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Can Clarity Return Discretion to VRS Interpreters’ Repertoire?

Can Clarity Return Discretion to VRS?

The FCC’s “10-minute rule” and their stance on information gathering to contextualize calls in VRS have been widely misunderstood. Understanding the intent of these regulations can help return discretion to VRS interpreters.


A great American journalist, Margaret Fuller, once said, “If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.” Sign language interpreters often work in isolation and have limited opportunities to interact and, therefore, limited opportunities to share knowledge. Fortunately, with technological advancements, we have platforms such as Street Leverage to disperse information throughout the community.

[Click to view post in ASL]

My inspiration to write this comes from my discovery of information when I was preparing for a lesson on the Video Relay Service industry for my interpreting students. In addition to being a video relay interpreter for the past six years, I am also a lecturer at one of the largest interpreter training programs in the country at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. As a colleague of mine, Brian Morrison, once said, “It takes a village to raise a sign language interpreter,” so I take my job as a lecturer very seriously and work hard to ensure the information I share in my classroom is accurate. Due to the size of our program, I realize the impact I have as an educator on both the Deaf and interpreting communities.  

Revisiting FCC Regulations

While searching through some of the FCC regulations to prepare for my lecture, I came across the FCC’s 2006 revision to the “10-minute rule”. It had been my understanding that unless a switch was requested by the caller (either hearing or Deaf), an interpreter or Communication Assistant (CA), must remain in the call for at least 10 minutes before transferring the call to another interpreter. My understanding was incorrect. On June 16, 2006, the FCC released an order on two VRS issues: the FCC’s 10-minute rule and the interpreter’s role regarding asking questions to callers.

Understanding the “10-Minute Rule”

The first issue deals with the FCC’s 10-minute rule, which requires CAs to remain with a TRS user for at least 10 minutes before transferring the call to another CA. In the 2006 order, the FCC clarifies that in the event a video interpreter handling a VRS call in sign language finds that effective communication is not taking place, the interpreter may change to another interpreter before the initial 10 minutes have passed. The FCC explained that

“there may be VRS calls during which the party using sign language, the CA, or both, find that they are unable to communicate effectively because of regional dialect differences, lack of knowledge about a particular subject matter (e.g., a technical or complex subject matter), or other reason. In these circumstances, when effective communication is not occurring, we conclude that the 10-minute in-call replacement rule is not violated if the VRS provider has another CA take over the call.”

This discovery was new information to me. After reading Richard Peterson’s article “Profession in pentimento”, I had been under the impression that one of our most important values as sign language interpreters, our use of discretion, is in direct conflict with the FCC regulations found in Title 47 of the Code of Federal Regulations. The regulation found on page 266 of the Mandatory Minimum Standards states:“Consistent with the obligations of telecommunications carrier operators, CAs are prohibited from refusing single or sequential calls…”

Can VRS Interpreters Exercise Discretion?

According to Peterson, this rule is widely interpreted to mean that interpreters working as communication assistants must – without exception – accept any and all calls; in other words, they cannot exercise discretion, stating,

“From the frame of reference of the FCC, everything professional interpreters believe about the bedrock value of exercising discretion in our work is misprised, rendered inoperative.”

On their Video Relay Consumer Facts page 7, the FCC states it a little differently:

“Preferential treatment of calls is prohibited. VRS … providers must handle calls in the order in which they are received. They cannot selectively answer calls from certain consumers or certain locations.”

Here the caveat from RID on the applicability of our Code seems almost prescient: 

“Federal, state or other statutes or regulations may supersede this Code of Professional Conduct. When there is a conflict between this code and local, state, or federal laws and regulations, the interpreter obeys the rule of law.” (RID/NAD Code of Professional Conduct 2005: 2)

If you look back to the revision of the FCC’s regulation made in 2006, you can see that Peterson’s argument is not necessarily true if the interpreter is aware of the revision and their ability to use discretion.

Lack of Understanding or Lack of Information?

I decided to see whether this 2006 revision was widely known to video relay interpreters by talking to several interpreters representing various VRS companies across the country. I found that we all had the same misunderstanding. We were all under the impression that the FCC’s 10-minute rule prohibits interpreters from using their discretion. So, in essence, Peterson’s argument has some validity if we are not even aware that we CAN, in fact, exercise our right to discretion and still follow the FCC regulation. As you can see, it is not the FCC’s regulation that is holding us back from adhering to that bedrock value of exercising discretion, but it is our lack of full understanding of our options as professional and ethical interpreters.

As I stated, knowledge truly is powerful. A recent case study on VRS interpreters’ decision making revealed that one common theme interpreters cited was the focus on rules (Holcombe, 2014). One interpreter reported that she was thwarted in her intention to provide effective service in part due to her understanding of a federal regulation. When responding to a request to team, she was unable to immediately replace a struggling interpreter because of the “10-minute rule,” which she believed mandated that an interpreter must remain in a call for a minimum of ten minutes. Her decision making was an example of deontological thinking with a focus on rules (Holcombe, 2014).

Stress and Sign Language Interpreters

Another theme that came up during the case study was the incidence of stress. In Holcombe’s findings the same interpreter stated she experienced stress due to the constraints of the “10-minute rule”. The data and literature review from the study shows that the FCC’s orders are not clearly understood by VRS interpreters, which can be an additional cause of stress. This added stress is a huge concern given that in a self-report study, the VRS industry had been found to be one of the top settings of occupational risk for interpreters (Dean; Pollard; & Samar, 2010). More recently the issue of occupational stress and resulting injury in the VRS setting has been addressed in a survey conducted by the by the Video Interpreter Member Section (VIMS) of the RID (Kroeger, J., 2014).

Hetherington (2011) performed a phenomenological analysis to study occupational stress in the signed language interpreting profession. Analysis of the research identified three themes related to significant causes of interpreter’s stress—real and/or perceived constraints on their role by other professionals, their own understanding of the responsibilities coupled with complexities of the role, and the feeling of powerlessness when the goal to ensure effective communication is hindered by the constraints (Hetherington, 2011).

Industry Standards and FCC Regulations Can Align

RID and industry standards suggest that it is best practice for interpreters to obtain information in advance in order to be most successful (RID Standard Practice Paper, 2007). In its second ruling, the FCC clarified that a VRS interpreter may ask a VRS caller questions during call set-up when this is needed to ensure that the interpreter can effectively handle the call. The FCC explained that “in some circumstances the complexity of sign language may make it difficult for the CA to effectively relay the call if the CA does not understand the subject matter or context of the call.” In addition, the Commission noted that “it is universal practice in the interpreting profession to ask customers questions prior to an assignment in order to better facilitate effective communication. As the Commission has noted, one sign can have different meanings depending on the context.” However, according to the RID standard practice paper about VRS, gathering information from callers prior to phone calls being placed is not a common policy among VRS providers (RID SPP, 2007).        

Knowledge Sharing and Reflective Practice

Now you may ask yourself, who is responsible for ensuring that the interpreters possess this knowledge? Is it up to the individual interpreters or is it up to the companies to ensure that the interpreters are given this information? How can interpreters share their candlelight of knowledge if they are not even certain about the origin of the rules and guidelines that govern the VRS industry (Alley, 2013)? Also, how can we expect interpreters to share their knowledge with others if they lack understanding of the delineation of authority between FCC regulations and corporate practices and policies (Alley, 2013)?

One solution I propose to reduce misunderstandings and ensure information sharing is the opportunity for interpreters to talk with one another and engage in a form reflective practice with colleagues. Reflective practice has been a common theme that has been discussed in previous Street Leverage articles.  We are fortunate to have such notable supporters of this effort who share their positive experience of engaging in reflective practices. Please see Anna-Witter Merrithew’s article, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice,  Kendra Keller’s Case Discussion: Sign Language Interpreters Contain Their Inner “What the…!!!?” , Robyn Dean’s article Ethical Development: A Sign of the Times for Sign Language Interpreters and Kate Block’s piece,  Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle? for more in-depth explanations of what reflective practice is and the benefits it has to the interpreting community. I have been both a participant and facilitator of reflective practice groups known as “supervision groups”. The experiences I have had as a reflective practitioner have enhanced my critical thinking skills as an interpreter. If you have not participated in one of these groups,  I highly recommend you do.  For information on future groups and what reflective practice is, please visit this site

Questions to Consider

  1. What do you do to help ensure the light of knowledge gets passed on throughout the interpreting community?
  2. Who is ultimately responsible for ensuring the FCC rules and company policies are understood?  Is it the interpreters, the VRS companies, or both?
  3. How do consumer expectations impact FCC regulations, company policies and interpreter behavior?

Related Articles

Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters by Judith Webb

VRS Sign Language Interpreters: An Appropriate Legal Tool? by Tara Potterveld and Nichola Schmitz



Alley, E. (2013). Video Relay Service: The path from student to professional? International Journal of Interpreter Education, 5(2), 96-110.

Dean, R. K., Pollard, R. Q., & Samar, V. J. (2010). RID Reseach Grant Underscores Occupational Health Risks: VRS and K-12 Settings Most Concerning. VIEWS, 41-43.

Federal Communications Commission. In the Matter of Telecommunications Relay Services and Speech-to-Speech Services for Individuals with Hearing and Speech Disabilities, Order, CG Docket No.03-123, FCC 06-81,released June 16, 2006.                    

Hetherington, A. (2011). A magical profession? Causes and management of occupational stress in the signed language interpreting profession. In L. Leeson, S. Wurm, & M. Vermeerbergen (Eds.), The sign language translator and interpreter: Preparation, practice and performance. Manchester, UK: St Jerome.

Holcombe, Kathleen C., “Video Relay Service Interpreting: Interpreters’ Authority,

Agency, and Autonomy in the Process of Ethical Decision Making” (2014). Master’s of Arts in Interpreting Studies (MAIS) Theses. Paper 16.

Kroeger, J. (2014). Findings from the video interpreter member section survey on injuries. VIEWS, 31(1), 42-43.

Peterson, R. (2011). Profession in pentimento: A narrative inquiry into interpreting in video settings. In L. Swabey, & B. Nicodemus (Eds.), Advances in interpreting research (pp. 199-223). Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. (2005). NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct. From Registry of the Interpreters for Deaf (RID). http:///

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. (2007). Standard practice paper Video Relay Service interpreting. From Registry of the Interpreters for the Deaf: 06/VRS-

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Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle?

Horizontal Violence: Can Sign Language Interpreters Break the Cycle?

Horizontal Violence is a prevalent concern in the profession of interpreting. It causes disharmony, burn out and unsuccessful work. The Demand Control Schema approach to discussing our work could be the answer to lessening the internal strife of our profession.

[Click to view post in ASL]

When did it become acceptable to judge our interpreter colleagues? How did we learn that negatively judging someone’s skills, decisions and professionalism was a good way to behave in our profession? Carl Rogers spoke of unconditional positive regard as a psychological approach to allow a person to reach their full potential as a human being. “The main factor in an unconditional positive regard is the ability to be able to isolate behaviors from the person who commits them” (Rogers, 1961). What if we, as sign language interpreters, could adopt that approach to advance our profession? Overly-critical perspectives of each other have detrimental effects on the collaborative environment required for working interpreters to be successful. Yet this tendency is prevalent in the field, leads to interpreter burn out and plagues our ITPs. So where did it start and most importantly, how do we stop it?

Horizontal Violence

Fellow interpreter, Emily Ott, focused her Master’s thesis on intergenerational communication concerns in the sign language interpreting community and found a disturbing trend in our field, horizontal violence.

“Begley and Glacken (2004) characterized the behaviors of horizontal violence as a broad range of antagonism, including “gossiping, criticism, innuendo, scapegoating, undermining, intimidation, passive aggression, withholding information, insubordination, and verbal and physical aggression. Other specific behaviors include…subtle or overt insults and ridicule, ignoring the victim, making demands that are impossible for the victim to fulfill, or devaluing a person’s work or efforts” (Ott, 2012).

Due to lack of specific research on sign language interpreters, Ott’s research focused predominately on other professional fields with similar characteristics to the sign language interpreting community. “…the fields of nursing and education, which, like interpreting, are service professions where work is done with people. Also, like interpreting, those fields are both comprised of more than 75% women (Ott, 2012). As I read more about the topic of horizontal violence, I realized I had witnessed some of these behaviors personally, and/or had worked with mentees who described such experiences as they worked with colleagues. I felt a sense of relief in discovering that these experiences had a name and that other professions are plagued by the same behaviors. Then, I was filled with dread, knowing the phenomenon of horizontal violence has a name and it was prevalent enough as to be researched and identified.

The field of sign language interpreting is young and the growing pains have been rough. Rotating certifications, increasing education requirements, price competition and progressive use of technology at the cost of best practices have taken their toll. Rather than working together and striving towards the greater good of communication access for an underserved community, sign language interpreters draw lines, build walls and work in fear. We claim we want to be allies for the Deaf community.  First, however, we should learn to be allies with ourselves; we should start with our colleagues.

“Harvey (2008) found that interpreters tend to be critical and unkind toward one another as a consequence of witnessing oppression regularly, a situation that causes interpreters to behave like oppressed groups. Freire (1992) would argue that the gender composition of the interpreting field, at 87% female, is the reason interpreters behave like an oppressed group, because the field’s members experience oppression themselves” (Ott, 2012).

Whatever the underlying cause, the symptoms of Horizontal Violence are prevalent. The tendency to point out colleagues’ shortcomings creates hurt feelings, distrust, burn-out and shrinks the qualified interpreter pool as sign language interpreters seek more affirming professional outlets. If we are approaching our work from a basis of fear of judgment, we will never do our best, take chances or advance to a better place.

Focus on the Work

Sign language interpreters are taught how to identify language errors very early in our careers, but we are not taught how to collaborate towards a common goal in our work or how to talk about our work in a safe, neutral way. The words “you did” and “I would have done” fall out of our mouths like old habits. We often focus on the person, rather than the work product. We forget that interpreting is an art, not a science and immediately fall into the “right sign, wrong sign” mode, which we know is not the true way we operate. We know sign language interpreters live in an “it depends” world of work, and yet we take the deontological, or rules-based, approach to judge other professionals’ choices without insight into the unique contexts and thought processes that resulted in that choice. I would suggest that this is not the best approach to our work; do we not have an obligation to rise above?

Reflective Practice

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to join a supervision or reflective practice group rooted in the demand control- schema (DC-S). For more information, see Robin Dean’s post, Ethical Development: A Sign of the Times for Sign Language Interpreters?  At first, I did not feel qualified to be a part of the group and hesitated to join. While I have seen Robyn Dean and Dr. Pollard lecture on several occasions and felt I had a good working knowledge of DC-S, I knew I still struggled to articulate the aspects of the DC-S and lacked the skill of properly identifying the demands and controls of an interpreting assignment. Nevertheless, I joined; the group consisted of a small group with members from the U.S. and abroad which met online twice a month for two hours for five months.  My group facilitator had a wealth of knowledge and understanding of DC-S and had been specifically trained to be a group Supervisor. As the meetings progressed, I realized that I was not alone in my struggles and the facilitator assured the other members and me to “stay with the (DC-S) structure, and trust the process.”

As I got ready to present my first case, I was nervous. Preparing to present gave me the opportunity to reflect on all the demands I was dealing with in this situation – multiple players, politics, medical views of Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, power dynamics, systems barriers, etc. As Kenda Keller states in her article, Case Discussion: Sign Language Interpreters Contain Their Inner “What the…!!!?” , the self-discovery of this process (reflective practice) is profound. Merely taking the time to write down all the demands I encountered during the assignment, as well as the controls I employed, was enough to help me realize (after the fact) just how complicated this situation was to interpret.

As presentation day approached, I focused on the case and the ground rules that had been established at the start of the sessions:

-No judgment language

– Keep the dialogue focused on the case

– Speak when moved

– Confidentiality

– Agree to Disagree

– Unconditional Positive Regard

As I presented and the discussion progressed, I felt enormous relief – as if a weight I had been carrying was suddenly lightened. The ability to speak freely about the choices I made and the reasons I made them allowed for an honest discussion about what interpreters do in our daily work and how we affect the dynamics of an often fluid and ever-changing situation. Ironically, immediately after this interpreting job, I had felt bad and guilty about some of the controls I had employed but after reflecting with my group, I realized all the decisions I had made were based in real professional values. Additionally, I realized the resulting demands did not always have anything to do with me and my applied controls. At the end of our meeting, my interpreting case was not ‘solved’ but having other professional view points, neutral perspectives and new ideas for controls allowed me to go back into this job with a fresh perspective. I may not change applied controls drastically but I will know that I now have more options and a thorough understanding of the reasons behind my choices.

Join Us

In the end I was grateful for the opportunity and look forward to doing it again. I also look forward to working a case with fellow colleagues in this group, and future groups. Sign language interpreters know the work is difficult. We use controls during an assignment that we sometimes later wish we could take back. But, at the time, and in the moment while we are working, those controls were the best option we felt we had, knowing what we knew. Hindsight is 20/20. Rather than criticizing each other (or ourselves), we need to take those experiences, discuss them in a professional, positive manner and grow. In order to be true practice professionals, we must incorporate case conferencing into the education of future interpreters, as well as our current approach to work.

“Much as horizontal violence leads to professionals being wary of supervision, Catalano and Tillie (1991) found that teachers at all levels who participated in supervision and mentorship felt more engaged, connected and empowered to develop as professionals” (Ott, 2012).

All practice professions need to have a safe place that allows them to honestly analyze, understand, and critique their work. This is no different for the sign language interpreting profession, as Dean and Pollard have pointed out (Dean and Pollard, 2013). Only then will this profession advance and become the effective and ethical profession it can be. It is natural to feel that when we do something, it is with the best intentions. However, we often do not extend that consideration to others. Let us work together to change, so that we may assume of others what we assume of ourselves.

For more information on interpreter case conference opportunities please visit and sign up for the e-mail blasts from Robyn Dean and Dr. Pollard.

Questions to Consider

  1. What are some of the underlying causes of horizontal violence?
  2. Where do you believe horizontal violence is learned in our field and can we prevent it?
  3. How does Horizontal Violence affect the communities we work with?
  4. What have some of your experiences been with DC-S?

Related StreetLeverage Posts

How Do Sign Language Interpreters Avoid Mentoring’s Dodgy Undertow by Lynne Wiesman

Why Do Qualified Sign Language Interpreters Get Less Work? By Kendra Keller

Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice by Anna Witter-Merithew


Dean, R., & Pollard, R. (2004). A practice-profession model of ethical reasoning. Views, 21(9), 25-28.

Dean, R. K., & Pollard, R. (2001). Application of demand-control theory to sign language interpreting: Implications for stress and interpreter training. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 6(1), 1-14.

Ott, Emily K., “Do We Eat Our Young and One Another? Horizontal Violence Among Signed Language Interpreters” (2012). Master’s Theses. Paper 1.

Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person: a therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.



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Sign Language Interpreters: Achieving Authentic Confidence

Can sign language interpreters find equilibrium between humility and confidence? Xenia Woods examines the impact of having too much or too little of either trait, and how this delicate balance can be cultivated and maintained.

Imagine yourself in the restroom while on a break from your work as a sign language interpreter. You look into the mirror as you dry your hands. What do you see? A linguist? An ally of the Deaf community? A wordsmith? Someone who is struggling to prove him or herself?

[Click to view post in ASL]

Most sign language interpreters have dichotomous personalities. However, this split personality can actually be a good thing for us to have. Humility and confidence are the two seemingly contradictory halves of the interpreter personality. But when well-managed, they are ideal manifestations of the dualistic interpreter personality. As Brandon Arthur points out in, Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head?, “an appropriate level of self-awareness is critical to finding success in the sign language interpreting profession.”

Escaping Ego-Related Limitations

In their worst forms, humility and confidence swell into fear and arrogance. The fear stems from a lack of hard work on the part of the interpreter to continue to improve his or her skills. When a sign language interpreter is working at learning and doing her best, and only taking on work she can handle well, she has nothing to be afraid of. Those who are most fearful realize at their core that they should be doing more to improve their skills or that they are interpreting in settings that are beyond their skillset.

The key to escaping ego-related limitations, whether they are the kinds that make us too confident, or not confident enough, is an intentional and well-informed practice of reflection. Anna Witter-Merithew explains in, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice, that this is a crucial habit for avoiding professional isolation and for achieving not only growth, but also well-being.

An intentional practice of reflection and development can consist of many possible elements:

  • Balancing Humility and Confidence is the key to professionalismobservation-supervision groups as defined by Robyn Dean
  • mentoring by a more experienced interpreter
  • peer mentoring
  • reviewing videos of one’s work with a Deaf language mentor
  • workshops and conferences in which one has defined goals and out of which one develops new practices
  • independent study in which one tackles specific skills with the help of consultants and research
  • attending intensive trainings with group discussion sessions
  • personal/life coaching
  • researching, writing, and teaching while applying what one learns to one’s own practice

Arrogance Stems From Ignorance

The more experienced a sign language interpreter is, the more he knows how much there is yet to learn. Consumers, whether Deaf or hearing, do not respond well to interpreter arrogance. But they do need interpreters who are confident. When a sign language interpreter is confident, the parties who are using the services of the interpreter trust that what they are saying is being faithfully relayed, whereas a self-conscious or insecure interpreter will cause consumers to be uncertain whether their communications are being conveyed accurately.

Many hearing consumers fan the flames of arrogance by praising interpreters for their “beautiful signing.” “It’s like a dance!” “You did such a wonderful job!” they say. While many of us are uncomfortable with this kind of attention, other interpreters are quite happy to interpret music, comedy, theatre, and the like, despite the fact that it, by definition, places one in the limelight. It has become for some an artistic expression. This is not without controversy. A recent article editorial in the Baltimore Sun by Deaf Gallaudet professor Caroline Solomon and her brother, attorney Jeffrey Archer Miller, expressed the sentiment:

“Sign language is not performance art.”

This tells us that some see highly visible examples of creative interpreting as outside the realm of what is necessary and acceptable.

Most sign language interpreters believe in humility and understand that, in general, interpreters are not performers. If you have a part of your personality that is a performer, you should express that elsewhere by being a musician, an actor, or a dancer, so that you’re not tempted to use your position as an interpreter to express that need. This issue has recently been highlighted by the Deaf Community in Seattle in their protest of the Seattle Men’s Chorus, which has, for many years, used an unqualified interpreter who openly prides himself on performing via sign language.

It is sad and embarrassing that we sometimes let our heads get too big. I will never forget the amazing characterization that Dr. Laurene Simms provided at the California State University Northridge Interpreting Symposium one year. She took on the traits and mannerisms of every know-it-all, self-absorbed, show-off interpreter she’d ever seen, and combined them into one laughably conceited character. The effect was humorous but also sobering.

In recent months, a refreshing trend has appeared in online media: the examination by both sign language interpreters and Deaf consumers of the problems that surround bringing interpreters into focus. We can all agree that interpreters deserve to be acknowledged for excellent service, but what we don’t agree on is what kinds of acknowledgement are acceptable. Negotiating this tightrope cannot be done in a vacuum, which is why all interpreters need to participate in ongoing discussions with interpreters and consumers about what professionalism looks like for our field.

Balancing Humility & Confidence

So what will help sign language interpreters achieve and maintain this balance between humility and confidence? It requires equal parts self-knowledge, education, and participation in the interpreter and Deaf communities.

1. Deaf consumers are not always prone to giving interpreters feedback. Don’t ask for it; it’s not their job to offer critiques. If a Deaf consumer provides you with useful feedback, you are fortunate. However, it is common for Deaf and hearing consumers to have no feedback for the interpreter(s). This can actually be a good thing! It may very well mean that your work was unremarkable and therefore effective.

2. The best interpreting goes mostly unnoticed. If the consumers are focused on the discussion rather than on the interpreter, then the interpreting process will be almost invisible. This is explained eloquently by Theresa Blankmeyer Burke in her editorial, The Costs Incurred: Hearing Non-Signers and Signed Language Interpreters. In this piece, Burke explains why she takes issue with what she calls “Interpreter Basking in the Spotlight Syndrome.” Bottom line: it draws undue attention away from the consumers.

3. When consumers are displeased with an interpreter, it is more likely to be about her attitude than her signing skills. A confident yet humble sign language interpreter is a good ally for any consumer.

In the End

Each of us has a unique blend of personality traits that make us who we are as sign language interpreters. This variation is good, as it allows us each to be suitable for different types of work. What’s crucial is that we are qualified for what we’re doing, and treat everyone with respect. When we remember to always focus on the message more than ourselves, we will be providing our best work. In the end, the work is not about us. It’s about the people we serve, and their communication. When interpreters have developed authentic confidence, they can allow people’s communication to flow unimpeded.

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Why Do Qualified Sign Language Interpreters Get Less Work?

Sign Language Interpreter Wondering Why He Doesn't Get More Work

How has the professionalization of interpreting impacted interpreter referral? Kendra Keller takes a hard look at the bypass of traditional entry into the interpreting field and offers ideas to reset and recharge key stakeholders in service provision.

In a recent conversation with Tom Holcomb about certified vs. qualified sign language interpreters, he said something that surprised me. He shared that approximately 90% of the interpreters referred to work with him outside of his professional faculty position and public presentations, were not certified. From inside my bubble of privilege and pursuit of my own credentials and qualifications, this was shocking.

I took a minute and then asked, “What type of appointments?” Tom replied, “Trips to the doctor, consultations about house and home, travel, and school meetings.” Thinking to myself that perhaps I’d been mistaken about the value of certification to Tom and the referral services that sent the interpreters I asked how these appointments had gone.  He said, “I was just glad someone showed up…he presumed that most good interpreters were already busy with other assignments.”

Bypassing Traditional Routes of Entry

We all have experiences where certification does not always equal qualified or ensure quality work.  Tom said that the overall quality of the interpreters was “so-so.”   I suggested to Tom that there were qualified, certified interpreters who were not being referred. To which he responded, “if good interpreters are being passed over and consequently I’m forced to settle for less…I may have a different attitude about what to expect.” The realities we spoke of surprised us both.

Do consumers of our service really expect less?  I think they do.

I believe we can attribute the current state of affairs to many factors—all of which are tied to how we have chosen to meet the demand for the service we provide. As we know the demand for interpreters has skyrocketed. In response, a supply chain was created that has shifted the influx and approval for readiness of sign language interpreters out of the hands of the deaf community, as expressed in Molly Wilson’s vlog “Bypass” (Bypass, Molly Wilson). We have created a detour, a diversion and it is having a powerful impact on all of us. This bypass has excluded necessary and important voices regarding the quality of interpreting services.

How does this bypass practically play out so folks like Tom have experiences that create the experience and perspective that they are required to “settle?”

The Referral Agency 

Since the spring of 2012, we in the northern California area have been holding forums to assess and remediate the impact of spoken language agencies on the quality of interpreting services.  The advent of spoken language agencies taking on the contracts for ASL interpreter referrals combined has created financial struggles for our traditional referral agencies.  Competition is forcing the referral of less expensive interpreters—the non-certified or less experienced.

Through a survey of colleagues throughout the greater San Francisco Bay area, across the board they feel that as their qualifications and experience increase, the amount of work through referral sources has decreased. Sign language agency forums are reporting that they indeed are cutting back on referring the more qualified interpreters (and I include CDIs and DIs here), due to cost and the current threat to the agencies’ economic survival.  Our seasoned interpreters are struggling to find enough freelance work and resorting to other sources of income and employment.

Increased Use of Non-Certified Interpreters

If qualified interpreters are facing a decline in work and non-certified interpreters are being called more frequently, what does that say about the value of experience and certification?  Does it matter if the majority of interpreters who are being referred are not certified? What is the balance of availability and access with qualifications?  While imperfect, the current certifications at both national and state levels are our measure of readiness to begin working as interpreters.

Who are the non-certified and what is the relationship to quality and the definition (legal-ADA- and professional) of qualified? What is the experience of people who use/work with interpreters of quality? What are we doing to learn about, include and support them, or to assess their impact on both the interpreting and Deaf communities?

Interpreter Preparation Programs

When IPPs and ITPs do not include dynamic and responsive curriculum designs, qualified faculty and engage in an active participation of and by the Deaf community, the bypass model is reinforced. IPP students and newer interpreters are being actively recruited by spoken language agencies, sometimes for full time work and often for work in medical settings. Faculty and coordinators have a responsibility to shape a school–to–work expectation of graduates. These students are the most vulnerable to undeveloped professional judgment and the capacity to say “no” when appropriate.

Are the values of fluency and active engagement with the Deaf community being upheld? Are program coordinators and faculty discussing the changing nature of gatekeeping and creating a response in alliance with the Deaf community? Are working interpreters able to respond to increased work demand while maintaining a relationship with the Deaf community? There are many new demands that we must respond to, together.

Credentialed Interpreter

What is the status of highly credentialed interpreters (including CDIs and DIs) in your area? Are the experienced and most qualified interpreters finding work which sustains them?

The obvious impact with less qualified, credentialed interpreters working is that true access to communication is more likely to be denied.

Our Responsibility

As we are being requested to work by a burgeoning number of spoken language referral agencies, online marketplaces, temp agencies, direct contracts and direct referrals from colleagues places more of the responsibility on the individual interpreter to exercise professional judgment in assessing skills and qualifications. For example, are we quick to accept an assignment and slow or neglect to assess our readiness before, during and after the assignment? We need the work. Does that need outweigh the rights of deaf people (and hearing consumers) to effective communication?

How do we Remodel and Rebuild?

Values and Collective Change

As the true cost of the bypasses becomes evident, where does the healing process begin?  Understanding the problem is key, so that we can design the solutions together. In his book, “Introduction to American Deaf Culture”, Tom Holcomb refers to “The Vibrant Deaf Community’, and ‘Solutions for Effective Living’.  I ask us to remember to work together to create vibrant solutions.

Here are some ideas about how to do this:

Safe Spaces. Create places and effective ways to speak out.  I believe it is inherently unhelpful to demonize any one person, group of people, the system, or to claim that experiences that are outliers are the norm. While there is power in speaking out and having a voice, I believe the forum of public or social media, which, while a critical place to have a voice when other avenues are closed or nonexistent, will not necessarily encourage the individual conversations needed for healing and improvement.

Ask Questions. Decide which questions to ask. Are we talking about our competencies, are interpreters literate in the language of qualifications and certification, as well as the factors which make up quality interpretation?

Reflective Practice. Establish a reflective practice, which is a compassionate, critical analysis of our work. Develop a process and language for doing so. Use any of the many ways that already exist: The Etna Project, supervision by trained facilitators, facilitated conversations with all stakeholders in your home communities, the  Demand Control Schema, the northern California project Improving Interpreting Project” (, which provides draft documents for agencies, consumers and interpreters.  Seek out and use your own community’s cultural wealth, especially DCCW, Deaf community cultural wealth.

Through reflective practice, I believe interpreters can and should address these challenges and create effective solutions. To begin, I ask us to think about what motivates the values that we uphold or deprioritize in each decision we make. If we are mostly afraid and functioning on a survival level, how can we create a focus on the greater good, co-create solutions for these changing times?


Here are a few of the values and important factors in my work that I think about and that I think are important for consideration.  What are yours?

Do no harm. Stephanie Feyne, in her article: “Is it Time to Certify Sign Language Interpreter Referral Agencies?” addresses the harm done by agencies:

“Alarmingly, sign language referral agencies are sending increasing numbers of unqualified signers to interpret for Deaf consumers, causing harm to the communities we serve and to the interpreting field…. many of the sign language interpreters on their rosters are self-professed “interpreters,” who have passed no screening or certification exams.”

Encourage. Promote interpreter availability through teaching, mentoring, supervision, teaming, opening the door and welcoming newer interpreters in a way appropriate to their level of professional development.

Contribute. Have standards, opinions, being a critical thinker, while avoiding black and white, right/wrong thinking and judgmental language.

Take Action. Be aware of and take action to stop and to prevent the horizontal violence, micro-, meso- and macro-aggressions evident and experienced by so many in our field and communities.

Use Whole Language. Uphold and practice the use of whole language, ASL, especially as a non-native language user.

Take off the Blinders. Take off the blinders and ask to know the impact of my privileged status.

Reflective Practice.  Engage in reflective practice to continue professional development and self-assessment.

Professional Literacy. Develop and refine the ability to negotiate both in social and professional settings, which requires one to be literate in the language of professional standards.

Seek Guidance. Seek feedback and guidance from the deaf and coda communities…without making them responsible to manage my interpreting skills or advocate while trying to live their lives.

Accept Change. Sit with the discomfort of change, share the control, and be willing to move through feelings of disorientation before the reconstruction and reorientation into a stronger self.

Collective Change

In this I include agencies (by which I mean sign language, spoken language, temp agencies, VRS agencies, and online marketplaces):

Become involved within your communities for input about interpreting needs and concerns.

Find and work with consultants and mentors who are content experts, native users of ASL, and mentors trained and experienced in mentoring and supervision.

Request/Refer qualified interpreters, including CDIs when needed and appropriate, to provide/receive quality interpreting.

Look to all the stakeholders to guide the process.

Support non-certified interpreters in their process to become certified.  Understand why they are not yet certified.

Work to uphold the value and requirement of certification.

What Should Tom Expect?

If the experience is relief that someone showed up to interpret and that all the good interpreters are busy, how do we get from there to a world where someone who is truly qualified to interpret shows up and the more common experience is that the interpreting went well? Where qualified interpreters, quality interpreters are the expectation—the norm?

If we addressed our bypass practices, what would that look like for each of us? What could we expect?  A few thoughts:

  • To be included in a shared decision making process about communication dynamics and language preferences, to have a voice in the process.
  • To understand what is required to be a part of successfully interpreted communication.
  • To understand that a qualified interpreter means the focus of the communication shifts away from concerns about being understood and being represented accurately, to the actual communication.

Let’s remember what Paddy Ladd suggested in his Deafhood Pedagogies presentation, he cites Dr. Marie Battiste in saying that cognitive imperialism inflicts a soul wound on indigenous peoples… “We all must become critical learners and healers within a wounded space.”  I would apply this to interpreters and the ever more urgent need for self-assessment of our qualifications and quality of our work.

Responsibility begins with being responsive.  Engage.  Begin, resume, or continue the dialogue.  Take the time to ask vital questions of our communities and our selves. Define the problem together.  It is time to ask…and listen to the answers.

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Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice

Sign language interpreters often are not equipped, initially or indefinitely, with the tools to improve their work. Anna Witter-Merithew encourages us to take steps toward reflective practice as a way to more deeply see our work in the service of growth.

Most of us went to work as sign language interpreters before we were ready.  Whether it was insufficient skill sets, a lack of maturity and self-awareness, or some other gap, we started working without being fully equipped to handle all that being a professional interpreter requires.  This lack of readiness is often compounded by a lack of formal induction into the field.  There are not consistent systems that ensure that our transition from learning to interpret and working as an interpreter is supervised and monitored.

Professional Isolation

This lack of consistent supervised induction and support often leads to isolation—few of us have the luxury of working with another interpreter on a daily basis.  Many interpreter assignments are still filled by the lone practitioner. And, few of us have a direct supervisor who is present when we are working, who understands interpreting at a deep level, and offers support and assistance. We often function as silos—each doing our own thing without connection to others who do our work for long periods of time.

There are many consequences to professional isolation, including job dissatisfaction, burn-out, distrust, fear and frustration.  It can lead to feeling defensive and even hostile. In some instances, it can lead to disrespectful treatment of consumers and one another. When it continues for a long period of time, we may find ourselves almost crippled– numbing out in order to survive the pressures of our work. As a result, we become less willing to open up our work to one another and to seek input into how to improve.  This is a tragic state for any of us.  Our value for one another and the work we do requires us to find creative solutions to this isolation.

Reflective Practice– An Alternative

A process known as reflective practice is increasingly used as an alternative for overcoming professional isolation and encouraging collaborative discussions that help identify ways of improving and promoting best practices within the sign language interpreting profession.  Reflective practice is defined in many different ways in the literature. Essentially it refers to the process of examining critical incidents that occur within our work to gain a deeper understanding of what they mean for what we do.

As mentioned in the post entitled Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?, reflective practice is an important part of the due diligence cycle.  The due diligence cycle involves assessing risks and consequences associated with our work. Having the ability to think about our work as sign language interpreters both individually and with one another—to analyze what happened, why it happened, and what we might do differently under similar circumstances.

Reflective practice allows us to analyze our interpreting experiences for the purpose of gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and the nature of our work.  This process is important to our well-being as practitioners. It is a method of self-evaluation and is a way of improving performance in professional tasks. By reflecting on how we can improve our work, we increase our awareness of what we are doing and constantly learn and grow as professionals.  As well, it is an excellent tool for overcoming our isolation and enabling us to benefit from the shared listening and support of other practitioners.

Barriers to Reflective Practice


There are barriers to reflective practice.  The most obvious is time.  Carving out time in a schedule that is often already over-booked is difficult.  As is the case with all worthwhile pursuits, establishing priorities is essential and often something has to go in order to make the time for something new.  And reflective practice requires an investment of time.  If it can be viewed as time invested in self-care and well-being, it is much easier to set the time as a priority.


Another barrier to reflective practice is proximity to other practitioners.  There are many of us who live in rural areas of the United States and do not have ready access to other interpreters.  Even those of us who live in large metropolitan areas that are spread out may find getting to one another difficult.  Fortunately, technology allows us to connect from remote locations.  As has been discussed elsewhere on the Street Leverage site, the use of social media like ooVoo, Skype and other similar programs allows us to connect visually and/or auditorially with one another—some of these tools allowing for up to six individuals to connect simultaneously.


A lack of motivation is another barrier to reflective practice.  Depending on the degree of burn-out or frustration we are experiencing, we may just not have the interest or desire to take the leap of faith that is required to engage in what can be an intense process at times. And, as Aaron Brace indicated in responding to the post entitled Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping out of the Shadows of Invisibility, reflecting is not suited to everyone. This is where individual decision and intention come into play.  Certainly, moving into the promise of greater job satisfaction and collegiality is a better alternative than remaining in a state of burn-out. As well, reflective practice can be viewed as one skill to possess among an array of skills geared towards self-care and well-being.

Reflective thinking is a learned process acquired over time.  Given the importance of our work as sign language interpreters, and the potential for harm when it is not done responsibly, learning the art of reflection is a worthwhile commitment.

Forming the Habit of Reflective Practice

There are some strategies that are useful in forming the habit of reflective practice.

1.  Keep a diary or daily journal of significant events during your work as an interpreter. The journal can be a great source of reflection as we consider the challenges we experienced and what stood out as a result of our experience.

2.  Engage in reflective discussion of significant experiences with professional colleagues.  As we continue to explore topics of role, responsibility and duty, we are our best resource.  There is much support and learning that can be gained by seeking out the feedback of valued colleagues with whom we can openly reflect on our experiences. When reflection is done in a collaborative and respectful fashion, we can take the feedback seriously and use it to improve our performance.  Sometimes this process is referred to as case conferencing or observation-supervision.  It allows a trusted group of professionals to explore their experiences towards finding solutions to difficult issues and reinforcing best practices.

3.  Engage in reflective discussions of significant experiences with Deaf consumers.  It is important to find opportunities to talk with Deaf consumers about our work as sign language interpreters and to ask them to help us consider the implications of role implementation for their experiences. What are the implications of our acts of commission and omission for their goals? Their insight is essential in helping us to continue to define our vision for the field and how we will continue to evolve and grow.

4.  Use a model of reflection. There are many models that can be used.  An easy, but effective model is one that involves three steps—discussing the What, So What, and Now What.  Here is how it can work.

a.  WHAT?  This is the description step in the process.  It creates the basis for the reflection.  What happened during the assignment?  What was the situation?  Who was involved?  What were the roles of the various participants?  How did I approach my role? What is a general thesis and preview of your reflection?  This is the description step in the process.

b.  SO WHAT?  This is step when we examine and analyze the What. It should occur on two levels.  So what does this all mean in terms of the outcomes of the assignment?  So what does this mean to me personally?  What was the significance of the assignment?  What did I learn that enhances my understanding of the consumers’ experience?  What did I learn that is reflected or is relevant to my professional experiences? What skills and knowledge did I use/apply?  What did it mean to me personally?  What are my negative and positive feelings about the experience, the people, and the experience? What instances did I encounter that “opened my eyes”?  What do I think about now that I didn’t think about prior to this experience?  How can I use or evaluate this information?

c.  NOW WHAT?  This step allows us to contemplate what we would do differently next time or what practices we want to replicate, expand upon and preserve. What impact might my actions and behavior have on my lifelong learning process?  What impact did my experience have on my work as a sign language interpreter?  What impact did my experience have on how I perceive the importance of behaving as transparently as possible when interpreting?  What insights did I gain that might assist me in my work as an interpreter? How does this experience compliment or contrast with what I have learned previously about interpreting?

Let’s Get Started

Certainly, getting started will require a deeper understanding of what is involved in the process of reflective practice. There are some great resources available to help sign language interpreters learn more about it.  Reading articles by Robyn Dean and Robert Pollard relating to the application of Demand-Control Schema to observation-supervision activities will prove very helpful.  Check out their list of publications on this website.

Also, Christopher Knight and Sabina Wilford have designed a workshop on case conferencing for sign language interpreters.  They published a handout on this topic in the 2005 RID convention handout book that is worth reviewing. As well, go to your favorite search engine and enter the phrase reflective practice and you will access a wealth of publications and sites discussing the process.  It is a particularly valued practice in the healthcare, mental health and teaching fields.  And, check in with your local and state chapter of the RID to see what communities of inquiry or support groups might already exist.

We Are Our Best Resource

Where communities of inquiry do not currently exist, ask your RID leaders how you can contribute to starting one.  And, of course, using the forum provided us here at Street Leverage is another option.  Perhaps there are those of you who are currently engaged in reflective practice processes who can share with us how you got started, how the process works, and what are the associated benefits.  We truly are our best resource and have so much to offer one another!