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Vulnerability: A Collaboration Killer for Sign Language Interpreters

When embracing our role as teammates in the larger sense of the word, sign language interpreters create more successful and positive interactions as colleagues and service providers.

As calls for volunteers went out to test a platform that could ultimately provide live ASL interpretation for any TEDx conference—TEDx events are community organized events that bring people together to share ideas—two groups of sign language interpreters emerged, a Deaf and hearing team in New York and a group of hearing interpreters in Baltimore. This opportunity was a chance to interpret portions of a streamed TEDx event live via the Internet to an audience of self-selected individuals volunteering to provide feedback on the technology and approach for these events.

This call for volunteers by Sarge Salman—an innovator leading the Conference ASL (CASL) group to improve accessibility at TEDx events—set off a round of discussions among sign language interpreters about vulnerability and fear of ridicule, especially online. Apparently, this fear kept many highly qualified interpreters from volunteering, a shame since a healthier climate would have brought more hands, more minds, and more opportunities to help get this worthy goal off the ground.

Risk Averse

Sadly, so many of us fear being mocked, criticized, and torn to shreds by fellow practitioners that we avoid taking worthwhile risks. We fear we are never good enough, and by exposing our vulnerabilities, we will be labeled weak or unqualified. We often do not know who to turn to because it seems so unsafe to open up to anyone but our closest friends. Still, we know many of our sign language interpreter colleagues are secretly wishing for the same nurturing professional support. In the absence of such assistance, we ignore our needs and find ourselves stagnating.

An Admission

I must admit that when initially presented with the request to interpret TEDx live online, I caved to the immediate knots that formed in my stomach as I imagined fumbling in front of a live camera. Secretly, I wished I was that interpreter, one of the super-skilled who everyone knows is perfect for this kind of job. As far as I could see, those interpreters were already represented on the list. Who was I to add my name? I didn’t see myself as confident and competent enough to tackle the challenge and do my part in this bold attempt at access. So, I ignored the request as if it was meant for someone else.

Obviously, I wasn’t thinking big enough. I also didn’t realize that by refusing, I was collapsing under a fear of ridicule that is causing aspects our profession to stagnate. Even worse, I was ignoring my own advice. In mentoring student interpreters, I regularly say the first thing to work through is the nerves, to take feeds and support until you reach a point where the process is no longer intensely painful. Once there, we can focus on growth. Yet here I was, running from the hot-seat, unwilling to work through my own nerves because I feared the pain of open criticism.

Fear

What is it about this job that invites such fear? Anna Witter-Merithew in addition to her sound advice, describes how our working in isolation can lead to hostility and defensiveness in Anna Witter-Merithew’s, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice. It is widely known that hostility creates more hostility, fear, or both. Indeed, sign language interpreters have witnessed or have been part of hostility and defensiveness as we humans, making mistakes, sometimes fail to communicate responsibly.

We are so used to working alone that we can easily forget to include other perspectives, or we forget that we reach better results by supporting one another in our moments of vulnerability while giving advice. Sometimes we perceive real or imagined hostility from consumers who are often understandably on guard because they face issues with interpreters and access. Other times we are to blame because of serious errors in judgment. Yet all of us so easily forget that hostility and defensiveness are human reactions to something much bigger than whatever happens in a given moment. We need to be mindful that the reactions we sometimes see are quite often responses to a grossly imperfect system more than they are about our actions or abilities. Those of us on the receiving end could use some thicker skin in a profession where attention is by nature focused on our every move.

Fear Prevents Progress

As it is, our fears, while real and understandable, are preventing progress. We can work to reduce them by reaching out to one another and by being a model of humility. I know this is easier said than done since I almost caved to fear and doubt in my recent experience and will likely face these feelings again. It was only because another interpreter cornered me in person and asked me to volunteer for this TEDx project that I agreed to do it. At that moment, I realized the request had gone out for support because the highly skilled interpreters already on the team wanted it. I must say I do not regret taking this risk. The day of the conference, we acted as a supportive team, which made interpreting live online an amazing experience and helped us perform at our best.

Collaboration is Key

And it is this concept of supporting each other to create a positive sense of team that shapes us as interpreters. We are more than members of a community or communities. We are also very diverse and at present, isolated members of a particular team called “interpreters”. All of us function as members of this team whether we realize it or not. We are a team when we do or do not participate in the Deaf community; when we do or do not provide feedback to others; when we insult, gossip about, or embrace a struggling colleague; when we meet, exceed, or ignore standards; when we accept or deny an assignment, and when we are or are not able to heed calls in the name of humanity, integrity, or duty. These decisions not only affect the even wider community that includes those we work with, but also affect our collective interpreting team.

And we are a team whose only adversary is a failure to perform our duty, meaning we are better suited as collaborators. Each member of our team must be ready to take our positions on the field. This implies that the interpreter “hot-seat” does not belong to the “on interpreter” alone. Nor do the Deaf and hearing interpreter team “seats” belong to the individuals occupying them at a given moment. Each of these interpreting “seats” are equally ours at all times because as sign language interpreters, you and I represent one another. As a team, we are all responsible for creating an environment that encourages the growth of whomever occupies these positions. We can only do this if we disarm ourselves and each other through openhearted and supportive communication.

Reach Higher Together

Our team is what we make it since you and I shape its image together. The question is, what kind of team do we want to be? Let’s embrace a new norm where we reject fear and defensiveness in order to seek and give support when needed, where our team always strives to help one another reach for something better–together.  This is by no means our only hurdle, and healing will take time, but I can imagine a safe community of sign language interpreters where teamwork and access are pushed to the limits of what is possible and where backbiting and deconstructive criticism are rare.

I invite you to continue this conversation and “Embody the Change” that makes this vision real!

Join me?

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Sign Language Interpreting: Can Self-Interest Lead to Disregard of Industry Stakeholders?

Sign Language Interpreter Considering Impact of Self-Interest

Despite best intentions to work harmoniously, sign language interpreters can often be caught in difficult circumstances when working with interpreting agencies. Diana MacDougall shares a situation where seeming logistical roadblocks to an interpreting request may have had self-interest at its roots.

As an Interpreter Educator, I like to use real-life scenarios in my classroom, where one of the courses I teach is Professional Ethics for Interpreters. This one is an excellent teaching tool on what effect self-interest—even at the higher levels with established professionals—can have on everyone involved.

To make sure we are all understanding terms used, I will pull from RID’s CPC on the definitions of consumers and colleagues. The first is defined as “[i]ndividuals and entities who are part of the interpreted situation. This includes individuals who are deaf, deaf-blind, hard of hearing, and hearing”. The second is defined as “other interpreters”.

The Scenario

An interpreter had been approached by a Fortune 500 company to interpret an annual appreciation banquet. It is open to the public, and many famous people also attend. Apparently, there were several Deaf staff, as well as the potential for Deaf individuals from the public attending every year, and historically, the company relied on well-intended “signing staff” to interpret this important, high-profile event. One year, some complaints were launched that certified, qualified interpreters were not being hired to interpret. In wanting to meet the needs of the Deaf community and their Deaf staff, the company sought out interviewing for such an interpreter. It was through professional recommendations that the interpreter mentioned at the beginning of this scenario was approached.

This interpreter came with full RID certifications, as well as many years of interpreting experience. After being interviewed, she was offered this yearly event interpreting assignment with this Fortune 500 company, and eventually through the years other events taking place within this company involving their Deaf staff. They have worked collaboratively and professionally for many years now. Deaf staff members have expressed satisfaction, and through word of mouth, more and more Deaf community members were attending the annual event.

Recently, one of the executives made a phone call to the interpreter. He mentioned that their company was going to be “out-sourcing” to an interpreting agency to cut costs for interpreting services, and gave this interpreter the opportunity to get on board with this agency. Since she enjoyed working with this company the few times a year that she did, she agreed to do just that. The executive was thrilled to know this, as he explained that his company would be able to request this same interpreter for their annual event only if her name was on the roster. He informed the interpreter that the agency rep would be calling her to set things up.

Two to three months later, the interpreting agency’s rep finally called the interpreter. The rep explained to this interpreter that “although [the interpreter] may be interpreting the event this year, things were going to be different” from now on, and that she needed to understand that. She listened patiently, and cordially reminded the rep that it was the company that asked her to apply to this agency so that they could request her every year; she had not solicited the interpreting agency. The conversation soon ended, with the interpreter being instructed to submit a full resume to the agency.

Submitting resumes to various agencies is not new in our field; any time we want to work for a new agency, this is standard. Even the RID CPC states in tenet 6.1 under Business Practices: “Interpreters accurately represent qualifications, such as certification, educational background, and experience, and provide documentation when requested”. The interpreter obliged, submitting a comprehensive resume, as well as evidence of her MA degree and RID certifications. Soon she heard from the agency, stating they were impressed with her qualifications and experience. The agency then requested that she submit a tape doing her best interpreting, to make sure she met expectations for this agency. Again, this is also not entirely unheard of. She chose a text and videotaped herself, burned a DVD and mailed it to the agency. Eventually someone emailed her back, and they raved about the DVD, stating it was a “beautiful job”, and the agency was impressed with her skills.

The interpreter was happy to have obliged by the agency’s requests, and felt she was set to meet the requests of the Fortune 500 company that wanted to employ her interpreting skills for their annual event. With her name on this agency’s roster, the company could request her, and all stakeholders’ needs and requests would be met. This would reflect well on RID’s CPC tenet 4.0 Guiding Principle on Respect for Consumers to “honor consumer preferences in selection of interpreters and interpreting dynamics, while recognizing the realities of qualifications, availability, and situation”. This situation seemed to meet everyone’s needs and desires.

However, in a later email from the interpreting agency, they explained that even though the interpreter met all qualifications and had submitted an impressive professional DVD, their original intention was to reserve this annual event for their in-house staff. This assignment, she was told, was considered “a coveted assignment” by the interpreting agency. Since the interpreter did not work regularly for this agency, she would not be selected to be the interpreter for this event anymore. Surprised, the interpreter reminded the agency that it was one of the consumers (hearing) that had requested that her name be placed on the roster specifically so that they could request her for this event. The agency would not relent, stating that it was their decision not to use this interpreter for any interpreting assignments requested at this company. The interpreter responded that she would be happy to interpret in other settings for them, but was disappointed at their decision not to honor the original intent of allowing the Fortune 500 company to request her. It was out of her hands now. There was no further contact between the interpreter and the agency. She figured her run as the interpreter for the company had passed, and that was that.

About two months prior to the annual event of that same year, the company executive called the interpreter asking her what had happened between her and the contracted agency. When the interpreter enquired as to what the executive meant, he stated that when they requested this interpreter for their annual event, the agency had told the company that the interpreter had “refused to work for that agency under any circumstances”. Wanting to remain as professional as possible, and not present the profession in a negative light, the interpreter carefully explained

that she had emails showing how she was willing to work with them, but that it was the agency who had emailed her and explained that they would not be using her for this company in the future. The executive asked for those emails to be forwarded to him.

Although initially the company was able to show the interpreting agency that they had held up their end of the business relationship by doing as they asked to get the interpreter’s name on the roster, and that the agency had not been up front about their true intentions from the beginning, in the end, the company was forced to follow the legal contract signed by everyone. With the interpreter’s name not on the roster, the company could not request her anymore, even though it was their desire to do so. More significantly, on the night of the annual event, it was none other than the owner of this interpreting agency himself who showed up to interpret this “coveted assignment”.

Upon Review

This story caused me to ponder on the ethics around this situation. While actions that occurred may not have, in themselves, been illegal, they may still be considered unethical. Certainly, agencies have a right to hire whomever they choose. But it seems to me that the requests of the hearing consumers in this situation were ignored over the self interests of an agency that wanted to fill this assignment with their own people. RID CPC tenet 3.0 on Conduct reads: “Interpreters…avoid situations that result in conflicting roles or perceived or actual conflicts of interest.” Further, tenet 3.7 counsels interpreters to “disclose to parties involved any actual or perceived conflicts of interest”, and 3.10 says to “refrain from using confidential interpreted information for the benefit of personal or professional affiliations or entities”.

Intentionality

The actions of this agency, from the beginning when truthful intentions were not expressed clearly to the company, to the end where the owner himself took this assignment for his own benefit, revealed a conflict of interest. It appears the agency members intended to keep this assignment for themselves all along. Honesty from the beginning would have prevented the interpreting agency from appearing self-interested, shedding a negative spotlight on the profession of interpreting. Perhaps, the owner could benefit from reading, A Sign Language Interpreter is a Sidewalk Executive?, by Brandon Arthur. This whole situation left a negative opinion in the eyes of the executive company, which was very unhappy with the decision in the end.

Respect

Also, respect for consumers (CPC tenet 4.0), was also not considered in the decision to not add the interpreter’s name to the roster. The executive company, in good faith, proceeded with a contractual agreement with the agency, under the impression that the certified interpreter they preferred would be added to the interpreting roster. That was not honored on the part of the interpreting agency.

Furthermore, respect for colleagues (“other interpreters”) was also not considered in this action. CPC 5.0 states that “interpreters demonstrate respect for colleagues, interns, and students of the profession”, with the Guiding Principle warning RID members that “interpreters…also understand that the manner in which they relate to colleagues reflects upon the profession in general”. Certainly misrepresenting the integrity and character of one of their own was not showing “respect for [a] colleague”. One of the company’s executives felt an obligation to call the interpreter that they had been working with for the last many years to state how disappointed he was about the outcome of this situation, stating that meetings for the annual event planning committee were “very somber over the pettiness of it all”. This is unfortunate, indeed. And it could have been avoided completely.

Ethical Behavior Models

In aiming to teach ethical behavior to interpreting students, how can we instill such ethics as collegiality, civility, as described by Carolyn Ball in her post, What Role Does Civility Play in the Sign Language Interpreting Profession, and professional conduct, along with adhering to the RID Code of Professional Conduct, if the very leaders we want to emulate do not practice them? Even in the 21st Century, people can act in a less than civil or professional manner, not realizing the impact their behavior has on others, or how it reflects negatively on our profession.

In the End

Although this seems like an extreme case, is it? Do you believe this is a rare occurrence, or does our profession still deal with individuals and agencies conducting themselves in this manner? What do you think? How can we, as a profession and as individuals within the profession, move toward preventing this from happening in the future?

Food for thought…

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Do Sign Language Interpreters Have a Right to a Consumer’s Attention?

Woman questioning whether sign language interpreters have the right to the attention of their consumers

Telling the “right” story is an art sign language interpreters must master to successfully navigate their career. Generosity and the ability to read a room are also important for positive outcomes.

At times it can be very difficult to be a sign language interpreter. We put our reputations on the line each and every day we raise our hands to work. We navigate new environments and new subject matter on a regular basis. We suffer vicariously as a result of inhumane acts. Worse, we do all of this with extremely limited amounts of information.

The resulting—often intense—occupational self-interest, leaves us vulnerable to the notion that people understand why what we do is important, the reason certain practices are critical to our work, and the effort it takes to be a good interpreter.

The Danger

The challenge with this assumption is that it may lead us to the perception that we have the right to the attention of our consumers and the purchaser of our services. Simply, we have the right—or responsibility as the case may be—to prevail upon those we encounter on the job that challenge our practices or take an opposing view of a particular situation in an effort to help them, “get it.”

While we are often victorious in these moments of tactical “education,” the damage found in the aftermath can be significant. These moments can result in the disenfranchisement of our consumers, marginalization of the interests of those who purchase our services, and our succumbing to one or more of The Three Temptations of a Sign Language Interpreter. None of which is good for us individually or collectively as a profession.

An Alternative

If we were to step back and consider the notion that the purchasers of our service are indifferent, though they provide it, to the importance of the work we do as sign language interpreters, does it change our perspective to the right we have to their attention? Or, how we go about earning that attention?

If we consider that the consumers of our service may have little to no interest in the effort it takes to become a professional, qualified, credentialed sign language interpreter, does that change our perspective about right we have to their attention or how we go about earning it?

If as a sign language interpreter, we are faced with indifference, a lack of interest, or a worldview that doesn’t resonate with ours, what do we do to earn the social currency necessary to perform our work?

Tell the Right Story

The answer to this question can be found in an example that exists in every sign language interpreting community around the globe.

In each local interpreting community there is an interpreter who isn’t particularly amazing, they might even be considered below average. Interestingly though they seem to always have work and consumers and purchasers of our service love them. Additionally, these communities also have an interpreter who is incredibly talented and clearly above average when compared to their peers. Yet, they struggle to piece opportunities together.

The difference?

The first likely brings generosity and humility to their work. They understand that the consumers and purchasers of their service don’t owe them attention. In response, this interpreter chooses to tell a story through their approach to and interactions about the work. They tell a story that resonates with those they come in contact with and is considerate of their point of view.

The latter likely brings a perspective that they are owed attention as a result of the investment they have made in their skillset and career. Their story is a story of entitlement. One where the slant goes unchecked, as suggested in Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head?

Determine What’s Important

As sign language interpreters, we are good at deciphering meaning. We need to use this skill to determine what’s important to those we serve and those that engage our services. We can do this by evaluating our answers to the following questions:

1.  How is my work and occupational self-interest perceived by those I serve and those who engage my services?

2.  How can my work today best assist consumers and purchasers in accomplishing their ends? How can I demonstrate my understanding of that?

3.  From the consumer and purchaser’s point of view, what adds the most value by my being present today? How can I amplify that?

4.  Whose agenda is the most important in the room? Why? How can I support that agenda?

5.  How can I approach my work to extend ample generosity, demonstrate an appropriate level of humility, and show clarity about my role?

By considering the answer to these questions, we place ourselves in the position of the consumer and purchaser. It offers us a perspective that helps us tell a story through our work that resonates with those we come in contact with while on the job.

At the End of the Day

In the end, let’s remember that as sign language interpreters we are not owed the attention necessary to do our work—we need to earn it. Further, that the consumers and purchasers of our service are engaging us for the story we tell. Let’s be sufficiently generous about how we tell it.

How do you know if you are telling the right story?

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Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege

While most sign language interpreters come from non-Deaf families, one can develop an intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression by interacting with the Deaf community, recognizing the unique life experiences of Coda interpreters and working to dismantle systems of oppression.

Are sign language interpreters intrinsically connected to the fight for humanity, as suggested by Brandon Arthur in his post, The Goo Inside a Sign Language Interpreter? What is our role working within a marginalized and oppressed community? What is our connection to solidarity? Do we have a broader sense of responsibility to the community that gives us the opportunity and privilege to access and learn language and then to make a living using it?

These are important questions for new and experienced sign language interpreters to consider.

(Note: In this article, the term Codas refers to Children of Deaf Adults who are native American Sign Language users who share language and culture with the Deaf community and their Deaf parents/guardians.)

Codas: Distinct Experiences

Dennis Cokely points to the importance of Codas in establishing Sign Language interpreting as a profession in his article, Vanquished Native Voices-A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?. He describes the importance of Codas not only in the development of our profession, but he identifies the importance of their historical knowledge and distinct lived experience with communication oppression. Many Codas have experienced unique and complex roles, having hearing privilege in a Deaf family, straddling two cultures, and dutifully providing communication access without pay. Perhaps a deeper understanding of privilege contributes to their intrinsic connection to the fight for humanity and communication access.

In my observation, many Codas possess an unequivocal understanding of privilege and power that is not easily recognized by non-Coda interpreters (including myself.) This leaves “the vast majority of us” (Cokely, 2012, para. 4) working to recognize and comprehend the impact of language oppression and the inherent privilege of non-Deaf people.

Institutional Construct: Dehumanization

Let’s consider the institutional construct and social belief system, referred to as the “slant” in Brandon Arthur’s article, Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head? He references thefreedictionary.com’s definition of slant as, “To present so as to conform to a particular bias or appeal to a certain audience” (2012, para. 1).  He emphasizes the importance of self-awareness and warns that the slant can lead to “impaired self-awareness” (para. 5) not only in our professional narrative when analyzing our production of an interpretation but in other arenas as well.

The slant is a systematic lens formed by our upbringing, culture, social status, etc. It embodies our particular biases related to deafness, race, class, education level, gender, ability, sexual orientation, etcetera that creates “Othering” as described by social theorist Michel Foucault in the study of social science. “Other” is defined by Wikipedia.org as, “The processes by which societies and groups exclude “Others” whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society” (2012, para. 2). Distinguishing the “Other” allows us to establish roles for ourselves, which serves as an important function in society. However, it also “involves the demonization and dehumanization of groups” (“Other,” 2012, para. 2), specifically those unlike our own.

“For the vast majority of us [non-Codas], our initial societally reinforced perceptions of Deaf people are that they are ‘disabled’ and are therefore inferior to those of us who can hear” (Cokely, 2012, para. 4). This institutionalized slant impacts our work and our worldview, and for non-Codas, distinguishes Deaf people as “Other.”

Systematic Marginalization: “Other”

Many Codas are familiar with the impact of being seen as “Other” and are intimately connected to the systematic marginalization and oppression of the Deaf community. Codas are often simultaneously utilizing their hearing status and privilege to provide communication access battling language oppression at young ages. Their intimate understanding of privilege and power, and the realization of their social status from birth, may be the intrinsic connection to marginalization and oppression that some non-Codas are missing. Their unique lived experience of witnessing communication oppression and the impacts of systematic and social dehumanization is a part of the historical knowledge they possess and are able to share with non-Coda interpreters. Perhaps this is what motivated the fight for humanity, inspiring Codas to establish the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) in the 1960’s (Cokely, 2012).

Perception: Managing the Slant

My response to Brandon’s question, “Suggestions on how to keep the slant in check?” (2012, para. 18) is to begin by analyzing our own privilege as interpreters. Whether we are White, non-Deaf, able-bodied, straight, employed, male, educated, cisgender, or a combination of these and other identities it can be challenging to recognize our own privilege. Without having experienced the impact of being perceived as “Other” it is hard to intimately connect with the realities faced by those experiencing systematic marginalization and oppression on a daily basis.

Personal Experience: Building Solidarity

My intimate connection to the Deaf community stems from my personal experience of oppression and marginalization, as a Transgender person. I have a visceral reaction to discrimination and injustice because I live within a historical context of inequality and have been personally impacted by marginalization and oppression. As a non-Deaf person, I have never walked into a room in the United States and been denied communication access. I am not personally impacted by daily language oppression. I have been fired from a job and not hired for others because of my gender identity. I have been intimately, professionally, and socially impacted by systematic oppression because of the perceived “condition” or “mental health diagnosis” that has been applied to my identity. I use my life experiences and understanding of how it feels to be seen as “Other” to intimately relate to the discrimination and oppression that Deaf people experience daily. I use my power and privilege, as a White, non-Deaf, educated, economically stable, able-bodied, non-immigrant, English speaking person to interrupt oppression, to build solidarity with other marginalized communities, and to fight for equality.

RID statistics illustrate that 8,414 of the 9,604 members, or 87%, of interpreters reporting to RID identified as Euro-American/White (The RID, 2011). With only 13% of RID members identifying as people of color, how do White interpreters, who do not experience life as “Other,” whether able-bodied, economically stable, well educated, gender normative or a combination of these, intimately connect to systematic marginalization and oppression that the Deaf community experiences?

 Connections: Dismantling Systems

One approach is to spend time in the Deaf community. Cokely believes that “to be effective and successful as an interpreter one must absolutely have deep and sustained connections to the Deaf Community” (Cokely, 2012, para. 7). If we cannot intimately connect to the experience of “Others,” how will we intrinsically relate to the importance of the fight for humanity and the necessity of fighting language oppression and the impacts of systematic and social dehumanization? How will we recognize and analyze our own power and privilege, avoiding micro-aggressions against the very community we are passionate to work with? (F. Fleischer, keynote address, June 13, 2012). How do we stand in solidarity, harnessing the passion we have for our interpreting work, to build on our dedication to the Deaf community while contributing to communication access and striving to dismantle systems of oppression?

Experiences: Recognizing and Acknowledging Privilege

One can study the impact and effect of marginalization, oppression and inequality. From my experience, the impact of studying something is drastically different than personally experiencing it, or watching your friends and/or loved ones experience it daily. My privilege and the systematic lens in which it was formed limit my ability to see oppression and marginalization around me. As a White person, I don’t see the clerk not following me when I go to the grocery store in an all-White neighborhood. Therefore, it is challenging to recognize my White privilege. I don’t realize my privilege to stroll around the store uninterrupted until my African American friend joins me. It’s then that I see the clerk following him. I stare in disbelief…“How could this be happening? I love this store,” I tell him. He shrugs and says, “It happens all the time.”

Without experiences like this it is challenging for me to recognize and acknowledge my White privilege. Without personal experiences and conversations, about the impact with my Deaf friends and colleagues, it is challenging to recognize my hearing privilege. As a non-Deaf person it is easy for me to ‘do my day’ forgetting to recognize and appreciate my privileges, to acknowledge them, to analyze the power they bring with no effort but simply because of the systematic and social hierarchy that distinguishes some as “Other.”

Solidarity: Connecting with the Deaf Community

I believe the shared history that many Codas possess comes from a place of solidarity with the Deaf community. Their familiarity with the impact of being seen as “Other” intimately connects them to the impacts of systematic marginalization and oppression. Interpreters have the ability to gain intimate connections to marginalization and oppression through analyzing, understanding and acknowledging our own privilege. We can gain access to the importance of creating a profession that values and prioritizes the recruitment and advancement of marginalized communities in the interpreting field: people of color, the economically disadvantaged, Deaf people, the under educated, persons with disabilities, those who are gender-nonconforming, etc.

Diversity: Enhanced Competence

Increasing access to the interpreting profession and promoting diversity will enhance culturally competent interpreting services for Deaf and non-Deaf consumers. Through conversation and experience with “Others,” we raise our self-awareness and intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression. Using our privilege and power we can dismantle systematic discrimination faced by so many, creating change in solidarity with a community that has given us so much linguistic and financial opportunity.

 

Special Thanks

I would like to thank Tamar Jackson Nelson for her work to edit this post.

Tamar Jackson-NelsonTamar is a student in Gallaudet University’s Ph.D. in Interpretation program (pedagogy/research) as well as an adjunct professor for the Department of Interpretation. Tamar enjoys and values presenting and writing about interpreting to promote growth, development, and respect of the interpreting profession. Tamar has worked as a certified community interpreter, mentor, ER on-call manager & interpreter, VRI & VRS interpreter. She enjoys time with her family, state fairs and sunshine.


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Self-Talk: A Sign Language Interpreter’s Inner Warning System?

Sign Language Interpreter - Scales of Justice

As a sign language interpreter, how do you know when something isn’t quite right? Anna Mindess discusses the importance of heeding our inner dialogue both on and off-the-job.

As my team interpreter and I stood outside the courtroom, red-faced, sputtering and hissing at each other like a pair of angry snakes, it was clear that I could have handled this situation more effectively.

A confluence of factors led to this stressful scene. Our RID Regional Conference had taken many of the legal sign language interpreters with SC:L’s out of town for the week. As one of the few remaining interpreters with legal certification, I was overbooked and had to arrive late to the court proceeding that afternoon: a jury trial with a Deaf defendant. This county’s court interpreter coordinator knew about and accepted my tardiness, as she was desperately trying to find SC:L’s to cover cases and had turned to an outside agency to fill the gaps.

Better Judgment

Thus, as I entered the courtroom, my teammate was already in the midst of interpreting the proceedings. I sat down quietly in the chair behind the defense table. The District Attorney was questioning a witness on the stand. The members of the jury were focused on the testimony. At that point, I did not have time to confer with the other interpreter, whom I had never even met before. Probably, if I had, I might have approached the judge with my concerns prior to the start of the afternoon’s proceedings. Inwardly, I knew that it was not the best idea to go ahead without context or preparation, but given the inconvenience of my entrance, I pushed aside my better judgment and tried to assess the situation at hand.

My attention was immediately drawn to my teammate, first for wearing extremely casual clothes (a T-shirt and khakis) in a formal legal setting and second for their obvious unfamiliarity with basic legal terms such as objection, sustained, overruled, and stipulation which they chose to fingerspell.

“It’s Only Jury Selection”

During a short break in the proceedings, I asked my team interpreter whether they had legal certification or legal training and when they answered in the negative, I asked why they accepted this assignment. The reply, “The agency told me it was only jury selection,” did not assuage my concerns. Ironically, the agency that hired this interpreter specializes in sign language and should have known better than to send an unqualified person to a legal assignment. So I followed up, “Once you arrived and found out that it was the actual trial, why did you continue?” The answer was, “If I didn’t go ahead, they would have had to stop the whole trial.” (As I learned long ago in my legal training, sometimes that is actually the most appropriate option.)

What Are My Options

My team interpreter did not seem to grasp the gravity of a trial and the potential life-altering consequences for the defendant given their lack of legal training and legal certification (one of my state’s laws requires an SC:L for legal proceedings.) Before I arrived in the courtroom, the interpreter had self-identified as “RID certified” because they possess a CI/CT. Most judges are not aware of the difference, unless directed to the specific statute.

At this point, our ten-minute break was coming to an end and the jury was filing in. My mind was racing as I considered my options: write a note and ask to speak with the judge, ask for the other sign language interpreter’s legal credentials (or lack thereof) to be put on the record, slip outside to call the interpreter coordinator? The responsibility to decide on the best course of action in a few seconds had me frozen, until my window of opportunity was gone. Testimony resumed and the other sign language interpreter and I continued trading off tensely.

I decided the best I could do in that moment was closely monitor my teammate and feed signs for legal terms so that the Deaf defendant would have the best chance at accessing the proceedings. I’m sure this only made the situation more stressful for my teammate.

Who Do You Respect in RID?

During our hissing and sputtering encounter at the end of the day, the interpreter accused me of lack of respect, taking the entire matter as a personal insult. I insisted my concern was totally about their lack of legal training. I don’t usually confront my colleagues in this manner, but when the interpreter didn’t seem to get my point, I stated that an SC:L requires hundreds of hours of training and passing a very hard test. “Did you think you could come into a courtroom and improvise?” I asked. No response. Then I inquired, “As an RID certified interpreter, who do you respect in RID, Sharon Neumann Solow? Anna Witter-Merithew? Do you think they would approve of your choices?” The interpreter refused to continue the dialogue and stormed off. Stalemate.

 It Can’t Be that Hard, I’ll Figure it Out

On the drive home, I tried to fathom how this sign language interpreter could have thought it was okay to proceed in a situation with potentially grave consequences, without the qualifications to do the job? After all, the second tenet of the CPC specifies that interpreters should “possess the professional skills and knowledge required for the specific interpreting situation.”

I tried to imagine what thoughts went through their head. Perhaps first, the thrill of being in a new situation, the desire to learn about it, coupled with a sense of confidence from interpreting for 20+ years. Maybe they quieted any inner doubts with thoughts like, “I can handle this, I’m an intelligent person, a skilled interpreter, if there are new vocabulary terms, I can pick them up.” “I like challenges.” “It can’t be that hard, I’ll figure it out.” “They can’t find anyone else, so I’ll just have to do my best.” “I wouldn’t want to stop the whole proceedings and admit any lack on my part. That would be embarrassing.”

Or maybe it was as simple as, “I need the work.”

Examining this hypothetical inner monologue, I noticed there was no mention of the Deaf client’s needs at all. “Ahh,” I thought, “That’s a red flag right there. It’s all about the sign language interpreter.”

A Litany of Excuses

And then, with a start, I realized, there was a reason that I could so easily imagine the rationalizations from that inner voice. In all honesty, I probably have conjured up a similar litany of excuses myself. And in all likelihood, most interpreters have also done so at one time or another–in legal or non-legal settings–if they are willing to admit it. In my case, this occurred–and hopefully it does so much less now–in situations where the Deaf party requires the services of a CDI.

Turn Down the Volume

My current strategy is to be extremely sensitive to the onset of this inner dialogue, so that it acts as a warning system alerting me to stop, assess the entire situation, and consider what is needed to give the Deaf client complete access to vital communication. Yes, it’s true that calling a halt to a meeting or legal proceeding is awkward and may provoke the ire of the lawyers, the judge and the other people involved. But when I cannot, in good conscience, convince myself that the present configuration best serves the needs of the Deaf person, I turn down the volume on that inner emotional voice, so that I can speak up and take action to do the ethically appropriate thing.

Call a Time Out

As a sign language interpreter how do you increase your sensitivity to that inner warning system?

– Monitor your physical responses to the situation. Breathing faster? Stomach tightening up? Your body may be telling you something.

– Are you not comprehending the signs? Resorting to fingerspelling to cope with unfamiliar vocabulary? Do your clients keep repeating themselves?

– Getting distracted by thoughts of how you are being perceived, instead of just focusing on the work?

It’s too hard to think objectively, and plan how to handle a situation that is not working while you are in the middle of interpreting. Call a time out. Breathe. Assess. This will give you a moment to collect yourself and ask the important question, “Should I continue?” Equally important, it will give you an opportunity to consider how to best proceed should the responsible and ethical decision be to stop.

Lets Share Our Collective Wisdom

What strategies do you use to remain sensitive to the alerts of your inner warning system? When have you taken the courageous step to stop the interpretation when you knew something was not working?

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Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head?

Do You Resemble the Interpreter in Your Head?

When reviewing our day, our month or our career, it can be tempting to play back the highlights and fast-forward past the less-comfortable scenes. In this article, Brandon Arthur explores the importance of fact-checking our own narratives and embracing the whole story.

Its part of the human experience to tell ourselves a story about the kind of person we are and why we choose to do what we do. This innate storytelling tendency extends to the professional personas we build as sign language interpreters. Have you ever paused to question if you actually resemble the sign language interpreter that you narrate you are in your head?

The Slant

While it’s not a stretch to believe that most of the stories washing over us are being told in support of a particular point of view, it is far more challenging to consider the presence of a slant in the very story we tell ourselves. Particularly, when it may result in a mental throwdown over what we believe the caliber and impact of our work is and what it may actually be. Aaron Brace’s article, The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter, explores this epic internal struggle.

With that said, I think most would acknowledge that a slant, likely more than one, exists in the story we narrate to ourselves as sign language interpreters. I’m not suggesting that we deliberately weave untrue stories about our work to our consumers and ourselves. Rather, that presence of the slant drives us to only narrate the highlights, even the flattering, and leave the rest in the “not news worthy” pile.

Clearly, with the discretion and autonomy, as highlighted by Anna Witter-Merithew in her article, Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility, we have as sign language interpreters, to believe we are the sum our highlight reel is problematic.

Impaired Self-Awareness

In my mind, the most problematic aspect of the presence of a slant in our professional narrative is its ability to impair self-awareness. As any seasoned interpreter can attest, an appropriate level of self-awareness is critical to finding success in the sign language interpreting profession. If we operate while suffering from an impaired awareness of self, we risk exposing our consumers and colleagues to deficits in our ability to:

1)    Appropriately acknowledge our weaknesses and limitations.

You’ve seen it. Damage done. Enough said.

2)    Remain conscious of our biases.

It is easy, when lacking an appropriate level of self-awareness, to allow our preconceptions to infiltrate our interpretation and skew the meaning and intent of an intended communication.

3)    Earn social currency.

Operating without an appropriate level of self-awareness challenges even the best of us to authentically connect with consumers and meeting participants. This prevents us from efficiently navigating unfamiliar environments in order to effectively to our work.

If as sign language interpreters we are operating with these deficits, we position ourselves to make mistakes in our work and ultimately erode the trust needed to successfully deliver an experience worthy of our consumer’s confidence.

Embrace the Slant to Succeed

It occurs to me that in order for us to successfully overcome the slant, we need to embrace it. By embracing it, I am suggesting that we use what we know about it to our advantage.

What do we know? We know the slant enjoys opining on accomplishment. We know if mistakes must be mentioned, it likes them minimized. We know the slant views vulnerability as a public relation nightmare. How do we harness its incessant narcissism to our advantage?

Reframe. Reframe. Reframe.

We need to reframe our failures, shortcomings, and moments of vulnerability so they are “news worthy.” We can do this by viewing:

1)    Daily failures as learning opportunities.

After all, the hero in every story learns important lessons along the way. Let’s recognize the value of these lessons, be honest about needing them, and acknowledge they are to our betterment.

2)    Vulnerability as strength training.

By using moments of vulnerability as an opportunity to genuinely engage our consumers and colleagues to draw on their experience and expertise, we will find sage advice and a connection to something much greater than ourselves—the forward progress of the profession.

3)    Revision as an opportunity.

As the narrator, each of us has the ability and opportunity to rewrite the narrative in our heads—in whole or in part. We should always remind ourselves that we may not have the ability to control the outcome, but we can control how we respond to it.

By choosing to reframe our failures, shortcomings and vulnerabilities we expand the series of “news worthy” events used to define who we are and why we do what we do. In a profession that requires a high level of self-awareness, this is definitely to our advantage.

BTW, the slant finds all of this “news worthy.”

Authenticity Matters

In the end, the type of story we narrate to ourselves as sign language interpreters has a significant impact on the work that we do. While it is not likely that we will ever resemble the sign language interpreter we narrate we are in our heads, we should aspire to resemble an interpreter that is not the measure of their highlight reel, but one who can authentically connect with their consumers and colleagues and deliver an experience worthy of their confidence.

Suggestions on how to keep the slant in check?

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