Authority: Why It Matters to Sign Language Interpreters

September 2, 2021

Heather Harker presented Authority: Why It Matters to Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live | Austin. In her presentation, Heather explores how distinguishing between and strategically applying both formal and informal authority are essential acts of effective, adaptive leadership.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is a translation of Heather’s StreetLeverage – Live | Austin presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access her original presentation directly.]

Authority: Why It Matters to Sign Language Interpreters

Good afternoon. I’m thrilled and honored to be here today. I’d like to provide you some information and context about who I am. I’m not an interpreting professional; I don’t have experience working as an interpreter. I’m here solely as a Deaf consumer. That’s my frame of reference, my experience, and is the basis for the narrative I can share. I’ve never taken an interpreting course nor have I taken any ASL coursework. Those pieces are good to bear in mind as we look at the topics I’m bringing to the table today. My presentation today isn’t about the interpreting process or the mechanics of interpreting – it’s more holistic. It’s about how the decisions we make, both as consumers and professionals, can work in alignment to create systemic change. That’s my commitment today and the hope I hold in giving this presentation today. 

Let me show you this first slide.

As you can see, this slide presents several images of interpreters in various situations. My upbringing was without sign language, educated in a mainstream school setting. My first introduction to the Deaf Community, I must admit, was via an interpreter. I think it’s important for you all to be aware of the level of impact that you have on the community. I have a deep appreciation for interpreters and the field due to the myriad experiences which have benefitted me and for the investments sign language interpreters have made in me as a Deaf person. So, yes, I absolutely want you to have uncomfortable conversations, to reflect on your work, to be challenged this weekend. And I also want you to appreciate your own contributions, and to value your commitment. People will make mistakes, but, in the end, you can make more of a positive impact in the community if you’re able to reflect on the work and own this piece. So I wanted to start with some gratitude and appreciation.

Now I have two short illustrative stories I’d like to share. My first experience with sign language interpreters was in college. At the time, I knew very little ASL – meaning I probably knew the manual alphabet, my numbers, and some basic signs. That was about the extent of it. The college placed an interpreter with me despite the fact that I had no experience using an interpreter yet. The interpreter did their work, interpreting classes, and all the while, I was watching. I didn’t even know the sign for the word AND. During a one-hour lecture, the sign “AND” came up multiple times and I could not figure out what that sign meant. The interpreter was amazingly patient in doing their work. At some point, they asked me if I was aware that there was a Deaf school located not very far from campus. I’d had no idea. So, that type of introduction makes a difference.

I had another interpreter in college. As the only Deaf person on campus, I often lamented the lack of social opportunities for me. One particular interpreter let me know that there was a Deaf club nearby. Back then, we still had Deaf Clubs. I know they have been in steep decline, but at the time, there were two Deaf clubs in the area where I lived. I was amazed. The interpreter gave me the address and I found my way there. Now, I also have to acknowledge and recognize the investments and gifts I received from the Deaf community, as well. There were many Deaf senior citizens who took me under their wings to teach me the language, how to play bingo, various card games, etc. My college social life consisted of the Deaf community there in the Deaf club. But I found my way there because that interpreter shared their knowledge with me. So you can see your impact as an interpreter cannot be underestimated – in both positive and negative ways.

My access to the hearing world – throughout graduate school and during an international training I took in Haiti for three weeks with a cohort of hearing peers – was through several sign language interpreters, some of them trilingual. It was their generosity of spirit and teamwork, working through three languages, trekking in the mountains and the forest and in the mud; that type of generosity gave me the opportunity to grow in ways I couldn’t have without the contributions of those interpreters. I simply could not have experienced that. As a human here today, I want to extend my gratitude to each of you, as well. I wanted to start there and then lead us into my topic.

Before I go on, I’ll share my next slide with you.


I want to talk about two different types of authority: formal authority and informal authority. The concept of informal authority comes from a specific idea. Before I go into that, I’m going to provide some additional context from adaptive leadership. I’ll talk more in-depth about that in my afternoon workshop. Authority is one layer in adaptive leadership that I’ve peeled away to discuss here today. So, as it relates to the cartoon I showed in the slide, we can talk about formal authority.

Formal Authority

In the comic strip, the panels show the character as team leader and in the last panel, they get their pellets – their treats at the end of the day, so to speak. Formal authority is given for the purpose of meeting expectations. So, if you give me a task, there are specific points of expectation that need to be met. Job descriptions, performance reviews, and the like, all point to meeting defined expectations. But who defines those expectations? Who sets the standard? We just saw Arlene’s powerful story looking at who determines the frame and defines those expectations. Who is in the room? That is all directly related to authority. So, going back to my definition – formal authority is given. Let’s look at the next slide.

Informal Authority

Informal authority is earned. I’ll share a story from my own personal experience. When I was about 23 years old, I was promoted to supervisor. I was very excited and happy to be making a move up the ladder. I was excited despite the fact that I had no supervisory experience, no supervisory training, and truthfully, no concept of what being a supervisor even looked like. Looking back, bearing all that in mind, I cringe a bit. The only concrete concept I had was that supervision equals a stern boss and all that comes with those connotations. Again, I was young and didn’t have complete ownership of myself and who I was. I was also a bit nervous, of course. I hadn’t really identified my feelings or looked at my own emotional intelligence at all. I had all these deficits – no training, no experience, etc. Therefore, what I had to fall back on was my perspective. So, as the supervisor, I needed an interpreter. As I approached the interpreter, the thoughts in my head were things like, “I’m the supervisor. I need an interpreter, therefore…” and I told the interpreter, “Come with me.” The interpreter was a bit older and didn’t respond other than to accompany me to the appointment to interpret. This happened multiple times and the resentment grew until finally, the interpreter finally spoke up. The interpreter shared that while they understood that I had a position of authority and there were expectations I had to meet, my approach left a lot to be desired as it did not involve any relationship-building and left them feeling they weren’t cared for as a human being. As they were sharing, I felt my defenses rise, but I knew I had to sit with the feedback. Looking back now, after gaining some experience, after receiving and incorporating constructive feedback to adjust, I can see the difference between the formal authority I was given versus the informal authority I had to earn. I did have the formal authority, but I had not yet earned any informal authority. So it looked like I had authority, but there was no foundation there to support or uphold it. In terms of informal authority, I was, over time, able to make adjustments and adaptations, to learn new behaviors, to learn the “how” of it all. I learned to check in and create relationships, to ask for someone to provide interpreting service instead of demanding it. Being a supervisor doesn’t mean we can simply command people. That may occur occasionally, but it isn’t the norm. So there is a relationship between formal and informal authority. Let’s put those on hold for a minute.

I want to talk about authority. Authority, power, money – those things are neutral. They are not positive or negative in and of themselves. They are inherent in the world. It is our experiences that are overlaid onto those ideas which create our perceptions of those concepts. If you have negative experiences with authority, that will impact your choices, behaviors, and a number of other things surrounding authority. By the same token, if you have positive experiences with authority, that will have an influence, as well. 

In graduate school, I had several courses on experiential leadership. One of my professors told me that I “defended” authority which puzzled me. That didn’t resonate with me and we went back and forth on the topic. In this class, we had to apply different theories in our writing and this topic became one theme I addressed in my weekly writing. My strong denial of this professor’s observations about my response to authority became my topic. At his behest, I looked at myself and asked myself questions about if and why I defended authority. I dug deep thinking about this idea before coming to the realization that it was true. In looking at the reasons why it was true, there were several key factors. Growing up as the only Deaf child, my protectors, my advocates, consisted of hearing world authority figures. People like the teachers in my classroom. If the other children excluded me, I went to the teachers for help and support. They took action by reprimanding the students and requiring them to include me.  I relied on those authority figures to create access for me. Fast forward to me as an adult looking at those tendencies and realizing how the experiences influenced my choices. Asking questions like, “When should I challenge authority?” requires personal reflection. If a person experienced many clashes and challenges with authority, their exploration and learning would be very different than mine. They would have to learn when to support authority and what that support might look like. There are many facets to this. Next slide, please.

Formal & Informal Authority

I want to share an anecdote to illustrate. I attended a combined meeting of the local RID chapter and state association of the Deaf at one point. It was fascinating to observe the two entities in action. Each organization had people assigned to formally labeled positions – president, vice president, secretary – essentially the officers in each organization. As I observed, I noticed something. I had recently moved to that area. When you are new to a community, it is sometimes easier to view things through a clearer lens because you lack knowledge of the dynamics at play whereas when you are more entrenched in a community, these things are more easily overlooked. What was interesting to note was that while the officers were present in the meeting, it was easy to see who had the real influence during their community discussion. And it wasn’t always the officers. While they may have held formal authority, the informal authorities present were the influencers in the community. I know that term “influencers” creates some dissonance, so I almost hate to use it. Now we think of Instagram and its “influencers” who display and market products in their posts online. That’s not what I’m talking about here. My generation’s definition of “influencers” is a bit different. So, I watched these groups as they met and interacted. 

I want to talk about interpreting from a Deaf consumer’s perspective. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I’ve been in situations where the interpreter comes to the assignment and it is clear that the assigned interpreter is very skilled and competent. At the same time, there is an underlying piece – whether it is a behavior, attitude, style, etc. – something about what they are doing does not click. There is a disconnect. Regardless of their level of skill or mastery, those underlying qualities will cause me to disregard them for future work. On the opposite side, there may be a novice interpreter who is not as skilled or competent as the first, but with whom I share a rapport. I would prefer the newer interpreter over the more skilled interpreter. When I looked at that preference, I realized it was because they have a foundation of informal authority. They have the ability to build relationships that carry trust that can be built up over time.

After observing the field of interpreting, I do worry about what our choices, our behaviors, are building over the long term. And “our” includes hearing, Deaf, and DeafBlind community members. What are we building for future generations of Deaf children? I’m not talking about the mechanics of interpreting or the interpreting process, but more the organizational structures, the interpreter training programs, the strength of Deaf Community leadership. We’ve seen several stories so far about how we relate to authority and how we use our ability to affect change and create a vision. I do worry that our short-sighted decisions and our lack of vision will perpetuate “isms”. If we keep our vision in full view, we can continue to make the choices we’ve been making which lead to the same outcomes, or we can make decisions that help us to realize and expand that vision to what is possible. Next slide.

Role Analysis

I’m not going to go over each question listed on the slide. The point is to pause and consider them. Now I have to admit that in the course of learning from various interpreters over time, I’ve come to realize that the complexity of the decision-making involved in the interpreting task is enormous. I appreciate what was said earlier today, “Interpreting is impossible. Start there.”

I’ll share one anecdote that really illustrates authority. I’d like to stress that the frame of this story, using the frame of authority, is just one of the ideas being presented to you this weekend. There is no one right frame – there are different frames through which we can view the world. More to the point, if and when you use authority as a frame to look at the role of interpreters, here are some ways to do that. I know that folks are thinking about concepts like emotional intelligence and questioning their identity while actively making decisions on the job, so I want to acknowledge the impossible nature of your job AND at the same time, there are still many considerations.

I did consider how to think about authority in an example. If we look at this idea in its most basic form, an example might be something like this scenario. Imagine a Deaf person, a hearing person, and an interpreter together for an assignment. Who has formal authority in this situation? To whom is the interpreter accountable? The interpreter would likely have to consider the agency that assigned them and pays them for their work. They would also likely consider their responsibility to the hearing person/entity who paid for the services. There is also the matter of ensuring that the Deaf person can understand/access the communication. What is required for the hearing person to trust and support the process? Earlier, performance interpreting was mentioned in reference to the positive and complimentary responses from hearing audience members who, we know, typically have no basis for judgment about the skills of an ASL interpreter. The interpreter could be signing the “Happy Birthday” song over and over again and those folks would never know. So, what authority do they carry? Hearing people are quick to accept interpreters and provide support. Contrast that to a Deaf consumer who enters the situation with an entirely different set of criteria when they view an interpreter’s work and judge them based on that knowledge. Suppose the interpreter is in a situation where they have trust and buy-in from the hearing consumer, but they have not built that trust with the Deaf consumer yet. Who is that interpreter likely serving in a situation like that? How does the dynamic impact the interpreter’s decision-making? How does it impact the consumers and the hiring entity?

Now, if we add a complication to this scenario – suppose the assignment is running past the scheduled end time – if the assignment was scheduled until 4:00 pm and it is already past the hour – what happens? The agency has already assigned the interpreter to another appointment where they are expected. The agency likely wants this current assignment to be wrapped up so the interpreter can head to their next assignment in a timely fashion. At the same time, the Deaf consumer needs the information that is being conveyed. Their need for communication hasn’t been met yet. There is also the hearing consumer who is present. At this point, the interpreter has five different authorities to consider: the Deaf and hearing consumers in the current assignment and the booking agency that assigned them, as well as the Deaf and hearing consumers who will be in the next assignment. Whose expectations are being met? How does the interpreter choose? Does the interpreter prioritize the assignments based on their perception of higher need – this assignment is medical, therefore, it is “more important” than the next assignment which is a wedding planning session? Does the interpreter pause the current assignment to get guidance/input from the agency? How does an interpreter navigate these decisions while continuing to interpret? It is unlikely that the interpreter can halt the proceedings to take a moment to think it through and come to a reasonable conclusion based on their own identity, values, etc., and come back once they have made their decision. That’s where interpreting really does become impossible. That is where we have to see the humor, the complexity, and we have to acknowledge the errors made and learn the lessons available.

As I’m standing here thinking, I realize that those who attend StreetLeverage – Live are clearly people who have already accepted that self-reflection and introspection are important for success in this field. Why else would you come to an event like this if not to share space with like-minded people thinking about how to support each other and to find ways to realize that vision – to see the Deaf community thriving and to see the interpreting community/field/vocation – I’m not sure what the appropriate word is – but where both can thrive as a partnership. I’m also thinking about how we, as Deaf people, can support your success. Next slide.

Food for Thought

Again, authority is just one frame. I’m interested in your relationships with formal and informal authority. For me, formal authority was easy to negotiate. It was harder for me to learn the importance of informal authority – building relationships and building trust. That was my challenge. I found it was much easier to deal with formal authority. Others may have the opposite challenge. Do you claim your full authority? It’s not my intention to stereotype, but women often find it challenging to claim their full authority, particularly formal authority. As you reflect, you can ask yourself some questions. What is working? What is worth unpacking to move forward? What things do you need to unlearn for the purpose of building towards that larger vision together?

I would like to offer one last piece of this framework. Authority is given in order to meet expectations. That is not leadership. In my workshop, we’ll talk about adaptive leadership which often means dealing with disappointed expectations. I invite you to join me for conversation, reflection, and community as we work toward the future. Thank you.

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