Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World

December 6, 2016

“At-risk” and “sign language interpreter” are not synonymous for most people. Stephen Holter highlights some risk factors and preventative measures sign language interpreters can use to stay safe.

  • Walking through the lobby of the mental health facility, the sign language interpreter had no way of knowing that just a few short hours later, a gunman would open fire, killing the receptionist and injuring several others before turning the gun on himself.  
  • At a university campus in a different part of the country, a female interpreter is walking to her car after completing her night class assignment when she notices a male student from the class following her. Fearing for her safety, she reaches for her phone to call the police.
  • While on assignment interpreting a potentially volatile home visit for a social worker, an interpreter has a feeling of concern for her own safety after noticing that the door is locked behind her.  
  • While walking through the hall in a jail, a sign language interpreter is told by the guard that, if he tackles her, it will be for her own safety.   
  • In a psychiatric facility, an interpreter is suddenly assaulted. She has not been provided with a “panic button” that is routinely supplied to all other hospital staff in the event of such an attack.   

All of these situations are real and were provided by working sign language interpreters discussing personal safety concerns that exist on the job as part of their daily work.

[View post in ASL]

Personal Security and Sign Language Interpreters

A number of factors make the field of sign language interpreting unique in terms of personal security. Freelance interpreters are frequently called upon to work in novel settings at any hour of the day or night. The interpreter is often “alone” in the sense that they are not with others who are known to them. Some settings can be inherently dangerous.   

Sign language Interpreters frequently work in healthcare and social service settings. In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 23,000 significant injuries due to assault at work. More than 70 percent of these assaults were in healthcare and social service settings. Health care and social service workers are almost four times as likely to be injured as a result of violence than the average private sector worker. (OSHA Updates)

In recent conference workshops, sign language interpreters were asked about the types of settings in which they experienced safety concerns. The most frequently mentioned setting was mental health hospitals. With HIPAA law, interpreters are often given little to no information about the patient. When this is the case, the interpreter may not be aware of the presenting concerns that led to the hospitalization of the patient. It may be the case that it is not the patient with whom the interpreter is working that is a danger, but rather others in the environment. Sign language interpreters who find themselves working in mental health settings would benefit from seeking out professional development opportunities that address working with individuals whose behaviors are escalating to the point of potential violence.  

What Can Sign Language Interpreters Do to Stay Safe?

While risks may be present in any number of settings that sign language interpreters work, there are some steps that may be taken to keep oneself safe. These include the following:

a. Situational Awareness

Regardless of the setting in which an interpreter works, a key factor that will help to keep one safer is situational awareness. This seems, of course, to be common sense but is often discounted. Maintaining alertness to what is occurring in your immediate environment will provide you with time to see approaching danger, react, and attempt to  get away from potential sources of threat.  

To practice developing situational awareness, one important habit is to begin assessing the environment you will be working in upon entering to identify at least two ways to exit the scene if a crisis starts to occur. For example, when interpreting for political candidates or concerts, the interpreter should be in the practice of locating the two nearest exits. Planning ahead will reduce confusion in the event there is a crisis and one of the exits is blocked.

b. Plug Into Notification and Alert Systems

University settings now have alert systems to notify staff and students of situations such as active shooter warnings. Contract interpreters, however, are often not “plugged” into the system to receive such notifications. One solution that has been discussed is ensuring that the agency that contracts with sign language interpreters is, in fact, set up on that system so that they may notify the interpreter of any such emergencies.

c. Be Your Own Bodyguard

As discussed in “Fight like a Girl…and Win; Defense Decisions for Women,” it is important to decide that one is one’s own bodyguard. It is good to have police and other first responders, but it takes time for them to respond and, by then, it may be too late. Realizing that there needs to be a certain degree of self-reliance is the first step to keeping safe.

d. Avoid Complacency

Complacency is clearly one of the greatest factors that compromise situational awareness. As sign language interpreters are racing from one assignment to the next, it is natural to be focused on reading text messages or catching up on voicemails. Attackers will look for easy targets. A person whose attention is focused on the phone is an easy target. In his book, “The Gift of Fear,”  Gavin DeBecker discusses how, rather than giving way to complacency, part of staying safe is tuning into the danger signals that may be provided by one’s own senses.

Interpreters should consider the anticipated length of an assignment when parking. For example, rushing to interpret an emergency room visit, the interpreter might be focused on the potential nature of the emergency. ER visits, however, may often run four or five hours. As such, the lighting in the area where the interpreter has parked may have changed considerably. This should be taken into account for all settings.

e. Stay Physically Fit

How can one become a less desirable target for a potential attacker? Attackers often want to have the greatest reward with the least amount of risk. Physical fitness comes into play in this regard as attackers will often prey on those whom they regard to be easy targets. If one is looking for a reason to get into better shape, this may be it. When looking at workout options, one form of training that may be sought is called Krav Maga. This is a defensive training which not only provides a physical workout, but also provides skills for defending oneself against varying types of physical assaults, including those involving weapons.

f. Utilize Non-Lethal Tools

Some people choose to carry non-lethal self-defense tools such as pepper spray/gel, taser, and a Kubaton. These tools all have relative pros and cons. While none of these tools above will incapacitate the attacker, they are, instead, used to momentarily stop the attacker long enough for one to get a safe distance away.  

Pepper spray or gel:  Pepper spray is small and portable and is available in containers that may look like lipstick. Pepper spray has a range of 8-20 feet and typically costs below $30. One drawback of pepper spray is that it may be affected by wind and be blown back into one’s own face. Pepper gel is now available that is not as subject to gusts of wind. These devices have safety locking mechanisms that require enough familiarity to be operated when one is panicked. Additionally, it will be important to retain control of the spray so that it may not be taken by the attacker and used on the victim.

Stun guns: Stun guns are a potentially effective means of incapacitation.  Like pepper spray, stun guns are also fairly inexpensive and portable. While pepper spray is to be used at a distance, a stun gun requires that one must be close enough to make contact with the attacker. Effectiveness of a stun gun, or lack thereof, also depends on battery life. As with pepper spray, one also need to be able to retain control of the device.  

Kubotan: Another self-defense tool is called a Kubotan. Looking like a pen made of hard plastic or metal, a kubotan may be attached to a keychain for easy access. A kubotan may be used for strikes against joints or fleshy areas for self-defense.  

Conscious Consideration is the Key

As evident in the points that were discussed above, self-protection for a sign language interpreter involves multiple dimensions. It begins with an awareness that some settings may be more inherently dangerous than others. Regardless of the setting, however, maintaining a situational awareness to dangers that may suddenly arise will give you more time to formulate a response that will get you out safely. With the dangers present in today’s world, giving conscious consideration to self-protection is time well spent.

There are multiple aspects that come into play when trying to keep oneself safe as a working interpreter. It begins with the awareness that one may be at risk, maintaining vigilance to recognize when danger might be approaching, and learning physical strategies that might be used in the event they are needed. By using this multi-tiered approach, sign language interpreters can enhance their ability to keep themselves safe.

Questions to Consider:

  1.   What potential security risks do you see while traveling to or within your work settings?
  1.    How do you think you can reduce each of these risks?
  1.   What local resources are available to you to increase your personal safety knowledge and skills?

References:

Becker, G. D. (1997). The gift of fear: Survival signals that protect us from violence. Boston: Little, Brown.

Gervasi, L. H. (2007). Fight like a girl– and win: Defense decisions for women. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

OSHA guidelines for preventing workplace violence for … (2015, April 01). Retrieved September 2, 2016, from https://www.osha.gov/SLTC/workplaceviolence/evaluation.html

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28 Comments on "Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World"

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ncmacasl
Member

Interpreted for a Religious Event at a basketball/hockey arena. Full stage. I was interpreting on a raised platform a few feet in front of the stage — the same side of the stage as a Hollywood-style CAMERA CRANE, with an operator who was not told we would be on that platform. Had a NEAR MISS (inches from my head!) which prompted the moving of our platform to the other side of the stage the following day. After that I learned that the ONLY person responsible for my OWN SAFETY – is ME!!

sholter
Member
Stephen Holter

Michael, you are exactly right in that you have to be the one to look after yourself. One thing I talk about in workshops is the “bystander effect.” Even if people see something happening, they often won’t step in to help. And even once they finally decide to help, it may be too late. You have to be your own first responder.

Member

I am interested in learning more about the workshop you provide on this topic. I would like my interpreters to have this training. Please.

sholter
Member
Stephen Holter
Hi Ruann. I absolutely love presenting about this topic. There are two workshop formats I do, depending upon the setting. The first is what I would call a “soft skills” workshop. In that session, I go over topics including the various scenarios described here, bystander effect, pre-indicators of attack, effects of fear and how to try and mitigate them, weapons of opportunity and probably a few other topics as time permits. The second workshop is a “hands-on” introduction to Krav Maga skills. For this portion, I could introduce participants to basic combatives and then go into some other defenses for… Read more »
sholter
Member
Stephen Holter

I would be interested in hearing of the relevant experiences of other interpreters. If, along with those experiences, you have proposed solutions, those would be helpful as well. I think we could all then benefit from your experience. If you are not comfortable sharing here publicly, please feel free to email me privately. There’s really not much in the way of research on this topic specifically and I would really appreciate the opportunity to learn from your experiences. Thanks!

Stephen Holter

Member
Catrina White
I highly suggest to my mentees several things- learn self defense. never ever be alone in a room with just the client- if the dr/nurse/teacher/attorney/business person leaves the room, you do too- stand out in the hallway. When you arrive to an assignment that is high profile, introduce yourself to security, the production maganger and staff around you. Make sure security/police/law enforcement knows where you are, and ask them if an emergency arises, can you go out through the back door/stage door if necessary. Always ask if they have a protocol of what they would want the interpreter to do-… Read more »
sholter
Member
Stephen Holter
Great feedback, Catrina! Yes, all great points. In terms of the flashlight, I would recommend a good tactical flashlight. These provide not only an extraordinary degree of illumination, but one like the one I use and carry in my car can be used as a defensive striking weapon if necessary. As for the CERT classes, those are definitely good classes to pursue as well. For general CEU requirements, I would encourage interpreters to look into taking first aid/basic trauma care classes. I love your point about being under 5 feet tall and yet, with your Krav training, you have what… Read more »
Member
The ‘keeping oneself safe’ ideas all focus on physical doing by myself (fight back, have a defense tool, increase my awareness of the scene). While these have importance, it would be useful to also include the things the interpreter can do that involve the others in the setting. For example: Talk with those onsite about safety – do other staff have a panic button? Then give me one. Do not leave me alone with the client if it is standard practice at the institution that staff are always working in teams. Is the social worker familiar with the family and… Read more »
sholter
Member
Stephen Holter
All good ideas, Amy. I definitely agree with trying to be as proactive as possible to try and prevent the situations from happening in the first place. Part of this comes with educating interpreters of the need to be aware that these types of scenarios can and will occur so that they can be better prepared to ask the right questions when the assignment is presented. Another interpreter mentioned the police leaving her alone in a room with a potentially violent criminal because they regarded the “two as one.” To prevent this from happening, I would encourage some dialogue with… Read more »
Member
Exactly: you leave? I leave. I’ve been known to call the ‘two as one’ phenomenon the “Brangelina Effect” but now that that pop cultural reference has fizzled… 🙁 As Michael said, the only person truly watching out for my own safety is ME. This is true for any one, any interpreter. I think it is key to bring to the conversation another societal reality that hasn’t been mentioned: the way girls and women have been enculturated to be quiet, not cause extra work or ‘problems’ for anyone in the workplace, to not take up space, to accommodate the needs of… Read more »
sholter
Member
Stephen Holter

Amy, you might be interested in reading one of the books cited below, “Fight Like a Girl–and Win: Defense Decisions for Women.” Given the demographics of our field being predominantly women, I think it’s important for people to consider the factors you mentioned. As Gervasi describes, you essentially need to go through that sort of internal dialogue, giving yourself permission to do what you need to do to protect yourself. This process needs to occur before you get into a crisis situation so that you are better prepared to respond quickly.

Member
Thanks Stephen for bringing up a topic that is so important to us. You brought up things I hadn’t even considered–so helpful. Another area of concern to me especially for less experienced interpreters is the hospital setting. It is so important to be mindful while in this setting since it is most likely you have no information of the client’s medical history. I strongly believe it is a safety concern if an interpreter chooses to stay in the patient’s room during down time. This is often a point of disagreement between interpreters. Since new strains of viruses/bacteria have developed with… Read more »
sholter
Member
Stephen Holter

Jan, a friend of mine who is a nurse also mentioned a situation where a patient who had been unconscious, suddenly started throwing punches as he gained consciousness but was disoriented and confused. This would be a good example of wanting to be mindful to keep sufficient body space so you have time to react.

Member

Excellent article! Applies to many other business travelers as well. Thank you!

sholter
Member
Stephen Holter

I agree, Lori. Nowadays, I think we would all be wise to take these issues into consideration.

Member
Jules Dickinson

Escape routes! I always make sure that the client is not between me and a way of getting out. I was once trapped in a staff room, whilst a supported living tenant rampaged outside in the hallway, trying to break through to reach us. A very scary experience, which was unfortunately not taken very seriously by the organisation’s manager at the time. Thanks for this article, I will be forwarding it to my interpreting team colleagues.

sholter
Member
Stephen Holter
Hi Jules. Yes, it is a good habit to look for two exits. This is applicable in your personal life as well as interpreting situations. For example, when going to the mall, movies, nightclubs (unfortunately as seen in recent events), it is critical to take notice of alternative exits. In a crisis situation, the first exit may be blocked. Also, you had mentioned ensuring that the client is not between you and the door. One point to keep in mind with mental health situations is that the client may perceive you as a potential threat if you place yourself between… Read more »
Member
Thanks for the article! As I become more experienced in the field, I am shredding this idea of “niceness” when it comes to my personal safety. Often times my concerns are not taken seriously by facility staff due to them having a relationship with patients and me being a newcomer. I have started stating clearly and firmly what I need to be safe just as I do to ensure effective communication. I have also been taking advantage of having security personnel escort me to my car if its late at night and I’m parked in a far off location. Thank… Read more »
sholter
Member
Stephen Holter
Laura, I think you are wise to hang onto your assertiveness and caution. Less than one month ago at a psychiatric facility not far from where I work, six people were stabbed by a man with a knife. The man was a former patient whose services were terminated due to his insurance running out. He obviously felt that he still needed services so he returned to the facility with a knife and began attacking people. Afterwards staff had recalled him by saying, “He was nice, he was friendly, he was always respectful to me an I never had any issues… Read more »
Member
Cathrael Hackler
Thanks somuch for this article. All of these scenarios are so likely to happen, if they haven’t already to me. And it is so easy, especially as a woman as someone already commented, to not feel we ‘have the right’ to ask for what we need, ask questions, make sure the facility includes us in their safety plans etc etc. I think this is especially true for newer interpreters. This is GREAT info for IPP/ITPs to include in their curriculum. We should all send this article to our local IPPs for inclusion and to start these conversations, so they start… Read more »
sholter
Member
Stephen Holter

Cathrael, consistent with your suggestion, I have received some feedback that some ITP’s will start bringing this issue into classroom discussion. I’m also trying to share this information by trying to get to the conferences that I can as well as some discussion about talking with local ITP students. It’s also helpful for me to hear of the various experiences provided by seasoned interpreters. My plan is to take those scenarios and discuss them in workshops so that we can collectively not only increase awareness, but seek to formulate potential strategies to address them.

Member

This is so exciting! I’m thrilled this will get into ITP instruction, thank you Stephen so much for this!

sholter
Member
Stephen Holter

Jan, to be clear, this is simply information that people can choose to include at some point during their ITP instruction. It is not any sort of mandated aspect of a currriculum.

Member

However it get there is okay by me!

sholter
Member
Stephen Holter
Hi Jan. As I was thinking about what you had mentioned, the expression, “Think globally, act locally,” came to mind. Specifically what I am thinking is that, if you are involved with various ITP programs, you could encourage them to, at some point in their training process, include this topic as a point of discussion. If they want to use this article, and the subsequent discussion points and scenarios raised by the readers of this article, great. Maybe that would be a good starting point. If interpreters could either continue to post their experiences here or email them to me,… Read more »
ncmacasl
Member

Also, perhaps you could look at other aspects of Personal Safety on the job (such as the camera example given earlier) as well as ergonomic considerations (being asked to sit or stand in an uncomfortable or unsafe position/location (examples: stand on a table not meant for standing so you can be seen, sitting on a piano bench for a 2 hour job, not being left alone with a client of a different gender). If you are injured on the job, who is liable?? Who was negligent??

sholter
Member
Stephen Holter
Hi Michael, A couple of the issues that you mentioned require not only situational awareness to recognize when safety is in the process of being compromised, but also, I think a degree of assertiveness that is necessary on the part of the interpreter. If you are being put into a position that doesn’t work for you ergonomically or from a safety standpoint, then you can suggest a more viable alternative. As for insurance matters, I bet there’s someone in our field who could provide some general guidance on matters involving liability but ultimately it will come down to the specifics… Read more »
sholter
Member
Stephen Holter

I appreciate hearing everyone’s experiences that involve this topic. As I am providing workshops and discussing these concerns, your experiences help to provide real life examples from which we can all learn. Please feel free to continue to add your experiences here as well as any lessons you might have learned in the process that might be of benefit for other interpreters. Thank you!

Stephen Holter

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