Posted on

Linguistic Flexibility: Success Decoded for K-12 Sign Language Interpreters

Linguistic Flexibility: Success Decoded for K-12 Sign Language Interpreters

Decoding language requires linguistic competence and flexibility. Jessica Carter discusses the importance of flexible bilingualism for sign language interpreters, especially those working in K-12 and educational settings.


As bilinguals, as in having proficiency in two languages, ASL interpreters code switch on a daily basis, at a moment’s notice. ASL-English interpreters typically do this by borrowing English lexicon or formats for specificity, to match the language considerations of consumers, and to derive equivalent messages from the source to target language. However, code switching goes deeper than that.

[View post in ASL.]

Applied Linguistics

Code switching is defined in linguistics as the mixing of two or more languages or language varieties in production. This term is often used interchangeably in the various fields of linguistic study with the term code mixing. It is displayed throughout phases of language learning, both holistically and as new vocabulary is introduced in order to fill gaps in language skills. While in the past we may have thought of code mixing as a weakness in the target language, e.g. borrowing an English word by fingerspelling or not knowing the English term and choosing to display the concept in ASL, more recent sociolinguistic research is suggesting that code switching is a tool of bilinguals. This has been seen in bilingual education and TESOL settings worldwide. Discussions conclude that bilinguals (and multilinguals) use this tool repeatedly in various ways: unconsciously as a bilingual individual, to fit in with others, to develop skills and relationships, to tell a secret, and to help express a thought. On a personal and professional level, I believe that we can all derive at least one of our own stories of code switching for each of these five reasons. This is what is being called flexible bilingualism1,2. Some examples might include:

  • matching a consumer’s language preference whether that means transliterating PSE, tactile signing (TASL), SEE-like signing, or ASL
  • stealthy signing to a friend across a room of non-signers
  • classifier-like iconic gesturing while speaking in English to describe an object

Flexible bilingualism is the thought that pragmatic language in the bilingual brain is adjustable, accommodating, and even pliable. ASL/English users are bilingual and multimodal; we are able to use the aspects and lexicon of two languages to achieve our goals rather than being constrained by one set of rules and expression. The Deaf/hard of hearing community exhibits this diglossic behavior and way of thinking instantaneously as a way of life and means for education and communication. Diglossia is explained as using two languages, or language varieties, under different circumstances. For the ASL using community this is seen in their need to have knowledge of two languages in order to socialize within their community and access interpreting, as well as in order to read, write, and access education, and/or to independently communicate with non-signers. This community exhibits code switching as diglossic people by using both ASL and English as a means for daily life by shifting between the two languages on a constant. Not to mention their abilities to switch between signing variations in the U.S. (SEE, PSE, etc.) in order to meet the needs of communication in their given circumstances while navigating the Deaf and Hearing worlds. This is a powerful tool and communication advantage – keep it close by and refine it.

The flexible bilingualism that native users of ASL have, and will develop throughout their lives and education, is an aspect of their variation and language power as a community. To notice this as interpreters is a descriptivist point of view. Descriptivists take a nonjudgmental point of view that accepts language as it is used and can be tweaked in use for a variety of reasons. A previously noted trend in sign language interpreter education to lean toward prescriptivism3, a predetermined notion of the rules that govern a language to create a pure or superior form of language, limits an interpreter’s opportunity for flexibility. Prescriptivism has its place in language. When writing an academic paper, I am a prescriptivist; when interpreting, I am largely descriptivist. Native English speakers exhibit flexibility in language (L1) use often with diverse speech patterns. For example, we may speak in an accent for affect, stress an atypical phoneme in a word, or toss in a word or phrase of a second language known. Capisce? Now, we can use the same techniques as a bilingual to create similar effects in our L2, ASL, production patterns – similar to the ways that we observe native ASL users.

Educational Interpreting

In an educational setting, most particularly K-12 educational interpreting, flexible bilingualism is an advantage that can be elevated beyond matching students’ language needs. It can be used in a variety of settings that students may be in, i.e. speech and language pathology settings, reading programs, English lexicon decoding, English phonics/syllable learning, affect and intonation, academic vocabulary recognition, etc. Keep thinking and expanding this list.

I encountered a student who uses flexible bilingualism in order to display phonetic aspects of English by applying syllabic fingerspelling in a functional way at the decoding level. That is POWER. At the sight of this power, I adjusted and learned from the student to both meet the student’s needs and enhance my interpreting skills. This is how educational interpreting should be – flexible. The idea is for sign language interpreters in education to heighten flexibility skills to allow for further accommodation of language modeling and teaching in academic settings. Educational interpreters can supply students and educators not only with an interpretation, but a closure of the power imbalance by modeling language, including strategies of flexible bilingualism, and improving academic language in a parallel and equivalent manner between English and ASL.

As interpreters, we are guided to understand that “qualified educational interpreters/transliterators are a critical part of the educational day for children who are deaf or hard of hearing” (RID, 2010)4. Part of being qualified is knowing our students and using our tools appropriately. The ingenuity of our tools and our flexibility in using them can guide in facilitating learning in all settings. When a sign language interpreter fingerspells key words and academic language, he/she is providing access to academic English vocabulary and contributing to the students’ ability to decode English words and recognize them by signs and concepts5. Meanwhile, the students’ knowledge of ASL, a visual, conceptual language, provides them with an on-the-spot dictionary in their bilingual brain as they read in English. The leverage that an educational interpreter holds in providing a parallel between English and ASL has an effect on children’s language skills in both decoding and fluency. This is influential, especially in regards to their diglossic status. So as educational interpreters, let’s start thinking in terms of language education. We can do this by focusing on our status as bilinguals and the advantages that status offers us. It takes years for people to develop fluency in their native language and users have mastery at various levels dependent on education, ability, and efforts. Language development for bilinguals is similar, requiring continuous cultivation and expansion of the L2. Bilinguals are lifelong language learners.

Addressing the Linguistic Minority Dilemma

Whether we have experienced the subjugation of ASL ourselves or have only seen/heard stories of misunderstandings and the language oppression of ASL users, we know that it exists. Varying autocratic behaviors which portray Sign languages as inferior (e.g. “not a real language,” “a language of disability,” “a manual representation of English,” “universal language,” etc.) exist heavily in mainstream education. This may be one of the most difficult parts of an educational interpreter’s job, linguistic advocacy. Educational interpreters must possess the linguistic competency to explain the comparison of languages, bridge sociocultural gaps, and support deaf literacy and academia in order to ameliorate this issue. To expose mainstream educators to the diversity in language, the limitations of translation and assistive technology, the tools of a bilingual, and to what interpreters do is to lead the change in their knowledge and perspectives on educating the deaf/hard of hearing. Admittedly this is a heavy burden to carry, so as professionals we must humanistically approach each linguistic encounter to learn. It’s high time we raise the expectations and reputations of interpreted education. Keep cultivating your tools, be rooted in the Deaf community, and exhibit flexibility in educational interpreting.

Questions to consider:

  1. Can you recall an experience when you adhered to a prescriptivist view of language?
  2. How familiar are you with the IEP/504 processes?
  3. On a personal note – what is your involvement with the Deaf community outside of your 9:00 am – 5:00 pm profession?


1An excellent study on identity and language prejudice in regards to flexible bilingualism, Preece, Sian. “An Identity Transformation? Social Class, Language Prejudice and the Erasure of Multilingual Capital in Higher Education.” The Routledge Handbook of Language and Identity.

2For flexible bilingualism in schools relating to bilingual education see, Creese, A., & Blackledge, A. (2011, April). Separate and Flexible Bilingualism in Complementary Schools: Multiple Language Practices in Interrelationship. Retrieved November, 2016, from

3For thoughts on prescriptivism in sign language interpreter education see “Respecting Language: Sign Language Interpreters as Linguistic Descriptivists” by Steven Surrency, available at

4RID standard practice paper for K-12 interpreting, An overview of K-12 educational interpreting. (2010). Retrieved November, 2016, from

5Educational interpreting guidelines of the EIPA from

Posted on

Building Trust: Accepting the Mantle of Sign Language Interpreter

Building Trust - Accepting the Mantle of Sign Language Interpreter

Trustworthiness is a trait all sign language interpreters must embody. Wing Butler posits that it is our duty to display our commitment and trustworthiness at all times, on-the-job and off.

Trust is a huge part of the sign language interpreting profession. As ASL interpreters, we are representatives of our clients, our profession, and at times the entire Deaf community. At the end of the day, our job is a commitment to honor those we represent and the mantle they’ve entrusted to us.

[View post in ASL.]

The Epitome of Honor

That much responsibility can feel daunting, but sign language interpreting isn’t the only occupation with such a high level of trust. One of my favorite examples of taking on a mantle for a job—and one that comes with high expectations of conduct—is the elite Tomb Guard of Arlington Cemetery.

These sentinels guard the famous Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. According to their official website, those who train for this rigorous assignment must meet the highest standards, “including following strict rules, training guidelines, and the need for complete dedication and commitment to the Tomb.” The Tomb Guard have been watching this tomb 24 hours a day, 7 days a week since 1937! No matter what the weather is like, there is always a Tomb Guard present.

After 9 months of service at the tomb, these soldiers receive the Tomb Guard Identification Badge (TGIB). This award is symbolic of their dedication to the tomb, a dedication they are expected to honor for the rest of their days. Even when the guards become civilians, the TGIB can be revoked for committing a serious offense that discredits the Tomb of the Unknowns.

In many ways, I feel that sign language interpreters should honor our position just like the Tomb Guard. Ours is a job that can be called on at any time, in any condition. Beyond that, sign language interpreters protect the communities we serve. We’re defenders, helping people navigate tricky situations that could end disastrously if we aren’t doing our job right. And often, no one will ever know if we’re doing our jobs correctly or not. This high level of trust is precisely why our actions and words matter, even when we’re off the clock. Recently I’ve noticed that many in our community are not living up to our professional standards the way we should.

An Awkward Situation

Just this year, I was in a group of interpreters at a regional event, waiting for our next assignment. I was an interpreter from out of state, and the downtime gave me a chance to meet the local interpreter professionals. As many conversations do, it turned into a discussion about our profession: ethics, organizational decisions, and the injustices some find in our craft. Then the discussion turned to the ever-common topic of the national professional organization’s financial decisions—and how much my peers disagreed with them, to the point of emotional vitriol.

As the criticism became harsher and harsher, I found myself slipping to the back of the group. These interpreters had no idea I had left the treasurer position just a couple of months prior. I tried to diffuse the situation by asking if anyone in the group had watched the treasurer’s latest report. The video addressed many of the issues they were complaining about. But they didn’t follow my lead. Instead, the blaming and ill-will finding marched on until I finally told them the truth: that I had recently left the treasurer position. All the interpreters stared at me in shock—and quickly moved the entire conversation to a more supportive, civil place.

Consider The Shadows We Cast

Loud complaining always has the potential to embarrass the complainer, but that isn’t why I’m sharing this story. I’m more concerned about the deeper consequences of being publicly hostile toward viewpoints we disagree with. And how simple venting and unproductive negativity is harming our professionalism as interpreters. Whether we like it or not, our behavior directly impacts our integrity and our trustworthiness as representatives and guests of the Deaf community. We must pay special attention to our actions at all times so we can be worthy of greater trust through greater professionalism.

The Path to Greater Professionalism

How do we become more trustworthy? Our Code of Professional Conduct is a great place to start, but here are some other suggestions to help us stay professional as sign language interpreters.

1.  Show Respect through Restraint

No matter how you shake it, our public behavior off the clock—whether that’s in person or over social media—has consequences for our reputations as interpreters. This is exactly why we need to honor our profession through thoughtful consideration of our actions.

Too many of us are taking our role lightly by posting anything and everything online. Even when we’re expressing disagreement or sharing ideas, the key to showing professional restraint is keeping our expression civil even when it’s tempting not to. In the spirit of keeping things civil, there are certainly opinions that shouldn’t be expressed in public at all. To know which ones, try out the elevator test outlined in my StreetLeverage article “Does Social Networking Impair Sign Language Interpreter Ethics?”

2.  Watch Out for Intergroup Bias

Humans naturally identify with other humans that are like them, whether it’s a sports team, a family, hearing people, deaf people, or people who share a common profession—like sign language interpreting. We all naturally favor the “us” that’s like you and disfavor the “them” that’s unlike you. Psychologists call this concept intergroup bias. According to Professor Mina Cikara, research suggests that an “us versus them” mentality is one of the key factors that drives groups to collective violence. This violence can be as small as hostile discussion or as widespread as genocide.

Intergroup bias is running rampant in our society, but I would suggest that our interpreting community has much more to lose by engaging in intergroup bias. As we’re striving to be trustworthy in our profession, we must all make a concerted effort to stop vilifying others around us. Let’s stop looking for a “them” to blame for our problems and start listening as we try to understand perspectives different from our own.

3.  Share Opinions in a Spirit of Empathy

This one is always a good idea. Are we expressing opinions to share of ourselves and build up the world around us? Are we open to thoughtful, understanding discussions? Even with people who disagree with our beliefs?

In my StreetLeverage Live presentation “Status Transactions: The ‘It’ Factor in Sign Language Interpreting,” I talked all about the power of humility in an interpreter. It is truly an act of humility to slow down, listen to others, and consider both sides. It takes time and it certainly requires effort, but giving other people the benefit of the doubt can improve both our professional and personal lives. Empathetic listening and seeking the truth is the fastest way to come up with creative solutions to our problems. Which brings me to my final point . . .

4.  Focus on Positive Action

Going back to my experience with my fellow interpreters, that entire situation could have gone very differently. All of us could have participated in a thoughtful, civil discussion about our organization’s finances. Maybe we could have watched their annual report together for context. If everyone still felt unsatisfied with the status quo, we could have drafted a letter to the Board proposing a solution in a respectful yet assertive fashion. This whole experience could have turned into positive action to make our sign language interpreter community better.

In a world that’s already filled with harsh critique, we’re going to make a much bigger difference by turning our opinions into meaningful actions. After all, having opinions isn’t nearly as important as how you live by them; that is what makes you a trustworthy interpreter.

Greater Trust is One Decision Away

To me, being worthy of trust boils down to one simple choice: committing to a higher standard of professionalism. If we all strive for a spirit of civility and positive restraint, we’ll already be changing ourselves and interpreting for the better. That is how all of us will truly become guardians of our profession and those we serve.

Questions to Consider:

  1. Think of the most trusted interpreter in your community. What traits do they display which set them apart from other sign language interpreters? Do you share these traits? If not, how can you develop them?
  2. In what ways are you actively seeking to decrease intergroup bias in your professional circles? What is one step you can take to dismantle an “us versus them” paradigm?
  3. Would you be willing to invite an interpreting colleague to join you in committing to a higher professional standard? What would that accountability relationship look like for you?


Posted on

What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting

Sign Language Interpreter Framing Their Work

Kelly Decker examines common ways sign language interpreters frame the task of interpreting and peels back some of the implications and impact on the field and the larger communities served.


Sign language interpreters are taught that meaning is conveyed through accurate word choice. Do we give the same considerations to word choice when we label and describe interpreting itself? How do our words and actions frame our work?

As a professional sign language interpreter, I would like to address some of the language used when conversing with colleagues, training new interpreters, and depicting the profession to the mainstream media. The frames we use, as a profession, have the power to devalue the work we do, and by extension, the communities we serve. Continued reinforcement of these frames impacts public perception of sign language interpreting.

[Click to view post in ASL.]

It takes years of intentional practice, reflection, and dedication to develop competence as a sign language interpreter. Platforms such as Street Leverage allow us to continually highlight and examine the ways we have yet to grow. MJ Bienvenu’s Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual and Carol Padden’s Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? illustrate two fundamental problems we face in the field.

While we have begun to address the language we use to talk about our work, there is more work to do. I have selected four examples which demonstrate various ways interpreters contribute to current understandings of our work. There are many other examples that could be analyzed. I encourage you to contribute to this conversation online and with your colleagues to further examine how our use of language can contribute to a misperception of our profession and the disenfranchisement of the Deaf community. These types of conversations lead to greater awareness, which can be a catalyst for change.

The Labels We Use: “Terp”

It is not clear to me where this abbreviation came from. A cursory search on the internet found that it is cited as slang for “interpreter” and paired with the word ‘deaf’. We work with marginalized communities who are continuously disenfranchised regardless of the abundance of evidence and research regarding language, intelligence, and Deaf Gain [1]. We deflate our profession and the work we do for the sake of a few saved keystrokes.

This word “terp” (and I call it a word since it has become commonplace nomenclature and somewhat of a phenomenon within our field [i.e. TERPexpo],) is used primarily in written English when interpreters communicate with and refer to each other, and when interpreting agencies make requests for “terps”. The use of the term “Terp” does not stop within sign language interpreting circles. Since it has become somewhat the norm internally, it has spilled out into the larger community as the preferred label for what many interpreters want to be called. I feel this does a disservice to the field. I am an interpreter.

Misleading Terminology


As I understand it, in most instances, this phrase refers to actual interpreting. I come across it when dialoguing with ASL/English interpreting students. This term is used in practicum to indicate a requirement that is different from observation hours – the need for “hands-up” hours.

When sign language interpreters in the field and educators in interpreter education programs use this term to talk about the work we do, it implies that interpreters only interpret in one direction, into American Sign Language. It implies that Deaf people have nothing to say nor contribute. In reality, our work is working between – at least – two languages. This misguided idea is further bolstered by how our national organization frames the act of interpreting. The interpreter certification exam tests interpreting capabilities and decision-making. Yet ASL vlogs, created by RID, refer to the performance portion of the interpreting exam using a gloss that gives the literal impression that the exam is a “signing test”[2].

As explained above, “hands-up” addresses only half of the work we do. Or does it? When colleagues say “I prefer to work into ASL, it’s easier” or “I don’t do any ASL to spoken English work,” is it because interpreters, too, believe that interpreting is only done in one direction?

Additionally, the term “hands-up” perpetuates the erroneous notion that sign language interpreters, most of whom are second language learners of ASL, prefer to work into ASL because they are “comfortable”, “have more experience working into ASL,” or “feel they are clear”.  Substantial evidence is to the contrary [3].

Interpreting, and more broadly, signed languages, have little to do with the hands. While sign language is expressed in a visual modality, the hands are but one element of that mode. Language is rich and complex. It conveys thoughts, emotions, and abstract ideas and it results in human connections. Language is influenced by and interwoven with culture. It is impacted by generational, intersectional and regional influences. Reducing an entire language to its modality is a prime example of how the dominant language and culture exerts power over and diminishes a linguistic and cultural minority.


This term “voicing” has become commonplace within our field as a descriptor for the spoken language work we do as interpreters. It is a descriptor that oversimplifies the nature of the work, as if it requires no cognitive decision-making by the interpreter, nor cultural brokering between the two languages, and that the interpreter functions simply as a sign-by-sign voice over.  In Jessica Bentley-Sassaman’s article, Taking Ownership: Defining Our Work As Sign Language Interpreters, she states “voicing” does not appropriately state what we do, what does is naming what we are actually doing when interpreting.

As the profession continues to use the term “voicing”, I believe that we perpetuate a medical perspective on deafness. It bolsters the idea, that when deaf people use sign language they need to be fixed somehow, given a voice, and that’s what interpreters are doing.

This portrayal of the work reinforces a view held by the majority culture that  the language used by the Deaf community is somehow deficient. This misconception is propagated by the Alexander Graham Bell Association, whose position was made public [4] after the televised accomplishments of Nyle DiMarco, that desirable language development and outcomes for deaf children are only possible when focusing on listening and speaking, both of which are deeply rooted in the deficit-based medical model of what it means to be deaf.

As sign language interpreters, I believe we ought to unpack the implications and impacts of how we frame our work.

Perceptions of Professional Interpreters: Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] [5]

This video was so popular on social media after its release in December 2014, that the video’s participants were a part of the entertainment during RID’s 2015 national conference in New Orleans, LA. I have cited this piece not based on its participants but as an example of how we portray who we are, what our work entails, and how we approach the task of interpreting.

From what I gather, this video was made as a parody, a day-in-the-life of a sign language interpreter. All joking aside, what I cannot shake off while watching this video without audio input, is that it clearly represents misconceptions about the work we do:

(1) we only work into sign language, as the tired arms, hands and fingers portray;

(2) we only do this work for the money, as the interpreter runs off screen following the dollar bills;

(3) we self-medicate, as the abundance of pills clearly shows; and

(4) we can brush off the significance of the task of interpreting, as the title of the song conveys.

This day-in-the-life video makes no mention of the substantial cognitive work we do, which is the foundation of the product we produce. The sole focus is the self-aggrandizement of the interpreter. We must consider how this can contribute to the  mainstream media’s abundance of misleading and demeaning pieces about sign language interpreters while #DeafTalent continues to go unnoticed.

Holding Ourselves Accountable

These examples are both subtle and not so subtle. As these flawed representations proliferate, we, as practitioners, as educators, and as a professional organization, become complacent and immune to the deleterious effect they have on our profession. We may dismiss it, saying, “This is the way we’ve always talked about the work,” “This how my interpreter training program said it,” or “I never really thought about it.”

We need to think about it. We need to talk about it. We need to question and remind each other when we use language that trivializes our work.

Mastery of interpreting is no easy feat. It is a labor of love, a demanding cognitive endeavor, and a dedication to craft. Above all, we are collectively accountable to representing our work with the utmost respect for the Deaf community.

How will you model talking about the work we do?

Questions for Consideration:

  1. The ways in which we, as a profession, talk about the work we do is anchored upon our understanding of what interpreting means. Are the ways we portray the work, the profession, and the communities we serve accurate?
  2. How do you think the ways that we talk about the work impact the profession?
  3. Do you have examples of times when dialoguing with colleagues where how they were talking about the work just did not sit right?
  4. With those examples in mind, how can you further explore what it is that did not sit right?


[1] Bauman, H-Dirksen and Murray, Joseph. Editors. Deaf Gain Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. University of Minnesota Press. October 2014.

[2] Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. RID Announces Moratorium on Credentialing You Tube Posted 9 Aug 2015.

[3] Nicodemus, Brenda and Emmorey, Karen. Directionality in ASL-English interpreting Accuracy and articulation quality in L1 and L2. Interpreting. Vol 17:2. 2015. p. 145-166.

[4] Sugar, Meredith. Dispelling myths about deafness. Online: Posted 1 April 2016

[5] Ott, Stephanie. Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] You Tube watch?v=DS2UdoXS3xA Posted 13 Dec 2014.


Posted on

Sign Language Interpreters: Purposeful Change for Power Holders

Sigh Language Interpreters and Transformational Leadership

Looking at leadership styles and models informs choices as we act as interpreters or in leadership roles. Dave Coyne explores the nature of leadership and how transformational leadership can positively impact interpreted interactions.

Since I gained professional status as a sign language interpreter, I have witnessed oppression of various types, more than I would like, such as disenfranchisement of Deaf community members, abuse of power by interpreters, and discrimination against Deaf individuals.  These are alarming and call for changes in how interpreters work.

Incorporating Leadership into our Work

Interpreters are in the trenches in many locations in which Deaf members struggle for equality (e.g., homes, schools, hospitals, and other societal institutions).  This situation calls for a specific kind of leadership that personally influences individuals in both top-down and bottom-up approaches, surfacing in interpreters’ roles in day-to-day interactions.

These locations represent where change is most needed, and where sign language interpreters can best work toward reaching the liberative goals put forth by the Deaf community.  Merely acting as spectators or watching Deaf members wage the battle alone, is not enough for many interpreters. Passive involvement is not enough because the way in which interpreters perform their jobs in the midst of community members’ daily struggles, and the approaches used to carry out practices can contribute to or hinder purposeful contributions, contributions that can represent momentum by fostering positive changes.  These purposeful contributions (e.g., allowing others to lead their actions) can humble interpreters yet foster participants’ advancement in most situations.  More importantly, incorporating leadership into interpreting practices can prompt styles that prevent inconsistent approaches.

Collective Causations

Leadership has been at the periphery of many conversations, but for sign language interpreter Amy Seiberlich, this topic should be at the forefront. Seiberlich (2012) in her StreetLeverage article, “Leadership in Sign Language Interpreting: Where are We?” highlighted the idea that historical causation created directions in the interpreting field which have led to many of our current problems.

Today’s daily interactions are often devoid of the collective purposes needed to establish meaningful connections with Deaf individuals.  For many years, attempts have been made to formulate national collective causations at RID’s biennial conference, hosted by the Deaf Caucus.  The Caucus was successful in gathering practices considered important by Deaf members, families of Deaf members, interpreters, and educators. To be used effectively, this information, gathered, analyzed, and shared, requires the support and integration by all stakeholders involved, specifically sign language interpreters.  If integration of preferred practices are not carefully monitored, then community-specific information can be utilized only for convenient position-taking.

Transformational Leadership Theory

In viewing interpreters as leaders, stakeholders hold individuals, institutions, and organizations accountable for their actions: there is simply too much at stake not to consider a transformational approach.

Incorporating transformational leadership traits into interpreters’ work is only one way to address the many struggles that sign language interpreters, systems and institutions, and interlocutors deal with. This method encourages progression toward various kinds of emancipation and prompts active support of Deaf community members.  This approach can prove useful for discovering how to sort through and piece together the fragmentation between professionals and communities.

Interpreters’ practices and their approaches to interpreting are distinctive.  Thus, asking interpreters to identify with social conditions and interactions deemed significant by Deaf members may begin to counterbalance the negative effects coming from interpreters in the field.  Specific suggestions provided by Denis Cokely (2011) in “Sign Language Interpreters – Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain” touched on the social influences wielded by interpreters who are either tightly bound or less bound to the Deaf Community.  Each of his suggestions carries differing implications and results.

Relational-based Change

Individuals who mistakenly believe they can separate language and culture and do not share Deaf community members’ goals and views can be no more than bilingual-monocultural rather than bilingual-bicultural interpreters. On the other hand, those who form strong bonds with the Deaf community can potentially achieve bicultural status (sharing goals, views, and norms), utilizing full bilingual skill sets. Interpreters who work as biculturals are able to co-create relational-based encounters to effect change.

Monocultural individuals who see their work strictly as commerce-based agreements (transactional) for interpreting services, too often fail to consider the additional collaborative components of their work (e.g., discussing strategies for participants’ success, listening to concerns and experiences, and participating in ways that further the greater good) as part of their professional duties.  These critical reviews of interpreter practices are needed to detail purposeful behaviors that are crucial to supporting participants’ needs, values, and expectations.

Leadership Styles

Burns (1978) defined leadership thus:

“the reciprocal process of mobilizing, by persons with certain motives and values, various economic, political, and other resources, in a context of competition and conflict, in order to realize goals independently or mutually held by the leaders and followers” (p. 425).

This quote placed shared goals as a pivotal component in different leadership styles. Due to the very nature of interpreting, interpreters are special kinds of power-holders.  Their collective motives and values can be used to satisfy, or not satisfy others’ individual and shared goals.  The process of reaching these goals may cause internal struggles in interpreters who do not fully understand the motives and values of the individuals they work with.  For others, conversations about leadership theories give rise to the vocabulary needed to address the concerns, needs, and expectations of those working with interpreters. According to Burns (1978), leadership is specifically targeted to everyone involved in interactions (but especially the power-holders).  If all are fully engaging in and discovering the center of leadership itself, they will find that leaders and participants have intertwined practices, perceptions, values, and motivations.

Today’s interpreter leaders are not only in managerial and other upper level positions, but are also interpreters themselves, involved in daily interactions where common goals are supported.  More than ever, we must continue to discover more about the individuals who hold power, those who wield sole power, and the powerless.  Discussions surrounding power have surfaced in national conferences and daily conversations: Deaf members and interpreters convene to raise awareness of the effects of power.   In doing so, they draw back from full power, sharing it instead: thereby contribute to closing the disconnect that exists between some interpreters and Deaf members.  Any conflicts or coalitions that come up have the potential to shape popular opinion and forever change interpreters’ future business.

Transactional Leadership

Transactional leadership emphasizes an exchange between those involved to satisfy solely independent objectives.  The interpreting field, which has boomed into a million dollar industry in a short period of time, has too many individuals who facilitate communication with an “in and out” or “I do this and you give me that” approach.  Transactional leaders’ foci lie in satisfying agreed-upon objectives, regardless of what interlocutors need out from the encounter.  They do not seek mutual support or understanding (in other words, ‘I am here to interpret this information to the best of my abilities for compensation, but not to discuss anyone’s overall well-being because that is outside my professional boundaries’).

This type of ‘service’ carries consequences (e.g., Deaf and hearing individuals are groomed to merely accept interpreters’ practices ‘as is’ to ensure future opportunities take place).  Simply put, when approached as mere contractual obligations, these practices (known or unknown) obligate participants to comply with requests through a transactional leadership exchange process.  This “I interpret, and then I get compensated” approach does not further meaningful dialogue or deepen relationships.  The reality of this mindset between interpreters and Deaf individuals has been shown to foster the negative effects on Deaf individuals, described as ‘ripples’ of disempowerment by Trudy Suggs (2012) in “Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter.”  Transactional-based encounters can potentially cause negative effects which indeed transcend interpreting spaces.  These ripples that remain after interpreters leave, can potentially bring about more pernicious forms of oppression (even if unintentional) than overt discrimination or retaliation.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is predominantly displayed inside rather than outside educational spheres. However, some studies (Burns, 1978) have confirmed that even outside educational spheres, transformational leadership can positively affect one’s ability to create environments incorporating individual participants’ and groups’ desired needs, values, and goals while engaging them. Transformational leadership has been applied most often during crises:  “…in those conditions, a leader can seize the opportunity to identify the deficiencies of the status quo, and promote a future state that will appeal to followers” (In Antonakis & House, 2002, p. 13).  Interpreters, as potential transformational leaders working closely alongside with Deaf members, put forth issues that can directly enhance the quality of lives.  In incorporating these transformational leadership skill sets, interpreters alter spaces to achieve participants’ ends.

Leadership inspires the individuals involved to collaborate in attaining a higher quality of life.  Transformational leadership rests on the idea that leaders are guided at all times by participants.  The emphasis placed is on participants’ beliefs, needs, and values.  Because interpreters manage interpreting spaces, they are central to communication exchanges.  It is vital for interpreters to approach situations with sensitivity because Deaf members are already in the minority. Practices of transformational interpreters include checking in with the participants more often, inquiring about the next steps to take, and ensuring (the best they can) no further disempowerment occurs.

Bass and Riggio (2006) noted that transformational leaders typically display four characteristics:  individual considerations, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, and idealized influence. These traits once learned, promote participants’ visions and goals, bolster intellectual stimulation, hone professional practices and values, promote high performance expectations, and lead to their increased decision-making. In sum, integrating transformational leadership into the field, interpreters take leadership to heart, shifting the emphasis in environments (established by a history of both social and political factors) on Deaf members, away from interpreters.

Next Steps Toward Change

Understanding how interpreters can work effectively with the Deaf community begins by investigating how they currently analyze situations and how they believe they behave as professionals.  Interpreters must initiate potentially uncomfortable conversations with stakeholders in order to learn as much as possible about the Deaf community.  This information can lend insights into needed changes in both the field, and interpreters’ approaches, and create a common purpose for professional work.  Exchanges that merely result in transactional-based encounters can be modified to be more transformational in nature.  This crossover between approaches can be achieved through education, dialogue and discussions, all in which involve shared motives and values that are brought to the table to garner purposeful change.

By learning and implementing transformational leadership traits into our work, we as individuals in the field, can devise purposeful actions to address many current concerns about some interpreters.  Actions from transformational leaders that spur trust, collaboration, and accountability are needed now more than ever to confront current issues.  The individuals who work with interpreters should be at the forefront of any decisions made: it is to be hoped that what results from these purposeful collaborations will contribute to change for the common good.

My ambition has always been to consider a holistic approach to mend real gaps, often unintentional ones, between the interpreting and Deaf communities. I propose, wholeheartedly and assuredly, that interpreters’ practices and approaches to their work be investigated using grassroots and bottom-up methods that progresses beyond the current status quo.

Join me?  


  1. Antonakis, J., & House, R. J. (2002). An analysis of the full-range leadership          theory: The way forward. In B., Avolio, & F., Yammarino (Eds.),    Transformational and charismatic leadership:  (pp. 3–33). Amsterdam: JAI Press.
  2. Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership.New York: Harper & Row
  3. Bass. B.M. & Riggio. R.E. (2006). Transformational Leadership, Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. NJ.