As most sign language interpreters will readily admit, much of the meaningful dialogue they have on the developments within the field occur at the water coolers of the profession—“small talk” sessions with a colleague.
If you are reading this post, you are likely aware, that it is the plight of StreetLeverage to offer interpreters a platform to elevate these conversations into the broader consciousness of the industry.
Underneath the Imperfection
This isn’t news to anyone, but the work occurring with StreetLeverage to amplify these conversations isn’t a perfect work. If you look, not particularly hard, you will find typos, incorrectly sized images, grammatical mistakes, questionable video quality and the like.
Having said that, if you look beyond the platform and it’s imperfection you will find something special; the authentic desire sign language interpreters have to share and genuinely dialogue to the betterment of their field.
This desire leads people to give freely of their time to write articles and initiate and enrich discussions by adding perspective and experience.
These contributions are remarkable.
StreetLeverage – Live
In an effort to honor this authentic desire and extend the platform available to interpreters to dialogue on topics and ideas relevant to the field, I am please to announce the second phase of StreetLeverage, StreetLeverage – Live.
StreetLeverage – Live is a thought leadership event designed to bring together industry visionaries, leaders, educators, entrepreneurs and practitioners to share ideas that foster proactive thinking and dialogue in order to propel the field of sign language interpreting forward.
How Does it Work?
The StreetLeverage – Live main session is modeled after the TED speaker series. Meaning, attendees will be engaged by a series of speakers, topics, and live dialogue in a single primary session.
Following the main session, speakers will present concurrent sessions. These sessions will be a deeper dive of a speaker’s main session talk.
I am excited to share that the inaugural StreetLeverage – Live event is scheduled to occur November 10, 2012. The event has been embedded within the PCRID annual conference being held November 9 – 11, 2012. Click here for details.
I would like to offer my appreciation for Josh Hughes and Jennifer Bell, PCRID Conference Chairs, and their vision for the conference. You guys are doing yourselves and PCRID proud!
In addition to the PCRID conference leadership, it’s the progressive perspective of people like (left to right above) Lyle Vold, Brad Leon, and Ryan Leon on giving back to the sign language interpreting profession that enables game changers like StreetLeverage—Live to get started. As owners of Access Interpreting, and as interpreters, they see true value in open dialogue on issues facing the field.
A hearty thanks to each of them for their leadership, generosity and support of the PCRID conference to enable StreetLeverage—Live to become a reality.
In the End
I have no delusion that StreetLeverage – Live will be perfect work either. With that said, it is my hope that it can play a role in redefining and expanding the platform available to sign language interpreters to engage in meaningful dialogue on the issues we face as a field.
If you have suggestions on how to improve StreetLeverage – Live, or streetleverage.com for that matter, I welcome your feedback.
A while ago I taught a workshop in Thailand. My driver, Tuy, took pains during our commute to describe points of interest and cultural nuance. At stoplights, vendors would rush into the queue of cars. One day, Tuy bought a small garland. As he fixed the flowers to his rearview mirror, he explained, “Respect for the car and for the road. It’s important to respect where we’re going and how we’re getting there.”
On the cusp of this new academic year, those words ring truer than ever.
Those who taught sign language and interpreting in the days before technology remember a very different pedagogy than that which has developed since, a pedagogy borne largely by technology. You might say that we have seen interpreting education grow from pre-video to meta-video.
Perhaps the biggest constant in this time of change has been video technology and how it continues to impact our field. Technology and the ready availability of cassette recording revolutionized interpreter education in the 1980s. We discovered quickly what a handy tool video could be in teaching and learning interpreting.
Technology in the 21st century has turned the tables. Since 2002, video has learned what a handy tool interpreters can be. As the revolution rolls on, pedagogy recalibrates to consider a new model of sign language interpreting, one where some of the most fundamental precepts of our work are radically different from those we espoused as recently as 2005; where values like professional authority, publicly known standards, and adherence to a code of ethics are superseded by company policy, private, proprietary standards, and selective application of a code of ethics.
In the days before widespread, curricularized interpreter education, people came into our field armed with resources. Language competency, at least as reckoned in ASL, was determined before one was “invited” to interpret. (Granted, this “invitation” betimes felt more compulsory than invitations often do.) Interaction in the source and target languages was available in abundance. Opportunities to work in real-world settings were offered in bite-size chunks. A simple phone message here or appointment made there, done successfully, was fundamental to expanding one’s repertoire into more complex discourse settings. The study of moral conduct was fairly transparent. One needed to behave appropriately to be accepted into the larger deaf/interpreting community. Local communities were adept at policing themselves, endorsing only those with proven fluency and values as “approved” interpreters.
What can apprenticeships today glean from this aboriginal learning environment?
Today students in our sign language interpreting programs are often novice signers, and rarely do they have anything approaching ready contact with both source and target languages. This is a circumstance peculiar to sign language interpreting education. A good deal of what we call Interpreting Education might also be described as “Advanced ASL” or “Advanced English”. In doing some research several years ago, I identified a university that offered programs in both spoken and signed interpretation. Regarding language competence, the exit requirements for the sign language interpreting program were lower than the entrance requirements for the spoken language programs! It is commonly accepted that “Advanced ASL” is a major component of many sign language interpreting programs.
To be sure, the study of “Advanced ASL” contains as many questions and perplexities as the study of “for-profit interpreting”. Again the issue arises — How best to equip novices with experience that will prepare them to enter our rapidly evolving field?
Interpreting is frequently referred to as a “practice profession”. Definitions for “practice profession” are sprinkled liberally with concepts long known to adherents of “Situated Cognition” and “Experiential Learning”; including things like cognition in context, that knowing and doing are interwoven, and interaction with communities of practice. In both domains it is stipulated that exposure to real work in real settings is fundamental to mixing and refining the palette of skills interpreting requires.
The value of experiential learning or, as we call it, “apprenticeship” in interpreting is as well understood as it is little available. Each year, the 130 IEPs in this country graduate roughly 1000 students. The lack of opportunities for graduates of interpreting programs to be supported as they take their critical early steps down the path toward becoming interpreters has been heard time out of mind in interpreting education.
A number of entities have recognized and rushed to remedy this lacuna, this crucial gap in interpreter education. Indeed, opportunities today are more available than ever for this sort of transitive assistance. Entire communities and regions have come together to offer mentorship programs. One video relay vendor in particular is commendable for its attention to interpreter education.
Critical Program Components
At the Department of Access Services (DAS) at RIT/NTID, we define apprenticeship as a guided entry into the craft and trade of sign language interpreting. The question of what an apprenticeship in interpreting ought include is a central consideration of any program. As apprenticeships take place in real-world settings, who we are and what we do is fundamental.
Here, then, are some of the core components of the DAS program that I think can be valuable to apprentices and programs supporting interpreters:
It is critical that programs offer a diversity of settings for their apprentices to work. At DAS we have found that while we are steeped in postsecondary education, academic interpreting, we can expose apprentices to everything from medical to legal (student disciplinary) to student government and life and professional development for the 100+ deaf faculty and staff. The greater the exposure, the more rich the apprentice experience. The more rich the experience, the better the outcomes in the real world.
Quality working conditions:
The ratio of interpreting time to preparation time is an essential factor in postsecondary interpreting. Again, using DAS as a backdrop, we build interpreting schedules on a ratio of approximately 2:1 in terms of “interpreting” time and rest, recovery, preparation, professional development time. While this may be a high bar in the field of sign language interpreting, we are committed to affording our staff interpreters the time and resources necessary to produce work of the highest quality.
Professional development activities:
Regular access to in-service trainings, workshops, and learning experiences offers an opportunity to reinforce aspects of our practice. While the amount of professional development can certainly vary, at DAS we have offered over 60 professional development opportunities for our staff of 125 interpreters in the last two years alone. Increased opportunities for reinforcement supports a more confident interpreter in practice.
Peer to peer mentoring:
Innovation is key to a program’s success. As an example of program innovation, beginning in the spring of 2012, DAS staff interpreters have been offered state-of-the-art mentorship training that allows us to explore new and exciting aspects of mentorship, including assessment and self-assessment.
The level of experience of a program’s staff may be the most valuable part of apprenticeship. The practical experience offered to support the navigation of ethical and practicing situations is highly valuable to those graduates transitioning into practice. An example of the value a program can bring, DAS employs over 120 full time interpreters who have an average tenure of 13.5 years.
Apprenticeship is Not For Everyone
To be sure, not every student graduating from an IEP wants or needs an apprenticeship. Many students graduate and go directly to work. However, it has been my experience that just as many can benefit from a structured, supported transition from being a student to being an interpreter, one that takes familiar elements of interpreter education like rubrics and self-assessment and blends them into a vibrant experiential learning environment.
The pedagogy of interpreting education must keep pace with the evolution of interpreting practice. DAS’s new apprenticeship program represents an honest offer to improve the way we bring new people into the work we love. And as Tuy once said, it’s important to respect where we’re going and how we’re getting there.
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 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.
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 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.
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?
In order for students to be successful sign-language interpreters, prior to graduating it is critical that they develop a relationship with both the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community (DHHC) and current-working professionals within the DHHC. This would include interpreters, educators and DHHC advocates. By fostering these relationships, students will create educational, professional and personal opportunities that would not be available to them outside of the classroom environment. Personally, I would not be as successful in my career had the DHHC and Interpreter Community not provided me guidance. These communities did not seek me out to help; rather, I became involved in community-related endeavors and positioned myself to become a well-connected member.
Importance of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Community
In order for sign language interpreters to be successful, a relationship with the DHHC is paramount, as suggested by Trudy Suggs in her post, A Deaf Perspective: Cultural Respect in Sign Language Interpreting . An interpreter in California once stated, “If you call yourself an Interpreter and you have never had a deaf person in your home – shame on you!” In order to be an effective interpreter, one must create a relationship with the community in which you will serve. Through this relationship, doors are opened which provides for a greater understanding of the people and language epitomizing the culture. As a participant in the community, interpreters are able to represent and interpret messages more accurately and equivalently.
It is important that interpreters understand their personal and professional roles within the DHHC. Historical analysis of the role of the sign language interpreter is helpful in developing and understanding the role of today’s interpreter. For the role has ranged from overzealous inclusion with the community, known as the “helper model,” to almost-complete detachment from the community, also known as the “conduit model.” As the interpreting profession has evolved through its peeks and valleys, one sentiment has become absolute—relationships with the DHHC are essential and their importance should not be underestimated.
Socializing with Language Users is Essential
Unfortunately, the DHHC is often a stopping point for opportunistic students who simply wish to only learn American Sign Language. After getting a basic understanding of the language, either by graduating from a program or earning an interpreter certification, opportunists leave with little to no continuing relationship with the DHHC. I cannot stress the importance of undeviating involvement. To learn American Sign Language well, interpreters must immerse and socialize with language users. By starting networks early in ones career, it provides the perfect opportunity for interpreters to create life long friendships that will add richness to their personal journey into the Deaf world. This also creates a link for future professional opportunities.
Relationships With Working Interpreters
Robert Kiyosaki, an American investor and author stated, “If you want to go somewhere, it is better to find someone who has already been there.” As a graduate, whether you feel completely confident and capable in your skill set, or you feel insecure about your abilities, actual work experiences are invaluable. Work experiences are continually enhanced through professional relationships with interpreters of all facets. The interpreter profession is growing in popularity, constantly evolving as new research is being discovered, and flourishing with educational opportunities. These changes have helped create a field of professionals with various skills, abilities, and knowledge, all of which have strengthened the profession.
By developing relationships with others in the field, the opportunities for professional development become endless and help to create a “career,” not simply a “job.” These relationships create increased opportunities for jobs, provide teaming and mentorship possibilities, allow for professional dialoging and workshop attendance and allow interpreters to meet other professionals that will help advance their careers.
Networking Creates a Strong Community
Having a drive to connect with others, your roots will grow within the profession and you will want to become an interpreter who gives back to the profession by assisting upcoming interpreters in their career endeavors. Networking aids in creating a strong community of reflective practitioners who work together to become highly qualified while preparing the next generation of interpreters. This profession has been likened to working on an isolated island, but in my opinion, if that is true, the island I work on must be the most populated island in existence.
Relationships With Professionals Outside of the Deaf Community
Interpreters often operate as the middleman between the DHHC and Hearing Community. Therefore, they have opportunities to educate both populations on the particulars of each community and its respective culture. Further, these professionals are often responsible for the hiring and contracting of other interpreters. Therefore, remember that anyone you meet has the opportunity to have a deaf client or host a public event that openly caters to the DHHC. As interpreters, we have all been to public events that would have been enhanced had the venue or organizer provided an interpreter to cater to their DHH patrons.
By networking with other types of professionals, you have the opportunity to educate, which creates a platform for change in accessibility and equal access. Several business professionals, educators and even government officials that I have communicated with were unaware of the particulars of the Americans with Disability Act and because of my background, I have been able to inform them on the needs for equal access. It is often through edifying conversations that misconceptions are broken, innocent ignorant stereotypes are overcome and personal responsibilities are accepted. It is important that you strive to be a resource and a liaison for your DHHC, thus aiding in your professional endeavors, while leaving a considerable and lasting impact on both the DHHC and interpreting profession.
Relationships Build Long-Term Success
Regardless of your years of experience, career satisfaction occurs through improved working relationships with peers, coworkers, students and customers. Sign language interpreters who immerse themselves into the field by staying visible to the people they come in contact with, while avoiding the traps of isolation, and clock watching have a fuller career. Career expectations come in all shapes and sizes. When expectations are realized through service as a friend, mentor, teacher, and advocate, you will make a difference for the people you meet along your professional journey. Below are some tips for all interpreters on how to create and retain your networks.
Creating & Retaining Your Networks
Discover Deaf Events: Involve yourself in your local DHHC by actively participating in silent dinners, deaf professional happy hours and workshops particular to individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing. Attending these events will enable you to immerse yourself in the Deaf culture and will help you come in contact with future clients.
Remember Reciprocity: Unfortunately, there are often interpreting needs not covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. As an interpreter, you have spent time learning a language so you can help the DHHC and Hearing Communities interact with each other. It is important to remember the needs of DHHC will also be supporting you financially. Be willing to work pro bono when the appropriate time arises—for example, interpret weddings, funerals and baby showers as a way to give back to the community
Professional Development: Attend workshops and conferences to expand your professional network. This will enable you to meet interpreters from all over the country and could potentially lead to new job opportunities. When in attendance, dress professionally, and be willing to meet new people. If you simply pair up with the one person you know at the event, you will be limiting your professional opportunities.
Professional Affiliations: Join the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) the National Association of the Deaf and local affiliate chapters of both organizations. Further, if you have any specific interests in the field, join those organizations as well. Whether your interest lies with the Conference of Interpreter Trainers, the National Association of Black Interpreters, or the American Sign Language Teaching Association. You do not have to simply be a cardholder in the organizations. You can join a committee, task force or hold an officer position to become an active member and agent of change. When you take on such roles, you will meet other stakeholders in the profession and form new relationships.
Stay Current: Read current publications and journals that are well received by the interpreting profession. RID publishes the Views quarterly and the Journal of Interpretation yearly. Gallaudet University Press also publications and resources relating to the most current research related to American Sign Language linguistics and education, as well as cultural studies of individuals who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing (DHH). Additionally, trending blogs and vlogs, bring attention to current topics and issues affecting the DHHC and interpreting profession. These mediums all you to participate in professional dialogues, allowing you to speak knowledgably, credibly and genuinely with your peers.
Community Involvement: Become involved in local organizations, such as your local Chamber of Commerce, Sertoma club or hiking group. By expanding your network of personal contacts, you will also be expanding your network of potential professional contact and will be creating business opportunities for yourself, accessibility for the DHHC and ultimately helping to close gaps between the Deaf and Hearing worlds.
Create Opportunities: Do not wait for people to approach you and integrate themselves into your life. Remember to be friendly, smile and be willing to create conversations with strangers. Don’t just focus on yourself; ask others questions and learn about their lives and careers. By helping others achieve their goals, they will often assist you on your journey as well. Stay at the conference site hotel, arrive to events early, ask questions, share your passions and follow up.
People live extremely busy lives. Regardless of whom you meet be grateful for the person’s time. When appropriate, shake hands, offer a hug and always follow up with a thank you card. If someone donates their time to you and provides you with the opportunity to take them out for coffee or lunch, remember to always pay and articulate your gratitude.
How have your relationships and professional networks enriched your professional career and personal journey?
A chip on her shoulder.
An angry Deaf person.
I will definitely NOT be attending her workshops in the future.
The workshop seemed to be a venting session for the Deaf people.
These were just some of the evaluation responses to a workshop I presented at a state-level sign language interpreting conference recently. I had been asked to do three workshops at this conference, and the first workshop went fabulously.
The second workshop was after lunch, a notoriously difficult time slot because participants are often tired from the morning and lunch. Even so, I expected this workshop—which I had presented many times before—would be fun and invigorating. I was especially pumped by the participants’ awesome energy that morning, and was excited to see that many who attended the morning workshop had joined this afternoon session. The Deaf participants were renowned advocates and leaders. However, as the session got underway, I became a bit perplexed by the mood before me. Perhaps it was the lighting, the room set-up, or fatigue, but the room seemed tense, almost foreboding. Still, I figured the energy level would quickly rise.
I noticed, almost immediately, a specific group of interpreters who whispered to each other without signing. Participants in the first workshop had been extremely respectful about signing at all times. The conference organizers had also clearly stated that one language was to be used. I naturally assumed that for workshops led by Deaf presenters, all present would sign.
I won’t go into how many articles and discussions there have been about how interpreters and students are notorious for not signing at interpreting conferences (although I’ll cite an article I wrote six years ago about this), but it may be helpful to understand my background. I’ve worked with interpreters since I was a toddler, and was mainstreamed for most of my education. I also constantly work with interpreters in my career, and travel the nation providing interpreting workshops because I think it’s so important for Deaf people to share their knowledge and experience. I emphasize in every workshop that interpreters are among the most crucial allies Deaf people can have. Furthermore, as a mother to four children who are Deaf, I have a very personal reason for wanting nothing but the very best in the interpreting profession.
I was disturbed, as were several participants, by this group’s behavior, so I quickly reiterated the importance of signing at all times. After the fourth time I mentioned this, I became visibly irritated, because it was difficult to understand how such rudeness would be exhibited. I explained that as a Deaf person, they were taking away my opportunity—without my having any say—to catch side conversations that often hold such a wealth of information.
Let me share an example. At another workshop, during a break, I noticed two participants talking about their pregnancies. I happily jumped into the conversation; as someone who was pregnant for four years in a row, I always love sharing pregnancy experiences. Sure enough, one of the participants sat with me during lunch and we exchanged wonderful child-raising tidbits. This interaction is what is so important to the development of alliances between hearing and deaf people. It helps us build connections and recognize shared experiences as human beings.
As is true for any workshop I present, I always ensure that the Deaf participants are given an opportunity to provide input. While the Deaf experience may be common across many levels, it isn’t identical for every Deaf individual. At this workshop, there were four Deaf individuals in attendance. About an hour into the workshop, I made a comment in passing about how I wished all video interpreters knew the names of deaf school towns—that is, towns with deaf schools (i.e., Fremont, St. Augustine, even Faribault)—or at least be familiar with the names. I said this lightly, with a smile, and the Deaf participants nodded vigorously in agreement. This type of knowledge is an important element of Deaf culture for many people. Not recognizing its importance, or dismissing it when someone shares this information, speaks volumes to cultural (il)literacy.
A participant from that group suddenly said with an incredulous look, “I don’t understand why you’re so upset that video interpreters don’t know city names! That’s really ridiculous. It’s such a small thing.” I was momentarily caught off-guard by her flippant response. I quickly clarified that I wasn’t upset, saying, “Quite the contrary. It’s just one of those things that Deaf people have to live with. It does become cumbersome if you have to make several calls a day and each video interpreter you encounter doesn’t know a city sign or town where a deaf school is.”
The participant started to dissect my comments, shaking her head in disbelief. A Deaf participant stood up saying, “Trudy isn’t upset. She simply—and she’s right—means that it does get frustrating when interpreters don’t know the sign for large cities or deaf school towns. Deaf school towns are to us what major cities are to the general population.” This interpreter shook her head as if we were silly. In retrospect, I should have ignored her. I didn’t, because I was, truthfully, astonished at her disregard for our experiences.
Realizing that perhaps her reaction came from culpability or taking my comments personally, I asked why she was upset. She said, derisively, “I’m not upset. I’m simply disagreeing. Disagreement is healthy, right?” I decided that I’d had enough and moved on, but I was shaken. Discouraged and belittled, I tried to keep the workshop going despite dagger-eyes from that interpreter who “healthily” disagreed with me.
After the workshop, at least six interpreters came up to me and apologized for that group; several thanked me for being so straightforward and expressed their appreciation for all the Deaf participants’ contributions. One interpreter said he was angry because he felt she wouldn’t have done this had I been a hearing presenter.
I talked with one of the volunteers at my workshop, a Certified Interpreter and the mother to a Deaf adult. I shared my puzzlement at why I felt blindsided. She said, “There’s a difference between challenging an expert and disagreeing respectfully.” She nailed it; after all, would the participant have so publicly disagreed with me had she respected me as an expert in my subject matter? What if I had been a hearing presenter talking about deaf people’s frustrations? Maybe she still would have, but I doubt it.
I received overwhelmingly positive evaluations for the first and third workshops. For the second workshop, I was pleased with the supportive responses, but also surprised by the depth of the few negative comments. I wondered why I was called an “angry deaf person.” Why not simply an angry person? Why were the Deaf people’s shared experiences considered venting? Why was it a “Deaf” issue?
I later saw the very same Deaf participants at the National Association of the Deaf conference, and they were equally taken aback by the negative feedback. As we discussed the contempt we felt from certain participants at this workshop, it suddenly made sense: hearing privilege. As we all know, some enter the interpreting profession with misguided intentions. Fortunately, we have so many solid interpreting standards and programs in place that help steer those individuals in a more positive direction. Even so, had all the Deaf participants sharing their experiences been hearing, would they have been criticized for their so-called venting? Would I have been labeled angry if I were hearing? Perhaps.
I wish that interpreter who challenged me had come up to me after the workshop and started, yes, a healthy dialogue, so that we could have come to appreciate each other. I wish she had respected my perspectives. I likely would have learned from her perspective as someone who did not grow up in the culture or community. I also find it quite ironic that she and a couple of others chose to vent via the evaluations, stating that the workshop was a “venting session for the Deaf people,” instead of building alliances.
Workshops led by Deaf people are golden opportunities to listen to their experiences—while reserving judgment—and understand that interpreting, for them, is not just a career or interest. It affects their lives, their experiences, and their realities—and for many, the legacy they pass onto their children. Ensuring the sincere desire to be an ally and exhibiting a genuine respect for experiences is a reward beyond measure.
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.
I would like to thank Tamar Jackson Nelson for her work to edit this post.
Tamar 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.
Alarmingly, sign language referral agencies are sending increasing numbers of unqualified signers to interpret for Deaf consumers, causing harm to the communities we serve and to the interpreting field. Friends, consumers and colleagues around the US have been sharing their local horror stories for years. As this is a national issue it cannot solely be resolved at the local level. It requires a coordinated national response.
I believe that the RID membership should collaborate with Deaf leaders to establish standards for agencies that refer sign language interpreters in order to ensure that the Deaf community receives the best possible service. If an agency does not measure up to the standard, then there should be some public acknowledgment of this fact, so that when they bid for work it is clear that these agencies provide no guarantee of quality service.
Currently, there are no standards for being a member organization of RID. Any agency can join RID, no questions asked. It enhances an agency’s status to have the RID brand on their letterhead and helps them bid for contracts – while it simultaneously compromises RID’s name, as it appears we support substandard sign language interpreting services. Why don’t agency members have the same standards and obligations that interpreters have? Why are agencies that have no connection to the Deaf community allowed to earn a profit by providing “signers” instead of qualified interpreters, and still benefit from the privilege of being affiliated with RID? What steps can we as professionals take?
Responsibility for Quality Services
When I began interpreting in the ‘70s, referral agencies were housed in Deaf service organizations (such as NYSD in NYC, GLAD in LA, DCARA in San Francisco) and in religious organizations (e.g.; Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and St. Benedict’s in San Francisco). They provided community interpreters for medical, legal and social service needs.
The agencies I worked for had CODAs and/or Deaf referral specialists who had years of experience in the field. From my observations, they made every effort to assign newer interpreters (like me) only to assignments that we were qualified for. That was true for both certified and non-certified interpreters. Agencies understood that certification signified only entry-level skills and that they needed to assess the skill level of novice interpreters. They did not assign us to highly sensitive work, but often teamed us with more seasoned interpreters in lower risk environments, providing us support for our growth as professionals and providing reassurance to Deaf consumers that we would not compromise their lives.
Sign Language – A Profitable Afterthought
Over the last several years, however, we have seen the entrance of “language service” agencies into the arena of sign language interpreting. Most of them tack on ASL in addition to the other languages they provide. Most of their spoken language interpreters are born bilinguals, whereas many of the sign language interpreters on their rosters are self-professed “interpreters,” who have passed no screening or certification exams. While some of these language agencies may have a commitment to providing quality services to the Deaf community, most have no idea how to evaluate the skills of sign language interpreters or the needs of Deaf consumers. Their knowledge base is in bidding for and maintaining contracts.
Although ethical referral agencies do exist, there has been a marked increase in contracts being awarded to agencies that have no background knowledge of our field or the Deaf world, and no ability to evaluate the quality of the services of the interpreters they send to work. For all appearances, it seems that profit, rather than service, is the overweening motive.
Sending unskilled workers is a common practice in agencies that provide “interpreting as a business” rather than as a service, but that practice has serious repercussions. Recently in NYC, a call went out from a language agency needing interpreters for an “end of life” situation in a hospital. A few weeks later, I spoke with friends of the family. They said that throughout the entire weekend the Deaf parents thought their child was “sleeping,” even after all the “interpreters” sent by that agency had “interpreted” the words of the doctors. This is not the only incident. Locally, I have seen language agencies with city contracts send basic signers to evaluations of the fitness of Deaf parents and uncertified interpreters to court, threatening the legal status of Deaf claimants, defendants, and the integrity of the court itself.
The decisions these agencies are making have a negative impact on all parties present: Deaf, hearing, and interpreters. Sign language interpreters who are not appropriate misrepresent themselves and the Deaf parties. Deaf people often do not get their message across; neither do the hearing participants. The only ones guaranteed to succeed in attaining their goals are the agencies, which get paid regardless of the caliber of the interpreting work. This is not just happening in New York City, but also around the country.
An Ethical Quandary
Professional interpreters are left with an ethical quandary… Do I stop interpreting for an unethical agency and leave Deaf people with poor interpreters? Do I spend hours educating the agency, only to see them ignore the advice and go with lesser skilled interpreters? Do I develop relationships with these agencies? Do I accept lower fees in order to ensure quality interpretation?
Can sign language interpreters solve this problem alone? Clearly, the Deaf communities have been left out of the decision-making process. Local interpreting chapters or collectives that work in tandem with Deaf individuals and associations may be able to make some headway in certain locations, but I believe we should use the power of our national association to address this issue.
RID certifies interpreters, why not certify agencies? This would imply an ethical practice mandate for agencies that refer sign language interpreters, and an obligation for RID to monitor complaints and de-certify agencies that are not behaving ethically. This could then be written into local and state contracts. There should be consequences if an agency sends inappropriate “signers” to jobs.
We, the members of RID, need to take the first step by developing stringent requirements for the business practices of referral agencies, with consequences for those agencies that are not following best practices. The requirements should state that agencies must:
abide by an ethical business model – that would include sending the most highly qualified interpreter, not just a warm body;
utilize a valid evaluation mechanism for non-certified interpreters;
provide sign language interpreters with relevant information prior to the assignment;
protect confidential information, by not including it in the emailed call for interpreters;
respect the communicative norms, rights and personhood of the Deaf individuals by presenting them with the most appropriate qualified interpreters for their needs (which means seeing the Deaf individuals as their clients, not just the hearing contract holders).
If agencies do not live up to such standards they should lose the privilege of being a member of RID, and that information should be publicly available for any potential clients to view.
Let’s Get Started
Let us begin now to discuss the standards and the consequences. Let us engage both locally and nationally. Let us not allow agencies in their pursuit of profits to harm Deaf people.
What other requirements should be included when considering the certification of referral agencies?
I want to thank StreetLeverage for creating a forum where issues affecting sign language interpreters and the field of sign language interpreting can be raised and discussed thoughtfully and respectfully. This forum has allowed me the opportunity to share my communications with the RID Board on questions I believe need to be answered regarding the “enhanced” NIC certification test. My last posting on this topic resulted in a rich and stimulating discussion.
The questions raised in my post, Defenders of Certification: Sign Language Interpreters Question “Enhanced” RID NIC Test, and that will be raised here, are not raised out of nostalgic ties; not raised out of a desire to cling to the past; not raised out of a desire to foment dissent. In truth, I raise these questions to provide certified sign language interpreters (and, indeed, all members of RID) with the information and facts necessary for us to serve as defenders, not critics, of the current NIC evaluation. Sadly I believe that, to date, we have not been provided with such information or facts.
What follows is a letter I sent to the RID Board on June 25, 2012 in response to the “comprehensive report” that was released by the Board on June 7, 2012, which was in response to my March 18, 2012 letter questioning aspects of the “enhanced” NIC test.
I want to explicitly state my intent in writing these letters and raising these questions is not to spur divisiveness but rather to garner transparency and to seek the underlying rationale for decisions that were made without full involvement of the certified membership. To date I have not received a response from the Board to this letter, although I have received an acknowledgement that my email letter has been received.
I truly hope that a meaningful response to the issues I have raised will be provided in a timely and public manner. If such a response is forthcoming, I would suggest that the approach of “It is because we say it is” is decidedly not a useful strategy in addressing an issue as important to RID certified members as this is; the response must be one that comports well with the more than forty years of experience RID has assessing interpreting competency and that comports with the real world experiences of practitioners.
My hope is that my postings on this issue can, and will, spur discussions that can better inform our decision-making process and, ultimately, improve our assessment of who is qualified to become “one of us”.
June 25, 2012
To Presidents Prudhom and Scoggins and members of the RID Board:
Thank you for your letter dated June 7 and for the “comprehensive report” that was attached. Following you will find my response to the report and some additional issues/questions I have that were raised by the report.
You are correct that my letter was made public. But, please know that it was made public only after more than a month had passed after I had sent the letter to all members of the Board during which time its receipt was not even acknowledged by the Board. While I appreciate the demands on a volunteer Board, I would suggest that the serious questions I raised deserved a much more timely response (and at least the courtesy of an acknowledgment of receipt by the Board) and the answers which I requested should not have taken three months to assemble. I also believe that the “community discussion” its release created is definitely a positive discussion and one that should have occurred as the “enhancements” were conceived and most definitely before they were implemented. I hope that continued, open and public discussion will only help to strengthen our decisions and more fully engage the RID membership in these critical decisions and programs. I must tell you that I do intend to post this letter to you in a public forum in a couple of weeks – I firmly believe that providing a forum for members discuss these issues not only allows a fuller airing of issues, but also allows the Board to have a more accurate picture of the pulse of the membership than it appears to have on this issue.
I am sure you can appreciate the fact that the report that was generated in response to my letter is, based on the numerous emails I have received and numerous postings on social media, viewed by many as quite a defensive, reactive and inadequate response. My intent here, and throughout, is not to create an atmosphere of confrontation or to incite divisiveness. Rather, my intent is that, unlike decisions taken in the past, we can all agree that the decisions we make in the certification program are based on empirical data, not the feelings or beliefs of a small group that may not well-represent the membership. In your letter to me you state “NAD and RID fully support the work and direction of the enhanced NIC…”. I humbly and respectfully strongly disagree. At the very least in the case of RID, I think it is much more accurate and truthful to state that the RID Board fully supports the “enhanced” NIC. I say this because there is considerable discontent and unrest among the membership regarding the “enhanced” NIC. I also believe there has been anything but acceptable and appropriate levels of transparency regarding decisions surrounding these “enhancements” which is quite surprising for what the Board claims is a “membership driven” organization. I think that it is fair to say that for many members there is a clear sense that critical decisions that define who we are as interpreters have been made without significant and meaningful involvement of, and engagement with, the members and most definitely without meaningful discussion at our regional and national conferences, again belying the notion of RID as a “membership driven” organization. I certainly urge you to make good on your pledge to “…dedicated communication effort…now and in the future” and hope you do so proactively rather than reactively.
The “comprehensive report” provided many statements that asserted that the “enhanced” NIC was valid and reliable but provided no empirical or psychometricdata to support such assertions. Unfortunately I see no proactive involvement of the membership in many of the issues I have raised; I see no checks and balances built into the current “enhanced” NIC that can ensure impartiality and objectivity; I see no independent checks and balances of the design and implement work off the consulting group; I see no concern for the negative reactions and responses of members that this “enhanced” NIC is not based on sound empirical data; and unfortunately I see no evidence in the Board’s actions that can support its claim that RID, in this arena at least, is a “membership-driven” organization.
I fully appreciate the pressures and demands on an all-volunteer Board having been there myself. I trust you will accept my response and the questions I raise below in the spirit of moving toward a stronger and more cohesive RID. However, as I stated before, the fact is that there is growing discontent among the membership with the manner in which decisions are taken within the organization and a growing feeling of complete disenfranchisement within the organization. There already is a growing number of members and an increasing number of states in the US who believe that RID certification has become meaningless and irrelevant. More importantly, there is an increasing chorus of RID members crying for an alternate organization and that chorus grows as members take the “enhanced” NIC. I, for one, am saddened to see that number grow. But if sound, logical answers to the questions I have previously raised and also raise below cannot be provided then, unfortunately, I would have no option but to join their number and advocate loudly and passionately for creation of an alternate organization. I would be incredibly saddened should that come to pass.
I thank you for your willingness to engage in this discussion and I am willing to continue this very important discussion in any forum you feel will be beneficial (email, VideoPhone, phone, face-to-face meetings, etc.).
I eagerly await your response.
Dennis Cokely, Professor
Director, American Sign Language Program
Director, World Languages Center
Chair, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures
Boston, MA 02115
1) Before raising specific questions generated by the report, I ask that the Board offer an explanation to the membership for why the same consultant firm that was directly responsible for the design and implementation of the “enhanced” NIC was also asked to write the interim report which asserts that the “enhanced” NIC is valid and reliable. While I, in no way, intend to cast aspersions on the Caviart group, I believe it is incumbent upon the Board explain why this is not a clear conflict of interest and why an independent psychometrician was not engaged to review the overall process and write the report? Given the catastrophic recent NIC history and the absolute appearance of a possible conflict of interest, I would urge the Board to address this as quickly as possible. Why should we have faith in the validity of the Caviart report? Why is this not a conflict of interest given that Caviart has a vested interest in convincing the Board and members that its initial test development is valid and reliable?
2) It comes as quite a surprise to me and I am sure to most RID members that, on page #2 of the report, we learn that the profile of a “certified NIC (level 1) interpreter” was developed by 14 members of the NIC Task Force, an NIC Scoring Group (whose composition is unknown) and an unidentified group of “subject-matter experts”. This means that, if one includes the Board (which, I assume, approved the profile), it would appear that fewer than 100 members had a hand in determining this profile. This represents less than .009% of the membership. Why was this profile not circulated to the membership for comment and input? How is not circulating this profile consistent with claims of a “membership driven” organization?
3) It is also troubling is that the profile of a “certified NIC (level 1) interpreter” is offered without any rational, explanation or justification. What empirical basis is there to support this profile? What data is there to suggest that a “…vocabulary at a first year undergraduate level…” is appropriate? What is meant by “…quickly adapt to different situations and communication styles”?
4) But what is even more troubling on page #2 is the incredibly dismissive tone in the report intended for those who might question or challenge (“That is fine.”). While it is certainly true that “…no profile will satisfy everyone”, I believe that the leadership owes it to the members to create an environment in which questions and challenges are welcomed because, presumably, the leadership has data to support its choices and decisions and thus can appropriately respond to such questions and challenges. The tone here smacks of “it is because we say it is”. If this tone emanates from the consultant group then perhaps we have retained the wrong group. If the tone emanates from the leadership, then the situation is even worse that I thought and we definitely have a crisis of leadership. How is such a tone consistent with a “membership driven” organization? Does the membership not, at least, deserve the courtesy of opportunities to discuss the definition of the threshold that marks who is “one of us”?
5) Also, on page #2, it appears that a decision has been made that there will be “levels” to the NIC (“currently called Level 1”). If this is indeed the case, this represents a significant departure from past practice (the recently aborted iteration of the NIC notwithstanding) in which we have had a “generalist then specialist” approach to certification. I ask that the Board release the overall comprehensive master plan mentioned on page #3 for the certification program as well as the specific criteria for determining “…higher and specialized levels”. What is the overall master plan for the certification program?
6) Again on page #2, I believe it is totally inaccurate to make the claim that “…this statement summarizes what both organizations believe…”. At the present time I believe that it is accurate to say, in the case of RID at least, that this statement summarizes what the Board,the NIC Task Force and an NIC Scoring Group whose composition is unknown believes. The membership were not at all engaged in this discussion nor invited to provide feedback on this issue. Can the RID Board explain how it purports to represent the membership on this issue when it has not fully engaged the membership?
7) On page #3, it is extremely troublesome to read that the claim “…more interpreter/consumer interactions occurred remotely…” is based on the feelings of the NIC Task Force rather than on empirical data. In fact, according to a recently completed survey of RID Certified and Associate members conducted by the National Interpreter Education Center, 70% of interpreters who responded report they do absolutely no work in VRS and 92% do no work in VRI. These data make it clear that it is still the case that from interpreters’ experience, the overwhelming majority of the work that interpreters do is conducted in face-to-face interactions. While it may be that Deaf people are using more VRS/VRI, at this point in our history the fact is that the vast majority of interpreters do not work in those settings. This begs the question of why we developed an assessment approach that appears predicated on beliefs, settings, assumptions in which only 30% and 8% of us work?
8 ) Given the fact that some members of the NIC Task force have VRS/VRI ties, one also has to wonder again about the wisdom of relying on feelings rather than empirical data. Why are feelings used over empirical data? Again I do not intend to cast aspersions, but when segments on the “enhanced” NIC have durations of three to five minutes (which resemble durations found in VRS calls), one wonders what response the Board might have to the fact that there is the appearance of a conflict of interest for members of the NIC Task force who do have VRS/VRI ties?
9) On page 5 the process by which the “content and format” of the “enhanced” NIC is described. The logic of this process seems, to me, to be somewhat circular and rather flawed. If I understand the process correctly, raters used the previous NIC exam, material with which they were intimately familiar having viewed the material dozens and dozens of times. They were then asked to identify portions of that material that they believed “…most effectively discriminated the skills of interpreters at the level described”. From a linguistic and sociolinguistic perspective, what is critical is that they selected these portions from within a larger context and those portions were taken from within a larger sample of a candidate’s work. Thus raters had significant background information influencing the choice of segments that they believed “…most effectively discriminated the skills of interpreters at the level described”. Scoring criteria were then identified using a “proven algorithm”. While the algorithm may be “proven”, the elements (and the empirical support for those elements) to which the algorithm was applied need to be known. This is especially true since the previous iteration of the NIC listed rating elements that conflated language elements (e.g. articulation, use of space) with interpretation elements. What are the elements to which raters will apply the scoring algorithm and what is the empirical basis for those elements?
10) Having demonstrated that portions from within a larger context and taken from within a larger sampleof a candidate’s work could be reliably rated, how then is it reasonable to conclude that portions generated with no larger context and from no larger work sample could or would suffice as a valid indicant of a candidate’s competence?
11) Having the Scoring Group finalize the profile, develop the scoring criteria, rate previously rated samples and then discuss their holistic ratings, places enormous and unchecked power in the hands of a small group. Why was there no independent confirmation of the Scoring Group’s work? Why were not different groups engaged in segments of this undertaking? How large was the Scoring Group? Who were its members?
12) On page 6 we are told that the final vignettes were “…believed, by the Scoring Group, to have the most appropriate content, vocabulary and stimulus material”. The Scoring Group then developed new scoring criteria – again enormous and unchecked power in the hands of a small group. Is there a rationale for this? Are we to believe that there is a different set of criteria for each vignette? If so, what is the full set of criteria used to rate a candidate and what is the empirical basis for each criterion? Why should we believe the Scoring Group is qualified to make such determinations?
13) I submit that the assertion that “While content validity is critical, face validity is not” critical completely ignores the recent past with regard to the NIC and reflects a complete lack of understanding of our assessment and institutional history. Certainly face validity is unquestionably important for market acceptance. And most certainly one incredibly important segment of that market is the RID Certified and Associate membership and students in Interpreter Education Programs. If certification is to have any value, these stakeholders simply must feel and believe that the high-stakes assessment that is the NIC, at least looks like what interpreters do regularly. While it may be true that an assessment of interpretation skills does not have to look like what interpreters do regularly, one would think that, given the last significantly flawed iteration of the NIC, the Board would mostdefinitelywant the assessment to look like what interpreters do regularly. Given the incredibly negative issues surrounding the last iteration of the NIC, why would the Board, the NIC Task Force and the NIC Scoring Group endorse an assessment approach that most clearly lacks face validity and seems not to be widely supported?
14) On page 8 the dismissive tone of this report continues with the assertion that there is “…absolutely no merit to this suggestion.” In the present climate, I assert precisely the opposite – if the members of RID do not believe that the assessment is valid and looks valid, if we cannot defend it, if we cannot/will not encourage those who are not yet certified to seek certification, then the assessment process is seriouslyflawed. I believe that there is incredible merit to the need for face validity of the NIC. The report asserts that the “enhanced” NIC “…has significant face validity…”, but this is just another example of “it is because we say it is”. No empirical data is offered here. However, candidates who have taken the “enhanced” NIC and who have contacted me almost unanimously say that they think that the “enhanced” NIC did not fairly sample their interpreting skills, did not look like what they do on a regular basis and did not allow them to demonstrate what they do when they interpret. Can the Board, the NIC Task Force or the NIC Scoring Group provide empirical data that candidates do indeed feel the “enhanced” NIC fairly samples and assesses their work? What percent of those who have taken the “enhanced” NIC report that it “fairly sampled” their interpreting competence? I doubt such data even exists or is collected.
15) On page 8 the report states that panels were asked to “…identify the amount of time that it takes to accurately assess a candidate’s skill.” Again I ask whether there is any empirical data to support this approach; what we have is self-report data, drawn from an individual’s various experiences that are based on samples that are highly contextualized. If I state that in a given real-world context I can determine in two or three minutes whether I can accurately assess skill for this particular situation, I cannot validly apply that determination to other contexts. Why have we have taken timing information based on contextualized self-reports and applied that timing information to de-contextualized vignettes? Is there any empirical support for doing so? Are we asking raters trained to assess the former NIC to make this determination? If so, by what justification? Or is this another instance in which the ubiquitous Scoring Group
16) The unidentified subject matter “experts” (number and qualifications unknown) believe that “niceties” can be excluded because they “…provide little information about a candidate’s skill”. It certainly is true that, from an interpreter’s perspective, the beginnings of interactions are often not challenging and thus may not be fully representative of a candidate’s skill set. However, there is clear linguistic empirical data to show that these “niceties” are often essential to an interpreter’s overall ease, comfort and comprehension of a speaker/signer and thus important to rendering successful interpretations. Indeed, one cannot “…go right to the heart of the communication encounter.” Linguists and Sociolinguists have shown clearly that successful communication is an evolved and negotiated interaction; one cannot properly and fully understand “the heart” of an interaction while ignoring or not having access to the “skeleton” and the “flesh” that surround the “heart”. We return again to the face validity question. How is it that we can warrant that those who pass the NIC can “…relay the essence of a message…” when our assessment strips away all of the context, linguistic background and interactional unfolding that leads up to “…the essence of a message…”? What is the empirical data to support this decision? Certainly the “comprehensive report” does not address this question.
17) The use of “tower crane operators” is an insulting and ignorant analogy at best (no offense intended to tower crane operators). Granted there is considerable pressure in being a crane operator. However, there is also a clear “right and wrong” result, the ball is manipulated correctly or it is not; the result is black or white. The results on a crane operator test are plain for all to see – the wall comes down or it does not (true some might be more efficient than others; but ultimately if the wall does not come down the operator has not been successful). However, as any interpreter knows, interpreting is anything but a “black or white” cognitive task. There are a finite number of moves that are possible with a tower crane. However, as any interpreter knows there are myriad possibilities for rendering successful interpretations in any interaction because we are dealing with people not machines. And while the obstacles through which crane operators must move to demonstrate their skill are finite, interpreters clearly know that because communication involves a range of human beings, a range of situations, and a range of communicative goals, the obstacles through which we must maneuver are virtually infinite. It does not follow logically that because tower crane operators can be assessed by an examination that lacks face validity that interpreters should accept, much less endorse, any examination that lacks face validity. Why should we accept a lack of face validity?
18) The use of “police officers” is also not an appropriate analogy for our purposes. Police officers spend months and months training at the police academy; they do not get to take their performance exam until/unless they have performed well in their training routines during which they have fired their guns countless times. The police officer test itself is valid because it presumes months and months of training that is specific to being a police officer. However, in our case, the claim that NIC “…standards include requirements for education…”(pg. 6), make using police officer testing a false analogy. Our forthcoming “requirement for education” is, at this point, only a BA/BS degree but not a degree in interpreting. So, even though the police officer test may not be indicative of what they do on a daily basis, police cadets have had months of training and practice to demonstrate what they will do on a daily basis. RID has no such warrantied, specific interpreter educational background requirement for NIC candidates. Lacking the focused, specific training/education that is required of police officers (and tower crane operators) and that forms the foundation on which their tests can rest, why would we adopt an assessment approach that presumes such focused, specified training/education when we do not yet have such focused, specified training/education?
19) On page 9 the report asserts that a testing program is fair if “…every candidate has the same opportunity to demonstrate his or her competence.” Again, based on the numerous comments I have received from those who have taken the “enhanced” NIC, the majority feel they did not have an opportunity to demonstrate their competence. All candidates may be presented with the same logistically structured opportunity with the NIC, but if that opportunity is believed by a majority of candidates not to afford them an “…opportunity to demonstrate his or her competence” or is believed by them to be a flawed opportunity, how can such a program be judged as fair? How does the Board respond to candidates who feel they did not have an opportunity to demonstrate their competence?
20) Page 9 states that there is “…no evidence…that suggests that physical endurance is required for the job.” This patently ignores significant research in signed and spoken language interpreting research on this matter. It patently fails to realize that physical endurance is not the critical issue in interpretation — cognitive endurance definitely is!!!! This is extremely well documented in the literature. With the “enhanced” NIC vignettes ranging from only three minutes to five minutes in length (although one LTA emailed me saying that they carefully timed each scenario and the actual range was between 1:20 and 3:20!!), it is virtually impossible to see how we assess cognitive endurance. This is, after all, one of the most important reasons why we advocate for the use of teams in many situations. If there is no evidence in the “Role Delineation Study” that speaks to cognitive fatigue, then I suggest that that study is seriously flawed. If there is such evidence in the Study and the “enhanced NIC” ignores this, then the program is seriously flawed. Why do we think that cognitive fatigue is not a critical factor to assess? And why was the “Role Delineation Study” not more widely vetted and shared?
21) Page 10 states that “…RID has carefully specified the testing conditions…”. Based on information I have received from candidates who have taken the “enhanced” RID, this means that candidates must be seated and must remain so for the duration of the test. As any interpreter knows, when an interpreter is seated, his/her range of motion is severely restricted and thus his/her use of space for semantic/linguistic purposes is also restricted. Given that we have never restricted candidates in this manner, what empirical evidence is there that placing interpreters in such restricted conditions will produce samples of their work that are indicative of their overall competence? Why would we want to restrict/constrain the use of semantic/linguistic space?
22) Page 11 proclaims the hope that the “enhanced” NIC will “…earn the value and respect from consumers that it deserves”. I submit that the “enhanced” NIC cannot earn respect from consumers until and unless it is accepted, embraced and valued by practitioners. This status report references a number of reports and studies that, to my knowledge, have not been made available to the RID membership. When can members expect release of all reports that are referenced in the Status Report?
My Previous Questions
In my initial letter to the Board, I asked nine questions. I was told that a “comprehensive report” would be issued that would address these questions. Unfortunately, I do not believe that any of the questions has been answered satisfactorily.
1) RID members need a more thorough explanation of why time and a simple mathematical formula should be the primary drivers behind the format of the certification test; if this is not true, then a clear explanation should be provided for how the current 4-minute per vignette test segmentation was determined.
Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate
2) An explanation for the process/principles used in the selection of and/or development of the vignettes be made known to the membership.
Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate
3) A full explanation of the empirical justification for this 4-minute approach must be provided to the membership.
Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate
4) A clear explanation of the rationale and justification for placing candidates at such an interpreting disadvantage must be provided to the membership.
Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate
5) A detailed explanation of the rational for, and empirical support for this decision and this deviation from forty years of experience is also needed by the membership.
Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate
6) If there is evidence that supports the claim that a 4-miute sample can validly and reliably assess a candidate’s ability to assess sustained quality over time, then it must be made known to the membership.
Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate
7) What are the various English and ASL grammatical and semantic features in vignettes that raters will be assessing and do these five 4-minute vignettes provide sufficient linguistic and discourse variation to elicit an appropriate range of English and ASL grammatical and semantic features?
Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate
8 ) Since using discretion in selecting assignments is one of the core operating principles of our long-standing Code, the rationale for adopting an “all or nothing” approach must be made clear to the membership.
Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate
9) A clear, empirically supported explanation of why the current NIC assessment is valid and can be reliably assessed by raters must be provided to the membership.
Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate
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.
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.
“Its 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?
At times we may question whether our peers value what we bring to the sign language interpreting profession. Regardless of our confidence level about what we bring, I believe we would likely agree that it is a diversity of backgrounds that makes the tapestry of the sign language interpreting profession so beautiful.
On my road to becoming a sign language interpreter, I, like you, have had my share of unique challenges, and struggles. You see, my race and my beliefs position me in the minority. This has brought along challenges that I have had to overcome.
Where We Come From
Growing up on the Southside of Chicago with gangs, drugs, crime, and the fast pace of city life was not easy. It taught me to speak up for myself, not to be intimidated, and not to be afraid to travel alone. These lessons helped me have the courage to explain my beliefs at an early age and why I would not join certain events or activities.
As a young person, I devoted a lot of time each month to a volunteer ministry in my community. My volunteer work helped me keep a positive attitude amidst the struggles of living in a difficult environment.
Volunteering and learning from trials since childhood has helped my work as a sign language interpreter. As a result of these experiences, I am better equipped to advocate for appropriate assignment conditions for my consumers and for myself. I have also been able to help Deaf friends and consumers see the need to advocate for themselves.
Adapting to New Environments
As a person regularly in the minority, I have learned to adapt to environments very different from the ones I grew up in. For instance, working from time to time in different educational settings, I have learned that struggles may vary from city to city, or town to town. One thing remains the same in that Deaf students need and deserve proper interpreting services. Whether I work in an inner city school, or a small neighborhood school, as an interpreter, I must overcome myself and deliver the services my consumers need.
We Want to Relate
Sometimes, when among other sign language interpreters, I have felt my race and background have prevented me from “fitting in.” There was a time when I preferred to accept assignments that allowed me to work around other interpreters of color. The ability to relate to their struggle gave me a similar feeling to being back in the environment I grew up in. I have learned through the years though, that even if my background is different, I can still learn and benefit from the experiences of others. Furthermore, they can benefit from my experiences as well.
A Struggle is a Struggle
I recently had the privilege of teaming with an interpreter whose race and background is quite different from mine. We were able to support each other in our work and in our ethical responsibilities. We discussed the various struggles we have each been through and even though they are different, a struggle is still a struggle. Hearing how she was able to overcome her struggles encouraged me. I realize that regardless of our skin tone, where we grew up, or our convictions, we may all have felt like we were in the minority at certain points in our sign language interpreting journey.
We should never assume that someone won’t be able to relate to us just because their skin tone is different. We likely have more in common than we realize.
Recognizing One’s Limitations
Through the years, I have had to recognize and accept my own limitations. Personal experiences, tragedies, morals, and beliefs have influenced my choice of interpreting assignments. Regardless of our skills, training, or experience, we must know and respect these personal limitations.
An example of a tragedy I have had to overcome is the murder of a childhood friend. I found myself tensing up in certain environments while on the job. During an interpreting assignment, I even had a flashback of sad memories because of a topic that reminded me of this tragedy. I have had to learn to avoid certain assignments as they sometimes prove too emotionally taxing for me.
The advice of others has helped me to cope with my limitations. At one point, I was living in an area where I felt isolated from other interpreters of color. I also felt misjudged because of my beliefs. In signing up to work with a local agency, one of the owners made an unprofessional comment to me because of my religion. In fact, on my initial interview, one of the owners brought up religion and wanted to know what my faith was. As a result of feeling uncomfortable working with that agency, I would drive to the closest big city to work around other interpreters of color. Clearly, this decision only held me back from working closer to my home. Not to mention that I was overextending myself.
During this difficult period, I received pointed advice from a sign language interpreter who did not know me well. We had a brief conversation in which her advice helped me to realize that I should not limit myself unnecessarily. I have since learned to overcome hurt feelings. There may be times when unprofessional comments are made. I should not allow them to hold me back from success.
Benefiting from Differences
Even though my background is different from many sign language interpreters, I have learned that my background can provide a benefit to them. As sign language interpreters, we benefit the profession when we encourage one another with candid expressions of how we have succeeded in spite of our trials and challenges.
We may at times feel uncomfortable as a result of our inability to directly relate to a person or environment. During these moments, we must have the confidence to believe our experience is worthy of contribution. After all it is our personal trials that make us who we are.
In an eBook I have written, Diary of a Happy Black Sign Language Interpreter, I share with my readers embarrassing moments, hard times, and times of success. I hope it can be a benefit to all of you and leave you with a positive feeling inside.
An excerpt from Chapter 5 is offered for your enjoyment below:
V. Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda….How About Now?
No one can change the past. What we do with our past experiences can be very helpful though! Consider my certification journey. For a while I became sullen and unmotivated about pursuing my National Interpreter Certification. I passed my NIC written exam in the winter of 2007. Before I relocated to Texas, I rushed to take the performance test. Big mistake! I was not ready and I failed.
Remember that video relay company? Less than two years after my first experience with them, I decided to reapply but not at the same center. I wanted to relocate to a warmer area of the United States for a while. I applied and flew down for an interview in Texas. I did not want to tell the director in Texas of my past experience with the company, but I realized that as soon as they looked up my social security number, they would see that I was a past employee.
I opened up and told of my past experience with the company. The director proceeded to evaluate me again. After watching me evaluate, he said that he did not know what to do with me. He expressed that he couldn’t believe I traveled there for that. I remember thinking that I hope that was a compliment! It was! He proceeded to tell me that he didn’t know if he should hire me into the special training program again, or just hire me directly as a Video Relay Interpreter. He spoke to other directors, and in a short time I had my answer! I was officially hired as a VRI!