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Deaf Interpreters in Denmark and Finland: An Illuminating Contrast

Deaf Interpreters in Denmark and Finland: An Illuminating Contrast

Denmark and Finland exemplify contrasting approaches to DIs and HIs. While roadblocks and resistance often hinder DIs in Denmark, having HIs and DIs study together in Finland leads to mutual cooperation.


Note: Anna Mindess, an American hearing interpreter wrote this post, incorporating interviews with Didde Nylander, a hearing Danish sign language interpreter and Markus Aro, a Finnish Deaf interpreter.

Looking through the eyes of people from other cultures, I believe, can provide a clearer perspective on our own situation. Recently, I’ve gotten a glimpse of two very different stances — regarding DIs and HIs — in Denmark and Finland. I hope sharing them will allow us to reexamine our own American struggles.

[Click to view post in ASL]

[Click to view post in International Sign Language]

Opening the Conversation

In 2008, I was invited to present several lectures in Denmark. For the last one, at the Deaf cultural center in the town of Castberggaard, before an audience of Deaf community members, I had the help of two wonderful Danish Deaf Interpreters, Bo Hårdell and Janne Niemelä. They translated my ASL into Danish SL so smoothly that I felt an effortless connection with my audience. On the train back to Copenhagen after the lecture, I thanked Bo and Janne again, adding that with their professionalism and language skills, they must surely receive many requests to work. They shook their heads and explained that in Denmark they felt their skills as DIs were not really appreciated. I was dismayed, but not that surprised, considering that many American DIs face the same challenges here.

A few months ago, I was contacted by a hearing Danish interpreter, Didde Nylander, who read my Street Leverage article Are Hearing Interpreters Responsible to Pave the Way for Deaf Interpreters?  Didde is actively involved in furthering the goals of DIs in Denmark. She recounted a familiar narrative of Danish Deaf people explaining and clarifying for each other in school and later in Deaf Clubs; and also the hurdles they currently face trying to be accepted as professional interpreters.

A “Shadow Profession”: Challenges for Deaf Interpreters in Denmark

Denmark’s first official interpreter training program was established in 1986 and now hearing graduates can earn a professional degree. “But what about Deaf interpreters?” I asked Didde.

Didde: Until recently it has mainly been a ‘shadow profession’ operating below the awareness of most hearing interpreters and even most Deaf people, themselves. Even the Deaf professionals (e.g. teachers and social workers) who act as interpreters are not always aware that is what they are doing.

While it is clear that Deaf people are serving as interpreters in Denmark, Didde tells me they have been effectively barred from enrolling in the country’s only interpreter training program (ITP).

Didde: So far, Deaf people cannot be accepted because of a clause in the program description stating that ‘the aim is to train interpreters to work between spoken Danish and Danish SL.’ When two Deaf persons applied for the program in 2011, they were accepted but asked to wait a year so the program could adapt their curriculum.  In 2012, however, the Ministry of Education rejected requests to change the curriculum for Deaf students, because they assumed that Deaf interpreting students could not complete the coursework on their own, but only if a hearing interpreter, in essence, did all the work for them. They likened it to a mute person who wanted to become an opera singer, but would need a speaking proxy to do the actual singing.

The training program finally proposed that the Deaf students could audit classes, but could not take the final exams, which meant they would not become ‘qualified interpreters’. The two DIs quit the program, then were accepted into EUMASLI instead. (European Masters in Sign Language Interpreting). 

Hearing Interpreter Reactions in Denmark

I asked Didde about the majority of Danish HIs’ reactions to the unequal opportunities offered to DIs.

Didde: When they applied, these two interpreters, Vivien Batory and Bo Hårdell, had already been working as interpreters for about ten years for foreign visitors and at international conferences. But I don’t think most HIs even knew this took place, because we did not attend those events. The HIs who did attend were not concerned because these were not jobs we would have been assigned anyhow, since we did not know SLs other than Danish.

What did catch the HIs’ attention was when Vivien and Bo joined a team of HIs who had been interpreting television news broadcasts for several years. When their work became very visible, many HIs felt threatened.

Didde: Some HIs stated that they did not see the benefit of adding DIs, as they felt they were already doing a great job. Many took the position that they could not approve of DIs because they were not ‘trained.’  Fears multiplied: ‘Will the DIs take our work?‘ ‘Will we be ‘reduced’ to positions as feeders?’

As Danish Deaf interpreters increasingly worked in diverse settings, the Deaf community started to view interpretation as a viable profession for Deaf people. In 2012, the Deaf Association established a ‘DI project,’ in which 13 Deaf persons were given a course on interpretation and employed to work as freelance interpreters. They mainly worked in community settings, which made them more visible to HIs, which led to even more resistance within the HI community and emotional debates in our national interpreters’ association (the FTT).

In 2015, the national authority paying for community interpretations offered to certify the now 10 Deaf interpreters in the project, plus Vivien and Bo. So finally, Denmark has its first group of certified DIs, but that doesn’t mean they are fully accepted and equal to HIs. Currently, although several agencies have contracts with freelance DIs, they are certified to interpret only in pre-approved situations, which means a special application has to be made for each interpretation, explaining the exceptional need for a DI. And DIs still cannot take the full ITP.

Didde told me that earlier this year, there was much debate in FTT as to whether the certified Deaf interpreters could even become members. Some HIs supported the idea, while others were strongly against it. A large group was undecided.  One concern Didde noted was, “whether we would need to use SL during our meetings. Many HIs say they are able to express themselves more freely in their first language, spoken Danish”. The issue of whether DIs can be members of FTT will be decided in a membership ballot this fall.

Didde: On an official level, we have come a long way. But has our cultural knowledge of Deaf people developed as completely? It seems to me that there is still a residue of old notions of Deaf people being inferior to the hearing majority and having limited professional options. The emergence of the DI profession has raised many attitudinal and cultural questions, which we need to examine with openness and curiosity. Our biggest challenge now is to secure a good relationship between HIs and DIs.

I told Didde I see several areas where DIs in the U.S. are ahead of those in Denmark, but at the same time, there is still resistance from certain HIs. Since I have heard similar stories regarding other countries, I hazarded a guess that this might be a worldwide phenomenon.  

A Different Story in Finland

Didde corrected my overly broad assumption based on research she did in Finland, where a different path seems to have led to a more cooperative relationship between HIs and DIs.  She suggested I interview Markus Aro, a Finnish Deaf Interpreter.

Markus shared with me that Finland has a history of using Deaf people to interpret for Deaf Blind people. In the 1980’s, there were not enough hearing interpreters to do tactile interpreting. So Deaf people were drafted. But the Deaf Blind consumers wanted their Deaf interpreters to get trained. The Finnish Association of the Deaf created a 175-hour course to train and certify a group of DIs in Deaf Blind interpreting.

Interpreter Education with HIs and DIs in Finland

Then, in 2001, when HUMAK (The University of Applied Sciences) announced that their four-year interpreter training program would welcome both Deaf and hearing students, the first six Deaf interpreters joined that program. Of the original six, four successfully completed the program, (Markus was one of them).

Besides trying to attract Deaf people into their program, HUMAK’s target group is hearing students with no experience in the Deaf community. Markus told me that most hearing students enter HUMAK at 19-20 years old, without knowing sign language. Since the HIs come in with little or no previous knowledge about Deaf people and then are thrust into a collaborative learning environment with Deaf students also studying to become interpreters, they learn “good attitudes” from the beginning and early on get used to working with Deaf interpreters. While the hearing students spend much of their first two years learning Finnish Sign Language, the Deaf students focus on written Finnish and English.

Markus:  The courses for Deaf and hearing students differ only slightly. They try to make as few adjustments as possible so all students receive the same education. Linguistics is taught separately to hearing and Deaf students, but they have many courses together, such as Interpretation Theory. The third and fourth years focus on interpreting skills for all students. There is a folk high school for Deaf immigrants, in the same location as HUMAK, where the Deaf students practice interpretation with the immigrant students.

“It was a good experience studying together with HIs, “ Markus told me. “And we figured out how to team together.”

Markus: When I studied at HUMAK, there hadn’t yet been a lot of analysis of best practices for HI and DI teams. The teachers informed us that we would just have to work it out together.  We told the HIs we didn’t just want them to be ‘mindless feeders.’ It’s all about teamwork and the need to keep checking in and seeing how to support each other.

Community Buy-In is Key

After graduating, however, the DIs found there was not much work for them.

Markus: Part of the problem was a feeling among the Deaf Community, ‘Why do we need Deaf interpreters?’ So we explained about Deaf blind, International Sign, translation from written Finnish into SL and immigrants. Gradually, the Deaf Community became more open and after a couple of years their attitude was much more positive. Most of the HIs were happy to work with DIs, but a few had some resistance.

Ironically, a shortsighted governmental policy helped some HIs appreciate DIs’ valuable skills.  In 2012, the Finnish government (who pays for the majority of interpreting services) declared that Deaf immigrants would only be entitled to DI services for one year, assuming that after a year, the immigrants would learn enough Finnish SL that HIs alone could satisfy their communication needs.  

Markus: After the one-year mark, HIs found themselves on their own with these Deaf immigrants, wishing the DIs could come help them interpret. If, however, these immigrants went to a police station or a hospital, those entities can pay for Deaf interpreters from their own funds. Then the HIs were again relieved and grateful for DIs’ help.

Markus concludes: “We need HIs! We can’t work without them. We need to work together so Deaf people get the best access.”

In Conclusion

I think there is much we can learn from these two narratives. Markus credits the fact that HIs start HUMAK with a “blank slate” of no previous knowledge of sign language or Deaf Culture as being key to their openness to learning together with Deaf colleagues. Meanwhile, in North America, we seem to be pushing for a higher bar of language and cultural competency as prerequisites for entering ITP students.


**This article and its ASL and IS translations were made possible thanks to the contributions of many people across the world: Didde Nylander, Markus Aro, Ryan Shephard, Nana Marie Søltoft, Bo Hårdell,, the Danish Deaf Association and Damon Timm.

Questions for Consideration

1) Which do you think is the best approach?

2) Is this a generational issue? (i.e., when many of us older interpreters were trained, there were no “Deaf Interpreters” so it may seem jarring to introduce a whole new element into an established system –even though Deaf people have been “interpreting for each other” forever? Will the younger generation have an easier time accepting Deaf interpreters?

3) For readers from other countries, what is your experience in training Deaf and Hearing interpreters? Any tips for us?

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Crossing Borders: Sign Language Interpreter Identity at Home & Abroad

Crossing Borders: Sign Language Interpreter Identity at Home & Abroad

International participation by sign language interpreters presents a valuable opportunity for self-reflection and identity exploration which enhances work and relationships at home and abroad.


When I was talking about getting ready to go to two international conferences this past summer, I heard several different reactions from my colleagues- everything from affirmation to indifference to slight surprise. As I thought about these reactions, several questions came to mind:

  • What motivates sign language interpreters to engage in our profession on an international level?
  • Why do we choose to expend or conserve our resources to do so?
  • What benefit can sign language interpreters gain from thinking outside their own borders to see how we fit into the larger world of interpreting?

While some may question the relevance of connecting to the larger interpreting community, I believe that participation in the world arena informs and runs parallel to our daily work. Interpreters are afforded new levels of insight if we show up with awareness, investment and humility.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Renewal of Self-Awareness

One of my favorite aspects of travel is the opportunity and challenge to examine my reflexive thoughts and behaviors when encountering something novel. These manifestations revolve around identity. How we enact our identities shapes the perceptions of those around us and reinforces our affiliation and membership in certain categories, and they are mutable: I’m used to having certain aspects of my identity felt or perceived as primary, such as female or White, but it wasn’t until moving to another region of the United States that my home region became primary more often, and it wasn’t until I traveled internationally that my national identity took center stage in both inner and outer perception.

When we’re in places where we feel like the majority in some aspect, those identities can temporarily take a back seat from having to enact and defend, especially when those traits have power in the larger society. When identities that are yet unexamined suddenly surface as primary, the result can be destabilizing. We must find a way to understand and integrate what it means to be this new identity in relation to those who share it and those who may not. Dissecting what it is to be American, for example, requires the same kind of work as understanding what it means to hold any kind of identity with power. And like any kind of unconscious power, there is the potential for harm.

Power, whether we are cognizant of it or not, can give a sense of legitimacy on a personal and systemic level. The cycle to perpetuate some power hierarchies is firmly in place: wealth and resources are more concentrated within certain nations and racial groups, and infrastructure supporting Deaf community values and interests (for example, official recognition of a signed language, ADA legislation mandating reasonable accommodation) gives a leg up to some groups while others face more barriers without these as a foundation. These factors all can favor a group to have a strong presence in research and activism. Individuals and groups with this power become leaders internationally, and gain more decision making power and legitimacy as a result.

Information sharing in this context is most powerful when done in collaboration and with an eye toward impact and application. Some of the most meaningful sessions I attended at the last World Federation of the Deaf Congress involved partnerships between a researcher and a local community to address salient issues like language endangerment. To consider research on all levels as a form of service learning requires us to go beyond tokenism and elevate communities of interest as full partners in the trajectory of the research process.

Investment, Presence and Impact

When we are self-aware, we can better see those around us and the overarching structure and systems at work. I’m brought back to discussions and decisions within RID to add the Deaf Advisory Council and the position of Deaf Member at Large, as well as the aftermath of the failed vote to create an Interpreter with Deaf Parents position in the organizational structure. We must continually call into question who occupies the seats of power, who historically has been included, and what stakeholders are missing or silent. (2014 RID Demographics listed under “Membership Services.”) Once we have done that work, we must ask ourselves why, what the impact is, and if that impact aligns with where we want to go.

Organizational decisions can’t be made wisely until we know who we are and why we act in the ways we do. It takes emotional and intellectual buy-in. In the hundreds of decisions we make every day in our work, we have to take a pause for a power, privilege and identity check-in. If we came to a signing community later on in life, we need to look at our language skills and cultural internalizations and seriously examine how and if we fit into the Deaf and ASL-using community paradigm. As David Coyne wrote in his article “Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters,” “When interpreters lack personal understanding—experience with and knowledge of Deaf culture—they tend to perpetuate, normalize, and widen the divide between hearing and Deaf communities.” Our global community is subject to similar pitfalls.

When considering the intersectionality of identity combined with privilege, personal understanding is crucial on an international level to ensure that divisions of all kinds are not tacitly or unknowingly sustained. The language we choose to use daily is an enactment of identity, and as a sign language interpreter’s language shifts, identity does too (Hunt, in press). Using languages of power internationally like English and ASL is an act of inherent privilege. Although International Sign is widely used, and IS interpreters are prevalent at international conferences, research suggests it is not accessible to all participants (Whynot, 2014). There is no easy or economical solution to bridging language gaps and making costly and/or time intensive events accessible for all stakeholders, yet it remains a priority and challenge. I’ve seen thoughtful leadership and action at many levels, and I’ve also witnessed divisive behavior based on assumptions. As always, there is more work to be done by all of us.

Show Up – The Right Way

It can be easy to congregate with others who share our identities, language preferences, backgrounds, etc., especially when traveling. We may rarely have to confront negative stereotypes or question our way of being in homogenous groups. Alex Jackson-Nelson, in his article “Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing and Analyzing our Power and Privilege,” suggests that dismantling systems of power depends on making connections to those historically marginalized in order to harness our collective passion for the field while at the same time fighting the status quo systems of oppression. When norms established by a majority permeate the entire group, barriers arise- not only for access, but also to leveraging the kind of open, collective thought and action that embodies the spirit of coming together.

In his essay “I am where I think: Globalization, epistemic disobedience and the de-colonial option,” author Walter Mignolo (in press) discusses the need to think decolonially in politics, where minority identity traditionally has been constructed by imperial, racial and patriarchal systems. He quotes the intellectual and activist Fausto Reinaga, who said in the 1960s “I am not Indian, dammit, I’m Aymara. But you made me Indian and as Indian I will fight for liberation.” As a community of diverse identities, how do we work as allies to recognize, decry and dismantle the chokehold of systemic oppression?

Final Thoughts

Whether or not we participate in the international interpreting sphere, the process is akin to the effort we make to understand the privileges and impact we have in our daily work at home. How do we, literally and figuratively, show up?  At interpreter and signed language-themed conferences, nationally and around the world, we must be aware of who we are as interpreters and how our choices shape our environment. Debra Russell in her StreetLeverage – Live 2013 talk posited that before changing the world, our organizations and our field, we must turn inward. Becoming a more introspective sign language interpreter at home will make one a wiser interpreter abroad and a better agent of social change.

Questions for Consideration:

  1. How has your awareness of your identities changed over time? Why, and in what context?
  2. Where in our field do you see missing or silent stakeholders? What can be done to create an environment where all can feel represented?
  3. Think back to a recent conflict you experienced in interpreting. Where could identity enactment have impacted the situation?

Related Posts:

Identity Presentation: How Sign Language Interpreters Do it With Integrity by Robert Lee

International Collaboration: Should Sign Language Interpreters Do More? by Debra Russell

StreetLeverage’s 2015 WASLI Coverage


Coyne, D. (2014, May 20). Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters? Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Hunt, D. (2015). “The work is you”: Professional identity development of second-language learner American Sign Language-English interpreters. (Doctoral dissertation, Gallaudet University, Washington, D.C.)

Jackson Nelson, A. (2012, August 1). Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Mignolo, W. (in press). I am where I think: Globalization, epistemic disobedience and the de-colonial option. Duke University Press.

Russell, D. (2013, July 16). Sign Language Interpreters: Discover & Recover an Enduring Legacy. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Whynot, L. A. (2014). Assessing comprehension of international sign lectures: Linguistic and sociolinguistic factors.  (Doctoral dissertation, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia).

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StreetLeverage: The 2015 Posts that Moved Us

Best of StreetLeverage 2015


As a way to welcome 2016, we handpicked 10 posts that inspired reflection, demonstrated courageous thinking, or generated spirited conversation. It is our guess that you were moved by some of these 2015 gems as well. If you missed one, take a moment to enjoy the goodness. * Posts not listed in any particular order.

1.  Sign Language Interpreters and the “F” Word

Sign Language Interpreters and the 'F' Word

One Headline We Wish We had Created Ourselves

Provocative headline aside, Jackie Emmart brings forward the art of asking for and receiving feedback. While the jury is still out on whether “feedback” is a four-letter word or not, it’s a topic that isn’t going away.

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2. Recognizing Polite Indifference: Sign Language Interpreters & Power

 Polite Indifference

A Personal Story that Resonated

Michele Vincent’s willingness to open up about a work experience gone sideways in order to share her own journey of self-discovery and shine a light on an important issue had staying power for many.

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3. Missing Narratives in Interpreter Education

Erica West Oyedele at StreetLeverage - X

A Post We Thought Worthy of Even More Attention

Looking back in our history and comparing the statistics shared in Erica West Oyedele’s StreetLeverage – X presentation, not much has changed in the demographics of the profession. Hopefully, as we extend our vision and open our hearts to truly understand, we can invite and support interpreters from underrepresented groups which, in turn, supports the Deaf community in all its diversity.

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4.  Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

A Positive Outlook on VRS Interpreting

While not as uncommon as one might think, it was refreshing to read a post about VRS that displayed some of the positive aspects of interpreting in video relay. Judi Webb’s long-term experience as a video interpreter shows that longevity in VRS is possible with the right attitude and practice.

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5. Do Sign Language Interpreter “Accents” Compromise Comprehension?

Carol Padden

A Post that Made Me Conscious of My “Accent” In a Good Way

Carol Padden’s StreetLeverage – Live presentation on sign language interpreter accent will likely resonate for many readers, particularly non-native second language learners. Rather than perpetuating signing errors and disfluent language use, this is an opportunity for interpreters to reflect on their own accent and how they might remedy some of the issues with a little concentrated effort.

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6.  Self-Awareness: How Sign Language Interpreters Acknowledge Privilege and Oppression

Stacey Storme - StreetLeverage - Live 2015 Talk

I Wanted to Call the Presenter So We Could Have Coffee and Talk

Powerfully, Stacey Storme reminds sign language interpreters that while the situations we enter into as interpreters have nothing to do with us, “Our work has everything to do with us.” The interpreter is the third context in an interpreted communication and it behooves us never to forget that fact.

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7.  Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle?

Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle?

The Most Popular Post This Year

Clearly, many sign language interpreters have had negative experiences with colleagues which could fall into categories like bullying, harassment or intimidation. Kate Block explores how reflective practice might positively impact the interpreting field. It appears that people agree.

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8.  Deaf Interpreters: Shaping the Future of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession

Eileen Forestal - StreetLeverage - Live 2014

A New Paradigm Emerging for Hearing Interpreters

Eileen Forestal’s StreetLeverage – Live presentation explores the dissonance many hearing interpreters feel about working with Deaf Interpreters and encourages practitioners to come to the table open to the possibility that both groups have something to offer as professionals.

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9.  10 Lessons from my First Year as a Freelance Sign Language Interpreter

10 Lessons From My First Year as a Freelance Sign Language Interpreter

There is Encouragement and Positivity in the Field of Interpreting Today

Brittany Quickel’s 10 lessons illustrate the power of self-determination and positivity. Sign language interpreters everywhere can benefit from these simple, but sage, tips.

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10.  National Treasure

Patrick Graybill - StreetLeverage National Treasure 2015

Those Who Inspire

While this wasn’t a post, our 2015 list of goodness would not be complete without one important addition. StreetLeverage was proud to honor Patrick Graybill at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 as the first StreetLeverage – National Treasure honoree.

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Our Hope

Join us for another year of discovery, vulnerability, and meaningful conversation. We look forward to the magic of the journey that will be 2016.