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Sign Language Interpreters: Is it Me?

Sign Language Interpreters: Is it Me?

When examining the struggles and failings of our profession, we may be frightened and reluctant to consider our role. Brian Morrison suggests that asking the right kind of questions can help us be the change we wish to see in our industry.

As sign language interpreters, we know there are aspects of our industry that just aren’t working the way they should.  Just looking through the StreetLeverage site, we see examples and stories of the failings in our profession. From the disempowerment of our Deaf consumers to the underutilization of Deaf interpreters; from sign language interpreters’ lack of Deaf heart to the “business” view of the profession; from the lack of BA degree level education to the lack of support for new members entering the profession. As we reflect on these, and numerous other issues facing our field, we often fail to consider our role in these industry failings. We are also reluctant to ask ourselves the ever important question…“What can I do?”

[Click to view post in ASL]

Underlying Factors

Maybe the answer is as simple as this…It’s easier. It’s easier to abdicate our responsibility and blame others for the failings we see. It’s easier to hope that others in positions of leadership will fix the problems so we don’t have to.

Maybe it’s a business decision. Being complacent with the status quo keeps us working. We need this work to make a living and can’t risk losing it. We let agencies dictate standard practice because they are paying the bills.

Maybe we are concerned about being viewed in a position of disempowering the Deaf consumer with our actions. We therefore revert to more of a machine model of interpreting in order to avoid that label. We deny the power we have rather than recognize that we may, in fact, be contributing to the disempowerment.

Maybe it’s not so much “what can I do?” but “how can I do it?” Maybe we want change and know that we need to do something, but we aren’t sure how to go about it. We continue to ask ourselves “how” and since we can’t answer that…we choose not to do anything.

But maybe that “how” isn’t what we should be asking.

Asking the Right Questions

I recently started reading a book called “The Answer to How is Yes” by Peter Block. In this book, Block discusses our tendency to focus on the “how we do things” rather than the “why we do things.”  He encourages individuals to choose accountability and saying ‘yes’ to our values and ideals. It’s a “discussion of what is required of us if we are to act on what we care about”.

Focusing on the individual as part of the organization, Block posits that the asking “HOW”, while reasonable, can be asked too soon and keep us trapped in our present way of thinking. Instead, the alternative is to say “YES”. Saying YES allows for the possibility of change.

The following chart outlines how Block proposes we reframe HOW questions into YES questions:

HOW   Questions

YES Questions

How do you do it? What refusal have I been   postponing?
How long will it take? What commitment am I   willing to make?
How much does it cost? What is the price I am   willing to pay?
How do you get those   people to change? What is my contribution   to the problem I am concerned with?
How do we measure it? What is the crossroad at   which I find myself at this point in my work?
How are other people   doing it successfully? What do we want to   create together?

Asking the YES questions as an individual and as a community will help us focus on what truly matters and not just maintain the status quo. While it might be scary to confront our failings and make changes, we can and we must recognize the impact we have as individuals.

Three Qualities for Change

In order for these types of questions to be successful, Block identifies three qualities that will ground us while we navigate this process.

The first is idealism. Many of us have lost that feeling of ‘what’s possible’ and have replaced it with ‘what is’. If we can once again create that feeling of idealism, we open ourselves up to pursuing our values and bring focus to what matters.

The second is intimacy. We are living in a world of virtual reality. We walk around tied to our electronics…texting, emailing, and Skyping our way through relationships. Intimacy is about the quality of our contact with others. We must continue to seek out direct contact and interaction with the world. As with idealism, intimacy is necessary for focusing on what matters.

The third quality is depth. While idealism and intimacy are required for us to focus on what matters, if we aren’t able to go deeper and reflect on what exactly does matter, no change will take place.

The failings of the sign language interpreting industry are evident.  Just looking through the StreetLeverage site, we see common stories. We can no longer deny that we have a role in these failings. We can’t sit by and expect the profession to fix itself and solve the problems for us. But we can start to ask YES questions. We can make a commitment to change. We can influence the change that fixes our industry. That starts with each of us.

 Committing to YES Conversations

Once we have committed to change, we must have conversations we each other. Anna Witter-Merithew’s article, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice, provides us with some great strategies for having these discussions and reflecting on our work. These kinds of experiences can tie together the three qualities of idealism, intimacy, and depth and help us get the YES questions answered.

In the words of Peter Block…

Transformation comes more from pursuing profound questions than seeing practical answers”.

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It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter

The transition from student to working interpreter can be challenging when current practitioners are hesitant to step forward as guides. Brian Morrison pushes back on some negative mindsets regarding passing the torch, and makes suggestions on how to reach out to the next generation.

With fall upon us, students in interpreter training programs all over the country have begun another semester on their journey to becoming a sign language interpreter. Along with the classroom lectures and hands-on practice teachers are planning, they are also reaching out to the interpreting community for one of the most crucial pieces of the students’ development, observation and mentoring opportunities. However, these opportunities are becoming increasingly difficult to find. While some of the scarcity can be attributed to specific requirements of the situation, some of the difficulty is also due to a lack of support by the sign language interpreting community.

“Why would I train students to take my jobs?”

The statement above is a common one given as an explanation as to why sign language interpreters don’t want to work with students.  This statement saddens me not only as an interpreter, but as an interpreter educator as well. Personally, I wouldn’t have achieved what I have today if it wasn’t for the mentors and interpreters that I looked up to and served as models during my early development. As an educator who is striving to find opportunities for students, it’s equally frustrating.

How many of us benefited from these types of relationships that our students are striving to find and often cannot? What if, while we were developing our own skills, interpreters had given us the same reply? Would we be the interpreters we are today?

Where’s the disconnect? All interpreters who have gone through an Interpreter Education Program (IEP) experienced similar requirements for working with interpreters as students are doing now. Has it been so long that we’ve forgotten what it was once like when we were in their shoes?

Overall, students in these programs truly want to become interpreters and be contributing members of the profession. They sacrifice their time to focus on their skills and are committed to that process. As Stacey Webb highlights in her article, The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter:

In order for students to be successful sign-language interpreters, prior to graduating it is critical that they develop a relationship with both the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community (DHHC) and current-working professionals within the DHHC.  This would include interpreters, educators and DHHC advocates. By fostering these relationships, students will create educational, professional and personal opportunities that would not be available to them outside of the classroom environment.”

So while students do make attempts at networking to cultivate these opportunities, it is very often a struggle.

“They have no respect for the elders in the profession”

This statement above, and variations of it, is another common sentiment towards students. While I don’t deny that attitudes reflective of this statement do exist among students, I also have to wonder how much responsibility can be attributed to the current state of the ‘system’?  What I have learned is that students are very observant.  They learn by watching and they often emulate what they see. In our reluctance to work with students, have we conveyed to them that we don’t value them or their work?   Have we somehow systematically disrespected the label “student” through our actions or lack thereof? In her article, What Role Does Civility Play in the Sign Language Interpreting Profession?, Carolyn Ball stresses the importance of civility in the field of interpreting and interpreter education. She states:

If all interpreters, educated through formal training, were given a clear sense of the importance of civility in the workplace and in interactions with colleagues, perhaps more recent graduates would benefit from repeat business and high levels of job satisfaction.”

As educators, cultivating an attitude of civility is definitely something that we can incorporate into our interpreter education programs. In turn, as experienced interpreters, we can also be the models of civility that we want them to emulate by embracing these students and guiding them into the profession.

As a profession, we recognize there is a shortage of qualified sign language interpreters. While several factors contribute to this, the fact is that most of these graduates will go on to work as interpreters. Many of them, like most of us when we started working as interpreters, will not be as prepared as they should be. Additionally, at some point, they will become our colleagues. If, as a profession, we made a commitment to being more involved with students early on in their professional lives, we could be training the team member we will want to work successfully with later. The latter scenario also suggests apossibility, the interpreted interaction as much more successful.

“I can’t believe you don’t know that!”

Interpreter education programs have a finite amount of time. We know that they aren’t able to teach everything we would like students to know before they enter the field. The field of sign language interpreter education has grown in the last several years thanks to organizations such as the Conference of Interpreter Trainers (CIT), the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education (CCIE), and National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers (NCIEC). New research, new curricula, and improved standards for education programs are now available and these programs have access to materials and information which weren’t previously available.  Rather than viewing interpreter education programs negatively or putting the sole onus on them for having not taught students all they need to know, we can shift our focus to building on their existing foundation. To echo Kate Block’s sentiment in her article, Mentorship: Sign Language Interpreters Embrace Your Elders, take advantage of this new information that the students can bring to our work. Imagine the outcomes when the new student and the experienced interpreter learn and grow from sharing their knowledge with each other.

“What can I do?

I think first and foremost, we can be the manifestation of the theme, “I Am Change”, as StreetLeverage challenges us to do through this website. Interpreter education programs and students cannot be ignored, so as a responsibility to our profession, we can decide to step up and support our novices.

How can we make that change? There are several things that as individuals we can do right now.

Remember your passion.

Reflect back on your journey to becoming an interpreter. Remember what it was like to be that student…eager to learn and wanting experiences.

Offer observation.

Offer 2-3 opportunities a month to the local ITP for student observations. While much of the work may not be suitable or possible to have students present, we often do have situations that would be perfect.

Present.

Offer to go and speak to students at the local ITP. If you can’t offer them observations, offer them your wisdom in the classroom.

Sponsor a student.

Become a “Big Brother/Big Sister” to an ITP student. I think if we all look back to our early days, at least one name will come to mind as someone who “took us under their wing” and got us through. Be that person to a student. Be the interpreter you want to see the students grow to become.

Host an induction.

As a community and/or alumni association, host an induction ceremony for a graduating group of interpreting students. Acknowledge their hard work and dedication while welcoming them into this sometimes crazy, always wonderful world of interpreting.

Start a group.

Establish reflective practitioner groups that include students and new interpreters. StreetLeverage articles provide excellent discussion material for all levels of sign language interpreters. Case conferencing allows for insightful discussions of the decision making process based on actual scenarios.

I’m a strong believer in the idea of “it takes a village.” This is our profession and as such, we need to actively commit to the next generation of interpreters. Let’s face it, as individuals we will not be in the field forever. In order to preserve our legacy, we can leave positive impressions on the lives of the next generation. Let’s raise them well.

What will your contribution be?