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Self-Care & Sign Language Interpreters: 8 Ways to Ease Trauma

Self-Care & Sign Language Interpreters

The work of a sign language interpreter requires patience, compassion, flexibility, and a heart of service. Breana Cross-Caldwell provides some tips for self-care to help keep the work more sustainable.

You know what it’s like: you show up to an assignment or accept a call that, in the beginning, seems to be going one direction and suddenly takes a turn. You come out of the interaction feeling shaken, disoriented, sad/troubled/frustrated, and are scheduled to make your way to the next.

This is the life of a sign language interpreter.

We are charged with bearing witness to some of life’s greatest beauty and deepest pain, all while maintaining a stance of neutrality and flexibility. As Babetta Popoff said during a presentation on Compassion Fatigue,  

“We are first responders, who cannot respond.”

What can we do to care for ourselves after these difficult situations so that we can continue to do our job in integrity and alignment the next hour, day, and year?

[View post in ASL.]

Here are eight ideas to add to your toolbox:

Shake it off. Literally, shake your whole body. The reptilian part of your brain (think fight or flight) is able to release and reset by shaking. Watch any dog who’s just been in a tussle, you’ll see. Find a private-ish, quietish space (bathroom, VRS station, broom closet), and shake from head to toe, every part of your body that’s able to move. While you’re at it, do some deep forceful exhales and add a little vocalization to them.

Tune in. Sitting or standing in a comfortable position, close your eyes. Take a few deep, slow, easy breaths, and start to notice what happens in your body when you imagine the stressful scenario you just witnessed. Maybe your stomach or jaw tenses up, maybe your heart starts to race, maybe you feel a sinking feeling in your chest or a lump in your throat. Whatever it is, just notice it and let it be there without trying to avoid or resist it.

Take an emotional inventory. Name any emotion that’s present (keeping a feelings list in your bag can be helpful when you’re working on taking better care of yourself). Before you skip over this one, claiming it’s woo-woo fluff, hear me out: these emotions are present in you, whether you name them or not. They are there, sitting like a lump of coal in your stomach. They are the cause of chronic stress which leads to burnout and eventually to disease. Dis-ease: being without ease in the body. This is important stuff, friends. Naming these emotions allows us to get one step closer to dealing with them above-board, which then allows us to truly release them and do our jobs well.

Taproot. Here’s where we find the juicy stuff, the gold at the end of the rainbow if you will. It might not seem like it right now, but trust me. Once you name an emotion, dig down to its root where you’ll find a belief. Make a list of the beliefs that are at the root of your emotions. For example: say I was feeling despair and a disturbing pit in my stomach. I might dig down and realize that I’m feeling this way because I believe no one should be treated the way I just witnessed a human being treated. That belief is at the root of my feeling so yucky. You might uncover your beliefs by tuning into the narrator in your brain who’s interpreting the events around you. By bringing these beliefs out into the light, you are able to work with them and decide consciously whether you want them in your operating system or not.

Get out your magnifying glass. Start asking questions about these beliefs, from the perspective of a curious observer. You’re on a quest to discover more about yourself and the way you view the world. This information is infinitely important as a sign language interpreter (our lens/filter/bias/judgments affect our interpretations greatly) AND infinitely important to you as a human who values happiness and health. As you poke around, just make note of your findings. No need to shift or change or do anything about this information yet. Just notice. Some of the questions you may ask yourself at this point:

  • Is this belief true? Is it true all the time, in every situation, for everyone?
  • Is this the way reality works? Can I find evidence that my belief is always upheld in reality? Or is it just the way I wish that reality worked?
  • Is this thought peaceful or stressful? Pure and simple. Am I feeling peace while holding this belief within the context of this situation, or am I feeling stress?
  • Whose business is it? There are three options: it’s my business (I have control over it), it’s another person’s business (another person has control over it), or it’s God/nature/reality/universe’s business (no single human has control over it).

Nancy Berlove says in Where Do We Go From Here? 5 Stages of Change for Sign Language Interpreters

Honest self-inquiry begins when there is a willingness to look at whatever comes up. An opportunity arises when a certain personal trait or habit becomes apparent. At a particular moment, something that I did, thought, or said makes me question my behavior or habit. In bringing my attention to this behavior, I see it more clearly. Recognizing it changes my understanding of the behavior and of myself. It is possible that, over time and with continued attention, the behavior will shift or even be replaced with something more congruent with my sense of self.

Hold compassion for yourself. This is a step that can take lifetimes to master but humor me. Every time you flex this muscle, whether or not you sense any movement, you’re strengthening the neural pathway towards greater happiness and health. One way I do this is by naming my feelings and needs in a tender way, as one might talk to a hurt child. For example: “Wow, Breana, you’re really feeling upset about this person being treated this way. That feels really disorienting and disturbing to you. You wish no person on the planet would ever have to be treated this way.” All of this, with my inside voice, to just be really present and caring with what I’m experiencing. Sometimes, similarly to children, a bit of compassionate listening and empathy can do wonders. We can do that for ourselves!

Take a detoxifying bath. My recipe is equal parts Epsom salt and baking soda, in the hottest water you can stand, with a few drops of tea tree essential oil. This allows your body to move toxins and release them. Make sure you drink plenty of water!

Find gratitude. It’s been a long day. You really rode this wave of discomfort all the way to the shore, and now you’re back on solid ground. Find whatever you can name to be thankful for right now: the soft bed supporting your body, the family or friends who care, the way you showed up for yourself and others today in the midst of difficult emotions. Whatever it is, claim it. Receive it. Don’t let any of that sweetness and beauty escape you. These are the gifts that are yours to cherish. These are the drops that refill your cup, so you can show up tomorrow ready to give again.

What fills you up when work threatens to take you down?

Questions for Consideration

  1. What do you do to care for yourself after a traumatic job?
  2. What are the barriers to healthy processing after difficult assignments? Why don’t we do this more often?
  3. What are the impacts to ourselves and our clients when we don’t deal with our own trauma and difficult emotions after an assignment?
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Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World

Keeping Sign Language Interpreters Safe in a Violent World

“At-risk” and “sign language interpreter” are not synonymous for most people. Stephen Holter highlights some risk factors and preventative measures sign language interpreters can use to stay safe.

  • Walking through the lobby of the mental health facility, the sign language interpreter had no way of knowing that just a few short hours later, a gunman would open fire, killing the receptionist and injuring several others before turning the gun on himself.  
  • At a university campus in a different part of the country, a female interpreter is walking to her car after completing her night class assignment when she notices a male student from the class following her. Fearing for her safety, she reaches for her phone to call the police.
  • While on assignment interpreting a potentially volatile home visit for a social worker, an interpreter has a feeling of concern for her own safety after noticing that the door is locked behind her.  
  • While walking through the hall in a jail, a sign language interpreter is told by the guard that, if he tackles her, it will be for her own safety.   
  • In a psychiatric facility, an interpreter is suddenly assaulted. She has not been provided with a “panic button” that is routinely supplied to all other hospital staff in the event of such an attack.   

All of these situations are real and were provided by working sign language interpreters discussing personal safety concerns that exist on the job as part of their daily work.

[View post in ASL]

Personal Security and Sign Language Interpreters

A number of factors make the field of sign language interpreting unique in terms of personal security. Freelance interpreters are frequently called upon to work in novel settings at any hour of the day or night. The interpreter is often “alone” in the sense that they are not with others who are known to them. Some settings can be inherently dangerous.   

Sign language Interpreters frequently work in healthcare and social service settings. In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 23,000 significant injuries due to assault at work. More than 70 percent of these assaults were in healthcare and social service settings. Health care and social service workers are almost four times as likely to be injured as a result of violence than the average private sector worker. (OSHA Updates)

In recent conference workshops, sign language interpreters were asked about the types of settings in which they experienced safety concerns. The most frequently mentioned setting was mental health hospitals. With HIPAA law, interpreters are often given little to no information about the patient. When this is the case, the interpreter may not be aware of the presenting concerns that led to the hospitalization of the patient. It may be the case that it is not the patient with whom the interpreter is working that is a danger, but rather others in the environment. Sign language interpreters who find themselves working in mental health settings would benefit from seeking out professional development opportunities that address working with individuals whose behaviors are escalating to the point of potential violence.  

What Can Sign Language Interpreters Do to Stay Safe?

While risks may be present in any number of settings that sign language interpreters work, there are some steps that may be taken to keep oneself safe. These include the following:

a. Situational Awareness

Regardless of the setting in which an interpreter works, a key factor that will help to keep one safer is situational awareness. This seems, of course, to be common sense but is often discounted. Maintaining alertness to what is occurring in your immediate environment will provide you with time to see approaching danger, react, and attempt to  get away from potential sources of threat.  

To practice developing situational awareness, one important habit is to begin assessing the environment you will be working in upon entering to identify at least two ways to exit the scene if a crisis starts to occur. For example, when interpreting for political candidates or concerts, the interpreter should be in the practice of locating the two nearest exits. Planning ahead will reduce confusion in the event there is a crisis and one of the exits is blocked.

b. Plug Into Notification and Alert Systems

University settings now have alert systems to notify staff and students of situations such as active shooter warnings. Contract interpreters, however, are often not “plugged” into the system to receive such notifications. One solution that has been discussed is ensuring that the agency that contracts with sign language interpreters is, in fact, set up on that system so that they may notify the interpreter of any such emergencies.

c. Be Your Own Bodyguard

As discussed in “Fight like a Girl…and Win; Defense Decisions for Women,” it is important to decide that one is one’s own bodyguard. It is good to have police and other first responders, but it takes time for them to respond and, by then, it may be too late. Realizing that there needs to be a certain degree of self-reliance is the first step to keeping safe.

d. Avoid Complacency

Complacency is clearly one of the greatest factors that compromise situational awareness. As sign language interpreters are racing from one assignment to the next, it is natural to be focused on reading text messages or catching up on voicemails. Attackers will look for easy targets. A person whose attention is focused on the phone is an easy target. In his book, “The Gift of Fear,”  Gavin DeBecker discusses how, rather than giving way to complacency, part of staying safe is tuning into the danger signals that may be provided by one’s own senses.

Interpreters should consider the anticipated length of an assignment when parking. For example, rushing to interpret an emergency room visit, the interpreter might be focused on the potential nature of the emergency. ER visits, however, may often run four or five hours. As such, the lighting in the area where the interpreter has parked may have changed considerably. This should be taken into account for all settings.

e. Stay Physically Fit

How can one become a less desirable target for a potential attacker? Attackers often want to have the greatest reward with the least amount of risk. Physical fitness comes into play in this regard as attackers will often prey on those whom they regard to be easy targets. If one is looking for a reason to get into better shape, this may be it. When looking at workout options, one form of training that may be sought is called Krav Maga. This is a defensive training which not only provides a physical workout, but also provides skills for defending oneself against varying types of physical assaults, including those involving weapons.

f. Utilize Non-Lethal Tools

Some people choose to carry non-lethal self-defense tools such as pepper spray/gel, taser, and a Kubaton. These tools all have relative pros and cons. While none of these tools above will incapacitate the attacker, they are, instead, used to momentarily stop the attacker long enough for one to get a safe distance away.  

Pepper spray or gel:  Pepper spray is small and portable and is available in containers that may look like lipstick. Pepper spray has a range of 8-20 feet and typically costs below $30. One drawback of pepper spray is that it may be affected by wind and be blown back into one’s own face. Pepper gel is now available that is not as subject to gusts of wind. These devices have safety locking mechanisms that require enough familiarity to be operated when one is panicked. Additionally, it will be important to retain control of the spray so that it may not be taken by the attacker and used on the victim.

Stun guns: Stun guns are a potentially effective means of incapacitation.  Like pepper spray, stun guns are also fairly inexpensive and portable. While pepper spray is to be used at a distance, a stun gun requires that one must be close enough to make contact with the attacker. Effectiveness of a stun gun, or lack thereof, also depends on battery life. As with pepper spray, one also need to be able to retain control of the device.  

Kubotan: Another self-defense tool is called a Kubotan. Looking like a pen made of hard plastic or metal, a kubotan may be attached to a keychain for easy access. A kubotan may be used for strikes against joints or fleshy areas for self-defense.  

Conscious Consideration is the Key

As evident in the points that were discussed above, self-protection for a sign language interpreter involves multiple dimensions. It begins with an awareness that some settings may be more inherently dangerous than others. Regardless of the setting, however, maintaining a situational awareness to dangers that may suddenly arise will give you more time to formulate a response that will get you out safely. With the dangers present in today’s world, giving conscious consideration to self-protection is time well spent.

There are multiple aspects that come into play when trying to keep oneself safe as a working interpreter. It begins with the awareness that one may be at risk, maintaining vigilance to recognize when danger might be approaching, and learning physical strategies that might be used in the event they are needed. By using this multi-tiered approach, sign language interpreters can enhance their ability to keep themselves safe.

Questions to Consider:

  1.   What potential security risks do you see while traveling to or within your work settings?
  1.    How do you think you can reduce each of these risks?
  1.   What local resources are available to you to increase your personal safety knowledge and skills?


Becker, G. D. (1997). The gift of fear: Survival signals that protect us from violence. Boston: Little, Brown.

Gervasi, L. H. (2007). Fight like a girl– and win: Defense decisions for women. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.

OSHA guidelines for preventing workplace violence for … (2015, April 01). Retrieved September 2, 2016, from

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Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

Through recognizing the humanity in ourselves and Deaf people, and working towards a goal, our work can become much less stressful.

I think as Video Relay Service interpreters we have done ourselves a disservice in the way we talk about ourselves, our callers and our work. Generally, when we describe working in a call center, we either underplay it (“I’m ‘just’ interpreting phone calls”), or grossly exaggerate (“We interpret sex calls! We interpret for drug deals!”). The truth of the matters lies somewhere in between and is infinitely more interesting and gratifying.

[Click to view post in ASL]

The Mechanics of VRS

First, a better visual description of the mechanics of VRS work. Imagine an old-fashioned Bingo blower machine. The balls are whirling around in the chamber, and then one is randomly pulled into the chute for the number to be called. This is each inbound call that is received. The only slight difference is that each time, the ball (caller) is returned to the chamber once it has been called (call completed). Over time, the same number will come up again. This means that while VRS calls appear randomly for the interpreters, we will sometimes see the same number (caller) again. Sometimes, in a single day we will see all distinct callers. A different person every single time. However, it does happen that over the course of a day, a week, a month, callers will be seen over and over again.

The Intimate Nature of VRS

A relationship (such as it is) is established with these callers, whom we may never meet in person. Having worked as a sign language interpreter in VRS for many years, I have been able to witness people’s lives in fits and starts. I am aware of people getting married, having children, seeing the children grow up, parents dying and all other aspects of life. It is a privilege I do not take lightly.

We are also physically seeing into people’s homes, places of work, and other spaces they occupy over time. This is very intimate knowledge we gain and is not often what a freelance/community interpreter would experience. Often, assignments out in the community have a more constructed environment. In those instances, Deaf people are seen in their doctor’s office, in their classroom, in their job site. Our callers are putting a lot of faith in us as interpreters, not only interpret their communication, but to also hold sacred all that we are privy to during the course of each phone call.

Business Owners and VRS

In addition to the intimate types of calls VRS interpreters experience, we interpret daily for Deaf callers who are doing their business, making their living, over the phone. As we see these callers repeatedly, we get into a rhythm of what those calls will be like. We learn the lingo/jargon of their various occupations, we get used to their way of interacting with their customers, and their idiosyncrasies. As this working relationship is established, we are able to make agreements about sign choices, ways of interacting with their customers, etc. Over time, it becomes easier and more comfortable to settle into the task at hand. I am sure this goes both ways. Hopefully the callers become comfortable with the interpreters over time. We become “colleagues” in a way. We want their businesses to succeed, and we do our best to make that happen!

Highlighting Human Interaction

All of this is a reminder to see each other as humans in an interaction. Of course there are rules and regulations for VRS, which we must follow, but I have found if we prioritize being human, all of that falls into place anyway. In some ways, the structure of the VRS system has pushed sign language interpreters back into the “machine model” of interpreting. It seems that we have allowed ourselves to backslide to this mindset. This is unfortunate, as it further separates us from our Deaf callers. This is where I believe some of the struggles and negative attitudes come into play with VRS work. The fact that we are doing this work through the internet, and are not in the same physical space as our Deaf customers, should not mean that there are additional barriers to our communication. I feel it’s important for video interpreters to actively seek that human connection. As Brandon Arthur stated in his StreetLeverage – Live 2015 recap, “a fundamental truth about the field of sign language interpreting…success is derived from first acknowledging the humanity of the people in front of you. Simple. Challenging. True.”

I believe that if we really see ourselves as humans first, and our Deaf callers as humans before anything else, our work will actually become almost effortless. This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

  1. Connecting with our callers as humans is done when we are not actively involved with interpreting the conversation. A warm smile, admiring a scarf, waving at cute babies, cooing over kittens. The more familiar and comfortable we are with callers over time, the more we can settle in and do the work with ease, and all involved can be satisfied by a job well done. Even if we are faced with a caller we have never seen before, if we could assume this attitude, that callers are human as we are, therefore comfortable and familiar, all our calls can be smoother.

  1. Using care when discussing the work with others is also critical in maintaining a focus on the humanity of those we work with. When I talk about my work to non-interpreters, I make sure to talk about working with humans, and the fact that working with humans is demanding.  Think of nursing, teaching, and other jobs where you are constantly interacting with people in all their joy and pain. When we as interpreters talk with each other, while protocol indicates that we refer to “callers”, I think this limits us as well. We need to recognize the humanity we encounter daily.

  1. Recognizing the shared experiences we have with callers also helps keep our focus on the human factor. When explaining VRS to others, I also try to explain that every type of phone call that a hearing person makes, a Deaf person also makes. Did you call your mother today? Was your conversation pleasant? Did it make you feel like a little kid again? Did you get mad and hang up? What about calls to set up doctor appointments or get test results? Telling the school your child will be out sick? Hanging out on the phone shooting the breeze with an old friend? Hours arguing with Comcast? This is what we do everyday!

In The End, Rise to the Challenge

Sure, we can talk about the stats and productivity rates of VRS work. We can talk about the anxiety that comes with not knowing what’s coming our way next. We can talk about compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. I will admit there have been times when I have interpreted very difficult, painful conversations after which I have removed my headset and walked out of the call center. I knew I would be no good for any subsequent callers, therefore I took care of myself, and them. However, I know I have settled into all of that. I enjoy the thrill of the unknown. I feel I can rise to the challenge of whatever comes my way. Interpreting in VRS becomes easier the more I can approach my work with curiosity, compassion and a spirit of collaboration with my fellow humans.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What is a key phrase you can use to internally remind yourself that we are all human?
  2. By treating each other humanely, in what ways can your work product be improved?
  3. Suppose you’re not “feeling it”; what are some things you can do physically to make it seem like you are, or steer yourself towards a more positive outlook?

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Mental Health Settings: Are Sign Language Interpreters at Risk?

Sign Language Interpreter Needing Support

Sign language interpreters are rarely equipped to deal with the trauma sometimes incurred in mental health settings. How can interpreters find support and prioritize self-care for themselves and their colleagues?

Friendlyville is a mid-sized city (population 85,000) in a Midwestern state with a Deaf (ASL) population of about 200.  Janice is one of the few RID-certified sign language interpreters in Friendlyville. She is the child of Deaf parents, and chose to become an interpreter after graduating from an ITP in Bigtown in a different state.  Janice works with a sign language interpreting agency in Friendlyville, and she tends to be called upon for the most challenging assignments.  She travels in a multi-county area, sometimes going as far away as Metrocenter (population 1.3 million), a distance of 120 miles from Friendlyville.

On July 14, Janice was contacted by the Emergency Department of the Friendlyville Community Hospital and asked to interpret for a deaf man.  Janice asked for specifics regarding the individual for whom she would interpret, but the person who called Janice stated that this information was confidential and she would need to sign a HIPAA Compliance form before any PHI could be released to her.  So, Janice arranged for daycare services for her two preschool children and rushed to the hospital.

Upon arrival, she signed the necessary confidentiality forms and was escorted to an examination room where she found Dr. Wilson and a 27-year-old Deaf man she had never met before, James.  Dr. Wilson had a notepad with which she had been attempting to communicate with James, but the attempts at writing back-and-forth had not been successful.  James had exhibited several violent outbursts (screaming and hitting the bed) but had not hurt anyone.

Since Janice had never met James before, she asked Dr. Wilson if she might introduce herself to him. The doctor agreed. As Janice introduced herself, she voiced for Dr. Wilson and tried to identify common “deaf introduction” items, such as James’ school background, where he had grown up, and the name signs of several local Deaf community members.  None of these topics elicited any “connections.”  Janice then informed Dr. Wilson that James was unknown to her.

Dr. Wilson informed Janice that James had been brought to the ER by police officers (who were still outside the door), and that he had been arrested in downtown Friendlyville while making strange noises and pounding his fists against the brick walls of a homeless shelter.  James was dressed appropriately for the weather, but had noticeable body odor and needed a shave.  His hands had some fresh bandages on them, but he was able to sign unimpeded.  No one seemed to know much about him, but he had a driver’s license which was used to identify him.  No outstanding warrants or medical history had been found on a quick records check.

Dr. Wilson began asking questions, and James’ level of agitation seemed to diminish in the presence of the interpreter.  James knew his name, but when asked where he lives, he replied that he has no home, that a flying object (spacecraft?) had brought him to Friendlyville, and that he had been forced to have sexual relations with unfriendly life-forms from another galaxy.  He was a Messenger to Earth and warned of imminent destruction unless all people on Earth agreed to have sex with the inhabitants of “Xylic.”  He also asked Janice and Dr. Wilson if they would like to have sex with him.

James’ signing was rapid and disjointed, and often it was difficult for Janice to voice for him because of his sign speed and the rapid changes of topics in his discourse.  She did her best to provide an exact verbal interpretation of James’ signs and the strange incidents he tended to describe.  James used some signs which Janice had never seen before, and when she asked him to explain he replied, “You’re stupid!  You don’t know my alien sign language.”

At one point in the session, Dr. Wilson received a crisis call and left the room.  As soon as Dr. Wilson departed, James exposed himself to Janice and demanded sex “before the doctor gets back,” adding, “we need to create offspring for the Xylic people.”  Janice handled the situation well – she immediately left the room and asked the police to step in.  She didn’t return to the room herself until Dr. Wilson came back and she was able to tell the doctor what had happened.

Dr. Wilson quickly arranged for James to be admitted to the hospital. Janice accompanied James to a locked treatment unit where paper work was completed and he gave a brief personal history.  He objected strongly to medication, but the doctor insisted that he MUST take it either through pills or through an injection.  James agreed to take the pills because, he said, “I hate needles.”

Janice left the hospital after several hours.  She had assisted by interpreting for James’ orientation to the rules of the Mental Health unit of the hospital.  She had also made arrangements to return for James’ therapy sessions and his medication management meetings with staff.  When she left the unit, she saw James sitting alone, watching a news program on television.

After leaving the hospital, several thoughts occurred to Janice:

– Did I do my job effectively and appropriately?

– Did James REALLY need to be locked up in that hospital?

– Did James get the same treatment as the other people on that unit?

– Would a CDI have helped with really comprehending James’ language?

– Does James really belong in that place?

– What will happen to him there?

– What if that had been my dad?

…and so on.

The Follow-Up

“What if that had been my dad…” begins to strike at the core of the issue, even if a sign language interpreter isn’t the child of Deaf parents.  What has been happening inside Janice’s own mind and heart are rarely part of the mental health services delivery continuum.  Social workers, counselors, and psychiatrists have professional support networks available to them where they can receive “supervision” from clinicians and colleagues, and where they discuss problems that are affecting them personally.  But interpreters are sometimes constrained from seeking personal support by obsessive adherence to a Code of Professional Conduct.

Sign language interpreters who have worked in mental health situations can probably empathize with Janice better than anyone else in this scenario.  Janice can’t get help from Dr. Wilson (who is probably too busy to offer the time anyway) or from other interpreters who don’t work in mental health settings. It’s not the same as educational interpreting, and it’s not the same as legal work.  It’s not even the same as medical interpreting.

This is not to say that mental health interpreters should not participate in their personal therapy sessions to better understand their own feelings and reactions to very non-traditional experiences.  Hearing mental health personnel may be accustomed to such things as patients propositioning them, but sign language interpreters are rarely confronted with such events when all alone, and such experiences may leave traumatic scars on a person’s psyche.

How Can Sign Language Interpreters Care For Themselves?

The major concern here is for Janice, and for the trauma she may have experienced through this event.  As shocking as it may be, sign language interpreters are human beings and, as such, they are vulnerable to psychic insult as a result of the work they do.  An interpreter does not usually encounter overt sexual trauma such as this as a regular part of a normal assignment.  In this case, events transpired which were unexpected.  Janice is unlikely to find much consolation from the mental health staff, since they are trained to deal with such events and may experience similar things on a fairly routine basis.  How can interpreters prepare for these realities?

Below you will find a few suggestions for interpreters in such circumstances:

1) Colleagues With Experience.

If an interpreter is fortunate enough to know other interpreters with a great deal of mental health experience, such people can be a valuable resource to tap into.  As with all such connections, of course, strict adherence to confidentiality and professional codes of conduct needs to be observed.  But codes of conduct do not prevent a person from discussing strategies or receiving the assistance and support they need to function as a healthy and happy interpreter and continue to provide a valuable resource to Deaf people and the larger professional communities.

2)  Debrief.

Debriefing with a supervisor or trusted colleague may offer an opportunity to share feelings and hear the perspectives of other professionals.  Care must be taken to preserve the confidentiality of the deaf consumer, as well as the reputation of other professionals in the incident.  Sometimes we have a tendency to take a judgmental position and offer advice in the form of, “You should never have done… .”  Not only is such unsolicited advice unhelpful, it does little to offer alternatives or solutions to the interpreter directly impacted by the incident.

3) Online Support Group.

A confidential online support group might be a possible solution, especially for interpreters who have few “local” resources, or when confidentiality would be compromised by using such resources.  Situations like a widely publicized event or involving well-known Deaf person(s), for example, might be better handled in a more anonymous setting online.  Each situation will dictate the best approach to take.

ITP Encouragement

Typically, Interpreter Training Programs don’t include much coursework on caring for one’s own psychological health (although this may be an area to consider for curriculum enhancement).  Seeking professional counseling from a generic therapist or psychiatrist is sometimes avoided because, “They don’t understand what I do as an interpreter, and I don’t want to waste expensive hours educating them.”  But even though a mental health professional isn’t an expert in Deafness or ASL, they are trained to deal with people who have had negative experiences, and they are usually well-equipped to offer strategies for recovery from such trauma.  ITPs would do well to encourage a commitment to one’s own health as a possible investment in burnout prevention.

Another way in which ITPs may assist is through offering advanced training to working interpreters, allowing them to learn from mental health professionals and other interpreters regarding situations such as those described here.  Better collaboration with professional communities can provide opportunities for all collaborators to learn from one another.

Mental Health Service Ineffective Through Interpreters

The incident described here with James is a classic example of an individual experiencing symptoms of a severe mental illness.  The fact that James is Deaf is really not the fundamental issue; James likely has a major mental illness separate from his Deafness.  This is an important distinction to make.  James was not subjected to anything unusual during the admissions process;  he was “treated” in much the same way as people with mental illnesses who can hear.  As he becomes stabilized on the unit and on his medication, he will probably benefit from interpreting services throughout the day.  But, as we know, it is unlikely that the hospital will provide such services as frequently as he needs them.  Because he will not be included in the daily interactions and communications on the unit (formal and informal), James will probably need to stay longer than most of the hearing patients on that unit.  Within a couple of weeks, however, James will likely be discharged to “somewhere” for community-based services.

Community mental health services cannot usually be delivered effectively through sign language interpreters, but in most communities, interpreter services are the only option. If mental health planners honestly asked interpreters, they would learn that sign language interpreters are wholly incapable of providing the same services to Deaf people as hearing people receive.  First and foremost, clinicians who are fluent in ASL are required to meet the needs of Deaf people with severe and persistent mental health issues.  Ideally, Deaf people who are in recovery from mental illnesses should be the primary service vehicle for other Deaf people.

In The End

As interpreters, we are part of some of the best, and some of the worst, times of Deaf people’s lives and, like it or not, we become part of those occurrences.  The impact that these events has on each of us can be personally and professionally profound.  Although we may tend to act as if we are immune from human feelings and reactions to things like child abuse, major disasters, addictions, marital disharmony, etc., it is vital that we take care of ourselves and our colleagues when asked.  We will not be of much value to our customers, our families, our partners, or ourselves if we ignore the fundamental humanity that makes us who we are and allows us to function as the consummate professionals we all wish to be.  It is hoped that this post will lead to a broader discussion of these issues, and to a solution that each interpreter can feel comfortable engaging.