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Why Not a Sign Language Interpreter Bill of Rights?

Bill of Rights

 

As outside forces seek to control sign language interpreter rates of pay, professional standards, and hiring practices, Brandon Arthur drafts a Sign Language Interpreter’s Bill of Rights.

If you haven’t seen it, you soon will.  Due to economic pressures, businesses and individuals hiring interpreters are challenging (and attempting to redefine) our rates, standard practices, and national credentials.

In my view, if we handle these challenges poorly we will be putting the foundation of our industry at risk.

So, what do we do?  Why not an Interpreter Bill of Rights?  I know it may seem a little crazy, but service providers in other industries have them, why not sign language interpreters?

What comes next certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.  Care to add?

Sign Language Interpreter Bill of Rights

Statement of Rights

An interpreter accepting an assignment to deliver sign language interpreting services has the right to:

  1. Be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability or sexual orientation.
  2. Receive, in advance, sufficient information about the D/deaf customer and the terms of the assignment in order to determine suitability.
  3. Know the name(s), if any, of any other interpreter(s) already engaged for the assignment, and to decline the assignment based on such information.
  4. Deliver services in a manner that honors customer preference, complies with industry standard practices, and allows for active support of team interpreter(s).
  5. Be told, in advance, of any changes to the terms of an assignment and to have the opportunity to confirm agreement to these changes.
  6. Decline an offer to provide services for any reason or no reason.
  7. Have personal, compensation, and credentialing information kept confidential, and to be advised of the disclosure of such information.
  8. Request the information and methodology used to determine rate of compensation.
  9. Request prompt payment for services rendered.
  10. Work in an environment free from physical and verbal abuse.
  11. Seek replacement on an assignment where:
    • Customer or co-interpreter’s conduct alters the terms or conditions of an assignment, or creates an abusive or unsafe environment; or
    • An emergency or a significant change in the interpreter’s health has resulted in an inability to provide effective services
  12. Voice concerns and/or grievances to the coordinating entity regarding the provision of service in connection with the assignment, or regarding a lack of courtesy or respect for the interpreter.
  13. Assert these rights personally, without retaliation.
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It’s Ugly, Uncomfortable and Can Damage Your Reputation

Its ugly and can damage your career

Navigating the professional world of sign language interpreters requires a level of flexibility and approachability, but at what cost? Rather than avoiding conflict, Brandon Arthur suggests resolving issues in professional and timely ways.

You know the drill… Smile. Make eye contact. Offer a reinforcing head nod. Appear confident and interested.

As interpreters, we work hard to internalize the behaviors that help us appear approachable. This is a necessary and required skill in order to accommodate the myriad of personalities we encounter on the job.  Though it hasn’t been statistically proven, at least to my knowledge, we intuitively understand that interpreters who master this skill are busier than those who haven’t.

Being an expert does have its side effects.

The Side Effects

While it can be completely exhausting to be “on” day-after-day for extended periods, I believe there is a more harmful side effect to this internalization. We have trained ourselves to be conflict adverse. By working to be uber approachable, we have simultaneously internalized a conflict avoidance strategy. What I will call the “if I do nothing, this issue will go away” approach. We know it works because when the assignment ends we are done, and may not be back there for a number of months. Problem solved!

The Ugly Head of Avoided Conflict

Inevitably though, we get hired for a long-term assignment or as a staff interpreter, and suddenly a strategy that has worked like a charm is now working against us. By avoiding conflict in these environments it only intensifies, and when addressed—and at some point it will be—it’s ugly and uncomfortable. It can result in people losing or prematurely abandoning work opportunities.  Worse, it can significantly damage reputations and destroy an otherwise healthy environment.

Address Conflict Quickly

Because most people have had no formal instruction on resolving conflict, we use strategies we have learned by example or draw from our own experience.  The considerations and strategies offered below are a few that have served me well.

  • Recognize that conflict is inevitable
  • Remember that conflict is not inherently bad
  • Address conflict immediately (in most cases while its minor)
  • Address the person directly before seeking assistance
  • Be honest about your role in the conflict
  • Consider the mood of the person prior to addressing
  • Appearing emotionally distant serves no one
  • Ask yourself, “is the approach I am about to use the best one to resolve this situation?”

Remember, while you may never find conflict comfortable, you can learn to effectively navigate through it.

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Your Co-Interpreter Has Fallen and Can’t Get Up

Brandon Arthur reflects on a team interpreting experience and shares some insights for sign language interpreters to consider in acting as the colleague they’d like to have.

While interpreting a short pro bono assignment over the weekend, I found myself working with an emerging interpreter.  As the meeting progressed—discussions grew more intense and participants became more interactive—I noted that both her confidence and effectiveness as an interpreter began to unravel.

I was as supportive of this young interpreter as the environment would allow; fortunately the outcome of the meeting was not negatively impacted. Since the experience, I have wondered what I could have done in the moment to reinforce the confidence of this budding interpreter.

It occurs to me that there are some “do’s” and “don’ts” when attempting to reinforce your team interpreter’s confidence while on assignment. At the end of the day the “do’s” and “don’ts” offered here are anecdotal, but I hope they give you something to consider in the event you find yourself in a similar situation.

When you see your team’s confidence begin to unravel,

Definitely Do

  • Actively work to anticipate your team’s need for support
  • Provide support in an unobtrusive, non-demoralizing way
  • Positively reinforce your team’s good decisions and choices
  • Model strategies for navigating the information from the “on-chair”
  • Maintain a positive, personable, and professional demeanor
  • Remember you’re still accountable for a complete work product

Definitely Don’t

  • Escalate your engagement to further differentiate your skills from your fellow interpreter
  • Disengage when your team is actively working in the “on-chair”
  • Dismiss your personal accountability for the outcome of the meeting
  • Be critical of your colleague to meeting participants
  • Give in to one of the three temptations of a sign language interpreter
  • Patronize your team when discussing the assignment on breaks

As every interpreter inherently understands, one’s confidence is critical to effectively doing their job.  Consequently, we have an obligation to support our team when they begin to feel defeated and no longer believe in their ability to meet the demands of the assignment.

Let’s Remember

We have all found ourselves in at least one situation where we have questioned our ability to do the job we were hired to do. Further, we can recall with great appreciation the colleague that picked us up, dusted us off, and helped us get back on that horse.

Let’s be that colleague.

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Should the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Sue?

As the professional organization representing sign language interpreters in the United States, RID is in a unique position to champion working conditions and legislation impacting the industry. Brandon Arthur considers how litigation might impact RID and its members.

Is there any merit to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) litigating to advance the rights of sign language interpreters to reasonable working conditions and employment practices, and laws that defend their eligibility to work? Clearly, litigating has both a financial and a political cost and these costs should not be underestimated.

As it occurs to me, the pros and cons of RID taking a more offensive position in advocating for our rights are:

Pros of Litigation

  • Cases will lead to a body of information related to appropriate working conditions and practices when employing interpreters.
  • Publicly exposes organizations for interpreter abuse.
  • Creates an opportunity for industry stakeholders to work together to seek accountability for business practices and working conditions.
  • Imposes a financial hardship on offending organizations/individuals.
  • Uncovers the facts, which assists in identifying the people that can legitimately deliver solutions.
  • A demonstration that RID has a no non-sense approach to fulfilling its charge to protect and promote the interests of sign language interpreters.

Cons of Litigation

  • Establishes an adversarial relationship with the private businesses and government entities that employ interpreters.
  • The financial cost.
  • A lost case can create a damaging precedent, which makes it more difficult to defend our interests.
  • Increased scrutiny of interpreter conduct and practices.
  • Heightened conflict within the industry.
  • Strains collaboration between RID, private business and government entities on shared interests.
  • May have to pay court costs for the other side.

Which Situations?

Endeavoring to hold individuals and/or organizations accountable for unsatisfactory working conditions is—and has been—a difficult proposition. While I am not—and I don’t believe many would be—in favor of the concept of litigating for the sake of litigating, I do believe that there are situations where we would greatly benefit should RID take a more offensive position. You may be thinking, “Well, what situations exactly, Brandon!?”

To name a couple, I believe RID should evaluate the merits of any case where an interpreter is being tried in a court of law related to their role, work product and/or or ethical practices, and get involved based on the merits of each particular case. Further, it is my view that RID should take a more offensive role when legislation is being crafted that will adversely impact an interpreter’s ability to perform their work and earn a livable wage.

In the End

RID occupies an important role, representing the voice of the sign language interpreter, and if necessary should throw a little weight around to ensure we are heard. It is one thing to inherently understand that poor working conditions or deflationary practices render an interpreter unable to deliver their art and quite another to do something about it.  As interpreters, we should leverage all the resources we have to ensure we are able to do our work effectively.  RID is one of those resources.

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The Three Temptations of a Sign Language Interpreter

Working sign language interpreters are autonomous decision-makers who often work for unseen employers. Brandon Arthur exposes three temptations interpreters face and how to avoid them to maintain professional accountability.

The dynamics of working as a sign language interpreter are complex and require that a person be comfortable operating in the unknown with limited information. As a result of navigating these complexities, we are accustom to owning the decisions—or choosing not to own them—that influence the value and outcome of our work. Unfortunately, with this ownership comes the temptation to give in to one of what I will  refer to as the Three Temptations of a Sign Language Interpreter (note, I borrowed the temptation concept from Patrick Lencioni’s, The Five Temptations of a CEO – A Leadership Fable).

When giving in to one of these temptations, even the most skilled interpreter reduces the value of their service and calls into question the label we have advocated for years to achieve, a professional.

T1:  Dismiss that our actions reflect on the Deaf participant.

As interpreters, we give into this temptation in order to reconcile in our minds that our choices couldn’t possibly be the deciding factor in whether a qualified candidate gets the job, which ultimately supports their ability to fund their child’s college education.

It’s more comfortable to believe that our actions are conveniently invisible.

When confronted with this temptation, let’s remember that from poor interactions with meeting participants or not adhering to our Code-of-Professional-Conduct to tardiness or disheveled attire, the impression we make is lasting and inseparable from how the Deaf participant is perceived.

T2:  Avoid ownership of the errors in our work.

Interpreters give in to this temptation because we are fearful. We fear losing the confidence of meeting participants. We fear being viewed to possess an inferior skill-set. Ultimately, we fear not being invited back.

The damage, when an interpreter gives in to this temptation, is significant. For individuals to part an interaction believing they have an understanding of the other person’s position, only to find their understanding—and the work done since—is incorrect challenges the trust needed for the interpreting process to be successful.

Being indifferent to the errors in our work, may appear as validation of the view that we are part of an industry that is past feeling.

T3:  Misrepresent the amount of time on assignment.

Interpreters regularly work outside the view of those who hire them. Consequently, we may be tempted to misrepresent the amount of time we are on an assignment. This usually takes on a shape similar to, “I was only 10 minutes late and the meeting hadn’t started anyway” or “I was teaming with the regular interpreter and they would have started the assignment anyway.”

In either case, giving in to this temptation erodes the very nature of our being called a professional.  If those that hired us can’t trust that we will ethically represent our time, can they trust us to effectively represent them and/or own our errors?

Accountability

While resisting these three temptations can be a challenge, it is important that we never lose sight of our accountability for the outcome of our work. It’s my view that if we truly consider the impact of giving in to these temptations, its far easier to overcome them.

If one, or more, of these temptations make you feel uncomfortable, consider the reason and adjust accordingly. As interpreters, let’s be confident in our abilities, welcoming of the accountability for our decisions, and remain focused on contributing to positive outcomes.

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Sign Language Interpreting—An Industry Past Feeling?

In an ever-changing field of engagement, sign language interpreters seem to have lost their collective voices. Brandon Arthur explores the factors which inhibit practitioners and gives hope for regaining agency and confidence.

It is often said that the anonymity of living in a big city and the effort to avoid feeling imposed on by the crush of humanity, makes people hard and unfeeling. After all, it’s only in the big city that a person can be attacked 3 times in a 30 minute period—as 38 witnesses look on—without single person placing a call to 911 that would save their life, right?

As I consider the staggering pace of change the sign language interpreting industry is experiencing and the magnitude of the challenges we confront, what is striking to me is what appears to be a sense of indifference and a dismissal of our need to be responsible industry citizens.

Why Do We Just Look On?

Why do we standby as our practices and standards are attacked by short-sighted colleagues, industry business and associations, and local and national regulating bodies?  Why do we look on as the quality of life that has taken decades to achieve erodes as regulation after regulation is legislated without us?  Why do we willingly sit quiet as our credentials and professional organization are increasingly viewed as unnecessary or irrelevant?

Is it because we have grown complacent under the 3 squares a day provided by staff employment?  Is it because we believe someone who better understands the issues will take the time to file a comment?  Is it that the part-time Government Affairs Program at RID is sufficient to ensure interpreters interests are represented in every city and every state and that every piece of legislation is crafted so we remain eligible to do the work?  Or, maybe it is that the hundreds of our colleagues who are recently underemployed/unemployed—as a result of industry regulation and change—is really someone else’s problem.  While these maybe true for some, I believe it is something more alarming.

We have lost our confidence.

The Confidence Crisis

For the first time in our collective history, the bigger challenges facing our industry are not directly related to moving the act of interpreting from an occupation to a profession; so we find ourselves feeling unprepared.  This feeling of being unprepared has given us an awareness of some sizable blind-spots in our field of vision.  We no longer intuitively understand the rules of engagement.  We don’t have direct access, in most cases, to the decision makers and people of influence.  We are unfamiliar with proper protocol and the process to meaningfully get things done.  We don’t know where to go to understand the issues or stay informed in real-time.

In short, we are unsure what to do.

So, we look on questioning our ability to help, believing someone else will make the call that will stop the attack.  We look on fearful that to act may result in our being numbered among the unemployed/underemployed.  So, we ignore the reflex to act and begin the internal chase for justification.

What Now?

Simple, we commit to stare down our discomfort and act.

We recondition our reflex to sit out by recognizing that the choice not to act is an action itself and only perpetuates the conspicuous absence of our collective voice in shaping the future.  We seek out information to understand the implications and consequences of the actions being taken by us and around us.  We conduct ourselves in a way that we are counted among the artists in our communities creating positive change.

Like the responsible citizen who hears the plea of a person being attacked, we endeavor to make the situation better.  Like this responsible citizen, each of us has a valid contribution to make.  So, let commit to make it and remove the perception that we are indifferent to the outcomes of the actions swirling around us.

We do care and we are not past feeling.

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What Characteristics Should the New RID Executive Director Have?

Someone Pondering

The search is on for a new Executive Director of RID. Brandon Arthur provides his perspective on some of the critical skills the new ED should possess.

The removal of longtime Executive Director, Clay Nettles, on the eve of the 2011 RID National conference came as quite a surprise.  See the official information release here.  A change in leadership at the top of any organization has many considerations.  It is my hope that—in the end—both RID and Clay can find a mutually agreeable way through the transition.

During the conference Cheryl Moose, outgoing RID President, stated, “it’s a new day at RID and we look forward to moving things along with the hiring of a new Executive Director.”  Clearly, this position is important to the success of RID and its representation of the sign language interpreter community.  In my mind, because this position is so important, the Search Committee should be seeking specific characteristics.

Specific Characteristics

  1. Keep the organization in sync with its members, and work with the Board to get ahead of the issues confronting the industry.
  2. Passionately tell the story of our industry.
  3. Recognize that both the organization’s success and their success—ushering in a new day—depends on their ability to identify patterns of change and position RID accordingly.
  4. Reshape the way the organization, its members, and industry businesses/organizations work together.
  5. Work with the Board to mold a future group of leaders in order to multiply RID’s ability to make better decisions and get things done.
  6. Anticipate external forces that may limit the forward movement of the organization.
  7. Insist on accountability throughout all facets of RID.
  8. Consistently recognize the contributions of the current and past artists within our field.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, I believe—based on my purview of the industry—RID would be well served by someone with these skills.

Roll-up your sleeves Search Committee; you’re going to need to get dirty on this one.

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Are You an Artist or Just the Sign Language Interpreter?

Are you an artist or just the sign language interpreter?

Sign language interpretation is part skill, part smarts, and a little bit of pixie dust. What are the qualities that elevate a sign language interpreter to an artist? Brandon Arthur provides his perspective on raising the bar.

You know them, the sign language interpreter “everyone loves, everyone wants to hire, and everyone wants to work with.”  Where do people with this perfect blend of supernatural skill and inviting personality come from?  Regardless of the answer, I believe we can agree that these amazing people exist in small numbers—only a handful per community.  Though small in number, the positive impact of their work and interactions is far reaching.  These interpreters clearly approach their daily work differently and in that difference I would call them artists.

Differentiating Characteristics

I know…I know…artists are difficult to categorize and often defy classification.  While this is true, there are characteristics consistently held in common by this group of sign language interpreting artists that the rest of us mere mortals can learn from.

Sign Language Interpreter – Artists:

  1. Believe that art is a choice first, a commitment second, and never a “pastime.”
  2. Understand that it isn’t the size of the stage, number of people, or the sophistication of those they work with that defines their art or its importance.
  3. Subscribe to the notion that art is only created when it is freely given.
  4. Understand that context is everything.
  5. View the sign language interpreting profession as more than a zero sum game.
  6. Take ownership of their humanity and the mistakes and flaws in their work that result.
  7. Don’t minimize the details.
  8. Embrace the concept that meaningful change begins internally.

When you consider the scarcity of the characteristics listed above, it is clear why there are so few artists in the profession of sign language interpreting and why we desperately need more of them.

It Starts With a Choice

It occurs to me that the daily choice to overcome the inertia of a short-term industry perspective is what prevents most of us from being artists.  Regardless of how slow and imperfect the industry progresses lets choose to be among the few in our community with the courage to create art and make a difference.

While aspiring to be a Lou Fant —whose long-term perspective helped establish the early footings of our profession—might be a stretch for most of us, we can be Lou-like in someone’s life today.