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?
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:
- Educate and make sure that interpreters in educational settings are following the basic rules of the CPC, especially portions regarding respect for our consumers.
- Suggest attending workshops on ethics with other EIs in our school districts.
- Share relevant articles with our colleagues in a group email.
- 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
- 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?
- How can sign language interpreters hold each other accountable without being perceived as perpetuating horizontal violence?
- 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?
- Block, K. (2015) Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle. http://www.streetleverage.com/2015/03/horizontal-violence-can-sign-language-interpreters-break-the-cycle/
- Deafies in Drag. (5, January 2016). Nine Worst Interpreters. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Atq2QOwaiuk
- Deafies in Drag. (9, January 2016). 8 WORST Interpreters: PART TWO. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/s5BiMtq8LPI
- Deafies in Drag. (4, June 2016) 7 Worst Interpreters Part: 3. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/vLUUF6asfnQ