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Institute on Legal Interpreting: Backstage Access for Sign Language Interpreters

Anna Witter-Merithew Bids Farewell to ILI Attendees

Is it possible to create a learning environment that effectively supports taking 220+ sign language interpreters on a guided exploration of their work, while offering real-world advice on how to enhance this work, and do it all in three days? Prior to attending the 2014 Institute on Legal Interpreting (ILI) in Denver, Colorado August 21st-23rd, I would have said, Possible? Yes. Likely? No.

If you attended the 2014 ILI you know, not only is it possible, it happened and was amazing!

Behind the Scenes

StreetLeverage is excited to have partnered with Anna Witter-Merithew and the good folks at the MARIE Center to extend backstage access to the 2014 ILI. What follows is a summary of the StreetLeverage coverage.

How ILI Got Started

Anna Witter-Merithew sat down and shared how the Institute on Legal Interpreting got started, the important role of Deaf interpreters at ILI, and the significant contribution made by Diane Fowler in the promotion of advanced legal training for sign language interpreters.

Anna Witter-Merithew Sits Down With Brandon Arthur From StreetLeverage


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Setting the Tone

During any type of guided exploration, it is important to set a tone of collaboration and safety. This task was left to keynote speakers and meta facilitators, Carol-lee Aquiline and Sharon Neumann Solow.

They sat down and shared their hopes for conference attendees and their excitement to see Deaf and Hearing interpreters exploring strategies to effectively work together.

Carol and Sharon 2

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You can watch both their keynote and endnote addresses below.

Keynote | Looking Out – Looking In – Reaching: The Role and Function of Critical Analysis of Interpreting Performance

Keynote Address: Carol-lee Aquiline and Sharon Neumann Solow

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Endnote | Looking Out – Looking In – Reaching: Next Steps

Carol-lee Aquiline and Sharon Neumann Solow - Endnote Address

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Interpreters at the Core

At the center of the conference was the examination of the work of 5 teams of sign language interpreters comprised of Deaf-Hearing and Hearing-Hearing interpreters. This served as the basis of examination for all sessions and group discussions.

These good interpreters shared insights into their teaming and work experience during two panel sessions. You can watch them here:

Panel One: Deaf-Hearing Interpreting Team Reflections

ILI Panel One: Reflections on Deaf and Hearing Interpreter Teams

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Panel Two: Deaf-Hearing Interpreting Team Reflections on Preparation Sessions

ILI Panel Two: Deaf-Hearing Interpreter Team Reflections on Preparation Sessions

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Better with a Deaf Team

A prominent theme running throughout the conference was the importance of Deaf and Hearing interpreters working together effectively as a team. Jimmy Beldon, Carla Mathers and Kelby Brick share insights into how to this can be done effectively.

Jimmy Beldon Offers Insight on Supporting Deaf Interpreters and the Importance of the ILI

Jimmy Beldon Offers Insight on Supporting Deaf Interpreters and the Importance of the ILI

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Carla Mathers Shares About the Work of Bringing the 2014 ILI to Life

Carla Mathers Shares About the Work of Bringing the 2014 ILI to Life

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Kelby Brick Sits Down With Brandon Arthur at the 2014 ILI

Kelby Brick at the 2014 ILI Conference

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The Diane Fowler Award

With the passing of Legal Eagle, Diane Fowler, founder of the Iron Sharpens Iron conference (the precursor to the ILI), the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) Legal Interpreter Member Section (LIMS) Chair, Liz Mendoza, announced the establishment of the Diane Fowler Award.

Liz Mendoza Announces the Creation of the Diane Fowler Award

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There are a couple of real standout developments at the 2014 ILI.  The ILI had 54 Deaf interpreters attend over the weekend. This is the largest of gathering of Deaf interpreters in the field in recent memory (maybe, ever). Perhaps, it is because, in the words of Jimmy Beldon, “The ILI is a ‘home’ for CDIs.”

Deaf Interpreters at the 2014 ILI

The 2014 ILI had 26 facilitators working throughout the weekend in order to support and encourage meaningful discussion and learning. These folks deserve a medal of honor for their tremendous work.

2014 ILI Facilitators


The coverage at the Institute on Legal Interpreting was only possible with the support of several amazing and talented people. I would like to extend my sincere appreciation to those magic makers that brought the ILI coverage to life.

StreetTeam - 2014 ILI






Special thanks (left to right) to: Lance Pickett, Jean Miller, Kristy Bradley, John Lestina, and Wing Butler (not seen here).


I would like to extend my thanks to Anna Witter-Merithew, Carla Mathers, and the good folks at the MARIE Center for their vision and the opportunity to partner with them to extend the reach of the ILI to the broader Deaf and sign language interpreting communities.

Brandon Arthur | Closes up the StreetLeverage Coverage of the 2014 ILI

Brandon Arthur Closes up the StreetLeverage Coverage of the 2014 Institute on Legal Interpreting


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Are Hearing Interpreters Responsible to Pave the Way for Deaf Interpreters?

Hearing Sign Language Interpreters Advocating for Deaf Interpreters

Deaf interpreters are marching up the road to take their place as equal and valued professionals alongside their hearing counterparts. As more Deaf interpreters are trained, become certified and collaborate with hearing teammates, it will inevitably alter our way of working. We can welcome this evolving development and cherish the new opportunities it brings or dig in our heels and resist.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Two Street Leverage posts have addressed the gathering momentum of this movement. In Deaf Interpreters in the Blind Spot of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession, Jennifer Kaika documents the increasing numbers of Deaf interpreters and challenges us to support Deaf interpreters as “a long-standing and lasting part [of our profession], present since the inception of RID.” In Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion, Nigel Howard, a Deaf interpreter himself, urges us to truly realize a team approach by “working together toward a shared and collaborative target language interpretation that is an equivalent to the source language.”

Recently, when revising my book, Reading Between the Signs, for a new edition, I added a section on Deaf interpreters. With the book’s focus on the cultural aspects of our work, it struck me that the resistance some hearing interpreters seem to feel to this “new” development in our field, might be rooted in cultural values (more about this later). First, let’s confirm the fact that Deaf interpreters belong to a tradition with deep roots.

Long Tradition

Eileen Forestal, a Deaf interpreter who has been at the forefront of research and training, contributed a chapter to the new book, Deaf Interpreters at Work: International Insights. While awarding official certificates to Deaf interpreters may be a relatively recent development, Forestal writes that, “as long as Deaf people have existed, they have been translating and interpreting within the Deaf community.” It goes back to the residential schools, where “Deaf children, both in and out of the classroom, would frequently explain, rephrase, or clarify for each other the signed communication used by hearing teachers.” Once out of school, this supportive activity did not cease. “Deaf persons would interpret for each other to ensure full understanding of information being communicated, whether in classrooms, meetings, appointments, or letters and other written documents” (Forestal, 2014, 30).

My Experience

Researching the history of Deaf interpreters allowed me to look back at my own career and see it through different eyes. After discovering the Deaf World via theater in the mid 1970’s when I was an actress in Los   Angeles, I found CSUN where I took all four(!) classes offered at the time: ASL 1 and 2 and Interpreting 1 and 2.

Clearly, I was not prepared to work as a sign language interpreter, but with encouragement from my Deaf theater friends, I cautiously began community interpreting. In hindsight, I recall that at several Social Security or VR appointments, the Deaf person I was supposed to meet brought a “Deaf friend.” And if my interpretations were not clear enough, the friend would succinctly convey the point, assuming the role of unofficial “Deaf interpreter.”

In the mid-1980’s, I got a full time job at a large TDD distribution center in downtown Los Angeles to handle the crush of new customers thrilled to get the latest communication devices. When walk-in customers arrived, my co-worker, a Deaf woman named Sue Lee, would greet them and demonstrate their choice of equipment. My job was to interpret the registration process between Deaf customers and the hearing phone company reps on-site. As LA is a city of immigrants, it often happened that the Deaf person and I needed some extra help going over the rules of the program. I’d ask Sue to join us and she would come up with a way to best convey the information. Once again, everyone benefitted from the skills of a “Deaf interpreter,” although we didn’t label it as such at the time.

After moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, I continued community interpreting, but returned to CSUN in 1991 for a 6-week course in legal interpreting. Our class of two-dozen seasoned interpreters included 3 Deaf interpreters and we enjoyed figuring out how to best work together in the legal scenarios we practiced.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve specialized in legal interpreting and often team with Deaf interpreters (now CDIs). Most of my peak moments interpreting have occurred while collaborating with a Deaf interpreter to achieve the shared goal of optimal understanding.  To me, it feels like dancing with the perfect partner. Having the benefit of teaming together repeatedly, we can often anticipate each other’s needs and intentions and seamlessly move as one.

For a new chapter in my book, I interviewed five very skilled Deaf interpreters with whom I have had the privilege and pleasure of working in court: Linda Bove, Daniel Langholtz, Priscilla Moyers, Ryan Shephard and Christopher Tester.

What We Found

Probably the Deaf interpreter’s most important skill is the ability to provide language access to a range of Deaf clients. But since the theme of my book is culture and my space was limited, I narrowed my focus to cultural aspects of Deaf interpreters’ work.

In analyzing the techniques DIs used for cultural adjustments, we discovered that besides the same kind of adjustments that hearing interpreters employ (including those I previously labeled “Highlighting the Point,” “Context Balancing,” and “Road Mapping”) Deaf interpreters also employed several other techniques, which we tentatively called “Empathy,” “Setting the Stage,” “Directive Form,” “Deaf Extra Linguistic Knowledge,” “Enlarging the Perspective” and “Deeper Understanding.” Further research will undoubtedly refine, redefine, and add to this initial attempt at classification.

Cultural Adjustments Only Deaf Interpreters Can Make

This discussion about techniques may prompt you to wonder, “Why can’t hearing interpreters just learn to do whatever the Deaf interpreters (DIs) are doing?”

In his seminal chapter, “Deaf Interpreters,” Patrick Boudreault, specifies that besides having sign language as a first language, DIs “share the Deaf experience with the Deaf consumer; this ‘sameness’ is an important factor in establishing rapport and communicating effectively.” He adds that the cultural identification “can generate a sense of empowerment within the Deaf consumer with which to express her thoughts to other people whom she could not previously communicate with” (Boudreault 2005, 335).

A classic example of “Directive Form” in legal settings occurs when a line of questioning posed to a Deaf witness requires only “yes” or “no” answers. Since ASL is highly dependent on context, the witness is often tempted to add some background which he or she probably assumes will clarify the “yes” or “no.”

Sometimes a reminder from the attorney or judge is all that is necessary for a Deaf (or hearing) witness to reluctantly confine their answers to a single word or sign. But it often happens that the Deaf witness repeatedly tries to include additional context in their answer. In these situations, I’ve seen DIs sign a very direct, ASK-YOU-QUESTION, ANSWER YES, NO, FINISH PERIOD. [The question.] ANSWER YES, NO, WHICH?

In this instance, it seems that coming from another Deaf person, the directive style is accepted, but if a hearing interpreter delivered the same command it could well be perceived as patronizing or controlling.

In Deaf Interpreters at Work, the authors describe a division of strengths: “DIs have a better understanding of sign language nuances, hearing interpreters have a better understanding of spoken language nuances…”(Adam et al. 2014, 7). This would naturally extend to nuances of cultural expectations. With mutual respect, these distinct spheres of expertise can become a source of synergy.

Here’s the Problem

This is a fascinating area of study and fertile ground for more research. But presently there are more pressing obstructions and potholes in the road ahead for CDIs.  I’ve seen many CDIs describe their determination to get trained and become certified, only to find that they cannot get enough work to make a living (unless, perhaps, they are willing to zigzag across the country to follow the work). So things may be changing, but at a snail’s pace.

I don’t believe that hearing interpreters have the luxury to shrug off this situation and stand by “neutrally.” It is up to us–the majority–to enable this transition and encourage the use of CDIs. Although the Deaf consumer sometimes requests a CDI, most often the hearing interpreter acts as first responder and gatekeeper. If communication is not going smoothly, we need to be honest with our clients and ourselves, stop the transaction and explain the need for a CDI.

This post ends with a few actions each of us can take to further the inclusion of DIs in our profession. But first, another bump in the road: our own attitude. Are we open, proactive, apathetic, threatened or resistant to increasing numbers of Deaf interpreters?

Taking Responsibility

As an interculturalist, I often look beneath the surface to see if there might be a cultural basis behind a persistent conflict. In collectivist Deaf culture, ensuring that the rest of the group has full access to information is a primary value.  For those hearing interpreters who feel threatened by the influx of Deaf interpreters, I wonder if this could this relate to the competition that permeates American culture or the value we place on individual accomplishments? Is it our fear of judgment?  Not wanting to give up our power?

Why does asking for a language specialist to bring expertise to a tough situation make some hearing interpreters feel like they are admitting failure or deficiency? Can we shift that view to see that together we can co-create meaning and provide the best possible language and cultural access?

5 Steps You Can Take:

1)     Take a workshop or class in teaming with DIs. If you can’t find one in your area, organize one.

2)     Find out who are the CDIs closest to your location. Make contact with them; ask for their availability and any special areas of expertise.

3)     Ask agencies you work for if they have contracts with CDIs. If not, urge them to put everything in place. (Often when a CDI is needed, it is discovered during an assignment with some urgency, e.g. medical or legal).

4)     Recognize the, often subtle, signals that a CDI is needed in a specific situation or for a certain Deaf consumer, (e.g., head nodding, repeating back your signs, reticence to reply in depth). Ask yourself, “Am I ‘working too hard’ to get the meaning across or fully understand the signs I see?”

5)     Be brave enough to stop the proceeding and explain why a language specialist (CDI) is required. Give appropriate resources, if needed. Stand firm; it may not feel comfortable.

What else can we do to bring Deaf interpreters back into their traditional cultural roles?


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Adam, Robert, et al. “Deaf Interpreters: An Introduction.” In Deaf Interpreters at Work, edited by Robert Adams, Christopher Stone, Steven Collins, and Melanie Metzger. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Press, 2014

Boudreault, Patrick. “Deaf Interpreters.” In Topics in Signed Language Interpreting, edited by Terry Janzen, Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2005.

Forestal, Eileen. “Deaf Interpreters: The Dynamics of their Interpreting Processes.” In Deaf Interpreters at Work, edited by Robert Adams, Christopher Stone, Steven Collins, and Melanie Metzger. Washington, DC: Gallaudet Press, 2014

Howard, Nigel. “Deaf Interpreters: The State of Inclusion.” Street Leverage, April 16, 2013,

Kaika, Jennifer. “Deaf Interpreters: In the Blind Spot of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession.” Street Leverage, March 6, 2013,

Mindess, Anna. Reading Between the Signs: Intercultural Communication for Sign Language Interpreters, 3rd edition, Boston, MA, Intercultural Press (forthcoming, October 2014).

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Sign Language Interpreters: Attire Leaves a First & Lasting Impression

Sign Language Interpreters: Attire Leaves a First and Lasting Impression

Do you mind your ABCs (Appearance, Behavior, and Communication) as you prepare for every assignment?  Can you think of an interpreter who has professionally mastered her or his ABCs and the impact that mastery has had on the Deaf community members with whom that interpreter has worked?  What about an interpreter who exhibits what are referred to as Toxic Traits?1  These may include a “way of being” that drains the energy in the room, dandruff, bad breath or body odor, hair dyed unnatural colors, cleaning teeth or biting nails in public, entering a room with more bags than your local grocer, loud makeup, dangling or sparkly accessories, wrinkled clothing, bright nails or French manicures, worn out shoes, and/or an appearance that is inappropriate for the given environment.  Dare we say that every practitioner out there has a Toxic Trait story to recall?  This begs the question: did you say something to the Toxic Trait offender?

[Click to view post in ASL]

We have been conditioned over the years to believe that someone else will handle it: our team will tell us if we cross the line ethically, Deaf people will tell us if they don’t like our clothing or accessories, and RID will manage ethics and punitive measures.  Someone else will tell me if my appearance disempowers the Deaf person(s) in the room.  What if you’re that “someone else”?  Consider this a call to action, to collectively shift our culture to one of appearance accountability: both for ourselves and for one another.

The impetus for this article comes from nationwide conversations with consumers and colleagues.  In 2012, we gave a presentation to 70+ ASL interpreters, designed in response to the trend of interpreters’ appearance and attire selections reflecting poorly upon the Deaf community.  We believe this topic isn’t being taken seriously enough given the consequences it carries. Our hope is that by the end of this article, you’ll understand how the inappropriate appearance choices of sign language interpreters serve to further oppress Deaf people, potentially limiting their workforce participation and mobility.

Why First Impressions Are So Important

It’s no secret that outside of our community, the field of sign language interpreting is not yet fully accepted as a legitimate profession.  We struggle for consistency and predictability in our national testing system, our business practices vary from one practitioner to the next, our ethical code prescribes behaviors instead of enumerating bedrock principles, etc. How many times have you been asked whether or not you’re the Deaf patient/candidate/employee’s relative?  Like it or not, the non-deaf majority sees us more as an extension of Deaf people than as professionals performing a cognitively complex task.

When we presented in 2012, we sought testimonials and perspectives from Deaf consumers and our colleagues to share.  We find what Dennis Cokely had to offer particularly poignant:

“It is certainly undeniable that society in general has become much more casual in dress and “casual Fridays” have, like a virus, crept into the rest of the work week.  I think this has given many interpreters “permission” to dress and act much more casually than I think they should. … The fact of the matter is that interpreters are definitely seen by society at large as aligned with Deaf people and present to help Deaf people; this despite our assertions that we are “neutral” and are there to serve both parties.  Society in general certainly believes that it is Deaf people who need interpreters, not the hearing bankers, lawyers, doctors, sales clerks, teachers, counselors and wait staff Deaf people are interacting with.  Society in general judges Deaf people by the company they keep – and that company is US!!!!”

In 2012, Anna Witter-Merithew shared this perspective in a post (note Anna’s comment on January 18, 2012 at 12:16am): “How we dress does impact on how we are perceived AND how deaf people are perceived. …Dressing according to the system norms is one way to improve how we are perceived in that system.”2  It is fair to say, from Anna and Dennis’ thoughts, from empirical research about impressions, and from our collective observations, that our appearance and behavioral decisions reflect upon Deaf people, for better or worse.

Sign Language Interpreters: Attire Leaves a First & Lasting Impression
Authors pictured here, from left to right: Matt Etemad-Gilbertson, Kristy Moroney, Jackie Emmart, Lena Dumont, SooJin Chu, Laura O’Callahan, and Will English.

Research tells us that “others immediately form stereotypical associations about you that are frequently emotionally based, and that once those impressions are formed, others’ rational and emotional brains seek to validate those impressions.”3  Studies show that you have as few as six seconds4 when you meet someone to create a lasting impression.  This impression will impact their relationship with you and, more importantly, with the Deaf individual for whose interview/appointment/etc. you’re booked to interpret.  “After the fact, it’s easy for someone to tell whether you are a rarity who actually tends to every detail.  But before you get the opportunity to prove yourself, people will have to draw that conclusion from the way you look, [communicate], and act.  If your hair isn’t combed, your clothes aren’t neat, your shoes aren’t shined and you don’t [communicate] in a logical and orderly fashion, why should they assume your work will reflect any greater care?”5  If they are making these judgments about our work, and our work is Deaf people’s lives, then what reflection does that cast and what’s the ripple effect?

Judging a Book By its Cover

There are countless studies done by business, law, and medical schools across the country about the impact of attire on the customer, client, and patient’s perception of the respective professional’s expertise.  In one healthcare study, respondents were shown to overwhelmingly favor physicians in professional attire with a white coat.  Wearing professional dress while providing patient care by physicians may favorably influence trust and confidence-building in the medical encounter.6  In the legal field, the impact of appearance has long been taken seriously and there are consequences when one fails to satisfy the expectation.  “Certainly by becoming a member of the bar, a lawyer does not terminate his membership in the human race, nor does he surrender constitutional rights possessed by private citizens. … However ‘[membership] in the bar is a privilege burdened with conditions.’”7  We believe that the nature of our work and invitation into the lives of Deaf people is also a privilege burdened with conditions, including that of adjusting one’s appearance to suit the environment.

We are not suggesting sign language interpreters wear physicians’ white coats to their assignments in healthcare.  What we are suggesting is that working in the interpreting profession, your casual attire may not impact your future success.  Instead, it is more likely that it would impact opportunities for success for the Deaf people with whom we work.  When we’re invited into the lives of Deaf people, we are guests and we should treat those experiences as such.  To dress down as a default undermines the very respect we purport to uphold.

So What? Why This Matters

When was the last time your attire choices could have impacted whether or not the Deaf candidate got the job?  Will you ever know for sure?  Has your desire to express your personality ever overshadowed the Deaf researcher’s presentation to her or his non-deaf colleagues?  How do you know if the way you entered the room impacted the energy – did you add to the tension in the business negotiation?  Or if the Social Security worker thought differently about the Deaf applicant when your colleague wore jeans and boots to the appointment?  How many times has your (or your colleague’s) appearance been a distraction, a deterrent or a detriment?

We will never know the impact of our decisions with certainty… until we ask with an open mind.  In our research, we received numerous counts of impact from Deaf community members.  Once we started asking, the stories were virtually never-ending.  Below is a handful of what was shared.

  1. On a doctor’s impression of this Deaf parent: “I was recently at a doctor’s appointment for my daughter.  The interpreter walked in with a loud, low-cut top.  She had long nails and WILD hair…I had to keep asking her to repeat whatever she said – I was severely distracted by the amount of skin she showed.  I wonder what the doctor thought of me, having to ask her to repeat herself so many times…”
  2. A Deaf professional and her/his strategy for requests: “I mostly prefer that interpreters look neat and well put together…there have been occasions when I am in a situation where impressions are important and I will not use certain interpreters because their attire/presentation CAN impact the perception of me and my expertise.”
  3. On accessories, from a Deaf instructor: “It’s very rare for me to make an issue of their clothing choice of the day, but if it really irks me, I would approach the interpreter after the interpreting job is finished.  I can’t make the interpreter to go back home and change; it’s rather late and so I must accept the choice of clothing.  But with accessories, I can ask.”
  4. From a Deaf professional: “I was invited to serve on a panel and dressed in a suit and high heels, as did the other panelists.  My interpreter showed up in shorts, late, standing her tennis racket on the side of the panel table while she interpreted.  I was so embarrassed…”
  5. On the desire to express oneself: “You want to wear a tongue ring, lip ring, nose ring, etc.?  Take it out, go to the job, and then when you’re done, put it back in.  Draw the most attention to your work, not yourself.  It may bug the hell out of you because you want to express yourself, but you’re hired to work for a situation, and you don’t make the rules.”
  6. On trying to open the conversation: “Once an interpreter showed up wearing a low-cut dress and when I asked her about her choice she responded with an attitude that I wasn’t the one hiring her.  I asked her if they found out, what she’d do without them and she replied that she’d just find another job.  Then I asked her what she’d do without me, and she was suddenly at a loss for words.”

These behaviors are noticed by interpreter coordinators as well.  Here are a couple of their thoughts:

  1. “I am careful about who I do and do not hire to work in certain situations, based on what I know certain interpreters to wear.  My clients cannot afford to have the interpreter draw positive or negative attention – the work is too sensitive to allow for inappropriate first impressions.”
  2. “I have had people show up to an assignment in t-shirts and jeans and it MUST be addressed.   Sadly, I now have a clause in my booking email: ‘All assignments are considered business register, please dress professionally.’”

What do these behaviors say about our respect for consumers and their lives, our profession, and ourselves?  What does it say that interpreter coordinators need to manage our attire choices?  And so we ask, when is the last time you asked, with an open-mind, your team and/or the Deaf individual(s) about your appearance or attire choices?

Where Do We Go From Here?

It’s time for change.  We do not believe sign language interpreters need to revert to the CSUN smock days.8  We believe that regardless of our attire choices, most interpreters share the same goal of rendering excellent interpreting services that provide communication access for people who do not share a common language.  We also believe that we have allowed ourselves to become complacent when it comes to holding one another and ourselves accountable.

Matt Etemad-Gilbertson wrote an article entitled, “Polite Disregard – Does It Serve Us?” which was originally published in a VRS newsletter.  In it, he eloquently paints the picture of our current state of affairs, which we believe is still relevant today.

“It has been my experience that the interpreting community is filled with caring professional nurturing, thoughtful mentorship and amazingly talented and ethical practitioners of our shared work…it has also been my experience that “polite disregard” rules the day among us on many occasions…  Polite disregard is the fear of not knowing how to share what we’ve seen or heard in the work.  Polite disregard is that moment during or post assignment when our team turns and says “any feedback for me?”  Polite disregard is when you actually have noticed a troubling pattern that you’d like to point out but it’s too hard to say.  In a practice-based profession like interpreting, polite disregard inhibits us from having difficult conversations that ultimately serve to compromise the integrity of the work.”

The only way we will get from where we are, in a state of complacency, to where we would like to shift the field, is by insisting on a culture of mutual accountability where dressing appropriately is the norm.  We need to stop dancing around conversations and collectively commit to embodying a “way of being” that subtly blends in with interpreted encounters, regardless of our personal preferences.  It’s time to step up and ask the hard questions of ourselves first, and then of one another that keep us all accountable.  We propose that before every assignment, sign language interpreters ask themselves:

Do my attire and overall appearance reflect my commitment to appropriately represent the Deaf people with whom I will work, and the environment in which I will work?

If the answer to either of those questions is uncertain, or a clear “no,” then it’s time to go home and change before stepping foot into the lives of Deaf people.  After all, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.


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Dimitrius, J. E. and Mazzarella, M. (2000) Put Your Best Foot Forward: Make a Great Impression by Taking Control of How Others See You. New York, NY: Fireside.

2 Witter-Merithew, Anna. (January 18, 2012). Response to Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping out of the Shadow of Invisibility. Retrieved from (comment from January 18, 2012 at 12:16am)

3 Dimitrius, J. E. and Mazzarella, M. (2000). Put Your Best Foot Forward: Make a Great Impression by Taking Control of How Others See You. New York, NY: Fireside. p.76.

4 Winerman, Lea. (March 2005). ‘Thin slices’ of life. Monitor on Psychology, volume 36. Retrieved from

5 Dimitrius, J. E. & Mazzarella, M. (2000). Put Your Best Foot Forward: Make a Great Impression by Taking Control of How Others See You. New York, NY: Fireside. p.62.

6 Gosling, R. & Standen, R. (1998). Doctors’ dress. British Journal of Psychiatry, 172, 188-189.

7 Keasler, J. (1974, July 31). Tied to be fit? The Miami Newspaper. Retrieved from:,5108664

8 Solomon, S. (1987, February 26). Deaf Students Follow the Signs in CSUN Classes. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from:



Lena Dumont, Matt Etemad-Gilbertson,  Laura O’Callahan, Kristy Moroney, Jackie Emmart, Will English, and SooJin Chu are the team who created the original First and Lasting Impressions presentation, shared with the Greater Boston community in March 2012. Together, the first six represent 85 years of interpreting experience, and work or have worked in many arenas of the interpreting world including, but not limited to: general community,  K-12 and post-secondary education, healthcare, VRS, business, government, and conferences. SooJin is an independent fashion consultant and an expert in successful dressing that fosters positive first and lasting impressions. They all strongly believe that tailoring an interpreter’s appearance and behavior to a given situation is not only possible, it is essential.

The authors wish to extend their sincere gratitude to Carol-lee Aquiline, for her time and energy invested in the translation of this article. Thank you, Carol-lee!



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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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Sign Language Interpreters: Achieving Authentic Confidence

Sign Language Interpreters: Achieving Authentic Confidence

Imagine yourself in the restroom while on a break from your work as a sign language interpreter. You look into the mirror as you dry your hands. What do you see? A linguist? An ally of the Deaf community? A wordsmith? Someone who is struggling to prove him or herself?

[Click to view post in ASL]

Most sign language interpreters have dichotomous personalities. However, this split personality can actually be a good thing for us to have. Humility and confidence are the two seemingly contradictory halves of the interpreter personality. But when well-managed, they are ideal manifestations of the dualistic interpreter personality. As Brandon Arthur points out in, Do You Resemble the Sign Language Interpreter in Your Head?, “an appropriate level of self-awareness is critical to finding success in the sign language interpreting profession.”

Escaping Ego-Related Limitations

In their worst forms, humility and confidence swell into fear and arrogance. The fear stems from a lack of hard work on the part of the interpreter to continue to improve his or her skills. When a sign language interpreter is working at learning and doing her best, and only taking on work she can handle well, she has nothing to be afraid of. Those who are most fearful realize at their core that they should be doing more to improve their skills or that they are interpreting in settings that are beyond their skillset.

The key to escaping ego-related limitations, whether they are the kinds that make us too confident, or not confident enough, is an intentional and well-informed practice of reflection. Anna Witter-Merithew explains in, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice, that this is a crucial habit for avoiding professional isolation and for achieving not only growth, but also well-being.

An intentional practice of reflection and development can consist of many possible elements:

  • Balancing Humility and Confidence is the key to professionalismobservation-supervision groups as defined by Robyn Dean
  • mentoring by a more experienced interpreter
  • peer mentoring
  • reviewing videos of one’s work with a Deaf language mentor
  • workshops and conferences in which one has defined goals and out of which one develops new practices
  • independent study in which one tackles specific skills with the help of consultants and research
  • attending intensive trainings with group discussion sessions
  • personal/life coaching
  • researching, writing, and teaching while applying what one learns to one’s own practice

Arrogance Stems From Ignorance

The more experienced a sign language interpreter is, the more he knows how much there is yet to learn. Consumers, whether Deaf or hearing, do not respond well to interpreter arrogance. But they do need interpreters who are confident. When a sign language interpreter is confident, the parties who are using the services of the interpreter trust that what they are saying is being faithfully relayed, whereas a self-conscious or insecure interpreter will cause consumers to be uncertain whether their communications are being conveyed accurately.

Many hearing consumers fan the flames of arrogance by praising interpreters for their “beautiful signing.” “It’s like a dance!” “You did such a wonderful job!” they say. While many of us are uncomfortable with this kind of attention, other interpreters are quite happy to interpret music, comedy, theatre, and the like, despite the fact that it, by definition, places one in the limelight. It has become for some an artistic expression. This is not without controversy. A recent article editorial in the Baltimore Sun by Deaf Gallaudet professor Caroline Solomon and her brother, attorney Jeffrey Archer Miller, expressed the sentiment:

“Sign language is not performance art.”

This tells us that some see highly visible examples of creative interpreting as outside the realm of what is necessary and acceptable.

Most sign language interpreters believe in humility and understand that, in general, interpreters are not performers. If you have a part of your personality that is a performer, you should express that elsewhere by being a musician, an actor, or a dancer, so that you’re not tempted to use your position as an interpreter to express that need. This issue has recently been highlighted by the Deaf Community in Seattle in their protest of the Seattle Men’s Chorus, which has, for many years, used an unqualified interpreter who openly prides himself on performing via sign language.

It is sad and embarrassing that we sometimes let our heads get too big. I will never forget the amazing characterization that Dr. Laurene Simms provided at the California State University Northridge Interpreting Symposium one year. She took on the traits and mannerisms of every know-it-all, self-absorbed, show-off interpreter she’d ever seen, and combined them into one laughably conceited character. The effect was humorous but also sobering.

Xenia Woods
Xenia Woods

In recent months, a refreshing trend has appeared in online media: the examination by both sign language interpreters and Deaf consumers of the problems that surround bringing interpreters into focus. We can all agree that interpreters deserve to be acknowledged for excellent service, but what we don’t agree on is what kinds of acknowledgement are acceptable. Negotiating this tightrope cannot be done in a vacuum, which is why all interpreters need to participate in ongoing discussions with interpreters and consumers about what professionalism looks like for our field.

Balancing Humility & Confidence

So what will help sign language interpreters achieve and maintain this balance between humility and confidence? It requires equal parts self-knowledge, education, and participation in the interpreter and Deaf communities.

1. Deaf consumers are not always prone to giving interpreters feedback. Don’t ask for it; it’s not their job to offer critiques. If a Deaf consumer provides you with useful feedback, you are fortunate. However, it is common for Deaf and hearing consumers to have no feedback for the interpreter(s). This can actually be a good thing! It may very well mean that your work was unremarkable and therefore effective.

2. The best interpreting goes mostly unnoticed. If the consumers are focused on the discussion rather than on the interpreter, then the interpreting process will be almost invisible. This is explained eloquently by Theresa Blankmeyer Burke in her editorial, The Costs Incurred: Hearing Non-Signers and Signed Language Interpreters. In this piece, Burke explains why she takes issue with what she calls “Interpreter Basking in the Spotlight Syndrome.” Bottom line: it draws undue attention away from the consumers.

3. When consumers are displeased with an interpreter, it is more likely to be about her attitude than her signing skills. A confident yet humble sign language interpreter is a good ally for any consumer.

In the End

Each of us has a unique blend of personality traits that make us who we are as sign language interpreters. This variation is good, as it allows us each to be suitable for different types of work. What’s crucial is that we are qualified for what we’re doing, and treat everyone with respect. When we remember to always focus on the message more than ourselves, we will be providing our best work. In the end, the work is not about us. It’s about the people we serve, and their communication. When interpreters have developed authentic confidence, they can allow people’s communication to flow unimpeded.


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Beyond Ethics: Rules Versus Values for Sign Language Interpreters

Beyond Ethics: Rules Versus Values for Sign Language Interpreters

When asked to consider an ethical quandary, most interpreters will give the same answer: “It depends.”  Every situation is unique—a never-before-faced combination of demands and controls situated in a specific setting, among specific consumers and negotiated, possibly, between two or more sign language interpreters. While the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct provides guidance, it rarely can give a definitive answer to the question of what actions should be taken in any specific situation.

[Click to view post in ASL]

No written code meant to guide ethical behavior could encompass every situation. What standard, then, do we use to make decisions in the moment, or to examine our behavior in retrospect, and that of our colleagues?

Consider this situation: During a medical appointment, the hearing nurse says, while examining the patient’s ears, “This is kind of pointless, since he’s deaf.  Wait, don’t interpret that.” What do we do? I, and I’m sure many of my colleagues, do interpret that whole statement, and everything else that we hear during the assignment.

Now consider this situation: During a medical appointment, as the nurse walks into the examination room the Deaf patient says, “Oh, not this nurse. She’s never very nice to me. Wait, don’t voice that.” What do we do here?  I, and I’m sure many of my colleagues, do not voice that statement. Why not? The CPC never distinguishes between Deaf and hearing consumers in its tenets; each directive regarding consumers is assumed to apply to all consumers, Deaf and hearing. And yet, I feel that both actions, though they seem conflicting, are the correct ethical responses to each respective situation. Clearly, the CPC is not enough to evaluate our decisions. Adhering to the CPC is necessary, but not sufficient, to truly conduct ourselves in an ethical manner.

The Values of Our Profession

We must ask ourselves, what values do we hold that undergird our work as sign language interpreters? How does our work as interpreters help create the better world we envision? How we determine our ethical duty in any instance must be filtered through these values. The decisions we make must reflect our higher sense of how we serve the greater good with our work.

The values of our profession are expressed in the philosophy and mission statements put forth by RID, and each individual practitioner has her or his own intuition of what values underlie their decisions. It is a worthwhile exercise to articulate what values you uphold as an interpreter. As I considered this question, I came up with this list:

  • Justice
  • Self-determination
  • Transparency
  • Using hearing privilege to benefit those who are marginalized,
  • Never being silent or immobile in the face of audism.

These are the values I strive to uphold with my work. When ethical issues arise for which the Code of Professional Conduct offers no clear guidance, I filter my possible actions through the values I hold, and make decisions that support justice, that resist audist assumptions and actions, and allow the Deaf consumer to make his or her own choices. While value-based ethical decision making is no guarantee of a practice that always leads to complication-free results, without second guessing in retrospect, it is a good basis for justifiable actions and offers direction where no other directive exists.

Value-based Ethical Decision Making

Let’s reconsider the scenarios I posed earlier. While the CPC sees no difference between a Deaf and a hearing consumer, using a values-based approach to these situations can explain why they feel different to me and many of my colleagues. When a hearing nurse speaks in front of a Deaf patient expecting the interpreter not to relay her statement, she is reflecting an audist society, where Deaf people are barred from accessing information on a daily basis, even information spoken right in front of them. When a Deaf patient signs privately to the sign language interpreter, he is building trust between him and the only other person who speaks his language in the room. Are the two consumers being treated exactly the same? No. But are both being treated justly? I believe so.

Amy Meckler
Amy Meckler

When a Deaf person sits in the room with a hearing nurse and a hearing interpreter, he can either be one Deaf person in the presence of two members of the hearing majority, or he can be one of two ASL users, sitting with a hearing individual who does not sign. I prefer Deaf consumers to feel the latter is true, that they are not alone, that they are not the only people who recognize the power imbalance that inherently exists in a society that arbitrarily grants one group privilege, and disempowers another. The old models of the interpreter as invisible, neutral and uninvolved have been debunked. The antiquated doctrine of decision making based on the standard of “what if I were not there?” is not only outdated, it denies reality. You are there. Your inaction is not a default but a choice. Inaction has an impact and consequences as surely as actions do.

A realistic view of our work, of ethical practice, is sign language interpreters making conscious decisions based on the required ethical standards put forth by NAD and RID in combination with the values that drew us to the Deaf community and the interpreting profession in the first place. As Dave Coyne states in his Street Leverage article, Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters, “Interpreters must be able to describe what kind of future they want. Can you describe to your neighbors, friends, and Deaf community members your vision? Can you think how behaviors, specific behaviors, may get you to that vision?”

Regularly Re-examine Our Values

Dennis Cokely wrote in his 2000 article, Exploring Ethics: A Case for Revising the Code of Ethics, “As individuals, and certainly as interpreters/transliterators, we face choices that can have profound effects on other people and their lives, choices of how we will or will not act in certain situations. The choices we make, and the actions that follow from those choices, can uphold or deny the dignity of other people, can advocate or violate the rights of other people, and can affirm or disavow the humanity of other people. Given the potential consequences of our choices and resultant actions, it is reasonable to expect that we constantly re-examine those values, principles, and beliefs which underscore and shape the decisions we make and the actions we undertake.”

Fourteen years, and a complete overhaul of the RID Code of Ethics later, Cokely’s words are still true. It’s worth asking yourself: will the action I take uphold or inhibit justice? Will my actions be transparent or shrouded in secrecy inaccessible to my consumers? Will my actions reinforce hearing privilege or help balance the power in the room?

Novice interpreters, experienced interpreters and students of sign language interpreting alike must ask themselves: What is my vision of the world as it should be, and does my work contribute to that vision becoming a reality?


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Power Dynamics: Are Sign Language Interpreters Getting it Right?

Power Dynamics: Are Sign Language Interpreters Getting it Right?

I was attending a community fund development event. An unfamiliar interpreter was scheduled to work with me. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the luxury of deciding or learning the identity of my interpreters before events. Nor do I have designated interpreters. However, the interpreter worked diligently at my side as I made my rounds of strategic conversations with attendees. A break was announced. I excused myself to the restroom. I returned to find the interpreter giggling and talking with a gentleman. I tried to nonchalantly assimilate myself into this lively discussion but the interpreter abruptly tells the gentleman, “I have to go back to work.” A very brief awkward moment, the gentleman quickly departs. I asked her who he was and what had transpired. She replied, “Oh, he was just asking about deaf people and sign language.” I wanted to go find a wall and bang my head. I prayed that I didn’t lose out on an opportunity.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Relational Dynamics

Today, designated relationships between deaf professionals and sign language interpreters are being scrutinized on the basis of the interpreters’ linguistic skills and the extent to which their “heart” is culturally deaf. At the same time, deaf professionals are drawing lines against oppressive attitudes and marginalization from the dominant communities. However, many deaf professionals and interpreters feel that the debates have been disheartening, provoking misunderstood divides between the two.

There is limited training regarding relational dynamics between the interpreter and the deaf professional and little is written on the topic. How do we manage the peripheral challenges and values of the dominant culture as a team?  How do we as individuals assimilate the awareness of oppression in our work? Many sign language interpreters and deaf professionals feel that this exclusive relationship requires much more than impartiality, savvy and recognizing imbalanced belief systems. This dilemma has definitely opened doors for endless debates with regard to whose Voice does it really belong? In the eyes of the interpreters, we know that the Voice belongs to the deaf person. Unfortunately, in the eyes of dominant community, it does not always appear that way.

The Fundamentals of Voice

Voice is the vehicle in communicating cultural identity, recognition and justice. Reclaiming or sustaining one’s Voice is to stand up for what one believes, or to preserve one’s identity and place in society. Deaf individuals are expected to proceed through a series of deliberations to determine favorable actions that will be persuasive, with the goal of embracing the voice of their cultural values. The deaf individual’s Voice or meaningful intentions will need to be effectively interpreted into mainstream American society’s language and paradigms. This requires reconstruction of the meanings and mediation of the facts and historical stories through a cultural lens into a language that mainstream society is accustomed to hearing and experiencing. This is a daunting challenge and a burden for those who do not mediate multiple cultures and languages effectively.

Although, the effective leadership of a deaf professional lies in their eloquence and eclecticism of skill in building relationships and influence, developing mutuality and effecting change, and the strategic positioning of themselves in the dominant culture. This also includes their ability to effectively mediate two languages; ASL and the Spoken English language; and two cultures, the mainstream culture and deaf culture with the assistance of the sign language interpreter. The deaf professional also relies on the quality of the language register and cultural fluency; signing skills; content knowledge; physical/mental stamina; and ability to support the leader’s traversing and positioning tactics.

For this piece, I am focusing on interpreters’ challenges. However, I do recognize that the divergence of relationships can easily be attributed to the deaf professional’s failure to lead. The fundamentals of Voice are moot if we do not comprehend the core issues for the divergences between the deaf professional and the interpreter. Looking at the four areas of challenges for interpreters, I will review:  Can’t Decide: An Extension or An Individual; Power Structure: Guilty by Association; Boundaries: Infinite Rubber Band and Total Congruence: Synchronicity.

Can’t Decide: An Extension or Individual?

The first core issue asks the questions, “Do sign language interpreters see themselves as an extension of the deaf professional or a separate individual where their own identity is evident?” Speaking for myself, I utilize the interpreter as an extension of myself. Now, keep in mind, most deaf professionals do not have the luxury of designated interpreters (Hauser, Finch & Hauser, 2008). Designated interpreters and deaf professional partnerships can provide opportunities to strategize and position due to having ongoing working relationship. However, there are times when designated partnerships are not feasible.  This personal incident gives me pause to ponder the potential unconscious paternalism and/or competitive nature.

Darlene Zangara
Darlene Zangara

I had a routine check-up with my primary doctor whom I have seen for a number of years. Initially, I was very purposeful in my communications with the nurse. As we progressed into the appointment, I noticed that the interpreter was increasingly uncomfortable with my positioning tactics. Prior to the physical examination, I instructed the interpreter to wait in the waiting area. She became flustered and insisted on staying until she interpreted the directions from the nurse. At this point, I was perplexed and decided to shrug it off. After the physical examination was completed, a meeting would take place in the doctor’s office. I instructed the nurse to bring the interpreter back. As I was waiting, the doctor and I had a casual chat. The attention shifted abruptly to the door as the interpreter made her entrance with urgency. She announced, “Hello Doctor.  I am the interpreter. We have met previously. I have worked with you.” She sought eye contact, smiled and stood behind the seated doctor in a very close proximity.  I was immediately caught off guard and felt like I was thrown into a popularity contest.

Granted, this is a subjective interpretation. However, my sense of vulnerability amplified as well as feeling underestimated. There are some interpreters who have difficulty embracing this concept – being an extension. In today’s society, individualism and competition are celebrated. Individuals are encouraged to compete and assert their own story. Everyone comes with a personal story and emblematically, a story is meant to be told. This is a value of the dominant culture. My question for this relationship is whose story is it?

Power Structure: Guilty by Association

The second core issue is sign language interpreters do have power. My interpreters are hearing, thus are representatives of the dominant culture. There is no way around it or denying it. Deaf professionals consistently experience unique challenges that are difficult to perceive by the dominant culture—including interpreters. The dominant culture is defined as having various forms of dominance or privilege; including race and ethnicity, gender, socio economic status, sexual orientation, disability, values, worldviews and life experiences. These privilege challenges are pervasive.

Individuals from the deaf community are not perceived as equal members of the dominant culture. The stereotypical perceptions are embedded in the language and social climate in which we live. Even though the deaf community works hard to mainstream within the dominant culture, the cultural and linguistic conflicts create a hierarchical dominance and privilege by the dominant culture—mainstream America. The deaf professional integrates the interpreter as a tool to gain access and position within the dominant culture. As Alex Jackson Nelson shared in his previous article, Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing & Analyzing Our Power & Privilege, having self-awareness and an intimate understanding of marginalization and oppression is fundamental. Sign language interpreters who recognize privilege and power can begin to dismantle oppression. Ultimately, knowing that the relationships will instinctively have power disequilibrium is critical. Scientifically and naturally, biology and human nature wants to respond to disequilibrium with equilibrium—homeostasis.

Boundaries: The Infinite Rubber Band?

Boundaries and ethical dilemmas are extremely difficult to address and represent the third core issue. It is a continuous grey area. In the world of sign language interpreting, ideally one will consciously stretch the bounds ethically to produce optimal outcomes. A boundary is an invisible circle enclosing the individual. While the role of a sign language interpreter is to maintain professional distance, mediate information and remain focused on the consumer; the interpreter must also realize the “cloak of power and privilege” worn also influences her role. The interpreter’s cloak carries the power of information, dominant culture’s values, and provides the means of bridging communication and cultures. A worn rubber band may lose its elasticity; overuse of stretching the bounds may unconsciously seep in the dominance of the interpreter in the relationship. The interpreter must continuously perform a deliberate assessment of her boundaries both visible and invisible.

Total Congruence:  Synchronicity

The fourth issue is total congruence. When I am dancing with my interpreter, figuratively, we are synchronous. The deaf professional artfully collaborates with the interpreter to interpret messages accurately as well as matching the spirit of the message conveyed. The interpreter maintains appropriate language register, variation and synchronicity with discourse strategies. In addition, they must be able to understand all the cultural nuances and systems motivations of the dominant community. It is truly a joyous feeling knowing my Voice has been heard and I was in charge of the relationship. While this emotion is personal, the observation from the dominant community is that the interpreter did not dominate the dialogue. The focus remains with the deaf professional.

My Thoughts About “Leaning In”

As I approached the closing of this piece, I pondered the assumption of futility in these relationships. I am asserting that futility is perpetuated by ignorance and ego. Not everyone is ignorant or ego-driven nor do they want to be. First, I am not aware of what I am not aware of. Our greatest personal growth challenge is being aware of our own power and privilege. Second, borrowing a popular concept from described by Sheryl Sandberg in her book by the same title, “Lean In”. Sandberg’s book caught the attention of men, women and colleagues around the world, created tremendous social media attention, led to development of Lean In circles, coaching and resources to heighten awareness and support for women in the workplace. Lean In is a multifaceted, interpretative concept of pushing and/or backing off to support opportunities for an individual to succeed. While this concept is not entirely new, we have seen it utilized by many pioneers of the deaf and interpreting communities. Ways for “leaning in”include embracing the four core relational issues between the deaf professional and the sign language interpreter; an interpreter is an extension of the deaf professional; being aware s own privilege and power; being aware of her boundaries; and to dance with total congruence. It is a step towards respecting Voice and definitely a better ending for this scenario.

…I returned to find the interpreter giggling and talking with a gentleman. I tried to nonchalantly assimilate myself into this lively discussion. The interpreter introduces the gentleman to me, “This is John Smith from XYZ. He was just asking me about deaf people.” I smiled at the interpreter and gave her a nod. “Hi I am Darlene…”


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