Thinking Through Ethics: The Development of Ethical Decision-making Among Sign Language Interpreters

Do you remember taking an online survey last year on ethical decision-making? It may have been sent to you through the RID website presented as a doctoral student’s project.  Elizabeth Mendoza sent a survey to 1,403 RID certified interpreters. 393 surveys were completed, a whopping 28% return rate which, in the research world, is a large number of responses. Additional data were collected from webcam interviews with 3 novice and 3 expert interpreters. “Novice” is defined as those with NIC certification and less than 4 years experience as a certified interpreter, while “expert” interpreters hold a CSC, which ensures they have been certified since before 1987. Additional factors such as the respondent’s gender and whether or not the interpreter was a CODA were not considered in this particular report, but Mendoza states that 86% of those surveyed were women.  The RID/NAD CPC and the RID rubric anchors were used in the study’s methodology.


The data were analyzed using the theoretical framework introduced by Sir William David Ross in his book, The Right and the Good (1930). As Ross lays out his 20th century philosophy on the theory of prioritizing and identifying moral truths, he argues that prima facie duties have weight in certain situations, and should influence our actions and behaviors. Mendoza applies Ross’ theory to the data she collected regarding the decision-making processes that both novice and expert certified ASL/English interpreters employ. The differences between novice and expert interpreters are apparent in the data. Mendoza charges her workshop participants to consider several interpreting scenarios and discuss the ethical issues at play, the options available, and the possible actions that could be taken in each scenario – all from the point of view of Ross’ meta-ethical principles.

These principles include:

 1) Do no harm

2) Do good (Promotes the welfare of all)

3) Autonomy (Support client empowerment and self-determination)

4) Justice and Equality (Fair and equal treatment of all clients)

5) Protecting the weak and vulnerable

6) Responsible caring

7) Fidelity/Integrity in relationships (following through on contractual obligations)


One goal for the online survey was to determine if expert and novice interpreters differ in how they prioritize competing meta-ethical principles in decision-making. Both expert and novice interpreters prioritized these principles as follows: 1) Fidelity, 2) Do good, 3) Reparation, 4) Justice and Equality, 5) Do no harm, 6) Gratitude, 7) Self- improvement. For novice interpreters, #5 and #6 were FLIPPED.


Mendoza’s findings indicate that novice interpreters are good at memorizing CPC tenets, but they identify the sub-tenets differently than expert interpreters; expert interpreters have the ability to delve deeper into the sub-tenets and can identify laws/policies included that could be relevant to an interpreting assignment. Novices are prone to adhere strictly to the CPC and not so much to relevant laws or work site policies.

Consumer Dynamics

The dynamics of consumer/interpreter relationships differ between novice and expert interpreters. Novice interpreters generally feel that their client/friend relationships should be distinctly separate. Some may consider ending friendships with a person who becomes one of their clients. Novice interpreters are decidedly more JOB focused. Expert interpreters, on the other hand, would establish boundaries in order to maintain a friendship and accept a friend as a client.

TCS Associates Interpreting Services
Session Made Possible By TCS & Associates

Some novice interpreters charge additional hours if asked to interpret something else on-site. For example, if an assignment lasts for one hour and the interpreter charges a two hour minimum, the interpreter might bill for additional hours (or even a late/emergency fee), even if the request is within that two-hour time frame. They understand completely their contractual obligations. However, experts would interpret anything within the 2 hours for which they are already billing without adding charges (Meta-ethical problem- fidelity).

Interestingly enough, expert interpreters, when given an incorrect building number for an assignment, would charge 2 hours more. These practices beg the question, why would a person make these decisions?  They seem a bit dangerous. Where is the consideration for the next interpreter and the profession as a whole, especially when these decisions add up to a big expense on the part of the paying client? This can hurt the interpreter in the long run: once an interpreter develops a bad reputation, businesses and the community have a way of weeding out those that are unreasonable in their billing practices and those who have a bad attitude. Such practices may also disincline the hiring entity from hiring interpreters in the future, which negatively impacts accommodations for the Deaf consumer.

Entering the Field

The survey results indicated that how people decide to become professional interpreters has even changed. In a profession that is financially appealing to many, people sign up without understanding the entire picture – they just see the dollar signs. Furthermore, some novice interpreters delve into the VRS setting without having much experience interpreting for Deaf individuals in the 3D world, meaning they lack the human connection from which one gains rich perspectives into the Deaf community. Novice interpreters opting to work in VRS may not be aware that a switch from 3D to 2D is a sacrificial one.

Generational Differences

The workshop participants discussed generational differences not only among interpreters, but also with respect to the expectations of interpreters held by the Deaf Community. Younger Deaf individuals don’t necessarily want to socialize with the interpreters that they need to get their business done, whereas Deaf seniors may have an expectation of socializing with their interpreter out in the community. How often has a Deaf senior invited you to a Deaf event? Would this be an ethical issue for you? What would your options be? What would you do if you were invited to an event with an older Deaf client?

In the End

Mendoza asserts that we should apply these meta-ethical principles for the benefit of all parties involved,  including current and future interpreters and consumers of our services. These decisions effect ALL of us. The research data indicates that, as we practice successful ethical decision-making, we effectively scaffold information and learn to think quickly and competently as we work from day to day. Our ITPs focus heavily on larger concepts like billing and dress-code, whereas meta-ethical decisions are nuances largely obtained and processed in the field. Experts intuitively know how to pick battles. Novices may not be able to identify even what the battles are due to being bilingual (ASL and English) yet mono-cultural (hearing). What do we do with that? What should we do with that? Should there be gatekeepers? If so, who should they be?

* Special thanks to Street Team members, Diane Lynch.

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(New York)