Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

June 24, 2015

Through recognizing the humanity in ourselves and Deaf people, and working towards a goal, our work can become much less stressful.

I think as Video Relay Service interpreters we have done ourselves a disservice in the way we talk about ourselves, our callers and our work. Generally, when we describe working in a call center, we either underplay it (“I’m ‘just’ interpreting phone calls”), or grossly exaggerate (“We interpret sex calls! We interpret for drug deals!”). The truth of the matters lies somewhere in between and is infinitely more interesting and gratifying.

[Click to view post in ASL]

The Mechanics of VRS

First, a better visual description of the mechanics of VRS work. Imagine an old-fashioned Bingo blower machine. The balls are whirling around in the chamber, and then one is randomly pulled into the chute for the number to be called. This is each inbound call that is received. The only slight difference is that each time, the ball (caller) is returned to the chamber once it has been called (call completed). Over time, the same number will come up again. This means that while VRS calls appear randomly for the interpreters, we will sometimes see the same number (caller) again. Sometimes, in a single day we will see all distinct callers. A different person every single time. However, it does happen that over the course of a day, a week, a month, callers will be seen over and over again.

The Intimate Nature of VRS

A relationship (such as it is) is established with these callers, whom we may never meet in person. Having worked as a sign language interpreter in VRS for many years, I have been able to witness people’s lives in fits and starts. I am aware of people getting married, having children, seeing the children grow up, parents dying and all other aspects of life. It is a privilege I do not take lightly.

We are also physically seeing into people’s homes, places of work, and other spaces they occupy over time. This is very intimate knowledge we gain and is not often what a freelance/community interpreter would experience. Often, assignments out in the community have a more constructed environment. In those instances, Deaf people are seen in their doctor’s office, in their classroom, in their job site. Our callers are putting a lot of faith in us as interpreters, not only interpret their communication, but to also hold sacred all that we are privy to during the course of each phone call.

Business Owners and VRS

In addition to the intimate types of calls VRS interpreters experience, we interpret daily for Deaf callers who are doing their business, making their living, over the phone. As we see these callers repeatedly, we get into a rhythm of what those calls will be like. We learn the lingo/jargon of their various occupations, we get used to their way of interacting with their customers, and their idiosyncrasies. As this working relationship is established, we are able to make agreements about sign choices, ways of interacting with their customers, etc. Over time, it becomes easier and more comfortable to settle into the task at hand. I am sure this goes both ways. Hopefully the callers become comfortable with the interpreters over time. We become “colleagues” in a way. We want their businesses to succeed, and we do our best to make that happen!

Highlighting Human Interaction

All of this is a reminder to see each other as humans in an interaction. Of course there are rules and regulations for VRS, which we must follow, but I have found if we prioritize being human, all of that falls into place anyway. In some ways, the structure of the VRS system has pushed sign language interpreters back into the “machine model” of interpreting. It seems that we have allowed ourselves to backslide to this mindset. This is unfortunate, as it further separates us from our Deaf callers. This is where I believe some of the struggles and negative attitudes come into play with VRS work. The fact that we are doing this work through the internet, and are not in the same physical space as our Deaf customers, should not mean that there are additional barriers to our communication. I feel it’s important for video interpreters to actively seek that human connection. As Brandon Arthur stated in his StreetLeverage – Live 2015 recap, “a fundamental truth about the field of sign language interpreting…success is derived from first acknowledging the humanity of the people in front of you. Simple. Challenging. True.”

I believe that if we really see ourselves as humans first, and our Deaf callers as humans before anything else, our work will actually become almost effortless. This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

  1. Connecting with our callers as humans is done when we are not actively involved with interpreting the conversation. A warm smile, admiring a scarf, waving at cute babies, cooing over kittens. The more familiar and comfortable we are with callers over time, the more we can settle in and do the work with ease, and all involved can be satisfied by a job well done. Even if we are faced with a caller we have never seen before, if we could assume this attitude, that callers are human as we are, therefore comfortable and familiar, all our calls can be smoother.

  1. Using care when discussing the work with others is also critical in maintaining a focus on the humanity of those we work with. When I talk about my work to non-interpreters, I make sure to talk about working with humans, and the fact that working with humans is demanding.  Think of nursing, teaching, and other jobs where you are constantly interacting with people in all their joy and pain. When we as interpreters talk with each other, while protocol indicates that we refer to “callers”, I think this limits us as well. We need to recognize the humanity we encounter daily.

  1. Recognizing the shared experiences we have with callers also helps keep our focus on the human factor. When explaining VRS to others, I also try to explain that every type of phone call that a hearing person makes, a Deaf person also makes. Did you call your mother today? Was your conversation pleasant? Did it make you feel like a little kid again? Did you get mad and hang up? What about calls to set up doctor appointments or get test results? Telling the school your child will be out sick? Hanging out on the phone shooting the breeze with an old friend? Hours arguing with Comcast? This is what we do everyday!

In The End, Rise to the Challenge

Sure, we can talk about the stats and productivity rates of VRS work. We can talk about the anxiety that comes with not knowing what’s coming our way next. We can talk about compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. I will admit there have been times when I have interpreted very difficult, painful conversations after which I have removed my headset and walked out of the call center. I knew I would be no good for any subsequent callers, therefore I took care of myself, and them. However, I know I have settled into all of that. I enjoy the thrill of the unknown. I feel I can rise to the challenge of whatever comes my way. Interpreting in VRS becomes easier the more I can approach my work with curiosity, compassion and a spirit of collaboration with my fellow humans.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What is a key phrase you can use to internally remind yourself that we are all human?
  2. By treating each other humanely, in what ways can your work product be improved?
  3. Suppose you’re not “feeling it”; what are some things you can do physically to make it seem like you are, or steer yourself towards a more positive outlook?

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30 Comments on "Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters"

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Member
Sylvie Lemay

I loved Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters by Judi Webb. Thank you for the gentle reminder of the importance of being human first, to enable us to connect with others and do our best work.
Sylvie

jwebb
Member

Thanks for reading, Sylvie!

Member
Lindsey Antle

Well said. I’ve worked VRS exclusively for almost 10 years. Your comments are spot on. The human to human interactions are what keep me going.

jwebb
Member

I agree Lindsey! There are times when I am filled with joy when specific callers comes up. Then my cup is filled!

Member
Arlyn Anderson
It’s so satisfying to see articles that point us to humanity, compassion and personal effectiveness. Wonderful that you gave us questions to ponder! These concepts are so linked to professional effectiveness. In the decade that I did VRS, a key phrase (I called it ‘my mantra’) was ‘love the people.” From my very first call in 2002, I had it on my monitor, eventually shared it with trainees, experienced some lighthearted teasing about it — and said it to myself right before answering a call. I used it to connect deeply with my most cherished core value (love) before looking… Read more »
jwebb
Member

I love the idea of a mantra, and having it right in front of you at all times! Some days mine is just “breathe”, that helps too, both emotionally and physically.

Thank you for reading, and for your thoughtful response!

Member

I am a new interpreter and havent worked as a VRS interpreter yet. I am sure most interpreters get so comfortable with work that they start to forget that we are working with humans. I believe being human and having those small interactions such as waving at a baby when we are on a call is extremely importatnt. Connecting with our Deaf calls and “being human” can make a big difference. This article was very beneficiary for me as a new interpreter I will pass it along to my colleagues.

jwebb
Member

Thank you for passing this along Ashley!
I agree that we get caught up in the process of interpreting, (either in 3D, or on VRS), or we go on autopilot, and forget to ‘see’ each other.

Small connections can go a long way!

scriner
Member
Stephanie Criner
Judith–your article really resonated with me and I appreciated the questions in your conclusion that hopefully will stimulate further conversation! How is it, as interpreters working in this medium, that we mindfully create connections within that first few seconds? How do we demonstrate that we are a caring professional who has an ‘investment’ in successfully interpreting for that caller in that moment? Without the awareness and perhaps the introspection to consider the answers, we run the risk of becoming rather ‘flat’ ourselves. I may interpret primarily in a 2D world but I want a 3D perspective! Thank you for your… Read more »
jwebb
Member

Thank you Stephanie!
I know one thing that really helps me is that I love this kind of work!

In this fast paced paced world of technology, it IS important that we make some thoughtful decisions about how to connect with others.

Member
Karin Kalodimos

Excellent article on a topic that unfortunately typically focuses on the tech aspects and/or the providers. Very refreshing to see the focus on the “humanity” of our work within VRS. Also to mention that in many ways we have let the norms, work, and accepted practices be dictated by those who are not interpreters. My hope is that we recognize that and work toward changing that.

Thank you.

jwebb
Member

Yes, Karin, I hope more of us ‘in the trenches’ will speak up about ways to improve our work, and the environments in which we work.

In some ways I thought this topic might not be worthy, but as I have worked on changing my own attitude, my interpreting and my interactions have become so much better! Now, how to quantify that!

Thank you !

Member
I read this article with peace of mind, knowing that I do interact with others on a human level, admiring their puppies, complimenting them on their beautiful children, etc. In fact, I thank VRS for creating the environment where I see myself on camera for hours each day, which caused me to self-critique and realize that without my teeth showing, my smiles didn’t truly reflect the friendliness I felt. Now it’s all teeth, all the time! 😀 I wish, in return, others might take a split second to treat me as though I am human too. When my employer’s high… Read more »
jwebb
Member
Chris, you certainly raise very valid questions. It can be very dis-heartening to feel pressure from management, all focused on productivity. We want validation for that intangible part of our work. Some days we do get it, either from a caller, or a co-interpreter, or even a supervisor! I believe that part of the reason for these concerns still have to do with the newness of this type of work. VRS is constantly experiencing growing pains. What are our best practices within the confines of the FCC requirements? I can only hope that the learning curve smooths out after a… Read more »
Member

Exactly. When you are treated like a machine by the company, the consumer, and the FCC, it’s hard to approach the work with humanity, much less a friendly, heart-felt smile.

jwebb
Member

Yes, Keinark, the ‘machine model’ is a challenging aspect of this work. Company and FCC issues do have to be addressed by us, the VI’s, but within a call, it’s important to be focused and intentional about our work. This takes practice for sure!

Member
Shannon M. Mulhall

Beautiful reminder of the humanity of interpreting work – thank you! I love your questions to consider and will use these in my work.

jwebb
Member

Thanks Shannon!

I like to go back to these questions myself, especially #3.

How can we behave ‘as if’, to affect some small change in our outlook?

Member
Andrea Pertginides

What a wonderful article. Vary well stated. As VRS Interpreters we have a huge obligation to relay the entire message riding on the spirit of the speakers intents. Always protecting the confidentiality of all our callers. I love that phrase “I work with humans interacting!” This is a clear explanation of the kind of work we do. I love my job. The unknown, the new adventures, personalities, language expressions rolling off an individuals fingers like unique finger prints painting in the air creating a meaningful expression! Thank you again.

jwebb
Member

Thanks Andrea! I would love to see you write an article! Love your imagery of ‘fingerpaints in the air’!

Judi

Member
Helene Stankus
Awesome Article !!!!! Wow !!!!! It certainly has hit home!!!!! Working VRS is a challenge!!!! Not knowing what may come up next from delivering bad new about a “loved one” to “Is my Rx ready at the local store”…..At our center we have what is called our “Caring Trademark” …..for me its my greeting my last call as if it were my FIRST call of the day….with a smile , a wave, a wink…making the caller feel and KNOW at that moment THEY are the most important person in the room……What upsets me the most is what CHRIS mentions about… Read more »
jwebb
Member

Thank you for your comments Helene. I want to hear more about the “caring Trademark”! In the midst of all we have to do and remember, process-wise, something like a trademark to latch on to is a great idea! What are other trademarks your co-workers use, and how is it approached?

I do hope also that some of the concerns you list will be alleviated by our approach to the work. Keep it up!

Member
Monica Gallego
Hello Judi et al, Thanks so much for this article I thought it was great and also sad that we have gotten a place in our work that because of burn out we have to be reminded to be human. As a human aside from being friendly i also get angry , mad, sad disappointed so why wouldn’t the callers experience this as well. The difference is when we are being obnoxious no one is observing us. What i’ve learned in my time doing VRS is if i eat and sleep well, exercise and don’t book myself to do more… Read more »
jwebb
Member
You make several great point here, Monica. I DO think that all VI’s should make VRS calls, and experience it as a user. Even for myself, I don’t believe I have a good idea of what the Deaf callers experience is like. How long has their wait time been before they get to us? Is that where the ” go ahead and call ” comes into play? And certainly knowing your own best practice for a work schedule too. Americans in general(all professions and jobs) have the “more is better” mentality when it comes to hours worked per week. To… Read more »
Member
I love it when I sneeze while connected because I feel human and usually get a “bless you” and a smile. If I start with a smile and don’t get one in return thats okay. At least I gave one away to a person who needs one. It’s tough to be the man in the middle. Sometimes the words don’t come out right because fingerspelling is tough for all involved but smiles help with that too. It’s being human. VRS has birthed a freedom of expression that was inhibited by the use of the TTY. I am thankful.
jwebb
Member

Yes, I agree about the freedom of expression now that they TTY is (mostly) behind us. What a gift for Deaf people and their families!

And yes, isn’t it interesting how a sneeze can pull people towards treating each other nicely! Maybe the ‘bless you’ is a trained, polite response, but it’s something we all learn growing up, and it does break down any barriers and connect us just a little bit more!

Keep smiling Dana, and thanks for reading!

Member

Thanks for your post Judi. I haven’t been doing much VRS this year but you have a lot of valid points to apply to our profession in general. Wanted to share something that was said to me during one my first years in VRS. It may be our 200th call of the day, but try to keep in mind it may be a Deaf person’s only call of the week.

jwebb
Member

Right! Great point! I know it’s sometimes hard to be ‘fresh’ for each call. We would hope that any person in customer service that we encounter would do the same for us! (At a store, bank, etc…)

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