Sign Language Interpreting’s Long Adolescence

December 16, 2015

The field of sign language interpreting has the opportunity to leave organizational adolescence behind. By connecting their emotions to the challenging tasks ahead, interpreters can foster growth and move the field to the next level.

Historical Context

Last summer I was unable to attend RID’s Convention in New Orleans, or even watch the livestreaming. Instead I followed developments through Facebook friends’ posts and comments and tweets at the conference hashtag, #RIDNOLA15. Through the lens of social media, there were two conferences: one full of camaraderie, fellowship and happy reunions, the other full of angst. Meanwhile, the bold move by the Board to suspend certification testing was not completely without warning. I remember last year (2014), at the RID Region 1 Conference in Boston, President Dawn Whitcher did mention that the Board was exploring the possibility of alternative structures. The open question now is whether RID can grow up enough to pass through this coming-of-age opportunity.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Since I joined the profession in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I have been astonished and fascinated by the organizational and cultural dynamics. The general behavior patterns today compared with then—twenty-five years ago—are essentially the same. On the one hand, this is discouraging. On the other hand, Deaf presence and authority has increased, so there is obvious change! But new people entering the field continue to exhibit problematic behaviors and react to feedback in the same ways as most did back then, and Deaf people are still complaining about the same kinds of problems (especially inadequate fluency and lack of intercultural skills). In light of this, we do still have a professional organization dedicated to sign language interpreting! It is an incredible testament to our Past Presidents, Board Members and Staff that RID has never imploded from the pressure cooker of oppression versus social justice.

Making Sense of Where We Are, Here and Now

A tool that helps me make sense of the oppression-social justice pressure cooker is a descriptive model of group development called “the life cycle of groups” (Weber, 1982). Weber’s model draws on Bruce Tuckman’s (1965) famous four stages of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing) and refines it. Weber’s additional details on the interpersonal, leadership and task issues that a group has to resolve at each stage provide insight into some of the long-standing issues RID members must face.

Weber renames the stages Infancy, Adolescence, Adulthood and Transforming. As you can guess, Adolescence corresponds with Tuckman’s Storming phase. The behavior patterns of a group’s Adolescence include emotional responses (e.g., anger, frustration, confusion) to the demands of being an organization (such as developing and following rules), attacks on leadership, and a need for order (which may or may not be a conscious realization of every member). What are the interpersonal, leadership and task issues of a group that bring out such emotionally-inspired behavior?

For a group to move through Adolescence to Adulthood, members have to deal with matters of power and influence while maintaining individuality and questioning differences. This is a tall order for anyone, in every group! The acid test involves the decision-making process: coming to agreement on how the organization says it will make decisions, and then how well the organization conforms to how it says it will make decisions.

In short, individuals a) need confidence in the group’s processes and b) to work through their personal needs for control in order for the group, overall, to grow.


I happened to see the Pixar movie about emotions soon after the conference ended. Inside/Out is a dramatization of the inner life of a young girl whose life gets upended when her parents move from a town in Minnesota to San Francisco. We witness the play of the five basic emotions—joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust—in her mind, and also see the results of how she’s feeling in her behavior. Two comments from friends who also saw the movie stuck with me. One friend was glad that the film “showed the reality that you cannot have joy without sadness.” The other friend noticed “how hard joy has to work in order to have any effect.”

Applying Pixar to RID, I realized that what I first thought of as two different conferences (as it appeared via social media) was instead a demonstration of how different people (or the same person at different times) at #RIDNOLA15 were expressing only three of the basic emotions: anger, disgust and joy. Missing were fear and sadness. While watching Inside/Out, I noticed something about the relationships among all five emotions. I actually went back to watch it a second time in order to confirm my observation. In the daughter’s mind, Joy is the leader. She corrals and herds Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger, and they look to her to do this.

The mom’s mind is different.

A Counter-Intuitive Way Forward?

The mom’s emotions are guided by Sadness.

This has left me wondering if the members of RID are locked into something called “Basic Assumption Groups.” The idea comes from a psychoanalytic approach to reading the unconscious of a group based on the behaviors of its members. Are we locked into sides: anger and disgust battling joy?  Meanwhile, fear is largely unexpressed (except disguised as anger or disgust), and sadness rarely enters the conversation (even though it is ever-present).

If we consider Weber’s “life cycle of groups” seriously, it offers insight into why groups get stuck in adolescence. There’s foundational work that needs to be done in “infancy,” the stage before the storm. If this is left un-done (or not done well, or needs to be re-done), group members do not share enough common expectations about what the organization can and should do.

The major intra-personal and interpersonal task of the infancy/forming stage of a group involves membership criteria. Individual members have to work through their own inclusion issues: if they do or do not want to belong. It seems that President Whitcher and the Board have given us a chance to rebirth the organization and re-define RID from the ground up.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree with the author that the patterns of behavior in the organization are about the same as they were twenty-five years ago? Why or why not?
  2. Does the framework of the “life cycle of groups” seem like a good tool for analyzing what’s going on with the organization and its members? Why or why not?
  3. Do you have different or additional ideas about the emotions expressed during/about the 2015 RID Convention?
  4. How do you managed your personal need for control?

Related Posts:

Interpreter Education: History is a Relentless Master with Dennis Cokely and Anna Witter-Merithew

Does the Past Hold the Answer to the Future of Sign Language Interpreting? by Carolyn Ball

Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field by Lynnette Taylor


Tuckman, Bruce. (1965). “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups.” Psychological Bulletin63(6): 384-399.

Weber, Richard C. (1982). The Group: A Cycle from Birth to Death, in Reading Book for Human Relations Training, 7th Edition. L. Porter and B. Mohr, Eds. Alexandria, VA: NTL Institute.

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14 Comments on "Sign Language Interpreting’s Long Adolescence"

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Jenny Miller

A really great article. Thanks for your work!

Hi Jenny, thanks! I’m super curious what people are thinking and feeling about all the ideas in this piece! It is humbling that so many people have FB-liked the blog and watched the ASL vlog– and a little nerve-wracking not to have any comments yet 🙂 It would be cool for folk to share thoughts and feelings. Maybe the piece brings up memories? Or reminds you of recent conversations? The life cycle theory suggests that the more group members express their experience (especially by taking individual ownership of that experience), this enables the group to develop and the organization to… Read more »
Shannon M. Mulhall

Steph – I always appreciate your unique and thought provoking perspectives. Thank you for taking the time to share them! I’m still putting together my thoughts, but I will say that in talking about the organization I’ve noticed typically two predominant stances: cynicism versus hope. It’s interesting and at least a starting place for more dialog.

Hello Shannon! Well gosh thanks. I was getting worried that I’d been so dang nerdy nobody could think of something to say! Or worse, broken a taboo and few would ever speak to me again! Your comment and Terri’s came in almost at the same time. Her’s seemed harder, so I responded to her first. Now I realize your observation is also rich. Perceptive. How do we make sense of these two observed attitudes of hope and cynicism in relation to RID’s future? They seem to be in opposition, but I wonder if the presentation (the style of being hopeful… Read more »
Terri Hayes
I think 36+ years is not an “adolescence”… it is evidence of a tendency to either not listen to the members… or listen and then ignore us, or listen and then “know better” than us… Over the years, I’ve interpreted for many many businesses going through this “lets change our management schema” toward a more productive environment. I remember the institution of TQM (Demmings Total Quality Managment) which might have been the first that I recall on my own steam – but I definitely recall that even during those trainings the people being subjected to them, *ALL* – without variation… Read more »
Stephanie Jo Kent
Hi Terri! This is a terrific comment; there’s so much in it! I’m not going to respond to everything (at least not at first). If we keep conversing, maybe we’ll eventually get to all the points you raise. I’m fascinated that you’ve brought TQM and Lean into this thread. Perfectly appropriate. Organizational development has been most studied within for-profit businesses who use these models as prescriptions for efficiency. We’re living in an era in which the profit motive is reaching into all kinds of organized social activities: higher education is a glaring example. I suppose that kind of efficiency-based thinking… Read more »
Terri Hayes
Hi again – no I was not suggesting that the RID professional staff and elected officials were “trying on different kinds of management styles.”… I’m saying that that is what *you* are saying – in your article… a Business does not get to Forming/Storming/Norming constructs without some intentional movement toward the desire to create more efficient and effective teams. Your whole article is about this… hence “the long adolescence”. What I’m saying is No – they have NOT been working toward effective team functions for all of these years. They Might be – Now – after this recent meeting but… Read more »
Hi again Terri 🙂 I like that you are continuing to engage! It seems to me that our communication strategies are different but complementary; I hope this supports a robust dialogue that eventually brings us to some clearly shared understandings. Ideally this could be a service to others who are reading and perhaps even the profession as a whole. First, I want to lay out that a good part of my personal motivation here is in accord with what Nancy Berlove wrote: “I [am] drawn to this profession not only because of an interest in people and a knack for… Read more »
Terri Hayes
Greetings Steph – It seems you like to banter as much as I do. I am not in the profession for the same reasons you are. You suggest you are here for personal reasons – personal betterment… an almost “spiritual” goal having to do with humans beings and relations and all that… (ref: Nancy Berlove) I’m not. I’m here – because many years ago I became aware of a people who were/are being locked out of what I believed was … a large part of the world and life. Those people gave me language… and they also encouraged me to… Read more »
Hi Steph, Thanks for your interesting article. I think the analogy with adolescence is relevant to where we are as a field right now. While thinking about characteristics of adolescents, I decided to list some specific examples and tie them to what I see in our profession. They are not in any particular order of importance. 1) Critical thinking not yet developed: Interpreting decisions are not examined cognitively; a lack of understanding that there are other peoples’ realities. 2) Emotional responses to stress: The need for frequent approval and praise, fear of making mistakes. emotional outbursts and reactions. 3) Rebellion… Read more »
Hello again Terri and greetings, Betty–thank you for joining us, out here in full public view! I’m responding to both of you, together, because you’ve each made different, relevant points. Terri asked (in a comment above), “if you are using a descriptive model for analysis – the next step is a prescriptive proposal for action. Whats your proposal?” In the thread to Nancy Berlove’s post about stages of change, Betty responded to a concern I had raised about how we apply that model, writing: “It matters much less to me whether this was a model developed in the context of… Read more »

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