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#Doable: Creating Safe Spaces for Sign Language Interpreters

Creating Safe Spaces for Sign Language Interpreters

Creating safe spaces for sign language interpreters can satisfy a need for community, connection and cohesion. Jean Miller provides simple steps for creating a safe space in your community.

Throughout my career as a sign language interpreter, I have been fortunate to have the most generous and giving mentors imaginable. I have always had a safe place to land when I needed support or professional advice and have always been given room to grow as a practitioner and professional. While I didn’t set out to create a “pay it forward” opportunity, I realize that was exactly what this adventure had become.

A Deeper Connection

After working as an interpreter service manager for nearly a decade, I missed a deeper connection to interpreting and decided to find ways to reintegrate that part of my work life. Engaging practicing sign language interpreters and student interpreters in conversation, I found that there was a similar need to connect with other interpreters but very few ideas about how to create those opportunities.

At the same time, I noticed novice and student interpreters were finding it difficult to network with experienced interpreters which was leading to limited observation and mentoring opportunities (both formal and informal) and some disenchantment with what was seen as a lack of welcome for them in the field. This is a huge concern.  In Brian Morrison’s article, It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter, he discusses the need for all of us to participate in the raising of future sign language interpreters. Finding ways to bridge the gap between the students and the professional interpreters in meaningful and non-threatening ways is daunting, but not impossible. Careful thought and good intentions can take you farther than you know.

In November 2012, after the death of good friend and colleague, Amy Fehrenbacher McFarland, I knew it was time to act. Amy was a warm and welcoming interpreter, mentor and friend. She believed in reciprocity and mentoring and made student and novice sign language interpreters feel welcome in our profession and community. In some small way, I thought that I could find a way to honor her commitment to creating safe spaces for interpreters.  After gathering feedback from friends in the community, I developed a plan and set about implementing it.

The Birth of TerpTalk

WestSide TerpTalk was created in February 2013. It is a three-hour interpreter gathering on the first Saturday morning of the month in our local area. The gathering is “drop in” style and folks can stay as long or as little as they would like. General topics are related to sign language interpreting and the lives of interpreters but anything is fair game. While we don’t have a theme, I try to come prepared to open the conversation if needed. It hasn’t been necessary up to this point. Some months, the ITP students may come with homework or burning questions from their studies, but more often than not, the conversations are lively and free-flowing.

On March 1, 2014, WestSide TerpTalk celebrated a milestone – thirteen months and counting! We have had up to 18 participants with a lovely mix of seasoned sign language interpreters, newer interpreters and students. Interpreters have driven from across the state to attend our little group. Conversations have included interpreting Shakespeare, the recent Wall Street Journal article and response about sign language interpreters, the new NIC news from RID, the FCC summary from Shane Feldman at RID, local business practices and many other topics. Driving away from the event this past Saturday, I realized that my selfish plan to reconnect with my interpreter identity had become something completely different. In my tiny corner of the world, I have been able to put my hand out to help create a safe space for interpreters.

#Doable Action: Creating a Safe Space for Interpreters

If you are looking for opportunities to create safe spaces for interpreters and interpreting students, if you are looking to join the village in raising our future sign language interpreters or if you just want to reconnect with your sign language interpreter self, I hope you will consider creating a discussion group of some kind in your community.

What follows are suggestions for creating a discussion group in your area,

  1. Study the current needs in your community.

There may be other opportunities, but is there a gap? Consider days of the week, time of day, venues, static versus dynamic locations, etc.

WestSide TerpTalk is the opposite of our local IPAHH (Interpreter Professionals at Happy Hour). I didn’t want to take anything away from IPAHH, but there was still a need. For WestSide TerpTalk, we have a static location every time, set in the morning in a non-alcoholic environment. The goal is professional conversation so if a significant other or child is present, they should be prepared to endure shop talk. All are welcome – students, novice interpreters, seasoned interpreters, CDIs, as well as Deaf and Hard of Hearing community members.

  1. Consider venue carefully.

Do they have a minimum per person spending requirement? Do they allow “loitering”? What times of day would be most accommodating for the needs of your group? What is the parking situation? Will it fit the budget of students to well-established interpreters? Is the venue lighted well? Is there loud or live music? Knowing the reasons people aren’t attending other social opportunities helps inform you when creating a new one. Is there an area of town where sign language interpreters live but few events take place?

  1. Consider continuity.

The idea of going to a new place every month is appealing to some people, but for some, consistency is the key. In our busy lives, one less thing to look up or look for can be the determining factor in someone attending. For me, the ever-changing location of IPAHH is a deterrent, even though I acknowledge my desire for social connection with interpreters.

  1. Social Media is your friend.

Getting the word out on Facebook, Twitter or any other popular social media outlet will help increase your success rate. Set a date for the first event and start getting the word out well ahead of time. Include the location’s address every time.

  1. Enlist the local ITP for help.

Find out what their needs are and try to figure out if you can meet some of them. Ask them to post announcements on their events board – students are great at getting the word out about something that will benefit them in their studies and future careers.

  1. Patience is a virtue.

I was fully committed to showing up for WestSide TerpTalk for four months with book/journal/magazine in hand, just in case no one showed up. If, after four months of trying, no one ever showed up, I would know that this wasn’t what our community was looking for. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. Thirteen months and going strong!

7. Choose a memorable name.

I don’t love the term “terp” as a general rule, but it came in handy when I was trying to come up with a name for the gathering.  I picked WestSide because we meet on the West side of Portland, Oregon.  TerpTalk was my other selection because I wanted the name to indicate that we were interpreters and we were probably going to talk shop.  Pick a name that suits your community, but make it memorable.  I am finding now, that many folks just call our gathering “TerpTalk”. I’m good with that.

8. Have Fun!

WestSide TerpTalk has allowed me to connect with interpreters I’ve known for a long time but don’t see often, with interpreters new to the area, student interpreters and interpreters I have known by name but had never met until they attended. It’s lively and fun and I find that I always leave with a huge smile on my face.

Final Thoughts

We each have the opportunity to create safe spaces, large and small, in the sign language interpreting community and everywhere. It doesn’t have to be complicated or grandiose. I’m very grateful to be able to have embarked on this journey.  In keeping with Brandon Arthur’s article, Sign Language Interpreters and the Karma of Gratitude, I’d like to take a moment to thank the people who have made WestSide TerpTalk such a success – Lydia Dewey Pickard and Erin Trine for making me think this crazy idea just might work, Portland Community College’s Sign Language Interpreter Program and the students who have faithfully attended since the beginning, and all the professional interpreters who have given their time and energy to supporting this endeavor and the intention behind it.

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#Doable: How Sign Language Interpreters Restore Relationships With The Deaf Community

Sign language interpreters have an obligation to improve our profession while empowering the Deaf community in which we work. What #doable actions will you take to build relationships and become an ally?

I was privileged enough to serve as a full-time conference interpreter at the 2013 RID Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana. I was, as always, thrilled to have the opportunity to work with incredible colleagues, meet new people, and reconnect with old friends. After nearly 25 years in the field of sign language interpreting it is like a delicious treat to revisit those with whom you have created history, and to re-imagine the future that could be.

One of the unique features of this conference was the Community Forum. While this forum may have been a difficult process for many of the participants, the critical take-away message that I found quite heartening was: “The Deaf Community wants you and misses you and wonders where things broke down.” The “you” in this observation is “sign language interpreters,” all interpreters.

The #Doable Challenge

The challenge extended by leaders of the Community Forum was to find actions that were “doable” in our quest to reunite the Deaf and interpreting communities. The challenge included using these actions as a jumping-off point from which to fortify these relationships and the profession that all of us have worked so hard to build. The Twitter hashtag used during the conference was #doable.

Finding #Doable Actions

There are four primary ways you can uncover #doable actions:

1. Look Inward

It is a harsh reality, but despite one’s best intentions, even the most vigilant interpreters (and I count myself among them) can engage in audism. This unwitting participation in what has become the most insidious type of oppression is hard to take once you realize you have, and may still be, engaged in it. Take a look at your own internal beliefs and practices. Are you doing something as “innocuous” as choosing the Deaf participant’s seat at an event at which you are providing interpreting services? Are you answering questions from a hearing participant that would be better answered by the Deaf participant?

Are you collaborating with the Deaf participant or dictating to them instead? Look for the opportunities to work as an ally and collaborator rather than persisting in maintaining a hierarchical relationship. 

2. Look Outward

What opportunities are there to create change in your immediate geographic area or community? How can you show your commitment to the field of sign language interpreting while simultaneously showing your gratitude for the Deaf Community and the career it allows you to have? What kinds of things can you do to outwardly express the richness that ASL and the Deaf Community have brought to your life?

3. Look Backward

Since the 2013 RID Conference was RID’s 50th year anniversary event, history was a critical component of celebrating what is still a relatively young field. I was inspired to see some of the original founders of RID at this convention and to feel their passion as they shared experiences from their journey over the last half-century. You can see some of it via the StreetLeverage social media coverage of the conference.

One of the things that struck me was the passion of those CODAs who spoke about their earliest experiences interpreting for their parents, and what the changes in the field of sign language interpreting (in which they must feel so much ownership) has meant to them and their families. I have so much respect for CODAs who never “leave” the Deaf Community and “go home.” The Deaf Community, for them, is home. Small wonder why they are so protective of it. There is so much value in learning from those who have come before you. Spend time with these members of your community. Ask them to share their experiences. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn from what they share: both the successes and trials.

4. Look Forward

One of the things that excites me more than anything else is student interpreters and recent interpreter program graduates. These folks are excited, energized, and ready to be the next communication bridges between the Deaf and hearing worlds. There is nothing more inspiring to me than watching a new sign language interpreter suddenly become a colleague. Get involved in the future of the interpreting field. Try to find ways to help impact the future of the field for the better. As shared in the StreetLeverage – Live 2013 | Atlanta I am change video and to quote an often used adage, “Be the change you would like to see in the world.” While learning from and valuing our past is important, not dwelling on it is also good advice.

Taking #Doable Action

There are so many things that we can choose to engage in to both support one another as colleagues and to support the Deaf Community as Allies. I couldn’t hope to list them all here, but I wanted to give you a short list of actions we can all take to begin to repair the seeming void that has fragmented our shared world:

1. Patronize Deaf Businesses/Service Providers

Support the folks who are in the Community that gives you business by giving some back to them! A few ways you can do this are to:

    • Encourage the use of CDIs
    • Patronize Deaf businesses where possible
    • Refer people seeking resources back to the Deaf Community

As Trudy Suggs suggests in her StreetLeverage – Live talk, Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter, this reciprocity–choices to patronize deaf businesses–empowers the deaf community while fortifying the relationship between the two communities.

2. Get Involved in the Local Deaf Community

This can seem daunting in the age of fewer and fewer Deaf clubs, and fewer and fewer regular gatherings of Deaf people. However, there are always opportunities to volunteer at Deaf events like theatrical productions, residential school programs, Deaf group homes for the elderly, Deaf Sports teams, or other organizations that cater to whatever facet of Deaf society you might find compelling. Don’t let technology get in the way of real, 3-D interaction. Find a way to make it happen!!

3. Engage in Pro-Bono Work

This idea is often met with contention. Many sign language interpreters believe if they engage in pro-bono work that requesting entities will assume all interpreters will work “for free” and that ultimately doing such work will undermine the efficacy of such laws as the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, there are opportunities to donate your services to organizations that are well-deserving or otherwise not covered under the various accommodations laws we have in place. Think about things like Oxford House meetings (for recovering substance abusers), AA or NA meetings, religious services or events, non-profit events such as Race for the Cure (Breast Cancer). Find what speaks to you and donate a few hours of service. More on how pro bono work can enhance your work can be found in Brandon Arthur’s article, 5 Easy Career Enhancers for Sign Language Interpreters.

4. Define the Future

Be a resource not only to Deaf Community members who seek information, but also to those up-and-coming sign language interpreters who strive to do right by serving the Deaf Community and the field of interpreting admirably. Volunteer to speak at your local interpreter training program about a topic that you are passionate about. Host a Q&A of veteran interpreters, giving new interpreters opportunity to ask their burning questions. Host a Deaf Community Panel where Deaf panelists can speak about the qualities they look for when hiring an interpreter, as well as those qualities they don’t find so desirable. Mentor new interpreters whenever you can. The idea that mentoring someone new is somehow putting oneself out of a job is ludicrous. It is our responsibility as veteran interpreters to ensure that when we are gone, there are other incredible interpreters out there to take our places, as Brian Morrison so eloquently stated in his post, It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter.

In order to preserve our legacy, we must leave positive impressions on the lives of the next generation.

5. Leave Your Ego at the Door

It is hard to receive criticism (constructive or otherwise), and it is even harder to do so without being defensive. Work on ways to accept such feedback without defending yourself. Kendra Keller’s article, Case Discussion: Sign Language Interpreters Contain Their Inner “What the …!!!?”, helps us consider ways to think about what is being expressed as a genuine gift and something that can be used to improve future interactions. Even if, after reflecting on a situation, you decide that you still disagree with the criticism, consider the perception of the person who gave you the feedback and realize that something in the setting compelled them to give you that feedback. Figure out if there is anything you can do to improve the situation for the next time.

6. Gratitude

Remember to express your gratitude.

I am so lucky. I fell into the field of interpreting by chance. I am grateful to have been accepted into an incredible new culture while learning a completely new language. Here it is, 25 years later, and I can’t begin to count the people, both Deaf and hearing, who have guided me on this path. In keeping with Brandon Arthur’s article, Sign Language Interpreters and the Karma of Gratitude, I offer my thanks to those who have shared in my journey.

To all of you who taught me: thank you. To all of you who helped me grow: thank you. For all the unique and incredible experiences: thank you! To all of you who will graciously teach me new things each day: thank you.

Let’s always remember where we came from, how we got to where we are today, and those who have shared in our journeys.

In Conclusion

This is our profession and, as such, we need to commit to being actively engaged in shaping the future in order to preserve a legacy of which we can be proud.  It starts by individually leaving positive impressions with every interaction. When I look back at the impressions I have left on my field and the Deaf Community, I want to see that in some way I have helped to improve the profession while empowering the community in which I work.  It isn’t money, status, or recognition that makes someone a good interpreter– it is integrity, respect for the language and culture, and a commitment to betterment of oneself while empowering the community.

Make these ideals your mission and become another ally in the quest to build sign language interpreter/Deaf Community relationships.