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Guilt by Association: Are Educational Interpreters Sabotaging Themselves?

Guilt By Association: Are Educational Interpreters Sabotaging Themselves?

Sign language interpreters in educational settings often bear the brunt of heavy scrutiny and criticism. Not all of the negative press is unearned, but is it possible for serious practitioners to overcome these stereotypes?

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There is one type of sign language interpreting that always seems to get viewed negatively – educational interpreting. Recently, I started thinking about the reason this group ends up with such a negative reputation. I understand that, historically, educational interpreting has been a place where newer interpreters are hired and the setting is often used as an entry into the field. More recently, some states have set the bar higher and educational sign language interpreters (EI’s) must have licensure, specific credentials like the EIPA, and some states even have their own tests in place to make sure EI’s have a minimal skill set to provide services. While credentials are very important, this article is not focused on working EIs’ credentials. This article takes a look at the individual decisions made by EIs that inadvertently affect the whole group.

Some Truth in Humor

Recently, I saw a very funny YouTube video titled, “Nine Worst Interpreters”posted by Deafies in Drag. Like several thousand others, I watched the video and laughed. Then it struck me, I have worked with most of these interpreter characters. If I am being completely honest, I have been one of these interpreters. I would like to think I have changed and am not quite the “newbie” depicted in the video anymore. When it comes down to it, we are responsible for our own actions. There are sign language interpreters who think they should be allowed to behave however they deem fit without considering the Deaf client they serve or the effect it will have on the profession as a whole.

The more I thought about this video, the sadder I became. Those scenarios happen daily, and deaf clients are subjected to this type of behavior while they are trying to get their education. This is not the only video; there is a part two and a part three on their YouTube channel as well. While these videos are funny, it should be a wake-up call for all EIs in the field. We are being watched, our actions are noticed, and it affects how people judge us.

I am privileged to travel the country presenting workshops on ethics in educational interpreting, and in these travels, I have been privy to many horror stories involving EIs. While one sign language interpreter may think it is acceptable to come to work and watch movies during their downtime (popular movies, not educational ones), or work on personal hobbies (i.e., sewing, knitting), their decision to do this will cause the people around them to form an opinion based on their actions. This opinion may then set a precedent for the sign language interpreter who comes in the next year.

Does Professional Appearance Matter?

One of the complaints I consistently hear from EIs across the country is about the lack of respect they get from the teachers and administration in their districts. That is frustrating for any EI, but we also have to do a self-analysis to find out why we do not have their respect. Some things to consider:

  • Do you come to work every day in jeans and a t-shirt or sweatpants, or like the “Dress Code” interpreter in one of the aforementioned YouTube videos, looking like you are going to a club with heavy makeup?
  • Do you constantly stay on your phone all day?
  • Are you late all the time?
  • Are you one of the sign language interpreters who never attend professional training?

These are just a few in the long list of behaviors EIs are reportedly doing across the country. At the same time, sign language interpreters in these settings want to be treated with respect and earn higher wages.

When these unprofessional behaviors are brought to educational interpreters’ attention, too often they have an excuse for their behavior. For example, “I dress down because I am in elementary school and I am not getting on the floor in my good clothes.” Another common example is,“I need to have my phone because something may happen.” So, basically, some interpreters are preparing for a tragedy every day? The rule of thumb should be that if the teachers and staff are not allowed on their phones, the sign language interpreter should not be either. And even if they are allowed, no one wants to be known as “the interpreter who is on her phone all day.” Another common excuse is, “I am late because I live far away.” Yes, many people live far from their jobs and still manage to make it on time. Again, these are just a few of the excuses that have been used over the years.

Can We Change The Stigma?

Many of us have experienced that “look” we get from other sign language interpreters in the field when we say we are an educational interpreter. You can literally see your ranking drop on their scale of serious interpreters. Yet, EIs are the ones out there working as language models, facilitating an education that can allow a student to succeed in life. The work we do is very important, yet we get looked at as if they feel sorry for us because we are EIs. But why? Well, much of it has to do with the previously mentioned issues with EIs. Chances are these interpreters giving us the “look” have actually been in our shoes, have seen what is being done, and want no part of it.

Here is a statement that was posted on Facebook recently from the mother of a deaf child that is a freshman in high school (Note: This excerpt was used with permission.):

“We were discussing interpreter clothing choices, nail choices, etc. I was asking her if she liked a certain look. She gave me her honest opinion and then… then she dropped a truth that hit me right in the privilege.

O: Not all Deaf people are allowed to be honest, mom[sic]. Sometimes they think they have to tell the interpreter it’s ok because if they get mad or hurt feelings then they will not work for us. Interpreters have power. If we say we don’t like it, they say no one else complained. Other people said they like it. I have to tell the truth because I can’t see. Then when I do say something I am a brat or that word you said….. high maintenance. I just wish interpreters could understand.”

Wow, “right in the privilege” what a statement!  This is a strong reminder that it is not about what we want, what we need, or what we feel is right. It is about the consumers we serve. In my opinion, the student’s above statement should be printed and attached to every workplace where there is a sign language interpreter as a reminder to not misuse the power we are privileged to have.

What Can We Do To Turn This Around?

As sign language interpreters, we see these problems, we all know they exist. Now, what do we do about them? It is not worth mentioning a problem unless we have a solution. Finding solutions to these problems may be a little harder than we realize. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Educate and make sure that interpreters in educational settings are following the basic rules of the CPC, especially portions regarding respect for our consumers.
  2. Suggest attending workshops on ethics with other EIs in our school districts.
  3. Share relevant articles with our colleagues in a group email.
  4.  Request team meetings with open topics, such as  “Presenting a Professional Demeanor to Administrators.”

Creating Accountability For Ourselves

I realize directly approaching sign language interpreters behaving this way is difficult. Some may take it as an attack, as Kate Block mentioned in her article, “Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle.” There is a vicious cycle of horizontal violence in our field that we do not want to perpetuate. While I cannot offer a foolproof solution to these problems, I can propose that we become accountable for our part.

Even if the sign language interpreter before or after us is not behaving in a professional manner, we can still break the cycle with our own behavior. I have been in classrooms where I worked for several months and the teacher later approached me and told me she was surprised at how professional I was. Her experience had been with a previous interpreter who was not professional and she just assumed all sign language interpreters behaved that way. It was refreshing to realize that I control other people’s view of me. It may take time to wipe their memory clean of the previous interpreter, but it can be done, and it is worth it to take matters into your own hands for improving your career. The impact you make may seem small, but if more sign language interpreters start being accountable, eventually, the field of educational interpreting will earn the respect it deserves.

Questions for Consideration

  1. How can sign language interpreters in educational settings provide support for others who are entering the educational arena in order to raise the bar on professional decision-making and ethical behavior?
  2. How can sign language interpreters hold each other accountable without being perceived as perpetuating horizontal violence?
  3. What are some of the factors that may lead educational interpreters to feel disenfranchised or disengaged from the broader field of sign language interpreters? What is preventing crossover relationships and can that be changed?

References

  1. Block, K.  (2015) Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle.  http://www.streetleverage.com/2015/03/horizontal-violence-can-sign-language-interpreters-break-the-cycle/
  2. Deafies in Drag. (5, January 2016). Nine Worst Interpreters. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/Atq2QOwaiuk
  3. Deafies in Drag. (9, January 2016). 8 WORST Interpreters: PART TWO. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/s5BiMtq8LPI 
  4. Deafies in Drag. (4, June 2016) 7 Worst Interpreters Part: 3. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/vLUUF6asfnQ
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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?

 

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Educational Interpreters: Buck the Low Wage, No Credential Status Quo

 

A major challenge of educational interpreting is quality assurance. Shelly Hansen outlines how those in and around the educational setting can actively drive change to support higher minimum requirements for educational interpreters on a state by state basis.

Most sign language interpreters at some juncture in their career will provide interpreting services in an educational setting.  As mainstreaming with an interpreter has become a commonplace approach to educating deaf and hard of hearing kids, there is a consistent demand for educational interpreters.

While more common, twenty-two years after the ADA and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (both signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990), there are still challenges faced by deaf children and their families in securing a Free and Appropriate Public Education.

One of these challenges is having access to a qualified, competent sign language interpreter.

Legislated Interpreter Standards

In the state of Washington, more than once in years past, bills have been put forward to establish standards for educational interpreters which would be phased in over time and require these sign language interpreters to demonstrate their proficiency thru national credentialing ie: NAD/RID/EIPA.   These bills historically have not been taken past committee.  This spring, during the recent 2012 WA legislative session, a group of three Deaf seniors from Snohomish High School successfully submitted HB 2765 for consideration.

WA HB 2765

Essentially this bill would have established a requirement for educational interpreters employed by school districts to successfully achieve minimum performance standards (as set by a professional educator standards board),  on one national written and performance assessment by the 2015-16 school year, and national interpreter certification (either RID or NAD certification) by the fall of 2018.  The full bill can be reviewed here.

The Challenge is Fiscal

Unfortunately, HB 2765 failed to reach the House floor.  Among the reasons cited for not taking it past committee was…budgetary.  WA state is currently experiencing a budgetary crisis, like many states in the aftermath of the Great Recession.   To put it bluntly, if you raise standards for educational interpreters, the cost for those professional services will most likely increase.

I saw a posting three weeks ago for an educational interpreter position in my area.  The qualification requirements include: HS diploma, proficiency in variety of sign systems and ASL with desired bilingual/bicultural Spanish skills.  The hourly rate is $13.78/hr.  In WA state the 2012 minimum wage is $9.04.  This is in dramatic contrast to the hourly rate of $85.08 which a freelance interpreter would need to be commensurate with the earnings of a public school teacher, as suggested by Theresa B. Smith, Ph.D in, Thinking About Money – Pulling Back the Curtain, 2009.

 Duty to Act

I would like to challenge educational interpreters in states that lack standard requirements for employment that include national credentialing to consider some kind of collective action.  Imagine a “Stay Home Tuesday.”  Promote utilizing available assessment tools (EIPA, RID).  Find your way to your legislators and state capitol.  Reject the status quo, work through your resistance and recognize the value of competency standards. Don’t ignore student efforts to secure a quality education.  Dialogue and join hands with colleagues on ways to expedite the establishment of professional standards in your state consistent with national credentialing trends.  Many sign language interpreters working in educational settings are already certified and their dedication and commitment to professionalism is to be commended. The students deserve to have qualified competent sign language interpreters commensurate with credentialed administrators, teaching staff, speech therapists, counseling staff etc…

Educational Interpreter Angst

Gina Oliva provides insight into the perspectives of educational interpreters in her recent Street Leverage article: Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Settings: Heartbroken and Gagged. In her post Gina suggests that  the collective voice of educational interpreters is the only hope deaf children have in remedying the many issues they confront in the classroom.  She suggests that sign language interpreters working in educational settings can do two very important things, one is to advocate for their students and the other is to bring a collective voice to the forefront in Deaf Education.  Advocating educational interpreter standards is a critical first step in support of positive student outcomes in mainstream settings.

State Requirements

Below is a listing of state requirements for educational interpreters.  It is difficult to find current information for each state and I would welcome updates from readers for missing or erroneous information on this listing compiled from various websites including the DOIT Center in Colorado.

Educational Interpreter Requirements

Alabama:  EIPA 3.5, RID Cert

Alaska: EIPA 4.0

Arizona: EIPA 3.5, RID Cert, NAD 3.0+

Arkansas: QAST 3/2 or 2/3, and written exam

California: EIPA 4.0, RID Cert, NAD 4+

Colorado: EIPA 3.5

Florida: RID Certification

Georgia: RID Certification, NAD 3+

Idaho: EIPA 3.5

Illinois: EIPA 3.0 (Note: 3.0 = Initial license, 3.5 = Standard License)

Indiana: EIPA 3.5, RID Certification, NAD 4+

Iowa: EIPA 3.5

Kansas: EIPA 4.0, QAST 4+,

Louisiana: EIPA 3.0

Maine: EIPA 3.5+

Michigan: EIPA 3.5 (may be upgraded to 4.0 pending review)

Minnesota: RID Certification, NAD 3+

Nebraska: EIPA 3.5, RID Certification, NAD 4+, QAST 4+

Nevada: EIPA 4.0, RID Certification, NAD 3+

New Jersey: EIPA 3.0, RID/NAD Certification

New Mexico: EIPA 4.0, RID Certification, NAD 3+

North Carolina: EIPA 3.5

North Dakota: EIPA 3.5, RID/NAD Certification

Ohio: RID Certification

Oklahoma: EIPA 3.5, RID Certification, NAD 4+

Pennsylvania: EIPA 3.5

South Dakota: RID Certification, NAD 3+

Texas: RID Certification/QAST

Utah: EIPA 3.5, RID/NAD Certification, QAST

Virginia: QAST 3+

Wisconsin: EIPA 3.5, RID Certification

Wyoming: EIPA 3.5+

At the End of the Day

I would like to encourage a collegial dialogue to assess whether sign language interpreters are complicit in keeping pay scales below professional wages by continuing to work without professional standards. Raising standards of interpreter competence has a direct impact on kids’ educational opportunities and access to academic and social content, which in turn affects their future opportunities as fulfilled, contributing citizens in a global market.