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Hearing Interpreters: The Danger of Being the Public Face of ASL

Hearing Interpreters the danger of being the public face of ASL

When ASL is seen publicly, it is often vis-à-vis hearing sign language interpreters. Aaron Brace examines the impact this has on public perceptions of ASL, and suggests strategies that create opportunities for Deaf interpreters to authentically represent their language and culture.

I’ve been asked a few times by family and friends to explain what was going on when a CDI/hearing team delivered the interpretation of NY City Mayor de Blasio’s press conference on Ebola. The very notion that Deaf people can work as professional sign language interpreters is new for most hearing people; indeed, if they see ASL at all, it’s usually hearing interpreters like me, or signed music videos of questionable value (also by hearing people) on social media.

[Click to view post in ASL]

One of the reasons I sometimes have a hard time explaining this service model is that feeling of an existential threat, which doesn’t necessarily disappear just because I know it to be false. But another reason, which I’d like to focus on here, is that I haven’t fully come to grips with the implications of hearing sign language interpreters like me being the public face of ASL. Rather than learning how to do it better, I’m learning how to let it go.

Navigating the Changing Dynamics in Interpreting

I first began thinking about hearing sign language interpreters as the public face of ASL a number of years ago. Like many who are reading this, I’ve been one of the go-to interpreters for public-facing work for most of my career. Although my focus has always been on serving the people relying on my work, I’ve found myself enjoying the opportunities to stand out, to be trusted in jobs where my work would be broadly seen. I’ve enjoyed the positive feedback afterward, the status it has given me among my colleagues, and the chance to share what I’ve learned about ASL and the Deaf community. For a large part of my career, that was simply the water I swam in. I didn’t consider that there was anything else. After a while, as painful as it is to admit this, I began to think it was my right.

I have also regularly worked at conferences for national and international organizations. I have typically been on stage at their conferences, handling keynote presentations as well as presentations by other prominent speakers.  There came a time, though, when several of these organizations, with Deaf people in decision-making roles, decided that Deaf interpreters were to be on stage at all plenary sessions. I was relegated to small breakout sessions and working into English through a closed loop; I wasn’t on stage any more. It took me longer than I like to admit to get over losing the opportunity to do the plenary work, but I had the presence of mind to observe the work being done by the Deaf interpreters. Sure, the quality varied, but so much of the work that I saw was exemplary, and qualitatively superior to what I, or other hearing colleagues, typically produce.

More importantly, that model of service was chosen for high-profile work due to the involvement and leadership of knowledgeable Deaf people. Not only did they consider what would best serve the participants, but, surely, they were also influenced by the desire to authentically represent Deaf people’s language and culture to a broader audience.

Positioning My Ability

Like others, I began calling my work ‘bilingual/bicultural mediation’ soon after that terminology entered our professional discourse. Of course, that’s how the researchers in our field began describing what effective interpreting should be. It never crossed my mind that I was lacking the ASL fluency and cultural competency needed to actually do that kind of work. A Deaf friend recently told me that applicants to Gallaudet’s MA Program in Teaching ASL have to pass the ASL Proficiency Interview at a level 4 or higher…before beginning their studies. It took him three tries. Not only would I have failed to meet that bar before I began training, I’m quite confident I couldn’t meet it now.

I’m not qualified to go on about theories of bilingualism. I mention it only because it has become clear to me that the general public is primed to impute to me, to all hearing interpreters, a level of linguistic and cultural mastery that I simply don’t possess. Even if I’m relatively aware of the limits of what I have to offer, I don’t quite know how to articulate them to hearing people in a way that won’t undermine both their confidence in me as well as my own. Silence speaks volumes, as I already have the glamour of the words ‘professional’ and ‘interpreter’, and letters after my name. Oh, and I’m hearing. That’s probably the biggest factor in eliciting other hearing people’s high opinion of work they don’t understand.

This became painfully clear to me once, when I told one of my sisters that I’d be interpreting a play with a team that included a Deaf person as our Sign Master. She looked puzzled and said, “After all this time, Aaron, isn’t that what people ought to be calling you?” It was embarrassing to realize that I had never positioned my profession, myself, or, my ability to her in a way that she could have thought any differently. To her, I was the exemplar of ASL fluency. Who knows? Maybe I need to believe my own hype in order to have the nerve to do this kind of work at all.

Shifting The Focus

I realized recently that the more effort I put into preparing to interpret something like a play, the more I begin to worry. I worry not only that the hearing audience may think they’re seeing me produce a work of ASL literature, but that I might even start to believe it myself- all without anyone saying out loud that’s what we’re thinking. I worry that the Deaf poets, actors, storytellers, translators, teachers, and the friends I try to emulate in these instances will have far fewer chances than I, if any, to stand before a similar audience, with the same authority that’s imputed to me – but which I have only borrowed from them.

When I stand up at a public or televised event before a predominantly hearing crowd, on a real or virtual stage, under a real or virtual spotlight, I worry that some ASL student will decide to become a sign language interpreter in an effort to seek out the same kind of attention that I’ve realized I can be overly fond of.

But when a qualified, certified Deaf interpreter, like the one working at the Ebola press conference, gets asked questions about what interpreting is and how it serves the Deaf community, I don’t worry so much. Not only because his answers are likely to contain observations I couldn’t legitimately make, but also because it begins to shatter hearing people’s frequently-held stereotype of Deaf people as needy receivers of information. Deaf children also benefit from seeing qualified Deaf professionals modeling one way to represent their language and culture. If we quibble that not all CDIs are as experienced, or as able to give a good account of our profession, well…that’s never stopped the rest of us, has it?

Stepping out of the Spotlight

In her article, Are Hearing Interpreters Responsible to Pave the Way for Deaf Interpreters?, Anna Mindess listed some excellent, practical steps for us to take in expanding opportunities and visibility for CDIs.  In addition to hers, I’d like to add a few more. Some of these I’ve already implemented for myself, others are aspirational. Some may be more practical in some geographic areas than others:

  • work with Deaf colleagues and the local Deaf community to determine what an increased public presence of Deaf signers, including but not limited to CDIs, might look like and how to work towards making that presence a reality;
  • enlist as allies any hearing hiring agents who understand the value of CDIs;
  • consider working, on occasion, for reduced rates or pro bono in order to get more hiring entities to try using Deaf/hearing interpreting teams. This may be a controversial idea, but I believe that, used judiciously, it can be an effective tactic in getting more native ASL out where hearing people will see it;
  • share exceptional Deaf- or Coda-made videos on social media, along with a description to hearing friends of what makes them exceptional.
  • And finally, develop the reflex to step aside and team with a qualified Deaf colleague at every opportunity that comports with your own community’s values. Deaf people, even CDIs, may disagree strongly about when it’s necessary or even just preferred to have a Deaf face as the public face of ASL. It’s a process. I choose not to hinder that process, but to foster it.
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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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Sign Language Interpreting: The Danger of the Idea That Transformed the Profession

How has the push for the professionalization of sign language interpreters affected our influence on larger systems, and on our related stakeholders? Brandon Arthur asks us to reflect on how we got to where we are, and how to redirect our engagement to the industry.

Decades have seen the sign language interpreting profession quietly transformed by a single, powerful idea—sign language interpreters are professionals.  This single idea has created the momentum necessary to move the field from a hand written list of volunteers to a vast web of public and private entities, interest groups and regulation—an industry.

Is it possible that the power of this ideal has left us, the sign language interpreter, with a dangerous blind spot when engaging with the broader industry? Meaning, has the dogged determination to qualify as a profession prevented us from seeing what is necessary to effectively govern one?

What follows are a few things that gave me pause as I considered this possibility.

Interconnectivity

It occurs to me that the opportunities and threats faced by our profession is no longer the result of industry stakeholders (consumers, sign language interpreters, associations, businesses, service providers, educational institutions) being divided, but rather as a result of them being connected.  One might consider the sweeping impact FCC VRS reform has had, and will yet have, on the sign language industry as an example.  If this interconnectivity is real, and I believe we have examples to demonstrate that it is, we could logically conclude that the industry has evolved into an integrated system of stakeholders; where each is directly or indirectly impacted by the action of another.

If the industry is in fact integrated, wouldn’t the very basis of our engagement with other stakeholders need to change? Might this suggest that we are attempting to address current issues with an antiquated approach.

If yes, have we, the profession, stumbled over our own feet?

Weak Engagement

In seeking the specialized knowledge and skills to qualify as a profession and as professionals, it occurs to me that we appear to be failing to prioritize an important aspect of our long-term viability—expert knowledge of the broader industry.  One might consider state licensure laws passing in the face of outraged interpreters as an example of why this is gives me pause.

Is late or weak engagement by sign language interpreters on broader industry issues because we are indifferent to what occurs around us or is it that we are simply unaware that the issues even exist?  Or, is it because we don’t have the know-how to obtain the information needed to form an opinion? Worse yet is it our view that, “there is no industry without the interpreter” and it will work itself out?

If we are unable to effectively form an opinion and engage on industry related issues ourselves, is it possible to collaborate with industry stakeholders on broader issues?

In my view, for the profession to be effective long-term, ignorance can’t possibly be bliss in this instance.

Sparse Information

In an environment where the stakes are high and the pace of change quick, it seems important that sign language interpreters are able to quickly equip themselves with information.  Do we have the channels necessary to effectively deliver information across the profession and industry?  Can these channels effectively mobilize interpreters if necessary?  If no, does that suggest our infrastructure is insufficient to effectively administer the profession?

If we don’t have an infrastructure of size, does it mean we have information siloes and expensive duplications of effort brewing?

What I do know is that if people don’t have sufficient information to form an opinion regarding the system they are part of, they will feel overwhelmed by it, homogenized by it, and/or unwilling to invest in it.

I don’t believe interpreters are any different.

A Refocus

As a profession, we have made great strides over the past 40+ years.  Again, the early momentum of the sign language interpreting profession was possible because of our dogged determination to be recognized as a profession.

In my view, we need to refocus this determination on a few things.

How to:

-Leverage our interconnectivity to other industry stakeholders

-Remain aware of industry threats and opportunities in real-time

-Effectively distribute information across the profession and industry

-Extend our passion for skill development to the acquisition of broader knowledge

A focus on these items will assist us in effectively navigating the challenges of administering the profession long-term, which I believe is necessary if we are to maintain our position and success within the industry.

Is there other action we should consider?