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Ethical Development: A Sign of the Times for Sign Language Interpreters?

How may our profession break out of rule-based approaches to our work and instead embrace models of reflection and supervision? Robyn Dean uses the lens of prophetic literature to ask how the future of interpreting is being shaped today.

Prophetic words do not solely come from scriptural texts and prophetic messages do not only come from spiritual leaders.  A prophetic message can be found in the profane moments of our daily lives: a song on the radio that brings comfort, an overheard remark of a child that is innocent yet profound, or an advertisement on a billboard that supplies a sought-after confirmation. Prophetic messages often act like breadcrumbs to children lost in the woods – “it’s okay; you’re on the right track.”

Yes, I am well aware that Street Leverage is a site about sign language interpreting issues and perhaps readers are wondering how prophecy applies to our work. Please, bear with me.

The definition of the word prophetic is multi-layered. In it’s most common form, prophetic describes the prediction of events in a future time. However, during my graduate studies in theology, I came to appreciate the nuanced meanings of prophetic.  Prophetic can also convey an appreciation that messages – regardless of their origin – can be timely or that prophetic messages have a quality of timelessness (e.g., “this too shall pass”). With these thoughts in mind, allow me to highlight some prophetic markers that appear to be breadcrumbs to the profession, albeit placed across a quarter of a century.

Prophetic Literature

In 1986, Fritsch-Rudser published an article in RID’s Journal of Interpretation, The RID Code of Ethics, Confidentiality and Supervision[1]. The author proposed a set of problems associated with the Code and a possible solution – a professional development tool called supervision. At the time of the article, Fritsch-Rudser was responding to concerns that the mere seven-year old Code was in need of revision. Fritsch-Rudser defended the Code by stating that the problem was not with the document but in how interpreters understood and applied it. No code can relieve professionals from the responsibility of thinking, deliberating and deciding (Cottone & Claus, 2000; Fritsch-Rudser, 1986[2]).

As an example of how the Code is often misunderstood, the author cites an example of a sign language interpreter who ignored the request of a speaker, asking him to introduce himself to the audience – the interpreter claimed that he did not respond because the Code left him no choice.  According to Fritsch-Rudser, this is an example of how commonly we misattribute ideas that do not exist in our Code of Ethics. In reality, they are more generated by popular notions emerging out of a conduit-based conceptualization of interpreting.

Fritsch-Rudser (1986) points to a then current study by Heller, et al (as cited in Fritsch-Rudser 1986) on interpreter occupational stress where sign language interpreters reported strain due to role conflict, isolation, and frequent exposure to emotionally charged situations and dynamics. As a result, interpreters sought out other colleagues to talk about their work, “to get feedback and to lessen the impact of emotional experiences” (Fritsch-Rudser 1986, pp. 50). Given the Code of 1979, this was perceived of as a breach.Illustration of the Benefits of Reflective Practice

As an answer to this dilemma (the interpreters’ need to seek guidance/support and the Code’s prohibition), Fritsch-Rudser proposed that the profession adopt formal supervision, modelled after mental health professionals’ use of confidential supervision[3]. Through a trained supervisor, interpreting practitioners’ ethical development is intentional and foregrounded. They are provided with a structured system in the delivery of cases, which maintains confidentiality; and through a careful process, practitioners are provided with the needed validation and guidance.

After proposing supervision as a potential tool of professional development, Fritsch-Rudser concludes his article with, “RID would have to approve formal supervision of interpreters for it to become a reality. I hope this paper will provide the impetus for discussion within our organization and profession to make that possible” (Fritsch-Rudser 1986, pp. 51).

It’s been twenty-five years since this publication and yet, with some minor changes to the titles, the names and the dates, indeed, this article could be published today. The message is timely and undoubtedly prophetic: Do sign language interpreters still point to a rule as adequate justification for a decision? Do sign language interpreters still maintain their conduit nature, merely there to facilitate communication? Do sign language interpreters report that their work has a negative impact and takes an emotional toll? Do sign language interpreters still (mis)perceive aspects of the Code and quietly work at what they imagine are cross-purposes[4]?

While each to varying degrees, all can be answered in the affirmative. However, we must be careful in placing blame. Prophetic texts are to be read in their entirety. It clearly reads that in order for these to change, formal supervision needs to be approved and adopted by RID.

Perhaps we can interpret this message in today’s context as: No one learns to make good decisions because they are handed a list of rules or even a step-by-step decision-making model to follow.  No one appreciates the complexities of interpreting decisions through a series of ethical dilemmas that are plucked from their contexts, devoid of human relationships, and under-appreciative of the co-constructed nature of human dynamics. And lastly, no one becomes a critical thinker in two or even four years nor when they are left alone to practice independently – in a classroom or in a booth – without the provision for regular reflection amidst those who know and do the work. Let us not blame interpreters; the profession is still in need of formal supervision.

Timeliness: Prophetic Posts

I am grateful to my colleagues, Anna Witter-Merithew and Kendra Keller[5] for recently championing and charging us to consider reflective practice and supervision as not only emotionally necessary and ethically imperative but as the vehicle through which interpreting practitioners develop sound judgment. I was also gratified to see theirs’ and readers’ comments on the helpfulness of demand control schema in this regard. Supervision, case conferencing and reflective practice in interpreting have become increasingly popular topics (citations [6][7][8][9]).

In addition to manuscripts, there are pockets across the US and in other countries where sign language interpreter supervision happens. Decision-making models proffered by sign language interpreting scholars such as Hoza (2003[10]), Humphrey (1999[11]), Mills Stewart & Witter-Merithew (2006 [12]) and Dean & Pollard (2011[13]) provide us with sufficient roadmaps pointing out the worthy landmarks to consider toward a sound decision.  But, let’s be clear, we can have a destination (ethical decisions) and a road map (decision-making models) and a vehicle (formal supervision) but unless we have drivers, people happy for the journey, we’re not going anywhere.

Sign Language Interpreters Participating in a Supervised SessionProphetic Events

We have developed a small band of happy drivers and passengers.  As just one example, in Rochester, NY, we’ve been offering formal supervision to practitioners and students through the case analysis tool of demand control schema for several years. We’ve had many successes: a trained cohort of practitioner supervisors who offered supervision sessions to hearing and deaf interpreters; we were awarded the RID mentoring grant which allowed us to introduce new interpreters and deaf interpreters to group supervision; we ran joint hearing and deaf interpreter groups led by both hearing and Deaf practitioners; we provided supervision to groups remotely through videoconferencing equipment; our trained cohort found themselves in institutions – educational, post-secondary, medical, and VRS providing supervision to interpreter employees. And as mentioned above, some pockets outside of Rochester and the US[14] are also trudging along in their commitment to supervision, even if informally.

We have also met obstacles along the way: The current structure of RID’s certification maintenance program does not easily facilitate sponsors to support it nor for members to easily get CEUs; no infrastructure exists to support supervision after graduation, that is, most institutions do not consider it apart of interpreters’ job duties to attend supervision; and lastly and likely the most influential reason, it’s just plain not what sign language interpreters are used to.

Sign language interpreters are used to answering hypothetical ethical scenarios so pointed that the “right answer” is obvious, they are used to attending one-off workshops that compactly provide them with CEUs, they’re used to venting to their close colleagues about the struggles of work, and they’re used to working in isolation, left to evaluate effectiveness usually by whether or not someone complained about them. And they’re right.  Supervision requires a cultural shift – what Aristotle would deem habituation.

Supervision throughout sign language interpreter education programs and a ready infrastructure upon graduation supporting them to certification would be needed to create an appreciation for the activity and an allegiance to its continuation (Stocker, 1981[15]).  Formal supervision would be a more effective and responsible approach to reaching independent practice than the status quo we are used to. And, mind you, it was proposed twenty-five years ago.

Prophetic Voice: The Times They are A-Changin’

Alas, those of us with twenty plus years of experience will not likely be the drivers of supervision. Many of us have formed bad habits in how we talk about the work, how we frame work problems, and most concerning, in how we talk to each other.  Most of us likely developed our professional skills under the technical profession focus (Dean & Pollard, 2005[16]) and the Master – Apprentice mentality (Feasey, 2002[17]). More than likely, we have taken our place in the hierarchy and learned to talk to others in the way that we’ve been talked to. But, as Bob Dylan the accidental prophet once suggested, we can either “lend a hand or get out of the way.”

I was compelled to write on this topic because of the timeliness of an exciting new phase in sign language interpreter supervision. Within the next few months, interpreters who were supervised for several years, who were intentionally provided with a different way of talking to one another and who had access to a community of practice from the very beginning will take the lead as facilitators. Interpreters with two to five years of experience, who have been in supervision since the start of their programs and/or diligently sought it out after graduation, will facilitate their own supervision sessions.

These groups will include professionals with more than triple the years experience of these young facilitators (A. Smith, personal communication [18]). Leading supervision because you yourself have been supervised is the natural progression for those professions that employ supervision models. While this group is small, it is noteworthy that the habituation process during their education successfully led them to an appreciation and an allegiance that we do not see in interpreters who were introduced to supervision late in their careers[19].

And now, like Mr. Fritsch-Rudser and many other of my colleagues in this endeavor, I hope that once students and young professionals experience effectively run supervision, after they understand what it is like to have collegial support, developmental ethical guidance, and a sense of shared-responsibility for the complex work of interpreting, they too will come to appreciate, expect and require supervision – for themselves, their colleagues and from their institutions. As Jean Rodman, my colleague and friend proposed, “In twenty years, interpreters will turn to us and say, ‘I can’t believe you went out and worked without supervision.’”

Prophetic? Time will tell.

Suggestions on how to move the professional development of supervision forward?

 

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[1] Fritsch-Rudser, S. (1986).  The RID code of ethics, confidentiality and supervision.  Journal of Interpretation, 3, 47-51.

[2] Cottone, R. & Claus, R. (2000). Ethical decision-making models: A review of the literature. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78, 275-283.

[3] For further discussion on an educational model of supervision for interpreters and technical skill development see: Atwood, A.  (1986). Clinical supervision as a method of providing behavioral feedback to sign language interpreters and students of interpreting.  In M. L. McIntire (Ed)., New dimensions in interpreter education:  Curriculum and instruction (pp. 87-93).  (Proceedings of the 6th national Convention of the Conference of Interpreter Trainers.)  Chevy Chase MD.

[4] For further discussion on all these topics please see: a) Tate, G. & Turner, G. H.  (1997).  The code and the culture:  Sign language interpreting – in search of the new breed’s ethics.  Deaf Worlds, 13(3), 27-34. b)Nicodemus, B., Swabey, L., & Witter-Merithew, A. (2011) Presence and role transparency in healthcare interpreting: A pedagogical approach for developing effective practice. Revista Di Linguistica 11(3), 69-83. c) Dean, R. K., Pollard, R. Q & Samar, V. J.  (2011).  Occupational health risks in different interpreting work settings:  Special concerns for VRS and K-12 settings.  Across the Board (quarterly publication of the Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association), 6(3), 4-8. d) Angelelli, C.  (2003).  The visible co-participant:  Interpreter’s role in doctor/patient encounters. In M. Metzger, S. Collins, V. Dively, and R. Shaw (Eds.), From topic boundaries to omission: New Research in interpretation Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. e) Angelelli, C. (2004).  Revisiting the Interpreter’s Role.  A Study of conference, court and medical interpreters in Canada, Mexico, and the United States.  Amsterdam/Philadelphia:  John Benjamins.

[5] Witter-Merithew, A. StreetLeverage. (2012, March 13). Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice. Retrieved from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/03/sign-language-interpreters-reflective-practice/.  Keller, K. StreetLeverage. (2012, February 28). Case Discussion: Sign Language Interpreters Contain Their Inner “What the…!!!?”. Retrieved from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/02/case-discussion/.

Freakonomics. (2010, October 29). E-ZPass is a life-saver (literally) [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/29/e-zpass-is-a-life-saver-literally/

[6] Anderson, A. A. (2011). Peer Support and Consultation Project for Interpreters: A Model for Supporting the Well-Being of Interpreters who Practice in Mental Health Settings. Journal of Interpretation, 21(1), 9-20.

[7] Dean, R. K. & Pollard, R. Q. (2009, Fall). “I don’t think we’re supposed to be talking about this:” Case conferencing and supervision for interpreters. VIEWS, 26, pp. 28-30.

[8] Hetherington, A. (2011). A Magical Profession? Causes and management of occupational stress in sign language interpreting profession. In L. Leeson, S. Wurm, M. Vermeerbergen (Eds.). Signed Language interpreting: Preparation, practice and performance (pp. 138-159). St. Jerome Publishing. Manchester, UK.

[9] Keller, K. (2008). Demand-control schema: Applications for deaf interpreters. In L. Roberson & S. Shaw (Eds.). Proceedings of the 17th National Convention of the Conference of Interpreter Trainers: Putting the pieces together: A collaborative approach to excellence in education. (pp. 3-16). Conference of Interpreter Trainers. San Juan, PR.

[10] Hoza, J. (2003). Toward an interpreter sensibility: Three levels of ethical analysis and a comprehensive models for ethical decision-making for interpreters. Journal of Interpretation, 1-41.

[11] Humphrey, J. (1999). Decisions? Decisions! A practical guide for sign language professionals. Amarillo, TX: H&H Publishers.

[12] Mills-Stewart, K. & Witter-Merithew, A. (2006). The dimensions of ethical decision-making: A guided exploration for interpreters. Burtonsville, MD: Sign Media, Inc.

[13] Dean, R. K. & Pollard, R. Q  (2011).  The importance, challenges, and outcomes of teaching context-based ethics in interpreting:  A demand control schema perspective.  Interpreter and Translator Trainer, 5 (1), 155-182.

[14] As an example: https://www.facebook.com/pages/ASLInterpretersCONNect-LLC/189679084413225

[15] Stocker, M. (1981). Values and Purposes: the limitations of teleology and the ends of friendship. The Journal of Philosophy, 78 (12), 747-765

[16] Dean, R.K. & Pollard, R. Q (2005).  Consumers and service effectiveness in interpreting work:  A practice profession perspective.  In M. Marschark, R. Peterson, & E. Winston (Eds.), Interpreting and interpreter education: Directions for research and practice.  New York: Oxford University Press.

[17] Feasey, D.  (2002). Good Practice in Supervision with Psychotherapists and Counselors: The Relational Approach. London: Whurr Publishers.

[18] A. Smith, personal communication, March 24, 2012.

[19] Information on this program can be found at: https://sites.google.com/a/mail.wou.edu/psipad/home

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Case Discussion: Sign Language Interpreters Contain Their Inner “What the…!!!?”

 

Real-life case discussion brings a myriad of benefits to us as sign language interpreters. Kendra Keller highlights how engaging in supervised, structured case discussion can lead to not only enhanced technique but a deeper relationship among us doing the work.

As sign language interpreters, we continue to struggle with the very real human costs, the fallout from the gaps in our professional development and consideration of each other in our work. As we continue to evolve in how we discuss our work with each other, we need to consider a process which will assist us in staying engaged with consumers and all aspects of our work.

Case discussion, in the context of supervision, is an important tool sign language interpreters have available to them for this very purpose. Case discussion is a professional space to hold discussions using our actual experiences, in a shared commitment to uphold ethics, confidentiality and a collective process.

Case Discussion – How it Works

The structured process of case discussion allows for sufficient support without constricting the actual discussion and helps to highlight, tease out and identify the interpreting decisions made in the face of the tasks we are confronted with while on the job.

As a result of this process, case discussions become a mirror of the individual process, reflecting back to the individual the effectiveness and ethicality of their work via the light of many eyes, minds and hearts. This guided self-discovery provides a profound and meaningful learning opportunity.

Redirect Fight or Flight

What is it that keeps us from effectively talking about our work?  As mentioned above, as a profession, we continue to struggle with the very real human costs, the fallout from the gaps in our professional development and consideration of each other in our work. Sign language interpreters, like those in other helping professions, show a trend of being hypercritical of our selves…[and therefore, others]…(Feasey, 2002).  This hypercritical response grows to a tipping point where we are expelled from a process engaged with team and consumers, into some version of a fight/flight defense reaction.  Operating in a state of flight or flight limits our engagement and awareness of others except as the source of potential threat and therefore,  options, thought worlds, culture, and communication dynamics. This stance preempts our awareness of choices, or controls – thus hobbling an effective and ethical decision-making process.  This occurs when we are interpreting as well as in discussion with colleagues.  It could be seen as an inherent ‘system failure.’

Shared Process

When managing the complexity of the task results in a system failure for the working sign language interpreter it can be attributed to two things, if you apply the thinking of Gorovitz and MacIntyre in Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right:

  1. Ignorance. The partial or incomplete understanding of the task and its complexities.
  2. Ineptitude. A failure to apply what we know correctly.

This ignorance may simply be that we may not be aware of what we don’t yet know.  Research shows that in some settings we may be unaware of controls or do not feel we can use them if we are aware of them. (Dean and Pollard, 2010). Alternately, our concept of role and interpreter presence may be constricted; we may not be aware of a demand to be able to respond with an effective control option.  For example, the interpreter who is trying to be ‘invisible’ fails to consult with the Deaf and hearing consumers before and after an assignment or during breaks, overlooking the consumers’ needs.   We may not realize that the decision to spell out the same word repeatedly for which there is an agreed upon sign creates more visual noise and even a foreignalization or word which looks like a new vocabulary item to the deaf person.  We are not aware of the fact that we are responding to many demands, that we are making decisions; nor are we aware of the consequences of them.

Ineptitude can be described here as overwhelm at the complexity of a task.  A pilot who has 20 years of experience flying a variety of aircraft, and is charged with flying a new aircraft with twice as many tasks to perform results in a crash landing during a test flight.   A sign language interpreter who knows how to keep the processing transparent yet in a high stress situation reacts with an “I missed it, what did they say?!” urgency in the middle of a feed from their team.  Our thinking and processing may also be occluded by our own self-criticism or fear of failure, resulting in an inability to hold our attention on the work, much less to discuss it with colleagues.

The importance of a shared process is that it provides a framework, the creation of a schema, systematizing our decision making process, which is inclusive of more factors than one person may be able to retain and respond to in a given moment, aids in recall, recognition, recourse and supports the elimination of this (unavoidable) human ignorance and ineptitude.

Presenting a Case for Discussion

The concern about confidentiality may lead to an avoidance of talking about our work.  Through effective case presentations, sign language interpreters learn to practice confidentiality, by sorting out the important details and a reason for bringing it into discussion.  It might be the more mundane situation which is the greatest gem for discovery.  Situations we interpret on ‘automatic pilot’ – perhaps therefore using a less considered decision-making process and habituated responses, are the most fertile ground for searching for clues to consumer reactions that we are mystified by; or responses from teams or others which appear to be mirroring the opposite intentions we are working under.  It may serve us equally as well as discussing a profound experience.

Important Aspects of Case Discussion

Commitment:  A commitment is to participation in a reflective process, to brooking both the familiar and unpleasant or unwanted aspects of our work for the gain of insight.  Each participant has to be committed to creating a process individually and as a group, “by each member to the interrogation of one’s own beliefs and assumptions as well as of others” (Kennedy and Kennedy, 2010).

Facilitation:  It is the role of the facilitator to jump in during learning moments; redirect, restate, restructure the interaction or reflect back to the group. It is essential to clarify and establish the role of the facilitator – participants discuss and agree on a dynamic set of ground rules.  Remember, the facilitator is responding to maintain the structure of the interaction acknowledging the potential for perceived interruptions and taking the floor as rude and disrespectful, which needs to be clarified (R. Dean, 2010, personal communication).

It is important to work with a facilitator who is trained to lead case discussions in the supervision context.  One who possesses the skills and experience required for supervision – cultural sensitivity, knowledge of the myriad approaches to an interpreter’s professional development and of group dynamics.

Ground Rules:  Creating the safety needed for a vibrant discussion and protection of confidentiality is supported by setting effective ground rules.  Agreed upon rules encourage a ‘scientific’ type curiosity, supported by a critical thinking consciousness and a sharing of perspectives as equals.  Some examples of ground rules are:

  1. Confidentiality:  for example, discussions outside of the formal meeting should be brought back to the group, all case notes are collected and shredded/deleted.
  2. One conversation at a time.
  3. Recognition of the privilege we have as interpreters: sacred place;  serious ethos.
  4. Agree to disagree: recognition of valid but competing values.
  5. Avoidance of the need to ‘fix’ or provide solutions – referred to by Parker Palmer as the Righting Reflex.
  6. Inquiry and clarification to allow seeing the case elements as the interpreter presenting sees them.

Ground rules should focus on supporting the delivery of valuable feedback to the recipient, not on the value or “release” that it provides the person giving the feedback (Lehner, 1975).

Schema and structure:  for example, the use of the demand control schema, developed for sign language interpreters out of concern and compassion, focuses case discussions on identifying and decreasing contributing factors that cause undue stress and contribute to ethical dissonance.

Preparation:  It is important to make the case available before the group meets so that participants can familiarize themselves with its details. Cases may be both retrospective or prospective, looking back or looking forward in preparation.

 Methods: Case discussion groups can use online discussion boards, live video conferencing, and online classroom environments to do their reviews. Of course, let’s not forget that they can be conducted in small groups or 1:1.

Group process:  This process supports the development of interpreters’ ability to dialogue with one another in a deliberate problem solving, community-building manner. “Emphasis is placed on the capacity to remain sensitive to context and the beliefs of others” and “…a community of interpretation which we understand as a spontaneous human discourse form…” (Corrington in Kennedy & Kennedy 2010).

Benefits of Case Discussion

The practice of Case discussion and the associated preparation and analysis help sign language interpreters remember or recognize details, realize that we are making myriad decisions on the fly by responding to a complex constellation of demands, and expands our response options. We better understand the sheer complexity the work and deepen our appreciation of the human elements of what we do.  Vicarious learning with our peers lessens the ignorance, shedding light on the complexity and developing a systematic approach helps to prevent failures of ineptitude.

In short, case discussion creates a process and setting which helps sign language interpreters contain their inner “What the…!!!?” long enough to engage with the person/task at hand and do the most effective job possible.

What Can You Expect?

Sign language interpreters using case discussion can expect to:

  • Develop or enhance individual schema or collection of schema for use by sign language interpreters when working.
  • Develop a common language for describing one’s process.
  • Experience growth in negotiation skills with colleagues and consumers.
  • Participation in and development of  “double- vision” for monitoring the process simultaneously with the content.  This procedural awareness allows for appropriate authorship of decisions and outcomes with direct application to the individual interpreting process.
  • Reveal the complexities of the work, as well as the discovery of similar complexities others are dealing with and similar or common decision making strategies.

Let’s Return to the Conversation

Let’s converse with each other in a manner which does not diminish us by limiting our discussions solely to technique (Palmer 1998).  The process of case discussion in supervision strengthens our relationship to our communities. Case discussion is ultimately a wellspring of shared experience, building upon the natural processes from within our communities in a manner both considered and reflective (including our Deaf and Coda communities). Case discussion assists sign language interpreters in the development of a common language for describing our process, to gain or hone negotiation skills with colleagues and consumers.

The effective use of Case discussion supports growth in a sign language interpreter’s ethical decision making, learning to trust each other to a greater degree…we begin, and return to, the conversation.