Sign Language Interpreting: Engaging the Disengaged, Empowering the Disempowered

November 1, 2017

Tom Holcomb presented Sign Language Interpreting: Engaging the Disengaged, Empowering the Disempowered at StreetLeverage – Live 2017 | St. Paul. For this presentation, Tom takes a hard look at the standard practice of interpreting, one that often disengages and disempowers Deaf people.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

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

Interested in attending StreetLeverage – Live 2018 being held in the Philadelphia, PA (metro area) April 13-15, 2018.

Sign Language Interpreting: Engaging the Disengaged, Empowering the Disempowered

Let’s begin by examining this scenario that seems to be the standard practice in sign language interpreting.

The interpreter shows up at an assignment, begins to look for his team member and breathes a sigh of relief upon finding his team. Following this, he attempts to locate the deaf person(s) involved in this assignment and finds him sitting in the front row.  After making a quick introduction and learning the deaf person’s name, (Jim), he immediately proceeds to discuss the logistics of interpreting with his team, using the Open Process Model. This entails the entire discussion being conducted in ASL (as opposed to spoken English) so that Jim can observe and contribute to the discussion if he wishes. It is agreed between the two interpreters which one will be the first to do the platform interpreting, while his team provides support as needed. They also agree that the switches will be done in twenty-minute intervals, per standard practice.

Standard Practice for Sign Language Interpreting

Immediately after the agreement is made, the meeting is called to order with the roll call. After spelling a few names, he (the “on” interpreter) realizes that he needs support from his team as the roll call proceeds rather rapidly. His team does a great job in trying to feed him, but not with absolute success due to the complexities of many of the group participants’ unique names. He apologizes to Jim for not being able to spell all the names fast enough and points to Jim when his name is announced. After seeing Jim raise his hand, he (the interpreter) affirms his attendance to the group leader and assures Jim that his presence has been noted.

Following the roll call, a heated discussion ensues among the group about a document they are reviewing. The group is asked to take a look at specific items on various pages throughout the manuscript, forcing them to flip from one page to another, as the discussion goes on. Again, his team provides superb support by making sure he provides the correct page numbers as they are disclosed during the discussion. From time to time, there are overlapping comments between the participants, requiring the interpreter to stop the discussion and ask the moderator to enforce the “one person speaks at a time” rule. Another challenge for the interpreter occurs when he cannot hear the person speaking, requiring him to stop the meeting again and ask for the speaker to speak louder so that he can relay the information to Jim. Being skilled and confident in his interpreting abilities, he has no problems maintaining a strong presence throughout the assignment to allow him to interpret efficiently, especially with excellent support, encouragement, and feed from his team.

When the twenty minutes are up, it’s time for the switch. The second interpreter takes over and starts to interpret with the first interpreter seated and ready to support. The teamwork between these two interpreters continues to be exemplary and their interpreted work solid. However, the presentation style between these two interpreters differs radically with the first interpreter projecting an extremely strong presence with dramatic facial expressions, while the second interpreter is much more refined.  

Disengaged and Disempowered

Now let’s take a look at Jim and see how he is faring during this interpreted experience. After introducing himself to the interpreters, Jim responds to the inquiry made by the interpreters by stating that he has no particular request or preference and for the interpreters to do their work the best they can. He looks forward to the experience and is ready to participate as fully as he can as the topic is of particular interest to him. After trying to keep up with the all the exchanges between the participants, the items discussed in the document, and the PowerPoint slides projected on the screen, Jim gets more and more frustrated as the meeting drags on.  Adding to his frustration is his inability to interject his thoughts into the discussion because the interpreter is busy trying to keep up with the rapid pace of interactions between the participants. Furthermore, every time the switch occurs between the interpreters, Jim needs a few minutes to reorient himself to the new interpreter and to mentally adjust to the different signing and interpreting style. Eventually, he loses interest in the meeting and waits patiently for the experience to end.  

The meeting finally adjourns. Jim approaches the interpreters to thank them for their excellent, yet challenging work and leaves the room as fast as he can. After checking with Jim to see if there is any feedback or concerns about their work, the interpreters congratulate each other for a job well done and for being a great team in this rather difficult task. They comment that Jim seems to be disengaged from the group and wonder if he was tired from other activities prior to this meeting. They leave the room feeling confident that they did their work in the most professional manner, following the current protocol in providing deaf people with optimal access.

Standard practices don’t always mean best practices

This begs the question. Is this standard practice of interpreting indeed optimal in providing deaf people with access to situations where participation is possible only through interpreters? Why, then, are so many deaf people disengaged in situations like this, even with the best interpreters in town? Even worse, why do deaf people often feel disempowered in interpreted meetings? Often the blame goes to hearing people who have no clue how to properly support deaf people’s participation. In casting the blame on the non-signing hearing participants, we have avoided taking a hard look at the current standard practice of interpreting to see if the deaf people are actually unintentionally disempowered by the interpreters on hand.  

This is a difficult thought…The idea that interpreters might be doing things that are disempowering when they are usually committed to providing deaf people with optimal interpreting work.  

When discussing this challenge with both deaf people and interpreters, both groups often agree that interpreted sessions result in a less than satisfactory experience for everyone involved. Yet, they are often at a loss to identify the contributing factors to this feeling of disengagement and disempowerment among deaf people, other than putting the blame on hearing people. Because there seems to be no solution to this problem, other than continuing to educate hearing people, both interpreters and deaf people are often led to believe that the current standard of practice is indeed optimal with limited options to improve the situation.

Intention versus Impact

I’ve been a long-time consumer of professional interpreting services, starting in 1968. I was 8 years old and among the first involved in this grand experiment of deaf children being mainstreamed using SEE interpreters to provide access to public school education. I’ve used interpreters ever since and continue to struggle to remain engaged in most of my interpreted sessions. For example, throughout my graduate studies for my Master’s and doctoral programs, where interpreters were used, I struggled. Throughout my professional career, using interpreters to access meetings, I struggled. Clearly, my need to understand, engage, and remain alert at interpreted meetings was not being effectively supported by my interpreters. It was not until recently that I realized that, in many cases, I was being disempowered by my interpreters, who were following the standard practice of interpreting.  

As I became entangled in the academic world where engagement with my colleagues is paramount for promotion and tenure, I realized I could not remain disengaged. To improve the situation for myself, I sought ideas from my deaf colleagues only to find shared frustrations but no solutions. Even more shocking, I was often told that I should not tell the interpreters how to do their job, as I would run the risk of offending or alienating them.

Yet, I wanted something different for myself…an interpreting experience that was not so disempowering for me. Because I believed the acts of disempowerment on the part of the interpreters were not intentional, I decided to work closely with my interpreting friends to develop strategies that were more effective for me than the current standard of practice.  

It is my opinion that the current standard of practice is based on what the interpreting community perceives as important rather than on the actual needs of deaf people. I suspect it is due to the sheer number of hearing people involved in interpreter education and its associated research activities. Consequently, I believe that the research agenda is heavily influenced and shaped by interpreters and interpreter educators. As an example, the current twenty-minute switching standard was based on research regarding interpreters’ mental fatigue. The findings have shown that fatigue causes increased interpreting errors and physical challenges that resulted in hand injury. Yet, there is no research on the impact of these switches on deaf people’s ability to comprehend the interpreted message or their ability to participate effectively in the interpreted session. In addition, there is no study on the optimal utilization of the second interpreter during interpreted meetings. For example, is the role of feeding the “on” interpreter more important than supporting the deaf person at the interpreted session? I suspect these are of more interest to deaf people than the twenty-minute switch focus.  

Because of my need to become engaged in the academic community, I explored closely with my interpreting friends how their actions might disempower me. I began to experiment with various approaches that would cause interpreters to be less disempowering. The ultimate goal was for me to become more engaged in my interpreted sessions by reducing the amount of disempowering actions on the part of my interpreters.  

Creating the “DEAM”

During the course of these experimentations, I came up with a new concept, DEAM, a play on three English words….Deaf Dream Team. DEAM refers to interpreting solutions that are deaf-centered but, at the same time, mindful of interpreting needs and challenges. The end goal of these solutions is a win-win situation where both deaf people and interpreters leave interpreted sessions feeling satisfied with their work and level of engagement.

These experimentations required my interpreters to readjust their perspectives on what they considered to be optimal interpreting work. Instead of being so focused on message equivalency and interpreting accuracy, I asked them to focus more on access equivalency and clarity of message. I wanted them to worry less about 100% accuracy in their interpreted work and more on presenting information that is truly accessible to me. I also wanted them to do their work in a way that allowed me to participate more easily and effectively in my groups. Several examples are offered here.  

Going back to the standard practice of twenty-minute switches between interpreters, I find this act oppressive and disempowering in many cases. More often than not, I struggle to remain engaged when I only see one voice with the interpreter interpreting for different people during the entire twenty minutes. And when the switch occurs, it takes me a couple of minutes to adjust to the new interpreter and once I get settled, I start to experience the monotone syndrome, resulting in my mind going on auto-pilot and becoming disengaged from the group. On the other hand, if the session turns out to be a short one, 30 minutes for example, but with the presence of two interpreters, it is the standard practice that the interpreters split the session into two equal amounts of time, with each person working 15 minutes. This decision is often made without regard to the difficulty it causes for deaf people who have to adjust to the switch, which is even more frustrating for short meetings.  Perhaps the better solution is to give deaf people the option of having one interpreter do the entire 30 minutes to reduce the potential frustration of dealing with the switch. Even better is to do away with the 20-minute switch practice and adopt something more deaf-friendly, an example of which is discussed below.  

Deaf-Centric Solutions for Sign Language Interpreters

The optimal system, for me, is to have both interpreters working simultaneously with the work rotated every time a new speaker has a turn rather than rotating based on the time intervals of 20 minutes. By seeing a different interpreter for every speaker, I find myself much more engaged in the meeting. I also find it easier to participate when the second interpreter is available to interject my message immediately if the first interpreter is busy with the Spoken English to ASL interpretation for the current speaker. Again, this is but one solution where a DEAM approach can empower the deaf person involved in the meeting.

The bottom line here is for the interpreters to pay more attention to me as a deaf person trying to engage in hearing environments. Instead of being so focused on message equivalency and providing me with 100% accuracy of the spoken words, focus more on making sure I’m understanding and following the presentation.  Instead of having the second interpreter focus on supporting the first interpreter, have the second interpreter direct their energy on me as the deaf person, making sure my needs are being met. For example, if I missed or did not understand something that was presented by the first interpreter, the second interpreter can fill in the gaps. If I want to interject something, the second interpreter is ready to jump in immediately. If there is a heated discussion between two people at the meeting, both interpreters work at the same time to give me a better sense of the dynamics between these two individuals. The list goes on and on. The concern related to the loss of support for the first interpreter should not supersede the need of the deaf person to engage more fully in the group with the support of the second interpreter.   The end result is for me to be better able to project my intellect, my leadership, my skills, and my wit to my colleagues. And I’m finding that the standard practice of interpreters often does not make it possible.  

In conclusion, interpreters are not to be blamed for what seems to be disempowering actions on their part. Deaf people should not be blamed for their frequent reactions of disengaging from the hearing groups. What needs to be done is exploring and discovering strategies that reduce the unintentional acts of disempowerment on the interpreter’s part, strategies that support deaf people to participate more fully in interpreted meetings, and strategies that allow both deaf people and interpreters to do their best. Let’s continue this discussion and make the standard practice of interpreting reflect the ideals of DEAM, making it a win-win situation for both deaf people and sign language interpreters.


* 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.

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



(New York)