Can Congressional Bathroom Logistics Change Sign Language Interpreting?

July 5, 2017

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

* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox? SignUp!

Stay Current

Want to be among the first to know when we publish new content?

Are you an interpreter?

We respect your privacy.
We will never share your info.

Forward-looking organizations committed to retelling the story of the interpreter.



(New York)