Sign Language Interpreters: Identifying the Power of Conscious Vulnerability

March 20, 2018

Bill Millios presented Sign Language Interpreters: Identifying the Power of Conscious Vulnerability at StreetLeverage – Live 2017 | St. Paul. In his presentation, Bill asks participants to consider that every assignment that an interpreter accepts is a conscious decision on the part of the Deaf consumer to be vulnerable.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is a write-up of Bill’s StreetLeverage – Live 2017 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Bill’s original presentation directly.]

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

Sign Language Interpreters: Identifying the Power of Conscious Vulnerability

My topic, Conscious Vulnerability, came out of experience combined with some conversations that I’ve had with Brandon Arthur, the Chief Bottle Washer of StreetLeverage.


First, I’d like to share a few stories – how I got here, my experience with interpreters, and then I’d like to share a recent event that had a profound impact on me and how I think about interpreters, and ultimately brought me here today.

My first experience of using an interpreter occurred when I was 15 and entered a school for the Deaf. Prior to that, I functioned by listening and speaking in the classroom, functioning as a hard-of-hearing person. That worked out for the most part. As I grew older, my ability to hear declined. I entered a residential school for the Deaf at the age of 15 and was confronted with a world of fast-moving hands that I was unable to follow. During my orientation meeting, there was an oral interpreter, who mouthed the words of the speaker, “TODAY WE WANT TO WELCOME YOU TO THE SCHOOL …”, etc.

During orientation, I could sit there and lipread this oral interpreter. That was just for the first day, however. I had no ASL skills – so those of you who are L2 ASL learners, who have entered the ASL community at a later age, hang in there, there’s hope for proficiency.

A residential school for the Deaf is (obviously) a full-immersion environment, and as a result, I learned ASL quickly. My teachers – many of whom were Deaf, all of whom taught directly in ASL – made no extra provisions for me, and there were no voice or oral interpreters in the classrooms.

The first couple of months were tough.  I was learning a new language. I was also taking an actual ASL class, plus I was learning through immersion from friends and others at the school. Over time, I got better.

But, let’s go back to my first day at the school.  I was watching the oral interpreter for each presenter. I remember one presenter that really needed no interpretation – Eric Malzkuhn (“MALZ”). Maybe you’ve had the opportunity to see him speak or perform, or seen some of his videos on YouTube. That day, he was on stage, and presented in ASL – and I was captivated by his presentation. I wanted to be like him when I grew up.

He didn’t need an interpreter. His ability to project his message with his hands, face, and body and his ability to inspire comprehension was astounding and inspirational.

During my time at the school for the Deaf, I didn’t need interpreters for my everyday life. I also didn’t need them when I attended Gallaudet as a student. There was the occasional event like when an outside public speaker came in where interpreters would be provided, but for the most part, everyone used ASL, and communication was fully accessible.

When I entered graduate school, things changed quite a bit. As you can imagine, it was challenging to find interpreters who were willing to interpret graduate classes in computer science. One of the people who stepped up was Tara Arthur, Brandon’s wife – kudos to her for agreeing to interpret that, right? I’m constantly amazed at how small the world is.

When the interpreters started working, they struggled. The instructors and professors for the graduate classes would use jargon, acronyms, and specific terms in computer science that the interpreters were unfamiliar with. The interpreters and I had to work as a team to develop strategies for dealing with these unfamiliar terms and difficult concepts. This approach is exactly what Tom Holcomb talked about in his StreetLeverage presentation, where he discussed the importance of Deaf people working as a team with their interpreters.  

Upon graduation, I entered the corporate world and worked in a jargon-heavy technical field. So, from the beginning, that concept of teaming with my interpreters was my experience. I needed to do this to succeed.

Ultimately, my experience culminated in me marrying the BEST interpreter – Amy Williamson – so everybody else in the field can just accept that you are competing for second best. It’s ok.

My next story begins when I recently turned 50 years old. I realize I might not look 50, but I have slowly come to accept that I am.

When you turn 50, two things happen:

First, the AARP will find you. Their crack investigative team will track down your address; I moved 4 or 5 times shortly before I became 50, and they still found my address. I still get their letters begging me to become a member in my mailbox.

The second thing that occurs is that you have “that conversation” with your doctor. This is where the doctor will inform you that it is time for your personal Go-Pro adventure. There will be a lot of internal searching for important things through a really small hole.

After a bit of procrastinating (and persistent follow-ups from my doctor), I made my appointment. When I called (via VP) to make the appointment I was asked, “Do you want an interpreter for your colonoscopy appointment?”

This gave me pause and caused a great deal of personal introspection.

Granted, this was going to be my first experience with a colonoscopy – but people talk and share their experiences, right? So, you kind of know what’s going to happen in the room. I also knew that having an interpreter there was not something I was comfortable with.

So, I mentally reviewed my options for which interpreters would be available for such an assignment, and who I would be willing to let in the room. My wife was ruled out – she’s the best interpreter, but I wasn’t sure I wanted her to see that. After reviewing the other possible interpreter names, I came to the conclusion that I just did not want an interpreter in the room. I did not want an interpreter seeing that happen to me. I don’t want anybody in the room with me except the medical professionals.

I knew that this would potentially cause some communication issues, but that was secondary to my privacy. A colonoscopy is a deeply personal thing.

This was the first time I really felt helpless.

All of my previous experiences with interpreters – legal, medical, academic, corporate, and so on – in all of those situations, I accepted that an interpreter was there. In this specific situation, I knew I would be completely helpless, lying there on the table, and yet – I did not want an interpreter present.

So, I went ahead with the procedure. It was in vivid color on a 48-inch high-definition television, with not even the smallest detail left to the imagination. The medical professionals did their thing, and the whole thing turned out fine.

But … this feeling of internal resistance on my part, “Why was it my inclination to not use an interpreter?” This led to a lot of inner debate.

As a result of that introspection, I came to the realization that every previous time I had worked with an interpreter, I had made a decision to have that interpreter there. It was my decision to allow them into my life, my workspace, to work with me.

Conscious Vulnerability

That leads to the title of my article today – “Conscious Vulnerability.”

Every time I used an interpreter, there was a conscious decision on my part to be vulnerable, to allow that interpreter into my space.  99.9% of the time, this is fine, and the acceptance is almost without thought. I call the IRS on the telephone, I call for legal advice, I call for a pizza – that’s all fine.

But that one time … I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to do it. So, I didn’t do it.

This is what started me on my journey of exploring this concept of “Conscious Vulnerability”.

Interpreting, at its core, is a transaction. Let’s examine that. When I am vulnerable, and I allow an interpreter into my space, I give something, and the interpreter gives something – a transaction.  

Every assignment that an interpreter accepts is a conscious decision on the part of the Deaf consumer to be vulnerable, and allow that interpreter into their space. Sometimes we feel we must allow the interpreter in – that we have no choice. But there’s always a choice. The choice might not be a good one – writing back and forth, for example, is not as fast, nor easy, for many Deaf people. But we should all recognize that there is always a decision – a choice – that occurs.

Interpreters have been in my life from childbirth to funerals, and everything in between. I remember a story by a friend, he talked about his very first photo – when he was born, the photo taken was of him, his mother … and the interpreter who was there for the birth.

So, my questions for interpreters are, “Do you recognize the impact you have on the lives of Deaf people? Do you realize the access you have to another person’s life? Have you as individuals ever consciously made yourself vulnerable to that degree? Have you ever put your lives in someone else’s hands, like Deaf people do every day? Have you ever had to trust someone as much as we trust our interpreters?”


Let’s go back to the concept of interpreting being a transaction.

I bring the assignment, the need for an interpreter, and a number of other things. What do you as an interpreter bring?

You bring skills, knowledge … and hopefully, certification.

When I was working for RID Headquarters as a Communications Manager, a lot of material came across my desk – articles, all of the thoughts and feelings shared by interpreters on Facebook, it was my job to monitor all of that. Fun times.

Certification was always a topic in the office, and online. Certification actually has two parts. The first part includes the tests for skills and knowledge (and a commitment to continue growing the skills and knowledge). The second component of Certification is the Ethical Practices System and the interpreter’s commitment to the EPS.

When an interpreter shows up at an assignment, they bring Certification. Yes, that includes the skills and knowledge portion, but let’s focus instead on the other component – the commitment to the EPS. This commitment is what you give to me, as part of the interpreting transaction, in exchange for my trust in you as an interpreter.

I am fully aware that there are “interpreters” that walk around and proudly proclaim, “I’m a skilled interpreter, I don’t need to become certified.” My response to that is, “Where’s your commitment to the Ethical Practices System? As a deaf consumer, where is my protection?”

In addition, where is the protection for my Deaf children? You as an interpreter enter their lives, something goes awry, what recourse do we have? Having that protection is an invaluable component of certification.

Regarding the exact tenets within the CPC – I agree, the CPC needs work, it’s not perfect. It needs attention, improvement, it needs examples so that interpreters can learn how to navigate the ethical difficulties that the job presents, and know where the boundaries are.  

But we cannot ignore that Certification with the EPS provides protection for the Deaf consumer. If a given interpreter chooses not to be certified, then I am not protected, my children are not protected, no Deaf consumers are protected.

I am being vulnerable and I am giving my trust, but I am not getting reassurances of recourse in return.

I am sympathetic to the problem of recent graduates who are still learning and have not yet acquired enough skill to pass the knowledge and skills tests. They should be learning in a mentored environment with a team – who is a certified interpreter.  They should not be venturing out to assignments on their own. You wouldn’t send an unlicensed medical doctor into an operating room by themselves. Don’t send uncertified interpreters alone into situations where Deaf people’s lives depend on their performance. (And there are very few situations where Deaf people’s lives do not depend on an interpreter’s performance.)

Saying “Thank You.”

I’d like to go back to the concept of the transaction that occurs during an interpreting assignment between a Deaf consumer and the interpreter.

We have all gone out to restaurants in the past. When you go out to a restaurant, you eat, and eventually, the waiter comes with the check. You pay the bill and thank the waiter for the meal. The waiter thanks you for your patronage (and for paying the check).  There is an exchange of “Thank you” messaging that occurs. This is a win/win transaction – I benefit by getting a meal, they benefit by getting paid.

I’ve been using interpreters for 35 years. I’ve never had an interpreter thank me for letting them into my vulnerable life.

Not even once.

I’ve gotten thanks because they got a paycheck.  But I’ve never gotten thanks or even recognition that I’ve allowed them into my vulnerable space. I sometimes see it on their face, or even awkwardly expressed as a hug after the assignment. But I’ve never had an interpreter explicitly say, “Bill, I want to recognize that it might not have been easy to allow me into this situation.  It was not easy for you, it was not easy for me. I want to thank you for the opportunity to be here for this.”

Not even once, in 35 years.

It is okay for you as interpreters to acknowledge that you are human. Deaf people need to hear that from you. Deaf people might go through an incredibly difficult, emotional, tumultuous experience, and the interpreter just puts on their game face and says, “Ok, well, good luck.  I’ll send you an invoice.”

I know that many of my Deaf friends and colleagues would agree with me; they’ve experienced this, too.

It’s okay to be human.

It’s okay for an interpreter to say, “I recognize this was difficult.  I’m glad I was here for you.”

A mutual thank you between both parties – the interpreter and the Deaf consumer – reinforces the transaction concept, and the idea of a partnership in communication. Yesterday Tom Holcomb in his presentation discussed the idea of a Dream Team partnership. Saying “Thank you.” reinforces that. It indicates that both parties – the Deaf consumer and the interpreter – are mutually invested in the proceeding and the outcome. It should just be a case of the interpreting being done, the interpreter departs, and the Deaf consumer is left alone looking at the invoice.

Deaf Ecosystem

After our mutually beneficial relationship, where I gain interpreting services, and you (as interpreters) walk away with a paycheck, you might be wondering how you can give back to the community that you benefit from. There are many ways – both great and small.

In the town where I used to live, there was a Deaf mechanic. He was not the most convenient mechanic – the shop where he worked was a little farther than where I would have gone otherwise. But I made the effort to travel to his specific shop. When I would visit, I would state what work I wanted done to my car – and I would also indicate that I wanted him specifically to work on my car.

The manager behind the counter said, “Well, he’s a little busy – we can assign the work to someone else, it will get done faster.”

I responded, “No, I want him to do the work on my car.  I’m fine with waiting.”

So, when I do this, what effect does this have?  It increases the value of that Deaf mechanic in the eyes of the manager. It shows that I want and trust him, even if I have to wait for him to become available. This small but important act is an example of building value into a Deaf Ecosystem. I also tell my friends and associates, “When you need a mechanic, go to that shop, and ask for my friend by name.”

So, when the job is done, he wipes his hands clean, and comes out, and greets me. We exchange a few pleasantries – with the manager watching. I know that the manager is seeing the value of this employee now – and that value is increasing. And he also knows that if he wants to retain me as a customer, he needs to make sure that mechanic stays on his staff.

As interpreters, you all have the same access to that kind of relationship with Deaf service providers and businesses. If the mechanic that was most convenient for you was incompetent and rude, you would not utilize his services. You would avoid this negative experience.

I’m here to encourage you to seek the positive relationships that happen when you utilize other members of the Deaf ecosystem. Seek out opportunities to participate.

As another example, Interpreters do – or at least should – use the services of a CPA, or someone to help with your taxes. There are Deaf CPAs who can do this work – and the services of a CPA are not limited to state boundaries – you can employ a CPA that lives in a different state than you.  Communicate with them via video.

As part of your marketing efforts – as either an interpreter, agency owner, or as part of another business that you’re involved in – there are t-shirt companies, marketing companies, graphic designers that are Deaf, and seeking work. They might not be the “easiest” to work with – they may not be geographically convenient for you. But they are accessible via video – and you can communicate with them in ASL.

If the convenience factor is something that bothers you – consider that we don’t want interpreters in our everyday lives, either.  We appreciate you – but it’s not easy. It’s not convenient to have to schedule a third person for a two-person meeting. So, maybe you as interpreters utilizing the Deaf ecosystem is a bit of a trade in inconvenience.

One important point I want to make: as you develop relationships with Deaf vendors and service providers, do not accept sub-par work just because they are Deaf. You should hold them to the same high standards that you would any other vendor. Just keep in mind that you are one of the few customers they may have who can provide feedback in ASL, that they can use to improve. When you deal with hearing vendors, you collaborate on a desired result. Do the same thing with the Deaf vendors. If they don’t meet your established expectations, tell them why. Work with them on how to fix it.

None of their other customers will make this same accommodation – to communicate with them in their native language, and explain what expectations are not being met. Other customers will just walk away (disappointed), and not return. The Deaf vendor or service provider thinks that they did a good job, but they’re puzzled why the customer never returns. Ultimately, their business suffers – because repeat customers are important to the survival of a service business.

As interpreters who can communicate in ASL – you can go back to them and point out where they did not meet your expectations – and this will benefit both of you. Often vendors and service providers make assumptions about which aspects of a product or service are important – and that might not match your expectations. That’s ok – just give them the courtesy of communicating that, and the opportunity to fix it.

And while this is happening, you’re actively engaged in communicating in ASL – working on your “10,000 hours of practice towards mastery.” If you communicate by speaking verbally to a non-Deaf (hearing) t-shirt vendor, there’s no increase in mastery of your craft. Working within the Deaf Ecosystem is another mutually beneficial transaction that you have an opportunity to participate in – it helps their business, it helps your mastery of ASL. It’s a win/win relationship. Stephen Covey, in his book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, states “Win/win or no deal.” The corollary for that is for you to actually seek out win/win opportunities.

… and thank you.

Returning to my theme of Conscious Vulnerability – you entered this space, knowing that you might hear and read uncomfortable things.  You came anyway. Thank you for that.

You entered this space with an open heart and open mind – asking StreetLeverage to teach you and feed you. For that, you have my gratitude.

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