How can sign language interpreters stay informed and engaged with legislation affecting their work? Whitney Hill discusses the power a simple blog post can have in enacting change.
During these times of economic crisis many states are making decisions and cuts that have a real impact on sign language interpreters. It is times like these when it is even more vital to pay attention to the decisions your state is making. Gathering and disseminating information on the activities impacting sign language interpreters in your state is surprisingly simple and powerfully important.
How We do it in Washington State
The Washington State Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (WSRID) has a legislative committee with only two committee members (myself and the talented Emily Deleon). When I took over the position of committee chair in December of 2011, my knowledge of how the legislative process worked consisted mostly of a certain School House Rock song. My technical expertise could be described as “basic” at best. Now, we manage a blog that tracks issues around the state and it has been surprisingly successful and easy to do. What’s our secret to keeping interpreters informed?
Before the legislative committee implemented our legislative blog we had no real efficient way to share information. WSRID had some established channels for sharing information with members and interested parties, such as a quarterly newsletter, website, e-mail blasts, Facebook page, and our annual conference. Dawn Piegdon, the Legislative Committee Chair at the time, found repeated frustration in that these channels didn’t work particularly well for disseminating legislative information in a real-time, concise manner.
The best solution appeared to be to start a blog. We have found blogging to be perfect for the dissemination of legislative information. You can view our blog here to get an idea.
Why Blogging Works
There are a couple of key reasons blogging works:
1) Reader Friendliness: If you are reading this article now, chances are I don’t have to preach to you about the ease of reading things in a blog format. If you are able to click on a link, you can access a blog. Blogs make it easy to post information real-time on the web. It is also very simple to post visual information like charts, graphs and pictures. I get regular and positive feedback about the visual information posted on our blog.
Another great thing about a blog is that it works as an archive for information. In order to ensure information is quickly accessed, we keep our posts short. If I had to explain everything going on in each post it would be difficult for readers to digest and impossible to maintain. Using a blog format allows visitors to look back at older blog posts to get caught up on the issues.
2) Technical Friendliness: With a blog you won’t need an IT professional or web designer on hand, which means the cost of setting up a blog and maintaining it are minimal to none. Once its set up and you have a feel for how the controls work you can post information on developments as they happen.
Ease of maintaining and updating our blog was really important to Dawn. She happened to choose wix.com for the WSRID blog, but there are a few free blog sites out there that anyone with a computer can figure out. I find Wix.com easy to navigate and I would recommend it to anyone thinking of starting a blog.
A Couple of Considerations
As I said before, the blog serves two of the most essential functions of the legislative committee, organizing and disseminating information. If you would like to start a blog here are some things you should consider.
1) Decide on a Site. Play around with a few different blog sites and see which one is easiest for you to navigate. Most blogs will walk first time users through the basic set-up options. You might want to only use your blog to report on issues in your state, or you may want the blog to act more like a website that houses a collection of different resources for interpreters. Our blog happens to do both and it works well for us.
2) Decide Your Approach. You have to decide how you want to leverage use of a blog for your legislative committee or watchdog organization. There are two different extremes to the approach your committee or group can take, each one has it’s own pros and cons, we happen to use a mixture of both.
a) Be Neutral. You can be neutral and just report on the facts, this is the approach watchdog groups such as Amnesty International take, even though all the articles on our blog are written with a bias toward supporting interpreter, I find taking a neutral approach is just easier for writing.
b) Support a Position. You can also take the activist approach. Activism is how a larger scale group such as Green Peace functions. As the WSRID legislative committee, we do get involved in activism activities at times such as lobbying.
How We Collect Information
There are a plethora of avenues in which your state impacts the profession. If you are starting from scratch in developing contacts or gathering information I would suggest you consider what follows:
1) Start by first looking at what legislation your state has already passed related to sign language interpreting. Then find out who the representatives are that sponsored those particular bills and contact them by phone or email and try to have them point you to other resources. Also, when talking with these individuals express interest in working with them on bills in the future.
Note, many states at least have bills related to educational interpreter standards and/or interpreter licensure.
2) Find out who else is out there with similar interests. Disability activist in your state are usually larger groups with established relationships with state representatives. Of course, if your local chapter of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) has a legislative or watchdog committee, reach out to them.
3) State Contracts. Understand how your state works with interpreters. Here in Washington State we spend a lot of time watching state entities such as the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). They are one of the largest consumers of sign language interpreter services in the state; hence they have a very large contract with sign language interpreters. Often times, that contract is used as basis for the development of other contracts involving sign language interpreters so it is important to watch for changes to these agreements.
4) Ask for information! Also, this may sound overly obvious, but something that continues to surprise me, is that the state will largely tell you want to know if you just ask. In Washington, we have a public disclosure request law (Chapter 42.56 RCW, The Public Records Act) to enable us to gather information on contracts the state holds with sign language interpreters. Freedom of information legislation entitles you to any data the state holds that does not harm others. These laws are often referred to as open legislation, or sunshine laws.
5) The Legislature. Don’t be intimidated to talk to your representatives! A good starting place is your own representatives. Figuring out who your representatives are and how to contact them is quick and easy to do with help of the Internet. They make it easy because they want to hear from you.
6) Collaborate. Here in Washington, we work with groups that seek to protect the interests of people with disabilities to meet our representatives. Also, we try to go to legislative Meet-and-Greets to spread awareness to our representatives about current issues or general awareness of what sign language interpreters do.
The connections you form with your representatives are invaluable. They will remember you later when they are faced with making decisions about the issues that affect our field.
7) Watch Bills and Budgets. There is no way that one person could pour over every bill and budget looking for potential impacts on sign language interpreters, and I would never have the time or the patience to do that myself. What I have done is develop contacts with the people who are paid to do that, for example state agencies or Deaf centers usually have many eyes on funding and legislative changes. Chances are that if something has come up in a bill or a budget involving sign language interpreters, they can point me in the direction of where to find it.
I also highly recommend developing contacts with organized spoken language interpreter groups. We try to get on email subscriptions lists and list serves to stay current on their information. Also, we try to show up at their meetings to stay abreast of the issues they face around the state.
The reason why it is important to connect with the people who write legislation is that they do not understand the difference between sign language and spoken language interpreters, and often times overlook the distinction when writing a bill or policy. The results can have unintended consequences on us as sign language interpreters. We have also found, here in Washington, in an attempt to save costs entities are trying to combine both sign/spoken language interpreters into shared contracts. Because of the recent unionization of spoken language interpreters in our state, this makes those contracting issues even more complex.
How We Disseminate Information
Now that you have gathered information how do you get people to read it? Our current process has been mostly to rely on WSRID’s already established channels of communication with members and affiliates, but we are always trying to find new ways to get the blog out there.
The WSRID board has been very supportive in using their established forms of communication such as e-mail blasts, the newsletter, their website, and their Facebook page to alert interested parties to updates on the blog. Word of mouth and personal connections are old fashioned techniques but still the most effective way to get interpreters interested in the information we have gathered.
Other Ideas to Consider
Some other ideas that I have been thinking about, but have not yet implemented are:
1) Working together with local Deaf organizations to share information impacting sign language interpreters with their members. Involving our Deaf allies is always a priority because issues that impact sign language interpreters never really only impact sign language interpreters.
2) Using a vlog as a supplement to the current blog with a native ASL user is something we would also love to implement. The current technology allows us to add this feature quite easily, finding volunteers for the task has proven to be the bigger challenge.
3) Lobbying together with local Deaf organizations is another great avenue for collaboration. Unfortunately, we have not yet had the opportunity to do this, but hopefully that will arise in the near future.
4) Twitter is another social media outlet I have toyed with the idea of using. I use it myself but do not see enough of my peers using it to consider it a viable option to increase visibility for the blog yet.
5) Using town halls or open forums: this is another old-fashioned technique that works really well when you can pull off all of the logistics. WSRID organized a town hall recently to address a divisive issue related to our contract with Medicaid that came up. It was very successful.
You Can Do It!
I hope the idea of starting your own blog to keep sign language interpreters informed sounds a little less frightening to you now. There are no prerequisites for the job except for an interest in the issues impacting our field, a computer, and an Internet connection. Good luck to you all out there. We all are the stewards of our profession and are the ones responsible for eliciting positive change from the people we elect to represent us.
What is being done in your state to share information?