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What Did 2016 Teach Sign Language Interpreters About Success in 2017?

What 2016 Taught Sign Language Interpreters about Success in 2017

It is tempting to write 2016 off and move immediately into the new year, but that would mean overlooking some of the profound and fundamental lessons shared by StreetLeverage contributors last year.

While public speaking is one of the most fearful things humans can do, expressing one’s thoughts and perspectives via social media in two languages is probably a close second. Still, StreetLeverage contributors continue to inspire and amaze, bringing new insights and conversations to the table on a regular basis.  If we were to measure the year in the depth and breadth of perspectives shared, 2016 would definitely be setting us up for success in 2017. So, before we bid 2016 adieu, we wanted to highlight a few examples of the generosity and courageousness shown by sign language interpreters and industry stakeholders in the last 12 months.

For Auld Lang Syne

Before we dive into our retrospective, we’d like to express our deepest gratitude to everyone who contributed, in large and small ways, to the StreetLeverage endeavor. Without the writers, readers, volunteers, thought-leaders, videographers, editors, and friends who volunteer their time and efforts to support us, StreetLeverage could not begin to amplify the voice of sign language interpreters or attempt to change the way we understand, practice, and tell the story of the sign language interpreter. For all your work, we say: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

2016’s Nine Building Blocks for Success

1.  Bring Social Consciousness to the Fore

Joseph Hill

As practitioners in the field of communication access, social consciousness is a critical aspect of the work of all signed language interpreters. Joseph Hill’s presentation, Sign Language Interpreters: Practicing with a Socially Conscious Approachat StreetLeverage – Live 2015 provides an avenue for us to start looking at identity and interpreting through a social justice lens. As we continue to delve into the skewed relationship between interpreter demographics and consumer realities, we look to thought leaders to help us find greater understanding and paths to improvement.

2.  Reach Out to Deaf Interpreters

Where’s the Welcome Mat? Opening the Door to Deaf Interpreters

Another evolution in the field of interpreting that continued to manifest itself in 2016 was the reintroduction and strengthening of the presence of Deaf Interpreters in the field. While this evolution is happening, progress is slow and sometimes arduous as Jeremy Rogers explains in his article, Where’s the Welcome Mat? Opening the Door to Deaf Interpreters.

3.  Look at Insider Discourse Under a Microscope

Sign Language Interpreter Framing Their Work

Semantics matter. As sign language interpreters, language is our currency. Despite this fact, we don’t always consider the impact language has on perspectives when it comes to the words we use to describe our work. Kelly Decker’s article, What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting, showcases some current examples of language we use in our insider discourse that may impact perceptions about the work we do and those with whom we work. With lively conversation, this article lit up our comments board, and we hope it continues to do so.

4.  Inject Humor and Humility into Our Practice

Sharon Neumann Solow

As one of the field’s most beloved teachers and mentors, Sharon Neumann Solow inserts equal parts humor, humility, and straight-forward talk into the conversation in her StreetLeverage – Live 2015 presentation, Genuine Confidence: Why Can’t It Be All About Me?. By sharing personal stories, Sharon’s presentation provides context for looking at confidence versus spotlight-stealing and illustrates why the differences matter.

5.  Support Ethics with Pre-Assignment Considerations

Accept or Decline? Questions Sign Language Interpreters Should Ponder

Job readiness is a topic that comes up in most conversations about sign language interpreting at some point, whether one-on-one or at a conference. Michael Ballard provides a consumer’s perspective on the kind of preparation sign language interpreters could do to help determine their level of preparedness for an assignment in his article, Accept or Decline? Questions Sign Language Interpreters Should Ponder.

6.  Join the Civility Revolution

A Civility Revolution: A Call to Arms for Sign Language Interpreters

With bullying and trolling in the news constantly, it was refreshing to have a conversation about civil discourse. Providing tools and suggestions for action, Diana MacDougall invited sign language interpreters to join a kinder, gentler conversation and revolution in her article, A Civility Revolution: A Call to Arms for Sign Language Interpreters.

7.  Explore the Realities of the Modern World

Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World

In a year where violence of all kinds dominated headlines and conversations around the country and the world, Stephen Holter’s article, Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World, struck a chord with readers who also shared some of their own experiences and strategies for staying safe. While we hope no interpreter ever needs to utilize these tips and tools, it’s an important conversation to engage in.

8.  Uncover the Intangible

Wing Butler

In his deeply personal and profound StreetLeverage – Live 2015 presentation, Status Transaction: The “It” Factor in Sign Language Interpreting, Wing Butler shared his thoughts on the “It Factor” for sign language interpreters. In his exploration of the intangible qualities that raise community esteem for one sign language interpreter over another, Wing also gives us a formula for success. Skills are important, but there are other factors that create the elusive “It” interpreter.

9.  Examine Personal Cultural Competence

IGNITE Workbook

Our final selection is a compilation of exemplary work from some of the brilliant minds in our field. Our 2016 workbook, Ignite, is a collection of posts designed to lead sign language interpreters and sign language interpreting students through a process of self-discovery regarding cultural competence. This free-to-download offering is an opportunity to look at a specific topic through a variety of lenses in order to gain a more well-rounded perspective. We hope this inaugural edition will be the first of many such workbooks.

Please Continue to Join Us in 2017 and Beyond

We hope this look back on 2016 will provide you with some valuable takeaways that can be foundations for a successful year ahead. Again, thank you for your support, sharing, comments, viewings, and readership. We hope you will continue to join us here on the blog and register to come meet us in St. Paul, MN for StreetLeverage – Live. Please join us in raising our glasses in a toast to a bright new year. Welcome to 2017!

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Identity Presentation: How Sign Language Interpreters Do It With Integrity

Sign Language Interpreter - Presenting Identity

As sign language interpreters, how can we present ourselves to those around us with integrity? Explore the origins of identity and how our identities come into play during interpreting interactions.

“Who are you? Where are you from?” These are seemingly simple questions. However, I find them incredibly complicated to answer, especially in the past the last few years. Part of my complication in answering has to do with where I currently am in my life, both personally and professionally. At the time of writing, I am a 40+ year old American who has been living and working in England for the past 6 years. I am not a CODA, but I have been using ASL for more than half my life and have been RID certified for over 20 years. I now use British Sign language (BSL) on an almost daily basis. The change in context has opened me up to the ideas of the multiple identities we have, how we acquire them, maintain them, and how they can change over time. It is clear that we all have multiple identities (e.g. parent, partner, employee, friend, etc.) and present those that are most salient to the interactions in which we find ourselves. Using myself as an example, I would like to discuss both how we see our own identities as well as how we are seen by the Deaf and hearing people with which we work.

“Through others we become ourselves.”

– Lev S. Vygotsky

Origins of Identity

Not all of our identities come from the same place. From the circumstances of our birth, to the opportunities we encounter and avail ourselves of, there are a variety of ways in which we acquire identities throughout our lives. Generally speaking, we can break down our identities as coming from four possible places, biologically-determined (or pre-dispostional), circumstances of where/when we are born, those that we choose, and those that are given to us by others (whether we want them or not). These categories are separate but there are obvious interactions amongst them (e.g. because of who I am due to my biology may open some choices for me that are closed to others).  The chart below gives you some examples in each category:

Biology Birth Choice From Others
Male American Irish Citizen “Foreigner”
Caucasian Son UK Resident “Hearing”
Blue-eyed Brother Interpreter
Near-sighted Irish (family heritage) Childless
Red haired Catholic Gay (culturally)
Hearing (audiologically)

In the first column are those that are more or less biologically determined. In my case, I am a blue-eyed, red-haired, somewhat tall, Caucasian hearing male who is rather near-sighted. While it may be true that environmental factors can play a part (for example, my eye-sight might have a genetic predisposition, but how I use or abuse my sight can also have an effect). Also, in some cultures, certain biological traits may be valued more highly than others (e.g. preference for gender of children, or value placed upon height).


Because of when, where and to whom I was born (New York City, 1960’s, to a working class, nominally Catholic mostly Irish-American family with 2 children already), I acquired the identities listed in the second column.

One isn’t born one’s self. One is born with a mass of expectations, a mass of

other people’s ideas—and you have to work through it all.  

-V. S. Naipaul 


With the foundation of the first two categories, I have been able to acquire other identities, many by choice. (It should be noted that some of these identities may provide me with privilege; the fact that I am a hearing Caucasian male is not trivial.  Some of this privilege can allow me to avail myself of opportunities that other may not have access to.) I was born an American Citizen by virtue of the place of my birth; however, I gained Irish citizenship (through a process of paperwork) because of the national origin of my grandparents. Thus as (now) a citizen of the European Union, I can legally reside and work in the United Kingdom. Professionally, I was fortunate to discover ASL and the Deaf Community and train as a sign language interpreter. Personally, I choose to openly and outwardly identify as a Gay man and make many of my choices (who I affiliate with, relationships, where I socialise) based on that identity.

Social Identity is never unilateral.

 Individual identity— embodied in selfhood— is not meaningful in isolation

 from the social world of other people.

– Jenkins

From Others

Finally, there are some identities that are ‘given’ to me by others. It is clear from my accent (both spoken and signed I am told) that I am not British so I am recognised (and sometimes labelled as) a ‘foreigner’ living in the UK. Also, as I am not Deaf (and I am not a CODA), Deaf people often label me as ‘hearing’ to distinguish me from Deaf signers. Both of these externally gained identities can be seen as either positive or negative (depending  on who is labelling me). Also because of the support I received from Deaf friends, I became a sign language interpreter (even though it is in the ‘Choice’ column). My experience living in the UK (where I do less interpreting than when living in the US) is that many Deaf people here perceive me as an ‘interpreter’ because that is a common identity familiar to Deaf people. Even though I may think I have a certain identity (e.g. University Lecturer), external factors are very important in our identity formation and labeling.

Also, I may choose to present anyone of my identities as primary in a given situation. At the eye doctor’s, my near-sightedness is most prominent, at Passport Control in the airport, my Citizenship is the most salient. Thus, I choose to present myself in a way that is appropriate to the situation.

Presentation of Self

In his classic work, the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Goffman 1990), Erving Goffman explores the various ways in which we ‘act out’ various identities in the course of our lives. He argues that much of the work we do in social interactions is to avoid embarrassing ourselves and others. Thus, we modify how we present ourselves on a constant basis in relation to others around us. In addition, we can view our multiple identities as nested; we do not ‘lose’ identities, but bring to the front the one(s) most appropriate for the situation we are in (so, in a professional context my identity as ‘friend’ or ‘partner’ may not be relevant to the specific interaction).

How familiar are we with how Deaf and Hearing people present themselves and can and do we accurately convey that in our interpretations?  This is stated eloquently by Stephanie Feyne, in Authenticity: The Impact of a Sign Language Interpreter’s Choices:

A simplistic example is of an interpreter who spends all her time in elementary school settings who is then asked to interpret for a job interview at the professional level. That interpreter would have to assess her own skills: Does she know what interviews at this level sound like? Is she comfortable with the jargon of that field in both languages? Does she have the cadence of a professional? What kinds of utterances are typically produced there – short declaratory sentences or longer, denser utterances? Her goals would be to ensure that if the Deaf person presents himself as a genuine and credible professional, that she then renders his message in an accurate and professional manner so that the hearing party sees him as genuine and credible without the interpretation getting in the way.

In addition, it is worth asking ourselves, how do we present ourselves to Deaf people (both in interpreting contexts as well as in social contexts)? How does how we present ourselves to hearing people reflect upon the Deaf people we work with? Stephanie Feyne continues:

… we interpreters, myself included, need to ensure we broaden our range of communication so that it is sufficiently wide to cover all the arenas in which we may find ourselves working. We interpreters must explore our own communicative norms so that when they arise in an interpreted setting we can acknowledge them and elect to disregard them consciously rather than having them control our interpreting decisions.

Personal and Professional Identities

Unlike those in other professions, I feel strongly that for sign language interpreters, there needs to be a close connection between some of our personal and professional identities. If we are not prepared to have personal and professional parts of our lives involved with Deaf people, then we cannot be effective as interpreters.  In terms of development of the profession, Lynnette Taylor in Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field reminds us that:

The role of the interpreter was shaping itself in response to the changing needs of the community. All of us, interpreters, D/deaf people, and even non signers, were engaging in conversations about how to work together, sharing world views, problem solving ethical conflicts, and it was through these conversations and interactions that we began to learn our place in the story. But perhaps more important, these interpreted interactions and witnessing of stories helped us understand the complexities of our community.

Betty Colonomos in, Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart, states:

Interpreters who have no interactions with Deaf people outside of work miss much of the collective history and current burning issues that show up in interpreted interactions and collegial discussions. How can interpreters who hide behind their interpretation of the Code of Professional Conduct–instead of taking responsibility to intervene–employ strategies that are culturally appropriate to solve problems?

It is incumbent upon us as professionals (who, as mentioned before, often have privilege on the basis of identities such as of hearing status, color, gender, and socio-economic status) as well as members of a community that we actively engage with Deaf people and not just in interpreted interactions. We need also to be clear about what identities we hold and how we present ourselves in our daily interactions.

Presenting ourselves with Integrity

So how do we present ourselves in a genuine way to the people we interact with? We are all individuals and those with whom we interact (Deaf and Hearing alike) will expect us to behave in ways that are consistent with who we and how we identify ourselves. One of the issues of the machine model (see for example, (Witter-Merithew 1986), (Baker-Shenk 1991), and (McIntire, Sanderson 1993), among others) was that sign language interpreters were told that they were not allowed to present themselves. This had an alienating effect on all participants, Deaf and hearing alike. While we must be incredibly careful not to “take over” situations, we need to be mindful that how we present ourselves to the participants in an interpreted interaction needs to be genuine, respectful and following the expectations of those participants.  Some questions to ponder:

–        Are we familiar with the expectations of how people present themselves in the range of situations in which we interpret (for example an office staff meeting vs. a vocational training course vs. a social networking even)?

–        Are we familiar with (and do we use) the expected cultural norms of the Deaf and hearing people with whom we interact?

–        Are we respectful of the language choices of the Deaf and hearing people we work with?

–        Are we familiar with a range of Deaf and hearing people (in terms of age, race, gender, etc.) and how they expect to interact with us in their language(s)?

–        Are we comfortable discussing who we are and what to expect when working with us in appropriate ways

–        Do we present ourselves differently to Deaf and hearing people that we know and have worked with before as opposed to people are meeting for the first time?

–        Does how we present ourselves engender trust?

A Final Point

If we cannot accurately present ourselves with integrity it will not be possible to accurately represent the participants through our interpretations.  Integrity starts with each one of us.


BAKER-SHENK, C., 1991. The Interpreter: Machine, Advocate, or Ally? J. PLANT-MOELLER, ed. In: Expanding Horizons: Proceedings of The 1991 RID Convention 1991, RID Publications, pp. 120-140.

GOFFMAN, E., 1990. The presentation of self in everyday life. London : Penguin.

JENKINS, R., 1996. Social identity. London: Routledge.

MCINTIRE, M. and SANDERSON, G., 1993. Bye-bye! Bi-bi!: Questions of Empowerment and Role, A Confluence of Diverse Relationships: Proceedings of the Thirteenth National Convention of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf 1993, RID Publications, pp. 94-118.

WITTER-MERITHEW, A., 1986. Claiming our destiny. RID Views, October 12.