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Perception Conflicts: The Role of Sign Language Interpreters in Court

Carla Mathers presented Perception Conflicts: The Role of Sign Language Interpreters in Court at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her talk examined the perspective of court interpreters from the point of view of the court and the attorneys.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Carla’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Carla’s talk directly.]


Hello friends. I’m thrilled to be here.

Today, I’ll be talking about the court interpreter’s role and perceptions about that role from the perspectives of the court, as well as the Deaf Community.

The court has specific views related to the interpreter’s role, as does the Deaf Community. These perceptions include expectations about the court interpreter’s conduct and communication. While in the courtroom, the interpreter’s conduct, communication and decision-making can influence the court’s view of the interpreter’s role and the Deaf party. Similarly, the court interpreter’s conduct and communication can also impact the Deaf party’s perceptions of the interpreter’s role and the court system itself. In some instances, the impact can be positive but in other instances, the impact is not so positive.

Deaf Heart in Court

I’ve been an attorney for over 20 years now, so my view of the interpreter’s role in court is often influenced by the court’s perceptions.

Over the past few years, here at StreetLeverage-Live 2014, at StreetLeverage-Live 2013, on various vlogs, websites, etc., there has been much discussion around the concept of “Deaf heart.”  I must confess that I’m slightly uncomfortable with the concept as it relates to the role of sign language interpreters in court.  On a broader scale, I recognize and acknowledge the need for sign language interpreters to support and value the Deaf community.  I agree that this is important.  After all, some of my best friends are Deaf.

I’m not opposed to supporting the Deaf Community or valuing its members. My focus is specifically related to the interpreter’s role in our court system. The court system is based on a set of rules and protocols. Everyone who has reason to be involved in court is expected to follow those established rules.  At times, the rules of the court will conflict with the rules of the Deaf Community, will conflict with supporting the Deaf Community and will conflict with the idea of Deaf heart. In any conflict between the court’s rules, Deaf Community values, and/or interpreter role expectations, the court’s rules will always trump those other rules. The court system will always reign. Always. Bearing these thoughts in mind, my dilemma has been how to reconcile  our support for the Deaf Community, Deaf rights and the value we have for Deaf people with the rules that the court requires us to apply in courtroom interpreting.

The three examples I selected for this presentation were not chosen because I disagree with the ideas or with the people who proposed those ideas.  In fact, I have a great deal of respect for all three of the individuals represented here. I selected these items because I have some concerns.

Questing for a Deaf Heart

Let me use Betty Colonomos’ quote from her 2013 StreetLeverage article, Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart, as the first example. “Forego ego, pride & unwillingness to fight for what is right”. Does this mean that the interpreter is to decide what is right? Does it imply that the interpreter should decide when to fight and how? Again, as a general concept, I agree with the sentiment but when applied to the courtroom, I see some potential conflict.

In her article, Colonomos cites an excellent example. She writes about juvenile court cases where sign language interpreters, legally certified, specially trained, and experienced enough to know when a Certified Deaf Interpreter is required but who do not act or advocate and instead, accept the legal work without the support and teamwork of a CDI. This example is a good one.

Prioritizing Deaf Community Relationships

In David Coyne’s StreetLeverage-Live 2013 presentation in Atlanta, he conducted a wonderful discussion regarding social justice, Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters. He discussed the relationships that sign language interpreters have in the course of their work–with the Deaf Community, the hearing consumers and their relationships with other interpreters. One of his main points was the importance of interpreters making their relationships with the Deaf Community a priority. As I have said, in general, I concur and support this concept.  Again, I ask, how do we apply the concept to interpreting in the courtroom?  If, as a court interpreter, I prioritize my relationship with the Deaf party over my relationship to the court, I may create conflict or even prevent the Deaf party from achieving their desired result from the court system. This is a problem.

Situational Disempowerment

In Trudy Suggs’s 2012 StreetLeverage-Live presentation, Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter, she discussed issues surrounding situational disempowerment—the way hearing interpreters may, through their routine, every day conduct in the world, unconsciously participate in the oppression or disempowerment of Deaf people. Oppression is not their intention, but it is the end result.  I suggest that interpreters, in their efforts to support Deaf rights and help the Deaf Community, mistakenly participate in situational disempowerment during courtroom interpreting.

Core Value Conflicts – Perceptions and Implications

I have some examples to share with you – stories from my own experience and some that have been shared with me where sign language interpreters attempted to apply one of these concepts to a courtroom setting and which resulted in negative consequences. We’re going to look at core values conflicts and the perceptions and implications of the conduct that reflects these values.

Perception is Reality

Imagine a courtroom where a Deaf witness is completing their testimony. Once the lawyers have completed their questioning, the Deaf witness leaves the witness stand, walking by the interpreter. As the Deaf witness passes, the interpreter reaches out and pats the witness on the shoulder. Both the jury and the lawyer witness this behavior.  Their perception of this action may be that the interpreter is supporting, agreeing and/or establishing rapport with the Deaf witness. The rules of the court require the interpreter to remain neutral. I know that is considered a bad word, but the court system requires neutrality. The interpreter may simply be trying give comfort and support in an oppressive environment, but any appearance of bias should be avoided, regardless of the interpreter’s intentions. Our court system is oppressive and often interpreters instinctively want to mitigate that feeling without considering the potential implications of their actions.

Interpreters as Witnesses

Scenario two is a police interrogation situation.  A Deaf person is arrested and brought in for questioning. A sign language interpreter is called and the Deaf party must wait until they arrive at the police station. When the interpreter arrives, the Deaf person immediately begins to share their story with the first person they have seen who shares their language and an understanding of the Deaf experience. They feel a rapport with the interpreter by virtue of these things and they tell their story to the interpreter. What the interpreter has seen cannot be unseen. It cannot be undone. They now possess information and have no place to put it. The Deaf person likely has little knowledge about the role of the interpreter or the fact that the interpreter could now be called as a witness to testify about the information they just received. What looks like support in the immediate present may ultimately create conflict and severely impact the Deaf person’s experience in the court system. In reality, this decision, that kind of help, is in conflict with what I believe most Deaf people would expect from us as sign language interpreters in these situations. Interpreters must always be cognizant of the fact that sometimes what appears to be “help” may ultimately hurt the Deaf party.

Requesting Preferred Interpreters in Court

Let’s talk about the next example.  In general, when a Deaf person wishes to attend a seminar, meeting, school function or other event, I believe they have the right to request their preferred interpreters. Using consistent, known interpreters often results in better interpretations and outcomes. I’m very aware of that and I support the idea. In courtroom settings, Deaf individuals are not permitted to select their preferred interpreters. Many years ago, as I was starting my career as a lawyer, whenever I would get a Deaf client, I would contact the court and request specific interpreters by name. My requests were always denied. I tried to explain that my requests were based on the interpreter’s level of training and the level of comfort the Deaf party would feel with them. Eventually, I realized that the court is not interested in making the Deaf person feel comfortable. The court’s perception of these requests might be that I’m requesting my friends who will interpret in such a way that they could better my case. Again, the concept of honoring the Deaf party’s preference in interpreters is an important one, but I question how we can apply it to court interpreting.

The next example is one from my own experience. Many years ago, I worked on a case that involved a number of young Deaf children as witnesses. When it was time to call one of the children as a witness, the court interpreter would go to the door and call the children into the courtroom, lead them to the witness stand and then prepare to interpret.  From the lawyer’s perspective, it appeared that the interpreter was helping the children and possibly acting in some sort of babysitting capacity. Ultimately, the lawyer filed an appeal based on the interpreter’s conduct in the court room. While the interpreter had the best of intentions—to provide comfort, the ultimate result was very negative.

Elements of Transparency

My next example is about transparent interpreting. There are two parts to this example. The court has very specific rules about what we are permitted to interpret and what we are not. The conversations and communications interpreted are determined by the court, not the interpreter. A Deaf person may be accustomed to gaining access to any conversation they wish when an interpreter is present just by virtue of asking, however, in the courtroom, that is not the case. The court’s rules dictate what may or may not be interpreted. There are some examples where interpreting is not permitted at all. Bench conferences are a good example of this type of rule. A bench conference may occur when a lawyer objects to something that was said in witness testimony. A bench conference would occur between the lawyers and the judge for a private conversation about what the witness just said. Decisions are made to determine if the testimony will be permitted, if the topic should be dropped, if the jury needs additional instructions regarding the testimony, etc. Basically, a bench conference is an intentionally private conversation in court between the lawyers and the judge and should not be interpreted. The rules of evidence state that bench conferences are to be private.

Carla Mathers
Carla Mathers

In my experience, I have seen sign language interpreters provide bench conference information because they feel that is equal access. Their reasoning is that “if the hearing people can overhear it, the Deaf person should also be able to have access,” and they proceed to provide that information to the Deaf party. Yes, the interpreter is being transparent, but they are also violating the court’s rules and protocols and may ultimately compromise the case.

The other part of transparency may come into play whether the Deaf party is a witness or one of the parties going to court. It usually occurs when the interpreter feels the Deaf party does not have all the information that is available to the hearing participants. It usually involves a conversation between the Deaf party and the interpreter where the interpreter imparts meta-information about “what’s going on” during their interpretation. If we use the example of a bench conference again, it could be that the interpreter can overhear the bench conference and lets the Deaf party know that they have more evidence or whatever the case may be. If you understand the rules of the courtroom as an interpreter, there are only three people that can speak to a witness. When the judge speaks to the witness, they are giving instructions.  Lawyers are also limited in their communication with witnesses and may only speak to them while they are questioning them during testimony. They are not permitted to communicate with those parties during break, lunch or any other time. Finally, the interpreter is permitted to speak with the witness during interpretation only—not during the breaks, not to provide meta-information. While intentions interpreters have—to give comfort, to even the playing field, to provide information access—are good and I understand their motivations, they lack the understanding that these types of decisions can compromise a court situation.

Faulty Decision-Making

This last example is not from my own experience, it is an example that was shared with me. The situation goes something like this: A Deaf person is arrested and the interpreter, for whatever reason, did not like the conduct of the arresting officer(s). The interpreter felt the officer had violated the Deaf person’s rights and walked out of the assignment. Imagine what the officer’s perception is at that moment. How will they question the person they have arrested? Most likely, they will try to use written communication. The interpreter’s conduct may be considered permission to conduct questioning without a sign language interpreter present. What recourse does the Deaf person have once the interpreter has walked out? They may, without a complete understanding of the risks involved, permit questioning/communication via written means if that appears to be their only option. In this  circumstance, it is highly likely that the Deaf party’s lawyer would file a motion to dismiss all charges as the Deaf person was questioned without an interpreter present to facilitate communication. The principle that leads a person to make this kind of decision, that they want to equal the playing field, is understandable, and at the same time, police do lie. These things happen. You saw this last night in Anna Witter-Merithew’s workshop when she talked about many instances of police misconduct. It isn’t nice and it isn’t comfortable, but it is not our duty to make things comfortable.

It’s Not Comfortable

The bottom line is that court is not comfortable for anyone. Whether a person is Deaf or hearing, whether you are an interpreter or even a lawyer, you will sometimes be uncomfortable in the courtroom. The power structure there looms large. If you aren’t a judge, you are always in an inferior position.

Legal norms are unyielding. They dictate who can talk, when they can talk, which topics may be discussed. These norms dictate the conduct of all parties before, during and after the courtroom event. These norms and rules will not change at the request or due to demands from sign language interpreters regardless of our good intentions or our goals.  

What Can We Do?

In light of the fact that legal norms and rules are not going to change for sign language interpreters, what can we do?

I believe it is important for sign language interpreters to start noticing decision points.  Notice when those decision-making opportunities come up and recognize that each decision leads to the next. Each of these points may have consequences down the line. We must evaluate those consequences and their implications. If the consequences of a particular line of decisions are negative, clearly, that is not the decision we want to make. Rather than staying the course, interpreters must transform their decisions-making process.

This leads us back to the question, what can we do?

In a given situation, the goal is to provide a complete, cohesive, well-matched interpretation. Unfortunately, we may not be able to provide support or the means of leveling the playing field and that may be the best I can provide as the sign language interpreter. My best interpretation, however, will never equal the value, skills and contributions of a Deaf interpreter. As a hearing interpreter, my accent is sometimes strong. At other times, it may be less impactful, but I still have an accent. The best case scenario in these situations is for the hearing interpreter, who signs with a non-native accent, to call in a Deaf interpreter who has a native accent in the language.

A Deaf interpreter possesses the skills and innate understanding of the language and Deaf experience which allows them to use language that is most accessible to the Deaf party, to apply expansion of concepts appropriately in order to ensure the communication is clear and accurately conveys the intended meaning.  By ensuring that Deaf interpreters are involved in courtroom interpreting, we reduce the oppressive nature of the environment and we ensure that the support and advocacy needed are available to the Deaf parties involved. In addition to the linguistic expertise a Deaf interpreter brings to the courtroom, they are also often able to navigate the strict conventions and rules of the court. The Deaf interpreter may be able to provide perspectives and explanations regarding the seemingly oppressive court system that will allow the Deaf party to understand the system and its rules more clearly. At the very least, a Deaf interpreter may make navigating the systemic conflicts more palatable.

As we’ve discussed, it is important to begin to notice those decision-making points as well as their implications down the line.  In our evaluation of those points, we are not only looking at the short-term outcome of a single decision. We must also look at the long-term implications and consequences of our actions, even when the immediate decision seems to have a positive outcome. As Trudy Suggs discussed, we are often so accustomed to conducting ourselves in that routine, unconscious manner and forget that our conduct has consequences. We must take the time to consider our behavior. All of our behavior as interpreters needs to be analyzed and evaluated in this manner.  Every action we take as sign language interpreters can be challenged during courtroom interpreting.

Never Stop Caring

So, finally, we come back to the question: Does the concept of “Deaf heart” apply in courtroom settings for sign language interpreters? We are all here to discuss the possibilities, the how and why, and best approaches to incorporating Deaf heart into our interpreting practice. All those things are important and at the same time, we must never lose the care and value we have for the Deaf community and the relationships we have created there.

Thank you so much.


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StreetLeverage Proudly Presents Jean A. Miller

Jean A. Miller
Jean A. Miller

StreetLeverage is delighted to announce that Jean A. Miller has joined the team as a Lead Content Editor. Jean will be responsible for overseeing the editing and publishing of weekly posts on

[Click to view post in ASL]

StreetLeverage is widely known for its commitment to curating and publishing insightful articles and relevant content on topics related to the field of sign language interpreting. Jean’s addition to the StreetLeverage endeavor will reinforce that commitment and provide opportunity for StreetLeverage to expand its platform to promote the work of telling and redefining the story of the sign language interpreter.

 About Jean

As an early fan of StreetLeverage, Jean is excited to join the StreetLeverage team and to serve the profession. She has worked as a professional sign language interpreter since 1989 and holds a Certificate of Transliteration and Certificate of Interpretation from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. Jean’s work has covered the gamut, including K12 settings,  post-secondary education, community settings, and experience as an interpreter coordinator in a university setting. Currently, she is working in the VRS industry. Career highlights include attending the TDF sponsored “Interpreting for the Theatre” workshop in New York City in 1999 and 2005.

She extends special thanks to Hank Stack and the Deaf Communities in Portland, OR and Vancouver, WA for generously welcoming her into the community. She is also eternally grateful for all the mentors she has had as a result of her journey.


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Groupishness: What Sign Language Interpreters Think and Express, They do

Groupishness: What Sign Language Interpreters Think and Express, They do

From its root, language represents the essence of who we are–it embodies the very foundation of our culture. Our language, unique in expression, syntax, style of discourse and conceptualizations reflects our most unique personal and cultural differences. Our use of language illustrates how we view ourselves, and how we perceive every aspect of the world around us.

[Click to view post in ASL]

For that reason, it has been said that we should be careful what we think, because what we think, we express. We should be careful what we express, because what we express, we do.

Professor Dalton Kehoe of York University states,

“We should be careful in our use of words, but we aren’t. Thinking about our thinking is hard work, so instead we use abstract judgment words as part of our thinking process. Humans really like using abstract and judgmental language: It rewards our sense of competent self. We sound clear, definite, and sure of ourselves—and we get other people’s attention with these kinds of assertions. But when we talk like this, things can go very wrong, very quickly. Poor word choices, spoken in inappropriate contexts, can get us into trouble because we can’t know for sure how others will understand our judgments.”[1]

The Term “Only”

Is this perspective one that we can utilize when analyzing our use of the word “only” in terms of the language provision policies for our organizational conferences? Based on my personal experience the word “only,” in the context of language and culture, has rarely reflected positive use. In fact, the term “only,” by definition and historical use, is strongly rooted in the concept of exclusion. In this case, “only” has always seemed tied to a form of oligarchy—a system where only a few are enabled and empowered over the whole.

This brings to mind a series of historical uses for the term “only.” For example:

– Only the rich

– Only those of a specific birthright

– Only those of a specific race

– Only men

– Only whites

– Only English

So, why did it come to me as a painful shock when, while walking through a mall, engaged in a private conversation with my mother that a perfect stranger, tall and white, should walk past, and looking down at me and exclaim sharply, “Speak English!”? Shouldn’t I have known? Hasn’t “English only” long been the cry of those powerful few?

I’ve witnessed many adults in tears as they express how as children, they were forbidden by their parents to speak anything but English, all so they might “fit in.” Their language and cultural expression restricted in such a way that they were denied of any sense of communication, heritage and community with their now deceased family members, such as grandparent, even when living in the same household! Family members who were immigrants from culturally rich and diverse places such as Italy, Germany, Poland or Russia, who would now find themselves unable to master this new complex and intricate language mix, of Greek and Latin roots, called “English.” A part of their fabric torn from them by the power of one simple word: only.

I should not have been surprised at the judgment related to my native use of Spanish, when historically, Navajo Indian children were beaten and punished by their teachers in schoolrooms in an effort to whip out of them their native Navajo tongue.[2] Even so, I try to remember how history beautifully illustrates how the Navajo would yet hold onto their native language, as it became a historical factor in the cryptology that effectively confused the German Army during WII. This new Navajo “code” was found unbreakable, which subsequently aided in some of the most critical battles that served as a catalyst for the end of the second world war. [3]

A Crossroads

And as my life took some unexpected turns, I found myself enveloped in a further love for language and culture. I came to learn that the same “only” mono-linguistic ethnocentric monster has reared its ugly head in the history of the Deaf community as well.  Unfortunately, the Deaf community was also pushed to stop using their native American Sign Language.  Young fingers of Deaf children were even smacked with rulers, all in the name of “only.”

– Only Oralism

– Only Signed English

We all know better about the use of “only.”

Or do we?

We now find ourselves at the crossroads where two very important issues meet, both rooted in love of language and culture. So we now arrive at a point where the “official” language of our conferences is ASL. At our professional conferences, where participants with varying skill-levels all come together: hearing and deaf, expert and novice, teacher and student, to learn and grow together, must it be exclusively in ASL?

Here is the crux of the problem: We all learn best in our first language.

Deaf people should never have been forced to learn English, or any other topic, in English.

So what now of hearing people? Should suddenly what is true for Deaf people, not be true of conference participants for whom ASL is not their first language?

This becomes particularly critical when we see an increased number of Deaf schools closing.[4] As a result, an increasing number of Deaf students are being subjugated to having their only language model be a hearing interpreter. As noted by Debra Russell, currently WASLI president, “…the social, linguistic and academic development of Deaf children has been impeded by myths, assumptions, and general lack of knowledge of the multifaceted, complex nature of learning through an interpreter.”[5]

I do not believe sign language interpreters in the classroom are the ONLY answer per se. Far from it. But they are there. And the need to provide as many opportunities for sign language interpreters to learn and gain mastery, cultural awareness, and depth of the language use is vital.

But if training is ONLY in ASL, then who will have the fullest access to learn?

Will it be only the select few, those who have reached the level of language that they can learn anything in their second language? Or will it be just for those where ASL is already their first language? Even sign language interpreters who have had an ASL competency skills assessment are still learning new skills as well. Many have said, “I still need to hear it”. Others have stated, “if I see it in ASL and hear it, then I gain a fuller understanding of the application”.


So do we deny hearing people whose first language is not ASL, the access and opportunity to learn in their first language, and mirror the mistakes of those who insisted that Deaf people must know English, forcing them to be taught in English, believing that was the way Deaf people would gain mastery of English.


Angela Roth
Angela Roth

…what about our Deaf community which deals with a hearing world, day in and day out, with too many days of struggle and fighting to be connected in their own language? How could they not naturally feel isolated, and feel all the more painful, when surrounded by a group of professionals proclaiming to be allies, and yet, creating exclusion by not being accessible linguistically when they speak their own language rather than sign?

All people feel out of place, isolated, when they don’t hear/see those of “their own”.  We are creatures that tend toward “groupishness.” Additionally, that grouping can be a source of protection as noted by R. Edmonds:

“Humans are social animals, and most psychologically healthy individuals have an innate desire to be a part of something greater. Nationalism, religion, sports teams, corporations, social clubs, and political organizations are all manifestations of this innate behavior. For our ancient ancestors, being a part of close knit groups helped them to survive and pass on their genetic legacy. Groups offer greater protection against predators; cooperation leads to efficiency and synergy; division of labor allows for economies of scale and better quality work; and the sharing of resources ensures the survival of the group even when some of its members have a run of bad luck.”[6]

As a profession, we must find a balance. Certainly, value can be found as we strive to be more inclusive at professional conferences through the use of ASL. However, we must also seek to provide linguistic access in a modality most suited for each participant.

I do not profess to have “the answer.” However, I can share what feels right to me.

The Price of Privilege

To be more accessible, all RID sanctioned learning opportunities should be offered in multiple languages and modalities: ASL, Spanish, spoken English, Tactile, low vision, and oral transliteration. As a profession, we must either be honest about diversity and what the price is for the privilege of being a diverse organization, or we don’t.

To be more accessible, we must accept the rich diversity and valued skills of our own profession! How can we say we cherish the profession and value professional sign language interpreters, yet deny using interpreters ourselves?

In my opinion, we should make learning sessions at our conferences linguistically accessible to all. At the same time, while at conferences, when we are not engaged in formal meetings or workshops, we should make every effort to use the most common language we share; ASL. However, this must be done with kindness, respect, and understanding. Given each participant’s various command of ASL, flexibility is needed if we are all truly going to connect.

We all tend to gravitate towards groups with which we find comfort. So though I may sign away, subconsciously, I know I will likely never have the level of skill, grace, and creativity I have witnessed in amazing members of the Deaf community.

And as group dynamics go, I understand very well, when native users of ASL are alone together, they may default to using ASL, in much the same way I may do when I am with my Spanish speaking with “mis compadres”. Consequently, there may be those that simply are not at linguistic level yet to keep up and consequently cannot join in, be it in ASL, Spanish, or any other language. This does not mean we love or respect each other less. We all have those times where we chill out with what is comfortable to us.

If a training opportunity is being set up and taught in exclusively in one language, then one must acknowledge there will be some individuals who will be excluded linguistically.

Communicate. Contact. Connect.

For the longest time the theory was that Deaf people would switch to English just to keep hearing people out of ASL and Deaf folk’s business. Clayton Valli debunked that. His studies on “contact signing” showed it was just the opposite. There was no “only”.  He showed the linguistic adjustments were rooted in wanting to CONNECT, CONTACT. Deaf folks adjusted their signing, whether it be to a hearing person or another Deaf /HH person, in order to establish communication, make CONTACT[7],[8] , CONNECT. It was about finding a way to bond. And from that point, grow.

In The End

Regardless of the path each participant at a conference has taken to get there, we each can find commonality in our passion for language, culture and creativity. We should accept the commonality of our human needs, and celebrate the fact that we have all arrived at this common place, which is rooted in deep respect for the language and culture of the Deaf community. For those of us who are not native users of ASL, our desire to learn is testament to the value we find in the Deaf community.

Let’s not allow any extreme “groupishness” to divide us from that common bond. May it be that it is truly the one situation, namely that “ONLY” is about ONLY mutual linguistic and cultural acceptance, and that expression of respect is the only option we allow when we come together.


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[1] Kehoe, D. (2011) The Great Courses: Effective Communication – Course Guidebook.  Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.

[2] For more information about the Navajo Code Talkers:

 [3] The Naval History & Heritage Command website provides information about the Navy’s role in various wars throughout U.S. history.

[4] NAD Action Alert 2011. [BA6]

[5] WASLI proceedings 2007.  Edited by Cynthia Roy

[6] 2013. Evolution of the Religious Mind: Groupishness – Humanists.

[7] 2002. Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language.

[8] 2010. Interpreting Research.

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Transforming Perspectives: The Power of One-to-One Conversations For Sign Language Interpreters

Doug Bowen-Bailey presented Transforming Perspectives: The Power of One-to-One Conversations For Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. His talk suggested that one-one-one conversations with stakeholders in the Deaf and sign language interpreting communities can create powerful relationships that may transform our perspectives and lead to positive social change for both.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English version of Doug’s talk from StreetLeverage – Live 2014.  We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Doug’s talk directly.]

Redefining leverage

I am leverage.

That phrase may mean something different to all of us. I want to share with you what it means to me and how I see it’s relevance to our profession and community.

For many people, leverage may be seen as power or influence, much like tossing a stone into a pond and watching the ripples spread out in ever-widening circles. But for me, it is more than that. It is about capturing the energy so that it doesn’t spread out in all directions. Instead, leverage means we concentrate our power so that we are able to accomplish what, at first, may seem impossible. For those of us who are part of the Street Leverage experience (both at the live conference and taking part in the online blog), my perspective is that a passion for using our leverage for positive social change is a common thread.

Monkeys and Mavens

Thinking about leverage brings to mind a book I read in high school entitled, The Hundredth Monkey by Ken Keyes, Jr. In it, Keyes argued that human consciousness needed to reach a critical mass to prevent nuclear war and used the example of change among monkeys living on Japanese islands as an example of how that can happen.

The books’ premise is based on the observation of a group of Japanese monkeys who learned to wash sweet potatoes before eating them. Slowly, more and more monkeys on one specific island tried the new approach of washing the food before eating it. When the number of monkeys engaging in this activity reached a critical mass, termed the hundredth monkey phenomenon, all of the monkeys on the island starting doing it. But not only that, all of the others of the same species on different islands began washing the potatoes as well. In the writing of his book, Keyes believed that there was no contact between the groups – something that has later been debunked.

Yet this idea of critical mass led me to the work of Malcolm Gladwell and his book, “The Tipping Point,” which analyzes how ideas are spread. He shares multiple factors in the process, but for the purpose of this article, I want to focus in on what Gladwell terms “The Law of the Few.” He suggests there are three types of people within human social networks who play a special role in accelerating the spread of ideas. These roles he names as:

  • Connectors
  • Mavens
  • Salespeople

Connectors are people who have relationships with an above average number of people and who seek to bring other people together if they seem to have a common purpose. For example, if you say that you are going to a city you have never visited before, a connector would be able to share the name of a person to visit in that city.

Mavens are people with in-depth knowledge of a certain topic. They are often the ones who generate ideas worth spreading, either by coming up with a new idea or uniquely blending together the ideas of others. They are people who have worked thoroughly through an idea or topic and are the person who comes to mind if you want some input on that topic. You will find the work of mavens of the interpreting field and the Deaf community in the pages of this blog.

Salespeople are the people in community who may not necessarily come up with their own idea, but are able to convey a message in such a way that makes sense to other people so they more readily adopt it.

Doug Bowen-Bailey
Doug Bowen-Bailey

It is important to note here, people are not exclusively one or another of these roles. We all may have some degree of connector, maven, and salesperson within us – and that may change depending on the context.

In order to make this idea more concrete, I think it is helpful to give an example related to the interpreting profession and I can’t think of a better one than Street Leverage, and its founder, Brandon Arthur. He has used the relationships he has with people (and his skill with technology and social media) to build a community of people who share thoughts. (This is the connector role.) He has brought together people with ideas worth sharing to write posts and present at Street Leverage ~ Live. (This is the maven role.) And Brandon uses his persuasive powers (both in his words and example) to inspire people to take part. At the most recent Street Leverage ~ Live, there were over 400 registrants and a tremendous team of Street Leverage staff (who are all volunteer.) To make this happen, you have to be a good salesperson.

The Rule of 150 and the Power of Weak Ties

In the spreading of ideas, Malcolm Gladwell offers another important insight from psychology. A number of studies have supported the conclusion that the human brain is wired to only be able to effective manage approximately 150 significant relationships – what Gladwell terms “The Rule of 150.” Gladwell suggests that organizations do well to keep these limits in mind as they structure themselves. If you move beyond that number, people don’t know each other well enough to feel a sense of loyalty and responsibility.

Gladwell suggests that a role connectors play is utilizing “the power of weak ties.” Connectors do not develop strong relationships with the numbers of people they know – rather they develop relationships for specific purposes and in certain contexts. These “weak ties” do have power in helping to spread ideas and strengthen community.

Social Media and Transforming Ideas

Social media, such as blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, can be powerful tools in supporting the work of connectors, mavens, and salespeople. Technology has empowered us to break the bonds of geography in that we can share our ideas around the globe to others who share our interest.

Yet the networks that we, as interpreters and the Deaf community, create are a drop in the cyber-bucket. As I write this, StreetLeverage has 2,129 followers on Twitter. LeBron James, a star athlete of the National Basketball Association, has over 12.9 million followers. And while social media can convey a variety of really meaningful ideas, it also has just as many or more distractions, such as quizzes to find out what Disney character you are most like? (For the record, it was my partner who took the quiz, not me.)

So, as people interested in change, how do we ensure that our messages remain a clear signal rather than becoming part of the noise of social media environments? It is here that I think our field can learn from the work of community organizers.

 The Power of One-on-One Conversations

In the midst of all the distractions of the information superhighway, it is our relationships with people and causes that help us to focus our attention. Community organizers use the technique of intentional one-on-one conversations to develop relationships with specific people to increase their own influence – and to learn from others.

These intentional conversations can be used in a variety ways. Some are focused on specifically building relationships and learning about the interests and motivations of the individual you are having the conversation with. Other conversations may focus on gaining wisdom and insight, while a third type might focus on persuading a person to join action.

This past year, I undertook a project of my own to do a combination of the first two types of conversations. Inspired by the idea of “The Hundredth Monkey,” I called it “The Hundred Conversations Project” and invited interpreters, educators, and members of the Deaf community to have an hour long conversation with me related to our field. I used the framework of a SWOT analysis asking people to share their insights with me about what the Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats for our profession are. I was clear in my invitation that my goal was not research, but to build relationship and to see if this could lead to a change in how interpreters relate to each other and the Deaf community.

While I am nowhere near the number of 100 conversations, I have learned much from the people who have accepted my offer. A number of themes emerged in conversations and as I move forward with the project, I hope to be able to offer a clearer picture of what I have learned. Some of the themes are very similar to those that are discussed through StreetLeverage such as:

  • Nurturing new interpreters
  • Transition from Service to Business Model
  • Accountability to Deaf community
  • Understanding Power & Privilege
  • Making interpreting choices transparent

The point is not so much what I have learned, but that having intentional conversations such as these are powerful ways that we all can use to transform our own perspectives and build our relationships with others in the field.

Because, in the end, for people attending the StreetLeverage – Live events, or those who participate in this online forum, we all are interested in being part of the change and addressing the challenges that face our profession and communities.

Poets and the People

In thinking about this, I was reminded of the words of James Baldwin, a writer who because of how the United States treated the reality that he was African-American and gay, chose to live for a significant portion of his life in France. He shared these thoughts about change:

The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity, but until the people themselves apprehend it, nothing can happen … Perhaps it can’t be done without the poet, but it certainly can’t be done without the people. The poet and the people get on generally very badly, and yet they need each other. The poet knows it sooner than the people do. The people usually know it after the poet is dead; but that’s all right. The point is to get your work done, and your work is to change the world.

In the framework of Gladwell, perhaps Baldwin’s poet is a “maven” and our work is to figure out how we can be connectors and salespeople to have the ideas spread to the people.

In the end, I think there needs to be a foundation of hope that the message will spread. Another poet, Clayton Valli, shared this message in his poem, The Dandelion, in which the great efforts of a gardener who sought to eradicate this “weed” only served to help spread its seeds.

Together, using the power of conversation and connection, we can come together to determine what ideas are worth spreading, and work together to transform ourselves and the world we live in. In the end, we will find that together, we are leverage.

What’s the first conversation you want to have on this journey to transformation?


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