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Where are IOC? Sign Language Interpreting as a Spiritual Calling

Exposure to ASL and the Deaf community via spiritual settings has been a fraught topic. Lissa Ramirez-Stapleton posits that these arenas may be missed opportunities for attracting People of Color to become sign language interpreters.

“Centuries ago the word vocation, meaning literally “a calling,” applied only to bishops, priests, and monks–those occupying offices within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It was believed that the clergy had been called by God. They alone had a vocation while everyone else merely worked.”

(Jethani, 2013, para. 5)


I am often asked how and why I got connected to Deaf studies and what my personal connection is to the Deaf community. People are often looking for some explanation of why a Black hearing woman would ever be interested in the Deaf community unless she had some personal or family connection. I often tell my story of first connecting with the Deaf community as a teenager in a drug prevention teen program which opened the door for me to take American Sign Language in college, which opened another door once I started job searching. Soon the doors continued to open and my life’s work felt less and less driven by me and more orchestrated and planned by something bigger than me. As a spiritual person, who was raised as a holiday churchgoer, who attended Catholic middle school, and who now finds herself open to all forms of faiths and beliefs, I simply tell those curious about my life’s work that I was called. The idea of having a calling as Jethani (2013) states in the above epigraph was historically used by the Roman Catholic church, but in modern times I find that some people are seeking out careers that are more than work. Careers that are fulfilling a greater purpose, that are connected to what they were born to do, and which ignite their passion… a calling. 

[View post in ASL]

Students of Color find the interpreting field in many different ways, and in our research, one such environment was religion and spiritual spaces. The feeling of wanting to advocate for and with Deaf communities and feeling led into the field by something greater than themselves was an unforeseen outcome. The purpose of this post in our series is to consider the role religion and spiritual spaces play in connecting Students of Color to Deaf communities and ultimately into Interpreter Education Programs (IEP) and the broader interpreting profession.

“Feeling Called”

I am not the only person who has felt spiritually led or struggled with the calling to work within and among Deaf communities. Although she lacked confidence in her signing and sometimes wanted to give up, one Afro Latina student still felt led to work within the Deaf community. She said, “I just feel a calling to this field. I’ve been praying about it and I feel led.” This spiritual connection allowed her to be creative with her major, leading her to combine Deaf studies with a health field and to keep enrolling in signing classes even though she did not always feel confident in her ability. She often shared that she was highly encouraged by other Deaf People of Color to keep pursuing her goals. 

I also asked the Interpreters of Color on the Reality of Interpreting: Interpreters of Color Facebook page (ROI) what they thought about the topic. One person said, “Church WAS my ITP [Interpreter Training Program],” and further explained,

I know that a “calling” is a starting place. In the Christian tradition, there is a calling and there is preparation and there is growth. I was blessed to have these over a number of years that let me walk right into a new profession but again I was mentored by professional Deaf and hearing mentors from the very beginning.

For some Students of Color, their first exposure to Deaf communities is through Deaf ministries or Deaf community members. A Latina student said “My Godmother invited my family to her church and they have a Deaf ministry. I got involved with the ASL choir, took ASL 1 and we had a Deaf preacher.” The support, encouragement, and relationship building occurring for Students of Color in spiritual spaces helps them persist in the field despite self-doubt. These spiritual spaces also provide safer places to practice, connect, and enter into Deaf culture. 

Interpreters Raised in Spiritual Spaces

It is also important to consider the type of skills and exposure Students of Color coming out of spiritual spaces are getting that may be helpful to them as future interpreters as well as experiences that may be harmful and must be addressed. 

In-depth Community Exposure

Students of Color who come from spiritual spaces have immediate and one-on-one exposure to Deaf people, culture, and language. A Black female student said, “My junior year in high school, we got a new pastor and his son is Deaf…he encouraged me to learn sign language, so I started my junior year.” This is important as our research shows that the earlier students are exposed to ASL, the more likely they are to be accepted and complete an IEP (see Blog 2 of the series).  Students of Color from these spaces are also more likely to interact with people who have different signing abilities as stated by this Interpreter of Color from ROI,

The Deaf ministry had a wide spectrum of ASL users. This meant that for almost every event, I had to alter my target language… It was an amazing opportunity to be able to practice this skill.

These opportunities can be very positive and uplifting when mentorship is given and one’s skills match the job, but there are some cases where inexperienced signers are thrown into overwhelming and inappropriate interpreting situations that are unethical and damaging. Limited budget or volunteer-based programs should not take advantage of budding sign language interpreters. These are moments that some Students of Color walk away from feeling discouraged. One Latina student said the interpreter didn’t show up for church, so a Deaf friend asked her to step in. She left the experience feeling very stressed and tearful. Another Latino student said he would never be an interpreter because of a loss of confidence he felt after he was put into an inappropriate interpreting experience. 

Addressing Contradicting and Challenging Topics Early On

Some Students of Color may feel led to work with the Deaf community, but because of their own experiences with oppression and marginalization, they struggle with the contradiction between what they value and how the field works. For example, a Middle Eastern Latina student said,

I don’t want to be an interpreter because I remember hearing that as an interpreter…If there’s something unkind being said… you don’t get to advocate and that is not me. I’m not going to sit there and keep my mouth shut.

Some Students of Color who are exposed to spiritual space interpreting get exposed to these conflicts early on and find ways to reflect and maneuver around them. An interpreter from ROI stated, 

There were times where hot topics would come up in a sermon, and I had to interpret true to the speaker, even if I had disagreed. I was able to do so…but later on, I would have to deal with the emotions of that. 

This interpreter, through mentorship, found ways to work through this challenge. However, I would like us to ponder bigger questions of the Deaf and interpreting community. What does it mean to be a social justice advocate and a sign language interpreter? Is it always a conflict of interest? Are there different ways for sign language interpreters to address issues without overstepping their boundaries? If our oppression is interconnected, then we must collectively fight to end all forms of oppression. Because many Students of Color understand oppression from a specific perspective, the idea of “neutrality” may keep them out of the field and the larger fight for Deaf equity. 

Learned Audist Spiritual Undertones

I know spiritual and religious motivations for working with the Deaf community, particularly through missionary work, have historically had and still could have, some audist undertones of “helping” Deaf communities, which has not been empowering, respectful or mutual. Another Interpreter of Color from the ROI page stated: 

I often find myself in conversations with hearing folk (non-signers) where they are praising me for doing God’s work. The mentality often was that I was amazing for caring for the Deaf…I understand that they meant well…I wasn’t helping hearing-impaired people to keep up with the world. I was literally interpreting one language to another.

As a Deaf Studies teacher, I see these sentiments often with students, those who come from spiritual spaces, and those who do not. In all of our IEP and Deaf studies programs, we must address the idea of “help” and the ways in which it can be patronizing as well as how we should all embrace interdependence and support. This is something in which to continue to be mindful and proactive.  

One Calling Doesn’t Fit All!

For some students, calling or no calling, there are obstacles that still interfere with them being able to complete a program. One Latino student said,  “I’m on ROTC scholarship. I have to graduate in a specific time, and I’d need another year to do the interpreting program.” For other students, something shifts for them. A Filipino/Mexican student initially felt led to interpreting and was highly supported by peers and teachers, but realized with all the pressure to become an interpreter, he misread his passion. He stated, 

During my second semester at RIT, my professor asked us all to close our eyes and imagine us waking up and she asked us where we all were going…and of course, we were supposed to respond [and say] to an interpreting assignment and I realized nope that  [interpreting] is not where I am going. 

IEP instructors, Deaf Studies faculty, and the greater Deaf community can help Students of Color stay connected through other career fields within the Deaf community because as this student said,  “I realized that there are other things I can do with the Deaf population that appealed to me being an advocate.” Deaf Communities of Color and the broader Deaf Community have a need for People of Color in all aspects of Deaf life, including education, social work, counseling, and many other fields. 


Where and how Students of Color are exposed to the Deaf community varies. It requires educators, interpreters, IEP coordinators, and Deaf community members to seek out culturally rich environments as well as participate in active and intentional recruitment of Students of Color. It also requires us to create and nurture authentic spaces for the growth and development of language skills, cultural knowledge, and the confidence to move within signing spaces.

So where do we go from here? What questions might we consider moving forward?

  1. Are your students first exposed to Deaf communities and American Sign Language within a religious and spiritual space? If so, from where? If not, is there a possibility to open those lines of communication and connection?
  2. Many IEP programs are at public institutions. What challenges might you face connecting to religious or spiritual spaces? How might you work through them versus avoiding the possible relationship?
  3. How does the topic of religion and spirituality influence Deaf Students of Color and the interpreting field? Are these places we might consider as pools to increase our certified Deaf Interpreters of Color?
  4. This piece has Christian undertones. What might an intentional interfaith approach to Students of Color IEP recruitment look like?
  5. Most of the participants that had a spiritual connection were self-identified women. What might it mean for self-identified men or trans/non-binary folks and their exposure to Deaf culture and communities? 

*We would like to thank and acknowledge Felicia Williams, for the time and energy invested in the translation and ASL video work presented here. 


Jethani, S. (2013). Uncommon callings: To reach a new generation, we must affirm not just God’s general callings but people’s specific callings. Leadership Journal, 34(1). 

Other Contributors to this Series:

Will Garrow

Dr. Will Garrow, Ph.D. (pronouns: he/him/his) is from upstate New York, where he was first introduced to the Deaf Community through his career as a professional snowboarder. All of his degrees are from Gallaudet University with a Bachelor of Arts in Deaf Studies, a Master of Arts in Linguistics, and a doctorate in Linguistics. As a faculty member at California State University, Northridge, his teaching mainly focuses on how oppression works in American society, Deaf Culture, and ASL Linguistics.  When Will is not teaching, he can be found either on the snow in the mountains or splatting balls in the racquetball court. 

Jasmine Solis

Jasmine Solis (pronouns: she/her/hers), originally from Orange County California, received her B.A. in Deaf Studies with a concentration in Interpreting from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). As a recipient of the CSUN Presidential Scholarship, Jasmine completed her research unpacking confidence levels and anxiety amongst Students of Color who are currently or planning to pursue interpreting. Now as the full-time Academic Advisor for the Deaf Studies Department at CSUN, Jasmine hopes to continue supporting and encouraging students to reach their career goals.

MJ Jones

MJ Jones (pronouns: they/them/theirs), a Southern California native, currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area. MJ’s intersectionalities include Black, first-generation Filipinx, masculine of center, sighted, and hearing. After graduating from California State University, Northridge with a B.A. in ASL-English Interpreting and a minor in Queer Studies, MJ graduated with their M.A in International Development at Gallaudet University. They are currently an adjunct professor at Gallaudet University and a Full-Time Staff Interpreter with Vital Signs, LLC.

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Where are IOC? In Search of Role Models, Mentorship, & Guidance

Students of Color in interpreter education programs (IEPs) need encouragement. MJ Jones outlines some critical ways we can support future Interpreters of Color through mentorship, support, and information-sharing.


As a hearing transgender Interpreter of Color, I often wonder where to find sign language interpreters and Deaf people who look like me. Sometimes, it feels as if my multiple identities make it a challenge to build connections, seek mentors, and feel my authentic self in the field of sign language interpreting. It was not until my experience attending the Deaf People of Color Conference last year in Austin, TX, where I felt valued for all my intersectional identities, especially as an interpreting student of color. This optimal space provided opportunities to build new connections with Deaf People of Color, from scholars to academic leaders, and members of multiple communities. I met Deaf people, Deaf-Blind individuals, a Deaf Transgender woman, and sign language interpreters, all of whom identified as People of Color. The connection with folks who shared similar cultural and racial backgrounds was a feeling I have yearned for since I first started learning sign language. Building connections with Deaf People of Color and networking with other interpreters of color allowed me to feel I could bring my many authentic selves to the field of sign language interpreting. 

[View post in ASL]

Months later, at the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) Biennial conference, NAD recognized Deaf youth ambassador, Tanea Brown, for her strategic plan to address the lack of interpreters of color within the Deaf Community. Watching Tanea’s presentation, I felt a renewed connection and inspiration from her vision to create pathways for interpreters of color.  In her presentation, Tanea shared,  

When we look at minority communities, we don’t find as many opportunities for them [Students of Color] to pursue interpreting as a career, which in the end really impacts the Deaf community and Deaf People of Color. So we need to educate minority communities and create a pathway for them to pursue interpreting as a viable career.

Creating pathways for sign language interpreters cannot be done without support and mentorship. Evidently, this issue is not only critical for aspiring Interpreters of Color but to Deaf People of Color. Uncovering the experiences of interpreting Students of Color will allow us to understand the kind of support and mentorship interpreting Students of Color need to succeed. This series installment aims to discuss how mentorship and professional information can benefit pathways for interpreting Students of Color with narratives from our research (click here for more information about our research) and from conversations with colleagues who recently graduated.  

Lack of Professional Information

Being a Black-Filipinx interpreter, both Erica West-Oyedele and Christine Nakahara provide amazing narratives that discuss the experiences of Black (West-Oyedele) and Asian Heritage (Nakahara) sign language interpreters. In the collective narratives, participants mentioned organizations they wish they knew about or had access to, such as National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA), the National Alliance of Black Interpreters (NAOBI), and the National Asian Deaf Congress (NADC). This is parallel to what we found in our research as only a few students mentioned these organizations by name. 

Within our research, students from California State University, Northridge (CSUN) (see part 3 of the series) who shared they did not have much support or encouragement also did not have access to Deaf events.  In addition, they recognized the lack of diversity and connection in classrooms and the broader field of sign language interpreting. Furthermore, one student shared they were not interested in the field because of the lack of information available regarding pathways to obtaining advanced degrees (i.e., M.A, and Ph.D. programs). A Persian-Jewish female student who did not pursue a career in sign language interpreting shared, “It was a family expectation for me to get a master’s degree and I thought that if I became an interpreter that would be it. There is no more training. That wasn’t enough for me.” While the lack of access to professional information and organizations was prevalent for study participants, many of them also mentioned the struggle to obtain mentorship.

Lack of Mentorship

Mentorship plays a large role when analyzing the field of sign language interpreting and students’ experiences. Students who applied but were not accepted into the interpreting program did not have supported paths to meet Deaf People of Color (POC), mentors, or other peers to support them (click here for part 3 in the series). They expressed not developing an interest because of the lack of Interpreters of Color at events  When an interpreter does not see other sign language interpreters who look like them, they often feel isolated if they are the only one from that racial/ethnic group. After asking a recent graduate, a Cisgender Queer Female, about her experience, she shared, “For me, I feel I haven’t had a Filipino interpreter mentor. It feels kind of isolating because I feel like I’m the only one able to represent this demographic.” 

Clearly, Students of Color (SOC) aren’t only lacking knowledge about how to find and access professional information, but they are also lacking access to mentors of color. Spaces where sign language interpreting students of color can get support from Deaf POC and interpreters are critical to their persistence in the field and to their identity as Interpreters of Color. As West-Oyedele’s (2015) study reveals, “Interpreters of Color felt welcomed among Black Deaf consumers and created spaces with other African American/Black interpreters in the form of task forces or other social groups that allowed them to connect and be themselves” (p. 69). Connecting back to my experience at the Deaf People of Color Conference, I realized not many Students of Color (SOC) have exposure to Deaf individuals and sign language interpreters who identify like them. 

Lack of Support and Encouragement

Support can come in different shapes and forms. Our research revealed that SOC who were successful in their interpreter training programs had a great deal of social capital. For SOC, social capital includes various resources and support from the community that supports an individual’s growth as an interpreter. This includes support from ASL educators, hearing and Deaf interpreters, mentors, support from interpreting and D/deaf organizations, and even support from family, peers, friends to pursue sign language interpreting as a career. In order to get a better understanding of support in the classroom, I asked a colleague who recently graduated from an IEP. 

My first colleague, a cisgender Haitian-American man, shared:

I got support from a few students in my school’s program. I had one particular classmate who became like a brother to me. I knew I could depend on him for support at any time of [the] day if I needed. I definitely could not depend on my department to provide the support I needed because a lot of the time I was there as a token. Luckily, we [had] gatherings with all the students of color each semester to vent in a safe space about our issues or just to hang out and be ourselves.

If students feel they are unable to get support from within the department, they find support in other ways. Additionally, providing a space for SOC to gather provides them opportunities to connect and develop their own support systems. Study participants who did not apply or were not accepted into the interpreting program reported that they did not have strong social capital.

Pathways to Mentorship and Guidance

Even with the lack of information and support provided for SOC, students who succeeded found pathways to mentorship and guidance. We found that students who experienced the most success developed connections with unofficial mentors prior to attending. One research participant, a cisgender female Latino and queer-identifying student shared, “My high school ASL teacher was Latino and queer. He had the same identities as me. He told me about CSUN and encouraged me to be an interpreter.” In this case, intersectionality comes into play as the student identifies with their teacher racially and with another identity (i.e., language, sexual orientation, and gender). In situations like this, sharing two or more similar identities allows for stronger connections and more support. As a Trans POC, it was most difficult for me to find an LGBTQ POC in order to have those conversations. Once I did, I had deep conversations about how to navigate the field with my intersections, particularly when my race, gender, and sexual orientation are opposite from the main narrative.  

While some students had mentors whom they identified as white, some students shared they realized certain conversations and topics were more difficult to discuss with white mentors.  Especially, when talking about challenges in regards to race, culture, appearance (i.e., hair and best clothing), and microaggressions. Students did not feel comfortable with sharing those topics with white mentors. My first colleague shared:

I remember I asked another assigned mentor, who was a white cisgender male, his opinion of my hair. Once my question came out of my mouth, I realized that there could be so many things that could come out wrong with his answer. Fortunately, his response was appropriate, but I would have liked to have that conversation [about my hair] with people in my own community.

These stories do not necessarily mean mentors who are white are not a good match for SOC but indicate that students may feel more comfortable having conversations about their experience of race and culture with IOC. 

Another common trend identified was students reaching out to IOC outside of their program during their course of study. Often there are only a few SOC and Faculty of Color around the department for SOC to reach out for support. For example, my second colleague, a cisgender Filipino queer female shared:

Some of the support outside of the program was from different interpreters of color encouraging me to continue my journey and not to easily give up because of the overwhelming appearance of our demographic being outnumbered by the dominant non-POC interpreters. 

As we look at the current Registry of Interpreter for the Deaf (RID) statistics, this is not surprising. A recent number shows that 86% of certified interpreters identify as Euro-American/White interpreters (RID Annual 2016 Report). Sharing a cultural background or lived experiences can be a catalyst for a deeper connection and trust between mentor and student, which increases performance and motivation. In our research, the evidence seems to indicate that students who pursued sign language interpreting felt more comfortable and persisted because of the connections and mentorship relationships they had built before and during the program.


It is our collective responsibility to incorporate more diversity and support for Students of Color as they explore fields related to sign language interpreting and the Deaf Community. Whether one is creating online space for students of color and alumni of a program to connect and share resources or hosting gatherings for Students/Interpreters and Transliterators of Color, or connecting with local Deaf People of Color organizations, there is much that can be accomplished. As stakeholders, educators, sign language interpreting agencies, seasoned and newer interpreters, know that you can be an agent of change. Supporting one another allows us to do better work and allows our consumers to receive the best possible services.

In order to continue this discussion, here are some questions to consider:  

  1. How do Interpreting Training Programs support Heritage Signers of color, Deaf Interpreters of color, Trilingual students of color?
  2. How do we lessen the feelings of ‘tokenism’ when there are a small number of students of color in a program?  
  3. How do we create authentic spaces in our IEP’s that allow all students to feel authentic and valued? 
  4. How do we become more intentional about matching mentors with students of color? If we don’t have access to interpreters of color, what ways are we providing professional information and mentors that allow them to build connections with seasoned interpreters of color? 
  5. When seeking to open student’s minds, how do we incorporate conversation of power, privilege, and oppression to dismantle structures of knowledge?


Nakahara, C. (2016). “Expanding the collective narrative: Exploring the experiences of American Sign Language/English Interpreters of Asian Heritage.” [Dissertation]  

National Association of the Deaf – NAD Facebook Live  (July 8th, 2016). #NADYAP Final Round #NAD2016 Conference. Retrieved from

Registry of Interpreter for the Deaf (RID). (2016). 2016 Annual report change. Renewal, Recovery. Retrieved from

West Oyedele, E. (2015)., “Persistence of African-American/Black signed language interpreters in the United States: The importance of culture and capital” [Dissertation].

Other Contributors to this Series:

Dr. Lissa D. Ramirez-Stapleton

Lissa D. Ramirez-Stapleton is an associate professor at California State University Northridge in the Department of Deaf Studies and core faculty for the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program. Her research focuses on equity and access, identity development, and the educational history of Deaf students, faculty, and staff with a particular interest in the intersections of race, gender, and disability.

Dr. Will Garrow

Will Garrow, Ph.D. (pronouns: he/him/his) is from upstate New York, where he was first introduced to the Deaf Community through his career as a professional snowboarder. All of his degrees are from Gallaudet University with a Bachelor of Arts in Deaf Studies, a Master of Arts in Linguistics, and a doctorate in Linguistics. As a faculty member at California State University, Northridge, his teaching mainly focuses on how oppression works in American society, Deaf Culture, and ASL Linguistics.  When Will is not teaching, he can be found either on the snow in the mountains or splatting balls in the racquetball court. 

Jasmine Solis

Jasmine Solis (pronouns: she/her/hers), originally from Orange County California, received her B.A. in Deaf Studies with a concentration in Interpreting from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). As a recipient of the CSUN Presidential Scholarship, Jasmine completed her research unpacking confidence levels and anxiety amongst Students of Color who are currently or planning to pursue interpreting. Now as the full-time Academic Advisor for the Deaf Studies Department at CSUN, Jasmine hopes to continue supporting and encouraging students to reach their career goals.