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Where are IOC? Sign Language Interpreting as a Spiritual Calling

Exposure to ASL and the Deaf community via spiritual settings has been a fraught topic. Lissa Ramirez-Stapleton posits that these arenas may be missed opportunities for attracting People of Color to become sign language interpreters.

“Centuries ago the word vocation, meaning literally “a calling,” applied only to bishops, priests, and monks–those occupying offices within the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It was believed that the clergy had been called by God. They alone had a vocation while everyone else merely worked.”

(Jethani, 2013, para. 5)


I am often asked how and why I got connected to Deaf studies and what my personal connection is to the Deaf community. People are often looking for some explanation of why a Black hearing woman would ever be interested in the Deaf community unless she had some personal or family connection. I often tell my story of first connecting with the Deaf community as a teenager in a drug prevention teen program which opened the door for me to take American Sign Language in college, which opened another door once I started job searching. Soon the doors continued to open and my life’s work felt less and less driven by me and more orchestrated and planned by something bigger than me. As a spiritual person, who was raised as a holiday churchgoer, who attended Catholic middle school, and who now finds herself open to all forms of faiths and beliefs, I simply tell those curious about my life’s work that I was called. The idea of having a calling as Jethani (2013) states in the above epigraph was historically used by the Roman Catholic church, but in modern times I find that some people are seeking out careers that are more than work. Careers that are fulfilling a greater purpose, that are connected to what they were born to do, and which ignite their passion… a calling. 

[View post in ASL]

Students of Color find the interpreting field in many different ways, and in our research, one such environment was religion and spiritual spaces. The feeling of wanting to advocate for and with Deaf communities and feeling led into the field by something greater than themselves was an unforeseen outcome. The purpose of this post in our series is to consider the role religion and spiritual spaces play in connecting Students of Color to Deaf communities and ultimately into Interpreter Education Programs (IEP) and the broader interpreting profession.

“Feeling Called”

I am not the only person who has felt spiritually led or struggled with the calling to work within and among Deaf communities. Although she lacked confidence in her signing and sometimes wanted to give up, one Afro Latina student still felt led to work within the Deaf community. She said, “I just feel a calling to this field. I’ve been praying about it and I feel led.” This spiritual connection allowed her to be creative with her major, leading her to combine Deaf studies with a health field and to keep enrolling in signing classes even though she did not always feel confident in her ability. She often shared that she was highly encouraged by other Deaf People of Color to keep pursuing her goals. 

I also asked the Interpreters of Color on the Reality of Interpreting: Interpreters of Color Facebook page (ROI) what they thought about the topic. One person said, “Church WAS my ITP [Interpreter Training Program],” and further explained,

I know that a “calling” is a starting place. In the Christian tradition, there is a calling and there is preparation and there is growth. I was blessed to have these over a number of years that let me walk right into a new profession but again I was mentored by professional Deaf and hearing mentors from the very beginning.

For some Students of Color, their first exposure to Deaf communities is through Deaf ministries or Deaf community members. A Latina student said “My Godmother invited my family to her church and they have a Deaf ministry. I got involved with the ASL choir, took ASL 1 and we had a Deaf preacher.” The support, encouragement, and relationship building occurring for Students of Color in spiritual spaces helps them persist in the field despite self-doubt. These spiritual spaces also provide safer places to practice, connect, and enter into Deaf culture. 

Interpreters Raised in Spiritual Spaces

It is also important to consider the type of skills and exposure Students of Color coming out of spiritual spaces are getting that may be helpful to them as future interpreters as well as experiences that may be harmful and must be addressed. 

In-depth Community Exposure

Students of Color who come from spiritual spaces have immediate and one-on-one exposure to Deaf people, culture, and language. A Black female student said, “My junior year in high school, we got a new pastor and his son is Deaf…he encouraged me to learn sign language, so I started my junior year.” This is important as our research shows that the earlier students are exposed to ASL, the more likely they are to be accepted and complete an IEP (see Blog 2 of the series).  Students of Color from these spaces are also more likely to interact with people who have different signing abilities as stated by this Interpreter of Color from ROI,

The Deaf ministry had a wide spectrum of ASL users. This meant that for almost every event, I had to alter my target language… It was an amazing opportunity to be able to practice this skill.

These opportunities can be very positive and uplifting when mentorship is given and one’s skills match the job, but there are some cases where inexperienced signers are thrown into overwhelming and inappropriate interpreting situations that are unethical and damaging. Limited budget or volunteer-based programs should not take advantage of budding sign language interpreters. These are moments that some Students of Color walk away from feeling discouraged. One Latina student said the interpreter didn’t show up for church, so a Deaf friend asked her to step in. She left the experience feeling very stressed and tearful. Another Latino student said he would never be an interpreter because of a loss of confidence he felt after he was put into an inappropriate interpreting experience. 

Addressing Contradicting and Challenging Topics Early On

Some Students of Color may feel led to work with the Deaf community, but because of their own experiences with oppression and marginalization, they struggle with the contradiction between what they value and how the field works. For example, a Middle Eastern Latina student said,

I don’t want to be an interpreter because I remember hearing that as an interpreter…If there’s something unkind being said… you don’t get to advocate and that is not me. I’m not going to sit there and keep my mouth shut.

Some Students of Color who are exposed to spiritual space interpreting get exposed to these conflicts early on and find ways to reflect and maneuver around them. An interpreter from ROI stated, 

There were times where hot topics would come up in a sermon, and I had to interpret true to the speaker, even if I had disagreed. I was able to do so…but later on, I would have to deal with the emotions of that. 

This interpreter, through mentorship, found ways to work through this challenge. However, I would like us to ponder bigger questions of the Deaf and interpreting community. What does it mean to be a social justice advocate and a sign language interpreter? Is it always a conflict of interest? Are there different ways for sign language interpreters to address issues without overstepping their boundaries? If our oppression is interconnected, then we must collectively fight to end all forms of oppression. Because many Students of Color understand oppression from a specific perspective, the idea of “neutrality” may keep them out of the field and the larger fight for Deaf equity. 

Learned Audist Spiritual Undertones

I know spiritual and religious motivations for working with the Deaf community, particularly through missionary work, have historically had and still could have, some audist undertones of “helping” Deaf communities, which has not been empowering, respectful or mutual. Another Interpreter of Color from the ROI page stated: 

I often find myself in conversations with hearing folk (non-signers) where they are praising me for doing God’s work. The mentality often was that I was amazing for caring for the Deaf…I understand that they meant well…I wasn’t helping hearing-impaired people to keep up with the world. I was literally interpreting one language to another.

As a Deaf Studies teacher, I see these sentiments often with students, those who come from spiritual spaces, and those who do not. In all of our IEP and Deaf studies programs, we must address the idea of “help” and the ways in which it can be patronizing as well as how we should all embrace interdependence and support. This is something in which to continue to be mindful and proactive.  

One Calling Doesn’t Fit All!

For some students, calling or no calling, there are obstacles that still interfere with them being able to complete a program. One Latino student said,  “I’m on ROTC scholarship. I have to graduate in a specific time, and I’d need another year to do the interpreting program.” For other students, something shifts for them. A Filipino/Mexican student initially felt led to interpreting and was highly supported by peers and teachers, but realized with all the pressure to become an interpreter, he misread his passion. He stated, 

During my second semester at RIT, my professor asked us all to close our eyes and imagine us waking up and she asked us where we all were going…and of course, we were supposed to respond [and say] to an interpreting assignment and I realized nope that  [interpreting] is not where I am going. 

IEP instructors, Deaf Studies faculty, and the greater Deaf community can help Students of Color stay connected through other career fields within the Deaf community because as this student said,  “I realized that there are other things I can do with the Deaf population that appealed to me being an advocate.” Deaf Communities of Color and the broader Deaf Community have a need for People of Color in all aspects of Deaf life, including education, social work, counseling, and many other fields. 


Where and how Students of Color are exposed to the Deaf community varies. It requires educators, interpreters, IEP coordinators, and Deaf community members to seek out culturally rich environments as well as participate in active and intentional recruitment of Students of Color. It also requires us to create and nurture authentic spaces for the growth and development of language skills, cultural knowledge, and the confidence to move within signing spaces.

So where do we go from here? What questions might we consider moving forward?

  1. Are your students first exposed to Deaf communities and American Sign Language within a religious and spiritual space? If so, from where? If not, is there a possibility to open those lines of communication and connection?
  2. Many IEP programs are at public institutions. What challenges might you face connecting to religious or spiritual spaces? How might you work through them versus avoiding the possible relationship?
  3. How does the topic of religion and spirituality influence Deaf Students of Color and the interpreting field? Are these places we might consider as pools to increase our certified Deaf Interpreters of Color?
  4. This piece has Christian undertones. What might an intentional interfaith approach to Students of Color IEP recruitment look like?
  5. Most of the participants that had a spiritual connection were self-identified women. What might it mean for self-identified men or trans/non-binary folks and their exposure to Deaf culture and communities? 

*We would like to thank and acknowledge Felicia Williams, for the time and energy invested in the translation and ASL video work presented here. 


Jethani, S. (2013). Uncommon callings: To reach a new generation, we must affirm not just God’s general callings but people’s specific callings. Leadership Journal, 34(1). 

Other Contributors to this Series:

Will Garrow

Dr. Will Garrow, Ph.D. (pronouns: he/him/his) is from upstate New York, where he was first introduced to the Deaf Community through his career as a professional snowboarder. All of his degrees are from Gallaudet University with a Bachelor of Arts in Deaf Studies, a Master of Arts in Linguistics, and a doctorate in Linguistics. As a faculty member at California State University, Northridge, his teaching mainly focuses on how oppression works in American society, Deaf Culture, and ASL Linguistics.  When Will is not teaching, he can be found either on the snow in the mountains or splatting balls in the racquetball court. 

Jasmine Solis

Jasmine Solis (pronouns: she/her/hers), originally from Orange County California, received her B.A. in Deaf Studies with a concentration in Interpreting from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). As a recipient of the CSUN Presidential Scholarship, Jasmine completed her research unpacking confidence levels and anxiety amongst Students of Color who are currently or planning to pursue interpreting. Now as the full-time Academic Advisor for the Deaf Studies Department at CSUN, Jasmine hopes to continue supporting and encouraging students to reach their career goals.

MJ Jones

MJ Jones (pronouns: they/them/theirs), a Southern California native, currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area. MJ’s intersectionalities include Black, first-generation Filipinx, masculine of center, sighted, and hearing. After graduating from California State University, Northridge with a B.A. in ASL-English Interpreting and a minor in Queer Studies, MJ graduated with their M.A in International Development at Gallaudet University. They are currently an adjunct professor at Gallaudet University and a Full-Time Staff Interpreter with Vital Signs, LLC.

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Where are IOC? In Search of Role Models, Mentorship, & Guidance

Students of Color in interpreter education programs (IEPs) need encouragement. MJ Jones outlines some critical ways we can support future Interpreters of Color through mentorship, support, and information-sharing.


As a hearing transgender Interpreter of Color, I often wonder where to find sign language interpreters and Deaf people who look like me. Sometimes, it feels as if my multiple identities make it a challenge to build connections, seek mentors, and feel my authentic self in the field of sign language interpreting. It was not until my experience attending the Deaf People of Color Conference last year in Austin, TX, where I felt valued for all my intersectional identities, especially as an interpreting student of color. This optimal space provided opportunities to build new connections with Deaf People of Color, from scholars to academic leaders, and members of multiple communities. I met Deaf people, Deaf-Blind individuals, a Deaf Transgender woman, and sign language interpreters, all of whom identified as People of Color. The connection with folks who shared similar cultural and racial backgrounds was a feeling I have yearned for since I first started learning sign language. Building connections with Deaf People of Color and networking with other interpreters of color allowed me to feel I could bring my many authentic selves to the field of sign language interpreting. 

[View post in ASL]

Months later, at the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) Biennial conference, NAD recognized Deaf youth ambassador, Tanea Brown, for her strategic plan to address the lack of interpreters of color within the Deaf Community. Watching Tanea’s presentation, I felt a renewed connection and inspiration from her vision to create pathways for interpreters of color.  In her presentation, Tanea shared,  

When we look at minority communities, we don’t find as many opportunities for them [Students of Color] to pursue interpreting as a career, which in the end really impacts the Deaf community and Deaf People of Color. So we need to educate minority communities and create a pathway for them to pursue interpreting as a viable career.

Creating pathways for sign language interpreters cannot be done without support and mentorship. Evidently, this issue is not only critical for aspiring Interpreters of Color but to Deaf People of Color. Uncovering the experiences of interpreting Students of Color will allow us to understand the kind of support and mentorship interpreting Students of Color need to succeed. This series installment aims to discuss how mentorship and professional information can benefit pathways for interpreting Students of Color with narratives from our research (click here for more information about our research) and from conversations with colleagues who recently graduated.  

Lack of Professional Information

Being a Black-Filipinx interpreter, both Erica West-Oyedele and Christine Nakahara provide amazing narratives that discuss the experiences of Black (West-Oyedele) and Asian Heritage (Nakahara) sign language interpreters. In the collective narratives, participants mentioned organizations they wish they knew about or had access to, such as National Black Deaf Advocates (NBDA), the National Alliance of Black Interpreters (NAOBI), and the National Asian Deaf Congress (NADC). This is parallel to what we found in our research as only a few students mentioned these organizations by name. 

Within our research, students from California State University, Northridge (CSUN) (see part 3 of the series) who shared they did not have much support or encouragement also did not have access to Deaf events.  In addition, they recognized the lack of diversity and connection in classrooms and the broader field of sign language interpreting. Furthermore, one student shared they were not interested in the field because of the lack of information available regarding pathways to obtaining advanced degrees (i.e., M.A, and Ph.D. programs). A Persian-Jewish female student who did not pursue a career in sign language interpreting shared, “It was a family expectation for me to get a master’s degree and I thought that if I became an interpreter that would be it. There is no more training. That wasn’t enough for me.” While the lack of access to professional information and organizations was prevalent for study participants, many of them also mentioned the struggle to obtain mentorship.

Lack of Mentorship

Mentorship plays a large role when analyzing the field of sign language interpreting and students’ experiences. Students who applied but were not accepted into the interpreting program did not have supported paths to meet Deaf People of Color (POC), mentors, or other peers to support them (click here for part 3 in the series). They expressed not developing an interest because of the lack of Interpreters of Color at events  When an interpreter does not see other sign language interpreters who look like them, they often feel isolated if they are the only one from that racial/ethnic group. After asking a recent graduate, a Cisgender Queer Female, about her experience, she shared, “For me, I feel I haven’t had a Filipino interpreter mentor. It feels kind of isolating because I feel like I’m the only one able to represent this demographic.” 

Clearly, Students of Color (SOC) aren’t only lacking knowledge about how to find and access professional information, but they are also lacking access to mentors of color. Spaces where sign language interpreting students of color can get support from Deaf POC and interpreters are critical to their persistence in the field and to their identity as Interpreters of Color. As West-Oyedele’s (2015) study reveals, “Interpreters of Color felt welcomed among Black Deaf consumers and created spaces with other African American/Black interpreters in the form of task forces or other social groups that allowed them to connect and be themselves” (p. 69). Connecting back to my experience at the Deaf People of Color Conference, I realized not many Students of Color (SOC) have exposure to Deaf individuals and sign language interpreters who identify like them. 

Lack of Support and Encouragement

Support can come in different shapes and forms. Our research revealed that SOC who were successful in their interpreter training programs had a great deal of social capital. For SOC, social capital includes various resources and support from the community that supports an individual’s growth as an interpreter. This includes support from ASL educators, hearing and Deaf interpreters, mentors, support from interpreting and D/deaf organizations, and even support from family, peers, friends to pursue sign language interpreting as a career. In order to get a better understanding of support in the classroom, I asked a colleague who recently graduated from an IEP. 

My first colleague, a cisgender Haitian-American man, shared:

I got support from a few students in my school’s program. I had one particular classmate who became like a brother to me. I knew I could depend on him for support at any time of [the] day if I needed. I definitely could not depend on my department to provide the support I needed because a lot of the time I was there as a token. Luckily, we [had] gatherings with all the students of color each semester to vent in a safe space about our issues or just to hang out and be ourselves.

If students feel they are unable to get support from within the department, they find support in other ways. Additionally, providing a space for SOC to gather provides them opportunities to connect and develop their own support systems. Study participants who did not apply or were not accepted into the interpreting program reported that they did not have strong social capital.

Pathways to Mentorship and Guidance

Even with the lack of information and support provided for SOC, students who succeeded found pathways to mentorship and guidance. We found that students who experienced the most success developed connections with unofficial mentors prior to attending. One research participant, a cisgender female Latino and queer-identifying student shared, “My high school ASL teacher was Latino and queer. He had the same identities as me. He told me about CSUN and encouraged me to be an interpreter.” In this case, intersectionality comes into play as the student identifies with their teacher racially and with another identity (i.e., language, sexual orientation, and gender). In situations like this, sharing two or more similar identities allows for stronger connections and more support. As a Trans POC, it was most difficult for me to find an LGBTQ POC in order to have those conversations. Once I did, I had deep conversations about how to navigate the field with my intersections, particularly when my race, gender, and sexual orientation are opposite from the main narrative.  

While some students had mentors whom they identified as white, some students shared they realized certain conversations and topics were more difficult to discuss with white mentors.  Especially, when talking about challenges in regards to race, culture, appearance (i.e., hair and best clothing), and microaggressions. Students did not feel comfortable with sharing those topics with white mentors. My first colleague shared:

I remember I asked another assigned mentor, who was a white cisgender male, his opinion of my hair. Once my question came out of my mouth, I realized that there could be so many things that could come out wrong with his answer. Fortunately, his response was appropriate, but I would have liked to have that conversation [about my hair] with people in my own community.

These stories do not necessarily mean mentors who are white are not a good match for SOC but indicate that students may feel more comfortable having conversations about their experience of race and culture with IOC. 

Another common trend identified was students reaching out to IOC outside of their program during their course of study. Often there are only a few SOC and Faculty of Color around the department for SOC to reach out for support. For example, my second colleague, a cisgender Filipino queer female shared:

Some of the support outside of the program was from different interpreters of color encouraging me to continue my journey and not to easily give up because of the overwhelming appearance of our demographic being outnumbered by the dominant non-POC interpreters. 

As we look at the current Registry of Interpreter for the Deaf (RID) statistics, this is not surprising. A recent number shows that 86% of certified interpreters identify as Euro-American/White interpreters (RID Annual 2016 Report). Sharing a cultural background or lived experiences can be a catalyst for a deeper connection and trust between mentor and student, which increases performance and motivation. In our research, the evidence seems to indicate that students who pursued sign language interpreting felt more comfortable and persisted because of the connections and mentorship relationships they had built before and during the program.


It is our collective responsibility to incorporate more diversity and support for Students of Color as they explore fields related to sign language interpreting and the Deaf Community. Whether one is creating online space for students of color and alumni of a program to connect and share resources or hosting gatherings for Students/Interpreters and Transliterators of Color, or connecting with local Deaf People of Color organizations, there is much that can be accomplished. As stakeholders, educators, sign language interpreting agencies, seasoned and newer interpreters, know that you can be an agent of change. Supporting one another allows us to do better work and allows our consumers to receive the best possible services.

In order to continue this discussion, here are some questions to consider:  

  1. How do Interpreting Training Programs support Heritage Signers of color, Deaf Interpreters of color, Trilingual students of color?
  2. How do we lessen the feelings of ‘tokenism’ when there are a small number of students of color in a program?  
  3. How do we create authentic spaces in our IEP’s that allow all students to feel authentic and valued? 
  4. How do we become more intentional about matching mentors with students of color? If we don’t have access to interpreters of color, what ways are we providing professional information and mentors that allow them to build connections with seasoned interpreters of color? 
  5. When seeking to open student’s minds, how do we incorporate conversation of power, privilege, and oppression to dismantle structures of knowledge?


Nakahara, C. (2016). “Expanding the collective narrative: Exploring the experiences of American Sign Language/English Interpreters of Asian Heritage.” [Dissertation]  

National Association of the Deaf – NAD Facebook Live  (July 8th, 2016). #NADYAP Final Round #NAD2016 Conference. Retrieved from

Registry of Interpreter for the Deaf (RID). (2016). 2016 Annual report change. Renewal, Recovery. Retrieved from

West Oyedele, E. (2015)., “Persistence of African-American/Black signed language interpreters in the United States: The importance of culture and capital” [Dissertation].

Other Contributors to this Series:

Dr. Lissa D. Ramirez-Stapleton

Lissa D. Ramirez-Stapleton is an associate professor at California State University Northridge in the Department of Deaf Studies and core faculty for the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program. Her research focuses on equity and access, identity development, and the educational history of Deaf students, faculty, and staff with a particular interest in the intersections of race, gender, and disability.

Dr. Will Garrow

Will Garrow, Ph.D. (pronouns: he/him/his) is from upstate New York, where he was first introduced to the Deaf Community through his career as a professional snowboarder. All of his degrees are from Gallaudet University with a Bachelor of Arts in Deaf Studies, a Master of Arts in Linguistics, and a doctorate in Linguistics. As a faculty member at California State University, Northridge, his teaching mainly focuses on how oppression works in American society, Deaf Culture, and ASL Linguistics.  When Will is not teaching, he can be found either on the snow in the mountains or splatting balls in the racquetball court. 

Jasmine Solis

Jasmine Solis (pronouns: she/her/hers), originally from Orange County California, received her B.A. in Deaf Studies with a concentration in Interpreting from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). As a recipient of the CSUN Presidential Scholarship, Jasmine completed her research unpacking confidence levels and anxiety amongst Students of Color who are currently or planning to pursue interpreting. Now as the full-time Academic Advisor for the Deaf Studies Department at CSUN, Jasmine hopes to continue supporting and encouraging students to reach their career goals.

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Where are IOC? Confidence & Socialization Fears for Students of Color

The white landscape of sign language interpreting can inhibit Students of Color in their pursuit of becoming sign language interpreters. Jasmine Solis examines some of the reasons language learning and cultural exploration may take a back seat to self-preservation.


An individual’s confidence is a crucial element that influences self-esteem, performance, character, and one’s ability to navigate spaces. In the field of sign language interpreting, an individual’s confidence has a great impact on their perception of their signing ability and their interactions with the Deaf Community and peers. In this study, a lack of confidence was a prevalent theme whether explicit or implicitly stated by students. All students expressed not having confidence in their signing skills and/or were self-conscious of their language use. Many narratives provided by students reflected heightened levels of anxiety in the classroom, interpreting situations, and during interactions with peers and the Deaf Community.

[View post in ASL]

Why is there a Lack of Confidence?

Evaluating the possibilities as to why there is a lack of confidence present amongst People of Color (POC) students is the first step in unpacking the issue. In a study conducted by Erica West Oyedele (2015), a current Black interpreter in the field, she hypothesized that the reason for disparities in the field was related to the fact that sign language interpreting programs do not properly address the issues of multiculturalism because of insufficient cultural competence. Participants in her study expressed a desire to have more people who share their racial and ethnic background in the field of interpreting; therefore the burden to assimilate is frequently placed on the interpreter/transliterator of color and not on interpreters of the majority culture (Oyedele, 2015).  

The data chart below responds to the atmosphere of the interpreting programs and the accessibility that students had with mentors, support, and cultural awareness, regarding POC. When considering this data, having confidence in a space that does not reflect your identity is challenging. Our study also revealed parallel feelings of an inability to connect revealing that change is needed in regards to how students interact because it influences confidence. 

Classroom Environment and Interactions with Peers

In an environment that persistently evokes competition, self-consciousness, and self-analysis, anxiety increases. Students expressed not having enough confidence or trust in their signing ability as the main reason for not applying to the IEP. One Latina female in her interview expressed, 

When I first got in [accepted to CSUN], I had to retake ASL. ‘Does that mean I’m not good enough?’ And I started looking down on myself. ‘Okay, I’m probably not good enough. But I still kept positive and kept trying. I applied for the Interpreting Educational Program, and I was confident. But then got turned down, and started to feel less of myself. Family and relationship problems kicked in and made me feel very down, and by spring 2014, I stopped being involved with the Deaf Community…In spring 2015, I reapplied (and was denied) and again felt like crap, and then I [looked at] what students applied, ‘is it race? Because I’m female? Am I not good enough?’ 

The desire to be around other Students of Color also affects an individual’s involvement in the field and their aptitude. Minority students are continuously aware of their minoritized status; there is implicit racial bias surrounding their ability to succeed in specific environments. The stigma that has been created due to the achievement gap between the majority and minorities in Education creates a false belief that minority students are unlikely to succeed with the exception of a select few.  Since the white majority currently dominates the field of sign language interpreting, making up 88% of RID, many Students of Color do not feel welcome ( When a POC steps into a predominately white space or career field, they are automatically noticed, positively or negatively, and experience a heightened level of anxiety because they are aware of their otherness. Their response to reduce anxiety is often to avoid these spaces completely which leads to low numbers of IEP Students of Color and ultimately results in low numbers of Interpreters and Transliterators of Color.

Students also expressed increased discomfort in the classroom when they were the only POC and felt a responsibility to represent the community.  The racial demographic of the IEP at CSUN at the time of the study consisted of one female black student. During her interview, she revealed feeling as though all eyes were on her, all the time. She reported she was either tokenized in the classroom for the “Black Perspective” or did not want to have her success, or lack thereof, to be connected with her racial identity. Willingly placing oneself in an environment where one’s minority status is tokenized can diminish confidence and increase anxiety, which influences performance. Students of Color have been mistreated in the classroom environment for extended periods of time throughout their lives and many narratives expressed this phenomenon. A Pacific Islander transgender male student stated in his interview, “You can tell [by the way a] teacher look at you…I get a lot of looks from teachers, and I expect that outside of the classroom, but not in the classroom.” 

Interviewees reported feelings of invisibility because they were not called on in class, were ignored by peers during group work, and /or their input was not being valued. All of these experiences affect confidence and reinforce the achievement gap. Another aspect of invisibility was due to lack of representation in curriculum, in places of administration, and in classroom discussions. This notable absence greatly affected their desire to become a member of a community while also affecting their confidence in the field, leading to a lack of involvement in the Deaf Community. Students expressed not feeling welcome or comfortable in the classroom environment, which then affected their involvement in the Deaf Community.  Many interviewees, as Students of Color, felt it was difficult to relate to their white peers who were the majority of their classmates,  and they also reported they struggled to meet Deaf POC on campus. If a minority presence is not acknowledged, students will not feel that they are welcome. A Male student expressed in his interview, “No one will sit next to me unless it is the very last seat and it’s always been that way. Someone will walk across the room before they sit next to me.”

Socialization with the Deaf Community 

Lack of involvement with the Deaf Community was deeply connected to a lack of involvement with peers in the classroom. Socializing with the Deaf Community is crucial in developing first-hand cultural knowledge and improving ASL skills. The importance of socialization is known amongst students, however, when looking at student involvement in the Deaf community among the 21 students surveyed, 57% of students expressed little to no involvement. A black female student stated, “I have little to no interaction with the Deaf community. I’m very quiet and keep to myself and I’m okay with just watching.” Of the nine students who expressed involvement, responses consisted of having strong friendships with Deaf individuals, attending a Deaf church, involvement in Deaf clubs or sign language communities, and living in close proximity to or having Deaf roommates. Students who attended Deaf events regularly saw a continuous exposure to ASL, which progressively improved their connection and confidence in working with and being a part of the Deaf Community. Having a connection with an individual who is already established in the Deaf community can be very beneficial for Students of Color. Lower anxiety levels are common when students are in familiar company as it creates a safer, more comfortable environment which allows for the opportunity to develop their ASL skills and confidence. Networking is very important in the Deaf Community therefore, without a connection through friends or colleagues, involvement becomes a challenge.

Interviews revealed that students who were not regularly involved with the Deaf Community experienced anxiety when going to Deaf events or felt that they would be rejected because of their signing skill which often deterred their attendance. The anxiety, stemming from a lack of confidence in skills, influences an individual’s comfort level in different spaces, thus affecting interactions with the Deaf Community. The desire to interact with Deaf individuals is there, but the fear of rejection by the community is a huge deterrent. This creates a detrimental cycle of low exposure and interaction with the Deaf community which impedes language development and the acquisition of real-world cultural knowledge that can only be learned outside of the classroom. The social barriers to becoming comfortable in these interactive spaces are increasingly problematic. A black female student stated, 

I know that I don’t have a firm grasp on ASL. I know I don’t always have a firm grasp on how to convey a message. I can’t understand fingerspelling for my life. I put up a barricade because I don’t want to be made fun of. It’s a catch 22. You need to go interact to get better but I don’t want to go interact because I don’t want to be made fun of. And then you get to the point where it’s too far gone for you. You should have been doing this (going out to Deaf events) two-three years ago. I feel pressure from my peers. ‘You’re not at this level yet. We’re here, why are you not here?

Students of Color have been continuously demoralized and degraded in public spaces, leading to a lack of confidence in public. Some students, when faced with this adversity, are able to overcome these feelings and will willingly place themselves in social interactions because they understand the benefit it has on developing their ASL skills, but we cannot expect and should not expect all POC students to respond in this manner. Creating an authentic space versus a safe space is what departments should strive for to develop student’s confidence. We cannot guarantee that spaces will be safe; but we can strive to create an authentic space where opinions can be voiced and objections or agreements can be made for the purpose of growth in character, ability, and success.


The time dedication being involved in the deaf community was difficult but important. I had a daughter in my second semester at El Camino and had to reevaluate my game plan. I still had a desire for interpreting but felt that maybe doing something with advocacy was better because I didn’t have that additional support. Trying to juggle my career and daughter minimized my time. I had to compromise my dreams and time to socialize to take on that motherly role. – Black Female Student 

The narratives that came out of the interviews reveal common feelings expressed by POC students. The feelings of incompetence, students wanting to socialize but fearing rejection, a desire and passion to succeed, and experiencing and internalizing failure are common among students. In the sign language interpreting space, motivation, encouragement, and mentoring are greatly valued because Interpreters of Color are very far in between. Any information that can be beneficial or support a Student of Color is crucial. Many POC feel that they are at fault for their rejection. They feel that if they are critiqued, they are not good enough. They struggle with separating their personal identity from their career. 

In order to continue this discussion, here are some questions to consider:  

  1. What role can mentors (sign language or non-related mentors) play in building a student of color’s confidence?
  2. How can faculty identify and support students who are experiencing anxiety in the classroom and having confidence with “being in the limelight” during interpreting situations?
  3. Knowing that the student populations in IEPs are extremely white-centric, how do we build alliances across different communities so that these programs can become much more supportive environments?

*We would like to thank and acknowledge John Pak, M.Ed., for the time and energy invested in the translation and ASL video work presented here. 


West Oyedele, E.(2015), “Persistence of African-American/Black Signed Language Interpreters in the United States: The Importance of Culture and Capital” Dissertation.

Other Contributors to this Series:

Lissa Ramirez-Stapleton

Dr. Lissa D. Ramirez-Stapleton is an associate professor at California State University Northridge in the Department of Deaf Studies and core faculty for the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program. Her research focuses on equity and access, identity development, and the educational history of Deaf students, faculty, and staff with a particular interest in the intersections of race, gender, and disability. 

MJ Jones

MJ Jones (pronouns: they/them/theirs), a Southern California native, currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area. MJ’s intersectionalities include Black, first-generation Filipinx, masculine of center, sighted, and hearing. After graduating from California State University, Northridge with a B.A. in ASL-English Interpreting and a minor in Queer Studies, MJ graduated with their M.A in International Development at Gallaudet University. They are currently an adjunct professor at Gallaudet University and a Full-Time Staff Interpreter with Vital Signs, LLC. 

Will Garrow

Dr. Will Garrow, Ph.D. (pronouns: he/him/his) is from upstate New York, where he was first introduced to the Deaf Community through his career as a professional snowboarder. All of his degrees are from Gallaudet University with a Bachelor of Arts in Deaf Studies, a Master of Arts in Linguistics, and a doctorate in Linguistics. As a faculty member at California State University, Northridge, his teaching mainly focuses on how oppression works in American society, Deaf Culture, and ASL Linguistics.  When Will is not teaching, he can be found either on the snow in the mountains or splatting balls in the racquetball court. 

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Where are IOC? Impact of Early Access to ASL, Interpreters & Deaf Studies

With limited access to ASL and Deaf Culture, mentors, and minimal information describing opportunities in the field of sign language interpreting, Students of Color often look elsewhere to pursue their careers.


Systemic educational racism in the U.S. still plays a huge role in perpetuating inequity between students and contributes to the continuing cycle of oppression (Rothstein, 2008). The inequities that begin in primary school lay a foundation for the ongoing valuing of whiteness and function to further oppress students of color through admission, retention, and curricula in higher education. 

[View post in ASL]

Early Exposure to Multiple Languages

Nearly 43% of our graduating study participants in Deaf studies or sign language interpretation use more than one language. Of 21 students, seven were trilingual, two multilingual.

Of the nine students who noted their language use, four mentioned that at some point in their career they wanted to pursue linguistics or become an interpreter for spoken languages.

Many participants grew up interpreting Spanish for their parents and claimed that the transition to interpreting ASL or striving to become a trilingual interpreter seemed like a natural career path. Students who entered the program bilingual felt they had an understanding of language and structure and interpreting would be a natural task. 

Exposure to American Sign Language 

One Chicana who is graduating from the interpreter education program (IEP) at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) shared in her interview how she was first exposed to ASL in middle school. She met a deaf student, which resulted in taking her first ASL 1 class and another ASL class in high school. Early exposure was beneficial to this student because it facilitated the development of her ASL skills and built confidence in her signing ability. 

When analyzing our participants’ exposure to American Sign Language, 10 out of 21 learned ASL in high school. Of those 10, four were accepted into the IEP, five chose to not apply, and one was denied. Of the remaining 11, 10  learned ASL at a community college. Of those, five were accepted into the IEP, two chose to not apply, and three were denied.

Although only five students who learned ASL in high school applied to the IEP, four (80%) were accepted into the program. Of the students who learned ASL at a community college, eight students applied, yet only five (62.5%) were accepted.

When comparing these two sets of students, we see that the probability of being admitted into an IEP is statistically greater for students who learned ASL in high school. Therefore, it is clear that earlier access to ASL results in a more developed skillset and greater flexibility in career choices. Of the 10 students who learned ASL in high school, six attended predominantly white or upper-middle-class high schools. Thus, we see racism manifesting on a macro level in our educational system. Most Students of Color were not exposed to ASL in high school. 

Schools that are predominantly classified as “Black and Brown” rarely offer ASL as an option to fulfill the foreign language requirement, therefore they do not have the chance to take ASL until they reach college. In 1996, the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL) conducted a survey of 1,650 high schools to record which offered ASL as a foreign language. Only 17 schools offered ASL, which is equivalent to 1%. A second survey targeting California schools was conducted in 2004, and 66 high schools offered ASL (Rosen, 2008). This lack of access to ASL in a classroom setting early on in one’s educational career prevents students from having the opportunity to experience American Sign Language and increases their chances of succeeding in an IEP or developing an early interest in Deaf Studies. This educational attainment gap is undeniably systematic and rooted in oppression against Students of Color. We can infer then that high rates of white students in IEPs are connected with a lack of exposure to ASL among minority communities in systems of education. 

Interactions with Interpreters 

Many students reported having little to no interaction with sign language interpreters to gain knowledge of the field. Students reported that although they had seen sign language interpreters in their classrooms or knew about sign language and the Deaf community, they did not interact with them. Only three out of 21 students expressed having continuous interactions with a sign language interpreter in the field. Fifteen either chose not to share information related to interpreter interactions or stated they did not have interactions with interpreters. Four students expressed having met or knowing of an interpreter but not interacting with them regularly. 

Interacting with working sign language interpreters could influence a student’s decision to pursue the field. Further, we see that only six out of the 21 participants expressed having seen or met an Interpreter of Color (IOC), confirming the fact that white interpreters currently dominate the field of sign language interpreting. Fifteen students expressed having no interaction with, or have never seen an IOC, or chose not to share information regarding IOC. Six students reported seeing, meeting, and/or interacting with IOC. Two were identified as Black/African American interpreters, one was identified as a Latina interpreter, one a Filipino interpreter, and the remaining two were not specified.

Whether or not they chose to pursue the field of sign language interpreting, participants lacked exposure to sign language interpreters and information about the field prior to entering the interpreter education program. One participant expressed her concern regarding the need for interpreter interactions, stating, “I wish there was someone to teach me about [the interpreting field]. Not once was I taught about what jobs I can do or what it means to be an interpreter.” POC who were motivated to enter the field also expressed this concern but their response was to do their own personal research regarding the field which led to an increased level of interaction with interpreters. Overall, the consensus was that students lacked knowledge but desired more information about both interpreting and Deaf Studies. A common perspective was that interpreters were “strict professionals” and students did not feel comfortable approaching interpreters or asking them questions about their job. Information about the IEPs was not well-known, and students did not have an understanding of the field. This gap in knowledge could be a factor in students electing to pursue other career interests.

Implications of Early Access to ASL and Interpreters 

The lack of early exposure to ASL, the lack of meaningful interactions between sign language interpreters and students of color, and the lack of exposure to interpreters of color may all have an impact on a potential student of color’s pursuit of sign language interpreting as a career. Other career options where representation, information, and access are more readily available may become more appealing. One Jewish Iranian student stated, “Interpreting is really cool and that’s what most Deaf studies majors want to do but I think there’s a huge hype…It’s admirable and they [interpreting students] are the best signers but I felt that was not me.” Admiration for the interpreting field is a common theme, but the desire to “advocate” rather than “provide access” is a popular mindset. Another student stated, “I would rather help [sic] them get to college than help them communicate with hearing people.” A black student also mentioned, “I know what it’s like to be that outcast, or feel like you are not wanted, which is the main reason I want to go into community services- to show people you can move forward…I want to be an advocate… In the long run, [this] will be better for the community as a whole.” The experiences that these students had, both before arriving at a 4-year university and while at a 4-year university, play an important role in determining their career paths. Earlier exposure to ASL and exposure to IOC may be among the key elements in attracting POC to the field. In order to do so, we must break down the institutional racism that is creating barriers to ASL exposure in primary and secondary educational spaces.

To continue this discussion, here are some questions to consider:  

  1. How can we expose People of Color to sign language earlier on in their academic careers?
  2. What are the roles that both Deaf and hearing people of color can play as mentors in sign language development in communities of color?
  3. When students of color do enter IEP programs, what are some structural changes we can make to provide foundations for their success?

*We would like to thank and acknowledge John Pak, M.Ed., for the time and energy invested in the translation and ASL video work presented here. 


Center for Applied Linguistics. (1997). A national survey of foreign language instruction in elementary and secondary schools: A changing picture1987–1997. Washington, DC: Author.

Rosen, R. (2008). American sign language as a foreign language in U.S. high schools: State of the Art. The Modern Language Journal, (92)1, doi:10-38. 10.1111/j.1540-4781.2008.00684.x.

Wilder, T., Allgood, W., & Rothstein, R. (2008). Narrowing the achievement gap for low-income children: A 19-year life cycle approach.  Proceeding from Equity Symposium of the Campaign for Educational Equity. New York, NY: Teacher’s College Columbia, University.

Other Contributors to this Series:

Lissa D. Stapleton

Dr. Lissa D. Ramirez-Stapleton is an associate professor at California State University Northridge in the Department of Deaf Studies and core faculty for the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program. Her research focuses on equity and access, identity development, and the educational history of Deaf students, faculty, and staff with a particular interest in the intersections of race, gender, and disability.

Jasmine Solis

Jasmine Solis (pronouns: she/her/hers), originally from Orange County California, received her B.A. in Deaf Studies with a concentration in Interpreting from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). As a recipient of the CSUN Presidential Scholarship, Jasmine completed her research unpacking confidence levels and anxiety amongst Students of Color who are currently or planning to pursue interpreting. Now as the full-time Academic Advisor for the Deaf Studies Department at CSUN, Jasmine hopes to continue supporting and encouraging students to reach their career goals.

MJ Jones

MJ Jones (pronouns: they/them/theirs), a Southern California native, currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area. MJ’s intersectionalities include Black, first-generation Filipinx, masculine of center, sighted, and hearing. After graduating from California State University, Northridge with a B.A. in ASL-English Interpreting and a minor in Queer Studies, MJ graduated with their M.A in International Development at Gallaudet University. They are currently an adjunct professor at Gallaudet University and a Full-Time Staff Interpreter with Vital Signs, LLC.

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Where Are IOC? Understanding the Impact of Racial Diversity in ITPs

Why don’t POC enter the field of sign language interpreting in higher numbers? Why don’t Interpreters of Color stay in the field? Find out more about these questions in our five-part series by a group of CSUN researchers.


Throughout the ages, Deaf people have used sign language interpreters, from mid-17th-century religious services to the opening of Gallaudet University in 1864 (Van Cleve & Crouch, 1989) to every domain in society today. While the field of sign language interpreting has a rich and varied history, the racial demographics do not have as much variation. Sign language interpreting in the United States is an occupation dominated primarily by white women, and the legal foundation for sign language interpreting services is based on disability law, which creates a continuing perception and gender-based expectation that such interpreters are service-providers, caretakers, organized volunteers, or non-professional service providers (Merithew & Johnson, 2004, p. 18). Although the gender issue is well documented, an in-depth analysis of the racial demographics in the field has not been adequately addressed.

[Click to view post in ASL]

In Erica West Oyedele’s thesis, African American/Black interpreters report that their white colleagues lack cultural competence. This perspective is echoed by Asian American interpreters, Latinx interpreters, and Deaf minority consumers. Further exacerbating this problem is the notion that Deaf people are labeled as “diverse” simply due to their non-hearing status. Racial identities among members of the Deaf community are rarely acknowledged (Parasnis, 2012). The Black Deaf community has been largely ignored, and their unique experiences have been essentialized to the dominant white group (Foster & Kinuthia, 2003). This portion of the community is being wholly underserved due to a lack of recognition and cultural competence among predominantly white sign language interpreters. The field of sign language interpreting also lacks publications concerning people of color (POC) which further elevates the relevance of our research and the urgency of the issue.

How We Came to this Study

The four authors of this study come from various backgrounds, multiple identities, and different connections to the field, yet all are actively involved in the fields of Deaf Studies, sign language interpreting, and the inherent issues which surround the interpreting field. We each contributed our own areas of interest and focus to this study. Dr. Lissa Stapleton focused on the religious and spiritual connections to the sign language interpreting field. MJ Jones is a graduate student who focused on the lack of support and mentorship for interpreting students of color. Jasmine Ruffin is an interpreting student whose area of focus is on how an individual’s confidence, mentality, metacognitive perception of oneself, and environments influence achievement and character building. Dr. Will Garrow is focused on how -isms intersect and impact communities and how those communities resist the -isms they face on a macro, meso, and micro level.

We came together because of a shared interest in understanding why there was such a lack of interpreters of color at the professional level and in Sign Language Interpreter Education/Training Programs. The goal of this study is to begin uncovering the issues that are creating barriers for POC to become interpreters. We focus on the IEP program at CSUN. We examine how hearing POC are limited in their choices of work and how a lack of Interpreters of Color (IOC) impacts Deaf People of Color, perpetuating audism, racism, and other -isms onto this group of people.

Theoretical Overview

For our research, we decided to use a phenomenological approach when interviewing participants. Our goal was to explore the lived experiences of POC and whether those experiences had an impact on their decision to join or not join the sign language interpreting field. Phenomenological research “seeks to explore, describe and analyze the meaning of individual lived experience: how they perceive it, describe it, feel about it, judge it, remember it, make sense of it and talk about it with others” (as cited in Patton, 2002, p.104). We conducted in-depth one-on-one interviews with individuals who have experienced a “phenomenon” of interest in, but not limited to, American Sign Language exposure, education, and career choices regarding the field of Deaf Studies and sign language interpreting. The importance of analyzing student experiences and life stories was rooted in the assumption that there will be commonalities or shared experiences amongst participants that can be viewed as unique expressions and then compared to identify the patterns or root of the phenomena (Marshall, Rossman, 2011 p. 19-20).

Our analysis of the interviews was driven by Critical Race Theory (CRT) because of the five tenets that guide CRT:

  1. The intercentricity of racialized oppression: the layers of subordination based on race, gender, class, immigration status, surname, phenotype, accent, sexuality, ability, etc.
  2. The challenge to white dominant ideology
  3. The commitment to social justice
  4. The centrality of experiential knowledge of POC
  5. The transdisciplinary perspective (Delgado and Stefanic, 2012; Yosso, 2006).

We viewed students as individuals who constitute a complex intersectionality of identities and therefore faced multiple forms of oppression. A holistic view of students created a lens that centralized our analysis of student experiences and educational disparities, by specifically focusing on students of color, which emphasized the importance of race (Ladson-Billings, 1995). Specific to this study, the tenets of CRT provide a framework to analyze the complex weave of macro-, meso-, and micro-aggressions which have created educational disparities and thus impacted the choices that students make when picking a major, their success in a chosen major, and then ultimately which occupations they pursue.

Participant Overview

We interviewed 24 participants who met the criteria as 1) students in the Deaf Studies Department at California State University Northridge (CSUN) and 2) self-identified as a “Person of Color.” The purpose of meeting both criteria was to focus our study on the counterstories and narratives of POC who had knowledge of Deaf Studies, the Deaf Community, and CSUN. Interviewing CSUN students exclusively enables a more precise perspective of persons of color in that space. The pie charts below illustrate the data of our participants organized by race, gender, year in school, and area of concentration:

Of our participants, 71% were women, and 63% were graduating students. We would have benefited from a higher percentage of non-graduating students to understand the current mindset of students who are in the process of deciding whether or not to enter the interpreting field. However, by analyzing the experiences of those who graduate from college it allows for an analysis of their personal journey throughout college and their decision to pursue sign language interpreting or not. We had representatives from 6 different racialized minority groups with Black student representation holding the majority at 41%. With 62% of our sample not having a concentration focus of interpreting, we were able to analyze the possible causes and make connections to reasons why the percentage of interpreters of color is so low

Interviews ranged from 45 minutes to two hours depending on participant time constraints. The interview questions dealt with the participant’s family background, educational background, connection to the Deaf community, and career decision-making. All interviews were conducted in spoken English and video recorded. After all, interviews had been conducted, we coded common themes and shared experiences between participants.

Areas of Interest 

We noticed that there were very specific, thematic patterns and areas of interest that should be explored more thoroughly. As revealed by the interviews, the data demonstrated the following reasons participants did not pursue interpreting:

  • Confidence Issues
  • Lack of information about the field
  • Limited access to socializing with Deaf communities
  • Not a career Interest
  • Inability to commit to the time to become an interpreter

The themes that appeared for Deaf Studies students who did pursue interpreting included:

  • Access to ASL early
  • Spiritual Connection
  • Mentorship and encouragement
  • Not afraid to socialize with Deaf people
  • 2nd Language English Learners

Specific themes from our research that will be expanded on in subsequent posts:

This research is critical to the Deaf community as well as the sign language interpreting field because it can act as a catalyst for further research and foster improvements for POC in the interpreting profession. The perspectives of POC within the field of sign language interpreting are not openly discussed. More research and analysis is needed to uncover the issues.  We believe that many of the concerns of minority Deaf community members and Interpreters of Color (IOC) are rooted in the current dehumanization of minority groups. This dehumanization stems from a lack of understanding and respect for community knowledge. When this is coupled with the real and perceived barriers caused by the intersection of various forms of oppression, our students opt to pursue options outside of interpreting.

*We would like to thank and acknowledge John Pak, M.Ed., for the time and energy invested in the translation and ASL video work presented here. 


Delgado, R., Stefancic, J., & Liendo, E. (2012). Critical race theory. New York, NY: New York University Press.

Foster, S., & Kinuthia, W. (2003). Deaf persons of Asian American, Hispanic American, and African American backgrounds: A study of intraindividual diversity and identity. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 8(3), 271-290.

Landson–Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory to Practice, 34(3). 159-165.

Marshall, C., & Rossman, G. B. (2011). Designing qualitative research (6th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Parasnis, I. (2012). Diversity and Deaf identity: Implications for personal epistemologies in Deaf education. In P. Paul & D. F. Moores (Eds.), Deaf epistemologies: Multiple perspectives on the acquisition of knowledge (pp. 63-80). Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.

Patel, E. (2016). Intersectionality in Action: A guide for factually and campus leaders for creating inclusive classrooms and institutions. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Patton, M. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

West Oyedele, E. (2015). Persistence of African-American/Black signed language interpreters in the United States: The importance of culture and capital [Dissertation].

Witter-Merithew, A., & Johnson, L. (2004). Market disorder within the field of sign language

interpreting: Professionalization implications. Journal of Interpretation, 14, 19-55.

Yosso, T. (2006).The teaching/learning social justice series: Critical race counterstories along the Chicana/Chicano Educational Pipeline. New York, NY: Routledge.

Van Cleve, J., Crouch, B. (1989). A place of their own. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press

Other Contributors to this Series:

Lissa D. Ramirez-Stapleton

Dr. Lissa D. Ramirez-Stapleton (pronouns: she/her/hers) is an associate professor at California State University Northridge in the Department of Deaf Studies and core faculty for the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program. Her research focuses on equity and access, identity development, and the educational history of Deaf students, faculty, and staff with a particular interest in the intersections of race, gender, and disability.

Jasmine Solis

Jasmine Solis (pronouns: she/her/hers), originally from Orange County California, received her B.A. in Deaf Studies with a concentration in Interpreting from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). As a recipient of the CSUN Presidential Scholarship, Jasmine completed her research unpacking confidence levels and anxiety amongst Students of Color who are currently or planning to pursue interpreting. Now as the full-time Academic Advisor for the Deaf Studies Department at CSUN, Jasmine hopes to continue supporting and encouraging students to reach their career goals.

MJ Jones

MJ Jones (pronouns: they/them/theirs), a Southern California native, currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area. MJ’s intersectionalities include Black, first-generation Filipinx, masculine of center, sighted, and hearing. After graduating from California State University, Northridge with a B.A. in ASL-English Interpreting and a minor in Queer Studies, MJ graduated with their M.A in International Development at Gallaudet University. They are currently an adjunct professor at Gallaudet University and a Full-Time Staff Interpreter with Vital Signs, LLC.

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Meet, Engage, Learn & Inspire: Mentoring and Sign Language Interpreters

Meet, Engage, Learn & Inspire: Mentoring and Sign Language Interpreters
Mentoring is often cited as a way to bridge the “readiness gap” for emerging sign language interpreters. Kim Boeh outlines the benefits of mentoring relationships and tips for successful interactions.

You find yourself sitting in a classroom surrounded by your peers and realize that you will soon graduate from your interpreter education program and you experience a moment of panic. You realize that once you leave this college community of peers, instructors, and total comfort zone, you will be all on your own out there in the “real world” of interpreting. What will you do when you need advice? Who will counsel you when you don’t know if you are permitted to wear the swanky new outfit to the assignment or if it is okay to take that picture and post it on Facebook or is it ok to….? What you really need is a mentor.

[View post in ASL]

There appears to be a need and perhaps even an outcry for mentoring in the field of sign language interpreting. There is a dearth of qualified and trained mentors available across the board due in part to lack of availability, lack of training, and lack of feeling qualified to mentor. Mentoring, if done properly, truly has a lot to offer both the mentor and mentee. RID’s Mentoring Standard Practice Paper (2007), stated that mentoring is a learning and growing experience for everyone involved in the process and the experiences that are gained through mentorship foster a higher level of professionalism for each individual practitioner. For many in the field, mentoring is considered an essential component of interpreter education but in many instances, mentoring is a component missing from interpreter education (Winston & Lee, 2013).

Bridging the Gap

Cokely (2005) and Ball (2013) mentioned a gap emerged once sign language interpreters started being trained in colleges in lieu of being chosen for language proficiency and groomed by the Deaf community. Some solutions to decreasing this gap in the education of interpreters that have been suggested in the past include implementing mentoring opportunities for students (Delk, 2013; RID, 2007).

I know what it is like to walk alone into the unknown from college training programs to real-world interpreting. I did not have much access to mentors during my interpreter training program or the first several years working as an entry-level interpreter. There were not enough mentors available to meet the demand at the time. I have personally experienced the lack of support and guidance that many entry-level interpreters encounter. I have witnessed first-hand many new graduates struggling with entry into the field, and this has deepened my belief that mentoring is the key to successfully transitioning recent graduates from college to work-readiness. I say this because I became a mentor in my local community and saw the benefits that occurred when I worked one-on-one with new graduates. We each learned from the experience by collaborating and working together. Collaboration can increase rapport, trust, and unity among interpreters.

For my master’s thesis, I asked over 400 interpreters and interpreting students in the United States and Canada one specific question referring to their feelings of how important it is to have mentors available for entry-level interpreters. The collected data from that question shows there is a strong belief in the importance of mentorship in the interpreting field by those currently working, preparing to work or previously having worked in the field. I also asked if mentoring were made readily available who would take advantage of the mentoring opportunity? A total of 82% of the participants replied they would take advantage of mentorship if available. I believe mentorship could help to bridge the gap that exists between educational preparation programs and work-readiness in the profession of interpreting. It could also lead interpreters to expand their knowledge base, provide professional development opportunities and guide them to becoming more highly-skilled interpreters regardless of their time in the field.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Connect with the Community

Leslie Janda Decker wrote an article for StreetLeverage entitled Sign Language Education: Returning to Deaf Heart. She mentions having D/deaf individuals as mentors and tutors for ASL students and interpreters. Having the D/deaf community and the professional interpreting community come together for the advancement of the field and the services to the communities is paramount. Having mentoring available either in person, via email and/or via live video chats could greatly improve the field of interpreting and the confidence of interpreters.  

Create Awareness and Positive Change

Mentoring can bring about positive changes to the profession. Implementing small group mentoring situations can prevent future students from feeling fearful of entering the profession and feeling alone. Upon graduation, a new interpreter could be assigned a deaf and/or hearing mentor to guide him down the path from student to professional. Mentors are also useful to veteran interpreters wanting to improve a specific skill area or branch out into a different setting they have not experienced previously (e.g. legal). Mentoring can benefit each and every interpreter in a myriad of ways:

  • building trust and rapport in the community
  • learning new signs/expanding vocabulary
  • building self-confidence
  • discussing ethical scenarios
  • exploring new settings (e.g., mental health, legal, freelancing)
  • keeping abreast of new technology
  • staying current with social media sites and apps related to the profession
  • learning proper business practices
  • expanding business opportunities/networking

We all need to work together to fill the void that is missing in our field and mentoring can help.

Understanding and Overcoming Barriers to Mentorship

If so many people are interested in working with a mentor, then why are so few people working with mentors? Is it lack of availability? Cost? Fear? Traumatic experiences with previous mentors? Perhaps there are no skilled or willing mentors locally? How can we overcome the issues of not having enough qualified and willing mentors and interested mentees? One thought is that we all have something to offer. The student may learn a new technique or approach that was not around 20 years ago, and they can share this with others in the field. The veteran interpreter has “been there-done that” and can share experiences to shed some light on different scenarios to the novice interpreters entering the field. No matter where you are in your journey, you have something to offer to others and something to gain from others. More of us can set up study programs, workshops, and discussion groups to build camaraderie and share knowledge.

Key Tips to Mentoring

  • Determine what you want to gain from the mentorship (Skills development? If so, pick two elements of your work you want to focus on such as fingerspelling errors and use of space.)
  • Seek out an experienced, professional who is respected in the community and see if they have time to watch your work live or via a video and give feedback on just the two elements that you are working on (e.g., fingerspelling errors and use of space)
  • Feedback should be given and received without the use of evaluative language (e.g., good, bad, should have, you did/didn’t). Instead say, “What I observed was clear, effective fingerspelling. The use of space was ineffective in this sample due to items being set up in one space but referred to in another space, leaving the message unclear.
  • Focus on the WORK, not the interpreter. The goal of mentorship is to assist in accomplishing goals, and it is never the goal for one interpreter to criticize another. When working in teams and in mentoring roles (as mentees and mentors) we should always focus on the WORK, not the interpreter.
  • Give back! If someone offers to mentor you, find a professional way to give back to them and or the community. Reciprocity makes the world go round.

In Conclusion

We all have something to offer, so let’s find out what that is for each of us individually and share with our colleagues regardless of how long they or we have been working in the field. Whether you choose to start mentoring or become a mentee yourself, there is so much more out there if we are all just willing to take that next step to meet, engage, learn, and inspire. What are you waiting for?

Questions to Consider:

  1. If academics believe mentoring is one solution to help minimize the work-readiness gap in the field, what can we do now to make mentoring available nationwide?
  2. What do you think the requirements should be for someone who wants to be a mentor?
  3. How can each veteran interpreter find a way to assist the novice interpreters entering the field?
  4. How can each novice interpreter find a way to assist the veteran interpreters in the field?

For a more in-depth look at the research by Kimberly Boeh please visit


Ball, C. (2013). Legacies and legends: History of interpreter education from 1800 to the 21st century. Edmonton, Alberta Canada: Interpreting Consolidated.

Boeh, K.A. (2016). Mentoring: Fostering the profession while mitigating the gap. Master of Arts in Interpreting Studies (MAIS) Theses. Paper 26.

Cokely, D. (2005). Shifting positionality: A critical examination of the turning point in the relationship of interpreters and the deaf community. In M. Marschark, R. Peterson, E. A. Winston, P. Sapere, C. M. Convertino, R. Seewagen & C. Monikowski (Eds.), Sign language interpreting and interpreter education: Directions for research and practice (pp. 3-28). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Decker, L.J. (2015). Sign language interpreter education: Returning to deaf heart. Street Leverage. Retrieved from

Delk, L. (2013, February 28). Interpreter mentoring: A theory-based approach to program design and evaluation (Rep.). Retrieved from National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers website: aspiring-interpreter/mentorship/mentoring-toolkit/articles/.

Ott, E. (2015). Horizontal violence: Can sign language interpreters break the cycle? Street Leverage. Retrieved from

RID. (2007). Standard Practice Paper. Mentoring. Retrieved December 20, 2015 from

Winston, B. & Lee, R. G. (2013). Introduction. In B. Winston & R. G. Lee (Eds.), Mentorship in sign language interpreting (pp. v-viii). Alexandria, VA: RID Press.


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What Makes Us Tick? Sign Language Interpreters, Values & Motivation

What Makes Us Tick? Sign Language Interpreters, Values & Motivation
Knowledge of personal beliefs and value systems enhance a sign language interpreter’s professional practice. Audrey Ramirez-Loudenback posits articulating our “why” may positively impact job satisfaction and longevity in the field.

I embarked on this research as a student in Western Oregon University’s MA in Interpreting Studies with a belief that our motivations will influence every part of our professional practice. Literature confirms that values are the foundation for any decision making process, whether a person is consciously aware of this or not (Amentrano, 2014; Brown, 2002; Rokeach 1970, 1974). As sign language interpreters, our responsibility is to start identifying and articulating the values that are expressed through our choices.

[View post in ASL]

Values have been discussed by many in the field of sign language interpreting (Bienvenu, 1987; Cokely, 2000; Dean & Pollard, 2013), including here on Street Leverage (Meckler, 2014). My research attempted to take what we know about values and collect information via an online survey from a large sample of sign language interpreters and interpreting students about their own personally held value systems to see what kind of patterns and trends emerged.  

Values That Motivate

The survey included the Portrait Values Questions (PVQ), an instrument used to collect data that was designed by Dr. Schwartz, a researcher and teacher in the field of Psychology (Schwartz, 1994, 2012, Schwartz et al., 2001, Schwartz et al., 2012). The survey also included questions about demographics and one open-ended question. I received 298 completed responses from interpreters and interpreting students all over the United States. A large portion of the research results centered on the responses to the open-ended question; respondents were asked to briefly describe their reasons for becoming an interpreter.

My findings showed that most respondents described reasons for entering the field that were not congruent with the value system expressed in their PVQ results (Ramirez-Loudenback, 2015). One recurrent example of this incongruity was a response that described a pleasure derived from using American Sign Language. A common example of this was “I fell in love with the language”. Most respondents that had a response similar to this example had results from their PVQ that did not match the values expressed with this idea of loving a language.

Much work has been done in the area of occupational fit and values (Amentrano, 2014; Brown, 2002; Watt & Richardson, 2007). This literature shows that values are an important part of choosing an occupation. One question that emerged from my research was about the consequence of having reasons for choosing to become a sign language interpreter that are not in-line with an individual’s personal value system (prioritization of essential values). I believe that we should be encouraging all emerging interpreters to consider how their values are being expressed in the choice to pursue this profession. This will lead pre-professionals to consider if interpreting will provide a career in which they can have the longevity and satisfaction that comes with an occupation that is congruent with their value system.

Values That Divide & Unite

My research also indicated a variation in value systems from respondents who did not identify as “White/Caucasian” compared to those that did identify as “White/Caucasian”. It is natural for individuals from distinct cultures to prioritize values differently. In fact, one of the reasons Schwartz developed this theory and model was to examine values across cultures (1994; Schwartz et al., 2001). The proportion of respondents (11%) who identified with an ethnic group other than “White/Caucasian” (89%) matches fairly closely with RID’s membership data, which was 87.7% (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, 2014, p. 58). Within the small number of respondents who did identify as “Asian/Asian-American” or “Latino/Hispanic,” a stark contrast in the prioritization of values with the overall group emerged. Those that identified as “Latino/Hispanic” or “Asian/Asian American” ranked conformity the highest of all ten value types. Conformity includes the values of “Politeness, obedience, self-discipline, honoring parents and elders” (Bardi & Schwartz, 2003, p. 1208). The mean for the overall sample, of 298 participants, ranked conformity 5th out of the ten value types. I believe this leads us to some important questions as a professional community of sign language interpreters and interpreter educators regarding recruitment and retention of interpreters from diverse cultures. What is the experience of being raised with and having a value system that often seems to contrast or even conflict with the majority of your peers/colleagues? How does the majority’s value system create barriers for others to be heard and understood?

Through my study of this topic and my own experience with Supervision Sessions as a Supervision Leader for Western Oregon University’s Professional Supervision of Interpreting Practice (PSIP) program, I have noticed that most ethical conflicts can be reframed through the lens of values (Cokely, 2000; Dean & Pollard, 2013; Glover, Bumpus, Logan, & Ciesla, 1997; Karacaer, Gohar, Aygun, & Sayin, 2009; Meckler, 2014). Most dilemmas can be rephrased by asking: How are the values I am prioritizing conflict with my team/consumer/setting in this moment? Using Schwartz’ Motivational Values Theory and Model we could teach interpreting students and emerging professionals to view professional ethics in a way that is less deontological (right vs. wrong) by framing them in terms of competing values. This could improve professional discourse and lead to deeper reflective practice. When we have the language to articulate those conflicting values, I believe we can engage in a more productive conversation about how to navigate a conflict, one that honors the integrity of all involved.

Start Early for Positive Outcomes

Beginning this self-assessment of personal value systems early in an interpreter’s career may lead to richer dialogue about the impact of those values on ethical decision making. Values not only have profound impact on the choice to become a sign language interpreter, but also the choices in which settings to work, which consumers we feel we ‘match’, and the ethical standards we practice every day.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What motivated you to become an interpreter?
  2. What values do you see represented in your response to question 1?
  3. Which values do you hold dear that have the greatest impact on your work?
  4. Identify a time in your professional history when you thought a colleague was acting unethically. How can you reframe their choices and your own choices in terms of values that were being prioritized and conflicted?


Amentrano, I. R. (2014). Teaching ethical decision making: Helping students reconcile personal and professional values. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92,154 161. doi: 10.1002/j 1556-6676.2014.00143.x

Bardi, A., & Schwartz, S. H. (2003). Values and behavior: Strength and structure of relations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29(10), 1207-1220.  doi: 10.1177/0146167203254602

Brown, D. (2002). The role of work and cultural values in occupational choice, satisfaction, and success: A theoretical statement. Journal of Counseling & Development, 80(1), 48-56. doi: 10.1002/j.1556-6678.2002.tb00165.x

Bienvenu, M. J. (1987, April). The third culture: Working together (M. L. McIntire, Trans.). Address delivered to the Sign Language Interpreters of California. Retrieved from 3330_bienvenu_thirdculture.pdf

Cokely, D. (2000). Exploring ethics: A case for revising the code of ethics. Journal of Interpretation 10(1), 25-57.

Dean, R. K., & Pollard, R. Q. (2013) The demand control schema: Interpreting as a practice profession. North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace.

Glover, S. H., Bumpus, M. A., Logan, J. E., & Ciesla, J. R. (1997). Re-examining the influence of individual values on ethical decision making. Journal of Business Ethics, 16(12/13), 1319-1329. doi: 10.1023/A:1005758402861

Karacaer, S., Gohar, R., Aygun, M., & Sayin, C. (2009). Effects of personal values on auditor’s ethical decisions: A comparison of Pakistani and Turkish professional auditors. Journal of Business Ethics, 88(53), 53-64. doi: 10.1007/s10551-0091012-4

Meckler, A. (2014, June 17). Beyond Ethics: Rules Versus Values for Sign Language Interpreters. Retrieved November 20, 2014, from

Ramirez-Loudenback, A. (2015). Are we here for the same reason? Exploring the motivational values that shape the professional decision making of signed language interpreters. (unpublished Master’s thesis). Western Oregon University. Retrieved from

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (2014). The Views. Winter, 2014. Retrieved from

Rokeach, M. (1970). Beliefs, attitudes and values: A theory of organizational change. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rokeach, M. (1979). Understanding human values individual and societal. New York, NY: The Free Press.  85

Schwartz, S. H. (1994). Are there universal aspects in the structure and contents of human values? Journal of Social Issues, 50(4), 19-45.

Schwartz, S. H. (2012). An overview of Schwartz Theory of Basic Values. Online Reading in Psychology and Culture, 2(1). doi:  10.9707/2307-0919.1116

Schwartz, S. H., Melech, G., Lehmann, A., Burgess, S., Harris, M., & Owens, V. (2001). Extending the cross-cultural validity of the theory of basic human values with a different method of measurement. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 32(5), 519-542.

Schwartz, S. H., Cieciuch, J., Vecchione, M., Davidov, E., Fisher, R., Beierlein, C., Konty, M. (2012). Refining the theory of basic individual values. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103(4), 663-588.  doi: 10.1037/a0029393

Watt, H. M., & Richardson, P. W. (2007). Motivational factors influencing teaching as a career choice: Development and validation of the FIT-Choice Scale. The Journal of Experimental Education, 75(3), 167-202. doi: 10.3200/JEXE.75.3.167-20

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IEP: Faculty Composition Impacts Sign Language Interpreter Readiness

IEP: Faculty Composition Impacts Sign Language Interpreter Readiness
By investing in a faculty rich in diversity, skills and experience, Joseph Featherstone believes Interpreter Education Programs can enhance sign language interpreting students’ readiness while upholding high standards of practice.

There’s been a lot of focus on interpreter readiness, especially for recent graduates of Interpreter Education Programs (IEP). As a Deaf person who often uses sign language interpreting services, as an educator teaching university-level ASL courses, and as a CDI, I want to share some observations and insights that will increase the likelihood that an IEP will turn out graduates who are ready to function as effective interpreters.

[View post in ASL]

Identifying Gatekeepers

I remember once getting a call from a friend who teaches ASL. She had a question about a former student of mine.

“Should I accept her into the program? Or is she going to waste a spot for a potential interpreter?”

It hadn’t occurred to me how my ASL classes impact the Deaf community by feeding ITPs and educating prospective interpreters.

At that moment, I realized, as an ASL instructor, I was a gatekeeper.     

Historically, Deaf community members acted as exclusive gatekeepers and chose who would become interpreters (Ball, 2013., Cokely, 2005., & Fant, 1990). In the 1960s and ‘70s, sign language interpreters were most often those who were already connected to the Deaf Community – children of Deaf parents, close friends, siblings, and pastors of congregations (Cokely, 2005). With time, though, government support for sign language interpreting grew, new trends emerged, and the mode of gatekeeping shifted.

Nowadays, the most common way to become an interpreter is via classroom education through schools and interpreter training programs (Ball, 2013). Due to this change, the role of gatekeeper has now expanded to include a variety of instructors from these schools and programs.

In his article, It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter, Brian Morrison says, “Rather than viewing interpreter education programs negatively or putting the sole onus on them for having not taught students all they need to know, we can shift our focus to building on their existing foundation.”

I couldn’t agree more.

After the phone call from my friend, my epiphany snowballed. I realized that as an instructor and a gatekeeper, I had the unique opportunity to prepare my students to connect into the Deaf community. I wasn’t on just one side anymore; I had a responsibility to set high standards and teach my students to these standards.

And I’m not the only one. Every instructor along a student’s journey, from those teaching introductory ASL to those teaching the most advanced IEP courses, have a dual role—teaching and gatekeeping. Everyone.

As Morrison says, it takes a village.

For that reason, I encourage IEP directors to evaluate their faculty’s backgrounds and experiences. It does take a village to raise a sign language interpreter, and it takes a village to keep the standards of sign language interpreting high.

The Village

The village, like the gatekeeper, is a metaphor. Village members represent members of the Deaf community in all their variety. In earlier times, the village helped mentor and nurture a budding interpreter to grow in language and cultural fluency.

Today, sign language interpreters are graduating and passing certifications without being immersed in that surrounding village, leaving a gap between them and the Deaf community.

As an interpreter, instructor, and Deaf individual, I’ve seen how this gap affects all of us involved in the IEP student’s journey and how it affects our roles as gatekeepers.

In addition to more and more encouragement (or a requirement) to go out and spend precious time participating in the Deaf community, I propose that IEP directors and boards bring a little bit of the village to the interpreter—for preparation and evaluation.

This sampling of the village cannot replace the knowledge, skills, and experience interpreting students gain by spending time in the Deaf community. But, a faculty that reflects the diversity of the village can help students more quickly build their knowledge, skills, and cultural fluency. And time is short to prepare interpreters to reach graduation.

Who, then, do we bring in from the village?

I’d like to introduce you to four of what I call the village elders: the Native English-Speaker, the Native ASL Signer, the Bilingual Native, and the CDI.

The Village Elders

The Native English-Speaker:

Instructors who are English natives, for whom ASL is an acquired language, aren’t difficult to find. These are hearing instructors. Because they are common, their role in the village can become ambiguous without the context of the other faculty.

As a Native English-Speaker, this elder has the distinct trait of native fluency in English. They share this English first language acquisition with most of their interpreting students. The depth of their understanding of the nuances of English can only help as they interpret in situations rich with jargon or cultural queues (e.g., a hospital visit).

In large part, Native English-Speakers can identify with their interpreter students’ journey because it is one they had to make themselves: they once had to pass by gatekeepers and gain entrance to the Deaf community and the village.

The Native ASL Signer:

Typically a deaf teacher with native ASL fluency, having a Native ASL Signer teaching ASL or ITP classes cannot be undervalued. It’s always preferable in terms of language acquisition to have a native speaker teaching the mother tongue rather than someone who learned it later. Often, the ASL native not only has a primary language learner’s understanding of ASL but also can share their experience and knowledge as a member of the Deaf community.

In the classroom, they represent the Deaf perspective on sign language interpreting. Through their instruction, IEP students can gain a better appreciation for the Deaf community and can develop a basic cultural fluency to build on outside of class.

Many IEPs do not employ Native ASL Signers for classes other than ASL. There are classes that could benefit from a Deaf native’s perspective, like ethics and translation. Wouldn’t it be amazing if each of these village elders could teach an ethics course each semester and offer their different perspectives?

The Bilingual Native:

Bilingual Natives have native fluency in both ASL and English, such as Children of Deaf Adults (CODA). Because they most likely grew up with ASL as their first language, the Bilingual Native more intimately understands the Deaf way. That’s not to say that that they are more invested in the Deaf community than those who learned ASL in school, but that their relationship with the Deaf community is more direct, and as such, they are greatly impacted by the state of the Deaf community.

Bilingual Natives also have a strong understanding of English and can teach on the intersection between the Deaf and Hearing communities, especially as it relates to interpreting.

The CDI:

This may be the most under-utilized Village Elder. A CDI can be instrumental in the holistic development of an interpreting student. Their experience as a Deaf community member and a certified interpreter helps them bridge the perspective gap between ITP students and the Deaf community. They understand the feelings of being a client, and they understand the pressures of being a sign language interpreter.

Sometimes interpreting students view Deaf teachers as skilled in the language but less able to identify with the mechanics of interpreting. CDIs like myself are able to relate on both levels. We are Deaf. We are also not just interpreters, but interpreters who are more often called in for extreme, high-stress, high-stakes interpreting situations. We typically have more experience in the trenches where interpreting mistakes can be disastrous.

The unique CDI role provides us with a distinct perspective and understanding of the interpreting process, the Code of Professional Conduct established by RID, as well as the feelings of interpreters and the recipients of interpreting services—not to mention, CDIs know firsthand the best practices for team interpreting with other CDIs and hearing interpreters.

CDIs have a lot to offer IEP students. It’s been my experience that recent graduates from programs with a CDI on faculty exhibit a more refined situational awareness.

In The End

To rephrase Morrison: “Imagine the outcomes when the new student and the [Village Elders] learn and grow from sharing their knowledge with each other.”  Skill development is quickest when in the community. For our students, that means taking every opportunity to encourage their interaction with allies, advocates, and members of the Deaf community and providing them with a faculty that reflects the strength and diversity of our community.

Questions For Consideration

  1. What skills or perspectives do you and your faculty have that contribute to the sense of the village in your program? What additional skills or perspectives could benefit your program?  
  2. How do you think IEPs can better build a sense of the village and gatekeeping?
  3. Why do you think it takes a village to raise a sign language interpreter?


  1. Ball, C. (2013). Legacies and legends: History of interpreter education from 1800 to the 21st century. Edmonton, AB: Interpreting Consolidated.
  2. Cokely, D. (2005). Shifting positionality: A critical examination of the turning point in the relationship of interpreters and the deaf community. In M. Marshcark, R. Peterson & E.
  3. Fant, L. (1990). Silver threads: A personal look at the first twenty-five years of the registry of interpreters for the deaf. Silver Spring, MD: RID Publications.
  4. Morrison, B. (2013). It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter. Retrieved September 28, 2016, from

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Where’s the Welcome Mat? Opening the Door to Deaf Interpreters

Where’s the Welcome Mat? Opening the Door to Deaf Interpreters
Deaf Interpreters (DI) bring a wealth of cultural and linguistic experience to Interpreter Education. Jeremy Rogers investigated the DI experience with Education Programs resulting in some practical recommendations for how to better welcome them to the table.


In 2014, Eileen Forestal, PhD, RSC, presented at StreetLeverage – Live in Austin, Texas. One of the most poignant statements she made was, “Deaf Interpreters have been involved every step of the way since the beginning of the profession. Deaf Interpreters are here to stay. We will shape the future of the profession for all interpreters whose work includes American Sign Language and English” (Forestal, 2014). In 2016, I found that working Deaf interpreters and Deaf interpreting students did not share the same outlook.

[View post in ASL.]

I was introduced to the concept of Deaf interpreters early on in my college education. Originally majoring in elementary education, I decided to take American Sign Language to fulfill my language requirement. I randomly selected an ASL 100 course that fit into my schedule. The instructor happened to be a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI). Eventually, I changed majors to interpreting and transferred to Gallaudet University for my Bachelor’s in Interpretation. While at Gallaudet, I regularly observed Deaf/Hearing interpreting teams, as well as Deaf/Blind interpreting done primarily by CDIs. Having such consistent exposure to Deaf interpreters falsely led me to believe that working with Deaf interpreters was common practice. I quickly realized after I returned to California that this was not the case.

When I began working as a Video Relay Service (VRS) interpreter, I was again surprised to find that we did not have Deaf interpreters in the call center. Staffing Deaf interpreters seemed like such a logical component in video relay settings, especially having such high call volume for Video Remote Interpreting (VRI) calls. What was even more surprising was the number of colleagues I had whom had never worked with a Deaf interpreter before. Some colleagues even scoffed at the idea that they would need a Deaf interpreting team; after all, they knew ASL and had been doing this for years! I soon realized this was no longer a simple theme I was encountering; it was a very serious problem.

Research Process

I began my graduate studies at Western Oregon University in 2014. After considering dozens of topics of interest, it struck me: What is Deaf interpreter education? What does Deaf interpreter education look like and how can it be most effective? The magnitude of these research questions was overwhelming. I needed expert guidance, and so I asked Carole Lazorisak, a working Deaf interpreter, to join my research committee. There was no way I could define most effective approaches to Deaf interpreter education, as I am not a Deaf interpreter; I could, however, reach out to working Deaf interpreters and Deaf interpreting students to gain insight into their educational experiences. In June of 2015, the first national Deaf Interpreter Conference was held in St. Paul, Minnesota. I mailed consent forms to St. Paul to be distributed at the conference; out of 208 registrants in attendance, 52 registrants completed and returned a consent form. 8 additional participants completed the consent form. In the end, 9 participants were selected for an interview. Interviews were conducted via videophone or online video conferencing platform and screen recorded for documentation. Interviews were then transcribed from ASL to English; initial transcriptions were returned to the interviewees for feedback and corrections, and, once approved, the transcripts were coded for data.


Findings of Research Study

While the full findings of the research study can be found below, I would like to share the more unexpected findings that came to light. I was disheartened to discover that there was such a common theme of interpersonal/intrapersonal strife amongst Deaf interpreters; that is, the negative perceptions that Deaf interpreters had of themselves, not only because of the experiences they had in interpreting programs, but also working in the field alongside hearing interpreters. Several interview participants reflected on their experiences in both interpreting programs and workshop settings and noted a strong sense of distrust by hearing interpreters; many of these same Deaf interpreters criticized the constant emphasis on interpreters’ hearing status rather than the skills and abilities they had to contribute to the interpreting process.

Perhaps the most disturbing theme that arose from the interviews conducted was the resigned acceptance of the conditions of our current climate. Several participants concluded that even though they recognized the injustices in place, there was very little to be done if they hoped to continue to work as Deaf interpreters. One participant went so far as to state, “I take it from hearing interpreters right now because I am working toward building my reputation and securing more opportunities for myself. If I am not careful with how I react, I am risking my job security” (Rogers, 2016). Another participant commented, “If the bickering and arguing and discord between Deaf and hearing teams continues, hearing interpreters are going to continue being resistant to working with us. And that means less work for us in the end” (Rogers, 2016).

Recommendations by Participants

Participants were asked for their insight and recommendations for improving Deaf interpreter education in existing interpreting programs across the nation; both working Deaf interpreters and Deaf interpreting students made the following recommendations:

  1. Stronger Deaf presence in interpreter education: participants stressed the importance of hiring more Deaf faculty members to teach in interpreting programs, as well as maintaining higher numbers of Deaf interpreting students so as to avoid any perceived or actual tokenism. Participants also encouraged interpreting programs to invite the Deaf community into the classroom to participate in interpreting exercises; this would allow for more authentic interpreting practice.
  2. Skill sets to be focused on: a strong emphasis was placed on Deaf interpreting students’ command of both English and American Sign Language, noting that being a heritage user of either language did not qualify a Deaf student as linguistically capable. In regards to curriculum design, participants generally believed that hearing and Deaf students should learn together in interpreting programs, but that some courses should taken independently to address skills specific to Deaf interpreters (i.e. gestural communication, expansions techniques, ethical decision-making practices).
  3. Support for Deaf interpreter education on a national level: as most of the participants were in attendance at the 2015 Deaf Interpreter Conference (DIC), there were several comments made in reference to the DIC. All comments made were supportive of the conference and many participants stressed the importance of continuing to provide opportunities for Deaf interpreters to gather at a national, or even regional, level; this would encourage a sharing of ideas and information, thus nurturing the growth of Deaf interpreters’ education and practice.

It is time for us, as a profession, as a community, to reflect on Forestal’s words and remember that Deaf interpreters are here

to stay. As a hearing interpreter, I am humbled and honored to have been afforded the unique opportunity to record and share the experiences of Deaf interpreters who came long before me; I wish to again thank all of the participants of this research study for their time and commitment to our work.

Questions to Consider

  1. What are your thoughts on Deaf interpreter education and curricula design?
  2. How can we address the interpersonal/intrapersonal issues plaguing the dynamics of our field?
  3. How can Deaf interpreter education gain more support on a national level?


  1. Forestal, E. (2014). Deaf Interpreters: Shaping the Future of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession. Street Leverage. Retrieved from
  2. Rogers, Jeremy, “Deaf Interpreter Education: Stories and Insights Shared by Working Deaf Interpreters and Deaf Interpreting Students” (2016). Master’s of Arts in Interpreting Studies (MAIS) Theses. Paper 31.

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Taking Ownership: Defining Our Work As Sign Language Interpreters

Taking Ownership: Defining Our Work As Sign Language Interpreters
As sign language interpreters, we understand the importance of accurately communicating concepts in our choice of words and signs. It’s time to start applying that knowledge to the way we talk about our own work.

Semantics Matter: Using Precise Language

In the field of sign language interpreting, there recently has been a shift toward doing what Napier, McGee, and Goswell (2010) have suggested – naming the actual languages involved in the interpretation. This means that the term “voicing” should not be used as it does not appropriately state what we do when we render a signed utterance into a spoken one. We interpret from ASL into English. Kelly (2004) stated that the term “voicing” is “merely a vocalization of the signs used, not a true interpretation” (p. 1). I have thought about this shift of terminology and it is befitting to better describe what we do as sign language interpreters. That trend can be seen in Interpreting Programs where classes that were once called “Sign to Voice” or “Voice to Sign” have now been renamed “ASL to English” or “English to ASL”.

[Click to view post in ASL]

If you think about it, sign language interpreters are not avatars; we do not have a script that we read off of like voice actors, we do not say exactly what the Deaf consumers with whom we work sign, we interpret. This means that we take into account the pragmatic information about the assignment, the background knowledge, culture, educational level, body language, facial expressions and what is being signed. From all of that, we then interpret what is being said, selecting words that reflect the Deaf consumer’s purpose and are idiomatic to the situation. The goal of a good ASL to English interpretation is to make it sound as natural as possible and to ensure our word choices flow with the communication context taking place.

Culturally Accurate Language Use

Somewhere along the way, sign language interpreters started to use the term “voicing” and this morphed into more than just meaning to interpret from ASL to English; now it is being used to as a synonym for talking (using audible speech) in the interpreting community. This is not how the majority of hearing culture speaks. How often have you heard someone who is not associated with the field of interpreting say, “Is it okay if we voice?” Normally, in hearing culture one may ask, “Is it okay if we talk?” It seems we forget how to speak like those outside of our field.

Sign language interpreters should be considering the hearing consumer as much as they consider the Deaf consumer. The interpretation should be such that neither of the consumers have to re-interpret what was said to make sense. Sign language interpreters should speak in idiomatic terms that sound natural to English speakers. In the hearing world the term “voice” is not typically used as a verb. It is not used to mean “speaking.” As professionals who are supposed to be bilingual and bicultural, we need to know how to make the message sound idiomatic for all parties involved. Kelly (2012) noted that the message needs to “sound or look as normal as possible to the consumers involved in the interaction” (p. 7).

At a Video Relay Service Interpreter Institute (VRSII) Interpreter Educator Symposium, Sharon Neumann Solow made a good point about the term “voicing,” explaining that to many outside of the sign language interpreting field, that term means to have an opinion included. We hear people say, “I want to voice my opinion about. . . . ” As sign language interpreters, we learn that we are not to interject our opinions into our work. When we state “I will be interpreting all communication from ASL to English and from English to ASL,” this clearly defines what we do as interpreters.

At a presentation I attended at Gallaudet, Dirksen Bauman said that he did not know he was “hearing” until he was close to twenty years old (I cannot recall the exact age he gave). For those of us who were not born into the Deaf community, we did not know the term “hearing” before we entered this field . Members of American majority culture do not use that term in their vocabulary. Carla Mathers has noted in her legal trainings that the word “hearing” should not be used when interpreting into English as it holds a completely different meaning in the courts. Again, it is important we are using terms that are used in the communities in which we work. By doing so, we are ensuring the Deaf person sounds natural and the hearing consumers do not have to reinterpret what was just said because they are not familiar with the terms used by the interpreting community.

Differences or Disservices?

If we are not using terms that are used by the hearing majority when we interpret into English, are we truly matching the speaker in a way that can be clearly understood by all? Are we doing a disservice to the Deaf consumers by making them sound “different”? If we are, are we truly bilingual? Are we truly interacting and collaborating with others in words and phrases that clearly explain the work we do?  I know that I personally can think of a few times when I used a term such as “voicing” or “hearing” and the hearing consumer asked me about it. Those terms are not native sounding in English to those outside of our field. This does a disservice to the participants. Terms are used that are unfamiliar to the hearing clients which often reflect negatively on the Deaf consumers.

We are active participants in the interpretation.  As Robert Lee stated in his StreetLeverage article, “Interpret + Person: Presentation of Self and Sign Language Interpreters”, “by not utilizing the cultural and linguistic identities we have to communicate between the Deaf and Hearing parties more naturally, we end up creating more problems.”

Over the past few years, the trend of accurately naming our work – interpreting from ASL to English – has been increasing as we work to elevate our profession. It seems that, at times, we ignore the needs of the hearing consumers and focus solely on the needs of Deaf consumers. Both are equally important and deserve messages that are delivered in ways  that are readily understood. All parties deserve an interpretation that is conveyed in a natural way.


To raise the status of our profession, we should challenge each other to speak in terms that precisely state what we do. Change does not come quickly or, at times, easily. The challenge is for all of us to start owning our work and stating what we do: we interpret into English. This can be accomplished in many simple ways. When you see the sign “VOICE”, interpret it as “speaking in English” or “spoken English” or “interpreting into English” (depending on the context). When you see the sign “VOICE-OFF”, interpret it as “there will be no speaking English” or “there will be no talking” or “do not use spoken English”. The same can be said with the sign HEARING: this can be interpreted as “people who can hear”. Teachers who work in interpreting programs should encourage students to start speaking in terms that are readily understood by the hearing populations with whom they will work. Talking to other colleagues in the profession about the work and looking at it from a more objective point of view will help all of us improve our skills. The change starts with you. We interpret from ASL into English.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What resistance may there be to stating what we do?
  2. Are you willing to change how you speak?
  3. What positive impacts can you see happening based on this slight shift in how we own our work?
  4. What other terms do we (interpreters and the Deaf community) use that could be stated more clearly?

Related Posts

Sign Language Interpreters’ Attire Leaves a First Lasting Impression by Jackie Emmart, Matt Etemad-Gilbertson, Kristy Moroney,  Lena Dumont, SooJin Chu, Laura O’Callahan, and Will English.

Do Sign Langauge Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? by Carol Padden

Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for Cultural Competence by Marlene Elliott


Kelly, J. E. (2004). ASL-to-English interpretation: Say it like they mean it. Alexandria, VA: RID Press.

Kelly, J. E. (2012), Interactive Interpreting: Let’s Talk. Alexandria, VA: RID Press.

Napier J., McKee, R., & Goswell, D. (2010). Sign language interpreting: Theory & practice in Australia & New Zealand. Sydney: Federation Press.

Bienvenu, MJ (2014). Bilingualism are sign language interpreters bilinguals?