First Do No Harm: Boundaries and Trust in Sign Language Interpreting

March 7, 2018

Cindy Volk presented Sign Language Interpreters: First Do No Harm: Boundaries and Trust in Sign Language Interpreting at StreetLeverage – Live 2017 | St. Paul. In her presentation, Cindy asks participants to consider the guiding principle of “Do No Harm” in order to explore the possibility of repairing trust and relationships between the interpreting and Deaf Communities.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Cindy’s StreetLeverage – Live 2017 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Cindy’s original presentation directly.]

Interested in attending StreetLeverage – Live 2018 being held in Philadelphia, PA/Cherry Hill, NJ (metros) April 13-15, 2018?

First Do No Harm: Boundaries and Trust in Sign Language Interpreting

First, let me tell you the story of myself. I was raised on a farm in Kansas by two Deaf parents. The town was about 5 miles away. My Dad’s parents, my grandparents, hearing, lived about a ½ mile down the road from me for my entire life. They were excellent signers, as was my uncle and aunt, even though my dad started KSD at age 4. I think perhaps this is attributed to life on a farm. Communication is vital and critical to survival. Farm life is dangerous and literally, life or death can depend on communication.

My mother, who was adopted at age 10 months, had parents who did not know she was Deaf when she was adopted. Her father did learn to fingerspell and her mother never learned to sign. My grandmother told me as she was dying, how much she regretted that. Both my parents went to KSD and graduated in 54 and 56. One month after my mom’s graduation, they got married and moved to the farm. They had two children, me and my younger brother.

Even though we lived so far out, and my parents were the only Deaf people in town, we had many of their friends who came to visit and did so frequently. Again, I think this was due to life on the farm and people’s interest in it. Everyone in town knew that my parents were Deaf, so it wasn’t really a big deal. My Dad always worked as a farmer and my mom worked at the nursing home in a neighboring town in the laundry. Of course, growing up there were no interpreters, no VRS, no TTY’s, no captioned TV  etc. In 1993, at age 58, my Dad died of a heart attack while driving the tractor on the farm. About a year later, my mom married another Deaf man and moved to the KC area. To my knowledge, she had never used a professional interpreter before moving to KC. At that point, she started using interpreters for medical appointments and eventually through VRS.

Damage Done

Fast-forward to this past November. My mom, age 81, received a call through VRS from a medical agency. She thought that her medical bills were all paid up, but she has a lot of health problems, so assumed she had missed one. She was informed that she had to immediately pay $100 and that they needed her charge card number. My mom has no charge cards. She was then informed that they needed her checking account number. My mother did not know where to find her checking account number. She was told to get her checkbook. She used her walker to go get the checkbook and bring it back to the TV. She was then informed where on the check to find her account number and told to give it to the caller. My brother arrived to visit her about an hour later and found out what had happened. He immediately took her to the bank to try and stop them from taking out the money, but it was already done. She had to close out that account and open up a new one. She finally understood the entire call was a scam. Her response was, “that interpreter with blond hair was so pretty, why didn’t she tell me?”

Our Guiding Principle

The title of my presentation is “First Do No Harm.” This is the guiding principle of our NAD/RID Code of Professional Conduct. In this case, do you think harm was done to anyone involved in this situation? Of course, there was definitely harm done to my mother. What was the outcome of this interpreting assignment? My mom definitely has less trust in interpreters now. She lost $100 which is a lot of money to her. If my brother hadn’t come by, she probably would have lost all the money in her checking account.  They were probably testing it with the first $100. My mother is now unsure about phone calls coming in through VRS. Although I don’t interpret VRS, I am aware that the FCC has rules about this. I am challenging those rules. We need to advocate with the FCC that in our interpreting profession, which is a practice profession, we need to first do no harm. Other practice professions such as police, doctors, and teachers follow this ethical framework. You can look at articles from Dean and Pollard on this topic, as well as webinars from the MARIE center. A parallel example is you know how teachers are mandatory reporters for child abuse? Well, if a teacher sees a kid with bruises or scratches, do they immediately report it? No, they ask a few questions, see if they can get a feel for what happened and if it seems in the least bit questionable, they report it, right? Bruises and scratches can happen from a fall on the playground or from abuse. In order to prevent what could be a very serious outcome for the parents and the child, that boundary needs to be flexible.

Broken Trust

This past October at the CIT conference, myself, Amy June Rowley and Marika Kovacs-Houlihan presented on issues of interpreting and social justice. We interviewed many Deaf individuals and one of the questions we asked was “Do you trust interpreters”? Almost every single person said NO, or said that they trust only one interpreter. For me as an interpreter and a person who trains interpreters, that was difficult information. When I asked why they said (sign for strict boundary).

Challenging the Status Quo

My challenge to all of you is to think about the outcome of each and every interpreting assignment before decisions are made. Think about (3 signs for boundary here). Think about the mantra of a practice profession to Do No Harm. If you might be doing harm, how can the boundary be adjusted so that no harm is done, yet maintain the professional integrity of the interpreter and the situation?  This afternoon in the workshop, we will be looking at different scenarios (not only VRS), discussing “Do No Harm” and analyzing the outcome/consequences of these various scenarios. For those of you worried about “breaking” the code of ethics, my answer would be this: If our guiding principle is Do No Harm, doesn’t this mean that if you go ahead and interpret, all the while knowing this could cause harm, this is what violates the code of ethics?

* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox? SignUp!

Stay Current

Want to be among the first to know when we publish new content?

Are you an interpreter?

We respect your privacy.
We will never share your info.


Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

Notify of

Forward-looking organizations committed to retelling the story of the interpreter.



(New York)