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Erosion of Trust: Sign Language Interpreters and Hearing Privilege

The lack of trust between the Deaf community and hearing interpreters is rooted in privilege. Examination of our own privilege is difficult but necessary work if we hope to address the impacts of that privilege on the community we exist to serve.

Recent events have shone the spotlight on the deep rift and lack of trust between the Deaf community and hearing sign language interpreters. This lack of trust is not new and the actions of the National Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf are not the sole source of this mistrust. Hearing interpreters must look at ourselves and our own behaviors to recognize that we are perpetrating our own peculiar brand of hearing privilege in our daily interactions with the Deaf community we exist to serve. Aside from obvious and egregious ethical breaches, we are often oblivious to our own hearing interpreter privilege.  

[View post in ASL]

Confronting Our Own Privilege

A common reaction when confronting our own privilege is to deny that we have it or that we have ever behaved in a way that capitalizes on or perpetuates this privilege. We may acknowledge the existence of privilege while denying our participation in it or that we benefit from it. Michael Eric Dyson has written a book called, Tears We Cannot Stop (Dyson, 2017) as a sermon to white people on white privilege. In a section of the book called, “The Plague of White Innocence,” he writes, “…in my insistence on holding you accountable for privilege, for tiny but terrifying aggressions, for condescension, for any of the everyday racial slights that reinforce white supremacy, I have invoked again your sense of guilt.” (Dyson, 2017, p. 102-103) Now, let’s think about this in terms of Deaf people and hearing interpreters and the “tiny but terrifying aggressions” we may perpetrate against Deaf people. When Deaf people raise issues of hearing privilege, do we exempt ourselves? Can we acknowledge the unique form of our hearing interpreter privilege?

I have been asked by Deaf consumers, “Why don’t interpreters hold each other accountable?” When we engage in polite indifference and look the other way at behavior damaging to the Deaf community, we are perpetuating interpreter privilege. We, as part of the collective community of interpreters, all too often close ranks against the Deaf community as an act of self-preservation based on privilege. So I ask you, my colleagues, why don’t we hold each other accountable?

Recognizing Power Dynamics

I’ve been told by hearing interpreters that Deaf consumers need to speak out when they experience inadequate skills or ethical abuses by interpreters. In a perfect world, this is exactly what should happen, however, it ignores the power dynamics involved. Deaf people risk a great deal in speaking out about hearing interpreters who fail to provide adequate services. They risk being labeled as ‘difficult’ by the interpreting community, making it harder to find interpreters to work with them. In spite of ethical prohibitions against divulging assignment related knowledge, it happens widely in the interpreting community under the guise of ‘information sharing.’ We justify this kind of sharing as a way to support other interpreters in making better decisions about what jobs to accept, but at what cost to the consumers who have been deemed less desirable to work with? Again, we close ranks on the community we purport to serve and employ our privileged status to do so.

Consider these additional words from Dyson, through the frame of power dynamics between interpreters and Deaf people, “We are forced to be gentle with you, which is another way of saying we are forced to lie to you. We must let you down easy, you, the powerful partner in our fraught relationship.” (Dyson, 2017, p. 96). How many of us, working, paid, professional interpreters, expect a big dose of gratitude from the Deaf consumers we work with? How many of us demand positive feedback, claiming openness and the desire to improve, and then feel aggrieved should the consumer dare to share honest feedback with us? Consider the position we put Deaf people in when we ask them for feedback. Now, in addition to trying to glean the meaning of the message through the imperfect filter we are, the consumer is also expected to be observing and noting patterns in our work, errors in sign formation, sloppy fingerspelling and erratic use of space. Is it fair to make such a request of someone who is trying to benefit from a class or a conference or a meeting at work or a medical appointment? Suppose the consumer is willing to go along with the interpreter’s request to subjugate meaning in order to observe interpreting patterns, what does s/he risk in offering honest feedback?

Look again at Dyson’s words, “We are forced to be gentle with you, which is another way of saying we are forced to lie to you. We must let you down easy, you, the powerful partner in our fraught relationship.” (Dyson, 2017, p. 96). Denying we have power does not lessen the power we have. Interpreter privilege allows us to put Deaf people in these risky positions.

The Practice of Allyship

We hearing interpreters don’t get to decide for ourselves that Deaf people can and should trust us. Trust must be earned in each encounter and we must be meticulously trustworthy in order to earn it. Over the years, I have worked with a number of hearing sign language interpreters who expect a personal relationship with the Deaf consumer from the first moment they meet. They insist on an emotional connection with someone who, in any other context would be a total stranger. In effect, they expect and demand that the Deaf person trust them on sight because they have deemed themselves as trustworthy or a friend of the Deaf community or an ‘ally.’  In her article “No More Allies,” Mia McKenzie writes,

’Ally’ cannot be a label that someone stamps onto you—or, god forbid, that you stamp on to yourself—so you can then go around claiming it as some kind of identity. It’s not an identity. It’s a practice. It’s an active thing that must be done over and over again, in the largest and smallest ways, every day(McKenzie, 2013).

The assumptions and expectations that Deaf consumers must trust us and befriend us immediately because we see ourselves as trustworthy and demonstrating ‘Deaf heart’  reflect unearned privilege on the part of the interpreter.

We must re-earn and reaffirm that trust every day in every encounter with each Deaf consumer. It requires a lot of effort, but as Mia McKenzie says later in her article, “Sounds like a lot of work, huh? Sounds exhausting. Well, yeah, it ought to be. Because the people who experience racism, misogyny, ableism, queerphobia, transphobia, classism, etc. are exhausted. So, why shouldn’t their ‘allies’ be?” (McKenzie, 2013). Add “audism” to that list and it applies directly to our work.

How Do We Start?

Addressing the deep lack of trust between hearing interpreters and the Deaf community requires us to listen deeply to the marginalized community we are privileged to enter on a daily basis. Learning about privilege in other contexts and training that lens on our interactions with the Deaf community, we can support each other in confronting hearing interpreter privilege in order to raise the level of accountability of the entire field. Listening to Deaf people without being defensive, apologizing when called for, taking responsibility for our actions, and learning from mistakes will go far to rebuild the delicate trust necessary for hearing interpreters to work effectively with the Deaf community.

Final Thoughts

Looking at privilege is an extremely uncomfortable journey. It takes us to places that can feel shameful and painful. But it is also an opportunity to look beneath the surface of how things have always been and begin to build a better, more equitable way of being in the world. Interpreters are in a unique position, as sojourners among the Deaf community, knowledgeable about the language and culture of this historically oppressed community. We have the opportunity and the responsibility to examine our privilege and alter our thinking and our actions to truly ally ourselves with the Deaf community.

Questions for Consideration

  1. By virtue of being interpreters, sojourners in an oppressed language community, how are we perpetuating our own peculiar brand of interpreter privilege?  
  2. What kinds of “tiny but terrifying aggressions” towards Deaf consumers have you witnessed/engaged in while working as an interpreter?
  3. How can hearing interpreters best support each other in coming to terms with the fact of our privilege in the context of our daily work?


Dyson, M.E. (2017) Tears We Cannot Stop. New York City: St Martin’s Press.

McKenzie, Mia (2006). No More ‘Allies’. Black Girl Dangerous. Retrieved from


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Stages of Competence: Sign Language Interpreters and the 8th Year Climb

Healy - Sign Language Interpreters and the 8th year climb

Practice professions like sign language interpreting progress through cycles of learning that can leave us exhausted, feeling like we’re always just beginning. But really it means there’s always more to discover!

There’s a hike in Shenandoah National Park that is filled with beautiful views, tedious switchbacks, and rock scrambling that requires strategizing, slowed pace, and guidance from those further along the trail.

In this practice profession of interpreting, it’s a bit like we’re climbing an enormous, multifaceted mountain. Along the way we reach summits, gratified to see the distance we’ve come; we traverse plateaus, relaxing into needed rest and rejuvenation; and we climb ascents that challenge our perseverance and commitment to growth. One of these stages I’ve come to call the “Eighth-Year Climb.”

[View post in ASL]

The Eighth-Year Climb

I noticed it first in myself. About eight years into my interpreting career, I began to feel incompetent, doubting my ability to facilitate communication at an acceptable level. I asked team interpreters if I should remove myself from assignments, “Really, be honest. Am I qualified for this level of work?” And I sought the same input from my consumers in various ways.

Consumers thought I was doing fine. Colleagues acknowledged I was working hard, and while my product was not phenomenal, it was acceptable. The answers were hardly satisfying to an interpreter who had felt competent until recently. Over the next few years, those insecurity-driven discussions grew shorter and less frequent until I looked back with relief that the phase seemed to be over, but with confusion around what exactly I had just experienced.

Recently I found myself on the other side of nearly identical conversations. A colleague in her eighth year of signed language interpreting came to discuss her struggles, and I was shocked to watch us follow the same script my mentor-colleagues and I had followed just five years prior. Naturally, I told her about my experience, and we worked through it together. Since then I have met a handful of other interpreters currently in their eighth year of professional interpreting experiencing this same self-doubt, questioning, and fear. It has me pondering the causes and implications.

My best guess about the phenomenon draws on concepts from the Four Stages of Competence and Zone of Proximal Development.

Four Stages of Competence

The Four Stages of Competence is a learning model developed by Noel Burch that describes the steps of acquiring a new skill. First, we experience Unconscious Incompetence: we don’t know what we don’t know. That is, we lack enough awareness even to recognize our own inability (for a great discussion on this, also check out the Dunning-Kruger Effect on Wikipedia!).

At some point, we become aware of our shortcoming, and that leads to the second step: Conscious Incompetence. Recognizing our inadequacies is uncomfortable, but until we are aware of limitations, our growth is stunted. For many of us, formal training opened our eyes. We may have thought interpreting was just, “sign what they say/say what they sign.” Then we realized how complex it all is, and through training, mentoring, analysis of self, cultures, languages, power dynamics, and so forth, we gained Conscious Competence.

Hopefully, we become consciously skilled before we leave our apprentice relationships. Then as we gain experience and become adept at applying theories, skills, and strategies, a large proportion of the work becomes run by Unconscious Competence, the fourth stage of learning. While interpreting always demands significant effort, around five years into my career, I was no longer overwhelmed, and I felt confident in my ability to execute the necessary tasks most of the time.

Then my eighth year came, and the ground shifted. Have you experienced it?

I think what had happened was this. I had become Unconsciously Competent at a basic level. As those foundational skills became more automatized, it freed more of my mental capacity — to draw on Daniel Gile’s Effort Model of Interpreting (Gile 2009) — which allowed deeper meta-analysis of the work. I could mentally stand beside myself and study what I was doing while interpreting. And as I watched more experienced interpreters do the “same” work, I could run my interpreting brain parallel to theirs, and yet see how their product was more nuanced, sophisticated, and accurate in its wholeness than the target texts I could create. I became Consciously Incompetent at a new level. That is, I was experiencing an expansion in my Zone of Proximal Development.

Zone of Proximal Development

The concept of Zone of Proximal Development was proposed by Lev Vygotsky and expanded on throughout the twentieth century. Basically, it explains that learners grow to a certain extent on our own, but eventually need someone else to enable advancement to the next level; perhaps you’ve heard the term scaffolding, identifying someone’s learning stage and then meeting them one step higher to support progress.

Billy Kendrick discussed in his recent article, No One’s a Prodigy! Deliberate Practice and Sign Language Interpreting, the idea put forth by psychologist Anders Ericsson that skills take approximately 10,000 hours of practice to master. Ericsson explains that mastery depends critically on the quality of the practice, but let’s assume we are always striving to become the best interpreters that we can be. If that were the case, the math implies to become an expert, one would interpret an average of 25 hours per week, 50 weeks each year, for eight years. Of course, we never finish growing in a practice profession; we never become passive “expert” interpreters. However, after 10,000 hours of intentional development, we may find ourselves entrusted with assignments we’ve never before faced in our career.

It can feel like we’ve climbed miles up the mountain, finally breaking through the cloudbank in exultation, only to see up ahead colleagues who have climbed higher than we ever imagined existed. We’ve opened a new Zone of Proximal Development. We can see the next summit above

the clouds, but we don’t yet know how to get there. And the ground that seemed far below has vanished beneath the clouds. The lowest spot we can see is only inches beneath our feet. It feels like incompetence has appeared from nowhere! But perhaps it’s just that we’ve been Unconsciously Incompetent in certain aspects of the work, and our new Conscious Incompetence indicates advancement, despite the sense of regression.

Uncomfortable but Valuable

The recognition is not in vain. I watched myself, and now others, hit this discomfort and doubt, and it sparked a recommitment to our professional development. We cleared our schedules and budgets to prioritize events in the Deaf community, took active roles in professional organizations, and deliberately pursued pre-brief and debrief sessions with team interpreters and consumers, seeking new understanding of the complexities in the work. Additionally, our doubts prompted reflection on our motivations, which Audrey Ramirez-Loudenback pointed out can critically impact our work as signed language interpreters in her article, What Makes Us Tick? Sign Language Interpreters, Values & Motivation. And our reignited energies have paid off in better communication facilitation, collaboration, and overall enjoyment in the practice and profession.

Like any skill or development, we’re bound to plateau here and there. Hopefully, after some time of gentle walking and rest, our muscles cry out for a new challenge, and we meet it with all the passion and commitment our consumers and colleagues deserve!

Questions for Consideration

  1. If you have experienced or witnessed a phase when confidence was strong and then faltered, does the explanation in this article seem to resonate with what you have observed?
  2. If you have not experienced this “eighth-year climb” phenomenon, can you identify some factors that might have been different in your journey than the one described here? (How does this apply with Deaf interpreters or interpreters with Deaf parents?)
  3. For interpreters higher up the mountain: are there stages beyond eight-years of experience phase that you have noticed in yours and colleagues’ experiences?


Burch, Noel. “Four Stages for Learning Any New Skill” or “Four Stages of Competence” were developed by Burch while working at Gordon Training International in the 1970s. http://

Gile, Daniel. Basic concepts and models for interpreter and translator training. Vol. 8. John Benjamins Publishing, 2009.

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Codas: Can We Still Call the Sign Language Interpreting Profession Home?

Codas: Codas: Can We Still Call the Sign Language Interpreting Profession Home?

More and more, academic credentials are now considered to be superior to those that have gained their expertise through lived experiences. By working together, we can find ways to recognize the intuitive expertise Coda interpreters offer.

To my colleagues, specifically to those that have Deaf parents. Maybe you choose to identify as a Heritage Signer, Deaf Parented, Coda, signing MOTHER-FATHER-DEAF, or maybe you choose not to make reference to your Deaf parents at all. However you identify, we are all united by our shared experiences while we work as professional sign language interpreters. We share this by reflecting on our heritage with pride, compassion, and more importantly, our lived experiences which translate into our intuitive expertise as interpreters. More so, when Codas enter into interpreting training programs (ITPs) and graduate, the knowledge we acquire only solidifies and broadens our inherent ability. But sadly, for many Codas, we are continuously forced to validate our lived experiences to those with academic credentials. We need to remove the hierarchical lens in which lived expertise is viewed as secondary to academic accomplishments.

The expertise Codas bring to the profession deserves to be respected equally with those who have gone on to earn their BAs, MAs, or PhDs in the interpreting field. We, as Coda interpreters, have been interpreting long before being recognized by interpreting organizations and academic institutions. We have done this and will continue to do this, not out of an early interest in becoming sign language interpreters, but rather because of our birthright into the profession Codas helped create.

[View post in ASL]

Canadian Codas and their History in the Profession

Janice Hawkins, Mary Butterfield, and Louise Ford were at the forefront in establishing Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada (AVLIC) and interpreter training programs across Canada. All Codas. Everyone from Deaf community members, ministers, social workers, Codas, and teachers of the Deaf were invited to meet, discuss, and collaborate on establishing a national organization to validate and recognize sign language interpreting as a bonafide profession.

In the thirty-nine years of AVLIC, and out of sixteen presidents¹, only two Codas have been recognized by the organization as president: Louise Ford (1980) and Bonnie Heath (1986). Interestingly, Janice Hawkins, who was designated Acting President in 1980, has yet to be recognized as a past president of AVLIC. Why? And out of 800+ AVLIC active members, approximately only 19 Coda interpreters have their Certificate of Interpretation (COI) status.² As heritage signers, more Codas should have their COIs. But we don’t. Why?

Is it because there’s negative bias against Coda interpreters? Could it be that ITPs are not actively recruiting or retaining Coda students and/or staff? Or could there be a perception that our skills are not strong enough because we are not being supported in ways that acknowledge our unique heritage? Let’s work together to change this. We can start by advocating that our interpreting organizations and educational institutions come up with ways to recognize the unique experiences Codas bring to the profession. Codas, we need to start claiming our expertise as cultural brokers, heritage signers, and more importantly, as interpreters. We should no longer be asking for permission to be recognized and respected: we need to start insisting on it.     

Personal Experiences: Coda = Identity

I attended an affiliate chapter meeting a few months back. A motion was put forward to establish a committee to look into how the local chapter could be more culturally proficient. Noticing that Coda representation was lacking from this motion, I requested the motion be amended to include Codas. The discussion that followed was unfortunate and uncomfortable. Numerous people, one by one, attempted to dismiss the need for the word Coda to be included in the motion. It was posited that we don’t face prejudices and/or discrimination in the interpreting profession we work in and Deaf communities we live in. Honestly, I wish this was the case, but sadly, it is not. We are never accepted fully by one or the other despite the sacrifices we have made in trying to bring them together. Thankfully, the motion passed with the amendment. But feelings of exclusion still linger.

I have also attended numerous interpreting conferences/workshops and occasionally, presenters will make a point to thank Codas for their contributions to the field of interpreting. I find this puzzling because while we’re applauded for our contributions, we are also quickly criticized when given the chance to positively influence others with our teachings. When we have worked our entire lives as interpreters and come into positions of perceived power, especially within our profession, this same community that applauds us can easily dismiss us and our expertise. This is not fair. In Amy Williamson’s StreetLeverage article, The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession, she eloquently describes how Codas “… are not hearing. We are not deaf. As such, we are often not seen nor valued. We are; however, both vilified and worshiped in good measure.” Far too often Codas experience this dichotomy within the profession. It’s now time to change the status quo; we need to do this together. We can do this by recognizing the invaluable contributions Codas make towards the profession – past and present. You can do this, not by saying “thank you” on a stage, but rather by giving us the respect and space to showcase our expertise. Let us share our vital knowledge. More importantly, allow us to celebrate our heritage and expertise with you.

Codas Under-Represented in Canadian ITPs

Currently, only two ITPs in Canada include a Coda as part of their faculty team. I strongly believe there should be Coda instructors in every ITP in Canada. When Codas are invited into ITPs as instructors and impart their empirical knowledge, students learn first-hand about traversing between the Deaf and hearing world, how to apply interpreting theory to a variety of existential experiences, cultural brokering techniques, and how to navigate the professional/personal boundaries as sign language interpreters. As Codas, we have done this our entire lives and have become experts in it. This deserves to be professionally recognized and taught.

Therefore, it is essential we have Coda instructors in all ITPs. Not only will this give students a crucial bicultural perspective, it also gives recognition to the Deaf communities who have passed indispensable knowledge onto their children and encouraged them to take their rightful place as professional educators.

In Joseph Featherstone’s StreetLeverage article, IEP: Faculty Composition Impacts Sign Language Interpreter Readiness, he identifies four pillars that should be evident in all ITPs: the Native English-Speaker, the Native ASL Signer, the Bilingual Native, and the CDI. By having these four elements in place, interpreting students can be exposed to the necessary things they need in order to become well-educated and well-rounded interpreters. CODAs, in this case, are identified as the Bilingual Native. Featherstone states:

“Bilingual Natives have native fluency in both ASL and English, such as Children of Deaf Adults (CODA). Because they most likely grew up with ASL as their first language, the Bilingual Native more intimately understands the Deaf way. That’s not to say that they are more invested in the Deaf community than those who learned ASL in school, but that their relationship with the Deaf community is more direct, and as such, they are greatly impacted by the state of the Deaf community. Bilingual Natives also have a strong understanding of English and can teach on the intersection between the Deaf and Hearing communities, especially as it relates to interpreting.”

We must encourage ITPs in Canada to do more to include Codas. We have to actively work towards being more inclusive towards Coda instructors whose life experiences dictate their professional expertise. It is imperative that ITPs, as well as sign language interpreting organizations, strive towards being better reflections of the Deaf communities that we serve.

Moving Forward with a Holistic Approach

Moving forward, let’s work together to create spaces for Codas where our experiences, and furthermore, expertise is viewed as equal to those who have made other valuable contributions to our profession. When discussing whether or not Codas are qualified to be instructors or when Codas express concerns about the state of the profession, I encourage everyone to engage in those conversations through a holistic lens. Take into consideration the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of Coda interpreters and their lifelong experience of being a part of the Deaf community.  All of these facets work in tandem to give rise to the invaluable contributions Codas make towards our profession – let’s recognize them. We at least owe this to the Deaf communities that have shared so much of their time, language, and culture with all of us.

Questions to Consider:

  1. How can we recognize the intuitive expertise Coda interpreters bring to the profession?
  2. How can we encourage ITPs to include more Codas as part of their faculty team as well as recruiting more Coda students?
  3. What are some ways you can help celebrate Codas unique heritage?



¹ Association of Visual Language Interpreters of Canada. (n.d.). Retrieved June 11, 2018, from

² AVLIC does not collect information on how many of its’ members identify as Coda. The list of interpreters who identify as Coda was compiled by several Coda interpreters across Canada. If you would like to receive the list, please contact the author of this article.


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Active Shooter Awareness: Sign Language Interpreters & Community Preparation

Active Shooter Awareness- Sign Language Interpreters & Community Preparation

In an active shooter incident, understanding expectations, communication, and protocols can save lives. Formal training and open dialogue between sign language interpreters and the Deaf Community is vital.

Tara Adams attended a country music concert with her hearing husband and thirteen of their hearing friends. She was the only person who was Deaf in her group. She has cochlear implants. On the last night of the festival, during the final performance of the night, she heard what sounded like firecrackers going off. She didn’t really pay any attention to it, thinking it was part of the performance. A minute later, she heard them again, louder this time, and then her husband grabbed her hand and they both started running. People all around them were shouting “get down!” and laying down on the ground, thinking the shooter was at ground level and they were taking shelter by laying down and remaining still. Tara and her husband also thought the shooter was level with them, but they decided to keep running away from the sound of gunfire. They wouldn’t know until much later that people were getting shot from a room high up in the Mandalay Bay casino. She looked at her husband and was glad they both were safe. So far. By that time, the threat was long over. Fortunately, there were not any Deaf casualties in Las Vegas. Fortunately, there were not any Deaf casualties in the recent shootings at a church in Texas or at the elementary school in Northern California.

The following questions arise each time we experience an incident of this kind:

  • How can Deaf people prepare for these kinds of incidents?
  • What is the role of sign language interpreters and/or other professionals who work in the Deaf Community?
  • Who provides training that would address all of these questions?

One thing is certain: Active Shooter Incidents are increasing in frequency and severity in the United States.

[View post in ASL]

Only a Matter of Time

To date, there have not been any casualties from Active Shooter Incidents in the Deaf Community. Some Deaf relatives have had family members who were victims, but it is only a matter of time before an individual who is Deaf or hard of hearing becomes a victim. Knowing what to do and preparing in advance are the best indicators for surviving any emergency or disaster, and in that respect, Active Shooter Incidents are no different. Preparation matters. Training and practice save lives. As First Responders say: it’s not a matter of “if”, it’s a matter of “when.”  Bad things are going to happen. The only questions are when they will happen and whether individuals and communities are prepared for them. To date, only a small number of trainings have been conducted specifically for the Deaf Community.

Police and Fire Departments Constantly Train

In order to satisfy licensure maintenance requirements, police and fire department personnel must re-qualify, renew certifications, and/or complete a certain number of continuing education or POST credits. Departments maintain accreditation and permit requirements by providing training opportunities for their personnel and receive state and federal funding by performing exercises on a regular basis. They train. Constantly.

Police Are Not There To Save You

When law enforcement officers engage in an Active Shooter Incident, they have one priority: eliminate the threat. The “threat” is the shooter. An Active Shooter Incident differs from a hostage situation in that the hostage taker’s priorities are a ransom or other goal and taking hostages is a means to that end. An Active Shooter Incident is unique in that the goal of the shooter is to kill, maim, or injure as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time. Law enforcement engages these threats differently. In a hostage situation, the goal is the safety and well-being of the hostages. In an Active Shooter Incident, the goal is to eliminate the threat, which means locating and stopping the shooter. Getting victims to safety is secondary to eliminating the threat.

Police will check each person they find for weapons, assuming the shooter is hiding among the victims. Police will not get victims to safety until after the threat has been located and/or eliminated. Police will give verbal commands. Non-compliance with verbal commands will be met with physically forced compliance. Police are in a hurry to eliminate the threat, they will not be focused on being soft or light or courteous. They will pat-down each person they come across and then verbally order them to stay down and stay put. This certainly has implications for Deaf and Hard of Hearing individuals who may not have access to verbal orders.

Firefighters and Emergency Medical Services Stage at a Safe Distance

Firefighters typically arrive at an Active Shooter Incident after law enforcement has already arrived. They have specific protocol and procedure for responding to incidents where there is a live and active threat: staging at a safe distance. Firefighters and emergency medical personnel will arrive and prepare to receive casualties. They are trained not to enter dangerous areas until those areas are deemed clear of threats by law enforcement personnel.

Run, Hide, Fight

Law enforcement personnel are not there to save you. EMS is not coming until the threat is eliminated. You are on your own. Every individual is responsible to prepare themselves. Some municipalities offer Active Shooter Awareness training free to the public. Some companies offer training for a fee. Methods and modalities differ greatly. The most widely used curriculum for Active Shooter Awareness training follows three basic courses of action depending upon an individual’s proximity to the threat: Run, Hide, Fight.

If you can safely avoid or escape the area where an active shooter is, do so. That’s what “Run” means. If you can’t safely flee, conceal yourself in a safe location, turn out the lights, and remain quiet in order to evade detection by the shooter. That’s what “Hide” means. And if you encounter the shooter, cannot flee and cannot conceal yourself, defend yourself to the best of your ability. That’s what “Fight” means.

Place, time of day, physical conditions of the individual, and weather can all factor into which response will be the best course of action for each person. Preparation is personal and person-specific.

Roles and Responsibility of the Sign Language Interpreter

Sign language interpreting contracts typically have a “force major” clause which renders the contract null and void should an interpreting assignment end or be canceled due to inclement weather, natural disaster, or emergency. Technically speaking, once the shooting starts, the sign language interpreter’s contractual obligations to provide communication and other access has ended. Since the interpreter is not contractually or legally obligated to interpret, the question then becomes what other obligations compel the Interpreter to continue providing access to individuals who are Deaf in an Active Shooter Incident? The sign language interpreter’s own sense of community might compel them to respond in a cooperative way, remain with the Deaf clients, and continue to provide access. But they are under no obligation to place themselves in danger in order to serve others. Sign language interpreters are not first responders, and there is no reasonable expectation for them to respond in any specific way. Nor would it be appropriate to judge them or hold them accountable for what they choose to do or choose not to do during an Active Shooter Incident.

One of the principal tenets of citizen response to emergencies and disasters is placing one’s own personal safety as the top priority. It is impossible to help others when you yourself are injured or incapacitated. For that reason, one’s own personal safety must be priority number one. After that comes concern for the safety of others. Of course, there will always be those among us who make the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of others.

Victoria Leigh Soto was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary school. When a shooter entered the school and began going room by room shooting everyone in sight, she placed herself between the shooter and her students. The shooter shot her several times, and she chose to shield her students with her own body, perishing as a result. Nothing about her employment contract with the school system compelled her to do so. She elected of her own free will and choice to protect her students at the expense of her own life. This may be seen as the correct course of action from the outside perspective, but it must be remembered that no one has the right to demand another person place themselves in danger in order to protect others.

Preparation is the Key to Effective Response

Active Shooter Awareness training provides the preparedness essentials necessary for citizens to be ready to respond appropriately in an Active Shooter Incident. This training is ideally conducted in a safe and controlled environment and with the participation of local law enforcement personnel. Coordination with local law enforcement agencies is essential to effective preparation as part of a whole community response. Advanced Bleeding Control is an essential training for all citizens also. This teaches the participant how to perform life-saving emergency first-aid to help stabilize victims long enough to get to a hospital and receive the care they need to recover. Find out when the next training is near you. Plan to attend. Learn all you can. Ask questions. Get answers. Then ask how you can volunteer for your local agency’s next exercise. As First Responders say, “You respond the way you train.” And they train all the time. If you are serious about learning what to do in emergencies and disasters, start training with them.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What are the moral/ethical considerations for an American Sign Language Interpreter for the Deaf & Hard of Hearing in an emergency situation?
  2.  What is the appropriate way to discuss plans in the event of an emergency between Sign Language interpreters and Deaf clients?
  3. Who is responsible for initiating the discussion?


  1. The Daily Moth. (n.d.). Retrieved December 30, 2017, from


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Is Diversity a Mask for Tokenism in the Field of Sign Language Interpreting?

Is Diversity a Mask for Tokenism in the Field of Sign Language Interpreting?

True diversity is needed in the field of sign language interpreting rather than creating an “other” group of interpreters. Avoiding tokenism and approaching diversity with the goal of equality are the first steps to breaking through.

As I sit down to write this article, I am struck by the notion that while I want to bring an important theme to the fore, I am unsure of how the topic will be received. I constantly broach subjects of race and how it plays out in the field of sign language interpreting, and frequently battle the thought that I’m somehow negatively labeling myself as a running ad. But as the world’s landscape continues to shift and change, so does our professional one, and by extension, so does its discourse. This shifting tide is not unique to the interpreting sphere, rather, we see it across all disciplines. This past year I’ve experienced it to an exponential degree and my experiences are the basis for this article. To what am I referring?

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Who doesn’t enjoy being chosen for a specific job? It’s a nod to our professional prowess. It is an indication of our occupational aptitude. Basically, it makes us feel good. We trust that it means the requestor believes we are qualified and capable of handling the task, and those are the reasons for which we have been requested. But sometimes, as it goes for Interpreters of Color, there’s an additional rationale behind the special request. It can lead us to beg the internal question: are we being tokenized or is this just growth toward diversity playing out?

You Say Tokenism, I Say Diversity

Is there really a difference between the two terms? Or is it just a matter of perspective?  According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, tokenism is “the practice of doing something (such as hiring a person who belongs to a minority group) only to prevent criticism and give the appearance that people are being treated fairly”. I know reading this definition off-hand leaves an unfavorable taste. It screams negativity and is not always indicative of every attempt to diversify. But now, let’s look at the definition of diversity, “the inclusion of individuals representing more than one national origin, color,” etc. Is there a difference? Absolutely. There lies a nuanced, but clear distinction between the two. Although it would be best illustrated in visual form, in “token” situations there is an invitation for someone of a “minority” (in representation) to join a majority. This may be to suit a specific need or purpose, and in other instances, it can be a step towards creating diversity. The issue of tokenism can start to arise when that one individual becomes the sole representation of “diversity” by means of their presence. On the other hand, true diversity, by its very definition, is inclusive and is seen when there is more than one group represented at all times.  

Micro Meso Macro

How can this play out in the field of sign language interpreting? Let us consider an example. You’ve been pursued for a high-profile assignment to work with a specific client. You wonder why since there is a regular team in place and has been for quite some time. However, last minute, the team realizes that this client will be speaking to an audience comprised predominantly, if not solely, of your race. You get a call at the eleventh hour to see if you can cover this assignment. Off the top, it doesn’t sound bad at all. It looks like a genuine attempt to create a culturally responsive match. Here is where we see tokenism start to rear its ugly head, disguising itself behind the mask of diversity. The team nor the client, prior to this request, had given concerted thought to the need of diversifying the team, which led to a ‘hunt’ for a racial replica in a crunch. Ultimately it results in a ‘skin match’. This is something Ph.D. candidate, Pam Collins, addresses in her dissertation entitled, “The Social Organization of ASL-English Interpreters: An Institutional Ethnographic Exploration of Getting Scheduled.” She sheds light on “the lack of understanding demonstrated in scheduling practices and the efficacy of scheduling in providing access to clients.”  While I respect the reasons for seeking, in this case, an interpreter of color, had the team in my example (sign language interpreters, institution, client, etc.) developed a cohort of qualified, diverse interpreters at the onset, they would have had the established versatility in place to meet a variety of needs.

Another example is when sign language interpreters are solely hired and/or requested for events during a particular time of the year, i.e., the month of February. But isn’t that just cultural common sense? Unquestionably. The due diligence in making sure to use the right sign language interpreter in the right situation, when possible, is not just cultural common sense, it is professional common sense. However, the word “solely” is italicized for a reason. The tokenism comes into play when we notice we are only employing those specific interpreters of color during a specific time of year, for a specific event, for a specific audience, or for a specific speaker. If an agency has qualified Interpreters of Color on their roster but chooses only to employ them when they feel it “culturally appropriate,” they are tokenizing the individual, proverbially boxing them into a limited range of competency confined exclusively to their race. This is where we see the issue come from under the microscope and elevated to a more macro, systemic level, where there is something inherently faulty in the professional practice.

In the first example, the team did consider the race of the sign language interpreter and assumed that would create the cultural adhesive, however, this was precisely the part which was not weighed. While the sign language interpreter indeed shared a common race with the audience, that was all they shared, because they were of two different ethnicities. What had not been taken into consideration was the interpreter’s knowledge base, their skill in handling the topic of discussion, or their familiarity with this particular ethnic group. Interpreters of Color are often recruited more based on cultural expectations and less by their lived experiences.

It is easy for us to fall into the loose-fitting narrative of, “isn’t something better than nothing?”’ Unfortunately, at times, we do have to ride the symbolism of this mantra to make sure accessible services are being provided. But to comfortably sink into the cushion of that lyric in lieu of exercising reasonable care in this context would be to perpetuate a pattern that is flawed in its approach towards enhancing the professional norm.

A Losing battle?

It is not about filling every request. We know our numbers are small. The precarious fragility of the field’s disproportionate dynamic is not lost on those who frequently confront the topic. Active steps are being taken to analyze how we can change this rhetoric to grow the qualified pool of Interpreters of Color. It is more about gauging our behavior, analyzing it, and earnestly working to adjust the lens through which we have become accustomed to viewing this subject.

Although being token in any situation is never a sought-after goal of any member of a group smaller in representation, we do understand at times the necessity of wearing the cloak. There exist moments in which we feel token, in which we are token, but also recognize we are better suited for the request. It can be a dubious inner war to battle, frequently unsure if we are being asked because of our skill and professionalism, or for the tone of our skin. This uncertainty is further eternalized by the infrequency in which we are recruited for non-race related solicitations.

Checks and Balances

Most tokenization is done unintentionally but when left unchecked, becomes a cyclical norm. We have to progressively work to fight against deficient practices. It can be very easy to ride the societal reclamation wave for social justice, however, the key is in not letting that revolutionary fervor crest and crash. Tokenism does the very opposite of boost morale. It breeds mistrust, skepticism, and feelings of inequity. I can’t prescribe a panacea, but there is a treatment plan. These conversations are frequently had in small circles but rarely brought to the general masses. Often there is a desire to make moves, but our hesitancy usually stems from not knowing where to start. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Approach a trusted colleague and utilize this post as a reference to open the discussion.
  • Openly and honestly analyze your business practices.
    • Do you actively participate in discussions or events which grow your understanding of this topic and the repercussive effects it has on certain groups in our field?
    • Do you sincerely tap into the skill set of your underrepresented POC employees, whether staff or contractor?
    • Can you capitalize on the experience of seasoned Interpreters of Color to perhaps create mentorship opportunities that will directly grow the ability and faculty of less seasoned ones?
    • Are you willing to grant the same privilege of maturation and development access by way of diverse teamwork?

“Tokenism does not change stereotypes of social systems but works to preserve them, since it dulls the revolutionary impulse.” – Mary Daly. This quote eloquently summarizes the overdue need for a paradigm shift in order to challenge the status quo. There is a strong tendency to be reactive instead of proactive, however, we need to make room for growth by laying a foundation we can build upon. Once we start building, we won’t have to “hunt” and “catch,” we’ll just have to ask.

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Guilt by Association: Are Educational Interpreters Sabotaging Themselves?

Guilt By Association: Are Educational Interpreters Sabotaging Themselves?

Sign language interpreters in educational settings often bear the brunt of heavy scrutiny and criticism. Not all of the negative press is unearned, but is it possible for serious practitioners to overcome these stereotypes?

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There is one type of sign language interpreting that always seems to get viewed negatively – educational interpreting. Recently, I started thinking about the reason this group ends up with such a negative reputation. I understand that, historically, educational interpreting has been a place where newer interpreters are hired and the setting is often used as an entry into the field. More recently, some states have set the bar higher and educational sign language interpreters (EI’s) must have licensure, specific credentials like the EIPA, and some states even have their own tests in place to make sure EI’s have a minimal skill set to provide services. While credentials are very important, this article is not focused on working EIs’ credentials. This article takes a look at the individual decisions made by EIs that inadvertently affect the whole group.

Some Truth in Humor

Recently, I saw a very funny YouTube video titled, “Nine Worst Interpreters”posted by Deafies in Drag. Like several thousand others, I watched the video and laughed. Then it struck me, I have worked with most of these interpreter characters. If I am being completely honest, I have been one of these interpreters. I would like to think I have changed and am not quite the “newbie” depicted in the video anymore. When it comes down to it, we are responsible for our own actions. There are sign language interpreters who think they should be allowed to behave however they deem fit without considering the Deaf client they serve or the effect it will have on the profession as a whole.

The more I thought about this video, the sadder I became. Those scenarios happen daily, and deaf clients are subjected to this type of behavior while they are trying to get their education. This is not the only video; there is a part two and a part three on their YouTube channel as well. While these videos are funny, it should be a wake-up call for all EIs in the field. We are being watched, our actions are noticed, and it affects how people judge us.

I am privileged to travel the country presenting workshops on ethics in educational interpreting, and in these travels, I have been privy to many horror stories involving EIs. While one sign language interpreter may think it is acceptable to come to work and watch movies during their downtime (popular movies, not educational ones), or work on personal hobbies (i.e., sewing, knitting), their decision to do this will cause the people around them to form an opinion based on their actions. This opinion may then set a precedent for the sign language interpreter who comes in the next year.

Does Professional Appearance Matter?

One of the complaints I consistently hear from EIs across the country is about the lack of respect they get from the teachers and administration in their districts. That is frustrating for any EI, but we also have to do a self-analysis to find out why we do not have their respect. Some things to consider:

  • Do you come to work every day in jeans and a t-shirt or sweatpants, or like the “Dress Code” interpreter in one of the aforementioned YouTube videos, looking like you are going to a club with heavy makeup?
  • Do you constantly stay on your phone all day?
  • Are you late all the time?
  • Are you one of the sign language interpreters who never attend professional training?

These are just a few in the long list of behaviors EIs are reportedly doing across the country. At the same time, sign language interpreters in these settings want to be treated with respect and earn higher wages.

When these unprofessional behaviors are brought to educational interpreters’ attention, too often they have an excuse for their behavior. For example, “I dress down because I am in elementary school and I am not getting on the floor in my good clothes.” Another common example is,“I need to have my phone because something may happen.” So, basically, some interpreters are preparing for a tragedy every day? The rule of thumb should be that if the teachers and staff are not allowed on their phones, the sign language interpreter should not be either. And even if they are allowed, no one wants to be known as “the interpreter who is on her phone all day.” Another common excuse is, “I am late because I live far away.” Yes, many people live far from their jobs and still manage to make it on time. Again, these are just a few of the excuses that have been used over the years.

Can We Change The Stigma?

Many of us have experienced that “look” we get from other sign language interpreters in the field when we say we are an educational interpreter. You can literally see your ranking drop on their scale of serious interpreters. Yet, EIs are the ones out there working as language models, facilitating an education that can allow a student to succeed in life. The work we do is very important, yet we get looked at as if they feel sorry for us because we are EIs. But why? Well, much of it has to do with the previously mentioned issues with EIs. Chances are these interpreters giving us the “look” have actually been in our shoes, have seen what is being done, and want no part of it.

Here is a statement that was posted on Facebook recently from the mother of a deaf child that is a freshman in high school (Note: This excerpt was used with permission.):

“We were discussing interpreter clothing choices, nail choices, etc. I was asking her if she liked a certain look. She gave me her honest opinion and then… then she dropped a truth that hit me right in the privilege.

O: Not all Deaf people are allowed to be honest, mom[sic]. Sometimes they think they have to tell the interpreter it’s ok because if they get mad or hurt feelings then they will not work for us. Interpreters have power. If we say we don’t like it, they say no one else complained. Other people said they like it. I have to tell the truth because I can’t see. Then when I do say something I am a brat or that word you said….. high maintenance. I just wish interpreters could understand.”

Wow, “right in the privilege” what a statement!  This is a strong reminder that it is not about what we want, what we need, or what we feel is right. It is about the consumers we serve. In my opinion, the student’s above statement should be printed and attached to every workplace where there is a sign language interpreter as a reminder to not misuse the power we are privileged to have.

What Can We Do To Turn This Around?

As sign language interpreters, we see these problems, we all know they exist. Now, what do we do about them? It is not worth mentioning a problem unless we have a solution. Finding solutions to these problems may be a little harder than we realize. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Educate and make sure that interpreters in educational settings are following the basic rules of the CPC, especially portions regarding respect for our consumers.
  2. Suggest attending workshops on ethics with other EIs in our school districts.
  3. Share relevant articles with our colleagues in a group email.
  4.  Request team meetings with open topics, such as  “Presenting a Professional Demeanor to Administrators.”

Creating Accountability For Ourselves

I realize directly approaching sign language interpreters behaving this way is difficult. Some may take it as an attack, as Kate Block mentioned in her article, “Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle.” There is a vicious cycle of horizontal violence in our field that we do not want to perpetuate. While I cannot offer a foolproof solution to these problems, I can propose that we become accountable for our part.

Even if the sign language interpreter before or after us is not behaving in a professional manner, we can still break the cycle with our own behavior. I have been in classrooms where I worked for several months and the teacher later approached me and told me she was surprised at how professional I was. Her experience had been with a previous interpreter who was not professional and she just assumed all sign language interpreters behaved that way. It was refreshing to realize that I control other people’s view of me. It may take time to wipe their memory clean of the previous interpreter, but it can be done, and it is worth it to take matters into your own hands for improving your career. The impact you make may seem small, but if more sign language interpreters start being accountable, eventually, the field of educational interpreting will earn the respect it deserves.

Questions for Consideration

  1. How can sign language interpreters in educational settings provide support for others who are entering the educational arena in order to raise the bar on professional decision-making and ethical behavior?
  2. How can sign language interpreters hold each other accountable without being perceived as perpetuating horizontal violence?
  3. What are some of the factors that may lead educational interpreters to feel disenfranchised or disengaged from the broader field of sign language interpreters? What is preventing crossover relationships and can that be changed?


  1. Block, K.  (2015) Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle.
  2. Deafies in Drag. (5, January 2016). Nine Worst Interpreters. Retrieved from
  3. Deafies in Drag. (9, January 2016). 8 WORST Interpreters: PART TWO. Retrieved from 
  4. Deafies in Drag. (4, June 2016) 7 Worst Interpreters Part: 3. Retrieved from
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Going Small: How Sign Language Interpreters Find Their Footing in 2018

Going Small: How Sign Language Interpreters Find Their Footing in 2018

2018 could be the year we reweave the fabric of the field of sign language interpreting. By understanding the importance of each thread and the care it takes to bind them all together, we may be able to redesign the magnificent whole.

Some years act as demarcation lines  – clearly defining the “before” and “after,” altering the trajectory of how we move forward. In many ways, 2017 appears to be one of those years. While there is a temptation to focus on the forces which have led us here, it is imperative that we look ahead and move forward.

The Year that Was

Fair warning: this is not your usual end-of-year rah-rah retrospective. If you were hoping for rainbows and butterflies, you won’t find them here. If you care deeply about the field of sign language interpreting (and we think you do), we hope you’ll read on.

For the field of sign language interpreting, 2017 provided further evidence that the systems and methods which sustained us in the past are not delivering in predictable, traditional ways. Old models and outdated ways of thinking are being challenged but success is harder to come by in the current environment. On social media platforms, there is an undercurrent of discontent which sometimes rises precipitously. We have seen sign language interpreters exit the field when we desperately need more people to join us. The reality is that we are facing critical issues that are not easily or quickly resolved.

Maybe for some of you, life is good. Maybe you are wondering what all the ruckus is about. If you zoom in and start asking questions, you might be surprised at what you learn.  

Zooming In

What we have seen in our travels around the field is that there is growing interest in serious conversations about power, privilege and other social justice issues as evidenced at the RID LEAD Together conference and other discussions around the field. We know that people are interested in and concerned about the position of Deaf Interpreters in the field and have seen the formation of the National Deaf Interpreter organization in response. We have continued to see people struggle for recognition and acceptance in the field. The use of VRI continues to be a source of contention – some see the benefits when used properly while others experience cognitive dissonance based on the lived experiences of Deaf people who have little choice in how services are provided to them. We see strong passion and drive – people want to find resolutions, but appear to feel ill-equipped to take action.

A Possible Antidote

We know resolution won’t come easy.

We don’t believe anyone one person has the answer.

However, we do believe we can find answers and create solutions through the taking of small, deliberate steps forward. From our view, it is in actively enrolling in our local communities, our local ITPs, our local leadership to illuminate the path forward.

Working locally may appear to be slow, but it is worthwhile. Each step forward is progress in the work to retell the story of the sign language interpreter. Each small act moves us forward. In the end, we will find our footing. We will survive the storm by zooming in. By going local. By going small. All of this because it’s worth it.

Each of us is equipped to do something to build our community. We just need to decide to do it and take a small step forward.

This is what it means to be a local citizen. Local is the place where your participation truly matters. Everybody can do something.

You never know where it might lead you.