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World Citizens: Considerations for Sign Language Interpreters Abroad

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Travelling abroad as a sign language interpreter is an opportunity many practitioners actively seek out. Successfully navigating cultural norms, differences in professional standards, and linguistic challenges are the keys to creating an enriching experience.


Some 15 years ago, I was interpreting at a historic site in Europe for a Deaf friend. At the end of the tour, one of the site’s guides approached me. She asked me about interpreting agencies in that city and about how to sign certain words for the historical objects discussed on the tour. She asked me how interpreters in her country preferred to arrange interpreting services and wanted to be able to better serve future Deaf visitors. To be frank, I couldn’t answer any of her questions appropriately. After all, I was interpreting for an American Deaf person using ASL. I did not know the actual signs for these things. I was not paid by a local agency and, at that point, didn’t have any contacts with interpreting professionals in the country. As the assignment concluded, I tried to deflect feelings of responsibility for not being able to answer any of her questions. Now after much professional experience and growth, I have come to realize that I did have many responsibilities in this situation, responsibilities that I had failed to live up to. I now recognize that, when interpreting abroad, I have important obligations to the Deaf communities and the interpreting communities in the countries in which I choose to work.  

[View post in ASL]

Many sign language interpreters relish the opportunity to travel internationally as a part of their interpreting-related work. When we are invited to interpret for a study abroad, a cruise, or an organized tour, we accept the assignment with joyful anticipation. These assignments do indeed offer sign language interpreters important opportunities for professional growth and for personal fulfillment. Nevertheless, accepting these assignments involves accepting the unique ethical challenges associated with them. The RID Code of Professional Conduct encourages interpreters to “conduct themselves in a manner appropriate to the specific interpreting situation.” Interpreting in international settings requires consideration of the unique circumstances that come up in other countries. This work will occasion unique responses to the ethical dilemmas raised.

Combating Ethnocentrism in our Work

Before considering the particularities of these situations, sign language interpreters must be willing to address the ethnocentric assumptions that they likely bring with them on interpreting trips abroad. People typically expect that the norms of their home are the norms employed everywhere. However, norms, even professional norms, are thoroughly culturally conditioned. Simple facts such as what interpreters wear, where interpreters stand, and to where the boundaries of an interpreter’s role extend are all culturally determined. Thus everything about an interpreter’s professional decision making must be re-evaluated when the interpreter is working in a culture in which their decision-making process has not been developed.

Professional norms are likely to be different abroad in ways that we may not be able to anticipate. For instance, the norms of interpreter attire might be quite distinct in different countries. Some countries are accustomed to interpreters wearing only black professional suits. In other countries, suits and ties would never be appropriate. The mode of interpretation can likewise change in various cultures. In some countries, all interpreting is conducted simultaneously. In other countries, interpreters are much more likely to operate in the consecutive mode. Many differences also exist regarding professional boundaries. In some cultures, interpreters do not interact with participants in any obvious way. In other countries, professional behavior requires establishing warm, cordial relationships before business can be conducted.

Unique Obligations to Local Stakeholders

When working in the U.S., we are accustomed to thinking about how our ethical decisions will affect various stakeholders. We think about other interpreters, the Deaf community, and students, for instance. When working abroad, we must expand our area of concern to include colleagues and Deaf consumers in the country in which we are practicing.

Often, your work in another country will represent the first time that people in that country have worked with a professional sign language interpreter. Your work will set a precedent for all other interpreters to follow. You must be careful that the precedent that you establish is reflective of the norms and expectations of that country. Otherwise, you may inadvertently model behaviors that, while admirable in the U.S.A., are unacceptable in your host country. On the other hand, you may be working in a country with high levels of accessibility and with an established sign language interpreting presence. If this is the case, you still have an obligation to uphold the norms and expectations of that community in order to reinforce the work that they have done.

One important aspect of interpreting abroad involves correctly choosing sign terminology. Many of the places that you will visit and the sites that you will see have indigenous signs that can be employed in your interpretations. Rather than inventing signs or spelling the English names of the sites and experiences, take the time to learn how these concepts are signified in the native sign language. Failing to model the correct signs, and – even worse – inventing signs for objects, events, and places shows disrespect for the local Deaf community and for that community’s language. Even if there is not a specific sign that you are able to learn for a term, taking the time to research the meaning of native spoken-language terms can often allow you to present information that more accurately represents the meanings of the names of the location that you are visiting.

In order to assure interpreting work that is culturally and linguistically appropriate in these opportunities abroad, you will likely need to consult with and possibly hire the services of local Deaf and Hearing professionals. Online references and written material should serve only as a first step in preparing for your journey. In-country contacts will be able to teach you about the country’s professional expectations and provide you with the linguistic background needed to provide a culturally sensitive and linguistically accurate interpretation. For a brief in-country visit such as a conference or for one stop on a tour, perhaps a brief Skype conference with local Deaf community members and/or interpreters will suffice. For longer stays abroad, perhaps a prolonged, more organized conversation would be appropriate. In this event, we U.S.-based interpreters must be willing to compensate those international colleagues for their valuable support.  

In fact, a sacrificial concern for international colleagues should permeate our work abroad. The Code of Professional Conduct states that we must “demonstrate respect” for these colleagues in the work that we do. Our effect on their work life cannot be ignored. American sign language interpreters often work for conferences, on vacations, and on cruises. These industries often inadvertently exploit the local economy rather than enriching it. Sign language interpreters must be careful not to empower these oppressive systems. If we deprive our colleagues abroad of work that they could perform or if we become accustomed to providing substandard interpretations to our Deaf consumers on account of our unwillingness to share financially with our colleagues abroad, we are supporting this oppressive international system of exploitation. We must ensure that our work in host countries provides income to our colleagues as they serve in support roles to the work that we do.

In fact, we can move beyond simply paying local interpreters to support our work. We should consider partnering with local sign language interpreters and Deaf organizations in ways that provide opportunities for them to serve as our colleagues. If visiting a country that uses a dialect of ASL, U.S. sign language interpreters might encourage or even insist on the use of local interpreters rather than working by ourselves. Cruise lines, university trips, and travel agencies that only tap the resources of U.S. interpreters continue to impoverish local sign language interpreters and thus continue to adversely affect the local Deaf community’s access to interpretation. We must reach out to these local colleagues as potential teams and create opportunities for them by our advocacy efforts.

Best Practices

While we must be careful working abroad, with planning and effort, our presence in other countries can be enriching and helpful to local interpreting and Deaf communities. Here are some practical tips for how U.S. sign language interpreters working abroad can have a positive effect on the local interpreting and Deaf populations.

  1. Begin by getting in contact with local Deaf organizations and interpreting associations. The World Federation of the Deaf and the World Association of Sign Language Interpreters offer information about many member nations and can be a first stop when seeking international contacts.
  2. Use local contacts as a resource for you own preparation relating to language, culture, and professional ethics.
  3. Consider whether teaming with a local interpreter to conduct the work while in the country is feasible. If it is, be an advocate for it to hiring entities.
  4. Be prepared to represent the Deaf and interpreting communities of the region. Follow their guidelines and professional norms as much as possible in order to set the precedent that they desire.
  5. When tour guides and conference organizers ask you how they can contract sign language interpreters in the future, be sure to have a reference in their country that they can contact.
  6. Negotiate contracts creatively and carefully. While it is true that sign language interpreters may have limited control in many of these situations, they can begin these conversations. Owners of agencies and those in positions of power ought to make sure that their budgets allow for compensation to foreign interpreters—both Deaf and hearing—whenever they are appropriate.
  7. U.S. sign language interpreters might even need to sacrifice some of their own income to team with local interpreters.
  8. Interpreters and referral agencies can serve as a resource relating to Deaf-operated tours and services in these countries. If Deaf people take advantage of these local Deaf-run services, the need for interpretation would be completely removed while the Deaf population would be enriched.

Investing in International Relationships

The Caribbean is not the playground of the U.S.A. Europe is not an extension of the U.S. classroom. An interpreter’s working vacation requires the respect and cultural sensitivity of any other interpreting job. In fact, jobs abroad require more forethought and preparation than jobs in those areas with which we are already familiar. If this preparatory work is foregone, local Deaf and interpreting cultures will be appropriated and inadvertently exploited. However, if we view these opportunities as investments in our international colleagues and in international Deaf communities, our work abroad can be beneficial to all involved.  

Questions to Consider:

  1. Have you worked abroad? What was your experience like?
  2. Have you met an interpreter from another country? What did you learn from them?
  3. Would you like to work abroad? How can you prepare for that experience in the long term? In the short term?  
  4. What resources are available to help you ensure that your next trip abroad is more empowering to the local Deaf and interpreting communities?
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Incarceration: Opportunity or a Sign Language Interpreter’s Scarlet Letter?

Incarceration: Opportunity or a Sign Language Interpreter's Scarlet Letter?

Formerly incarcerated individuals acting as sign language interpreters? A knee-jerk reaction may be a resounding, “NO!”. Scott Huffman opens the dialogue about representation, second chances, and the American Dream.

Greetings. My name is Scott Huffman. I am a father of four, husband, son, friend, mentor, and activist. My day-to-day work consists of being an Outreach Manager/Sign Language Interpreter for Communications Consulting Group. In my spare time, I volunteer with Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD) – The ONLY non-profit in America solely focused on Deaf, Deaf-Blind, Hard of Hearing (DDBHH) persons incarcerated and returned. I also serve as the Vice President of the Louisiana Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (LRID) and am a board member for Re-entry Benefitting Families (RBF) who spearheads one of the only Reentry Centers in a local/parish prison in Louisiana.

[View Post in ASL.]

This topic may seem like an interesting twist to the conventional way of becoming a sign language interpreter. One usually envisions a CODA whose L1 is ASL and/or the ITP interpreter. Occasionally, church interpreters transition into the profession. However, the idea of a convicted felon working and functioning within our profession as a sign language interpreter may be shocking to some, spark curiosity in others, and for many, it’s an outright NO! I’d like to share a more humanistic approach to the reality of our profession as it relates to sign language interpreters who have been in trouble with the law and/or wrongly convicted at some point in their lives. Before I go any further, I will share a short synopsis of my personal story and how I became an interpreter.

My Personal Experience

While housed in a state prison serving a five-year prison sentence, I noticed a group of men who used American Sign Language to communicate. Prior to my incarceration, I don’t recall having ever met a person who is DDBHH. After several months of seeing injustices happen to their Community, i.e. no sign language interpreters, frivolous write-up’s for not obeying direct and verbal orders, hearing prisoners who prey on Deaf individuals, sexual & physical abuse, lack of access to self-help, educational, and Religious programs. Witnessing those injustices was the catalyst for my passion to learn sign language and eventually become a sign language interpreter.

After months of trying to memorize a 2D Random House Sign Language Dictionary (One cannot simply learn a 3d language with a 2d book),  I decided to approach the group of ten and introduce myself. For whatever reason, they decided to take me under their wing and share their beautiful language and culture with me. I became enamored with ASL and the Deaf World. Eventually, I was placed into the same dormitory with the men and the rest is history. I entered my 24/7 immersion program.

Not encouraging anyone to seek criminal activity to take place in such a program (joke), however, I wouldn’t trade my experience for the world. I won’t go into a lot of detail about life in prison for a person who is DDBHH for several reasons, but for the most part because we could be here for days. What I want to outline is the fact that our profession has its fair share of sign language interpreters with “rap-sheets” who breathe, work, and operate in the same spaces without a tattoo on their foreheads that says F-E-L-O-N. They are your average everyday people!

The Challenge of Finding Acceptance

The interpreting profession is a rather hard place to identify as a sign language interpreter with a felonious past. Some will scoff at you, turn their noses up, do their best to make sure you cannot work, and all in the name of “protecting the community.” I have experienced all of the above, but nonetheless, have persevered. Many days, I’ve wanted to quit, but I kept going because I felt the calling. There are many like me within our profession, and many more to come. My goal for this article is to create a safe space for interpreters to “come-out” and feel comfortable as professionals in a profession where their pasts loom over their existence.

Often I hear the sentence, “There are not many places a convicted felon can work as an interpreter.” I think quite the opposite. Myself, there aren’t many places I haven’t been. Not because I haven’t been screened, but because I have earned the trust of my community. That trust is not handed over easily. It literally takes blood, sweat, and tears. My goal is to pave a platform for others like me, or who are coming behind me, to have a space within this profession.

Relatability: Cultural Context Matters

As a profession, we have much knowledge to gain from working with, hiring, and accepting sign language interpreters who’ve been through the system, lived a life outside the white picket fence, and have street knowledge, as well as professional knowledge to bring to the table. Studies have shown that people with similar backgrounds and experience typically relate better those whom they share that experience with. People of Color (POC) relate to interpreters of color more so than non-POCs. Females who are Deaf generally prefer a female at their gynecology appointments. Men who are Deaf typically feel more comfortable with a male interpreter at their urology appointments. I also believe the same is true for persons who are in, have been through, and might be on their way into the system, rehab, and other such environments.

We all know the mind-boggling facts about the current state of our criminal legal system. Today, the United States makes up about 5% of the world’s population and has 21% of the world’s prisoners. One in every 37 adults in the United States, or 2.7% of the adult population, is under some form of correctional supervision. African Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of Whites. Having said that, if we are to create a more diverse profession, the likelihood of encountering a Person of Color with a rap-sheet is very high. It’s quite possible that if we created a safer space within our profession for aspiring interpreters to work without hiding, and/or enter the profession without feeling inferior about their pasts, we would see a more diverse workplace.

Food for Thought

Sign language interpreters who have felonies can conduct themselves professionally, ethically, and skillfully as does any other qualified/certified interpreter. Simply having a past should not define one’s future. If that were the case, most of our profession would be out of luck!

While I have encountered much discrimination and backlash for my unconventional way of entering the field of sign language interpreting, I’ve managed to keep my composure in knowing that I have a purpose and my family and others depend on me to carry it out. We are regular people. While I cannot speak for everyone, and I can’t promise that there won’t be others who make those of us doing right look bad, I can say that everyone deserves a shot at the American Dream. I encourage all of you to ponder this idea and open up dialogues about how our profession can be more inclusive in accepting people from all walks of life.

Questions for Consideration

  1. What would a framework of inclusion look like to support interpreters with a past felony conviction?
  2. Should the inclusion and non-discrimination policies held by professional associations supporting the Deaf Community and sign language interpreters be inclusive of those with a felony in their past?
  3. Is a felony an indicator of a sign language interpreters long-term judgment, character, and aptitude for the job? If so, how? If not, why?
  4. How should the industry recognize a debt paid to society while balancing Deaf Community, institutions, and colleague concern?
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Deaf Interpreter Conference II: From the Inside

Deaf Interpreter Conference II

What better way to illustrate “full inclusion with sign language”, the theme of the 2017 International Week of the Deaf, than interviews from the movers and shakers at the second Deaf Interpreter Conference in Villanova, PA this summer?

Creating an organic, Deaf space is the ultimate in full inclusion with sign language. An interpreting organization of, by, and for Deaf people is a step toward bringing that kind of inclusion closer to the daily lives of Deaf people. As Jimmy Beldon shared in his StreetLeverage Live 2016 presentation, the Deaf Formative experience can transform an interpreted event, “A CDI could relieve the linguistic and cultural pressures, enabling a Deaf individual to focus…”

In celebration of DIC II, the newly formed National Deaf Interpreters organization (NDI), and International Week of the Deaf 2017, please enjoy these interviews with Keven Poore and Eileen Forestal, Jimmy Beldon and Janis Cole, Jay Krieger and Julianne Wasisco, Ritchie Bryant, and Ellen Roth.





The Evolution of the Deaf Interpreter Conference II – Keven Poore & Eileen Forestal

Keven Poore and Eileen Forestal share their thoughts about the development of the conference theme, “Evolve. Embrace. Empower,” the creation and liberation that exists within Deaf Space, and their hopes for the seeds sown at DIC II. 

The Significance of the Deaf Interpreter Conference – Janis Cole & Jimmy Beldon

Leslie sits down with Janis Cole and Jimmy Beldon to understand the significance of the Deaf Interpreter Conference, the importance of having Deaf space, and why Deaf formative experience is an asset to the field of sign language interpreting.

The Formation of National Deaf Interpreters (NDI) – Juliann Wasisco & Jay Krieger

Leslie Greer sits down with Julianne Wasisco and Jay Krieger to discuss the formation of the National Deaf Interpreter organization (NDI), its significance in supporting Deaf interpreters, and its role in ensuring that DIC endeavors continue uninterrupted.

The Richness of Learning within a Shared Context – Cynthia Napier

Cynthia Napier, attending the Deaf Interpreter Conference for the first time, shares her experience participating in an environment intentionally designed to embrace and promote the common life and work experience of Deaf interpreters.

Examining the Deaf Experience in the Context of DIC – Ritchie Bryant

Ritchie Bryant contrasts his attendee and presenter experience at DIC I and DIC II, offers his perspective as to why it is important that the Deaf experience be examined in the context of DIC, and shares his hope for DIC III.

The Complexities of ASL and ASL Education – Ellen Roth

Ellen Roth provides a brief history of language in the United States, emphasizing the importance of having accurate language models for ASL and the role language plays in completing our humanity while recognizing the impact oppressive systems have had on the lives of Deaf people. Ellen and Leslie also discuss the importance of providing ASL education to Deaf people as a matter of course.


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Can Congressional Bathroom Logistics Change Sign Language Interpreting?

Can Congressional Bathroom Logistics Change Sign Language Interpreting?

Organizational systems, depending on how they are created, can limit access and inclusion. Chris Rutledge explores control options sign language interpreters have for creating more inclusive systems in their own community and organizations.

For many years, Yale Medical School and Harvard Law school would only admit men; women were barred from entry (Chemaly, 2015). Once willing to admit women, new systemic issues arose – not only were the academics programs resistant to women, but also the logistical reality that there weren’t enough women’s restrooms in the institutions (Chemaly, 2015; Maloney, 2016). Only as recently as 2011 were conveniently accessible bathrooms put in the U. S. House of Representatives for female lawmakers, prior to this female representatives had to use visitor bathrooms during House recesses (Chemaly, 2015). The system was not designed with women stakeholders in mind. Therefore such considerations were missing in the system. When the buildings were designed, if women stakeholders were present, the buildings would have included women’s restrooms. When we don’t include people in system design, we don’t know what their needs are, and thus exclusionary systems are instituted.

[View Post in ASL]

But how does that relate to sign language interpreters? If we, as interpreters, want to effectively address the needs of our community, we must understand our own systems. We need to collaborate with our stakeholders; we need to better understand the needs of our community. Without understanding systemic impacts and organizational barriers, we’re wasting capital on solutions that aren’t addressing the issues. We may be overlooking the fact that a poorly designed system is causing the issue.

The Systems We Live In

In Erica West Oyedele’s StreetLeverage – X talk at RID 2015, she spoke about larger systemic issues within interpreter education; specifically, the much-needed perspectives of people of color and Deaf people of color within the educational programs (2015). Here West Oyedele calls attention to identifying the needs of our community and the diversity of our stakeholders. In understanding the needs and collaborating with stakeholders in the community, we can create better systems and optimize current systems. The question we need to ask is how do we create those better systems?

During interpreting conferences and organizational meetings, there is often the recurrent discussion amongst interpreters about the need to include the Deaf Community in the dialogue about interpreting. The implicit meaning behind this topic is that there seems to be a divide between interpreters and the Deaf Community. If such a divide exists, we as interpreters need to do more to include the Deaf Community stakeholders, right? Yes. Absolutely.

Interpreting happens within the context of the relationships we have with people. Sign language interpreters walk into people’s lives every day, often stepping into some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives: giving birth, getting married, defending a dissertation, surgeries and so much more. We critically need to be mindful of the microcosm that we are invited into for each assignment. It’s just as critical, as professionals, that we invite the Deaf Community into the dialogue about shaping our profession.

Micro to Macro

But let’s zoom out for a moment, and look at why the Deaf Community is not engaged with the interpreting profession. What systems are in place that exclude the Deaf Community? What are the systemic and organizational barriers that decrease the likelihood that the Deaf Community will be involved? What incentives are there for the Deaf Community to be involved?

It’s important to evaluate the mechanisms that are in place that allows for organizational access and system impact. Many local interpreter organizations have committees and task forces that impact the interpreting and Deaf Community (e.g. mentorship committees, conference planning committees, workshop committees etc). In evaluating organizational systems, how do people get on those committees? Who has access to those positions? Looking at organizational structures (bylaws and charters) often committee members must be members of the larger interpreter organization, which often requires paying dues. How many members of the Deaf Community are members of interpreter organizations?  What is the incentive for the average Deaf user of interpreting services, to volunteer their time to a non-profit organization that asks them to pay dues? Beyond the organizational structures to gain access to those systems, are the members of those committees reflective of the community stakeholders? Are people of color represented? These can be difficult questions because there is no “right” or ”simple” answer, but in order to create systems that meet the needs of the community and professionals that serve the community, these types of questions must be asked.

Several years ago, I went to a workshop where the Deaf presenter asked the attendees how many were members of NAD. Sadly, not everyone raised their hand. On an individual level, as interpreters, we should intentionally engage and support Deaf organizations. On an organizational level, how are our interpreter organizations collaborating and engaging with local deaf organizations? Is there a way to design systems in which the members of those Deaf organizations will feel included and encouraged to provide feedback? Are we including emerging users of interpreting services in this discussion (i.e. Deaf schools)?

The Results of Better Systems

Research shows that when stakeholders are involved with system design, better systems are created, needs are more appropriately met, and meaningful collaboration increases (Beer, Finnström, & Schrader, 2016). My own professional experience as a staff interpreter echoes this sentiment. Initially, I met with the Deaf staff I would be working with and just talked to them about their prior experiences working with interpreters. During these conversations, I quickly identified systemic barriers. Interpreter requests were submitted for Deaf staff. No one told the Deaf staff if an interpreter request was submitted if an interpreter was confirmed, who the interpreter was, or what time they could expect the interpreter. The system to request an interpreter was designed without asking the end users for input. After these talks, I worked with the stakeholders (Deaf and hearing) and together we were able to create a more inclusive system. These conversations also provided an opportunity to change local procedures within my organization.  

Staff interpreters, typically have considerable positional leverage to impact systems and make changes. Unfortunately, independent contractors may have larger systemic barriers to navigate to effect change. The beauty of working in an interdependent ecosystem is the gift of collaboration. The freelance interpreter may not be able to change the policy, but if the Deaf Community and agencies collectively advocate for a system change, a chorus of feedback will be more effective than a lone voice.


Systems are difficult to change. A fact echoed throughout history in the stories of marginalized people trying to achieve equality. This is true of our own community. What we can learn from the history of the civil rights movement and the disability rights movement is effective system change requires collaboration and dialogue. It also requires an understanding of how systems work. We as a community can change our systems. However, it requires work. As a starting point, begin having conversations with colleagues, peers, and stakeholders to determine how institutional structures impact inclusion and equality in the community. Learn about the organizational structures of your local interpreting organizations. Find out about the bylaws, charters, and policies of your organizations. Values of inclusion and diversity cannot be actualized within our profession unless we’ve done the hard work of evaluating our systems.

Questions to Consider

  1. Within your local interpreting organizations, how do people get involved? What are the requirements or barriers for involvement?
  2. Are there systems within your organization that were designed without the input of community stakeholders? If there are barriers, what would be required to change those barriers?
  3. Is the Deaf community involved with your local interpreting community organizations? Why or Why not?  Are there Deaf organizations that your local interpreting organizations can collaborate with to design better systems?


Beer, M., Finnström, M., & Schrader, D., (2016, Oct). Why leadership training fails- and what to do about it. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

Chemaly, S., (2015, Jan). The everyday sexism of women waiting in public toilet lines. Time. Retrieved from

Maloney, C. (2016 April 7). The surprising way bathrooms and politics collide. The Bucknellian. Retrieved from

West Oyedele, W., (2015). Missing narratives in interpreting and interpreter education. Street Leverage. Retrieved from

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Self-Care & Sign Language Interpreters: 8 Ways to Ease Trauma

Self-Care & Sign Language Interpreters

The work of a sign language interpreter requires patience, compassion, flexibility, and a heart of service. Breana Cross-Caldwell provides some tips for self-care to help keep the work more sustainable.

You know what it’s like: you show up to an assignment or accept a call that, in the beginning, seems to be going one direction and suddenly takes a turn. You come out of the interaction feeling shaken, disoriented, sad/troubled/frustrated, and are scheduled to make your way to the next.

This is the life of a sign language interpreter.

We are charged with bearing witness to some of life’s greatest beauty and deepest pain, all while maintaining a stance of neutrality and flexibility. As Babetta Popoff said during a presentation on Compassion Fatigue,  

“We are first responders, who cannot respond.”

What can we do to care for ourselves after these difficult situations so that we can continue to do our job in integrity and alignment the next hour, day, and year?

[View post in ASL.]

Here are eight ideas to add to your toolbox:

Shake it off. Literally, shake your whole body. The reptilian part of your brain (think fight or flight) is able to release and reset by shaking. Watch any dog who’s just been in a tussle, you’ll see. Find a private-ish, quietish space (bathroom, VRS station, broom closet), and shake from head to toe, every part of your body that’s able to move. While you’re at it, do some deep forceful exhales and add a little vocalization to them.

Tune in. Sitting or standing in a comfortable position, close your eyes. Take a few deep, slow, easy breaths, and start to notice what happens in your body when you imagine the stressful scenario you just witnessed. Maybe your stomach or jaw tenses up, maybe your heart starts to race, maybe you feel a sinking feeling in your chest or a lump in your throat. Whatever it is, just notice it and let it be there without trying to avoid or resist it.

Take an emotional inventory. Name any emotion that’s present (keeping a feelings list in your bag can be helpful when you’re working on taking better care of yourself). Before you skip over this one, claiming it’s woo-woo fluff, hear me out: these emotions are present in you, whether you name them or not. They are there, sitting like a lump of coal in your stomach. They are the cause of chronic stress which leads to burnout and eventually to disease. Dis-ease: being without ease in the body. This is important stuff, friends. Naming these emotions allows us to get one step closer to dealing with them above-board, which then allows us to truly release them and do our jobs well.

Taproot. Here’s where we find the juicy stuff, the gold at the end of the rainbow if you will. It might not seem like it right now, but trust me. Once you name an emotion, dig down to its root where you’ll find a belief. Make a list of the beliefs that are at the root of your emotions. For example: say I was feeling despair and a disturbing pit in my stomach. I might dig down and realize that I’m feeling this way because I believe no one should be treated the way I just witnessed a human being treated. That belief is at the root of my feeling so yucky. You might uncover your beliefs by tuning into the narrator in your brain who’s interpreting the events around you. By bringing these beliefs out into the light, you are able to work with them and decide consciously whether you want them in your operating system or not.

Get out your magnifying glass. Start asking questions about these beliefs, from the perspective of a curious observer. You’re on a quest to discover more about yourself and the way you view the world. This information is infinitely important as a sign language interpreter (our lens/filter/bias/judgments affect our interpretations greatly) AND infinitely important to you as a human who values happiness and health. As you poke around, just make note of your findings. No need to shift or change or do anything about this information yet. Just notice. Some of the questions you may ask yourself at this point:

  • Is this belief true? Is it true all the time, in every situation, for everyone?
  • Is this the way reality works? Can I find evidence that my belief is always upheld in reality? Or is it just the way I wish that reality worked?
  • Is this thought peaceful or stressful? Pure and simple. Am I feeling peace while holding this belief within the context of this situation, or am I feeling stress?
  • Whose business is it? There are three options: it’s my business (I have control over it), it’s another person’s business (another person has control over it), or it’s God/nature/reality/universe’s business (no single human has control over it).

Nancy Berlove says in Where Do We Go From Here? 5 Stages of Change for Sign Language Interpreters

Honest self-inquiry begins when there is a willingness to look at whatever comes up. An opportunity arises when a certain personal trait or habit becomes apparent. At a particular moment, something that I did, thought, or said makes me question my behavior or habit. In bringing my attention to this behavior, I see it more clearly. Recognizing it changes my understanding of the behavior and of myself. It is possible that, over time and with continued attention, the behavior will shift or even be replaced with something more congruent with my sense of self.

Hold compassion for yourself. This is a step that can take lifetimes to master but humor me. Every time you flex this muscle, whether or not you sense any movement, you’re strengthening the neural pathway towards greater happiness and health. One way I do this is by naming my feelings and needs in a tender way, as one might talk to a hurt child. For example: “Wow, Breana, you’re really feeling upset about this person being treated this way. That feels really disorienting and disturbing to you. You wish no person on the planet would ever have to be treated this way.” All of this, with my inside voice, to just be really present and caring with what I’m experiencing. Sometimes, similarly to children, a bit of compassionate listening and empathy can do wonders. We can do that for ourselves!

Take a detoxifying bath. My recipe is equal parts Epsom salt and baking soda, in the hottest water you can stand, with a few drops of tea tree essential oil. This allows your body to move toxins and release them. Make sure you drink plenty of water!

Find gratitude. It’s been a long day. You really rode this wave of discomfort all the way to the shore, and now you’re back on solid ground. Find whatever you can name to be thankful for right now: the soft bed supporting your body, the family or friends who care, the way you showed up for yourself and others today in the midst of difficult emotions. Whatever it is, claim it. Receive it. Don’t let any of that sweetness and beauty escape you. These are the gifts that are yours to cherish. These are the drops that refill your cup, so you can show up tomorrow ready to give again.

What fills you up when work threatens to take you down?

Questions for Consideration

  1. What do you do to care for yourself after a traumatic job?
  2. What are the barriers to healthy processing after difficult assignments? Why don’t we do this more often?
  3. What are the impacts to ourselves and our clients when we don’t deal with our own trauma and difficult emotions after an assignment?
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Critical Partnerships: Ethical Medical VRI & Sign Language Interpreters

Ethical Medical VRI & Sign Language Interpreters

Danielle Meder discusses the responsibility of sign language interpreters when working in medical VRI environments. Since VRI is here to stay, partnering with ethically responsible VRI providers is the most effective way to improve the medical VRI experience.

In her article, Behind the Screens: The Ethics of Medical VRI & Sign Language Interpreters, Shelly Hansen discussed her perceptions of the ethical implications of VRI. In addition, she explored the most common assumptions about VRI, at times upholding stereotypes while also utilizing extreme examples of patient experiences with VRI. However, by exploring how sign language interpreters and VRI providers can work together to raise the standards and improve the patient experience, VRI will be seen as one viable option for communication access.

[View post in ASL.]

If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em

It is undeniable that VRI is here to stay. As a result, hospitals see the opportunity to provide immediate access, increase the availability of interpreting services when on-site interpreters are not available, in addition to seeing the cost-saving benefits of VRI–and as a result, they are making it a permanent part of their language access plans. However, many hospitals are misguided when it comes to the proper use of VRI for Deaf patients. It is unrealistic to imagine all ASL interpreters refusing to work for VRI providers in an effort to drive VRI out of medical environments. Therefore, it becomes the practitioner’s responsibility, when exploring VRI employment, to take positions with ethically responsible VRI companies; VRI companies where sign language interpreters have a voice and Deaf patients are respected.

Ethically Responsible VRI

It may seem like an oxymoron, but ethically responsible VRI companies do exist. Just as sign language interpreters vet any number of companies/organizations they work for, purchase from, or have relationships with, they can also do so with VRI companies. This vetting is not only from the perspective of potential employees but also as allies to the Deaf community. If local hospitals and clinics are going to use VRI, then it is imperative that VRI providers in local hospitals are working with Deaf patients.

As professional sign language interpreters, we should be asking VRI providers if they do the following:

  • Offer CDIs on-demand
  • Empower VRI interpreters to advocate for onsite when VRI is not effective or appropriate
  • Hire experienced and trained sign language interpreters in both medical and mental health vs. general practitioners
  • Provide training to hospital staff on how to utilize the VRI equipment
  • Offer cultural sensitivity training for providers when working with Deaf patients
  • Adhere to all national and state licensure laws for sign language interpreters
  • Provide readily accessible tech support to sign language interpreters and providers

If a VRI provider cannot answer ‘yes’ to the full list above, then practitioners are faced with two options: to not accept work from them or to accept work in an effort to help develop ethical business practices from within the company. Further, it’s important to include local Deaf communities in the conversations in order to limit the ill-prepared VRI provider’s presence in local medical facilities until they change their practices.

VRI Does Work/VRI is Not One Size Fits All

Unfortunately, there are a number of cases where VRI hasn’t worked, and the fallout has been devastating for patients and their families. There are also cases where unqualified onsite sign language interpreters have been hired, as well as medical encounters where no sign language interpreter (onsite or via VRI) has been procured. These situations create equally damaging results. Communication disasters are not exclusive to VRI, and while onsite is best, it’s not a guarantee of quality or effectiveness.

Most commonly, it is said that VRI ‘will do’ until an interpreter shows up on-site or only in a dire emergency room visit, yet there are plenty of times where VRI does work beyond the emergency room. It’s also important to note that VRI is used at the patient’s request, too. Patients are requesting VRI when they want privacy from their local interpreting communities; when they want an appointment this week instead of in two weeks when the first available onsite interpreter can be booked; when their local interpreters aren’t experienced enough; or when they want a CDI for their appointment and their local community doesn’t have or has a limited number of CDIs.

Frozen Screens and Dropped Calls Do Happen

One very real and unacceptable aspect of VRI is that frozen screens, heavy pixelation, and weak internet connections make communication cumbersome, at best, and often impossible. This can also lead to potentially dangerous health care results. It is the responsibility of the hospitals to provide a stable, secure, and strong internet connection. When sub-par internet connections are used, VRI providers, sign language interpreters, and Deaf patients must demand medical facilities invest in fortified internet services for VRI to even have a chance at providing effective, quality communication access. Without a robust Internet connection, even the best sign language interpreters will, in essence, have their hands tied. Again, if VRI is not going away, then it must be properly deployed on all fronts, and sign language interpreters can have a strong influence on that deployment.

ACA Section 1557

“Covered entities are prohibited from using low-quality video remote interpreting services or relying on unqualified staff, translators when providing language assistance services.”

“Providers’ required to give ‘primary consideration’ to the choice of an aid or service requested by the individual with a disability.”

These two statements are linchpins in the Affordable Care Act when it comes to language access. The first statement is the provision that holds providers responsible for quality and effective language access while the second statement is the provision that is most misunderstood and misused when defending the right to an onsite interpreter.

At one point last year, social media sites were ablaze with the phrase “primary consideration” and what that meant for patients. What many thought it meant was providers had to honor the patient’s preference for onsite sign language interpreters. What it means is that providers must consider a patient’s preference, however, if VRI offers effective communication access, then VRI can be used in lieu of an onsite interpreter (ACA Effective Communication). While a patient may want an onsite interpreter because they prefer it to VRI, preference is not a protected right; quality and effective communication is a right. Reasons onsite interpreters must be arranged, and VRI should not be used are when a patient is:

  • Low vision and/or blind
  • Experiencing a highly traumatic incident
  • Experiencing a psychotic episode
  • In a physical position or condition that prevents them from easily seeing and communicating with the interpreter
  • Case sensitive pediatric encounters
  • Not able to communicate because technology is not working reliably
  • Participating in group therapy

There are also case-by-case instances where VRI is not suitable.

I highlight this to further make a point; although VRI is not appropriate for all situations, it is not going away. Therefore, medically experienced video remote interpreters have a multi-layered responsibility. They must provide clear and effective interpreting, while also skillfully explaining to the provider, using healthcare terminology, why VRI is not appropriate for a given situation. Finally, the interpreter must advocate for onsite sign language interpreting services.

In Need of Standards

Currently, the only provisions in place for VRI are the terms ‘quality’ and ‘effective’ as put forth by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). No industry-wide screen size minimums exist, no mandatory medical interpreter certifications, nor experience requirements are in place. Additionally, no internet standards for medical facilities, nor protocol where VRI should not be used are set. At this time, the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) has written a position paper, and each VRI provider has their own business practices that may or may not align with NAD.

Much like courtrooms across America that have policies, rules, or laws in place which require sign language interpreters to be trained, vetted, and certified to work, medical facilities need to take the same approach when it comes to language access. The ACA made great strides when it stated that family, minors, and bilingual staff may not work as interpreters with patients. However, there is still work to be done to standardize what it means to be a medical interpreter whether onsite or in a VRI setting.

VRI and the CPC

All of the CPC tenets below can be honored and maintained while working in VRI with ethically responsible VRI companies. Sign language interpreters can assess the consumer needs and advocate for effective communication from the moment a VRI call begins through its completion.

2.0 Professionalism:

2.2: Assess consumer needs and the interpreting situation before and during the assignment and make adjustments as needed.

3.0 Conduct:

3.1 Consult with appropriate persons regarding the interpreting situation to determine issues such as placement and adaptations necessary to interpret effectively.

6.0 Business Practices:

6.3 Promote conditions that are conducive to effective communication, inform the parties involved if such conditions do not exist and seek appropriate remedies.

6.5 Reserve the option to decline or discontinue assignments if working conditions are not safe, healthy, or conducive to interpreting.

Further, advocacy should also extend to the leadership and management of the VRI company which, if their priorities are properly placed, will work with the medical facilities to educate them on the proper use of VRI.

Final Thoughts

The VRI industry is booming right now, and sign language interpreters are faced with the choice to accept employment opportunities within VRI or resist on principle. If we, as sign language interpreters and allies to the Deaf community, want to protect communication access in medical environments, then it is our duty to hold providers responsible for ethical practices. We know VRI is going to be one of the communication tools medical providers use, so we must work with ethically sound VRI providers to ensure quality and effective communication access is the top priority for all parties involved.

Guest Translator – Mistie Owens, BA, CDI, QMHI, YMHFAI, has been serving the local Deaf community as a CDI since 2011, although she remembers interpreting from her early youth. Dedicated to the healthcare field, she is employed by InDemand Interpreting and holds certifications as a Qualified Mental Health Interpreter and Youth Mental Health First Aid Instructor; her work in Mental Health and related disciplines are her passion. She resides near Salt Lake City, Utah with her husband and rescue dogs.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What committees or advocacy groups are in place that are working to create industry standards for language access and VRI?
  2. Who is holding VRI providers accountable when they negatively contribute to ineffective and unsuccessful medical encounters?
  3. How can ASL interpreters work within their own communities and with existing VRI providers to raise standards in language access in ways that honor Deaf patients while respecting legal and fiscal considerations?


Hansen, Shelly. “Behind the Screens: The Ethics of Medical VRI & Sign Language Interpreters” StreetLeverage. N.p., 22 March 2017. Web. 24 April 2017.

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. “NAD_RID Code of Professional Conduct.pdf.” N.p., 2005. Web. 21 April. 2017.

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Behind the Screens: The Ethics of Medical VRI & Sign Language Interpreters

Behind the Screens: The Ethics of Medical VRI & Sign Language Interpreters

Shelly Hansen explores the ethical implications of VRI in medical settings, especially the impacts of dropped connections during sensitive consultations and loss of consumer choice regarding live, on-site sign language interpretation.

It’s all the rage. Those smooth little carts with satisfying clicks and keys. Sweet control, right here at my fingertips for your eyes. No more waiting for a live interpreter to arrive. No more scheduling…it is on demand 24/7/365. No more incorporating another breathing human being into the interaction; we’ve gone high-tech and modern, happy to share our space with a “machine interpreter”, the term used locally by health care provider staff for Video Remote Interpreting/VRI. The medical facility loves this kind of sterile control.

[View post in ASL]

The patient, on the other hand, may have a mixed response to the cyber–signer. Like cafeteria food and military MRE’s, this is a one-size-fits-all solution. If a person has vision issues, is not a strong signer and/or struggles with the style, speed or information from the “machine interpreter”, if they are dizzy, lying down awkwardly, giving birth, going into a radiology department, are from a foreign country and need a specialized sign language, are elderly and prefer a familiar interpreter, are an active child with attention issues or a CODA utilizing the interpreter, would benefit from techniques used by CDIs such as physical movement, drawings or references to visual aids in the immediate environment (including the current meds list on the computer charting screen), or struggle with paperwork and literacy challenges, they are out of luck. Not only are these individuals out of luck, they now need to self-advocate against a large medical institution or physician who has already invested in a “solution” to this communication barrier, and who feels that due diligence has been satisfied.

Communication in Context

When I step back and consider these experiences as a whole, the impact of VRI appears to be greatest on vulnerable adults. We can all find ourselves vulnerable at times, and some individuals may consistently interact as vulnerable adults. I have noticed that communication is most effective in the context of relationship when interpreting for these encounters. The negotiated meaning within a tangible human relationship provides a context for effective communication that mitigates barriers for vulnerable adults and provides a level of comfort needed to genuinely engage with others. While it may seem an overstatement, trust in the interpreter allows for depth of conversation that is not possible for some clients via technology which has an “outside, looking-glass” quality. I consistently hear feedback about “not remembering what they said”, “not understanding but agreeing anyway” and being told there “weren’t any live interpreters available” when those facilities aren’t calling live interpreters any longer as a standard procedure.

“Do No Harm”

RID Certified sign language interpreters historically have been vigilant to “do no harm”, maintaining high professional standards of ethical conduct, creating ethical codes of conduct, establishing ethical review boards and making every effort to provide quality service to the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, DeafBlind, Late-Deafened, and Hearing communities as allies and professionals. This commitment to the profession has enabled increased access to places of public accommodation throughout society and is a source of quiet pride and job satisfaction for many sign language interpreters who are committed to increased equality, autonomy, and self-actualization.

As a freelance community sign language interpreter, I have seen a dramatic shift in medical interpreting assignments from live interpreting to VRI supported interactions. As I sit on the cyber-fence, wanting to continue the work I love and provide services to people who need, want, and are requesting live interpreters, I am faced with an ethical dilemma. Do I participate in a flawed and “do some harm” medical VRI system because my livelihood is being affected by marketplace shifts?

Sample Scenario of a Botched VRI Appointment

A patient goes to a medical appointment in a facility to discuss the results from a recent scan with a specialist. The office uses a VRI system. The patient is optimistic about VRI, despite prior frustrations with freezing screens and dropped connections resulting in re-scheduled appointments with a local, familiar, RID certified “live” sign language interpreter. The doctor begins to review the results of the scan along with the possible issues that may be causing symptoms of concern. The “worst case scenario” is discussed and then the VRI starts to cut out, freezing. The tech issues cannot be resolved, again. The doctor, exasperated says, “This is not a service, it’s a DIS-service.” The appointment is abruptly curtailed and a follow-up appointment is scheduled for next week with an onsite, “live” interpreter.

When the appointment begins the following week, the “live” interpreter is unaware of the previous snafu. The doctor begins again to explain the medical condition, and informs the patient that s/he does NOT have the fatal condition. The patient breaks down. For an entire week, the last message about the fatal flaw and partially explained scan image had left the person believing that they had the dreaded malformation and the condition was terminal. The visible relief on the face of the patient is combined with frustration and anger. Both the patient and doctor commit to no further VRI appointments, expressing relief to have an in-person sign language interpreter on site. They agree that using VRI just isn’t worth the frustration, miscommunication and emotional duress.

If the “live” sign language interpreter left the room at the moment of diagnosis, s/he could lose her/his certification for ethical malpractice. The patient could file an ethical complaint with RID stating that the interpreter violated NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct tenets 6.2 and 6.4 (see below).

Unintended Consequences

In my area, an older gentleman took his own life after receiving a terminal diagnosis. His family found him alone in the backyard. To my knowledge, this was not an interpreted interaction. However, it is possible that someone could react with serious consequences to a misunderstood partial-diagnosis. A scenario like this happened January 2017 at the Limerick Hospital in Ireland. A man received a terminal cancer diagnosis and took his own life in the hospital chapel.

Codes of Professional Conduct

Let’s look at some pertinent codes of conduct for medical sign language interpreters.

IMIA (International Medical Interpreters Association)

“Responsibility Toward Ensuring Adequate Working Conditions” The interpreter shall strive to ensure effective and productive communication in any professional situation and make every effort to have working conditions in place that will allow him or her to provide quality interpretation services.

“Right to equal treatment” Patients have a right to receive treatment in a language they understand; these rights are governed by federal anti-discrimination laws and the ADA.

“Informed consent” Patients should be aware of treatment options and consent to treatment only after understanding these options. Communicating information accurately is essential to informed consent.

“Beneficence” The health and wellbeing of patients is a core value in all health care professions, as well as in medical interpreting.

The NAD/RID Code of Professional Conduct

4.0 Respect for Consumers

4.1 Consider consumer requests or needs regarding language preferences, and render the message accordingly (interpreted or transliterated).

4.4 Facilitate communication access and equality, and support the full interaction and independence of consumers.

6.0 Business Practices

6.2 Honor professional commitments and terminate assignments only when fair and justifiable grounds exist.

6.4 Inform appropriate parties in a timely manner when delayed or unable to fulfill assignments.

6.5 Reserve the option to decline or discontinue assignments if working conditions are not safe, healthy or conducive to interpreting.

Similarly, the National Code of Ethics for Interpreters in Health Care includes “beneficence” and “do no harm,” along with “fidelity”:

“The essence of the interpreter role is encapsulated in the value of fidelity. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language describes fidelity as involving the unfailing fulfillment of one’s duties and obligations and the keeping of one’s word or vows.”

More Questions than Answers

How can a career medical interpreter agree to work as a VRI medical interpreter with the knowledge that predictable and unresolved VRI technical issues, including consistently disrupted and poor quality connections and communications, are occurring throughout the healthcare system and political practice issues in which “one size fits all” approaches that dictate language use without options for live on-site sign language interpreters are creating barriers for consumers that violate medical and RID certified interpreter ethical standards? Does the interpreter ignore these issues and shift that duty to the health care system and VRI employer, and ignore the systemic impact of complicit participation in a flawed approach to health care interpreting?

At the moment, I am working triage. Those failed VRI encounters, re-scheduled appointments, miscommunicated partial diagnoses are creating a clean-up tier of work for live interpreters. I’m holding out for “live” interpreting, despite the economic uncertainty of increased VRI use and the lower hourly wages those positions offer. Do I want to be part of the machine interpreter phenomenon? How can I ethically participate in quality healthcare interpretation in 2017 and beyond?

Questions to Consider:

  1. What protections are in place for consumers of medical VRI? Are there rating or feedback mechanisms available to track customer and provider satisfaction post-appointment?
  2. What alternatives are available or recourse do consumers have in the event a VRI appointment fails and are there systems in place to allow patients to pre-select live or VRI preferences especially for sensitive or technical appointments?
  3. What duty does an RID certified interpreter have in medical VRI settings and is that duty usurped by VRI companies and medical facilities choosing to eliminate live on-site interpreting in favor of machine interpreting?


The National Council On Interpreting In Health Care, and Working Papers Series. A NATIONAL CODE OF ETHICS FOR INTERPRETERS IN HEALTH CARE (July 2004.): 8. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. “NAD_RID Code of Professional Conduct.pdf.” N.p., 2005. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.

“International Medical Interpreters Association Code of Ethics.” IMIA – International Medical Interpreters Association. International Medical Interpreters Association, n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.

Collins, Pamela. “Bringing Scheduling Into View: A Look at the Business of Sign Language Interpreting.” Street Leverage. N.p., 17 Aug. 2016. Web. 21 Mar. 2017.

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Linguistic Flexibility: Success Decoded for K-12 Sign Language Interpreters

Linguistic Flexibility: Success Decoded for K-12 Sign Language Interpreters

Decoding language requires linguistic competence and flexibility. Jessica Carter discusses the importance of flexible bilingualism for sign language interpreters, especially those working in K-12 and educational settings.


As bilinguals, as in having proficiency in two languages, ASL interpreters code switch on a daily basis, at a moment’s notice. ASL-English interpreters typically do this by borrowing English lexicon or formats for specificity, to match the language considerations of consumers, and to derive equivalent messages from the source to target language. However, code switching goes deeper than that.

[View post in ASL.]

Applied Linguistics

Code switching is defined in linguistics as the mixing of two or more languages or language varieties in production. This term is often used interchangeably in the various fields of linguistic study with the term code mixing. It is displayed throughout phases of language learning, both holistically and as new vocabulary is introduced in order to fill gaps in language skills. While in the past we may have thought of code mixing as a weakness in the target language, e.g. borrowing an English word by fingerspelling or not knowing the English term and choosing to display the concept in ASL, more recent sociolinguistic research is suggesting that code switching is a tool of bilinguals. This has been seen in bilingual education and TESOL settings worldwide. Discussions conclude that bilinguals (and multilinguals) use this tool repeatedly in various ways: unconsciously as a bilingual individual, to fit in with others, to develop skills and relationships, to tell a secret, and to help express a thought. On a personal and professional level, I believe that we can all derive at least one of our own stories of code switching for each of these five reasons. This is what is being called flexible bilingualism1,2. Some examples might include:

  • matching a consumer’s language preference whether that means transliterating PSE, tactile signing (TASL), SEE-like signing, or ASL
  • stealthy signing to a friend across a room of non-signers
  • classifier-like iconic gesturing while speaking in English to describe an object

Flexible bilingualism is the thought that pragmatic language in the bilingual brain is adjustable, accommodating, and even pliable. ASL/English users are bilingual and multimodal; we are able to use the aspects and lexicon of two languages to achieve our goals rather than being constrained by one set of rules and expression. The Deaf/hard of hearing community exhibits this diglossic behavior and way of thinking instantaneously as a way of life and means for education and communication. Diglossia is explained as using two languages, or language varieties, under different circumstances. For the ASL using community this is seen in their need to have knowledge of two languages in order to socialize within their community and access interpreting, as well as in order to read, write, and access education, and/or to independently communicate with non-signers. This community exhibits code switching as diglossic people by using both ASL and English as a means for daily life by shifting between the two languages on a constant. Not to mention their abilities to switch between signing variations in the U.S. (SEE, PSE, etc.) in order to meet the needs of communication in their given circumstances while navigating the Deaf and Hearing worlds. This is a powerful tool and communication advantage – keep it close by and refine it.

The flexible bilingualism that native users of ASL have, and will develop throughout their lives and education, is an aspect of their variation and language power as a community. To notice this as interpreters is a descriptivist point of view. Descriptivists take a nonjudgmental point of view that accepts language as it is used and can be tweaked in use for a variety of reasons. A previously noted trend in sign language interpreter education to lean toward prescriptivism3, a predetermined notion of the rules that govern a language to create a pure or superior form of language, limits an interpreter’s opportunity for flexibility. Prescriptivism has its place in language. When writing an academic paper, I am a prescriptivist; when interpreting, I am largely descriptivist. Native English speakers exhibit flexibility in language (L1) use often with diverse speech patterns. For example, we may speak in an accent for affect, stress an atypical phoneme in a word, or toss in a word or phrase of a second language known. Capisce? Now, we can use the same techniques as a bilingual to create similar effects in our L2, ASL, production patterns – similar to the ways that we observe native ASL users.

Educational Interpreting

In an educational setting, most particularly K-12 educational interpreting, flexible bilingualism is an advantage that can be elevated beyond matching students’ language needs. It can be used in a variety of settings that students may be in, i.e. speech and language pathology settings, reading programs, English lexicon decoding, English phonics/syllable learning, affect and intonation, academic vocabulary recognition, etc. Keep thinking and expanding this list.

I encountered a student who uses flexible bilingualism in order to display phonetic aspects of English by applying syllabic fingerspelling in a functional way at the decoding level. That is POWER. At the sight of this power, I adjusted and learned from the student to both meet the student’s needs and enhance my interpreting skills. This is how educational interpreting should be – flexible. The idea is for sign language interpreters in education to heighten flexibility skills to allow for further accommodation of language modeling and teaching in academic settings. Educational interpreters can supply students and educators not only with an interpretation, but a closure of the power imbalance by modeling language, including strategies of flexible bilingualism, and improving academic language in a parallel and equivalent manner between English and ASL.

As interpreters, we are guided to understand that “qualified educational interpreters/transliterators are a critical part of the educational day for children who are deaf or hard of hearing” (RID, 2010)4. Part of being qualified is knowing our students and using our tools appropriately. The ingenuity of our tools and our flexibility in using them can guide in facilitating learning in all settings. When a sign language interpreter fingerspells key words and academic language, he/she is providing access to academic English vocabulary and contributing to the students’ ability to decode English words and recognize them by signs and concepts5. Meanwhile, the students’ knowledge of ASL, a visual, conceptual language, provides them with an on-the-spot dictionary in their bilingual brain as they read in English. The leverage that an educational interpreter holds in providing a parallel between English and ASL has an effect on children’s language skills in both decoding and fluency. This is influential, especially in regards to their diglossic status. So as educational interpreters, let’s start thinking in terms of language education. We can do this by focusing on our status as bilinguals and the advantages that status offers us. It takes years for people to develop fluency in their native language and users have mastery at various levels dependent on education, ability, and efforts. Language development for bilinguals is similar, requiring continuous cultivation and expansion of the L2. Bilinguals are lifelong language learners.

Addressing the Linguistic Minority Dilemma

Whether we have experienced the subjugation of ASL ourselves or have only seen/heard stories of misunderstandings and the language oppression of ASL users, we know that it exists. Varying autocratic behaviors which portray Sign languages as inferior (e.g. “not a real language,” “a language of disability,” “a manual representation of English,” “universal language,” etc.) exist heavily in mainstream education. This may be one of the most difficult parts of an educational interpreter’s job, linguistic advocacy. Educational interpreters must possess the linguistic competency to explain the comparison of languages, bridge sociocultural gaps, and support deaf literacy and academia in order to ameliorate this issue. To expose mainstream educators to the diversity in language, the limitations of translation and assistive technology, the tools of a bilingual, and to what interpreters do is to lead the change in their knowledge and perspectives on educating the deaf/hard of hearing. Admittedly this is a heavy burden to carry, so as professionals we must humanistically approach each linguistic encounter to learn. It’s high time we raise the expectations and reputations of interpreted education. Keep cultivating your tools, be rooted in the Deaf community, and exhibit flexibility in educational interpreting.

Questions to consider:

  1. Can you recall an experience when you adhered to a prescriptivist view of language?
  2. How familiar are you with the IEP/504 processes?
  3. On a personal note – what is your involvement with the Deaf community outside of your 9:00 am – 5:00 pm profession?


1An excellent study on identity and language prejudice in regards to flexible bilingualism, Preece, Sian. “An Identity Transformation? Social Class, Language Prejudice and the Erasure of Multilingual Capital in Higher Education.” The Routledge Handbook of Language and Identity.

2For flexible bilingualism in schools relating to bilingual education see, Creese, A., & Blackledge, A. (2011, April). Separate and Flexible Bilingualism in Complementary Schools: Multiple Language Practices in Interrelationship. Retrieved November, 2016, from

3For thoughts on prescriptivism in sign language interpreter education see “Respecting Language: Sign Language Interpreters as Linguistic Descriptivists” by Steven Surrency, available at

4RID standard practice paper for K-12 interpreting, An overview of K-12 educational interpreting. (2010). Retrieved November, 2016, from

5Educational interpreting guidelines of the EIPA from

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What Did 2016 Teach Sign Language Interpreters About Success in 2017?

What 2016 Taught Sign Language Interpreters about Success in 2017

It is tempting to write 2016 off and move immediately into the new year, but that would mean overlooking some of the profound and fundamental lessons shared by StreetLeverage contributors last year.

While public speaking is one of the most fearful things humans can do, expressing one’s thoughts and perspectives via social media in two languages is probably a close second. Still, StreetLeverage contributors continue to inspire and amaze, bringing new insights and conversations to the table on a regular basis.  If we were to measure the year in the depth and breadth of perspectives shared, 2016 would definitely be setting us up for success in 2017. So, before we bid 2016 adieu, we wanted to highlight a few examples of the generosity and courageousness shown by sign language interpreters and industry stakeholders in the last 12 months.

For Auld Lang Syne

Before we dive into our retrospective, we’d like to express our deepest gratitude to everyone who contributed, in large and small ways, to the StreetLeverage endeavor. Without the writers, readers, volunteers, thought-leaders, videographers, editors, and friends who volunteer their time and efforts to support us, StreetLeverage could not begin to amplify the voice of sign language interpreters or attempt to change the way we understand, practice, and tell the story of the sign language interpreter. For all your work, we say: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

2016’s Nine Building Blocks for Success

1.  Bring Social Consciousness to the Fore

Joseph Hill

As practitioners in the field of communication access, social consciousness is a critical aspect of the work of all signed language interpreters. Joseph Hill’s presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: Practicing with a Socially Conscious Approachat StreetLeverage – Live 2015 provides an avenue for us to start looking at identity and interpreting through a social justice lens. As we continue to delve into the skewed relationship between interpreter demographics and consumer realities, we look to thought leaders to help us find greater understanding and paths to improvement.

2.  Reach Out to Deaf Interpreters

Where’s the Welcome Mat? Opening the Door to Deaf Interpreters

Another evolution in the field of interpreting that continued to manifest itself in 2016 was the reintroduction and strengthening of the presence of Deaf Interpreters in the field. While this evolution is happening, progress is slow and sometimes arduous as Jeremy Rogers explains in his article, Where’s the Welcome Mat? Opening the Door to Deaf Interpreters.

3.  Look at Insider Discourse Under a Microscope

Sign Language Interpreter Framing Their Work

Semantics matter. As sign language interpreters, language is our currency. Despite this fact, we don’t always consider the impact language has on perspectives when it comes to the words we use to describe our work. Kelly Decker’s article, What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting, showcases some current examples of language we use in our insider discourse that may impact perceptions about the work we do and those with whom we work. With lively conversation, this article lit up our comments board, and we hope it continues to do so.

4.  Inject Humor and Humility into Our Practice

Sharon Neumann Solow

As one of the field’s most beloved teachers and mentors, Sharon Neumann Solow inserts equal parts humor, humility, and straight-forward talk into the conversation in her StreetLeverage – Live 2015 presentation, Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me?. By sharing personal stories, Sharon’s presentation provides context for looking at confidence versus spotlight-stealing and illustrates why the differences matter.

5.  Support Ethics with Pre-Assignment Considerations

Accept or Decline? Questions Sign Language Interpreters Should Ponder

Job readiness is a topic that comes up in most conversations about sign language interpreting at some point, whether one-on-one or at a conference. Michael Ballard provides a consumer’s perspective on the kind of preparation sign language interpreters could do to help determine their level of preparedness for an assignment in his article, Accept or Decline? Questions Sign Language Interpreters Should Ponder.

6.  Join the Civility Revolution

A Civility Revolution: A Call to Arms for Sign Language Interpreters

With bullying and trolling in the news constantly, it was refreshing to have a conversation about civil discourse. Providing tools and suggestions for action, Diana MacDougall invited sign language interpreters to join a kinder, gentler conversation and revolution in her article, A Civility Revolution: A Call to Arms for Sign Language Interpreters.

7.  Explore the Realities of the Modern World

Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World

In a year where violence of all kinds dominated headlines and conversations around the country and the world, Stephen Holter’s article, Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World, struck a chord with readers who also shared some of their own experiences and strategies for staying safe. While we hope no interpreter ever needs to utilize these tips and tools, it’s an important conversation to engage in.

8.  Uncover the Intangible

Wing Butler

In his deeply personal and profound StreetLeverage – Live 2015 presentation, Status Transaction: The “It” Factor in Sign Language Interpreting, Wing Butler shared his thoughts on the “It Factor” for sign language interpreters. In his exploration of the intangible qualities that raise community esteem for one sign language interpreter over another, Wing also gives us a formula for success. Skills are important, but there are other factors that create the elusive “It” interpreter.

9.  Examine Personal Cultural Competence

IGNITE Workbook

Our final selection is a compilation of exemplary work from some of the brilliant minds in our field. Our 2016 workbook, Ignite, is a collection of posts designed to lead sign language interpreters and sign language interpreting students through a process of self-discovery regarding cultural competence. This free-to-download offering is an opportunity to look at a specific topic through a variety of lenses in order to gain a more well-rounded perspective. We hope this inaugural edition will be the first of many such workbooks.

Please Continue to Join Us in 2017 and Beyond

We hope this look back on 2016 will provide you with some valuable takeaways that can be foundations for a successful year ahead. Again, thank you for your support, sharing, comments, viewings, and readership. We hope you will continue to join us here on the blog and register to come meet us in St. Paul, MN for StreetLeverage – Live. Please join us in raising our glasses in a toast to a bright new year. Welcome to 2017!