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Where Do We Go From Here? 5 Stages of Change for Sign Language Interpreters

Where Do We Go From Here? 5 Stages of Change for Sign Language Interpreters

As sign language interpreters, we stand at a crossroads. Do we maintain the status quo or act as change agents by investing & engaging, collectively, in the transformation of our profession?

 

People in our field are talking a lot about change. Our attitudes toward the Deaf community and fellow sign language interpreters have to change. Our professionalism has to change. There is a call for greater transparency. StreetLeverage contributors have written about the need for change in our national organization. The discussion about change is everywhere.

[Click to view post in ASL]

In “Sign Language Interpreters: Is it Me?”, Brian Morrison points to the questions we should be asking ourselves, and guides us from examining how to solve problems to examining our commitment to change. The question I find myself now exploring is, “How does change happen?”

Transtheoretical Model

Many have written on the subject of change. In 1983, Prochaska and DiClementi developed the “Transtheoretical Model”1 , which I will use to frame my discussion here. The model describes five stages of change: pre-contemplation, contemplation, determination, action, and maintenance.

In the pre-contemplation stage, a person is unaware that there is a problem. They may think that others who point out a problem are just exaggerating, being judgmental, or imagining it. They may complain about the same problem in others yet fail to see it in themselves. Prochaska and DiClementi define four types of pre-contemplators.

  1. Reluctant pre-contemplators are those who, through lack of knowledge or inertia, do not want to consider change. They have not become fully conscious of the impact of the problem. In our profession a reluctant pre-contemplator may think, “I continue to get hired, so my interpreting work must be fine.”
  2. Rebellious pre-contemplators have a heavy investment in their current behavior and in making their own decisions. They are resistant to being told what to do. Such a person in our field may say, “That person is always critical of interpreters. It’s not about me.”
  3. Resigned pre-contemplators have given up hope about the possibility of change and are overwhelmed by the problem. This person may concede, “Second language learners of ASL will never be as clear as native language users. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
  4. Rationalizing pre-contemplators have all the answers. They come armed with reasons why their behavior is not a problem. This interpreter may justify, “The Deaf people I work with are highly educated. I tell them what I hear, and they figure it out.”

The second stage of change is contemplation. In this stage a person is willing to accept that there may be a problem. They are also willing to consider the pros and cons of changing but may still be ambivalent about the need to take action.

The third, fourth and fifth stages are ascribed to those who have made a clear decision to change. They have identified what needs to change (Stage 3 – Determination), taken steps toward their goal (Stage 4 – Action), and work to maintain their path of improvement (Stage 5 – Maintenance).

When we are open to change, we spend our time learning, analyzing, and asking questions. Every job is seen as an opportunity to grow. That is the character of the third, fourth and fifth stages of change.

Getting Beyond Pre-contemplation

What happens when others see what I could change but I don’t see it myself? When I try to examine my own problems, what might I be missing? If I don’t see a problem, how can I know if one exists? These conundrums put us squarely at the first stage, pre-contemplation.

Fortunately, there are multiple roads out of pre-contemplation. Some of these roads we seek out and deliberately walk. Others we must be led to. Below, I have outlined four forms that these roads can take: 1) honest self-inquiry, 2) a life threatening condition, 3) public outcry, or 4) a trusted colleague opening a door for us to gain self-awareness.

  1. Honest self-inquiry begins when there is a willingness to look at whatever comes up. An opportunity arises when a certain personal trait or habit becomes apparent. At a particular moment, something that I did, thought, or said makes me question my behavior or habit. In bringing my attention to this behavior, I see it more clearly. Recognizing it changes my understanding of the behavior and of myself. It is possible that, over time and with continued attention, the behavior will shift or even be replaced with something more congruent with my sense of self.

For example, I find myself saying small, cutting remarks to my spouse. I conveniently ignore that I do this because it is too painful to admit to having this unloving, horrible characteristic. In a moment when I am more present, I notice his reaction to one such cutting remark. I stay attuned to myself, watching my impulse to cut him down. The emotion or thought that sparked the cutting remark is revealed. It is old, rooted in my childhood. In that moment there is new understanding, and I am changed. The impulse to cut him down dissolves. A change has occurred that I didn’t “make” in the traditional sense, but it occurred as a result of examining the impulse.

  1. A life-threatening condition is another road out of pre-contemplation. Often when we confront our mortality, the reality of having a finite time on earth can spark increased introspection. Old grudges may dissolve and die-hard opinions seem less important. Change occurs because I re-examine my values. While one doesn’t invite a walk down this road, when it presents itself, there is opportunity.
  1. Public outcry can backfire and may lead to hurt feelings and resistance. In our field, demands to revoke a sign language interpreter’s certification or remove a person from a position of power can garner support. But the target of this outcry rarely perceives it as designed to inspire positive change. Still, it can be an important tool. I remember when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The ensuing outcry sparked many to look at their own attitudes toward race. Recent racialized events have sparked similar self-reflection.
  1. A trusted colleague, finally, is key to fostering change. This is an important relationship. When I am actively engaged with this colleague, we work to develop the mutual trust needed to broach sensitive subjects. I don’t have an ulterior motive to change the person, but instead have a wish to understand their perspective. We see each other as we are – peers. We start by being willing to find out where we stand, what we think, and what our wishes are. The process itself becomes the influencing factor for conscious change.

Together, we can investigate and reveal our flaws, share our inner processes, and examine our values. Together, we can discuss what we personally can do to include more Deaf people in RID. Together, we can look at available jobs and consider what skills and qualities are required to do them. Together, we can explore the difficulty that arises when a team interpreter doesn’t want to discuss the work. It is important that we invite our colleagues to the party, not drag them there.

From Interpersonal to Organizational

RID is made up of individuals, each at their own stage on the path. Some are contemplating their role in improving conditions, while others are in pre-contemplation. Each person is worthy of our time if we are invested in change, but it will never happen through complaining, finger-pointing, ignoring, or backstabbing. It will come only through a willingness to work together. For my part, I was drawn to this profession not only because of an interest in people and a knack for language, but also because it provided opportunities for self-exploration and improvement as a human being in relation to others.

So, I turn the question back to us as professionals. Are we prepared to enter into this type of relationship with our fellow interpreters? If yes, then we need to be willing to spend time in the process. While the stages of change provide a framework for understanding how change happens, our work is to observe, engage, and enter into meaningful dialogue in order to understand multiple perspectives. I believe that each of us can be an agent of change in a way that promotes the profession, our organization, and ultimately, our humanity. Will you join me?

Questions for Consideration

  1. What can I do to be more proactive and interactive with others in the field?
  2. What are my experiences of moments of change?  How do those experiences help me understand this process?
  3. Among the four types of pre-contemplator, which type am I? (We are all pre-contemplators about something.)
  4. What holds me back from being an agent of change? What would I need in order to begin?

Related Posts

Sign Language Interpreting’s Long Adolescence by Stephanie Jo Kent

Replenishing Sign Language Interpreting: Extraction Exchange by Sandra Maloney

Accountability: A First Step to Harmony Among Sign Language Interpreters by Sabrina Smith

References

Gold, M. (2013). Stages of Change. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 19, 2015, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/stages-of-change/

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Ethical Choices: Educational Sign Language Interpreters as Change Agents

Sign Language Interpreting in Art Class

Educational sign language interpreters often view their role as conduit or machine. Deaf children benefit when interpreters instead become agents of change, advocating for students and following their Deaf hearts.

I have the pleasure and challenge of working with educational sign language interpreters around the country: pleasure because I generally find these interpreters extremely committed to the best interests of students,  challenge because I generally find them frustrated by their work settings. Their experiences resonate with Gina Olivia’s post, Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged, which identifies that interpreters often witness the tragedy of ineffective education for deaf students, yet feel impotent to create change.

While there are plenty of issues in need of fixing related to Deaf education, our challenge as interpreters is to recognize what indeed we do have power over and use that as our classroom leverage to make a difference.

To do this, we need to step out of the shadow of invisibility and realize that, when we are at our best, we bring our full sense of humanity to the work. Part of that humanity is a Deaf heart, as described by Betty Colonomos in Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart. I think of Deaf heart as a commitment to bringing the concerns and values of the larger Deaf community into mainstream settings.

From Machine to Human Being

My introduction to the Deaf community and interpreting came in 1988.  At my summer job, when I was 18, I encountered Deaf people, sign language, and interpreters for the first time. This was after the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet and the Deaf people I met felt empowered to act to change their world.

The message I heard about interpreters was exactly the opposite.  Interpreters, when they were functioning at their best, were invisible.  The “conduit” model reigned supreme.  I remember seeing a t-shirt that boasted: “Interpreting:  Just talk, it happens,” as if interpreters were some type of automaton.

In hindsight, the prevalence of the conduit model makes sense.  Interpreter education was greatly influenced by the ascendency of empowered bicultural and bilingual Deaf leaders who were not in need of help from hearing interpreters. Instead, these leaders simply wanted communication access.

What we have discovered is that, while an interpreter as a conduit has its usefulness, in many situations the results are negative.  In education, they have often been disastrous.  The silver lining is that some of our problems in the educational system are self-imposed and thus within our ability to rectify.

Anna Witter-Merrithew, in two previous posts, illustrates the negative impacts of interpreters functioning with the faulty notion that we can or should be “invisible.”  Further, Anna argues that we must be as concerned about ethical omissions as we are about commissions.  In other words, as professionals, we must practice due diligence in being aware of when our failure to act has negative consequences – just as much as monitoring the impact of our actions.

My article is a reflection on the ways we as a profession have failed to act in the educational system and the ways that we might re-envision our presence in classrooms and in schools to better serve the purposes of the students, the systems we are hired by, and ourselves as human beings interested in providing a meaningful contribution through our work.

Removing the Gag

In working with educational sign language interpreters around the country, I’ve encountered a recurring theme: that interpreters do not function in the role they think they should and regularly feel guilty about it. Frequently, I hear things like:

  • I “add” things to my interpretation because I know the student just won’t understand without it. I know that’s wrong, but it really seems to help. 
  • I sometimes help the hearing students during work time. The classroom teacher appreciates this support, but I know we shouldn’t.

When I respond not by questioning their actions but by asking whether or not their choices led to successful consequences, the interpreters are incredibly relieved to learn there is a framework for understanding their choices as ethical.  Further, I think they begin to see that no one else is asking them to cling to such a restrictive role.

Finding Role-Space

The profession as a whole is heading in this direction. Robyn Dean and Robert Pollard, through the Demand-Control schema, have moved us away from ethics based on the rightness of an action in itself and toward ethics based on the consequences for those involved.  They have also given us a continuum of ethical decision-making with a range of options from conservative to liberal.

In this context, “conservative” means taking a “wait and see” approach and “liberal” means taking a more active approach to addressing the demand.

Building on this, Witter-Merrithew, Johnson, and Nicodemus have begun a conversation about decision latitude and relational autonomy. As practice professionals, we need to take responsibility for making decisions with an understanding of how the systems we work in actually function. In the past, sign language interpreters often acted with disregard for the system and, as Johnson and Witter-Merrithew found, were perceived by others as being uncooperative and detached.  Interpreters may have acted in this manner thinking our codes of ethics and professional conduct required it, but the consequences were negative perceptions of interpreters.

Relational autonomy offers further insight to understand Dean and Pollard’s continuum of ethical behavior. We need to assess the relative autonomy of the people involved in the interaction as a guide for our decision-making. In general, if the participants have a balanced sense of autonomy, more conservative approaches are called for. If the level of autonomy between participants is imbalanced, liberal approaches merit greater consideration.

So, rather than seeking to be invisible, in situations with a power imbalance, interpreters need to seek to be more active and visible. Can you think of a situation where there is a greater power imbalance than when one deaf student is mainstreamed into a school that is totally designed for English-speaking students who cannot sign?

Taking more active approaches fits in with the work of Robert Lee and Peter Llewellyn-Jones, who have offered a new way of understanding our actions as interpreters.  Using three dimensions of interpreting (presentation of self, interaction management, and alignment with participants), they offer a framework for understanding the roles that interpreters inhabit and the way that different situations and different consumers call for different roles.  For interpreters working in schools, we clearly need to find a new role-space to lead to more success.

Interpreters as Change Agents

Part of redefining role-space includes the need to embrace a more active approach. At times, we are many things in the classroom:  interpreter, language model, tutor, aide, and consultant. We also need to be an agent of change within the system as a whole, which is part of what I think it means to have a Deaf heart: recognizing that the system is not designed to serve deaf students and that we cannot simply shrug our shoulders, wave our hands, and collect a paycheck. Instead, we need to take an active role in changing the situation.

Here are some examples of what that can look like:

  • Connect the student to the broader Deaf community.  This can happen by attending community events or, if not possible (as in many rural areas), use video and web resources to let students see there is a Deaf world that they can be a part of.  One interpreter in rural Alaska connected students via video and email with students at the Deaf school in Texas.
  • Enact roles based on the needs of students.  At times, we may need to be tutors or teachers or social guides. One interpreter I know has frequently taken on the task of teaching deaf students how to play games because they weren’t getting those skills any other way. In the shadow of invisibility, we might lament that teachers aren’t doing this and watch the students fail. As an agent of change, we can step forward and support the students in acquiring the requisite skills for success.
  • Facilitate sign language instruction for peers. Deaf kids need the chance to talk directly to their peers. We don’t necessarily have to be the teacher, but we can’t ignore the need. If you’re interested in a resource on this topic, you can check out this free curriculum.
  • Take responsibility for literacy. Educational interpreters need to understand the ways to foster language development in both ASL and English. This means intentionally being a language model through direct communication when appropriate.  It also means understanding the importance of fingerspelling in building English literacy.
  • Advocate for more accessible classrooms.  This includes creating excellent interpretations and making sure videos are captioned, but it goes far beyond that.  Work with teachers to ensure key vocabulary and concepts are visually accessible.  Additionally, support classroom teachers so that having an interpreter in the classroom is a benefit to all the students, rather than an annoyance. Too often, sign language interpreters with their restrictive role have been a thorn in the side of the teacher rather than an added asset in the classroom. Having a teacher who wants the deaf student to be there is a key factor in it being accessible.
  • Be part of a supervision process. Interpreters operate in isolation. As Robyn Dean argues in Ethical Development: A Sign of the Times for Sign Language Interpreters?, supervision that provides a framework for talking about our work is an important part of a practice profession and long overdue. Having a colleague or team to discuss these actions with is critical to ensuring that we maintain our effectiveness. 
  • Be willing to advocate ourselves out of a job.  Some of the best interpreters I know have advocated for students to leave mainstream and go to the Deaf school. While this may seem to be economic suicide for interpreters, I have seen that those professionals who so clearly put the interests of their consumers first end up landing on their feet because an educational system can recognize the value of that type of commitment. They also sleep better at night.

In the end, this approach to educational interpreting is a stretch from what I learned in my schooling. In other ways, it is a return to our roots.  Both Amy Williamson, in The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession, and Dennis Cokely, in Vanquished Native Voices – A Sign Language Interpreter Crisis?, write about the historical importance of codas to our field. That came home to me as I was leading a workshop on this topic and a participant with deaf parents said she felt like she had permission to be a coda again. What I perceived in her comment was that she could bring her Deaf heart into the mainstream. If we do likewise, our flexibility and willingness to act for change will lead to improvements for students, parents, teachers, the systems we work for, and even ourselves.

Other suggestions on how interpreters in educational settings can be change agents?