Bringing Scheduling Into View: A Look at the Business of Sign Language Interpreting

August 17, 2016

Pamela Collins presented Bringing Scheduling Into View: A Look at the Business of Sign Language Interpreting at StreetLeverage – Live 2016 | Fremont. Her presentation encourages a recalibration of the processes involved in scheduling sign language interpreters by taking a global and systemic view in order to ensure improved outcomes for consumers and interpreters.


You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Pamela’s StreetLeverage – Live 2016 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Pamela’s original presentation directly.]

What is involved in the process of scheduling sign language interpreters? Whether it be in medical appointments or in an academic setting, most people are unaware of the step-by-step processes involved in scheduling interpreting assignments. In my own experience, before I was officially an interpreter, I did ad hoc interpreting for the community, which often happened at a moment’s notice. These requests came from Deaf community members in questions like,  “Pam, what are they saying?” In those situations, “scheduling” an interpreter meant being sought out by a community member and approached in person to interpret. That community connection and these ad hoc interpreting experiences, whether or not I felt qualified, continued throughout my studies to become a professional sign language interpreter. For me, all these experiences had roots that began in the community.

When interpreting became my profession, I maintained my community connections and continued to keep in mind the needs of the community and how I might best match my skill set to those needs. Recently, I’ve seen a shift in that practice and a growing gap, a disconnection from our community in how our profession approaches the scheduling process. It is true that Deaf people and interpreters all have a range of backgrounds and experiences, and sign language interpreters all have individual journeys to and through the profession in terms of knowledge, training and skill sets. When an interpreter is assigned to a job, how does one know if that interpreter is an appropriate match for that situation, and what steps are involved in that vetting process?

Are We Meeting Client Needs?

As mentioned, there is a clear link between the Deaf community and those who serve as interpreters. However, the circle of community has since widened to include those who interact as interpreter schedulers in the context of those who are establishing businesses to provide interpreting services. These growing number of agencies include many based on spoken language services, perhaps without an understanding of the skills, knowledge, and qualifications necessary to accurately assign ASL interpreters. These factors, along with my past experiences, led me to delve into a journey of self-analysis on how I gained the judgment to know when I best fit an interpreting situation. And again, I noticed changes in practice over time.

Over the course of my experience, I have increasingly felt pulled into interpreting situations for which I may not have been in the past. The days of Deaf community members inviting me into an interpreting task were fast diminishing. In their place came preset schedules handed to me by a seemingly faceless scheduling entity from an agency for which I work. I felt increasing conflicted by this process which seemed often to lead to an incorrect match. Instead, I yearned for a more global view of the processes being used in order to determine guidelines and protocols – all with a goal to create a better, more successful system.

Without such as system in place, can suitable scheduling matches be obtained, and is access achieved? As independent interpreters, we need to work with agencies to build a more comprehensive workflow that ensures appropriate interpreter-consumer matches. This requires looking at each step of the scheduling process in a measured way, including the role of the scheduler. In my research, I have included perspectives from several schedulers, as well as interpreters. One of my research interests included examining the backgrounds of schedulers as compared to interpreters, specifically regarding experience and training.

From Need to Assignment: How Does it Happen?

There are several steps involved in the scheduling process, and often many assumptions are made. There has been an evolution from the days of community-sourced interpreting to the advent of big businesses now controlling more of the process of securing an interpreter, which creates the appearance, whether real or imagined, of a greater disconnection of scheduler to community.  Blame is misplaced: it has simply become the reality of how large-scale requests are handled. Those hired to schedule are faced with scarcity of supply and great demand and are often bound to a specific process regarding interpreter assignment. With that in mind, who is responsible for looking at the larger picture? Who is attending to and identifying where ineffective or antiquated methods may be retired or revised? How can we arrive at a positive change?

Change starts with the people involved in the scheduling process. I began with interviews on the day-to-day life of schedulers and what their process entailed in order to get a better schema and clear understanding of their job. I then related that to a larger systems view, looking at how systems interacted and influenced those processes. It can be assumed that those who are hired to schedule will adhere to policies and practices as instructed in their job description, but those jobs exist in a system, a company, an agency where there are rules and policies which determine the processes that impact people. I then began to examine, still from a perspective of people, how systems were at work.

Dueling Roles?

Up to this point of my research, I had been focusing on how to find the best, most appropriate interpreter match for each situation. The other part of the equation is that the scheduler’s role often involves prioritizing timeliness in assigning interpreters. These two roles seem to be in conflict with one another, which calls for a more deliberate look at the impacts on the work of both roles- because ultimately, the Deaf consumer is impacted. What causes an interpreter to be misplaced in a medical appointment or academic setting? The analysis needs to start at the beginning of the request.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Typically, interpreters have viewed misassignment through a people-based lens – ethics, behavior, skill levels, etc., which all have value, but limiting our view to this lens can be short-sighted. Those people work within systems – systems which increasingly involve big business. In the United States, big business is a regular part of the equation and sign language interpreters must become more savvy about navigating spaces other than community-based settings. What used to be “Mom and Pop” shops have become corporate conglomerates where one may seldom interact with a person. As a profession, we need to study our own growing pains as we transition from locally-grown, community-based, ad hoc work to the intricacies of agencies, corporations, and government involvement. How are spoken language agencies winning government contracts and hiring ASL interpreters? We need to examine the whole structure of the system.

Institutional Ethnography

Institutional ethnography is the lens I took for my research. This methodology involves personal interviews – for example, documenting the daily life of a scheduler in map-like detail to see, with clarity, the work being done. Sections are added and expanded upon as needed. For example, if the scheduler mentions following protocol because of a certain system or individual in power, a map would be drawn of the manager’s or authority’s dynamic. Layers of complexity are added to include all involved, Deaf consumers, etc., to get the best picture available. In that way, scheduling processes can be fully visualized so all stakeholders in the community can assess and amend the process and determine if the outcomes are successful or not. So, we start with people, then expand to the systems at play.

Houston, We’ve Got a Problem

The research so far has validated that there is an issue. And again, this is not an exercise in finding a scapegoat. The goal is one of understanding the current policies and practices to find if access is being achieved. That’s a question we have to investigate more closely. In looking at that more closely,  I have personally experienced dismay and discomfort when assigned to jobs which may not have been the best choice. In those moments, I have wondered how this occurred. Who decides what an appropriate match is? The Deaf community also experiences these struggles, and we, therefore,  need to look at how that situation is occurring with such regularity.

In Closing

So, I’ve just distilled five years of research into a little less than 20 minutes. If you’d like more in-depth information, please attend my workshop. We will look at the scheduling process together. Together, we can isolate each piece and process to consider whether or not best matches are achieved. As a professional field, we have a collective responsibility to start exploring these issues. Other industries explore their issues to help determine successful paths forward. It’s time the interpreting field did the same work to change systems and practices by examining what is in place and determining how to adapt for more successful outcomes. Are you ready? I am!

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