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Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice

Most of us went to work as sign language interpreters before we were ready.  Whether it was insufficient skill sets, a lack of maturity and self-awareness, or some other gap, we started working without being fully equipped to handle all that beiSign Language Interpreter Breaking Down Silosng a professional interpreter requires.  This lack of readiness is often compounded by a lack of formal induction into the field.  There are not consistent systems that ensure that our transition from learning to interpret and working as an interpreter is supervised and monitored.

Professional Isolation

This lack of consistent supervised induction and support often leads to isolation—few of us have the luxury of working with another interpreter on a daily basis.  Many interpreter assignments are still filled by the lone practitioner. And, few of us have a direct supervisor who is present when we are working, who understands interpreting at a deep level, and offers support and assistance. We often function as silos—each doing our own thing without connection to others who do our work for long periods of time.

There are many consequences to professional isolation, including job dissatisfaction, burn-out, distrust, fear and frustration.  It can lead to feeling defensive and even hostile. In some instances, it can lead to disrespectful treatment of consumers and one another. When it continues for a long period of time, we may find ourselves almost crippled– numbing out in order to survive the pressures of our work. As a result, we become less willing to open up our work to one another and to seek input into how to improve.  This is a tragic state for any of us.  Our value for one another and the work we do requires us to find creative solutions to this isolation.

Reflective Practice– An Alternative

A process known as reflective practice is increasingly used as an alternative for overcoming professional isolation and encouraging collaborative discussions that help identify ways of improving and promoting best practices within the sign language interpreting profession.  Reflective practice is defined in many different ways in the literature. Essentially it refers to the process of examining critical incidents that occur within our work to gain a deeper understanding of what they mean for what we do.

As mentioned in the post entitled Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?, reflective practice is an important part of the due diligence cycle.  The due diligence cycle involves assessing risks and consequences associated with our work. Having the ability to think about our work as sign language interpreters both individually and with one another—to analyze what happened, why it happened, and what we might do differently under similar circumstances.

Reflective practice allows us to analyze our interpreting experiences for the purpose of gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and the nature of our work.  This process is important to our well-being as practitioners. It is a method of self-evaluation and is a way of improving performance in professional tasks. By reflecting on how we can improve our work, we increase our awareness of what we are doing and constantly learn and grow as professionals.  As well, it is an excellent tool for overcoming our isolation and enabling us to benefit from the shared listening and support of other practitioners.

Barriers to Reflective Practice

Time

There are barriers to reflective practice.  The most obvious is time.  Carving out time in a schedule that is often already over-booked is difficult.  As is the case with all worthwhile pursuits, establishing priorities is essential and often something has to go in order to make the time for something new.  And reflective practice requires an investment of time.  If it can be viewed as time invested in self-care and well-being, it is much easier to set the time as a priority.

Proximity

Another barrier to reflective practice is proximity to other practitioners.  There are many of us who live in rural areas of the United States and do not have ready access to other interpreters.  Even those of us who live in large metropolitan areas that are spread out may find getting to one another difficult.  Fortunately, technology allows us to connect from remote locations.  As has been discussed elsewhere on the Street Leverage site, the use of social media like ooVoo, Skype and other similar programs allows us to connect visually and/or auditorially with one another—some of these tools allowing for up to six individuals to connect simultaneously.

Motivation

A lack of motivation is another barrier to reflective practice.  Depending on the degree of burn-out or frustration we are experiencing, we may just not have the interest or desire to take the leap of faith that is required to engage in what can be an intense process at times. And, as Aaron Brace indicated in responding to the post entitled Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping out of the Shadows of Invisibility, reflecting is not suited to everyone. This is where individual decision and intention come into play.  Certainly, moving into the promise of greater job satisfaction and collegiality is a better alternative than remaining in a state of burn-out. As well, reflective practice can be viewed as one skill to possess among an array of skills geared towards self-care and well-being.

Reflective thinking is a learned process acquired over time.  Given the importance of our work as sign language interpreters, and the potential for harm when it is not done responsibly, learning the art of reflection is a worthwhile commitment.

Forming the Habit of Reflective Practice

There are some strategies that are useful in forming the habit of reflective practice.

1.  Keep a diary or daily journal of significant events during your work as an interpreter. The journal can be a great source of reflection as we consider the challenges we experienced and what stood out as a result of our experience.

2.  Engage in reflective discussion of significant experiences with professional colleagues.  As we continue to explore topics of role, responsibility and duty, we are our best resource.  There is much support and learning that can be gained by seeking out the feedback of valued colleagues with whom we can openly reflect on our experiences. When reflection is done in a collaborative and respectful fashion, we can take the feedback seriously and use it to improve our performance.  Sometimes this process is referred to as case conferencing or observation-supervision.  It allows a trusted group of professionals to explore their experiences towards finding solutions to difficult issues and reinforcing best practices.

3.  Engage in reflective discussions of significant experiences with Deaf consumers.  It is important to find opportunities to talk with Deaf consumers about our work as sign language interpreters and to ask them to help us consider the implications of role implementation for their experiences. What are the implications of our acts of commission and omission for their goals? Their insight is essential in helping us to continue to define our vision for the field and how we will continue to evolve and grow.

4.  Use a model of reflection. There are many models that can be used.  An easy, but effective model is one that involves three steps—discussing the What, So What, and Now What.  Here is how it can work.

a.  WHAT?  This is the description step in the process.  It creates the basis for the reflection.  What happened during the assignment?  What was the situation?  Who was involved?  What were the roles of the various participants?  How did I approach my role? What is a general thesis and preview of your reflection?  This is the description step in the process.

b.  SO WHAT?  This is step when we examine and analyze the What. It should occur on two levels.  So what does this all mean in terms of the outcomes of the assignment?  So what does this mean to me personally?  What was the significance of the assignment?  What did I learn that enhances my understanding of the consumers’ experience?  What did I learn that is reflected or is relevant to my professional experiences? What skills and knowledge did I use/apply?  What did it mean to me personally?  What are my negative and positive feelings about the experience, the people, and the experience? What instances did I encounter that “opened my eyes”?  What do I think about now that I didn’t think about prior to this experience?  How can I use or evaluate this information?

c.  NOW WHAT?  This step allows us to contemplate what we would do differently next time or what practices we want to replicate, expand upon and preserve. What impact might my actions and behavior have on my lifelong learning process?  What impact did my experience have on my work as a sign language interpreter?  What impact did my experience have on how I perceive the importance of behaving as transparently as possible when interpreting?  What insights did I gain that might assist me in my work as an interpreter? How does this experience compliment or contrast with what I have learned previously about interpreting?

Let’s Get Started

Certainly, getting started will require a deeper understanding of what is involved in the process of reflective practice. There are some great resources available to help sign language interpreters learn more about it.  Reading articles by Robyn Dean and Robert Pollard relating to the application of Demand-Control Schema to observation-supervision activities will prove very helpful.  Check out their list of publications on this website.

Also, Christopher Knight and Sabina Wilford have designed a workshop on case conferencing for sign language interpreters.  They published a handout on this topic in the 2005 RID convention handout book that is worth reviewing. As well, go to your favorite search engine and enter the phrase reflective practice and you will access a wealth of publications and sites discussing the process.  It is a particularly valued practice in the healthcare, mental health and teaching fields.  And, check in with your local and state chapter of the RID to see what communities of inquiry or support groups might already exist. 

We Are Our Best Resource

Where communities of inquiry do not currently exist, ask your RID leaders how you can contribute to starting one.  And, of course, using the forum provided us here at Street Leverage is another option.  Perhaps there are those of you who are currently engaged in reflective practice processes who can share with us how you got started, how the process works, and what are the associated benefits.  We truly are our best resource and have so much to offer one another!

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Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged

Gina Oliva

I am sure that most readers are well aware, that the entire “system” for educating hard of hearing and deaf children in mainstream settings is generally a mess, the kids are suffering, and no one person or entity is really in control.  Included in this “system” is the  entire state of affairs with regards to sign language interpreters in K-12 classrooms, across the United States as well as elsewhere around the globe. Let’s call it the “illusion of inclusion” as Debra Russell has so aptly put it.

Alone in the Mainstream

My K-12 experiences, along with the things I learned in my 37-year long career at Gallaudet and during my 46-year long relationship with my “deaf” (e.g. “hearing on the forehead”) father came together to prompt me to write “Alone in the Mainstream: A Deaf Woman Remembers Public School” (Gallaudet University Press, 2004).  I am now working on a second volume of that book with Linda Lytle, from Gallaudet’s Department of Counseling, which will focus on the experiences of younger adults (currently age 18 – 35) as they look back on their mainstream years.   Naturally, this book will include comments and probably whole chapters about Educational Interpreting and the role sign language interpreters play in the lives of deaf children.

Interpreter on a Megaphone

This sense of the need for a second edition had been with me for a while when I found in my inbox the most recent of many letters received. The one quoted below was a serious gem that convicted me of the need for an entire new volume rather than simply a second edition.  It was a megaphone so to speak of the dire straits America’s (and the world’s) hard of hearing and deaf children are finding themselves in.  It is used with permission, and serves as the basis for this post.

Dear Gina,

      Hello!  My name is ________________ and I am a Sign Language Interpreter.  I do some freelance work but mainly I have been an Educational Interpreter in ________________ for eight years.  I attended your book presentation several years ago and am finally getting around to reading your book “Alone in the Mainstream.”    So far I am only on Chapter 6 but am already greatly impacted by what I have read.  I have worked with all ages from Kindergarten up to high school.  In all those settings with all different students I have used ASL, PSE, and/or Cued Speech.  Some of the kids I have worked with have had mild hearing losses, some profound.  These children come from hearing families who sign, hearing families who cue, hearing families who do neither, and a couple of families where the parents are deaf themselves.  One thing remains the same with each child I have worked with.  I feel inadequate. 

      Even though I am a highly skilled interpreter, I wonder if the mainstream setting is ever a social success, even with an interpreter, and everyday that I see the kids struggling I feel just awful.  It is very hard to watch day in and day out. 

      True, I have witnessed a few hard of hearing students who can speak clearly for themselves and are able to follow conversations quite successfully using their hearing alone.  I have seen them flourish, feel included, and have high self-esteem.  What is much more common however, and is so heartbreaking, is witnessing my students having the “dinner table syndrome” (as you put it), where they fake interest in some task to avoid looking lost.  I see a lot of “superficial participation” where onlookers think the d/hoh student is “just fine” (as you also put it) but really they need to look deeper.  My point is, this stuff still happens EVEN WITH AN INTERPRETER PRESENT! 

      In fact, what really kills me is how awkward it is when I am in a “social situation”– it’s just a no win kind of thing.  For example, I am sure you realize that kids will alter their talk if there is an adult around.  So it’s really not “normal kid talk” when I am around.  And if some brave kid attempts to “talk normal” when I am there (such as swearing or saying something they would never say in front of another adult), then the rest of the kids are uncomfortably giggling.  Then, I, the interpreter and the deaf kid by association is in the spotlight – and it is just so ICKY for all involved — it is not authentic at all!  It is tainted and altered by the mere presence of the interpreter.

      More often than not, the Deaf student only wants to chat WITH the interpreter; not with their peers THROUGH the interpreter.  For years I’ve heard educational interpreters talk about trying to encourage their students to ask the other kids in class what their weekend plans are, or what good movies they’ve seen lately, but then the D/hoh student either says “no that’s fine” and looks crushed as if no one wants to be their friend, not even the interpreter OR they go and ask their classmates a few engaging questions, but the conversation quickly fizzles and nothing comes of it.  I think an entire book could be written on the subject of Interpreter/deaf student relationships and how complicated it can get.

      It never fails that every year I work in education, I say to myself “I can no longer support this.  I need to quit and do only freelance and Sorenson work.”  I especially feel this way after reading your book, but then I remember that a lot of participants [for that book] did not have the “luxury” of an interpreter.  Another voice inside me says, “_____, you need to stay working in the schools. Parents will always mainstream their kids, so it may as well be someone skilled and competent working with them. ”

      That voice always wins out, and I stay. 

      But today I am not satisfied.  I want to do something about this.  I think people will read your book and then pause and be reflective, but then resume life thinking “nowadays schools provide more [and] better services than ever before.”  Well, I firmly believe MORE AND BETTER IS NOT ENOUGH!  Right, your subjects didn’t have interpreters (except one I think) and today many or most do have interpreters.  We need to push forward to ensure a better quality of life for tomorrow’s d/hoh students.   We need to ask the right questions, find the right people to share their stories, and make suggestions for making things better.

Heartbroken and Gagged

And so, this is from a “heartbroken and gagged” educational interpreter.  I am sure most of you readers have heard similar or perhaps even felt “heartbroken and gagged” yourself.  Heartbroken from watching the kids you are “working for” miss this, miss that, day in and day out.  Gagged because the dysfunctional system declares you are not to say anything about this to anyone.  Perhaps the latter is an exaggeration — perhaps you can talk to a teacher or some other school personnel.   Brenda Schick’s work on professional conduct guidelines state that as “related service providers” interpreters DO have a responsibility to be more than just a conduit of talking.

The Road Ahead

How do we get the school districts to accept this, to recognize the great value of the interpreter’s observations, and take these into serious consideration?  And perhaps more importantly, how can Educational Interpreters provide not just in-school support to their individual student(s), but how can they “report to the authorities” meaning the professionals who are concerned nationally and globally about the education of deaf and hard of hearing children.  It may take a village to educate a child but the villages ought to share information with other villages.

First, please find a way to get your collective observations into print, the media, to the Deaf Education arena, to parents, and to Deaf Professionals who are working to impact the “system.”  Secondly, think about the Devil’s Bargain, as suggested by Dennis Cokely, and consider giving back through local level advocacy work – in the EHDI system and in local or regional weekend/summer programs that bring your students together so that their social network can include others who face the same issues.

Should Interpreters Address Inadequacy and Neutrality?

Why is it that sign language interpreters working in mainstream settings feel inadequate?  Is it the expectation that h/she be “invisible” as discussed by Anna Witter-Merithew in, Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?  Is this “invisibility” what h/she was taught in the ITP attended?  Related might be a feeling that she is expected to be “neutral”?  I wonder how much of this feeling of inadequacy and or “neutrality” is from some academic knowledge or industry bias and how much is just plain old being a human being and not liking what they see?

If Educational Interpreters could come together to discuss how as a profession they might address this and related issues in K-12 settings, it would do much to boost the confidence and effectiveness of those working in the isolation of educational settings.  The collective voice of Educational Interpreters could hold much promise for alleviating the suffering of the children for whom we are concerned. The interpreter who wrote to me has become a colleague and we have exchanged many emails.  It is obvious that she is trying her best in her own setting, but there seems to be a dearth of support for taking these concerns and the solutions to a higher level.  What should that higher level be and who can lead this effort?

Should Interpreters Address the “Diffusion of Responsibility?”

In the above letter, the writer refers to the concept of “dinner table syndrome,” which I refer to in my book, where the hard of hearing or deaf student fakes interest in some task to avoid looking lost. This was my life day in and day out in my K-12 years and several of the 60 adults who wrote essays for Alone in the Mainstream extended this concept to another phenomenon I dubbed the “everything is fine” syndrome.   Together these two “syndromes” constitute the concept of “incidental learning,” which is the topic of a yet-to-be-published but complete dissertation by a fellow “AITM survivor,” Mindy Hopper.  In our day, the fact of this missing information was in itself invisible to all except the student.  But now, in the modern classroom, the student’s interpreter is a daily witness.  Not only does the classroom interpreter know the student is missing stuff, h/she knows what the student is missing.  This is so much more than any hearing parent of a deaf child has known unless she also spent all day in her child’s classroom.  Talk about power.

As potential partners with teachers and parents, I wonder if the sign language interpreters working in K-12 settings should have as part of their job description to keep a log of conversations or information that they suspect their “charges” (clients) missed. Wouldn’t this help the teacher and the parents determine if their student/child is missing so much as to warrant some kind of action?  Clearly, this would involve taking to heart Witter-Merithew’s lesson in bystander mentality and the “diffusion of responsibility”.   I wonder if these concepts can find their way into interpreter training programs and standards of practice, and how such could come about?

Advocate and Report

That children in general, especially when they reach adolescence, want and need space to discuss their lives without the presence of adults, is a developmental fact. That an interpreter’s presence in K-12 social environments works against the deaf child is an example of how you just can’t change city hall.  The hard of hearing or deaf child has obviously learned from experience that the “quickly fizzling and nothing comes of it” from conversations with their peers is what “always happens” and they have decided they don’t want to experience that again.   But, now, here is an adult (the sign language interpreter) actually witnessing and understanding what it might feel like.  Now the sign language interpreter is also witnessing the stilted social interactions of their deaf or hard of hearing “charge”. How can the interpreter not be expected to be an advocate/reporter?

In my educated and experienced opinion, the collective voice of Educational Interpreters is our only hope that the issues addressed herein could be remedied.  We, the Deaf Adults who are concerned for these children, need your involvement.  Two areas where you can help, beyond your in-school advocacy and the already suggested work to bring your collective voice to the forefront in Deaf Education, are in the EHDI arena (early hearing detection and intervention) and in the establishment/management of weekend and summer programs that bring the solitaires together.

Elevate Your Voice

Perhaps you are the heartbroken and feeling like you are under a gag rule, smart and articulate, educational interpreter in the Heartland.  Or you know someone who is.  If yes, what are your thoughts on this?  What do you think would bring about change?  What would lead to the day that your insights, observations, and suggestions as sign language interpreters would be taken more seriously?  What would elevate the status of interpreters working in educational settings? Your ideas might be simple, complex, seemingly impossible, step-by-step (we like step-by-step), or philosophical.  Bring ’em on.

 

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Sign Language Interpreters: Are Acts of Omission a Failure of Duty?

Sign Language Interpreter in Thought

Often, when discussing breaches of ethical conduct, the focus is on a sign language interpreter’s commission of some act.  Examples might include a breach of confidentiality, accepting assignments beyond one’s capacity, demonstrating a lack of respect for consumers and/or colleagues.  Equally concerning, although discussed less often, are acts of omission.  Acts of omission refer to instances where a practitioner doesn’t follow expected or best practice in performing their duties.

Examples might include failing to advise consumers when there are barriers to an effective interpretation, failure to clarify information the interpreter does not understand or misinterprets, or failure to use consecutive interpreting when the circumstances necessitate, among many others. Both acts of commission and omission can cause harm to consumers, practitioners and the profession.  However, the focus of this article is on acts of omission and their potential relationship to the persona of invisibility that is deeply rooted in our field.  If you haven’t read my previous post, Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadows of Invisibility, consider it a prequel to this article.

Why Do We Fail to Intervene?

Granted, there may be many reasons that a sign language interpreter fails to act when some type of intervention is needed and within their realm of responsibility. After all, interpreting is a complex process. We all come to the work at different levels of readiness for all that is required of us, as eluded by Dennis Cokely in his article, Vanquished Native Voices—A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis. However, it is worth exploring the degree to which lingering shadows of invisibility impact our inaction.   Is it possible that our long history of encouraging practitioners to behave “as if not really there” and allowing things to proceed “as if the consumers were communicating directly” has created a diffusion of responsibility?  As a result, do interpreters perceive themselves as less responsible for the outcome of the exchange, even when it is the interpreting process or the interpreter’s presence that is creating the need for an intervention?

This concept of diffusion of responsibility has been discussed by sociologists studying examples of bystanders who do nothing in an emergency situation. Findings show that the larger the bystander group, the less likely one of the bystanders will intervene. According to social experiments, an individuals’ failure to assist others in emergencies is not due to apathy or indifference, but rather to the presence of other people. Bystanders perceive that their individual responsibility is diffused because it is unclear who is responsible in a group situation.  When responsibility is not specifically assigned, bystanders respond with ambiguity.

Is it possible a similar phenomenon occurs with sign language interpreters?  Do we think of ourselves as bystanders—present from a distance, and therefore, not involved?  Have we internalized the neutrality we are to bring to our task as non-involvement and disinterest [versus objectivity and emotional maturity]?  Are we unconsciously promoting the tendency to diffuse our responsibility to act when action is warranted?  Do we believe that if we are to behave as invisible, then any kind of intervention is inappropriate? Do we experience feelings of ambivalence when confronted with the need for an interpreter-related intervention? If so, there may be serious implications for our ability to fulfill our professional duty and there is merit in exploring this concept of intervention further.

Practicing Due Diligence

Like all practice professionals, sign language interpreters have the obligation to engage in due diligence when carrying out their duties.  Due diligence refers to the level of attention and care that a competent professional exercises to avoid harm to consumers of their services. It is a customary process applied by professionals to assess the risks and consequences associated with professional acts and behaviors.  Applying due diligence during our work as interpreters can help us to anticipate potential issues that may arise and/or validate concerns that we are sensing during our work.  Here are some steps that can guide us in the process.

1.  Recognize that there may be a need for an intervention.  There are many potential instances where such a need could arise.  This step requires us to assess the cues within the situation that signal that something is not working and taking the time to examine such cues more fully.  For example, the interpreter may not know what is meant by what a speaker is saying.  Or, it may become clear that consecutive interpreting will produce a more accurate interpretation and/or allow for fuller understanding and participation by one or more consumers.  Or, perhaps a cultural misunderstanding has arisen that was not addressed within the interpretation. By paying attention to the cues that signal the potential need for an intervention, we begin the process of applying due diligence.

2.  Take responsibility.  The next step in the due diligence cycle involves assessing whether we have a professional responsibility to act.  Part of this step requires the sign language interpreter to quickly assess who ultimately holds the duty to resolve whatever risk or potential consequence exists.  For example, consider instances where an interpreter doesn’t understand the source language message.  Since the interpreter holds the duty to accurately interpret the message, it is the interpreter who holds the responsibility to intervene and seek understanding. Passing on the lack of understanding to the consumer (by glossing or fingerspelling for example), expecting that they ask for the clarification, is avoidance that is reminiscent of  that period in our history where we promoted the view of the interpreter as a conduit or machine.  It is an example of diffused responsibility.  As well, expecting consumers to seek understanding when we do not understand may be unrealistic.  If the interpreter does not feel comfortable intervening, it stands to reason the consumer may not either.  This doesn’t mean that the need doesn’t exist, just that there is a reluctance to acknowledge it in a transparent manner.  So, the test is to assess who holds the duty to generate the accurate interpretation. Clearly, it is the sign language interpreter, not the consumer.

3.  Plan a course of action. Deciding how to intervene is as important as deciding that an intervention is necessary.  There are certainly ways of intervening that are disruptive and can alienate consumers.  So, thinking the process through (even practicing and role playing possible approaches) with colleagues can help to identify specific and successful strategies for intervening. It is important to learn to intervene in a way that builds trust and confidence.  Practitioners who are diligent in taking responsibility for the quality and accuracy of their work comment that when they are proactive in creating effective working conditions, or address errors and misunderstandings in an open and authentic manner, it promotes trust and confidence by consumers.  Diminished trust and confidence seems to arise when sign language interpreters attempt to act as if all is well, when it may not be or simply isn’t.

4.  Take action.  Initiating the intervention is the next step in the due diligence cycle.  This is the step that requires the courage and confidence to act. Again, given our historic roots, many of us find ourselves fearful of taking action perceiving it will be viewed as interjecting of ourselves into the situation.  In reality, we are already part of the interaction, and offering an intervention when it is warranted is not interjection of self, but rather carrying out our professional duty.  This difference is significant.  One is about potentially crossing professional boundaries and the other about maintaining the integrity of our work and profession.

The consequence of failing to act when it is our duty to act can be very serious.  In the case of a police interrogation, failure to apply best practices can lead to challenges being raised as to the admissibility of a deaf suspect’s statements.  In the case of an IEP team meeting, failure to articulate observations in a professional manner can lead to an IEP that doesn’t address the real needs of the deaf child.  In the case of a job interview, failure to accurately convey details can mean the difference between a person getting a job or not.

Stepping Out of the Shadows

Part of our process of stepping out of the shadows of invisibility is acknowledging that it feels safer and easier if we just remain conduits.  We then do not have to address the on-going and complex ethical issues associated with role definition and conflicts.  But without grappling with these very issues, we remain merely technicians, not professionals. We cannot insist on professional standing when we do not perform in the customary ways that professionals perform. As well, we cannot achieve a collective discretion without tackling the hard questions and finding ways to make our work more transparent.

Likewise, as sign language interpreters, we must always assess whether the consequence of intervention outweighs the contribution it makes.  Timing and manner of an intervention are critical considerations.  Sometimes we can’t assess this piece until we can reflect on the assignment afterwards.  Thus, learning to be reflective practitioners is an essential part of the due diligence cycle.  A future post will address this topic.

The Hard Question

What do we believe about ourselves, our work and our contribution to the good of the Deaf society? As we explore the answer to this and other hard questions, we must consider the implications of our history of behaving as if invisible and its potential contribution to the diffusion of responsibility.  In determining our answer, let’s hold fast to that which we value—communication access, equality, integrity and our relationship to the Deaf Community and one another.  It is these values that help us continue our journey of career-long growth and development…and are the source of the courage we need to continue our commitment to keep asking ourselves the hard questions.

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Sign Language Interpreters: Stepping Out of the Shadow of Invisibility

Anna Witter-Merithew

Some time ago some Deaf colleagues were talking about a familiar topic of conversations with and about interpreters, interpreter attitude.  As has typically been my experience, their use of this phrase carried a negative connotation.  Essentially, they perceived the interpreters who interpreted an event they attended as aloof, detached and largely disinterested.

What Happened?

When I inquired about specific behaviors, they described how the interpreters arrived for the event, let the event coordinator know they had arrived, briefly introduced themselves to the Deaf consumers, and then isolated themselves at the front of the room where they began texting and chatting while waiting for the event to start.

During the event, there was little if any effort by the interpreters to check-in with the consumers to verify whether things were working well or not.  During breaks the interpreters disappeared or were observed in the front of the room texting, talking on the phone or chatting with each other.  There was no initial interaction to break-the-ice and allow the consumers and interpreters to become acquainted or to explore logistical considerations and preferences. There was no inquiry into consumer preferences or the effectiveness of the services that were delivered.

At the end of the event, the interpreters said a quick good-bye and left. These behaviors—or lack thereof—were perceived as culturally rude and representative of a poor attitude.  Further, these Deaf individuals reported being distracted by these perceptions during the event being interpreted.  Their thoughts were on the challenge of working through versus with interpreters instead of the subject matter being interpreted.

This one specific example of interpreter attitude has really stuck with me. I find myself paying close attention to how we as sign language interpreters establish our presence and relate to consumers prior to, during and after interpreting assignments.  As a result, I have become increasing aware of just how deep the roots of the interpreter as invisible remain embedded in some of our professional acts and practices.  Even though we strive to move forward theoretically and philosophically in deepening our relationship with Deaf people, some of our professional acts and practices demonstrate that we are still working in the shadow of invisibility.  And, what these professional acts and practices communicate to Deaf people may be counter to our intentions.

Interpreter as Invisible

Historically, in an effort to minimize the potential for the sign language interpreter to step outside their role and take-over a communication event, the field-at-large has encouraged practitioners to perform their duties in the least obtrusive ways possible—even to the extreme of behaving as if they were invisible; merely a conduit for transmitting information from one language into another.  Interpreters may assume they must be detached to be impartial and/or appear professional. Interpreters might instruct speakers to proceed, “as if I am not even here.”  Unfortunately, such a restricted view of the role of an interpreter has proved fraught with misconceptions—the presence of an interpreter in the midst of what would otherwise be a direct human interaction will always have inherent implications.  There have been studies in the field of spoken and sign language interpreting that illustrate the degree to which interpreter presence impacts the outcome of communication events—often in unexpected and unintended ways.

In reality, the view of sign language interpreters as merely conduits has always been faulty primarily because the interpreter must be physically and intellectually present in the interaction to be successful. The interpreter cannot behave as if invisible because there are clearly times when there is a need for the interpreter to manage the flow of communication and facilitate or seek clarification of messages, as well conduct more active interventions when appropriate. Further, facilitation of and access to communication is at the heart of interpreting and is dependent on forming rapport and relationship as part of the interpreting process.

Nevertheless, assumptions that perpetuate the interpreter behaving as if invisible still exist and are evident in the experience of the Deaf colleagues when confronted with an interpreter team who is detached and functioning as disengaged. We still have work to do in terms of stepping out of the shadow of invisibility—focusing on how we establish our presence is just one opportunity.

Interpreter Presence

Interpreter presence relates to the manner and conduct of a sign language interpreter in the midst of interaction with consumers.  Ideally, this presence is evident in the quality of poise and effectiveness that enables the interpreter to achieve a productive and collaborative relationship with consumers.  This quality is much like a spirit or a manner that is felt and received by consumers as genuine engagement, attentiveness, readiness, acceptance, respect.  It is predicated on the desire to offer performance that facilitates a successful outcome—where consumers are able to achieve their goals for the communication event.  It should be evident in all phases of an interpreted assignment—pre, during and post.

Interpreter presence involves the state of mind and level of attention a sign language interpreter brings to his or her work—the state of being closely focused on the relationships and communication at hand, not distracted by irrelevant thoughts or external events.  This clarity of thinking and attention to the task at hand is an important part of the interpreter’s ability to deliver accurate and meaning-based interpretation. Establishing presence is central to creating rapport and establishing trust with consumers.

To illustrate, consider the importance of establishing presence in the healthcare setting where a strong rapport between the healthcare professional, patient and sign language interpreter will enhance the amount and quality of information about the patient’s illness transferred in both directions.  This can enhance the accuracy of diagnosis and increase the patient’s knowledge about the status of their health, thus leading to greater compliance with the proposed treatment plan.  Where such a relationship is compromised because the interpreter fails to create a functional presence, the potential for misunderstanding and risk increase.

Let’s Make the Commitment

It is important to acknowledge that consistently creating an effective presence requires a conscious and deliberate commitment—something that is not always easy to attain in the busy and fast-paced world in which we live.  There are many demands that compete for our attention. The intersection between the linguistic tasks associated with interpreting and the interpersonal dynamics involved in an interpreted interaction are indeed challenging to manage. However, if our intention is create and sustain meaningful relationships with Deaf consumers, this is one way we can make a difference.

Where do we begin?  A first step is self-assessment—we all benefit from a personal check-in with ourselves to examine and monitor our interpersonal behaviors.

  • Do I take time to meet Deaf consumers before assignments to become acquainted and discuss logistical considerations?
  • Do I touch base with Deaf consumers regularly throughout the assignment to make sure things are progressing effectively?
  • Do I make myself available to Deaf consumers during breaks to see if I can be of assistance?
  • Do I avoid using technology during assignments so I remain open, available, and approachable should I be needed?
  • Does my affect and demeanor reflect attentiveness, alertness, engagement and readiness?
  • Do I make myself available at the conclusion of assignments to connect with Deaf consumers should they be interested?
  • If I must leave immediately after an assignment, do I touch base with the Deaf consumer first, letting them know I need to leave and extending my appreciation for the opportunity to work with them?
  • Do I regularly talk with Deaf individuals, outside of interpreting assignments, about their perceptions and expectations of interpreters?  If I do, am I a good listener?

This is one practical way in which we can work to improve the experiences of Deaf consumers with sign language interpreters—and thereby improve our relationship with Deaf people. Let’s make the commitment to continue to step out of the shadows of invisibility and demonstrate our respect for the interactional and cultural norms of the Deaf Community.  Might this lead to less discussion of interpreter attitude and more discussion of Deaf-heart?