Posted on Leave a comment

Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

Through recognizing the humanity in ourselves and Deaf people, and working towards a goal, our work can become much less stressful.

Station Meditation: VRS, Compassion and Sign Language Interpreters

I think as Video Relay Service interpreters we have done ourselves a disservice in the way we talk about ourselves, our callers and our work. Generally, when we describe working in a call center, we either underplay it (“I’m ‘just’ interpreting phone calls”), or grossly exaggerate (“We interpret sex calls! We interpret for drug deals!”). The truth of the matters lies somewhere in between and is infinitely more interesting and gratifying.

[Click to view post in ASL]

The Mechanics of VRS

First, a better visual description of the mechanics of VRS work. Imagine an old-fashioned Bingo blower machine. The balls are whirling around in the chamber, and then one is randomly pulled into the chute for the number to be called. This is each inbound call that is received. The only slight difference is that each time, the ball (caller) is returned to the chamber once it has been called (call completed). Over time, the same number will come up again. This means that while VRS calls appear randomly for the interpreters, we will sometimes see the same number (caller) again. Sometimes, in a single day we will see all distinct callers. A different person every single time. However, it does happen that over the course of a day, a week, a month, callers will be seen over and over again.

The Intimate Nature of VRS

A relationship (such as it is) is established with these callers, whom we may never meet in person. Having worked as a sign language interpreter in VRS for many years, I have been able to witness people’s lives in fits and starts. I am aware of people getting married, having children, seeing the children grow up, parents dying and all other aspects of life. It is a privilege I do not take lightly.

We are also physically seeing into people’s homes, places of work, and other spaces they occupy over time. This is very intimate knowledge we gain and is not often what a freelance/community interpreter would experience. Often, assignments out in the community have a more constructed environment. In those instances, Deaf people are seen in their doctor’s office, in their classroom, in their job site. Our callers are putting a lot of faith in us as interpreters, not only interpret their communication, but to also hold sacred all that we are privy to during the course of each phone call.

Business Owners and VRS

In addition to the intimate types of calls VRS interpreters experience, we interpret daily for Deaf callers who are doing their business, making their living, over the phone. As we see these callers repeatedly, we get into a rhythm of what those calls will be like. We learn the lingo/jargon of their various occupations, we get used to their way of interacting with their customers, and their idiosyncrasies. As this working relationship is established, we are able to make agreements about sign choices, ways of interacting with their customers, etc. Over time, it becomes easier and more comfortable to settle into the task at hand. I am sure this goes both ways. Hopefully the callers become comfortable with the interpreters over time. We become “colleagues” in a way. We want their businesses to succeed, and we do our best to make that happen!

Highlighting Human Interaction

All of this is a reminder to see each other as humans in an interaction. Of course there are rules and regulations for VRS, which we must follow, but I have found if we prioritize being human, all of that falls into place anyway. In some ways, the structure of the VRS system has pushed sign language interpreters back into the “machine model” of interpreting. It seems that we have allowed ourselves to backslide to this mindset. This is unfortunate, as it further separates us from our Deaf callers. This is where I believe some of the struggles and negative attitudes come into play with VRS work. The fact that we are doing this work through the internet, and are not in the same physical space as our Deaf customers, should not mean that there are additional barriers to our communication. I feel it’s important for video interpreters to actively seek that human connection. As Brandon Arthur stated in his StreetLeverage – Live 2015 recap, “a fundamental truth about the field of sign language interpreting…success is derived from first acknowledging the humanity of the people in front of you. Simple. Challenging. True.”

I believe that if we really see ourselves as humans first, and our Deaf callers as humans before anything else, our work will actually become almost effortless. This can be accomplished in a number of ways.

  1. Connecting with our callers as humans is done when we are not actively involved with interpreting the conversation. A warm smile, admiring a scarf, waving at cute babies, cooing over kittens. The more familiar and comfortable we are with callers over time, the more we can settle in and do the work with ease, and all involved can be satisfied by a job well done. Even if we are faced with a caller we have never seen before, if we could assume this attitude, that callers are human as we are, therefore comfortable and familiar, all our calls can be smoother.

  1. Using care when discussing the work with others is also critical in maintaining a focus on the humanity of those we work with. When I talk about my work to non-interpreters, I make sure to talk about working with humans, and the fact that working with humans is demanding.  Think of nursing, teaching, and other jobs where you are constantly interacting with people in all their joy and pain. When we as interpreters talk with each other, while protocol indicates that we refer to “callers”, I think this limits us as well. We need to recognize the humanity we encounter daily.

  1. Recognizing the shared experiences we have with callers also helps keep our focus on the human factor. When explaining VRS to others, I also try to explain that every type of phone call that a hearing person makes, a Deaf person also makes. Did you call your mother today? Was your conversation pleasant? Did it make you feel like a little kid again? Did you get mad and hang up? What about calls to set up doctor appointments or get test results? Telling the school your child will be out sick? Hanging out on the phone shooting the breeze with an old friend? Hours arguing with Comcast? This is what we do everyday!

Judi Webb
Judi Webb

In The End, Rise to the Challenge

Sure, we can talk about the stats and productivity rates of VRS work. We can talk about the anxiety that comes with not knowing what’s coming our way next. We can talk about compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma. I will admit there have been times when I have interpreted very difficult, painful conversations after which I have removed my headset and walked out of the call center. I knew I would be no good for any subsequent callers, therefore I took care of myself, and them. However, I know I have settled into all of that. I enjoy the thrill of the unknown. I feel I can rise to the challenge of whatever comes my way. Interpreting in VRS becomes easier the more I can approach my work with curiosity, compassion and a spirit of collaboration with my fellow humans.

Questions to Consider:

  1. What is a key phrase you can use to internally remind yourself that we are all human?
  2. By treating each other humanely, in what ways can your work product be improved?
  3. Suppose you’re not “feeling it”; what are some things you can do physically to make it seem like you are, or steer yourself towards a more positive outlook?


* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox?

Simply enter your name and email in the field above the green “Sign Up!” button (upper left-hand side of this page) and click “Sign Up!”

Posted on Leave a comment

10 Lessons From my First Year as a Freelance Sign Language Interpreter

As a recent ITP graduate, Brittany Quickel shares encouraging advice to peers who are entering the world of freelance sign language interpreting.

10 Lessons From My First Year as a Freelance Sign Language Interpreter

When I graduated from NTID two years ago, I drove away from the RIT campus for the last time wearing my cap and gown, car windows down, and singing and signing along to Taylor Swift’s song “Twenty-Two”. I felt a huge range of emotions: pride, happiness, relief, fear, uncertainty, and an overwhelming sense of gratitude. I had been preparing for this moment for my entire high school and college career and now here I was: A graduate, diploma in hand, and one of the newest practitioners to enter the field of sign language interpreting.

[Click to view post in ASL]

I felt ready.

One year later, I realized that in that moment of time, I was as ready as I could have ever been. I was very fortunate to have had many teachers, mentors, and colleagues who shared their words of wisdom with me before I graduated. Their advice still guides me today, and I continue to ask colleagues what they wish they knew when they started their careers as sign language interpreters.

Most recently, I have been surprised to have interpreting students and recent graduates seeking my advice and perspective as a new practitioner! Just as those who came before me shared their advice with me, I hope to repay their generosity by passing along some lessons that I have learned while navigating my first year as a freelance sign language interpreter.

1. Expect the Unexpected

So you expected to be walking into “This, This, and This”, but what you really discovered was “This, That, and What The-” Oh yes, this is an inevitable reality that pops up many times along the course of a sign language interpreter’s career. While it is crucial to try to obtain all pertinent details before every assignment, sometimes this does not always happen. Sometimes, you receive misinformation which causes you to walk into a situation completely unprepared. However, an integral part of freelancing is the ability to be flexible in any given situation, on any given day (and yes, even on those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days). Suppose you are expecting to interpret a training seminar about a topic that you are knowledgeable about, only to walk into the same assignment and realize that the topic is actually completely different than what you had been told. If it is a topic that I didn’t expect but am still able to interpret, then it is business as usual. If I happen to be unqualified for the assignment, then it is also my responsibility to remove myself and inform the hiring entity of the error. While it may be nerve-wracking at times, the ability to remain flexible and calm amidst the chaos of uncertainty will take you very far!

2. Invest in Lifelong Learning

One of the first things I learned when I graduated from my Interpreter Training Program was that I was definitely not done learning, despite being finally finished with school. Completing formal education is only the beginning of a career of lifelong learning and development. This is true for any profession, however as linguistic and cultural mediators, language learning and development will require a continuous effort in every language that we work with: ASL, English, and/or Spanish. There is a limit to how much language learning can be acquired in a classroom, which is why socializing with native speakers of the language is a requirement to develop fluency.

Professional development in our rapidly evolving field of interpreting is also an ongoing endeavor. Staying on top of current trends and best practices is an absolute must for all practitioners. You can do this in a myriad of ways by taking advantage of local workshops in your area and the numerous online resources available to us through the National Consortium of Interpreter Education Centers (NCIEC), the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, as well as online discussion groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. Also, think about those hypothetical “what if?” dilemmas (á la “Encounters with Reality: 1,001 Interpreter Scenarios” by Brenda Cartwright or any scenarios from your thought-provoking ITP discussions) and engage in Reflective Practice from the very beginning. For a more detailed explanation of Reflective Practice, read Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice.

3.  Overcome your Self-Doubt

Thoughts like these may plague your psyche on a daily basis: “Why am I doing this?! This is so hard! I can’t do this! AGH!” It is imperative that you ignore them. Now let me make a clear distinction: self-doubts are very different from self-awareness. Being aware of my tendency to fingerspell a very long word all the way out into no man’s land (an area of skill needing improvement) is very different from beating myself up over that fact and calling myself “the worst interpreter ever” (negative self-talk). We all have our strengths and weaknesses. We can all learn new things and continue to strive to be better than we were yesterday. However, we cannot let our self-doubt hold us back from becoming the best versions of ourselves that we can possibly be.

4. Listen to that Inner Voice that says “You Can Do It!”

You know that random guy in every Adam Sandler movie from the 90’s who swoops in during a desperate time of need and exclaims: “YOU CAN DO IT!” Yeah, listen to that guy, because he is right. You will surprise yourself this year. You will do things that you never thought you were capable of. You will learn, grow, and enjoy many PAHs! In the wise words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

5. Take All Advice with a Grain of Salt.

Lots of people are going to try to give you advice when you are a new sign language interpreter: good, bad, and ugly advice. Sometimes you’ll be able to distinguish between the three, however, take everything that everyone tells you with a grain of salt. Remember that everyone has had their own individual experiences and shares their own unique perspectives on the world that may differ from your own. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide what you want to do and who you want to be. Remember: You are the master of your fate and the captain of your soul!

6. Surround Yourself with People Who Want You to Succeed.

Brittany Quickel
Brittany Quickel

This is crucial. The first year working as a freelance sign language interpreter can be a little isolating for some people, depending upon the nature of your work. Make sure you build your support system comprised of people you trust, who believe in you, and who want you to succeed! These people will help you out when you need it most or when you least expect it! Jean Miller shares some great ideas about how to create your own local support network in her article, #Doable: Creating Safe Spaces for Sign Language Interpreters.

7. Take Good Care of Yourself

I cannot emphasize this enough! Take good care of yourself! Eat food, get enough sleep, drink enough water, find your own ways to relax and de-stress regularly. Freelancing can be a 24/7/365 gig, which is why self-care is of the utmost importance. And don’t be afraid to indulge every once in a while, you deserve it!

Pro Tip: Make yourself a little freelance interpreter survival kit for your car or bag. Janice H. Humphrey includes a great list of essentials in the freelance interpreter bible, “So You Want to be an Interpreter?” Plus, you never know when you or someone you know may be in desperate need of a band aid, tampon, or two Advil.

8. Be Open to Self-Discovery

We are so fortunate and blessed to have chosen a career that teaches us countless lessons not only about the world and its beautiful people, but also teaches us so much about ourselves. As a freelance sign language interpreter, you will learn things you never realized about yourself, and gain a better understanding of what really makes you tick: situations you like/don’t like, love, and maybe even hate. You will learn something about what scares you, befuddles you, and may even find your true passions. As Kahlil Gibran said, you will find that in this year and the many years to come that “the soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.”1 And this kind of self-awareness is a very good thing, my friends.

9. Always Remember Why You Became a Sign Language Interpreter.

I will tell you something that you may already know: This profession is extremely challenging-emotionally, physically, mentally, existentially, and wholeheartedly. You will question your skills, abilities, and you will wonder why on earth you decided to get yourself into this field in the first place. In those moments, remember why you started interpreting. Remember that feeling that burned within your soul that made you say: Whoa. This is it. This is what I want to do with my one precious life.

10. Embrace the Journey

Life is all about the journey. Sometimes, a person’s first year as a freelance sign language interpreter may seem like a never-ending emotional roller coaster, but remember that it is all about the journey, not the destination. Always give thanks to those who have helped you and who continue to guide you along on this path. Never forget who inspired you and who led you to be where you are now: your Deaf/HOH friends and/or family, the Deaf community at large, your teachers, mentors, and fellow peers. Always remember to give back and to pay it forward. Share some insight and encouragement with excited ASL students, volunteer with your local NAD and RID chapters, share resources with your fellow colleagues, and follow up with your teachers and mentors to let them know how you are doing. Embrace the craziness of your first year as a freelance sign language interpreter and have fun!

Questions to Consider:

1. What is the most important lesson that you learned in your first year of freelance interpreting?

2. What is the best advice you would share with an interpreter entering the first year of their freelance career?

3. Did any of the lessons above resonate with you? If so, why?


* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox?

Simply enter your name and email in the field above the green “Sign Up!” button (upper left-hand side of this page) and click “Sign Up!”

Related Posts

The Value of Networking for the Developing Sign Language Interpreter by Stacey Webb

Sign Language Interpreters: How to Avoid Being Abandoned at the Microphone by Tiffany Hill

It Takes a Village to Raise a Sign Language Interpreter by Brian Morrison


1 Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. New York: Knopf, 1952.