues that are very important to its members. The challenge is to find solutions to the issues that allow the group to stop pointing the finger, and start accepting responsibility.

The time has come to make a change in our field. The energy we have spent making excuses needs to be channeled into a newfound energy for finding solutions. Recently, in her article, Sign Language Interpreter Education: Time for a National Call to Action, Cindy Volk reached out with a “National Call to Action” and outlined ways for interpreter training programs to make changes. These types of articles are important because they offer suggestions for making change possible.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The examples provided above are just the tip of the iceberg. Today, I used Certified Interpreters v. Novice Interpreters as an example. The list of solutions was not an exhaustive list, but it is a start. The need now is for each of the other listed groups to consider, “How can I be a part of a positive change?”

I challenge these groups to find ways to work together. I challenge people within the groups to write more articles and get involved with more discussions that provide solutions. If there is a problem that the group feels strongly about, find ways to resolve the problem that do not include placing blame on the other group and then walking away.

It does not matter if you are an interpreter, presenter, teacher, student, consumer, or where you fit in, next time you feel strongly about a topic in the field, stop and think about how your response will impact the person listening. Remind yourself that if you just complain, you are part of the problem.

If there is one thing I have learned in all my years of interpreting, it is that this field is very distinct. Although I have been involved in the field since 1996, my family still does not know exactly what I do on a daily basis. They cannot understand what is involved in the whole process, no matter how many times I explain it to them. This has led me to the realization that we are a lonely field. If we turn against each other, who can we turn to for support? We each have a vested interest in the field of interpreting, whether we are service providers, or consumers. We need to look within our own groups and decide whether we are part of the cause of the great divide, or part of the solution to mend the gap.

Questions to Consider

1. What are some ways sign language interpreters can accept the challenge of bridging the gap?

2. Why are some people fearful about reaching out to opposing groups? What are some of those  fears and how can they be addressed?

3. What are some ways we can educate ourselves before we make a quick decision about another group?


Related StreetLeverage Posts

Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Langauge Interpreters Break the Cycle? by Kate Block

Strategic Partnerships: Cooperation Among Stakeholders in Sign Language Interpreting Isn’t Enough by Chris Wagner

Sign Language Interpreters: Is It Me? by Brian Morrison



Volk, C.  (2014, October 8) Sign language interpreter education: time for a national call to action. Street Leverage. Retrieved from




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20 Comments on "Accountability: A First Step to Harmony Among Sign Language Interpreters?"

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Shannon M. Mulhall

This is a great call to action – thank you!
I love the concept that we all have a responsibility to support each other, trying to understand how those different from us may view their/our work and this field. Let’s work together to increase our ability to have non-evaluative discourse about how and why we do the things we do.

We are changing this field for the better with every positive interaction we have with our colleagues.

“If you don’t like something, change it. And if you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Maya Angelou

Sabrina Smith

Shannon, I think that quote is perfect. I wrote this article because I truly believe if people work together they can make a positive change. The key is all of the groups accepting responsibility and understanding that we all have common goals. Thank you for your comments.

Terri Hayes
So – I know this is an “unpopular” sentiment, but in all this “dont eat your young” propaganda, we also need to realize that interpreters (specifically the Freelance variety) are a Business. We are a competitive venture. All these “young” interpreters are Future or current competition, and when I chose a young one to work with – I’m basically committing to a proportionate loss of my own business income in favor of seeing that interpreter get a good solid footing. (a good solid footing means – they are able to compete Directly with Me… for the work that I would… Read more »
Sabrina Smith

Hi Terri, you offer some very valid points. In the nature of the article, I have to ask myself, what are some ways we can avoid the issues that arise in your post? Maybe an option is to allow the newer interpreters to observe rather than actually team on assignments. Naturally all of the issues we have as a profession will not disappear. There are issues in all professions, not just ours. But if something upsets us that much, then there should be a call for change. Thank you for your insight.


It’s very – difficult – to read your REPLY…. When your post, (I meant teh POST that You responded of)…. to; is formatTed like a “stream-of-digital-consiousness” thought, which *might* work 4 The Likes Of james joyce or William (Bill????) Faulkner… But DOESN’T work well in: internet (“web”, a global topology of computer servers, WHY NOT?) situations where clarity is Key?!

Terri Hayes

ha ha ha ha ha – count your own parentheticals!

Austin Kocher

I thought you might like that. 🙂

Brendan Carruthers


Your thoughts are, in my view, spot on. I am in an ITP, and I couldn’t agree with you more. If I want help/guidance/advice from an experienced interpreter, I expect to have to pay them for their time. I am also a small business owner, in an unrelated field, and completely understand the nature of competitive business. I charge for my product, I expect others to do the same. Kudos to you for voicing these thoughts. I think you nailed it.

Thanks for posting this, because it really made me think! I really like your focus on finding solutions, Sabrina. However, I will admit my own confusion about terminology. Your goal is to move away from blame. I support this 100%. What I’m less clear about is how accountability provides a way out of the blame problem. At it’s most basic level, accountability implies that particular groups or individuals are the source of a given set of outcomes. But I don’t think that the way you use the concept of accountability is very different from blame. For instance, In your article… Read more »
Sabrina Smith

Hi Austin, I like your comments and I see your point. While accountability is important in understanding our responses to the various groups, I can see where it could appear to still mean blame in the current article. I would rather the focus be on solutions and maybe that should have been emphasized more. I am glad you liked the phrase “the great divide” it was my motivation behind the whole article. Thank you for your comment and I appreciate that you felt it was worth a response.

John Hancock

Great Job! Hancock

Sabrina Smith

Thank you!

Cris Redondo
This was a very attractive article for me; both as an ITP student and first year interpreter. As an ITP student this article illuminated to me the same function that goes on with the example posed between the Certified Interpreters and Novice Interpreters; however the inception of this problem is rooted back further. As many of us that are not native users of ASL, we begin our journey in taking ASL 1, 2, 3… This is where I believe that the idea of being unaccountable and picking up negative behaviors occurs. I personally experienced negative feedback when I approached upper… Read more »
Sabrina Smith
Cris, Thank you for your comment. I agree that is starts early on. I myself am a graduate of 2 ITPs and an AAS in Interpreting and have seen what you are talking about. The funny thing is, I fell into the false belief that knew a lot when I was getting towards graduation. As soon as I got into the real interpreting world, I realized quickly, I knew nothing. Lucky for me I was surrounded by mentors who reminded me honestly where I was and what goals I wanted to achieve. Today I follow that model and I am… Read more »
We were all, and I mean all, “Novice” interpreters once. Without the guidance and sharing of experience that we got from more seasoned interpreters many of us would not be where we are today. I have noticed that many states that are passing laws to raise the standards of interpreting seem to have an element of exclusion, of protection of work behind them. I have noticed many seasoned interpreters who are unwilling to share resources and experience do so because they are fearful of losing work. I would like to posit that without sharing what you have the profession will… Read more »
Sabrina Smith

Hello Dwight, thank you for your comment. I like that you used the phrase “Pay it forward”. I think this phrase is something that Deaf, Hearing, CODA, second language acquisition interpreters, certified interpreters, novice interpreters, basically all of the ones mentioned in the article and the many that were not included, should all think about. What a great vision if we could all stop and think, what can I do positive for our profession rather than complain about what we do not like about the profession. Again, thank you for your comment.


[…] Interpreters shall strive to work effectively, professionally and in good faith with all colleagues, mentoring partners, interpreting interns and students. Team interpreters shall caucus as needed before, during and post-assignment to ensure an optimal interpretation. Colleagues shall be approached directly, privately, one-on-one, to address any concerns or breaches of ethical conduct. Filing of grievances shall be made only after all other standard conflict resolution methods have been unsuccessful. Every effort shall be made to maintain open, accountable and positive relationships with peers that … […]

Erika Ramirez
I’m currently an American Sign Language Interpreter student and while I was reading this article I could relate my internal fears with many sections of this article. However, knowing that there are certified interpreters that are willing to help us “the novice interpreters” it is reassuring. I look forward of learning the best of each person, because I do believe that there is always something we can learn from one another. In my interpreting class we had an amazing experience of growing as a family. We give each other feedback with respect and kindly having in mind that at the… Read more »

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