Designated Interpreters are Different: Examining a Growing Field7 min read
Alicia Booth outlines the unique relationship between Deaf Professionals and Designated Interpreters, particularly in medical environments. Role adaptation and flexibility are key to this new and evolving specialty area of sign language interpreting.
For half a century, the field of sign language interpreting has been steadily advancing, yet the interpreting needs for Deaf Professionals are developing at an even faster pace. Deaf Professionals (DPs) are achieving their academic and career aspirations in technical fields such as medicine, law, and engineering. Many DPs who achieve their career goals fought to have interpreters alongside them in graduate level classes, practicums, and clinicals. After securing accommodations, the next hurdle is finding a sign language interpreter who has the unique skill set and the willingness to adapt to a career specialty; thus the need for Designated Interpreters (DIs) for Deaf Professionals grows.
Since DPs are not traditional clients, it would make sense that neither are their DIs. Data from surveys of institutions of higher education, documentation from court cases, , , and anecdotal evidence suggest that a DP’s success benefits from a unique approach to accommodations. Personality and adaptability often rank as the most important qualities for their DI to possess, while mastery of ASL rank much lower. The willingness of the DI to linguistically specialize and assimilate into the DPs field is crucial.
Designated Interpreters are Different
Perhaps you may be asking yourself how DIs are so different and why those differences matter? Since I am drawing from my experience as a Designated Interpreter for Healthcare Professionals, I will share an environmental scenario in the hospital; however, these examples can be globally applied for DPs in most technical professions.
Trauma Scenario: The DI and the DP (medical student) are both sitting in the doctor’s call room working on patient notes. Suddenly an overhead page indicates that a Level I trauma is expected to arrive in three minutes. You both rush out the door and head towards the trauma bay. There is exactly now two minutes left until the arrival of the patient, whom, you learned while rushing to the bay, was in critical condition from a motor vehicle accident, is unconscious, and is losing blood rapidly. With those two minutes, the DI’s preparation is crucial for the team’s outcome. There are also a dozen or more medical staff present to assist in stabilizing the patient. As a DI, you are filtering multiple conversations at once. You are also independently (without the direction of your DP) putting on Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), setting up mics for better audio access in the room, introducing yourself to the trauma team, explaining your role, and establishing placement so that you are not in the way, but visually accessible, to the DP. The DP in those two minutes may have been on the opposite side of the room looking at incoming x‐rays, EMS reports, and also getting on their PPE. If that DI was to wait even a second (stuck in the traditional role of not acting on one’s own autonomy), the patient’s care could be jeopardized, as well as the DI’s own safety. The DI might even be kicked out of the trauma bay as an unnecessary bystander, still waiting for the DP to introduce you and for them to indicate what you should be doing and to whom you should be speaking. That DI’s inclusion with the medical team is actually what elevates the DP to be on an equal level with peers and supervisors. When there are only two minutes to designate roles and lives are depending on efficiency, you simply cannot respond as a traditional interpreter does.
Now, this was an extreme example to indicate how DI’s must abandon roles taught to us by ITPs, but re‐examined, we could certainly apply this type of autonomy in a less life-threatening situation. That was a little on how DI’s are different. You may now have already guessed why it matters. Now, Iet’s dissect these questions a bit further.
Adaptability is Key
The traditional role provides a lot of safety for sign language interpreters but it works against the success of Deaf individuals in professional careers. With that said, some DPs do prefer traditional interpreters. We must always keep that in mind when customizing our approach to our clients’ needs. DPs share a common concern that sign language interpreters’ lack of adaptability and limited skill-sets are what prevents them from climbing the success ladder. Some will overcome the odds, but may remain isolated amongst their hearing peers. Eventually, this will lead to plateauing in their chosen field.
DPs and DIs Develop Close Partnerships
The traditional approach to sign language interpreting shields us from encounters that challenge our neutrality. As DIs, our neutrality is still intact but our humanity is exposed. You can not hide your humanity as a DI when you are covered with blood from a patient, interpreting a terminal diagnosis, or witnessing a birth. Being exposed to death and birth will bring us closer to the DP and the medical staff supporting those patients. The DI may be invited to debrief with the staff after trauma. They may also cry or laugh with the DP and his team. That is part of the partnership. The role of a DI exposes their vulnerabilities, weaknesses and strengths which, in turn, can create a stronger bond between the DP and DI. It also helps level out the natural power dynamic that exists in the hearing and deaf world. In a partnership approach, you both have stakes in successful outcomes. Additionally, as a healthcare DI, you are taking up precious space that would otherwise be utilized by another doctor, nurse or student. Standing idly in “neutrality” is not considered a good utilization of resources.
Partnerships are created through on‐the‐job relationships with the DP and their peers. We are friendly, communicative, and responsive to questions. If we do not communicate autonomously and openly with or without our DP around, it will create immediate isolation for that professional. In other words, we are considered an extension of that DP. Stay with me here, I am not speaking on existential terms. Simply put, we are behaving as we normally would amongst colleagues. We are working to close the formal and informal conversational gap that often occurs with peers who do not share a language. DPs and DIs might finish each other’s thoughts on occasion – this is teamwork.
Either way, we are acting on acquired instincts and, together, our collaborative communication “closes the deal” for a PAH work environment to run smoothly. It becomes obvious why the DI’s personality and adaptability skills are highly desirable. Neither the DP nor DI wants to be stuck together if they are not able to effectively work together. Of course, the only way to create this level of trust is getting to know the DP on both a professional and personal level. How else could a DI read the DP’s thoughts and know when to share a favorite deaf joke, “Why did God create farts? So that Deaf people could enjoy them too!” to a doctor while performing a colonoscopy. It’s always a good laugh, and the doctor may be more likely to request the DP on another assignment because their experience with “our team” went smoothly.
These scenarios only scratch the surface of the depth of this type of teaming environment. DPs are eagerly awaiting sign language interpreters that are ready to embrace change. An interpreter with the aptitude for learning, who is also humble enough to adapt to the DP’s needs will succeed in this role. While not all sign language interpreters are a good match for this work, those few that have this privilege are honored every day to be part of the DP’s world.
Let’s work together to advance our careers and DPs too!
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Questions for Consideration:
- How are the current traditional interpreter roles holding back deaf professionals?
- What are the challenges of interpreters acting on their own autonomy?
- How does a Designated Interpreter adapt their role?
 Swabey, L., Agan, T., Moreland, C., & Olson, A. (2016, May). “Understanding the Work of Designated Healthcare Interpreters” Retrieved August 11, 2016, from http://www.cit-asl.org/new/ijie/volume-8-1/#toggle-id-4
 U.S. Medical Schools’ Compliance With the Americans with Disabilities Act: Findings From a National Study. (n.d.). Retrieved August 11, 2016, from https://uthscsa.influuent.utsystem.edu/en/publications/us-medical-schools-compliance-with-the-americans-with-disabilitie
 Eligon, J. (2013, August 19). Deaf Student, Denied Interpreter by Medical School, Draws Focus of Advocates. Retrieved August 11, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/20/us/deaf-student-denied-interpreter-by-medical-school-draws-focus-of-advocates.html
 “Breaking Down Barriers: Professionals and Students in Healthcare” (n.d.). NADMag, Spring(2016).