Posted on

Is it Time to Certify Sign Language Interpreter Referral Agencies?

In the ever-growing industry of interpreter referral agencies, sign language interpreters and the Deaf community we serve are often look on as profitable afterthoughts. Stephanie Feyne calls for greater ethical scrutiny and consideration of agency certification.

Alarmingly, sign language referral agencies are sending increasing numbers of unqualified signers to interpret for Deaf consumers, causing harm to the communities we serve and to the interpreting field. Friends, consumers and colleagues around the US have been sharing their local horror stories for years. As this is a national issue it cannot solely be resolved at the local level. It requires a coordinated national response.

I believe that the RID membership should collaborate with Deaf leaders to establish standards for agencies that refer sign language interpreters in order to ensure that the Deaf community receives the best possible service. If an agency does not measure up to the standard, then there should be some public acknowledgment of this fact, so that when they bid for work it is clear that these agencies provide no guarantee of quality service.

No Standards

Currently, there are no standards for being a member organization of RID. Any agency can join RID, no questions asked. It enhances an agency’s status to have the RID brand on their letterhead and helps them bid for contracts – while it simultaneously compromises RID’s name, as it appears we support substandard sign language interpreting services. Why don’t agency members have the same standards and obligations that interpreters have? Why are agencies that have no connection to the Deaf community allowed to earn a profit by providing “signers” instead of qualified interpreters, and still benefit from the privilege of being affiliated with RID? What steps can we as professionals take?

Responsibility for Quality Services

When I began interpreting in the ‘70s, referral agencies were housed in Deaf service organizations (such as NYSD in NYC, GLAD in LA, DCARA in San Francisco) and in religious organizations (e.g.; Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and St. Benedict’s in San Francisco).  They provided community interpreters for medical, legal and social service needs.

The agencies I worked for had CODAs and/or Deaf referral specialists who had years of experience in the field. From my observations, they made every effort to assign newer interpreters (like me) only to assignments that we were qualified for. That was true for both certified and non-certified interpreters. Agencies understood that certification signified only entry-level skills and that they needed to assess the skill level of novice interpreters. They did not assign us to highly sensitive work, but often teamed us with more seasoned interpreters in lower risk environments, providing us support for our growth as professionals and providing reassurance to Deaf consumers that we would not compromise their lives.

Sign Language – A Profitable Afterthought

Over the last several years, however, we have seen the entrance of “language service” agencies into the arena of sign language interpreting.  Most of them tack on ASL in addition to the other languages they provide.  Most of their spoken language interpreters are born bilinguals, whereas many of the sign language interpreters on their rosters are self-professed “interpreters,” who have passed no screening or certification exams. While some of these language agencies may have a commitment to providing quality services to the Deaf community, most have no idea how to evaluate the skills of sign language interpreters or the needs of Deaf consumers. Their knowledge base is in bidding for and maintaining contracts.

Although ethical referral agencies do exist, there has been a marked increase in contracts being awarded to agencies that have no background knowledge of our field or the Deaf world, and no ability to evaluate the quality of the services of the interpreters they send to work. For all appearances, it seems that profit, rather than service, is the overweening motive.

(Recent Street Leverage posts on the impact of working for agencies with questionable standards are Self-Talk: A Sign Language Interpreter’s Inner Warning System by Anna Mindess and The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter by Aaron Brace.

The Human Cost

Sending unskilled workers is a common practice in agencies that provide “interpreting as a business” rather than as a service, but that practice has serious repercussions. Recently in NYC, a call went out from a language agency needing interpreters for an “end of life” situation in a hospital.  A few weeks later, I spoke with friends of the family. They said that throughout the entire weekend the Deaf parents thought their child was “sleeping,” even after all the “interpreters” sent by that agency had “interpreted” the words of the doctors. This is not the only incident. Locally, I have seen language agencies with city contracts send basic signers to evaluations of the fitness of Deaf parents and uncertified interpreters to court, threatening the legal status of Deaf claimants, defendants, and the integrity of the court itself.

The decisions these agencies are making have a negative impact on all parties present: Deaf, hearing, and interpreters. Sign language interpreters who are not appropriate misrepresent themselves and the Deaf parties. Deaf people often do not get their message across; neither do the hearing participants. The only ones guaranteed to succeed in attaining their goals are the agencies, which get paid regardless of the caliber of the interpreting work.  This is not just happening in New York City, but also around the country.

An Ethical Quandary

Professional interpreters are left with an ethical quandary… Do I stop interpreting for an unethical agency and leave Deaf people with poor interpreters? Do I spend hours educating the agency, only to see them ignore the advice and go with lesser skilled interpreters? Do I develop relationships with these agencies? Do I accept lower fees in order to ensure quality interpretation?

Can sign language interpreters solve this problem alone? Clearly, the Deaf communities have been left out of the decision-making process. Local interpreting chapters or collectives that work in tandem with Deaf individuals and associations may be able to make some headway in certain locations, but I believe we should use the power of our national association to address this issue.

Agency Certification

RID certifies interpreters, why not certify agencies? This would imply an ethical practice mandate for agencies that refer sign language interpreters, and an obligation for RID to monitor complaints and de-certify agencies that are not behaving ethically. This could then be written into local and state contracts. There should be consequences if an agency sends inappropriate “signers” to jobs.

We, the members of RID, need to take the first step by developing stringent requirements for the business practices of referral agencies, with consequences for those agencies that are not following best practices. The requirements should state that agencies must:

  • abide by an ethical business model – that would include sending the most highly qualified interpreter, not just a warm body;
  • utilize a valid evaluation mechanism for non-certified interpreters;
  • provide sign language interpreters with relevant information prior to the assignment;
  • protect confidential information, by not including it in the emailed call for interpreters;
  • respect the communicative norms, rights and personhood of the Deaf individuals  by presenting them with the most appropriate qualified interpreters for their needs (which means seeing the Deaf individuals as their clients, not just the hearing contract holders).

If agencies do not live up to such standards they should lose the privilege of being a member of RID, and that information should be publicly available for any potential clients to view.

Let’s Get Started

Let us begin now to discuss the standards and the consequences. Let us engage both locally and nationally. Let us not allow agencies in their pursuit of profits to harm Deaf people.

What other requirements should be included when considering the certification of referral agencies?

asdf

Posted on

Failure to Innovate: A Deathblow for Sign Language Interpreting Agencies

How do sign language interpreting agencies survive and thrive in a market where opportunities abound for individual practitioners? Brandon Arthur emphasizes the need for, and understanding of, innovation as it applies to the agency-interpreter partnership.

Is it still an advantage for sign language interpreters to trade a higher hourly rate in exchange for the “benefits” of being represented by an agency? Particularly, given the world is chock-full of affordable DIY (do it yourself) business and connection tools.

While the answer to this question will differ from interpreter to interpreter, the value of this exchange of rate for representation is measured by the currency of convenience. Simply, does working with an agency make it easier for a sign language interpreter to do their work? If yes, good trade. If no, zippy.

Let’s get to the point.

If convenience is the primary factor for a sign language interpreter in determining whether a relationship with an agency is valuable or not, why aren’t agency owners and operators consumed with innovating convenience into their practices and business models? It would make good sense, no? Is it that they don’t care?

The truth? Implementing innovation is yeoman’s work.

There is a Difference

There is an important distinction between the acts of assembling practical, even clever, solutions to a problem and the act of implementing that solution. Assembling—easier. Implementing—harder.

Why is implementing harder? Humans.

3 Inhibitors of Agency Innovation

Unfortunately, it is people that make implementing new solutions to existing challenges difficult. Agency owners and operators—yes, they are people too—unintentionally get in their own way, and the forward progress of their agencies as a result of being trapped by three primary innovation inhibitors. 

Inhibitor One: Perfection is Attainable

All too often agency owners/operators fall victim to perfectionism. They become obsessed with a process or protocol being followed exactly right. In order for convenience innovation to occur and be implemented effectively, it is essential for agency owners and operators to acknowledge innovation is an iterative process.

Unfortunately, perfectionist tendencies frustrate innovation by suggesting that any iterative process of improvement falls short of the ideal and is therefore unworthy of the effort. This results in agency owners and operators stalling in their attempt to innovate.

It is essential that agency leadership get comfortable with the idea that it’s always a little messy in the middle.

Inhibitor Two: Denial of Marketplace Realities

Because the work to implement innovation is difficult, agency owners and operators sometimes deny the existence of changing marketplace realities. Conscious, or not, they do this in order to protect the status quo. A few of the marketplace realities that are currently being denied are:

1)    It is easier and cheaper than ever before to start and operate a small business. The Internet and subscription tools make it easy for sign language interpreters to establish a large virtual presence and compete for customers.

2)    Social networks empower sign language interpreters with access to vast amounts of instructional information and serve as gathering places to exchange knowledge, practices, and ideas—all of which make them formidable competitors.

3)    The weak economy is causing under-employment within the sign language interpreting industry, which makes starting a small, privateer business a strong employment option for sign language interpreters.

The denial of marketplace realities, regardless of what they are, challenges any need to depart from the status quo. Unfortunately, it also perpetuates the poo-pooing of any need to rethink how business is getting done. This is particularly true as it relates to creating additional value for the sign language interpreter.

Owners/operators with their heads in the sand are unable to lead (i.e. implement) from the front. Maybe a lesson from a sidewalk-executive is in order? 

Inhibitor Three: A Biased Perspective

Inhibitor three is the most difficult to overcome. Often it is the inaccurate perception of their own work that prevents agency owners/operators from implementing innovation. This biased perspective preoccupies managers with their historical intent of implementing systems and practices and prevents them from critically evaluating if that system truly delivers value for a sign language interpreter.

To overcome this bias, and implement successfully, agency owners and operators have to find the courage necessary to seek answers to hard questions. Questions like, what do interpreters really care about? Is what we are doing effective? What would it take for us to do [insert practice or process] better?

It takes a secure manager to check their bias and critically evaluate their practices. It takes a leader to do that and then successfully implement. 

Tips for Innovating Value

The good news is implementing innovative solutions successfully can be learned. To that end, agency owners/operators need to remember, there will be no proof that the iterative adjustments made will succeed. Innovating is a strategic choice to deliver a better experience. The following may prove helpful when choosing to innovate and working to implement those innovations.

1)    Create with the sign language interpreter in mind. Owners/operators need to take time to observe the behaviors of the interpreters engaging with their agency. Understanding social, professional, cultural and emotional drivers is key to improving their experience. Recognize that both the sign language interpreter and the business can win.

2)    Recognize limitations. When identifying process improvement opportunities, Owner/operators need to work within their agency’s ability to support the change. There is little worse than when an “innovation” makes a challenging process more cumbersome.

3)    Stop asking sign language interpreters what they want. Owners/operators need ask what concerns or bothers them about the business or its practices. Then watch where the interpreter experience suffers and fix it.

4)    Remember, there are no best practices. Because the competition conducts business in a certain way, doesn’t mean a “me too!” approach is in order. Think outside the box!

A Word of Advice

A suggestion to agency owners and operators, when pitching the rate trade for agency representation to a sign language interpreter, don’t position standards as value adds.

I believe sign language interpreters would agree that, online systems, training for CEUs, direct deposit, and reimbursement for professional dues/fees are operating standards, not differentiators.

In my mind, these are not reasons interpreters ultimately choose to align themselves with an agency.

In the End

Agencies who overcome the tangles of implementing innovations will successfully survive—even thrive. Others will find the blow of failing to innovate to be too much and will wither on the vine. At the end of the day, sign language interpreters vote with their feet. Limited number of interpreters, limited success. Yes, it is that simple.

Sign language interpreters are looking for industry entrepreneurs to introduce the next wave of innovation, even social disruption, within the sign language interpreting industry. Who’s going to be?

Sign language interpreters, what innovations would you like to see most within the agencies you work alongside?

Posted on

Should Sign Language Interpreters Unionize?

 

Unionization of sign language interpreters continues to be a topic of discussion in our field. Author Anthony Goodwin presents some pros and cons on the impact of establishing a union for interpreters.

In today’s economic downturns and upswings, representation in the labor market is paramount to the success of any profession.  The profession of sign language interpreting is no different.  Without understanding the influence unity bears, sign language interpreters all over the country, dare I say the world, will not realize the import of their services as a group of professionals.  Individually, we who are in private practice or in some type of hybrid practice thereof, will always be on the weaker end of the negotiating table.

From negotiating with mega agencies to any type of employment negotiations, the individual sign language interpreter often lacks the leverage of any good negotiations:  information.  We keep quiet about our rates. We are afraid that someone will undercut our bids. We undercut other interpreters just to get the contract for that one day job.  Often, we are unaware and unconcerned about the greater repercussions of such actions:  how will our acceptance of lower rates and non-support during extensive interpreting assignments affect the industry, affect our colleagues, and even ourselves for the next assignment?

Time For a Union?

As I have traveled around the country, I’ve had the chance to work with a variety of sign language interpreters in a myriad of settings. Conversations about having a union that represents sign language interpreters in the labor market inevitably crop up.  I have yet to meet an interpreter who disagrees with the idea.  Does that mean we should rush out and establish a union? No.  But it does mean we should be having serious conversations about what it looks like to be represented in the labor market of sign language interpreters.

There are both pros and cons to forming a union.  On the surface it seems like a great idea, but what are the hidden pitfalls?  First, the cons.

The Cons

Unions often can become beasts in and of themselves.  Like any corporation, they intend to survive. Those who run the organizations seek to preserve their positions and jobs.  Self-preservation can very easily and inconspicuously become the driving factor.  If this happens, and it will, then professional concerns will take a back seat although any activity will be couched in terms of benefitting the constituency.

Second, unions can often demand salaries or rates that the market will not bear.  If that happens, then corporations that higher a significant number of sign language interpreters and doctors’ offices and other smaller venues may seek ways to avoid hiring interpreters.  Moreover, the deaf community may suffer adverse affects of such consequences.

Third, unions can have a polarizing affect within companies and workplaces.  They support an “us” versus “them” environment and often work best in adversarial environments.  For example, union members versus non-union members, or union members versus employers or management can be an adversarial environment.  Because unions work solely for their constituents, such an environment can create salary and pay discrepancies among other sign language interpreters in the same work place.  This dynamic can have negative affects on the working environment within the profession as well.

Fourth, there may be an argument for redundancy.  The work that our professional organizations such as the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), the National Alliance of Black Interpreters, Inc. (NAOBI, Inc.), and Mano a Mano are doing can be viewed as empowering sign language interpreters such that they feel that they are already represented in the labor market.

The Pros

Unions can provide representation in the labor market for sign language interpreters.  It allows professionals to be united in terms of fees, qualifications, labor standards for the sign language interpreting industry, and so on.  RID, NAOBI, Inc. and Mano a Mano already work toward influencing and establishing industry practices.  These organizations, however, are not labor market representatives.  All three organizations support industry standards related to certification and testing.  All three organizations weigh in on licensing as it relates to particular states where chapters of these respective organizations are established.  A union, however, takes up as its sole cause the proactive work of the protection of its constituency from unfair business practices, disadvantageous working environments and inequitable wages, fee schedules, and benefits. In fact, unions can be quite beneficial in establishing, maintaining and ensuring fair market value for services rendered.

Second, unions can be an additional source of pension security for sign language interpreters.  Currently, private practitioners (freelance) sign language interpreters can set up self-directed retirement accounts.  Those who also work in some capacity for corporations or for any type of government agency may have access to a 501K plan.

Last, unions have the potential for maximizing leverage within the sign language interpreting profession.  As sign language interpreters, we tend to be lone rangers.  Divided we fall.  A possible benefit of a union is that of agreement.  Sign language interpreters as a group have the unique ability to be able to provide direct work as well as the ability to sub-contract and/or to be employed.  This is a form of empowerment. Awareness and understanding of this fact means we are a strong professional group able to ensure the quality of our industry and the fairness of the market value for our services.

Conclusion of the Matter

Some thoughts to consider: how can dialoguing about unionizing increase awareness and understanding of our industry and of the service we provide? What types of workshops along these lines can initiate a dialogue about sign language interpreters understanding the power of their service?    What are the gaps in our profession that impede this type of dialogue?

Maybe we should consider the example of other organizations:  the Writers Guild of America; the Directors Guild of America; the Screen Actors Guild.  What about the history and functions of these organizations can we benefit from in the sign language interpreter profession?

My hope is that we can begin a national dialogue about how to foster agreement, unity, and empowerment within our profession so that we continue to ensure quality service and fair market value for services rendered.

Posted on

How Practicing Sign Language Interpreters Protect Against Legal Liability

Sign Language Interpreters: Protecting Against Legal Liability

In order to protect their livelihood, sign language interpreters must consider the risks and costs of doing business in a practice profession. Carla Mathers addresses some commonly expressed concerns and considerations to explore.

As we have seen from the discussion of whether sign language interpreters are complicit in the statutory bargain with the devil, interpreters are in a practice profession in which trust, reliability and heart are important attributes. While these characteristics might seem at odds with the concept of running an interpreting practice, there are a number of important considerations for sign language interpreters to weigh when thinking about how best to protect themselves as practitioners. While each state varies in their regulatory environment for small businesses, and this post does not purport to offer legal advice, several general questions should be thought through in establishing and running a practice.

What Risks do I Face?

All businesses face risk of one type or another. Simply stated, risk is the probability of an event happening and an understanding of the event’s consequences. The insurance industry exists to help people minimize the effect of the unforeseen event. There are different types of insurance which should be considered by sign language interpreters. Other than the obvious, health insurance, sign language interpreters most often question whether they need professional indemnity insurance. An interpreter can be sued for malpractice if they undertake an assignment and do not follow the standard of care in performing that assignment. If this breach of the standard of care causes damages to any of the parties, the interpreter can be liable. Professional indemnity insurance covers you in case a judgment is awarded against you.

However, a judgment is not the only risk involved in a professional liability claim. An interpreter should ensure that their legal expenses are covered and this is typically a different policy which covers the litigation costs when either initiating a suit or defending a suit. These are the costs that can truly be devastating to any small business.

Further, it is important to think about what would happen to you and your practice if there were an interruption of your business because of a catastrophic illness or national disaster. Various types of insurance are available such as income protection insurance in the event of illness and business interruption insurance in the case of a disaster which prohibits you from doing business and the resulting loss of income.

Mandatory Reporter

Finally, sign language interpreters working in any setting around children need to know whether they are considered mandatory reporters under the state in which they are working. While all states have laws regarding mandatory reporting, according to the Federal Administration for Families and Children, “[a]pproximately 48 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands designate professions whose members are mandated by law to report child maltreatment. Individuals designated as mandatory reporters typically have frequent contact with children.” While sign language interpreters might think this only applies to educational interpreters, some states require reporting from mental health professionals, law enforcement, court appointed special advocates, members of the clergy and domestic violence workers. New Jersey and Wyoming require all persons to report suspected neglect and abuse regardless of profession. Because sign language interpreters, at times, have a somewhat rigid view of their confidentiality mandate, a review of the relevant legal authority in the state in which one works is strongly suggested. A state by state statutory chart is available here and would be a good place to find the statutes applicable in your state(s) of practice.

Do I Need to Incorporate?

The most common forms of business are the sole proprietorship, partnership, corporation, and S corporation and the Limited Liability Company.

Sole Proprietorship

Most sign language interpreters probably function as a sole proprietorship. A sole proprietor is someone who owns an unincorporated business by himself or herself. This form of business organization has many advantages. It is the simplest form of organization because there are no set up costs, no complicated bookkeeping and no separate tax return to be filed for the proprietorship. The income is attributed to the individual and the business expenses are tallied on the individual’s tax return. The dangers of a sole proprietorship derive primarily from the liability of the owner for any of the proprietorship’s debts, including legal judgments.

Limited Liability Company

Another option is the Limited Liability Company, (“LLC”). An LLC is the least complicated and has several advantages. According to the IRS, “A Limited Liability Company is a business structure allowed by state statute. LLCs are popular because, similar to a corporation, owners have limited personal liability for the debts and actions of the LLC. Other features of LLCs are more like a partnership, providing management flexibility and the benefit of pass-through taxation.”

Hence, the LLC’s income is passed through to the individual owner and taxes are paid in the normal course as an individual. The major advantage to the LLC is that liability for the corporate debts, including legal judgments, is limited. The federal government does not recognize an LLC as a classification for federal tax purposes. An LLC business entity must file a corporation, partnership or sole proprietorship tax return.

Corporations

The S and C corporations are more complicated and involve significantly more paperwork and accounting requirements. There may also be state imposed fees annually to maintain the corporation in good standing. Separate tax returns are filed for the corporations and employment taxes must be paid for employees of the corporation. The major advantage is that the owner is not liable for the debts of the corporation, though the downside is that there is double taxation: the corporation must pay taxes on its earnings, and the owner pays taxes on his or her wages.

Again, according to the experts at the IRS, “S corporations are corporations that elect to pass corporate income, losses, deductions and credit through to their shareholders for federal tax purposes. Shareholders of S corporations report the flow-through of income and losses on their personal tax returns and are assessed tax at their individual income tax rates. This allows S corporations to avoid double taxation on the corporate income. S corporations are responsible for tax on certain built-in gains and passive income.”

Traditional corporations are called C corporations. The IRS explains, “[i]n forming a corporation, prospective shareholders exchange money, property, or both, for the corporation’s capital stock. A corporation generally takes the same deductions as a sole proprietorship to figure its taxable income. A corporation can also take special deductions. For federal income tax purposes, a C corporation is recognized as a separate taxpaying entity. A corporation conducts business, realizes net income or loss, pays taxes and distributes profits to shareholders. The profit of a corporation is taxed to the corporation when earned, and then is taxed to the shareholders when distributed as dividends. This creates a double tax. The corporation does not get a tax deduction when it distributes dividends to shareholders. Shareholders cannot deduct any loss of the corporation.”

Employer Identification Number

One of the corporate actions that is beneficial to sign language interpreters, even to sole practitioners, is to obtain a Federal Employer Identification Number (“FEIN”) which can be used on tax returns, contracts, responses to requests for proposals and invoices and which protects the interpreter from having to supply a social security number on these items. A FEIN can be obtained from the IRS website.

Speaking of taxes, as private practitioner, the interpreter should file estimated taxes quarterly on the 15th of January, April, June and September annually. If you are not well schooled in tax preparation, it is a good idea to retain a CPA to assist you in ensuring that your taxes are filed properly.

What Else Should I know?

It is helpful to make sure you obtain contracts for interpreting services in writing. Among other things, those contracts should indicate that you are an independent contractor and not an employee of the hiring entity. Contracts should list your terms or conditions of working, and be tailored to each client and each assignment. Contracts should be read carefully and if particularly complex, the interpreter should consider retaining legal counsel to review and to advise on the documents. Speaking of documents, you should maintain organized business files and keep your records at least seven (7) years.

In some states, you must register to do business if you offer services in the state. In others, sign language interpreters are regulated by a state entity and more defined licensing as an interpreter is required. If you are in a state with a commission, you should consult with its staff on your licensing and registration requirements. In other states, you should contact the executive branch agency responsible for licensing and regulations to determine whether you need a business license or whether you need to register your trade name if you are using a fictitious business name.

There are several good books out there for organizing and running an interpreting practice. I would recommend Tammera J. Richards’ book, Establishing a Freelance Interpretation Business: Professional Guidance for Sign Language Interpreters, currently in its 3rd edition. More information can be obtained at her website.

 

This post is for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. You should contact your attorney to obtain advice with respect to any particular issue or problem.  Access to this post does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and the user or browser.