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Ethical Development: A Sign of the Times for Sign Language Interpreters?

How may our profession break out of rule-based approaches to our work and instead embrace models of reflection and supervision? Robyn Dean uses the lens of prophetic literature to ask how the future of interpreting is being shaped today.

Prophetic words do not solely come from scriptural texts and prophetic messages do not only come from spiritual leaders.  A prophetic message can be found in the profane moments of our daily lives: a song on the radio that brings comfort, an overheard remark of a child that is innocent yet profound, or an advertisement on a billboard that supplies a sought-after confirmation. Prophetic messages often act like breadcrumbs to children lost in the woods – “it’s okay; you’re on the right track.”

Yes, I am well aware that Street Leverage is a site about sign language interpreting issues and perhaps readers are wondering how prophecy applies to our work. Please, bear with me.

The definition of the word prophetic is multi-layered. In it’s most common form, prophetic describes the prediction of events in a future time. However, during my graduate studies in theology, I came to appreciate the nuanced meanings of prophetic.  Prophetic can also convey an appreciation that messages – regardless of their origin – can be timely or that prophetic messages have a quality of timelessness (e.g., “this too shall pass”). With these thoughts in mind, allow me to highlight some prophetic markers that appear to be breadcrumbs to the profession, albeit placed across a quarter of a century.

Prophetic Literature

In 1986, Fritsch-Rudser published an article in RID’s Journal of Interpretation, The RID Code of Ethics, Confidentiality and Supervision[1]. The author proposed a set of problems associated with the Code and a possible solution – a professional development tool called supervision. At the time of the article, Fritsch-Rudser was responding to concerns that the mere seven-year old Code was in need of revision. Fritsch-Rudser defended the Code by stating that the problem was not with the document but in how interpreters understood and applied it. No code can relieve professionals from the responsibility of thinking, deliberating and deciding (Cottone & Claus, 2000; Fritsch-Rudser, 1986[2]).

As an example of how the Code is often misunderstood, the author cites an example of a sign language interpreter who ignored the request of a speaker, asking him to introduce himself to the audience – the interpreter claimed that he did not respond because the Code left him no choice.  According to Fritsch-Rudser, this is an example of how commonly we misattribute ideas that do not exist in our Code of Ethics. In reality, they are more generated by popular notions emerging out of a conduit-based conceptualization of interpreting.

Fritsch-Rudser (1986) points to a then current study by Heller, et al (as cited in Fritsch-Rudser 1986) on interpreter occupational stress where sign language interpreters reported strain due to role conflict, isolation, and frequent exposure to emotionally charged situations and dynamics. As a result, interpreters sought out other colleagues to talk about their work, “to get feedback and to lessen the impact of emotional experiences” (Fritsch-Rudser 1986, pp. 50). Given the Code of 1979, this was perceived of as a breach.Illustration of the Benefits of Reflective Practice

As an answer to this dilemma (the interpreters’ need to seek guidance/support and the Code’s prohibition), Fritsch-Rudser proposed that the profession adopt formal supervision, modelled after mental health professionals’ use of confidential supervision[3]. Through a trained supervisor, interpreting practitioners’ ethical development is intentional and foregrounded. They are provided with a structured system in the delivery of cases, which maintains confidentiality; and through a careful process, practitioners are provided with the needed validation and guidance.

After proposing supervision as a potential tool of professional development, Fritsch-Rudser concludes his article with, “RID would have to approve formal supervision of interpreters for it to become a reality. I hope this paper will provide the impetus for discussion within our organization and profession to make that possible” (Fritsch-Rudser 1986, pp. 51).

It’s been twenty-five years since this publication and yet, with some minor changes to the titles, the names and the dates, indeed, this article could be published today. The message is timely and undoubtedly prophetic: Do sign language interpreters still point to a rule as adequate justification for a decision? Do sign language interpreters still maintain their conduit nature, merely there to facilitate communication? Do sign language interpreters report that their work has a negative impact and takes an emotional toll? Do sign language interpreters still (mis)perceive aspects of the Code and quietly work at what they imagine are cross-purposes[4]?

While each to varying degrees, all can be answered in the affirmative. However, we must be careful in placing blame. Prophetic texts are to be read in their entirety. It clearly reads that in order for these to change, formal supervision needs to be approved and adopted by RID.

Perhaps we can interpret this message in today’s context as: No one learns to make good decisions because they are handed a list of rules or even a step-by-step decision-making model to follow.  No one appreciates the complexities of interpreting decisions through a series of ethical dilemmas that are plucked from their contexts, devoid of human relationships, and under-appreciative of the co-constructed nature of human dynamics. And lastly, no one becomes a critical thinker in two or even four years nor when they are left alone to practice independently – in a classroom or in a booth – without the provision for regular reflection amidst those who know and do the work. Let us not blame interpreters; the profession is still in need of formal supervision.

Timeliness: Prophetic Posts

I am grateful to my colleagues, Anna Witter-Merithew and Kendra Keller[5] for recently championing and charging us to consider reflective practice and supervision as not only emotionally necessary and ethically imperative but as the vehicle through which interpreting practitioners develop sound judgment. I was also gratified to see theirs’ and readers’ comments on the helpfulness of demand control schema in this regard. Supervision, case conferencing and reflective practice in interpreting have become increasingly popular topics (citations [6][7][8][9]).

In addition to manuscripts, there are pockets across the US and in other countries where sign language interpreter supervision happens. Decision-making models proffered by sign language interpreting scholars such as Hoza (2003[10]), Humphrey (1999[11]), Mills Stewart & Witter-Merithew (2006 [12]) and Dean & Pollard (2011[13]) provide us with sufficient roadmaps pointing out the worthy landmarks to consider toward a sound decision.  But, let’s be clear, we can have a destination (ethical decisions) and a road map (decision-making models) and a vehicle (formal supervision) but unless we have drivers, people happy for the journey, we’re not going anywhere.

Sign Language Interpreters Participating in a Supervised SessionProphetic Events

We have developed a small band of happy drivers and passengers.  As just one example, in Rochester, NY, we’ve been offering formal supervision to practitioners and students through the case analysis tool of demand control schema for several years. We’ve had many successes: a trained cohort of practitioner supervisors who offered supervision sessions to hearing and deaf interpreters; we were awarded the RID mentoring grant which allowed us to introduce new interpreters and deaf interpreters to group supervision; we ran joint hearing and deaf interpreter groups led by both hearing and Deaf practitioners; we provided supervision to groups remotely through videoconferencing equipment; our trained cohort found themselves in institutions – educational, post-secondary, medical, and VRS providing supervision to interpreter employees. And as mentioned above, some pockets outside of Rochester and the US[14] are also trudging along in their commitment to supervision, even if informally.

We have also met obstacles along the way: The current structure of RID’s certification maintenance program does not easily facilitate sponsors to support it nor for members to easily get CEUs; no infrastructure exists to support supervision after graduation, that is, most institutions do not consider it apart of interpreters’ job duties to attend supervision; and lastly and likely the most influential reason, it’s just plain not what sign language interpreters are used to.

Sign language interpreters are used to answering hypothetical ethical scenarios so pointed that the “right answer” is obvious, they are used to attending one-off workshops that compactly provide them with CEUs, they’re used to venting to their close colleagues about the struggles of work, and they’re used to working in isolation, left to evaluate effectiveness usually by whether or not someone complained about them. And they’re right.  Supervision requires a cultural shift – what Aristotle would deem habituation.

Supervision throughout sign language interpreter education programs and a ready infrastructure upon graduation supporting them to certification would be needed to create an appreciation for the activity and an allegiance to its continuation (Stocker, 1981[15]).  Formal supervision would be a more effective and responsible approach to reaching independent practice than the status quo we are used to. And, mind you, it was proposed twenty-five years ago.

Prophetic Voice: The Times They are A-Changin’

Alas, those of us with twenty plus years of experience will not likely be the drivers of supervision. Many of us have formed bad habits in how we talk about the work, how we frame work problems, and most concerning, in how we talk to each other.  Most of us likely developed our professional skills under the technical profession focus (Dean & Pollard, 2005[16]) and the Master – Apprentice mentality (Feasey, 2002[17]). More than likely, we have taken our place in the hierarchy and learned to talk to others in the way that we’ve been talked to. But, as Bob Dylan the accidental prophet once suggested, we can either “lend a hand or get out of the way.”

I was compelled to write on this topic because of the timeliness of an exciting new phase in sign language interpreter supervision. Within the next few months, interpreters who were supervised for several years, who were intentionally provided with a different way of talking to one another and who had access to a community of practice from the very beginning will take the lead as facilitators. Interpreters with two to five years of experience, who have been in supervision since the start of their programs and/or diligently sought it out after graduation, will facilitate their own supervision sessions.

These groups will include professionals with more than triple the years experience of these young facilitators (A. Smith, personal communication [18]). Leading supervision because you yourself have been supervised is the natural progression for those professions that employ supervision models. While this group is small, it is noteworthy that the habituation process during their education successfully led them to an appreciation and an allegiance that we do not see in interpreters who were introduced to supervision late in their careers[19].

And now, like Mr. Fritsch-Rudser and many other of my colleagues in this endeavor, I hope that once students and young professionals experience effectively run supervision, after they understand what it is like to have collegial support, developmental ethical guidance, and a sense of shared-responsibility for the complex work of interpreting, they too will come to appreciate, expect and require supervision – for themselves, their colleagues and from their institutions. As Jean Rodman, my colleague and friend proposed, “In twenty years, interpreters will turn to us and say, ‘I can’t believe you went out and worked without supervision.’”

Prophetic? Time will tell.

Suggestions on how to move the professional development of supervision forward?

 

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[1] Fritsch-Rudser, S. (1986).  The RID code of ethics, confidentiality and supervision.  Journal of Interpretation, 3, 47-51.

[2] Cottone, R. & Claus, R. (2000). Ethical decision-making models: A review of the literature. Journal of Counseling & Development, 78, 275-283.

[3] For further discussion on an educational model of supervision for interpreters and technical skill development see: Atwood, A.  (1986). Clinical supervision as a method of providing behavioral feedback to sign language interpreters and students of interpreting.  In M. L. McIntire (Ed)., New dimensions in interpreter education:  Curriculum and instruction (pp. 87-93).  (Proceedings of the 6th national Convention of the Conference of Interpreter Trainers.)  Chevy Chase MD.

[4] For further discussion on all these topics please see: a) Tate, G. & Turner, G. H.  (1997).  The code and the culture:  Sign language interpreting – in search of the new breed’s ethics.  Deaf Worlds, 13(3), 27-34. b)Nicodemus, B., Swabey, L., & Witter-Merithew, A. (2011) Presence and role transparency in healthcare interpreting: A pedagogical approach for developing effective practice. Revista Di Linguistica 11(3), 69-83. c) Dean, R. K., Pollard, R. Q & Samar, V. J.  (2011).  Occupational health risks in different interpreting work settings:  Special concerns for VRS and K-12 settings.  Across the Board (quarterly publication of the Australian Sign Language Interpreters Association), 6(3), 4-8. d) Angelelli, C.  (2003).  The visible co-participant:  Interpreter’s role in doctor/patient encounters. In M. Metzger, S. Collins, V. Dively, and R. Shaw (Eds.), From topic boundaries to omission: New Research in interpretation Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press. e) Angelelli, C. (2004).  Revisiting the Interpreter’s Role.  A Study of conference, court and medical interpreters in Canada, Mexico, and the United States.  Amsterdam/Philadelphia:  John Benjamins.

[5] Witter-Merithew, A. StreetLeverage. (2012, March 13). Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice. Retrieved from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/03/sign-language-interpreters-reflective-practice/.  Keller, K. StreetLeverage. (2012, February 28). Case Discussion: Sign Language Interpreters Contain Their Inner “What the…!!!?”. Retrieved from http://www.streetleverage.com/2012/02/case-discussion/.

Freakonomics. (2010, October 29). E-ZPass is a life-saver (literally) [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/29/e-zpass-is-a-life-saver-literally/

[6] Anderson, A. A. (2011). Peer Support and Consultation Project for Interpreters: A Model for Supporting the Well-Being of Interpreters who Practice in Mental Health Settings. Journal of Interpretation, 21(1), 9-20.

[7] Dean, R. K. & Pollard, R. Q. (2009, Fall). “I don’t think we’re supposed to be talking about this:” Case conferencing and supervision for interpreters. VIEWS, 26, pp. 28-30.

[8] Hetherington, A. (2011). A Magical Profession? Causes and management of occupational stress in sign language interpreting profession. In L. Leeson, S. Wurm, M. Vermeerbergen (Eds.). Signed Language interpreting: Preparation, practice and performance (pp. 138-159). St. Jerome Publishing. Manchester, UK.

[9] Keller, K. (2008). Demand-control schema: Applications for deaf interpreters. In L. Roberson & S. Shaw (Eds.). Proceedings of the 17th National Convention of the Conference of Interpreter Trainers: Putting the pieces together: A collaborative approach to excellence in education. (pp. 3-16). Conference of Interpreter Trainers. San Juan, PR.

[10] Hoza, J. (2003). Toward an interpreter sensibility: Three levels of ethical analysis and a comprehensive models for ethical decision-making for interpreters. Journal of Interpretation, 1-41.

[11] Humphrey, J. (1999). Decisions? Decisions! A practical guide for sign language professionals. Amarillo, TX: H&H Publishers.

[12] Mills-Stewart, K. & Witter-Merithew, A. (2006). The dimensions of ethical decision-making: A guided exploration for interpreters. Burtonsville, MD: Sign Media, Inc.

[13] Dean, R. K. & Pollard, R. Q  (2011).  The importance, challenges, and outcomes of teaching context-based ethics in interpreting:  A demand control schema perspective.  Interpreter and Translator Trainer, 5 (1), 155-182.

[14] As an example: https://www.facebook.com/pages/ASLInterpretersCONNect-LLC/189679084413225

[15] Stocker, M. (1981). Values and Purposes: the limitations of teleology and the ends of friendship. The Journal of Philosophy, 78 (12), 747-765

[16] Dean, R.K. & Pollard, R. Q (2005).  Consumers and service effectiveness in interpreting work:  A practice profession perspective.  In M. Marschark, R. Peterson, & E. Winston (Eds.), Interpreting and interpreter education: Directions for research and practice.  New York: Oxford University Press.

[17] Feasey, D.  (2002). Good Practice in Supervision with Psychotherapists and Counselors: The Relational Approach. London: Whurr Publishers.

[18] A. Smith, personal communication, March 24, 2012.

[19] Information on this program can be found at: https://sites.google.com/a/mail.wou.edu/psipad/home

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Vanquished Native Voices — A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?

Vanquished Native Voices

Native Coda interpreters form the roots of the field and RID. Dennis Cokely urges us to respect Coda voices as sources of understanding and leadership. Maintaining these connections is critical for the field moving forward.

As sign language interpreters we have the difficult and challenging task of straddling two languages/cultures (Michal Agar coined the term “languaculture” to highlight the fact that language and culture cannot really be separated.) But I suggest, as others have (see Bill Moody’s 12/11/11 comment), that the vast majority of us approach this daunting task only partially prepared. To fully understand and appreciate this reality I believe we must constantly examine our roots and acknowledge the valuable resource we have around us.

Our Roots

When the RID was established in 1964 Codas played a prominent role in rendering sign language interpreting services for Deaf people and in the establishment of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). Indeed for the first two decades of RID’s existence the president was a Coda. For the first decade or so the majority of interpreters were related by blood to Deaf people. (“All-in-all, to know a sign language interpreter is to know someone who cares deeply about humanity in its many forms” — this from an earlier post on this site by Brandon Arthur in “The Goo at the Center of a Sign Language Interpreter”). In the last twenty-five years, however, Codas have not been as well represented in the elected leadership of RID as I believe they should be and as I believe we need them to be.

Native World-View

As the ranks of RID members who were not-Codas swelled inexorably (in large part because of federal laws as I have suggested in “Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain”), it has become less and less a given that we will have the insights of Codas on the RID Board of Directors. This would prove to be a significant loss for our organization and for the future direction of our field.

For those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — the DEAF-WORLD and ASL are neither our first culture nor our first language; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — our initial societally reinforced perceptions of Deaf people are that they are “disabled” and are therefore inferior to those of us who can hear; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know the feeling of experiencing firsthand the communicative oppression of our family members; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know the pressures of family members depending on us to facilitate communication; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know what it is like to grow up in a Deaf household; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know what it is like to grow up in a visually-oriented world-view.

I suggest that the experience and world-view gap between Codas and non-Codas may best be encapsulated by Egg Drop Soup who posted on the CODA-international.org website: “Sometimes it’s the worry that gets to me; that one day, I won’t know where they are and won’t have any way of getting in contact with them. Sometimes, it’s the clash of cultures – my adopted American individualism colliding unpleasantly with their traditional Eastern values. Other times, it’s the frustration of constantly being their ears and mouths, translating for them for friends, doctors, teachers, car salesmen, and even the occasional police officer.” This is unquestionably an experience and world-view that those of us who are not Codas can only experience vicariously in our wildest imaginings. Codas also represent a rich cultural reservoir from which I believe those of us who are not Codas must draw because Codas are connected to Deaf people in an intense and intimate way.

It is precisely this intense level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant presence as a guide to our work; it is precisely this level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant presence in the regular and secured leadership of RID; it is precisely this level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant reminder of the roots of our profession.

Don’t Feel Inadequate

All of this is, of course, is in no way intended to make those of us who are not Codas feel inadequate as interpreters. Our experiences – Codas and non-Codas — are simply quite different. Our experiences are neither better nor worse, they are just different. And, no, I am not suggesting that all Codas are effective and successful interpreters and neither do I believe that that one must be a Coda to be an effective and successful sign language interpreter. However, I do believe that to be effective and successful as an interpreter one must absolutely have deep and sustained connections to the Deaf Community. And since 54% of us spend less than 10% of our time socializing with Deaf people (see my 1/5/12 comment on “Complicit With a Devils’ Bargains” post), this is a serious problem for us as a field! I absolutely am suggesting that listening to and ensuring a presence for the native voice of the Coda-experience is one incredibly vital way that we as individual practitioners and as a field can begin to re-connect with Deaf people and can connect with the experience of the communicative oppression that Deaf people experience on a daily basis. Perhaps more importantly we can develop a fuller and enriched understanding of and appreciation for what it is we do as interpreters.

A Coda on the RID Board

This past July at the RID Conference a motion was passed by a significant majority that would create a dedicated position on the RID Board of Directors for a certified member who was raised by one or two Deaf parents. I absolutely and unequivocally believe that we must ensure that RID, our organization, does not lose the vital Coda link to our past. I can think of no compelling reason why we, as an organization, would not want to ensure this irreplaceable link to our past and its presence on our Board of Directors. Some would argue that RID (us) would incur additional expenses by adding an additional seat on the Board. I would argue that the price of doing so definitely does not outweigh the cost of not doing so.

Further, I would encourage the leadership of any association serving sign language interpreters to work to ensure that the Coda link to our past is represented as they move their respective organizations forward.

In Sum

I urge every member of RID to honor our past, cherish our present and enrich our future by voting in the affirmative to create a dedicated Coda seat on the RID Board of Directors. When the vote is called for next fall I urge us all to vote to ensure that we always have a Native Voice on our Board of Directors!

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Sign Language Interpreters – Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain?

Are Sign Language Interpreters Complicit in a Devil's Bargin?

When sign language interpreting shifted from “social service” to “business”, a chasm developed between the Deaf community & sign language interpreters. How do we regain and retain connection to the community that we serve?

Five decades ago those of us who functioned as sign language interpreters were allies of Deaf people, united with them in fighting for communicative access to the various services and opportunities offered to society at large. Working to overcome the daily attitudinal and communicative oppression that confronted Deaf people was a force that served to unite interpreters and Deaf people. Then the communicative access needs of Deaf people were provided by the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, relatives, teachers, ministers, VR counselors and friends of Deaf people. Indeed, the interpreting scene for Deaf people then was in many ways like it is today for individuals needing spoken language access to society’s services and opportunities.

Communicative Oppression

The communicative oppression Deaf people experienced enabled them to define the work of sign language interpreters in many ways – they vetted interpreters (there were no Interpreter Training Programs or credentialing procedures), they arranged for interpreters (there were no laws requiring provision of interpreters), and they shared their language (there were no formal sign language classes except perhaps in churches) and their “Deaf grapevine” made known to the Community who could be trusted as an interpreter and who could not (there were no referral agencies). For interpreters, supporting the struggle for communicative access was an “other-centered” activity that focused on issues of justice for Deaf people and their rights.

Fifty years later, while audism still persists, the right to communicative access for Deaf people has been ensured by three federal laws (PL 93-112, PL 94-142 and PL 101-336). However, the cost to Deaf people and to sign language interpreters has been quite significant. For Deaf people who, beginning in the seventies and eighties, sought to be viewed as a linguistic and cultural minority, the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that they were to be labeled as “disabled”; the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that they would quickly lose the ability to define the work of interpreters; the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that they would soon no longer be the primary source from which non-Deaf people would learn their language; the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that reputation within the Community mattered less and less. To be sure, this was a true devil’s bargain, one whose terms may not have been fully made clear to, understood nor foreseen by Deaf people. Nevertheless, the cost to interpreters and to our standing as allies of Deaf people may have been even more severe.

The Consequences

Certainly one consequence of the three federal laws was to create an “interpreter for hire” environment in which the overwhelming majority of hiring entities (school principals, interpreter coordinators, conference coordinators, etc.) would not be Deaf. Thus while we, as sign language interpreters, might hold certification from RID, a non-Deaf dominated certifying or credentialing entity, that fact alone does not mean that we have been vetted by Deaf people or had our skills honed in the crucible of the Community. Additionally these federal laws created the “business model” of interpreting which was a decided shift from the “service model” of interpreting according to which we operated fifty years ago. Among other things, the “business model” has lead to interpreters earning a national average of $38.00 per hour (with a two hour minimum) and referral agencies billing on average twice that amount – a 100% surcharge. And when we consider that 51% of interpreters work full-time and 54% of Deaf people are unemployed, one wonders whether interpreters have materially benefited more from this legislated “Devil’s bargain” than have Deaf people.

Another consequence is that an enormous interpreter supply demand gap was legislatively created. While Deaf people used to arrange for and negotiate for the provision of sign language interpreting services according to their schedules, Deaf people are now forced to live their lives according to interpreters’ schedules and work availability. For example, it is worth noting that, according to national surveys, 78% of Deaf people report that medical settings are the most important situations in which they need interpreting services and yet those are the very settings for which they report it is most difficult to be provided with interpreting services. Little wonder since only 30% of sign language interpreters nationwide work in medical settings more than 30% of the time. Our work choices now dictate the rhythm of Deaf people’s lives. Our work choices constrain the life decisions of Deaf people. Our work choices either uphold or deny human rights and avow or disavow human dignity.

Our Roots

Deaf people used to be the primary source of helping us learn their language and they did so by teaching it to us from birth, or because we had familial ties or because they extended opportunities for us to socialize with them. But now according to a national survey 49% of nationally credentialed sign language interpreters spend less than 10% of their time socializing with Deaf people; only 20% of us are members of NAD and only 8% of us are members of their state association of the Deaf. How then do we keep abreast of changes in the language or changes in the attitudes/perspectives of Deaf people? How do we justify learning their language and profiting from it without giving back? In becoming a “profession” have we simply become parasites?

If, as a group, we interpreters are no longer as tightly bound to Deaf people as we were before, if there is no common uniting cause that binds us to Deaf people, if we have begun to view interpreting as a business rather than a response to personal connections, if we have materially benefited from laws mandating the presence of interpreters more than Deaf people, then the questions must be asked – what are we willing to do as individuals to become reconnected with Deaf people? Are we willing to adjust our work choices to accommodate the rhythm of Deaf people’s lives?

What should we be doing as a field/profession to give back to the Community?

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How Sign Language Interpreters Survive a Professional Shakedown

Sign language interpreters are faced with regular challenges to pay rate, employment terms, and changing work conditions. Brandon Arthur suggests that remaining calm and prioritizing values will lead to successful negotiations.

You’re traveling along, like you do on any given day when suddenly you feel the muzzle of a gun pressed against the back of your head and hear, “give me your high rate of pay, all your premium workplace perks, and don’t forget your abounding opportunity.”

It’s a sign language interpreter shakedown. What do you do?

Before you do anything drastic, consider that survival, or in other words maintaining your professional reputation, is most important.

Don’t Panic

When faced with someone grabbing at your rate of pay, industry standard practices, or incidental reimbursement, don’t panic.  There is nothing worse than an inconsiderate, emotional reaction.  In this circumstance, to react with something like, “Seriously, this offer is an absolute insult to me and my profession…”, will do little to help you survive.  It certainly doesn’t position you to rescue your hourly rate, standard practices, incidental reimbursement and/or the potential opportunity.

In fact, it puts your survival and any hope of reaching an agreement at risk.

It’s a Negotiation

After all, at the center of any professional shakedown attempt is a negotiation—albeit a difficult one.  What follows are a few key things for sign language interpreters, Sidewalk-Executives, to remember when negotiating.

Don’t Move First

Always remember when negotiating in a high stakes environment—and a person’s livelihood is considered high stakes in my mind—never make the first move.  It is critically important that you understand all of the demands of the other party first.  To ignore this caution puts you at a significant disadvantage.

What’s Important

Upon understanding the demands of the other party, you have to quickly assess what is most important to you.  Is it rate of pay?  Work environment?  Frequency of the opportunity?  Whatever it is, its important that you be reasonable and cognizant of how it impacts the other party and their proposal.

Counter Offer

After you have determined what is important to you, you have to calmly and respectfully reframe their demands and clearly offer an alternative proposal.  Do this in priority order (most important points first).   Be sure to counter with all that is important to you because attempting to add to these terms later will erode the trust of the other party, which is clearly a no-no.

Done Means Done

Unless something substantive in the agreement changes, once the two parties have agreed on terms there is no more negotiating.  A fatal mistake people make is attempting to revisit aspects of the agreement.  Don’t do it.  Should you attempt, you won’t live to tell the tale and neither will your reputation.

Remember

To act on emotion, move first, or handle the negotiation carelessly will put your professional reputation at risk.  If you can’t make it work in the first couple of exchanges, respectfully decline and walk away.  Don’t force it or continue to negotiate; its professionally reckless and doesn’t leverage the karma of gratitude to your benefit.

Lastly, remember that negotiating a shakedown successfully takes practice.  As you gain practical experience, remember that to error by walking away too early is a preferential outcome to death by way of professional shakedown.

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Why Not a Sign Language Interpreter Bill of Rights?

Bill of Rights

 

As outside forces seek to control sign language interpreter rates of pay, professional standards, and hiring practices, Brandon Arthur drafts a Sign Language Interpreter’s Bill of Rights.

If you haven’t seen it, you soon will.  Due to economic pressures, businesses and individuals hiring interpreters are challenging (and attempting to redefine) our rates, standard practices, and national credentials.

In my view, if we handle these challenges poorly we will be putting the foundation of our industry at risk.

So, what do we do?  Why not an Interpreter Bill of Rights?  I know it may seem a little crazy, but service providers in other industries have them, why not sign language interpreters?

What comes next certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.  Care to add?

Sign Language Interpreter Bill of Rights

Statement of Rights

An interpreter accepting an assignment to deliver sign language interpreting services has the right to:

  1. Be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, disability or sexual orientation.
  2. Receive, in advance, sufficient information about the D/deaf customer and the terms of the assignment in order to determine suitability.
  3. Know the name(s), if any, of any other interpreter(s) already engaged for the assignment, and to decline the assignment based on such information.
  4. Deliver services in a manner that honors customer preference, complies with industry standard practices, and allows for active support of team interpreter(s).
  5. Be told, in advance, of any changes to the terms of an assignment and to have the opportunity to confirm agreement to these changes.
  6. Decline an offer to provide services for any reason or no reason.
  7. Have personal, compensation, and credentialing information kept confidential, and to be advised of the disclosure of such information.
  8. Request the information and methodology used to determine rate of compensation.
  9. Request prompt payment for services rendered.
  10. Work in an environment free from physical and verbal abuse.
  11. Seek replacement on an assignment where:
    • Customer or co-interpreter’s conduct alters the terms or conditions of an assignment, or creates an abusive or unsafe environment; or
    • An emergency or a significant change in the interpreter’s health has resulted in an inability to provide effective services
  12. Voice concerns and/or grievances to the coordinating entity regarding the provision of service in connection with the assignment, or regarding a lack of courtesy or respect for the interpreter.
  13. Assert these rights personally, without retaliation.
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It’s Ugly, Uncomfortable and Can Damage Your Reputation

Its ugly and can damage your career

Navigating the professional world of sign language interpreters requires a level of flexibility and approachability, but at what cost? Rather than avoiding conflict, Brandon Arthur suggests resolving issues in professional and timely ways.

You know the drill… Smile. Make eye contact. Offer a reinforcing head nod. Appear confident and interested.

As interpreters, we work hard to internalize the behaviors that help us appear approachable. This is a necessary and required skill in order to accommodate the myriad of personalities we encounter on the job.  Though it hasn’t been statistically proven, at least to my knowledge, we intuitively understand that interpreters who master this skill are busier than those who haven’t.

Being an expert does have its side effects.

The Side Effects

While it can be completely exhausting to be “on” day-after-day for extended periods, I believe there is a more harmful side effect to this internalization. We have trained ourselves to be conflict adverse. By working to be uber approachable, we have simultaneously internalized a conflict avoidance strategy. What I will call the “if I do nothing, this issue will go away” approach. We know it works because when the assignment ends we are done, and may not be back there for a number of months. Problem solved!

The Ugly Head of Avoided Conflict

Inevitably though, we get hired for a long-term assignment or as a staff interpreter, and suddenly a strategy that has worked like a charm is now working against us. By avoiding conflict in these environments it only intensifies, and when addressed—and at some point it will be—it’s ugly and uncomfortable. It can result in people losing or prematurely abandoning work opportunities.  Worse, it can significantly damage reputations and destroy an otherwise healthy environment.

Address Conflict Quickly

Because most people have had no formal instruction on resolving conflict, we use strategies we have learned by example or draw from our own experience.  The considerations and strategies offered below are a few that have served me well.

  • Recognize that conflict is inevitable
  • Remember that conflict is not inherently bad
  • Address conflict immediately (in most cases while its minor)
  • Address the person directly before seeking assistance
  • Be honest about your role in the conflict
  • Consider the mood of the person prior to addressing
  • Appearing emotionally distant serves no one
  • Ask yourself, “is the approach I am about to use the best one to resolve this situation?”

Remember, while you may never find conflict comfortable, you can learn to effectively navigate through it.

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Should the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf Sue?

As the professional organization representing sign language interpreters in the United States, RID is in a unique position to champion working conditions and legislation impacting the industry. Brandon Arthur considers how litigation might impact RID and its members.

Is there any merit to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) litigating to advance the rights of sign language interpreters to reasonable working conditions and employment practices, and laws that defend their eligibility to work? Clearly, litigating has both a financial and a political cost and these costs should not be underestimated.

As it occurs to me, the pros and cons of RID taking a more offensive position in advocating for our rights are:

Pros of Litigation

  • Cases will lead to a body of information related to appropriate working conditions and practices when employing interpreters.
  • Publicly exposes organizations for interpreter abuse.
  • Creates an opportunity for industry stakeholders to work together to seek accountability for business practices and working conditions.
  • Imposes a financial hardship on offending organizations/individuals.
  • Uncovers the facts, which assists in identifying the people that can legitimately deliver solutions.
  • A demonstration that RID has a no non-sense approach to fulfilling its charge to protect and promote the interests of sign language interpreters.

Cons of Litigation

  • Establishes an adversarial relationship with the private businesses and government entities that employ interpreters.
  • The financial cost.
  • A lost case can create a damaging precedent, which makes it more difficult to defend our interests.
  • Increased scrutiny of interpreter conduct and practices.
  • Heightened conflict within the industry.
  • Strains collaboration between RID, private business and government entities on shared interests.
  • May have to pay court costs for the other side.

Which Situations?

Endeavoring to hold individuals and/or organizations accountable for unsatisfactory working conditions is—and has been—a difficult proposition. While I am not—and I don’t believe many would be—in favor of the concept of litigating for the sake of litigating, I do believe that there are situations where we would greatly benefit should RID take a more offensive position. You may be thinking, “Well, what situations exactly, Brandon!?”

To name a couple, I believe RID should evaluate the merits of any case where an interpreter is being tried in a court of law related to their role, work product and/or or ethical practices, and get involved based on the merits of each particular case. Further, it is my view that RID should take a more offensive role when legislation is being crafted that will adversely impact an interpreter’s ability to perform their work and earn a livable wage.

In the End

RID occupies an important role, representing the voice of the sign language interpreter, and if necessary should throw a little weight around to ensure we are heard. It is one thing to inherently understand that poor working conditions or deflationary practices render an interpreter unable to deliver their art and quite another to do something about it.  As interpreters, we should leverage all the resources we have to ensure we are able to do our work effectively.  RID is one of those resources.

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Sign Language Interpreting—An Industry Past Feeling?

In an ever-changing field of engagement, sign language interpreters seem to have lost their collective voices. Brandon Arthur explores the factors which inhibit practitioners and gives hope for regaining agency and confidence.

It is often said that the anonymity of living in a big city and the effort to avoid feeling imposed on by the crush of humanity, makes people hard and unfeeling. After all, it’s only in the big city that a person can be attacked 3 times in a 30 minute period—as 38 witnesses look on—without single person placing a call to 911 that would save their life, right?

As I consider the staggering pace of change the sign language interpreting industry is experiencing and the magnitude of the challenges we confront, what is striking to me is what appears to be a sense of indifference and a dismissal of our need to be responsible industry citizens.

Why Do We Just Look On?

Why do we standby as our practices and standards are attacked by short-sighted colleagues, industry business and associations, and local and national regulating bodies?  Why do we look on as the quality of life that has taken decades to achieve erodes as regulation after regulation is legislated without us?  Why do we willingly sit quiet as our credentials and professional organization are increasingly viewed as unnecessary or irrelevant?

Is it because we have grown complacent under the 3 squares a day provided by staff employment?  Is it because we believe someone who better understands the issues will take the time to file a comment?  Is it that the part-time Government Affairs Program at RID is sufficient to ensure interpreters interests are represented in every city and every state and that every piece of legislation is crafted so we remain eligible to do the work?  Or, maybe it is that the hundreds of our colleagues who are recently underemployed/unemployed—as a result of industry regulation and change—is really someone else’s problem.  While these maybe true for some, I believe it is something more alarming.

We have lost our confidence.

The Confidence Crisis

For the first time in our collective history, the bigger challenges facing our industry are not directly related to moving the act of interpreting from an occupation to a profession; so we find ourselves feeling unprepared.  This feeling of being unprepared has given us an awareness of some sizable blind-spots in our field of vision.  We no longer intuitively understand the rules of engagement.  We don’t have direct access, in most cases, to the decision makers and people of influence.  We are unfamiliar with proper protocol and the process to meaningfully get things done.  We don’t know where to go to understand the issues or stay informed in real-time.

In short, we are unsure what to do.

So, we look on questioning our ability to help, believing someone else will make the call that will stop the attack.  We look on fearful that to act may result in our being numbered among the unemployed/underemployed.  So, we ignore the reflex to act and begin the internal chase for justification.

What Now?

Simple, we commit to stare down our discomfort and act.

We recondition our reflex to sit out by recognizing that the choice not to act is an action itself and only perpetuates the conspicuous absence of our collective voice in shaping the future.  We seek out information to understand the implications and consequences of the actions being taken by us and around us.  We conduct ourselves in a way that we are counted among the artists in our communities creating positive change.

Like the responsible citizen who hears the plea of a person being attacked, we endeavor to make the situation better.  Like this responsible citizen, each of us has a valid contribution to make.  So, let commit to make it and remove the perception that we are indifferent to the outcomes of the actions swirling around us.

We do care and we are not past feeling.

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What Characteristics Should the New RID Executive Director Have?

Someone Pondering

The search is on for a new Executive Director of RID. Brandon Arthur provides his perspective on some of the critical skills the new ED should possess.

The removal of longtime Executive Director, Clay Nettles, on the eve of the 2011 RID National conference came as quite a surprise.  See the official information release here.  A change in leadership at the top of any organization has many considerations.  It is my hope that—in the end—both RID and Clay can find a mutually agreeable way through the transition.

During the conference Cheryl Moose, outgoing RID President, stated, “it’s a new day at RID and we look forward to moving things along with the hiring of a new Executive Director.”  Clearly, this position is important to the success of RID and its representation of the sign language interpreter community.  In my mind, because this position is so important, the Search Committee should be seeking specific characteristics.

Specific Characteristics

  1. Keep the organization in sync with its members, and work with the Board to get ahead of the issues confronting the industry.
  2. Passionately tell the story of our industry.
  3. Recognize that both the organization’s success and their success—ushering in a new day—depends on their ability to identify patterns of change and position RID accordingly.
  4. Reshape the way the organization, its members, and industry businesses/organizations work together.
  5. Work with the Board to mold a future group of leaders in order to multiply RID’s ability to make better decisions and get things done.
  6. Anticipate external forces that may limit the forward movement of the organization.
  7. Insist on accountability throughout all facets of RID.
  8. Consistently recognize the contributions of the current and past artists within our field.

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, I believe—based on my purview of the industry—RID would be well served by someone with these skills.

Roll-up your sleeves Search Committee; you’re going to need to get dirty on this one.