Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters?

September 17, 2013

Dave Coyne explores how sign language interpreters, acting on the basis of social justice work, can better align themselves with the Deaf Community and their plight for autonomy.

You can find the PPT deck for is presentation here.

Interpreters and Social Justice

Today I will be discussing Social Justice and its connection to interpreters. Many people are not sure about this association. Regardless, we must not let fear prohibit discussions – truly open discussions – because it is those conversations that are at the heart of a social justice lens, which is achieved via leadership.

I would like to start by asking how many of you present would call yourself leaders? Raise your hands. I have asked this question to numerous groups of sign language interpreters and there never seems to be enough answering that they do. For me, I am not satisfied with these numbers and this lack actually increases my own work towards, and my motivation towards urging interpreters because now is the time to step up into leadership roles.

“We must be the change we want to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi

This has been a recurring, inspirational theme, at StreetLeverage – Live. And I’m glad it has been. Indeed, we must be the change, we must think that “I am change”, and that “we are change.”

Lets look at why a social justice lens works. I know that when I first started working as an interpreter, I witnessed oppression of various types, even marginalization. Lets get a show of hands if you too have seen such types of oppression. We feel helpless while we witness these experiences.  We are at a loss for what to do. We feel confined by professional boundaries, we take in each of these experiences, and the impact takes its toll on us.  Answers to what actions interpreters could take and appropriate approach comes from this lens.

Social Justice and Leadership

A Social Justice Lens can be attained via leadership. It allows us to partner once again with Deaf community members. The bridge between the sign language interpreting community and the Deaf community fell apart long ago. We are aware of this disconnect. We feel its impact and we deal with its consequences while we are on the job. How can we correct this disconnect and start rebuilding this bridge to reconnect with the Deaf community?  Some may say the answer is to have a “Deaf heart.” However, it alone is not enough. Interpreters need to know what behaviors to showcase while we work. A social justice lens offers such specific social justice behaviors that we can implement while we work; interpreters finally can be more involved.

As interpreters we often navigate two truths: hearing perspectives and Deaf perspectives within situations. Social Justice is defined based on groups’ experiences regarding more burdens or fewer privileges than another groups.  Interpreters are indeed working within these unjust situations (e.g., educational systems, legal systems, healthcare). Systematic oppression exists and can further marginalize people. Oppression through ignorance occurs and unfortunately interpreters too have been known to add to oppression and marginalization experienced by Deaf individuals as well. So what do we do? Do we remove ourselves and remain uninvolved in such situations? Not any more, not with knowledge of a tool like leadership to achieve a social justice lens.

Social Justice Theory

Many conceptions related to social justice have been formulated over the years, e.g., criminal justice, retributive justice, and others. David Miller created a theory of social justice that is pluralistic in nature, allowing for multiple truths (i.e., perspectives) within situations – allowing for unique views to co-exist, i.e., multiple worldviews within situations. Sign language interpreters typically work with two worldviews: auditory understandings of the world and visual understandings of the world. Both being right, both very unique, but how are interpreters navigating these world-views? We find ourselves in the middle of situations, navigating – juggling – these overlapping ideologies.


A social justice lens is correlated with relationships. It actually is dependent upon relationships. This fact parallels with interpreting, because the art of interpreting is very much dependent upon relationships. Interpreters’ relationships with hearing participants are navigated in addition to relationships with Deaf participants. Interpreters’ relationships with team interpreters are involved; though it should not take priority. Relationships with Deaf individuals should take precedence. These examples parallel the same level of importance as a social justice lens has between majority and minority members’ relationships.

Social justice theory recognized that people do have experiences that include more burdens and that groups do have more privileges than other groups.  Finally we have something that recognizes these differences. We can begin discussions that offer vocabulary for behaviors, as well as our observations.

Exchanges between individuals need not be monetary with a social justice lens but recognizes people’s values and beliefs; their experiences are valued. These intangible things (values and beliefs) all have a home within a social justice model. Also, cultural capital: As interpreters we navigate two sets of cultural capitals that don’t always hold mutual respect for one another. Do we fully respect these non-monetary items? To answer, we must further investigate ourselves and apply our findings to our role.

Locations of Social Justice

Social justice can be found within three locations. Do you remember the Green Book series? Let’s revisit the three avenues to membership of the Deaf community. Not the fourth avenue to Deaf community membership, and not meaning membership to the core of the Deaf community. I am discussing general membership.  The fourth avenue is living as a Deaf individual or the actual experience of being Deaf in our world. As hearing interpreters we don’t have that fourth avenue, so we can keep focus on the first three. You can see that the first three align well within the three locations of social justice theory.  And it is within these locations where interpreters can begin dialogue about our work, and learn what behaviors are deemed important. Preferred social-related [solidaristic] behaviors can be attained and can mirror what behaviors Deaf people actually want from interpreters. Behaviors at work [instrumental] are those that occur at work, or in places such that lead to our employment, such as our ITP and events such as workshops. Again, the first location is where you find social behaviors, the second is related to our education, and the third is political behaviors [citizenship]. We are quick to think “what are those?” and they are indeed something we need to listen more to and learn how we as interpreters can be involved with political activities like being on a board, what voting can lead to, and what political power we have. As interpreters, we have a kind of privilege that we bring to the table and Deaf individuals want to see interpreters use privilege, i.e., hearing privilege, to benefit their forward movement [towards achieving equality], not to hinder it: this can be done by working together more closely, more so now then ever before.

Social Justice Learning

A social justice model is not inherently known but is rather learned based on other’s experiences. Interpreters do so by listening/learning during those discussions with those we work with. These conversations can occur one-on-one by simply asking stakeholders questions, or perhaps establishing a meeting at your agency and inviting Deaf community members to come in and share their opinions and experiences. Note these experiences and allow them to guide your role as an interpreter. This can also be done on a national level. A community forum offers those who are invited into conversations, a type of empowerment. Often people are misled, believing leadership cannot be learned and it is for others to do. It is thought that leaders are aiming to change the world today, but this is simply not true. Unfortunately this type of change doesn’t happen the day of. Change is a long process that we contribute to, adding towards a goal. Leaders sleep knowing they contributed to a process in a good way, no longer worried they caused negative effects on others. This is because leaders take a close look at who they are, at their own specific behaviors (within specific areas that we are talking about: social, employment, and political behaviors).


There are various forms of leadership out there. Social justice theory goes with one of them and on the other end of the continuum (far from supporting social justice) there is a type that is seen plenty of within our field.

Transactional leadership in the interpreting field has been borrowed directly from business models. This type of leadership has immediate consequences and impacts those involved.  An example of transactional leadership would be if two partners enter into mutually agreed upon transactions; they seek to simply finish their task and that is the end of their collaboration. Past the completion of the test, there is not any further investment of one’s time; it is not needed because the task coming to an end was what they wanted.

I want to discuss what leads to a social justice lens, how one achieves a social justice lens, and how it serves as an end by means of transformational leadership. The key to this type of leadership is having true collaboration as the main priority, where much empowerment occurs, and everything achieved is done so through discussions. The transformational leader listens to others. Those involved must support the leader’s behavior and if they do not, this type of leadership fails.

Transactional Leadership

First, I would like to further discuss transactional leadership. A significant amount of interpreting situations has this type of leadership. This type holds many positive attributes with business transactions. However, when working with people who have a significant amount of daily struggles, this type of leadership hinders forward movement and furthers misunderstandings. People who go into situations with their own set agendas are found in this model, e.g., interpreters who work simply to get paid and no further thought about others happens after the encounter.

For the individuals who are under a transactional leadership model, perhaps even unaware that their behaviors are more transactional in nature, they don’t necessarily have to share any organizational goals nor do they need to for exchanges to occur under a transactional leadership model. For example, if we look at two similar businesses, perhaps they are a chain within a franchise, each have different owners but may have different priorities within their business and different goals than their sister stores. They have the same type of exchanges, based on money, selling the same products; however, they may serve people very differently. This parallels with the business of providing interpreting services. Interpreters are not obligated to follow organizational goals/values to guide their work; in lieu of, you may find self-interest that guides them.

People working within a transactional leadership model operate by holding control. They provide praises, rewards, and punishments to those working with them (traits of transactional leadership).

There are some transactional leadership traits considered positive. These include having fast results and immediate closure with tasks.  As long as set goals by those involved are achieved within situations, they can consider the task completed. There are people out there who want that set up.

Transactional leaders encourage others involved through controlling methods; setting clear steps for people to follow, deeming an assignment successful if they merely follow A, B, and C (not leaving set parameters). This set up lends for transactional leaders to be very strict. If you do not follow their set protocol, they may retaliate, e.g., may not hire you again, they may withhold pay, they may challenge to the point of furthering any type of resolve regarding concerns you have with them. The transactional model also fosters the mindset of ‘I merely work for compensation.’ Those involved in this model are told to accept set circumstances created by transactional leaders and this process contributes to colonialism (in general) and specifically toward the colonization of those involved.

Transformational Leadership

Now I will be shifting gears to the other end of the spectrum: transformational leadership. Much research has been conducted over the years and has noted that transformational leaders typically display four types of characteristics; known as the four Is of transformational leadership. The first today, [individual considerations], interpreters do quite frequently. Interpreters have been known to already incorporate these components of transformational leadership within their work but are yet to use the vocabulary to employ these concepts to their work.

Trait One – Analysis

First, lets talk about individual considerations. As interpreters we analyze various language modes, attempt to identify educational levels, and match others where they are at regarding language use (both hearing and Deaf participants). Interpreters navigate situations mainly within this trait, and we do it well.

Trait Two – Intellectual Stimulation

The second transformational leadership trait is intellectual stimulation. If we believe that everyone in the world brings value, then we can be open to others to problem solve. Let’s not think that we, as interpreters, have better ideas to problem solve than Deaf community members. What interpreters can do is to collaborate with Deaf members regarding what they think are better approaches to problems and ask Deaf people what they feel should be done in situations. And listen to them; listen more than taking action independently. Deaf people have ideas and answers that interpreters need to value.

Trait three: Inspirational Motivation

The third transformational leadership trait is inspirational motivation. Interpreters must be able to share field goals and visions with others to the point where it draws others in and they incorporate them too. Negative behaviors, e.g. gossip, pessimism, blame, complaining, do not warrant other’s investment in our work. Those negative behaviors do not shine well on the field’s goals and visions. Interpreters must manipulate those negative behaviors to work more optimistically.

Trait four: Idealized Influence

The fourth, and last transformational trait is idealized influence. This is the ability to influence as well as shape our vision and to lead us to actually achieving our vision, our shared vision. Currently, as a field, we do not have the four transformational traits and, to note, they are usually ordered and discussed in a different order. I flipped their usual ordering in todays discuss because the fourth, idealized influence, i.e., shared vision, isn’t something established in our field yet. We have been more focused on individuals, and have mastered skill-sets within the first trait, individualized considerations; however, we haven’t come to attaining a shared idealized influence.


Transformational leadership can promote participants’ goals and wants. It can be a humbling experience. It’s humbling because we have our degrees, we hold the knowledge, and we attained certification. We ‘know what is best in situations’, but now I am to inquire about wants such as where you want the interpreter to sit?  With transformational leadership, we aim to empower and remove control. Lets think of the word control, I really hate that word.  People can control cars; we do so by first turning it on. We control its features. We control all the functions of the car. Now, we cannot control the city though.  But we do navigate through the city.  Interpreters navigate through job assignments; we navigate through the interpreting process. We don’t control anything.  We must surrender any control we think we have. We must surrender control; we never had it anyways nor will we ever have it.

Through discussions, through listening to others – to other’s valuable stories – we can begin to identify defects in the status quo. We do this by truly listening to others. We cannot assume we know. My privilege may not allow me to see much. Many experiences continue to be overlooked. This ignorance may continue until we are truly able to live in other’s shoes. But I know I can’t. I am not Deaf. So what I am able to do is to take time to listen to their experiences, as many as you can.

The Pros

Transformational leadership has positive attributes. A pro for this leadership style is that if an organization needs change, transformational leadership has actions that can offer change. It does this by its grassroots approach and allows the people involved taking back control and it requires us interpreters to step back and empower others. Secondly, transformational leadership is focused on satisfying the needs and wants of stakeholders, this continuous collaborating and navigating ensures their needs and wants are being met. It is about interpreters thinking less about themselves.

The Cons

A con: transformational leadership does not offer fast results. It requires time. Change requires time. I may not see it in my lifetime, but I do hope that my vision will happen. I believe that my vision of equality will happen. It may take a long time; I realize it will not any time soon. Additionally, transformational leadership does not have a roadmap to follow. If the end is for true equality, we will not know how to specifically achieve that goal, but – we move towards our goals by working together, have creative solutions, and work toward true collaboration. I do not know how it will all unfold. Not having a roadmap is unsettling for many; they must have an A, B and C to follow. People like to be told how to get the things that they want.  But I can’t ask for such a thing within this model, we simple can’t ask.


We work within unjust situations that are simply unfair at times. We are within situations that a social justice lens, via transformational leadership, would do well in. The goal of transformational leadership is to empower others. If the goal of like-minded groups of people is working together then it is possible to overcome barriers, such as political agendas. Just as gay and lesbian individuals are together fighting a larger battle with other people, e.g., straight allies, their parents, their children, come together and have the power to change political agendas. This is the same with the Deaf community.  We shouldn’t think the Deaf community should fight battles alone. Where are interpreters in all this? We need to continually listen, to learn how we can be involved, e.g., support.

With this, the bridge between the Deaf community and the interpreting community can begin to be mended. We can re-connect once again, but to do so sign language interpreters must empower others. First, it must begin with conversations. We must inquire from outside of our field.  It can begin now when you all leave today and arrive home. Ask your Deaf friends and ask those you work with (hearing and Deaf). Ask them “what do you think our job should look like?” and “what would you want from an interpreter?.” We are not seeking to please every request of interpreters but the inquiry is a start; start these discussions and brainstorm ideas with stakeholders.

“Transformational leaders don’t start by denying the world around them.  Instead, they describe a future they’d like to create instead.” –Seth Godin

Transformational leaders do not deny what is around them. They take the world as is, and evaluate it, acknowledging, and assessing one’s own involvement. Interpreters must be able to describe what kind of future they want. Can you describe to your neighbors, friends, and Deaf community members your vision? Can you think how behaviors, specific behaviors, may get you to that vision?

Today’s presentation was regarding social justice lens via leadership, this afternoon’s workshop will be more about leadership and specific behaviors based on the 4 Is of transformational leadership. Transformational leadership traits, some that interpreters already show within their work, can surface vocabulary to be applied to our professional role. Again, it starts with having discussions with Deaf individuals. This can be done locally, in your own area, but this involvement also can be done on a national level. RID’s Deaf Caucus will have a national forum this year. We can sit in and learn from the experiences that will be shared and then begin forward momentum, together.

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28 Comments on "Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters?"

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Dave, Thank you for your very logical presentation. Living with someone who is Deaf and having access to the community, I get a very different perspective on social norms and the community’s concept of justice. Consulting them and getting their perspective is how we understand and support our consumer(s). Helping them to understand the hearing world’s worldview (judgment aside) is also important for my Deaf clients to know so that they can “get into their headspace.” And, I try to facilitate the Deaf person having that kind of discussion with the hearing client, when possible. All three of our realities… Read more »
Hi, Kevin, You are more in between these world-views than perhaps many interpreters! Thank you for contributing to this discussion. I also agree that, indeed, many people get conflicting arguments regarding social norms with those involved with our work and create purpose that lies in what Marshall and Oliva (2010) refer to in their book Leadership for Social Justice: Making Revolutions in Education as “…improving the lives of all individuals involved, and then [leaders] can function as ‘bridge people’ in the fullest sense” (p. 121). Hopefully we may further a social justice lens by first seeking and attaining agreement/support of… Read more »
Using the term Social Justice makes this idea of leadership – listening etc. Very difficult to grasp because of the intrusion of the more general and political meaning. It appears you are trying to re-frame the bi-cultural/bilingual model back to the advocacy model of the past with this work. The quote “Be the change you want to see” has a lot of impact, but using your vocabulary of social justice it doesn’t seem to come to much. Listen more and adapt to you clients’ needs is pretty basic. Be politically active and aware – fine. It’s that pesky term “social… Read more »
Hi Ann, Thanks for your interest and comments. Personally, I am not a fan of the term bilingual/bicultural because it lends to interpretation that the two terms can be separated. If one would humor the possibility that they could, then perhaps we have many bi-lingual/mono-cultural interpreters, favoring the dominating culture within situations (this may happen regardless simply by our own ideologies, living as hearing people). But I digress, in regards to past interpreting models; my caveat is that interpreters may find themselves changing between them within the assignments – meaning they are not the model, but their behaviors mirror traits… Read more »
Eve Dicker Eiseman

I am very familiar with this concept. I had a good friend who was an assistant DA and brought it into the school system where it worked extremely well with teenagers. It makes a lot of sense to me

Hi Eve, Thank you for leaving a comment. I am not surprised that you had, and may share, similar experiences regarding these concepts within school systems. Many research efforts within school contexts have deemed the role of transformational leadership to do extremely well regarding systematic change (including relationships with those involved). As our field calls for greater involvement with stakeholders – specifically with Deaf community members – in decision-making processes and in the process of defining what is to be expected of interpreters, transformational leadership may offer such needed interactive approach to our work. Further inquiries of interpreters applying transformational… Read more »
Doug Bowen-Bailey
Thanks for the thoughtful application of social justice theory (and the experience of working for it) to the interpreting field. One strand of this that I have been thinking about is how to assist interpreters (and myself) in becoming more effective in analyzing the power dynamics of a given settings. In your presentation, you mentioned discussion of “control” and your perspective that this is unhelpful. To me, thinking about being a part of empowerment toward social justice requires us to have a good sense of the larger picture of how power is currently distributed. What thoughts do you have on… Read more »
Doug, hello and thanks for taking the time to contribute on such an important topic: power dynamics. I agree that how any proposed change in our field unfolds is still yet to be decided. I continually struggle with how to navigate situations surrounding the term power (and even the term leadership) because both hold connotations of being one-sided actions, bilateral agreements – those who have it, those who wield from it, those who seek it – and constant comparison to others. Redefining such traditional thought around these concepts is much needed in the field, and is a part of my… Read more »
I recently had an experience in an emergency room. I fell off my bicycle avoiding what would have been an extremely disastrous collision with an automobile. Long story short, several things happened that I realized days later. One, the local police never took a statement from me and did not attempt to contact me to get my statement (I ended up going to the police station on my own accord to give it). Secondly, the ER Xray technician xrayed the wrong part of my hip. I fell on my sacrum, a little to the left side of the sacrum. They… Read more »
Gina – I am glad you are now okay and it wasn’t worse! Thank you for contributing. I think I understand and agree with you. You bring up several important points in your message. To me, the interpreter’s bigger obligation, beyond facilitating communication, is the responsibility that comes with being a part of interactions with the medical team and the DHH patient. This makes their presence very unique and your suggested questions are perfect examples that should guide interpreters’ work. Perhaps over time, with the input of Deaf and hearing participants, explicit expectations may come about pertaining to the role… Read more »
Why is it the responsibility of the interpreter to make sure that the correct body part is X-rayed for the patient? The patient is receiving the service from the technician and in the position to question him/her, state concerns, as well as view the image before leaving the x-ray room. Whatever the communication was between the two parties, interpreted clearly by the interpreter left the responsibility on them, the patient and the technician. Unless what you are actually saying is that the interpreter should have assumed a more assertive role, during the interpreting process or after, by making statements or… Read more »
Hi there, Thanks for bringing up the topic of responsibility surrounding the role of interpreters within medical settings. No disrespect taken and thank you for contributing to this conversation – it is a springboard for many other considerations. Many conversations and beliefs about this topic are still on the table regarding interpreters’ involvement within various situations. I believe this topic has a significant place within a social justice model because here, just like many other locations, interpreters face the decision of taking action outside of traditional expectations (i.e., being ‘neutral’ or ‘invisible’). I do not believe anyone in this discussion… Read more »
Another Anonymous

thank you for bringing up your point. I could appreciate what you said and it sparred me to express my own feelings as well.

Another Anonymous
Hi, I’m not even sure to whom I should reply (as far as what part of the thread) because I’d like for both Gina and Dave to see this reply. I’m not sure exactly where to begin because my emotions are running high right now and, while I don’t want to wait until later and decide replying would simply be a waste of time (especially on a 2 year old thread), I also realize my thoughts are flying one after another right now and my reply may not come across as clear as I would like. So, that said, I… Read more »

(Oops. Apparently my use of the less than/more than symbols around my words caused them to be deleted completely from the post. Please see below for missing portions.)

Now, personally, I’m the kind of interpreter who would likely have signed: [body shift] [signing hushed-like] ‘let-you-know i DID voice LEFT but i think he go-ahead RIGHT’

Why would something that is so innately natural to most be so foreign now? [to correct an observed error]

Mera Kelley-Yurdin
Hi Dave- I am wondering if you have any thoughts about talking about privilege as a person with privileges yourself? I certainly think it’s important for people with privilege to work to be allies with marginalized groups when appropriate, and to help spread education to other people with privilege(s). I am just wondering about your thoughts on that. I am also curious about your sign choice. I have seen Deaf social justice workers and advocates using the sign for “benefit” and/or “to take advantage of” (both signs) and moving away from this one. What were your choices around using that… Read more »
Hi Mera, Thank you for contributing such important topics; I will do my best to address them! Indeed, interpreters should be taught about the myriad privileges found within interpreting spaces (and yes, also the multiple intersectionalities that many people hold) – a social justice lens recognizes and is modified by these findings. Interpreters should seek to evaluate their own identification and analysis of these privileges to expose the power relations that may be used to keep the upper hand in situations. My initial thoughts on this topic surround the gaps identified by Deaf individuals concerning the education of interpreters and… Read more »

[…] concerned about DHH children’s unique needs.  Dave Coyne’s recent Street Leverage article, “Social Justice:  A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters,” certainly is aligned with the need for sign language interpreters to employ leadership tactics, […]

Hi Dave, I have come across you while researching on-line for my Essay on Ethical Decisions…I have to refer to Interpreting theory models among other things. I am currently on my Interpreters course and the recent 2 day block was on psychology/ethics/roles etc. I struggle with some opinions on the role of an Interpreter possibly coming from a large Deaf family where the hearing members (including myself) were a minority. I saw (and personally felt) huge marginalization and oppression as you mention. I feel, like you that we should see things through a social justice lens and be leaders –… Read more »
Hi Tracey, Thanks for taking the time to share your story and support. I too feel it is time to do something about those feelings we, as interpreters, have surrounding marginalization and oppression (plus the other types of oppressive mechanisms). You are right, others who view it as blurring boundaries can easily dismiss a social justice lens; it challenges our traditional approaches to interpreters’ work and challenges traditional professional boundaries. This can be down right terrifying for some. I never liked the ‘right on’ campaign (clever title for those types of remarks by the way, thank you for that) because… Read more »
Tracey Parfitt
Hi Dave, I have forwarded your words to Native signer friends of mine and will continue to spread your empowering stance to the teachers and Interpreters in London. I love your choice of words with ‘I support you but you are on your own’…I squirm when I hear that sort of thing. We have a responsibility to stand for that person and be ‘with’ them. I agree with all you say. Wearing the support, figuratively on our sleeves is so right. I feel I wear it every day..It’s always there. As for your clever referral to ‘Superman’ – This is… Read more »

[…] interpreting profession in the first place. As Dave Coyne states in his Street Leverage article, Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters, “Interpreters must be able to describe what kind of future they want. Can you describe to […]


[…] 2013 presentation in Atlanta, he conducted a wonderful discussion regarding social justice, Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters. He discussed the relationships that sign language interpreters have in the course of their […]


[…] let me thank Dave Coyne for my opening. His talk about Transactional Leadership presented several traits (e.g. inspiration, idealization, intellectualism) that are present in […]

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