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Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

Through recognizing the humanity in ourselves and Deaf people, and working towards a goal, our work can become much less stressful.

I think as Video Relay Service interpreters we have done ourselves a disservice in the way we talk about ourselves, our callers and our work. Generally, when we describe working in a call center, we either underplay it (“I’m ‘just’ interpreting phone calls”), or grossly exaggerate (“We interpret sex calls! We interpret for drug deals!”). The truth of the matters lies somewhere in between and is infinitely more interesting and gratifying.

[Click to view post in ASL]

The Mechanics of VRS

First, a better visual description of the mechanics of VRS work. Imagine an old-fashioned Bingo blower machine. The balls are whirling around in the chamber, and then one is randomly pulled into the chute for the number to be called. This is each inbound call that is received. The only slight difference is that each time, the ball (caller) is returned to the chamber once it has been called (call completed). Over time, the same number will come up again. This means that while VRS calls appear randomly for the interpreters, we will sometimes see the same number (caller) again. Sometimes, in a single day we will see all distinct callers. A different person every single time. However, it does happen that over the course of a day, a week, a month, callers will be seen over and over again.

The Intimate Nature of VRS

A relationship (such as it is) is established with these callers, whom we may never meet in person. Having worked as a sign language interpreter in VRS for many years, I have been able to witness people’s lives in fits and starts. I am aware of people getting married, having children, seeing the children grow up, parents dying and all other aspects of life. It is a privilege I do not take lightly.

We are also physically seeing into people’s homes, places of work, and other spaces they occupy over time. This is very intimate knowledge we gain and is not often what a freelance/community interpreter would experience. Often, assignments out in the community have a more constructed environment. In those instances, Deaf people are seen in their doctor’s office, in their classroom, in their job site. Our callers are putting a lot of faith in us as interpreters, not only interpret their communication, but to also hold sacred all that we are privy to during the course of each phone call.

Business Owners and VRS

In addition to the intimate types of calls VRS interpreters experience, we interpret daily for Deaf callers who are doing their business, making their living, over the phone. As we see these callers repeatedly, we get into a rhythm of what those calls will be like. We learn the lingo/jargon of their various occupations, we get used to their way of interacting with their customers, and their idiosyncrasies. As this working relationship is established, we are able to make agreements about sign choices, ways of interacting with their customers, etc. Over time, it becomes easier and more comfortable to settle into the task at hand. I am sure this goes both ways. Hopefully the callers become comfortable with the interpreters over time. We become “colleagues” in a way. We want their businesses to succeed, and we do our best to make that happen!

Highlighting Human Interaction

All of this is a reminder to see each other as humans in an interaction. Of course there are rules and regulations for VRS, which we must follow, but I have found if we prioritize being human, all of that falls into place anyway. In some ways, the structure of the VRS system has pushed sign language interpreters back into the “machine model” of interpreting. It seems that we have allowed ourselves to backslide to this mindset. This is unfortunate, as it further separates us from our Deaf callers. This is where I believe some of the struggles and negative attitudes come into play with VRS work. The fact that we are doing this work through the internet, and are not in the same physical space as our Deaf customers, should not mean that there are additional barriers to our communication. I feel it’s important for video interpreters to actively seek that human connection. As Brandon Arthur stated in his StreetLeverage – Live 2015 recap, “a fundamental truth about the field of sign language interpreting…success is derived from first acknowledging the humanity of the people in front of you. Simple. Challenging. True.”

I believe that if we really see ourselves as humans first, and our Deaf callers as humans before anything else, our work will actually become almost effortless. This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

  1. Connecting with our callers as humans is done when we are not actively involved with interpreting the conversation. A warm smile, admiring a scarf, waving at cute babies, cooing over kittens. The more familiar and comfortable we are with callers over time, the more we can settle in and do the work with ease, and all involved can be satisfied by a job well done. Even if we are faced with a caller we have never seen before, if we could assume this attitude, that callers are human as we are, therefore comfortable and familiar, all our calls can be smoother.

  1. Using care when discussing the work with others is also critical in maintaining a focus on the humanity of those we work with. When I talk about my work to non-interpreters, I make sure to talk about working with humans, and the fact that working with humans is demanding.  Think of nursing, teaching, and other jobs where you are constantly interacting with people in all their joy and pain. When we as interpreters talk with each other, while protocol indicates that we refer to “callers”, I think this limits us as well. We need to recognize the humanity we encounter daily.

  1. Recognizing the shared experiences we have with callers also helps keep our focus on the human factor. When explaining VRS to others, I also try to explain that every type of phone call that a hearing person makes, a Deaf person also makes. Did you call your mother today? Was your conversation pleasant? Did it make you feel like a little kid again? Did you get mad and hang up? What about calls to set up doctor appointments or get test results? Telling the school your child will be out sick? Hanging out on the phone shooting the breeze with an old friend? Hours arguing with Comcast? This is what we do everyday!

In The End, Rise to the Challenge

Sure, we can talk about the stats and productivity rates of VRS work. We can talk about the anxiety that comes with not knowing what’s coming our way next. We can talk about compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. I will admit there have been times when I have interpreted very difficult, painful conversations after which I have removed my headset and walked out of the call center. I knew I would be no good for any subsequent callers, therefore I took care of myself, and them. However, I know I have settled into all of that. I enjoy the thrill of the unknown. I feel I can rise to the challenge of whatever comes my way. Interpreting in VRS becomes easier the more I can approach my work with curiosity, compassion and a spirit of collaboration with my fellow humans.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What is a key phrase you can use to internally remind yourself that we are all human?
  2. By treating each other humanely, in what ways can your work product be improved?
  3. Suppose you’re not “feeling it”; what are some things you can do physically to make it seem like you are, or steer yourself towards a more positive outlook?

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The Five Step Path to Resiliency for Sign Language Interpreters

Resiliency Among Sign Language Interpreters

How can sign language interpreters recognize our differences yet move toward positive change in our field? Stephanie Criner highlights the importance of mindfulness in listening to spur connection and engagement for change.

One of the strengths of our community of practice is our diversity of thought, background, and belief systems – it is also is what poses the greatest challenge when we come together to create positive change. The potential outcome in deepening our abilities and our commitment to dialogue is that while alone we don’t have the ‘answers’, together we can create them. I believe we’ve taken some first steps toward a true dialogic exchange, and we still have some challenges to overcome in understanding what dialogue is, how we must create the space to really have honest exchanges of perspectives, and talk to each other instead of talking past each other.

The Goal of Understanding

Dialogue is both the act of expressing ones thoughts and, equally importantly, the act of listening with the goal of understanding what’s at the heart of the discussion. The hazard of not placing an emphasis on understanding is that we get closer to debate than dialogue. Debate is zero sum—one right answer/one winner, either/or, pro/con—this isn’t to say there isn’t a place for debate but is it our ‘default’? If the goal is to transcend diverse perspectives and include a myriad of ‘voices’, we need a way to expand our conversations not to restrict them.

Creating ‘Other’

What can complicate our ability to understand is the creation of the ‘other.’ It prevents us from suspending judgment and ‘hearing’ perspectives or values that we perceive as negative. It is easy to fall into creating ‘stories’ that allow us to alienate and separate – they are certified/they aren’t certified; they have a degree/they don’t have a degree; they have deaf parents/they don’t have deaf parents—the ‘vilified other’ makes it easier to marginalize and discount those views that clash with our own. Perhaps we’ve had a bad experience with a member of ‘the other’, how is it we can stop reacting to our ‘ghosts’ and spring back as individuals and as a community of practice and move upstream?

People Not Villains

In the weeks after 9/11, I was involved in a series of resiliency dialogues to bring together members of our very diverse community in a safe space to share feelings, values, and perspectives. In a time of national pain and violence, I was struck by the power of listening to, what was at that time, ‘the other’. During one of these dialogues, several Muslim women shared their experiences–their dread in hearing that Muslims were involved, their experience of being verbally insulted, and their fear for their personal safety, because they wore a ḥijāb. Those exchanges didn’t erase the differences between us–it did, however, serve as a powerful antidote to the ‘poison’ of the time—a reminder that there were people behind those differences, not villains.

5 Steps to Beyond Otherness

One: Ask Real Questions

How do we get past this ‘otherness’? One of the most powerful tools in dialogue are questions–real, curious, inquiring questions—the kind that lead to deeper understanding of the ‘heart’ of an issue, why it is important to that person, and gets to the values underpinning their dialogue. Questions that come from a place of curiosity and discovery allow for movement in what might have been considered an irreconcilable difference. What do they believe to be true to have that view of the issue? Being curious also frees us from our debate ‘default’ where we have the tendency to listen for points of disagreement, where the person’s logic is faulty, or have an ad hominem type of thinking where we disagree with ‘who’ the person is and then are unable to process what they are saying. The result is we end up talking past each other and not to each other.

Two: Re-make the Map

Kuhn in this book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, suggested that ‘revolutions’ and leaps forward in progress are created when new questions are asked of previously-held beliefs and the result is a totally different ‘map’ for future directions—a true paradigm shift (he actually coined the phrase). The potential for ‘remapping’ exists for our professional organization in the motion that was recently passed to establish an ad hoc committee to ‘review the RID philosophy, Mission, Goals, Diversity Statement, and Strategic Priorities.’ This group will make recommendations to the membership and Board. How can we ensure that we engage the largest number stakeholders in these reviews and recommendations? How can we create an organizational culture of dialogue around this effort? The larger the number of voices that contribute to re-making the map, the more powerful the buy-in, and the more indelible the progress.

Three: Contribute More Than Criticize

The challenge then becomes how to include large numbers of individuals in the dialogue and how do we create a space that is engaging and safe for this multitude of ‘voices’? While most of us would agree that it is an RID members’ personal responsibility to be engaged, there is also the reality that without a safe space within which to offer those views, it won’t happen.

Volunteering your opinion is an act of courageous engagement.

Brené Brown who presented a Ted talk on vulnerability and listening to shame said this, ‘I don’t think engagement can happen without vulnerability, and I definitely don’t think it can happen in the midst of shame.’ How is it that we, as a collective,’ can take responsibility for the creation of safe dialogue spaces?’ Brené may also have the answer when she said her goal, ‘at the end of every day, and at the end of every week, and at the end of my life, I want to be able to say I contributed more than I criticized.’

Four: Allow for Difference

As Laura Wickless mentioned in her article, Vulnerability: A Collaboration Killer, ‘so many of us fear being mocked, criticized, and torn to shreds by fellow practitioners that we avoid taking worthwhile risks.’ If we want positive change and to make engagement less risky, we must find ways to value experience and personal narrative and the expression of those experiences in ways that are not critical or attacking. It will be a space that allows for difference and actively seeks perspectives from those that may feel disenfranchised—interpreters with deaf parents, faith-based interpreters, interpreters of color, educational interpreters, and others.

Five: Create a Space

It will be important that the space that’s created, whether virtual or physical, be one that can absorb multiple views and ways of engagement. Not all of us are comfortable with external processing and formulating thoughts ‘on the fly’. There are personality types who process internally and need a moment before they are ready to share their views. Can we purposefully create some silence in our dialogue space that allows for everyone to feel confident in participating? Not all of us feel confident in our public speaking or writing abilities, which may chill our level of participation. Can we create spaces that are inviting and patient that allow for everyone regardless of linguistic aptitude to share their ideas?

Mini-Mindfulness

Ultimately, we can each make small, every day contributions to larger, system-wide transformations. The nuggets that I receive from colleagues and friends—some from an in-person conversation, some through an IM, or a Facebook post—all create bits of mini-mindfulness that ultimately help make me resilient, open to dialogue with others, and growth. True, often we work in physical isolation, how is it we can ask new questions of old paradigms and overcome that isolation? Many of us work in settings where there are numerous colleagues; do we make the most of those interactions or miss opportunities to participate in dialogue that can move us all forward?

Revolutions of Thought and Practice

It is safe to say that most of us have no desire, either individually or as a professional organization, to mirror the current political environment of debate and polarization. It is destructive, the opposite of engaging, and disheartening. Dialogue that creates conversations that respect and appreciate a multitude of contributions, that are inquisitive and curious, and that allow for revolutions of thought and practice is the path forward.

Perhaps we can’t change the world, but we can certainly change our footprint.

 

References

Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996. Asking new questions of old data on pages 139, 159. Moving beyond “puzzle-solving” on pages 37, 144. Change in rule sets on pages 40, 41, 52, 175. Change in the direction or “map” of research on pages 109, 111.

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What Role Does Civility Play in the Sign Language Interpreting Profession?

If actions speak louder than words, what does our everyday conduct say to our colleagues, students and stakeholders? Carolyn Ball discusses how civility can enhance the work and relationships of sign language interpreters.

If the work we do as sign language interpreters requires that we convey messages not only with words but also with our demeanor, shouldn’t we consider what our demeanor conveys?  I propose that demeanor is the face of civility and the effective use of civil behavior can enhance all aspects of the sign language interpreting profession.

Incivility

The significance of civility was summarized succinctly in a single sentence by Sheila Suess Kennedy (1997), “We cannot find common ground without civility, and we cannot solve our problems without finding common ground” (p. 164).   Additionally, Sara Hakala (2012) suggests,  “Polite and respectful behavior is vanishing from our world today. Bullying, hostile and polarizing political interactions, tasteless and tactless comments delivered without discretion, everyone talking at once but nobody listening — we are treating one another badly in our day-to-day lives and our relationships are fragmenting and deteriorating as a result” (pp. 1-2).

We see examples of incivility daily.  On television, during an award ceremony a famous musician has the microphone ripped out of her hand by another musician while delivering her acceptance speech. On the road, we are cut off and it ruins the rest of our day. We are angered that this person dares to get away with this type of behavior. In our work, when an interpreting colleague offers a “feed” at a time that is not appropriate for our own interpreting process.  Or when an interpreter colleague offers critical feedback that was not sought out by the working interpreter? Small instances of incivility like these can cause further spinoffs of incivility that send ripples forward to other people we encounter.

Dr. P. M. Forni (2010) shares, “In opinion surveys, Americans say incivility is a national problem – one that has been getting worse” (p. 146).

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can end the cycle. Sara Hacala (2012), champions the idea that civility is a mind-set that encompasses values and attitudes that help us embrace our shared humanity and society.

Forni’s work emphasizes how closely civility and ethics are tied. But what is civility and how does it apply to sign language interpreting? Although we talk frequently about a professional code of conduct, and respect for those we encounter, have we left civility out of our fundamental, daily practice?

The Fundamentals

Beyond a code of conduct, understanding the importance and value of a code of decency has the potential to lead us to a more civil approach to life. Decency can take on many forms and yet, at times, is very difficult to exemplify.  With the dawn of technology and in a world of quick responses, clearly conveying meaning can be difficult.  A quick email from a colleague may be taken as an impersonal and cold communication, but in reality, intentions may be overlooked.  Perhaps in writing the email, they were simply in a hurry. Rather than assuming the best, we often are insulted at the rudeness of the email. How can we increase awareness regarding the importance of civility in a world that relies on speed?  How can we increase awareness when a lack of regard for how others may perceive our messages is standard place?

What about civility and decency in sign language interpreting and interpreter education? Would increased civility in the field of interpreting allow us to find solutions to the problems and challenges currently facing the field? Would an increased awareness of civility allow us to support our colleagues, find solutions to the thorny problems surrounding certification, and better help our future interpreters work and interact with the world with equanimity?

Civility & Leadership

In considering the importance of civility we must also consider how civility relates to leadership, and vice versa. Leadership is commonly thought of as a process in which an individual leads or influences others. Great leaders embody civility.  According to Forni (2010), choosing to be a civil leader should be a central concern in our lives. He also believes that civility is not a philosophical abstraction but a code of decency that can be applied in everyday life.

Franklin Roosevelt said, “Without leadership that is alert and sensitive to change, …we lose our way” (Leuchtenburg, 1995, p. 28). Strong attributes of civility and decency often epitomize strong and revered leaders.  Do the leaders of our profession embody civil leadership?  Is there room for change?

Sign language interpreters and interpreter educators alike can benefit from increasing leadership skills that increase sensitivity and responsiveness; both imbue civility. Interpreter educators have wide reaching spheres of influence and lead many students headlong into their careers.  But, do they see themselves as leaders who demonstrate civility? Do they see themselves as leaders at all? By placing a strong and explicit emphasis on civility, new interpreters are more likely to be successful. For example, it is clear that working in the interpreting profession depends on repeat business.  Interpreters who have strong interpersonal skills are more likely to be employed and remain employed. Further, patrons of interpreting services prefer, and even seek services from, companies and individuals who have a good command of civility.

Compassion

Interpreter educators can facilitate civility in the classroom by teaching compassionately. Compassionate teaching includes respect for students, helping them realize their full potential. In order to reach full potential as well-integrated members of society and the sign language interpreting profession, students must be exposed to civility through educators and curriculum.

Compassionate teachers increase their students’ awareness of civility and, as a result, students will be able to develop civility in self-expression and become mindful of civility.  This will play out in their demeanor, the face of civility.  Resulting in the advancement and promotion of effective business communication strategies that will, in turn, have a positive and cascading effect on those with whom they interact. Conversely, an underdeveloped expression of civility will have a negative effect and may play a role in consumer dissatisfaction.

Civility & Repeat Business

If all interpreters, educated through formal training, were given a clear sense of the importance of civility in the workplace and in interactions with colleagues, perhaps more recent graduates would benefit from repeat business and high levels of job satisfaction.  We might also expect them to go on to become leaders in the field, or even educators themselves.   Instead, many new interpreters and graduates get burned out without ever fully understanding why.

With the current shortage of sign language interpreters, do interpreter educators have an obligation to convey the importance of civility to their students?

I acknowledge the room for disagreement in the house of civility.  But to close, I will side with Emerson and his belief that, “life is not so short, but there is always time for courtesy” (1894).

What role can civility play in interpreting?

 

References

Bain, K. (2004) What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Emerson, R. W. (1894). The sage of concord. M. Watkins (Ed.), American Literature. New York: American Book Company.

Forni, P.M., (2010, July 20). Why civility is necessary for society’s survival.

Dallas News.  Retrieved on September 13, 2012 at http://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/sunday-commentary/20100723-p.m.-forni-why-civility-is-necessary-for-society_s-survival.ece

Forni, P. M., (2002) Choosing civility the twenty-five rules of considerate conduct.  New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Hacala, S., (2012). Saving Civility: 52 Ways to tame rude, crude and attitude for a polite planet. Skylight Paths, Woodstock, VT.

Kennedy, Sheila Suess. (1997) What’s a nice republican girl like me doing in the ACLU. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.