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What Did 2016 Teach Sign Language Interpreters About Success in 2017?

What 2016 Taught Sign Language Interpreters about Success in 2017

It is tempting to write 2016 off and move immediately into the new year, but that would mean overlooking some of the profound and fundamental lessons shared by StreetLeverage contributors last year.

While public speaking is one of the most fearful things humans can do, expressing one’s thoughts and perspectives via social media in two languages is probably a close second. Still, StreetLeverage contributors continue to inspire and amaze, bringing new insights and conversations to the table on a regular basis.  If we were to measure the year in the depth and breadth of perspectives shared, 2016 would definitely be setting us up for success in 2017. So, before we bid 2016 adieu, we wanted to highlight a few examples of the generosity and courageousness shown by sign language interpreters and industry stakeholders in the last 12 months.

For Auld Lang Syne

Before we dive into our retrospective, we’d like to express our deepest gratitude to everyone who contributed, in large and small ways, to the StreetLeverage endeavor. Without the writers, readers, volunteers, thought-leaders, videographers, editors, and friends who volunteer their time and efforts to support us, StreetLeverage could not begin to amplify the voice of sign language interpreters or attempt to change the way we understand, practice, and tell the story of the sign language interpreter. For all your work, we say: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

2016’s Nine Building Blocks for Success

1.  Bring Social Consciousness to the Fore

Joseph Hill

As practitioners in the field of communication access, social consciousness is a critical aspect of the work of all signed language interpreters. Joseph Hill’s presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: Practicing with a Socially Conscious Approachat StreetLeverage – Live 2015 provides an avenue for us to start looking at identity and interpreting through a social justice lens. As we continue to delve into the skewed relationship between interpreter demographics and consumer realities, we look to thought leaders to help us find greater understanding and paths to improvement.

2.  Reach Out to Deaf Interpreters

Where’s the Welcome Mat? Opening the Door to Deaf Interpreters

Another evolution in the field of interpreting that continued to manifest itself in 2016 was the reintroduction and strengthening of the presence of Deaf Interpreters in the field. While this evolution is happening, progress is slow and sometimes arduous as Jeremy Rogers explains in his article, Where’s the Welcome Mat? Opening the Door to Deaf Interpreters.

3.  Look at Insider Discourse Under a Microscope

Sign Language Interpreter Framing Their Work

Semantics matter. As sign language interpreters, language is our currency. Despite this fact, we don’t always consider the impact language has on perspectives when it comes to the words we use to describe our work. Kelly Decker’s article, What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting, showcases some current examples of language we use in our insider discourse that may impact perceptions about the work we do and those with whom we work. With lively conversation, this article lit up our comments board, and we hope it continues to do so.

4.  Inject Humor and Humility into Our Practice

Sharon Neumann Solow

As one of the field’s most beloved teachers and mentors, Sharon Neumann Solow inserts equal parts humor, humility, and straight-forward talk into the conversation in her StreetLeverage – Live 2015 presentation, Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me?. By sharing personal stories, Sharon’s presentation provides context for looking at confidence versus spotlight-stealing and illustrates why the differences matter.

5.  Support Ethics with Pre-Assignment Considerations

Accept or Decline? Questions Sign Language Interpreters Should Ponder

Job readiness is a topic that comes up in most conversations about sign language interpreting at some point, whether one-on-one or at a conference. Michael Ballard provides a consumer’s perspective on the kind of preparation sign language interpreters could do to help determine their level of preparedness for an assignment in his article, Accept or Decline? Questions Sign Language Interpreters Should Ponder.

6.  Join the Civility Revolution

A Civility Revolution: A Call to Arms for Sign Language Interpreters

With bullying and trolling in the news constantly, it was refreshing to have a conversation about civil discourse. Providing tools and suggestions for action, Diana MacDougall invited sign language interpreters to join a kinder, gentler conversation and revolution in her article, A Civility Revolution: A Call to Arms for Sign Language Interpreters.

7.  Explore the Realities of the Modern World

Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World

In a year where violence of all kinds dominated headlines and conversations around the country and the world, Stephen Holter’s article, Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World, struck a chord with readers who also shared some of their own experiences and strategies for staying safe. While we hope no interpreter ever needs to utilize these tips and tools, it’s an important conversation to engage in.

8.  Uncover the Intangible

Wing Butler

In his deeply personal and profound StreetLeverage – Live 2015 presentation, Status Transaction: The “It” Factor in Sign Language Interpreting, Wing Butler shared his thoughts on the “It Factor” for sign language interpreters. In his exploration of the intangible qualities that raise community esteem for one sign language interpreter over another, Wing also gives us a formula for success. Skills are important, but there are other factors that create the elusive “It” interpreter.

9.  Examine Personal Cultural Competence

IGNITE Workbook

Our final selection is a compilation of exemplary work from some of the brilliant minds in our field. Our 2016 workbook, Ignite, is a collection of posts designed to lead sign language interpreters and sign language interpreting students through a process of self-discovery regarding cultural competence. This free-to-download offering is an opportunity to look at a specific topic through a variety of lenses in order to gain a more well-rounded perspective. We hope this inaugural edition will be the first of many such workbooks.

Please Continue to Join Us in 2017 and Beyond

We hope this look back on 2016 will provide you with some valuable takeaways that can be foundations for a successful year ahead. Again, thank you for your support, sharing, comments, viewings, and readership. We hope you will continue to join us here on the blog and register to come meet us in St. Paul, MN for StreetLeverage – Live. Please join us in raising our glasses in a toast to a bright new year. Welcome to 2017!

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Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart

Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart

“Deaf-Heart” has been a hotly debated but ambiguous topic for many sign language interpreters. Betty Colonomos poses critical questions and provides hope that sign language interpreters can begin to embody this elusive quality.

A recurrent phrase that has been appearing in frequent discussions is “Deaf heart.”  Our national interpreter organization, RID, has long been characterized as needing a Deaf heart.  Recently, changes have been made to move RID to a more Deaf-centered perspective on the field of interpretation. The most recent evidence of this is the addition of Shane Feldman, who is Deaf, as the new Executive Director.  Although institutional shifts are possible with changes in policies and practices, there is much misunderstanding of the concept as it applies to practicing interpreters.

Early Discovery

In the 1990’s there were many efforts to address this concern.  New England states held a series of Ally Conferences that focused on the Deaf view of interpreters and their behaviors.  This resulted in many discussions and workshops to clarify the meaning of an interpreter-as-ally. There was–and still is—debate about the fine line between ethical practices and ally responses.  Today, it is considered acceptable and even desirable to provide information to hearing and Deaf consumers regarding accommodations, cultural differences, and resources. The emergence of Deaf Interpreters in our profession has contributed  to the dissemination of information about accessibility and Deaf people, and has helped to educate the Deaf Community about their own power.

Deaf Activists & Social Dynamics

In the 21st century we looked to models from minority groups that view societal privilege and oppression to explain and understand the relationship between interpreters and the Deaf Community. Deaf activists are helping the community of interpreters and Deaf people to understand the social dynamics that create marginalization, audism, and racial/ethnic prejudices.

These robust and healthy discussions about privilege are paving the way for a change in the way we think about minority communities and cultures that goes beyond the medical and pathological view of Deaf people.

Internalization of Deaf Heart

But what about ‘Deaf heart’?  In my travels and conversations with many interpreters, codas, and members of the Deaf Community it has become clearer that we still are not adequately capturing the qualities and behaviors of Deaf-heart interpreters. It is not about laws, services, ethics (at least from majority/privilege perspective), or training.  It is something that can’t be taught. It is difficult to explain, yet palpably absent.

The internalization of a Deaf heart must come from the interpreter’s own sense of justice and morality.  

A number of contributors to StreetLeverage have expressed this quality in different ways.

Dennis Cokely, in his article, Sign Language Interpreters: Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain?, provides a historical context that demonstrates the shift from earlier times when having ‘Deaf heart’ was intrinsic for interpreters to the indicators that this has significantly diminished. He explains:

How do we justify learning their language and profiting from it without giving back? In becoming a “profession” have we simply become parasites?”


What are we willing to do as individuals to become reconnected with Deaf people? Are we willing to adjust our work choices to accommodate the rhythm of Deaf people’s lives?”

Trudy Suggs illustrates this clearly in, A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting

This type of knowledge (schools for the deaf) is an important element of Deaf culture for many people. Not recognizing its importance, or dismissing it when someone shares this information speaks volumes to cultural (il) literacy.

A participant from that group suddenly said with an incredulous look, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset that video interpreters don’t know city names? That’s really ridiculous. It’s such a small thing.” I was momentarily caught off-guard by her flippant response. I quickly clarified that I wasn’t upset, saying, “Quite the contrary. It’s just one of those things that Deaf people have to live with. It does become cumbersome if you have to make several calls a day and each video interpreter you encounter doesn’t know a city sign or town where a deaf school is.”

In Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility, Anna Witter-Merithew asks us to examine the human side of the interpreter.

Do we think of ourselves as bystanders—present from a distance, and therefore, not involved?  Have we internalized the neutrality we are to bring to our task as non-involvement and disinterest [versus objectivity and emotional maturity]?  

What do we believe about ourselves, our work and our contribution to the good of the Deaf society? As we explore the answer to this and other hard questions, we must consider the implications of our history of behaving as if invisible and its potential contribution to the diffusion of responsibility.”

Overcoming Inertia

Part of having a Deaf heart is caring enough about the well being of Deaf people and their communities to put them above ego, pride, and unwillingness to fight for what is right.  For example, I have interpreted in Juvenile Court many times and have come across several instances when parents/guardians should have the services of Deaf interpreters.  It is obvious at the first meeting that the consumers have limited education, cognitive deficits, idiosyncratic language, or some combination of these. I inform their attorneys of this and find out that this case has been ongoing (sometimes up to three years) and the attorneys had no idea about this. Often these lawyers and social service personnel indicate that they “felt that something was not right” about their interactions with clients.  Numerous interpreters have been working on these cases. They are deemed qualified to work in court; they are certified; all have had some degree of legal training. Why didn’t they recognize this? Intervene? Advocate for Deaf Interpreters?

Absence of Context

My professional experiences are replete with markers of the lack of  “Deaf heart.” I have heard English interpretations of texts where Deaf people are proudly sharing their generational Deafness (e.g. fifth generation Deaf) conveyed as a matter-of-fact piece of information about having deaf children in each generation.  The critical meaning of Deaf “royalty” is absent, leaving the possibility that the non-deaf audience might see this as a genetic flaw or “problem.”

In workshops I see many interpreters–student and experienced alike—who do not recognize ASL discourse that is representing a community’s point of view. For example, Deaf people often convey narrative that on the surface seems to be about them (an “I” Deaf text) when in fact the message is about the “We” Deaf story. The consequence is that the Deaf person appears to be discussing an isolated event, when the issue is really about a community with shared experiences. Which do you think has a greater impact on the audience?  Being around Deaf people often allows interpreters to know how to distinguish “I” from “We” Deaf texts.

Interpreters who have no interactions with Deaf people outside of work miss much of the collective history and current burning issues that show up in interpreted interactions and collegial discussions. How can interpreters who hide behind their interpretation of the Code of Professional Conduct–instead of taking responsibility to intervene–employ strategies that are culturally appropriate to solve problems?

Accountability is the Beginning

Interpreters who demonstrate the qualities of Deaf heart are those who reflect on how their choices and decisions affect the Deaf Community; they question their practices that seem to be oppressive or damaging to the lives of Deaf people; they own their mistakes and share them with others. Most importantly, they seek input and advice from Deaf people and are not afraid to be uncomfortable with Deaf people’s responses and viewpoint.

A number of authors on Street Leverage have also shared what it is to have a Deaf heart. In Aaron Brace’s piece, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter, he digs deep and exposes some of the demons we face.

“…my customers are not well served by a quasi-messianic philosophy that valorizes my role far above theirs. It’s also simply inaccurate; customers often communicate effectively despite my excellent service rather than because of it.”

 “I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand my duality as both ally and enemy in the lives of Deaf people without some measure of guilt. Like many members of privileged groups, I hope to learn the right way to behave toward an oppressed group—once— and never again have to feel unsure of myself or guilty about my privilege. 

When I demonstrate a fuller understanding of both what I give and what I take, it is returned by Deaf people, not with a sneering pleasure at my knowing my place, but with greater trust, friendship, and welcome.”

Gina Oliva, in her challenge to us in, Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged, boldly brings forth the role played by sign language interpreters in mainstream education and the significant impact this has on future generations of Deaf people. We have remained silent for too long about our part in harming deaf children and their potential for successful lives. We have allowed interpreters to present themselves as adequate language models and carriers of negative views of Deaf people. We have done little to admit to this injustice and have put our needs for employment above the lives of innocent children.

There are things we can do to correct this major injustice in our field. Anna Witter-Merithew in, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice, emphasizes the need for us to look inside and seek guidance from our consumers:

“ It is important to find opportunities to talk with Deaf consumers about our work as sign language interpreters and to ask them to help us consider the implications of role implementation for their experiences.”

And in Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter by Trudy Suggs, we see a Deaf view on how we can move forward.

“…remember that if a deaf person expresses frustration at disempowerment, it doesn’t necessarily mean she or he is angry, divisive or separatist. Rather, take a look at the situation, and figure out how, if at all, you or other interpreters might have contributed to the situation. “

Important Enough to Act?

The only question that remains is whether or not the practitioners in our field care enough about this to want to do something about it.  Do we need to bring these discussions to the forefront of our public professional discourse?  Should we insist that our programs for training interpreters address this issue and involve Deaf people much more in educating future interpreters?  When will we uphold the integrity of our profession by supporting novices and by renouncing those who cast a pall over us?

When will we appreciate the valuable insights of codas to help us nurture the Deaf heart in us? Why do we vigorously debate whether a permanent seat on RID’s Board for an IDP (interpreter with Deaf Parents) is necessary when we know how much it will enhance the Deaf heart perspective in the organization?   When will we acknowledge that Deaf Studies courses and programs are helpful in understanding, but they do not replace the need for feeling the stories?

We have a wonderful opportunity before us. Deaf people and codas are more aware of their own Deaf hearts and they are willing to talk about it and to help others recognize their own unconscious anti-Deaf heart actions. Why aren’t we eagerly seeking their input and guidance?  Why aren’t we thankful for how they enrich us?

It is hard to walk in another’s shoes, but our work depends on the ability to see the world through the lenses of our consumers and clients. Without this, how can we become the noble profession we envision?

There is always room for a Deaf Heart…you are invited.

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The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter

Interpreters live with a constant internal struggle between intent and impact, perception and reality, Jekyll and Hyde. Aaron Brace confronts some of these pitfalls and realizations while taking stock of interpreters’ relationships to whom we serve.

Before I can even consider being an ally to Deaf people in the face of societal audism, as a sign language interpreter I must address another overlooked and, at times, more pernicious enemy—the sign language interpreting profession itself.

Enemy is, perhaps, too strong a word for the darker side of my role in Deaf people’s lives, but as it stands in counterpoint to the term ally, I find it opens a useful a window into the duality of my role. I’d like to share some traces of this shadowy figure that I’ve spotted in the mirror over the last thirty years in both my interpreting process and my doing business as an interpreter. I learned to manage parts of this enemy long ago, while in other ways he will always challenge me.

The Enemy Lurks in My Interpreting Process

Inspiring trust and delight in my customers happens, rather paradoxically, more easily when they feel I understand that there’s no real reason they should trust me, and that the reason for my presence, at all, is something less than delightful. They need me to be aware that I come with potentially harmful side effects.

Put another way, I sometimes feel I’m like Dr. Jekyll, keeping Mr. Hyde on a strong, short leash.  As did Dr. Jekyll, I have to keep this lurking enemy to heel, because he:

Tends to Monopolize Deaf People’s Time, Attention, and Space.

I’ve come to understand that my habit of making a bee-line to a Deaf person’s cubicle and cheerily plopping myself down in the guest chair to start establishing our working relationship is often, well … annoying. The first time I took it upon myself to acknowledge he might be busy and offered to wait elsewhere, the Deaf person’s sense of surprise and relief was palpable. This has led me to look for other instances where my presence or my good intentions get in my customers’ way and can be managed less obtrusively.

This tendency also manifests itself in how I approach prep. My insistence on time to prepare with a speaker may prioritize my need for confidence in the quality of my product over the speaker’s need for confidence in hers. Insistence on advance prep can also have the effect of implying either that I’m not confident in my comprehension of the source language or that I suspect that the speaker won’t express herself well. Also, I may over-estimate how much my product improves as a result of the preparation I demand.

Overestimates His Centrality to the Relationships Between Deaf and Hearing People.

I think he must have had a hand in writing the RID Philosophy Statement:

The philosophy of RID is that excellence in the delivery of interpretation and transliteration services between people who are deaf or hard of hearing and people who are hearing, will ensure effective communication.” 

On some level I truly want to believe in this. If I don’t, how do I have the nerve to interpret at all?  But my customers are not well served by a quasi-messianic philosophy that valorizes my role far above theirs. It’s also simply inaccurate; customers often communicate effectively despite my excellent service rather than because of it. They also, due to forces beyond the reach of my service, can end up not communicating effectively.

Is a Fundamentalist in His Adherence to Interpreting Models.Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter

I am tempted to embrace new wisdom on effective practice in a way that stigmatizes older wisdom as outdated and oppressive. I believe that fully empowered customers may still request that I perform more like what we’d call a machine or a conduit. Even as I understand that some customers express such a preference because that’s all they think sign language interpreters can do, or they think they’re doing me a favor in making my job “easier.” My Mr. Hyde and I go ’round and ’round over whether it’s more oppressive to comply with requests that might stem from internalized oppression or an incomplete understanding of one’s options, or to presume that it’s even my place to try to “diagnose” such things.

Is Wired to Privilege Auditory Input Over Visual Input.

I realized at one point that my default strategy for managing turn-taking was to always finish what the hearing person said before attempting to get the floor for the Deaf person. On one hand, it merely revealed my auditory bias.  On the other, it perpetuated the notion that the hearing person was the holder of knowledge, and the Deaf person was the needy receptacle. Once I realized this input bias and its implication, I over-compensated by stridently talking over hearing people the second a Deaf person raised her hands. While I’ve since greatly improved the equitability of my turn-taking management, I’ve only very recently learned that I maintain eye-contact in a way that doesn’t accurately convey the availability of the floor in ASL-discourse, depriving Deaf people of cues that would help them manage graciously taking the floor for themselves.

The upshot:  The choices I make in the name of effective practice almost always come with potentially dangerous side-effects that I must predict and be prepared to mitigate.

The Enemy Lurks in the Business of Interpreting

For several decades, interpreting has been a viable profession for me due to my having appropriate education, skills, and credentials. Because it has been viable for so long, I’ve never been forced to think much about this Mr. Hyde-like enemy and his conception of what I do as a profession, a career, and a business. There is a need to confront this enemy because he:

Expects His Degree and Professional Credential to Command Respect. 

I wonder if it was necessary, in order to put forth the immense effort needed to earn a degree and professional certification, to believe that these things say more about my ability than they really do. Hearing people, including my family members and the people who are usually responsible for hiring me, typically consider me an expert because I have a degree and a certification after my name. It’s tempting for me to do the same. It’s tempting to resent having to prove myself anew to each customer and each colleague I meet. It’s tempting to feel betrayed by the institutions that authorized my entry to practice, knowing that savvy customers consider me competent in spite of my paper qualifications, not because of them.

Is Rigid About Best Practices and Industry Standards.

There’s a fine line between what I need in order to do my work well and what I want in order to make it easier. I often lose sight of that line. I insist on industry standards like going rates, cancellation policies, two-hour minimums, and best practices like requiring a teammate and prep materials as if these were all cast in stone, even at times when there might be a good reason to waive or modify them. I also don’t want to legitimize disreputable agencies that don’t follow standards, even when this may cause customers whose are stuck with those agencies to suffer. This is another issue on which this Mr. Hyde like character and I go ’round and ’round.

Maintains Faulty Expectations of a Profession, a Career and a Business.

I was raised to expect that a profession would provide all of my material comfort, and that at some point I would cease having to defend or prove my expertise. I expected I could pursue a career ladder in my own best interests, and that there would always be a higher rung to reach for. I expected that as a businessman I would be expected to prioritize maximizing profit, at least slightly, ahead of all other considerations.

These unexamined expectations clash with my reality even during flush times, but significantly more so in the current economic climate, with an ever-expanding roster of gatekeepers to the work. The situation has become dire for some colleagues, and the volume of my work is trending in same direction. What happens when my profession can no longer provide the same income? How do I continue to provide customer-centered service while dealing with the financial hardship, the blow to my professional ego, and the feeling of betrayal by my industry?

I think that understanding and seriously altering my expectations, learning to live with less to the extent that I can, is the best thing I can do to avoid having to make choices out of desperation while I work with my community to make things better. I also wonder whether it’s viable to continue bringing new practitioners into the field, or into specific markets, expecting that we will all continue to be able to support ourselves solely as sign language interpreters.

The upshot:  A schema roughly bounded by concepts like profession, career, and business fosters expectations of the rewards for my work- expectations of which I’m mostly unaware, yet which can thwart the interests of my customers.

Living With Duality

One last observation about this enemy in the mirror: he resists thinking about issues like these because he thinks they entail a life of constant apology.

I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand my duality as both ally and enemy in the lives of Deaf people without some measure of guilt. Like many members of privileged groups, I hope to learn the right way to behave toward an oppressed group—once— and never again have to feel unsure of myself or guilty about my privilege. I seek constant validation as “one of the good ones.”  I believe this takes a psychic toll on Deaf people, though—even those who know me well and truly value what I have to offer—when I deny there’s a shadow cast by even my worthiest efforts.

I can only hope to be an effective ally against an enemy opposing Deaf people’s interests when I understand how “he is us,” and in some ways always will be.  When I demonstrate a fuller understanding of both what I give and what I take, it is returned by Deaf people, not with a sneering pleasure at my knowing my place, but with greater trust, friendship, and welcome.