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Designated Interpreters are Different: Examining a Growing Field

Designated Interpreters are Different: Examining a Growing Field

Alicia Booth outlines the unique relationship between Deaf Professionals and Designated Interpreters, particularly in medical environments. Role adaptation and flexibility are key to this new and evolving specialty area of sign language interpreting.

For half a century, the field of sign language interpreting has been steadily advancing, yet the interpreting needs for Deaf Professionals are developing at an even faster pace. Deaf Professionals (DPs) are achieving their academic and career aspirations in technical fields such as medicine, law, and engineering. Many DPs who achieve their career goals fought to have interpreters alongside them in graduate level classes, practicums, and clinicals. After securing accommodations, the next hurdle is finding a sign language interpreter who has the unique skill set and the willingness to adapt to a career specialty; thus the need for Designated Interpreters (DIs) for Deaf Professionals grows.

[View post in ASL.]

Since DPs are not traditional clients, it would make sense that neither are their DIs. Data from surveys of institutions of higher education, documentation from court cases[1], [2], [3], and anecdotal evidence suggest that a DP’s success benefits from a unique approach to accommodations. Personality and adaptability often rank as the most important qualities for their DI to possess, while mastery of ASL rank much lower. The willingness of the DI to linguistically specialize and assimilate into the DPs field is crucial.

Designated Interpreters are Different

Perhaps you may be asking yourself how DIs are so different and why those differences matter? Since I am drawing from my experience as a Designated Interpreter for Healthcare Professionals, I will share an environmental scenario in the hospital; however, these examples can be globally applied for DPs in most technical professions.  

Trauma Scenario: The DI and the DP (medical student) are both sitting in the doctor’s call room working on patient notes. Suddenly an overhead page indicates that a Level I trauma is expected to arrive in three minutes. You both rush out the door and head towards the trauma bay. There is exactly now two minutes left until the arrival of the patient, whom, you learned while rushing to the bay, was in critical condition from a motor vehicle accident, is unconscious, and is losing blood rapidly. With those two minutes, the DI’s preparation is crucial for the team’s outcome. There are also a dozen or more medical staff present to assist in stabilizing the patient. As a DI, you are filtering multiple conversations at once. You are also independently (without the direction of your DP) putting on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), setting up mics for better audio access in the room, introducing yourself to the trauma team, explaining your role, and establishing placement so that you are not in the way, but visually accessible, to the DP. The DP in those two minutes may have been on the opposite side of the room looking at incoming x‐rays, EMS reports, and also getting on their PPE. If that DI was to wait even a second (stuck in the traditional role of not acting on one’s own autonomy), the patient’s care could be jeopardized, as well as the DI’s own safety. The DI might even be kicked out of the trauma bay as an unnecessary bystander, still waiting for the DP to introduce you and for them to indicate what you should be doing and to whom you should be speaking. That DI’s inclusion with the medical team is actually what elevates the DP to be on an equal level with peers and supervisors. When there are only two minutes to designate roles and lives  are depending on efficiency, you simply cannot respond as a traditional interpreter does.

Now, this was an extreme example to indicate how DI’s must abandon roles taught to us by  ITPs, but re‐examined, we could certainly apply this type of autonomy in a less life-threatening  situation. That was a little on how DI’s are different. You may now have already guessed why it matters. Now, Iet’s dissect these questions a bit further.

Adaptability is Key

The traditional role provides a lot of safety for sign language interpreters but it works against the success of Deaf individuals in professional careers. With that said, some DPs do prefer traditional interpreters. We must always keep that in mind when customizing our approach to our clients’ needs. DPs share a common concern that sign language interpreters’ lack of adaptability and limited skill-sets are what prevents them from climbing the success ladder[4]. Some will overcome the odds, but may remain isolated amongst their hearing peers. Eventually, this will lead to plateauing in their chosen field.

DPs and DIs Develop Close Partnerships

The traditional approach to sign language interpreting shields us from encounters that challenge our neutrality. As DIs, our neutrality is still intact but our humanity is exposed. You can not hide your humanity as a DI when you are covered with blood from a patient, interpreting a terminal diagnosis, or witnessing a birth. Being exposed to death and birth will bring us closer to the DP and the medical staff supporting those patients. The DI may be invited to debrief with the staff after trauma. They may also cry or laugh with the DP and his team. That is part of the partnership. The role of a DI exposes their vulnerabilities, weaknesses and strengths which, in turn, can create a stronger bond between the DP and DI. It also helps level out the natural power dynamic that exists in the hearing and deaf world. In a partnership approach, you both have stakes in successful outcomes. Additionally, as a healthcare DI, you are taking up precious space that would otherwise be utilized by another doctor, nurse or student. Standing idly in “neutrality” is not considered a good utilization of resources.

Partnerships are created through on‐the‐job relationships with the DP and their peers. We are friendly, communicative, and responsive to questions. If we do not communicate autonomously and openly with or without our DP around, it will create immediate isolation for that professional. In other words, we are considered an extension of that DP. Stay with me here, I am not speaking on existential terms. Simply put, we are behaving as we normally would amongst colleagues. We are working to close the formal and informal conversational gap that often occurs with peers who do not share a language. DPs and DIs might finish each other’s thoughts on occasion – this is teamwork.

Either way, we are acting on acquired instincts and, together, our collaborative communication “closes the deal” for a PAH work environment to run smoothly. It becomes obvious why the DI’s personality and adaptability skills are highly desirable. Neither the DP nor DI wants to be stuck together if they are not able to effectively work together. Of course, the only way to create this level of trust is getting to know the DP on both a professional and personal level. How else could a DI read the DP’s thoughts and know when to share a favorite deaf joke, “Why did God create farts? So that Deaf people could enjoy them too!” to a doctor while performing a colonoscopy. It’s always a good laugh, and the doctor may be more likely to request the DP on another assignment because their experience with “our team” went smoothly.

Embracing Change

These scenarios only scratch the surface of the depth of this type of teaming environment. DPs are eagerly awaiting sign language interpreters that are ready to embrace change. An interpreter with the aptitude for learning, who is also humble enough to adapt to the DP’s needs will succeed in this role. While not all sign language interpreters are a good match for this work, those few that have this privilege are honored every day to be part of the DP’s world.

Let’s work together to advance our careers and DPs too!

Questions for Consideration:

  1. How are the current traditional interpreter roles holding back deaf professionals?
  2. What are the challenges of interpreters acting on their own autonomy?
  3. How does a Designated Interpreter adapt their role?


[1] Swabey, L., Agan, T., Moreland, C., & Olson, A. (2016, May). “Understanding the Work of Designated Healthcare Interpreters” Retrieved August 11, 2016, from

[2] U.S. Medical Schools’ Compliance With the Americans with Disabilities Act: Findings From a National Study. (n.d.). Retrieved August 11, 2016, from

[3] Eligon, J. (2013, August 19). Deaf Student, Denied Interpreter by Medical School, Draws Focus of Advocates. Retrieved August 11, 2016, from

[4] “Breaking Down Barriers: Professionals and Students in Healthcare” (n.d.). NADMag, Spring(2016).

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Accept or Decline? Questions Sign Language Interpreters Should Ponder

Accept or Decline? Questions Sign Language Interpreters Should Ponder

Michael Ballard suggests that sign language interpreters must begin making decisions before an assignment ever begins. Utilizing pre-assignment questions can bring practitioners more clarity when determining readiness for a job.


Hello, everyone. I’m Michael Ballard and I’m thrilled to be with you today for Street Leverage. It’s an exciting time. A little about myself: I grew up learning speech and lip-reading in California and I learned to sign at age 15, and I sign still today. My identity underwent a significant change when I started to learn ASL as I began to interact with a variety of Deaf peers at my high school. Through their instruction, my signing ability greatly improved, and I’m still always learning. I also have to thank the friends of mine who are interpreters. Without your hard work, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

[Click to view post in ASL.]

I had been giving thought to this when Brandon Arthur approached me at the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf conference in New Orleans and asked if I was interested in filming an article. I agreed, and after some thought decided to speak on an issue close to my heart and mind: an interpreter’s thought process when accepting or declining a job.


Defining the Lens

This article’s lens uses as a foundation Dean and Pollard’s 2001 research on Demand Control Schema, or DCS[1]. An interpreter needs to fully grasp both concepts of what constitutes the various demands and controls before accepting an assignment.

Demands and Controls

The category of “demands” can be broken into four parts:

  • environmental demands: terminology, technology, roles, physical environment
  • interpersonal demands: that which is specific to the interpreter and clients involved
  • paralinguistic demands: That which is specific to the expressive skills of the client (deaf or hearing)
  • intrapersonal demands: That which is specific to the interpreter (inner thoughts, feelings, bias, physical/emotional state)

The concept of “controls” describe what a person can exert influence over in the situation, such as:

  • actions or behavior,
  • Particular translation/interpretation decisions
  • Internal/attitudinal acknowledgments

Accurately Assessing Readiness

Before I go on, I would like to note the word “anosognosia,” a term coined in 1999 by Dunning-Kruger in an article at Cornell University[2]. The phenomenon of anosognosia arose to describe research participants’ excessive overestimation of their skills and abilities, and the tendency of we as humans to inflate reality so it reflects positively on ourselves. However, it is only through recognition of error that we can reflect and grow. It then follows that interpreters could be prone to the overconfidence that comes with anosognosia, and should make every effort not to overlook that tendency.

Pre-Assignment Analysis

I’d like to pose some overarching questions for interpreter analysis. As an interpreter, one should ask: Do I possess enough controls to satisfy the demands of this assignment? Each of the following sub-questions should be considered through self-analysis and review using a Likert scale approach (1=weakest ability to 5= strongest ability).  

  1. Do I have sufficient linguistic skill and content knowledge in the necessary languages to meet the needs of this assignment, and to interpret or translate with accuracy and cultural equivalency?

It is incumbent on the interpreter to communicate with the managing entity to get all relevant details and demands of the assignment to make that determination. That process takes experience.

At my first staff-faculty meeting at the start of the semester- I am an ASL instructor and moved recently for the job- it so happened that several colleagues wanted to learn some signs, so I invited them to join my class. After two weeks, we attended a meeting to which an agency interpreter had been assigned. The interpreter was not certified or licensed and was clearly incompetent. I was consequently unable to participate in the meeting because I couldn’t understand the content. During the meeting, a colleague texted me and asked about the interpreter because they were noticeably confused and fumbling. I gave feedback about the interpreter to the agency after the meeting on the need to improve the quality of services, and it is my hope that in the two years since that meeting that they have improved. That is an example of the necessity of an interpreter possessing the linguistic skills and knowledge required in an assignment in order to interpret effectively and accurately.

  1.  Am I psychologically and emotionally stable enough to perform the job requisites? Can I interpret without having a negative influence on the parties involved?

Due to the unpredictability of assignments, an interpreter must be mentally and emotionally capable of handling unexpected events.

For example, at the birth of my oldest daughter- we have four children- the interpreter at the hospital was respectful, competent and professional and made the experience as seamless as possible, even given the 3:00 A.M. delivery. I’m grateful to have had that positive of an experience. We specifically requested the same interpreter for our second child’s birth because the first experience had been so wonderful, and it made the day that much more fun. However, at the birth of our third child my wife and I were terribly disappointed at the assigned interpreter’s lack of professionalism in their behavior- they were flirting, making jokes and in general being inappropriate. It was upsetting for my wife to be actively in labor with an interpreter interjecting in the midst of everything. Unfortunately, it’s an example of an interpreter not possessing the mental and emotional clarity to navigate that type of situation, and that lack of self-regulation has a serious impact. 

  1. Am I taking this assignment because I’m qualified, or because I want the experience?

As I mentioned, our first two childbirth experiences were exceptional because the interpreter was qualified, but I wonder if the interpreter in the third birth accepted the job solely to gain more medical interpreting experience. I didn’t think to inquire at the time because I was focused on my wife, but the question for me remains. I suggest in those situations that an interpreter looking to gain experience instead ask to observe or mentor with a qualified interpreter and select appropriate assignments rather than cause a situation where communication access in high stakes settings is in jeopardy due to ill qualifications.

  1.  Does my preparation vary based on my views of what kind of Deaf client or position is seen to be “high profile” or not?

My belief is that there is no hierarchy of clients or professions- a Ph.D. should be approached with the same respect and care as a welder, teacher, nurse, carpenter, stay at home parent or any other occupation or station in life. All have value, but are interpreters investing the same amount of time and energy in preparation to reflect that? Interpreters should take the time to examine assumptions of what merits varying levels of preparation and not unfairly weight some assignments or clients above others. Providing interpreting services in a kindergarten or first grade is just as critically important as interpreting doctorate courses, and we need to examine bias, appreciate the human element and rethink how to approach “high profile” vs “low profile” assignments. 

  1. Am I able to keep my bias in check?

A common phrase among interpreters is one on neutrality in assignments: “I’m neutral, not getting involved,” etc. Metzger (2011)[3] states that the idealistic “neutral conduit” does not exist. Your biases affect and effect how exchanges take place. Will my presence lead to further oppression of a marginalized group or build bridges that bring groups together? An interpreter should be aware of biases and look for ways to mitigate any negative impact on the interpreted product. For example, if an interpreter finds themselves in a situation where they feel strongly about communication modes being discussed for cultural or educational reasons, or perhaps are interpreting political views that may contrast their own, it is important that the interpreter recognize biases and thoughtfully consider their ability to provide quality service. If it’s not possible, they need to excuse themselves from the assignment or allow a team interpreter to interpret. An interpreter not possessing adequate controls will ultimately deliver a flawed product. Ideally, an interpreter should be mentally and emotionally aware enough to recognize biases and determine qualifications and fit prior to the assignment.

Post-Assignment Considerations

I’d like to shift focus from pre-assignment self-analysis questions for considering to post-assignment questions. In my estimation, it’s rare that in-depth analysis post-assignment happens as often as it should, but it is worthy of thought. Similarly to the initial set of questions, these would be helpful to answer using the Likert scale method:

  1. Am I confident that my interpretation was linguistically and culturally accurate in both English and ASL?
  2. What would I do differently if and when I am in a similar context, linguistically, interpersonally, etc?
  3. Finally, did I approach the client after the assignment to provide clarifying comments or check in about comprehension?

Considering these questions both before and after each assignment will help develop a stronger awareness of self and decision-making process.

In the End: Gratitude

Again, I want to reiterate that without interpreters, I wouldn’t be where I am in my life today. My life journey would look completely different. For all of your hard work, the hours of training, your minds and hearts, blood, sweat, and tears- many, many, thanks. I look forward to seeing you around in the community and will gladly accept any questions on this article. Enjoy your day.

Questions to Consider:

  1. How might I better solicit meaningful advice and feedback from my clients as a resource to maintain a healthy self-appraisal?
  2. What do I do to gauge emotional readiness to interpret in any given environment?
  3. What mechanisms do I employ to keep my bias in check while interpreting?
  4. What does “high profile” mean and how does that definition play a part in my preparations?


[1] Dean, R.K., & Pollard, R.Q. (2001).  Application of demand-control theory to sign language interpreting: Implications for stress and interpreter training.  Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 6, 1-14.

[2] Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77, 1121–1134.

[3] Metzger, M. (2011).  Sign language interpreting: Deconstructing the myth of neutrality.  Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press.

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What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting

Sign Language Interpreter Framing Their Work

Kelly Decker examines common ways sign language interpreters frame the task of interpreting and peels back some of the implications and impact on the field and the larger communities served.


Sign language interpreters are taught that meaning is conveyed through accurate word choice. Do we give the same considerations to word choice when we label and describe interpreting itself? How do our words and actions frame our work?

As a professional sign language interpreter, I would like to address some of the language used when conversing with colleagues, training new interpreters, and depicting the profession to the mainstream media. The frames we use, as a profession, have the power to devalue the work we do, and by extension, the communities we serve. Continued reinforcement of these frames impacts public perception of sign language interpreting.

[Click to view post in ASL.]

It takes years of intentional practice, reflection, and dedication to develop competence as a sign language interpreter. Platforms such as Street Leverage allow us to continually highlight and examine the ways we have yet to grow. MJ Bienvenu’s Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual and Carol Padden’s Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? illustrate two fundamental problems we face in the field.

While we have begun to address the language we use to talk about our work, there is more work to do. I have selected four examples which demonstrate various ways interpreters contribute to current understandings of our work. There are many other examples that could be analyzed. I encourage you to contribute to this conversation online and with your colleagues to further examine how our use of language can contribute to a misperception of our profession and the disenfranchisement of the Deaf community. These types of conversations lead to greater awareness, which can be a catalyst for change.

The Labels We Use: “Terp”

It is not clear to me where this abbreviation came from. A cursory search on the internet found that it is cited as slang for “interpreter” and paired with the word ‘deaf’. We work with marginalized communities who are continuously disenfranchised regardless of the abundance of evidence and research regarding language, intelligence, and Deaf Gain [1]. We deflate our profession and the work we do for the sake of a few saved keystrokes.

This word “terp” (and I call it a word since it has become commonplace nomenclature and somewhat of a phenomenon within our field [i.e. TERPexpo],) is used primarily in written English when interpreters communicate with and refer to each other, and when interpreting agencies make requests for “terps”. The use of the term “Terp” does not stop within sign language interpreting circles. Since it has become somewhat the norm internally, it has spilled out into the larger community as the preferred label for what many interpreters want to be called. I feel this does a disservice to the field. I am an interpreter.

Misleading Terminology


As I understand it, in most instances, this phrase refers to actual interpreting. I come across it when dialoguing with ASL/English interpreting students. This term is used in practicum to indicate a requirement that is different from observation hours – the need for “hands-up” hours.

When sign language interpreters in the field and educators in interpreter education programs use this term to talk about the work we do, it implies that interpreters only interpret in one direction, into American Sign Language. It implies that Deaf people have nothing to say nor contribute. In reality, our work is working between – at least – two languages. This misguided idea is further bolstered by how our national organization frames the act of interpreting. The interpreter certification exam tests interpreting capabilities and decision-making. Yet ASL vlogs, created by RID, refer to the performance portion of the interpreting exam using a gloss that gives the literal impression that the exam is a “signing test”[2].

As explained above, “hands-up” addresses only half of the work we do. Or does it? When colleagues say “I prefer to work into ASL, it’s easier” or “I don’t do any ASL to spoken English work,” is it because interpreters, too, believe that interpreting is only done in one direction?

Additionally, the term “hands-up” perpetuates the erroneous notion that sign language interpreters, most of whom are second language learners of ASL, prefer to work into ASL because they are “comfortable”, “have more experience working into ASL,” or “feel they are clear”.  Substantial evidence is to the contrary [3].

Interpreting, and more broadly, signed languages, have little to do with the hands. While sign language is expressed in a visual modality, the hands are but one element of that mode. Language is rich and complex. It conveys thoughts, emotions, and abstract ideas and it results in human connections. Language is influenced by and interwoven with culture. It is impacted by generational, intersectional and regional influences. Reducing an entire language to its modality is a prime example of how the dominant language and culture exerts power over and diminishes a linguistic and cultural minority.


This term “voicing” has become commonplace within our field as a descriptor for the spoken language work we do as interpreters. It is a descriptor that oversimplifies the nature of the work, as if it requires no cognitive decision-making by the interpreter, nor cultural brokering between the two languages, and that the interpreter functions simply as a sign-by-sign voice over.  In Jessica Bentley-Sassaman’s article, Taking Ownership: Defining Our Work As Sign Language Interpreters, she states “voicing” does not appropriately state what we do, what does is naming what we are actually doing when interpreting.

As the profession continues to use the term “voicing”, I believe that we perpetuate a medical perspective on deafness. It bolsters the idea, that when deaf people use sign language they need to be fixed somehow, given a voice, and that’s what interpreters are doing.

This portrayal of the work reinforces a view held by the majority culture that  the language used by the Deaf community is somehow deficient. This misconception is propagated by the Alexander Graham Bell Association, whose position was made public [4] after the televised accomplishments of Nyle DiMarco, that desirable language development and outcomes for deaf children are only possible when focusing on listening and speaking, both of which are deeply rooted in the deficit-based medical model of what it means to be deaf.

As sign language interpreters, I believe we ought to unpack the implications and impacts of how we frame our work.

Perceptions of Professional Interpreters: Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] [5]

This video was so popular on social media after its release in December 2014, that the video’s participants were a part of the entertainment during RID’s 2015 national conference in New Orleans, LA. I have cited this piece not based on its participants but as an example of how we portray who we are, what our work entails, and how we approach the task of interpreting.

From what I gather, this video was made as a parody, a day-in-the-life of a sign language interpreter. All joking aside, what I cannot shake off while watching this video without audio input, is that it clearly represents misconceptions about the work we do:

(1) we only work into sign language, as the tired arms, hands and fingers portray;

(2) we only do this work for the money, as the interpreter runs off screen following the dollar bills;

(3) we self-medicate, as the abundance of pills clearly shows; and

(4) we can brush off the significance of the task of interpreting, as the title of the song conveys.

This day-in-the-life video makes no mention of the substantial cognitive work we do, which is the foundation of the product we produce. The sole focus is the self-aggrandizement of the interpreter. We must consider how this can contribute to the  mainstream media’s abundance of misleading and demeaning pieces about sign language interpreters while #DeafTalent continues to go unnoticed.

Holding Ourselves Accountable

These examples are both subtle and not so subtle. As these flawed representations proliferate, we, as practitioners, as educators, and as a professional organization, become complacent and immune to the deleterious effect they have on our profession. We may dismiss it, saying, “This is the way we’ve always talked about the work,” “This how my interpreter training program said it,” or “I never really thought about it.”

We need to think about it. We need to talk about it. We need to question and remind each other when we use language that trivializes our work.

Mastery of interpreting is no easy feat. It is a labor of love, a demanding cognitive endeavor, and a dedication to craft. Above all, we are collectively accountable to representing our work with the utmost respect for the Deaf community.

How will you model talking about the work we do?

Questions for Consideration:

  1. The ways in which we, as a profession, talk about the work we do is anchored upon our understanding of what interpreting means. Are the ways we portray the work, the profession, and the communities we serve accurate?
  2. How do you think the ways that we talk about the work impact the profession?
  3. Do you have examples of times when dialoguing with colleagues where how they were talking about the work just did not sit right?
  4. With those examples in mind, how can you further explore what it is that did not sit right?


[1] Bauman, H-Dirksen and Murray, Joseph. Editors. Deaf Gain Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. University of Minnesota Press. October 2014.

[2] Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. RID Announces Moratorium on Credentialing You Tube Posted 9 Aug 2015.

[3] Nicodemus, Brenda and Emmorey, Karen. Directionality in ASL-English interpreting Accuracy and articulation quality in L1 and L2. Interpreting. Vol 17:2. 2015. p. 145-166.

[4] Sugar, Meredith. Dispelling myths about deafness. Online: Posted 1 April 2016

[5] Ott, Stephanie. Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] You Tube watch?v=DS2UdoXS3xA Posted 13 Dec 2014.