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Incidental Learning with Deaf Students: Is There a Role for Sign Language Interpreting?

Mindy Hopper presented Incidental Learning with Deaf Students: Is There a Role for Sign Language Interpreting? at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. Her presentation defines incidental learning and where it is infused in social learning, identifies the broader implications for deaf students, and inquires about the role of sign language interpreters in incidental learning discourse within the Deaf student’s situated contexts.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Mindy’s presentation from StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Mindy’s presentation directly.]

Incidental Learning with Deaf Students: Is There a Role for Sign Language Interpreting?

Hello everyone! It has been an amazing and inspiring time at this Street Leverage event. I have learned so much that I feel truly alive. I am honored to be here today. My presentation is based on my dissertation work which centers on the topic of incidental learning. I want to make clear that I am not applying this focus solely to Deaf students in mainstream settings, but also more broadly to Deaf consumers of interpreting services in a variety of settings, such as medical offices, financial planning, meetings or any host of others.

Types of Learning

While there are many different types of learning theories, today I would like to focus on three main kinds of learning: formal, informal and incidental. Formal learning tends to occur in more structured environments. Such environments may include an agenda from which to discuss a number of prescribed items with a certain audience- much like I am presenting to you now. Informal learning occurs in environments in less structured environments such as in group conversations of varying sizes as side conversations in a room or while chatting in a hallway. In this setting, no agenda, lesson plan or topic of discussion exists. Incidental learning can occur in either formal or informal settings. Dynamic and fluid, incidental learning is elusive in its complexity, duration, and propensity for layering. It is often brought on by external stimuli that create for those involved many different but related conversations. Bystanders attune to them either consciously or subconsciously. Through connection to that stimulus, either visual or auditory, our brains can file it away for immediate or eventual knowledge gain and growth of related ideas. We will delve more into the complexity of incidental learning during this presentation.

Moreover, incidental learning is rich and infused with social learning. Opportunities for these kinds of learning are absolutely ubiquitous from day one and throughout our daily lives; and constantly emergent around structured school curricula. Next slide. [SLIDE at 3:05.] This slide embodies what incidental learning really is: a constant milieu of visual, auditory and linguistic stimuli in any given environment. The question is: do Deaf students have access to them?

I want to take a moment to share some examples of incidental learning with you from my own personal experience. At some time between the age of 6 to 8, I remember getting thirsty while playing outside. I went into the kitchen to get some water when I saw my mother having a discussion with my father. She was using spoken English so I couldn’t catch her exact words, but she seemed agitated and held a paper in her hands. I then lipread her saying one phrase: “the interest is a killer.” For whatever reason, those words stuck with me. But unable to make sense of it in the moment, I went back outside and continued to play. It was not until I was a junior in high school taking a consumer education class when the teacher began to lecture on the dangers of consumer debt and high interest rates that I put it together with my parents’ worry and anxiety of what I had remembered from all those years ago, deciding at that moment not to get a credit card. Had I not drawn on that past experience through incidental learning, I may not have had the same degree of reaction to what I was later learning as an adolescent.

Another example of incidental learning happened to me just recently as I participated in a meeting via interpreting services. This particular interpreter knew me well both personally and professionally. While interpreting, the interpreter, for a moment,  attuned to a sudden flurry of discussion in the hallway about some breaking medical news. Apparently, the polio vaccine was being used as treatment to fight brain cancer, since the virus had been shown to attack cancer cells. The interpreter had shared this information after the meeting. My interest was piqued, and at that moment I was afforded a choice: I could do further research into the topic, take it at face value, or dismiss it. I decided to dig a little deeper and discovered information I then shared with some friends. That access point was an example of the power and influence incidental learning can have.

The Critical Nature of Social Learning

Mindy Hopper
Mindy Hopper

Now, before I display the next slide which departs a little from the current topic, I would like to mention something called utterances. In my doctoral research I studied utterances among 8th grade middle school students in a variety of interactions. You can imagine the staggering amount of social interactions in this age group- whether it be outside the school, in the halls, at lockers, in the gym or cafeteria, the bus, playground, bathroom- basically, you name it, it was happening there. I documented and will share with you some utterances on the next slide. As you read them, think of what power and influence having access to those utterances would mean. While you read them, you may have thought back to your own experiences growing up in middle school. Consider that your most salient memories of that time may not have been academic related, but rather, dependent on the society of your peers outside the classroom- and most others would agree. I am not looking for individual answers here; this is just food for thought. The implications of access to utterances such as these are rich, in terms of knowledge, understanding the world around you, feelings of self-worth, gaining a sense of belonging and more. As I show the next slide listing different possible implications of accessing such utterances, I encourage you to think about the impact of each.

As you can see, the impact is broad. Through this exposure a person develops metacognitive awareness and in particular, self-esteem, which is crucial. After all, it feels good to possess knowledge about the world, right? I want to share one other example that came to light in my dissertation research. I was observing a group of students who were friends and peers. By the way, if you would like more information about my methodology, I will address that in my workshop. We entered a classroom and before instruction officially began, I observed the group of girls chatting about college options and their reasons for wanting to attend certain schools. The Deaf student I observed learned of this conversation much later. During this particular conversation, one girl preferred a certain college for its small class sizes and low faculty to student ratio, while another preferred a different college for its many majors, particularly in environmental engineering where she could study the effects of global warming. Yet another student chimed in with a preference for a college with the lowest tuition to avoid saddling her family with debt. As a researcher, I was blown away. Eighth grade, and already these students were talking about college? Looking back, college never even crossed my mind until I was a senior in high school. It made me wonder: did my friends discuss college plans as these students did when I was young, and I just didn’t know? It gave me pause to think I may have missed out on something so important because of gaps in incidental learning.

Leveraging Incidental Learning

[SLIDE at 10:50.] In the next slide, notice the person in the lower left corner. You will see a progression of images to be viewed in sequence, lower left to upper right. So at the bottom of the screen you see a student who is a human being with innate curiosity. Now in theory, suppose the person in the lower left corner had access to the incidental learning, that ambient information that is constantly and simultaneously flowing amongst their peers.  The information, the scaffolding exchange of ideas, becomes a person’s fund of knowledge. This fund of knowledge develops over time, expands and allows us to make decisions accordingly. It also allows us to negotiate, form newer ideas, and make new conclusions. This process of appropriating input influences our values, perceptions, beliefs, and how we relate to our immediate community and indeed, the world. Having access to this wealth of knowledge allows us to see things from different angles. It helps us to “look under the hood,” and come to terms with “social realities” which connect with our sense of belonging and engagement as an equal member of our community. This is all constructed in theory.

You may wonder why I chose to take such an avid interest in incidental learning. As a Deaf person, my epistemology, or the ways of knowing myself, my experiences, and the world all have been shaped by my identity and my environment. From a very young age, I was educated in a mainstream program as the sole Deaf person and trained in an aural-oral communication method. Although I received a perfectly satisfactory education, I later realized with a sense of concern how much of my rich incidental environmental information I had missed. I would occasionally get just a portion of a topic being discussed incidentally, but would often miss the layers of why and how this information came up in the first place. I am very concerned because the numbers of Deaf students mainstreamed is now approaching 85-87%. In environments where they may be the sole Deaf student, access to the wealth of incidental learning could be very limited. That is the reason I feel that the role of the sign language interpreter is key in supporting the benefits of incidental learning.  [SLIDE at 13:30.]

Systemic Ideologies and The Role of Sign Language Interpreters

You might be wondering why I decided to show a slide with traffic lights on it. Based on my observations- not to say this is endemic- some of you may relate to this and feel imposed upon by systemic ideologies. The picture of traffic lights, to me, signifies the systemic ideologies. When interpreters arrive in a classroom environment, often they do not start interpreting until the instructor begins to speak- the red light, green light or on/off approach. When the instructor stops so does the interpreter, the class ends, the students exit the room and so forth. Should we consider that systemic oppression? It may be a daunting thing to consider as an interpreter, but really what I want to emphasize is that interpreting needs to effectively communicate the most salient points of instruction without allowing anxiety to take over the weight of the process. Consider Demand-Control Schema when thinking about how to synthesize systems and information when you interpret. Through DC-S an interpreter can reflect on their values, ethics and also how to respond to the larger demands of systems at work while coming to a conclusion on how to act. It is also imperative to use your intuition on what makes sense to do in any given situation.

Systemic ideologies tend to prioritize content stemmed from from the teacher’s formal curricula or high-stake testing standards. Some even have language policies or IEP documents that cite which kind of language mode or communication is required. In general education, spoken language as a rule seems to dominate the environment while a signed language is expected to function discreetly in a corner. It can be a struggle then for interpreters to garner the resources and support needed to perform their job well in that kind of unbalanced dynamic, and to circumvent that requires some creativity. Next slide. [SLIDE at 16:06.]

Collaboration is Key

It is interesting that this slide seems to dovetail nicely with a theme I have noticed during this Street Leverage conference: collaboration. An idea I would like to float with all of you today, one I happened upon in my dissertation work, stems from a comment from a Deaf student I observed. She was satisfied with the interpreter’s service overall, but asked why it was the interpreter’s preclusion to decide what information was important- basically asking “why the filter?” She wanted to have the autonomy to choose what information to attend to in their daily interactions.This is noteworthy. I suggest that interpreters set aside time in their schedule to check in with the Deaf student on their preferences, interests and goals to further the spirit of partnership and to give the student a sense of ownership over their own education, both formal and informal, in whatever topics interests them- health, science, sports, etc. The interpreter is then able to tailor their attunement to the Deaf student’s and make what is salient to them accessible. At that point the student is free to pursue that information or not at their discretion. Regular check-ins could happen weekly so there is opportunity to modify, if needed, what is most of interest.

Another idea to foster collaboration is to reach out to any notetakers present in the classroom. Notetakers, like interpreters, are accustomed to attending primarily to the formal instruction in the room- mainly the teacher. But if an interpreter took it upon her/himself to alert the notetaker to the importance and impact of incidental learning, notes would then become one more way for the Deaf student to have access to the environment beyond official instruction.

One more suggestion is to attend and participate (not interpret) at a student’s IEP meeting. An interpreter has unique insight to share with other privileged decision-makers at IEP meetings, such as parents and school personnel. Yet another thought that surfaced while conducting my research- and this is brilliant- is developing partnerships with local interpreter preparation programs. Students or intern interpreters could shadow a Deaf student in their school day and be responsible, in signed or written form, for communicating incidental content when the teacher is not present in the room. Again, the Deaf student would then be able to peruse that communication and make an informed choice on whether or not to follow up. These are just some of the ideas that came up in my research process, and merit more thought. [SLIDE at 19:59.]

You will notice that one thing is now different about the slide you just saw. It is the same as my initial slide, but with what difference? Yes, now you, the interpreter, have a place in the scheme. In conclusion, you all are a part of the informal curriculum, and in the informal environment, that takes place around a Deaf consumer. It is not a feature solely within the bounds of a classroom. At that next medical appointment you interpret, think about stepping outside the confines of interpreting only direct communication and instead widen your frame to the incidental communication happening all around. An overheard conversation between medical staff may have relevance beyond what appears on the surface, and could serve to impact the Deaf consumer in a meaningful way.

Your Turn

I urge all of you to contemplate exactly how you approach your daily work. After all, you are an important voice in our mutual collaboration and benefit. Through continued dialogue, we can work toward transformation. It does not happen overnight of course, but will with ongoing investment from all of us. As the hashtag says, “it’s our turn,” and I then put it to you as becoming “your turn” in this effort. Before I close, I have one more thought to share: [holds up poster] challenge your practice. Think outside the box. See it from 10,000 feet. Delve into the layers that make up who you are as a practitioner. Heed your intuition, and keep on the path. Thank you.


Are you going to StreetLeverage – Live 2016 in Fremont, CA, April 15-17th? 

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Deaf Interpreters: Shaping the Future of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession

Eileen Forestal presented Deaf Interpreters: Shaping the Future of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her talk examines the paradigm shift occurring within the sign language interpreting profession as Deaf interpreters challenge traditional interpreting service models.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

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

Deaf Interpreters: Shaping the Future of the Sign Language Interpreting Profession

Good morning. It is so great to see all these beautiful people here today. Everyone is here supporting our field – the interpreting field and the field including Deaf Interpreters.

Deaf Interpreters truly are shaping the future of the sign language interpreting profession. Currently, the interpreting profession is experiencing a social transformation. This transformation stems from a variety of origins; there is research being done to develop best practices, StreetLeverage is encouraging new ideas and new ways to dialogue and view professional issues from a wider lens, bringing us together to engage with open hearts and minds.  Deaf Interpreters have been involved every step of the way since the beginning of the profession. Deaf Interpreters are here to stay. We will shape the future of the profession for all interpreters whose work includes American Sign Language and English.

Historical Perspectives

I want to talk a little bit about history. Although there were no formal labels like “Deaf Interpreter” in the Deaf Community early on, their presence was felt. Where there is Deaf Community, there is reciprocity – Deaf people taking care of each other. Sharing skills, knowledge and information has always been an integral part of the Deaf Experience. This idea is nothing new to us.

I’ll share a story from my own experience. I attended oral school as the only Deaf child in my hearing family. During my oral school years, I was constantly in trouble. At recess and outside of the classroom, on the playground, the other Deaf students would come to me for explanation and clarification. I would try, through our own version of gestures, signs and mouthing, the lessons and pieces the other students had missed. When I got caught doing this, I was punished with a ruler to my hands. It was innocent enough – they wanted to understand. We were young – only 8-10 years old, if you can imagine.

Later on, when I was in high school, my Deaf classmates would come to my house regularly. I was mainstreamed in high school. The St. Louis educational system was staunchly in favor of mainstreaming and students were spread out around the community in their school programs. On the weekends, the high school students would all come together. Those gatherings were my saving grace. At these weekend gatherings, the other high school students would come to me for help understanding their work.  It always made me think about how I could explain and describe the material – how to make the information clear and understandable in ASL.  As time went on, these interactions progressed to job seekers concerned and looking for help with their interview skills, etc. I would provide them with cues and assistance as best I could. Those experiences were powerful- I felt a deep sense of obligation. Obligation in the most positive sense – I was fulfilling my duties by providing reciprocity to the community. My participation played a part in maintaining that strong value in the community.

Even after I was married, Deaf community members sought me out at our home. There were even times when the police would come to the door. Bear in mind, this was before we had door bell signalers. My hearing children would awaken to knocking on the door and come to get my husband and I, letting us know the police were at the front door. The police would indicate that one of us needed to go with them to assist a Deaf Community member. My husband and I would determine which of us would go with the police and which of us would stay home with the children. On scene with the police, we would use all manner of communication – written, signed, whatever was required – to work through communication for clarity. As you can see, I’ve been interpreting and translating for quite some time now.

At some point, there was an epiphany that Deaf people can interpret. This realization led to many Deaf people being placed in a variety of situations to act as a professional interpreter by default. Eventually, after being thrust into situation after situation, Deaf people started to realize they could find work as a professional interpreter, part-time or full-time. Professional interpreting wasn’t a known career path – no one was in high schools talking to Deaf students about interpreting as a potential career. We see that starting now, this career path idea is making progress and slowly, but surely, the word is getting out. Gallaudet and a handful of other colleges and universities are on the forefront of the movement to encourage Deaf individuals to consider becoming a professional Deaf Interpreter, to consider interpreting as a career path.

As a result of this growing opportunity, the pool of Deaf Interpreters is expanding rapidly. While this expansion is positive, we still don’t have a sufficient body of research focused on how Deaf Interpreters approach the interpreting task. This research gap created a hole which hearing interpreters sought to fill – defining the function and role of Deaf Interpreters, but from a very limited perspective. In that model, hearing interpreters would take the lead and the Deaf Interpreter’s role was to follow that lead and sign for the Deaf consumer.

I’ve experienced this dynamic in my own work. One particular situation comes to mind. I was called to a hospital I had been to on numerous occasions. This was in the mid-1980s, maybe 1985, or so. I had worked with the hearing interpreter on numerous occasions in medical, legal and law enforcement situations. Even with those shared experiences, the hearing interpreter was very directive and insistent that they were the lead interpreter. At times, the hearing interpreter went as far as telling me when and what I should tell the Deaf consumer. Although I was a bit taken aback, I continued to try to interpret. The hearing interpreter, feeling I had somehow misunderstood their instructions, interrupted the process, indicating that I should follow their lead and “sign” for the person. This limited understanding of the Deaf Interpreter’s role completely disregards my innate sense of turn-taking and discourse flow within the cultural and linguistic norms of ASL. Rather than allow for a natural dialogic flow, the hearing interpreter tried to impose their views about a Deaf Interpreter’s role on my work, expecting machine-like behavior and utterances. Their insistence that I take on this foreign role, one which does not allow for development of rapport and natural language, created a sense of discord in me. Many Deaf Interpreters report similar experiences and feelings.

Hearing Interpreters Have Been Making Decisions About Interpreting By Themselves

Since its inception in the early 1960s, the profession of sign language interpretation has utilized a number of service models. There was the conduit or machine model, the communication facilitator model, etc. The Deaf Community has always had their own rubric for what makes a good interpreter and what good interpreting looks like. Unfortunately, those community expectations were not heard by those with decision-making power in the interpreting field. If you look at the professionalization of sign language interpreting, you can see, from the Code of Ethics to the service models used (conduit, communication facilitator, etc.), all these decisions have been made by hearing interpreters.

If we look to spoken language interpreters for a comparison, the decision-making process is quite different. The users of each language represented in a given situation are included in the decision-making process, and any relevant cultural considerations are also taken into account. In the sign language interpreting arena, hearing interpreters have traditionally made all the decisions, often stating, through the lenses of disability and paternalism,“We know what is best for you.” This perspective disregards the historical reality that Deaf people have been interpreting, supporting and deciding what is best for the community all along. This has been the reality since the beginning of the interpreting profession.

Eileen Forestal
Eileen Forestal

Now, as Deaf Interpreters enter the picture, there is a radical shift to a new paradigm. This shift is creating a level of dissonance for many hearing interpreters. The expectation that the hearing interpreter is the professional and the Deaf person is the client is an old paradigm. When that expectation is not met, hearing interpreters experience some uncertainty. They may feel off-balance – if the Deaf person isn’t the client, who are they? How do I do my job in this new landscape? This dissonance also impacts the Deaf Interpreter as they are left trying to respond to hearing interpreters in flux. Deaf Interpreters are clear on their function in an interpreting setting – they follow the interactive rules of ASL, as well as the natural discourse flow, using rapport and cultural knowledge to guide the interaction. They use their inherent understanding of the cultural and linguistic needs of the Deaf consumer(s) to manage and mediate between participants and to coordinate the process as a whole. When those tasks and roles are denied, it creates a dichotomy between hearing and Deaf Interpreters.

Deaf Interpreters have an expectation that they will be permitted to use the more traditional “community based” model of interpreting as described previously. To discard that model to utilize the “machine” model, as prescribed by hearing interpreters, also creates some tension and unease. This other way of interpreting is the antithesis of our approach, our practice, our work. We then become linguistic and cultural brokers. The expectation that our interpretations should be produced simultaneously is not our norm. Simultaneous interpreting is not the norm for a Deaf Interpreter – the pace, the speed is not natural. For a Deaf consumer, having signs thrown at them in rapid-fire succession does not equate to communication, does not encourage comprehension. Let’s set aside conversation about simultaneous interpreting for a moment and look at consecutive and dialogic interpreting. The interactive nature and the more natural pacing of these styles of interpreting do encourage and support comprehension.

(Aside to the moderator: Do you have the time? How much time is left? Great.)

Let’s look at research for a moment. There is a substantial body of research on the European approach to interpreting. In a situation where two spoken languages are present, for example, French and Spanish, the interpreter whose “mother tongue” or native language is Spanish would interpret from French (their second language) into their native Spanish. Working in their native language allows the interpreter to use their expertise with the linguistic and cultural aspects of their own language to accurately interpret from the other language. This has been the European process for interpreting. If we follow that line of reasoning, it is logical to use Deaf Interpreters’ “mother hands” in interpreting situations where ASL is the language being produced.

We stand at a crossroads as Deaf Interpreters seek a return to the “community based” model of interpreting. Some hearing interpreters accept this change process to varying degrees, while others are firmly resistant. We see a lot of resistance to the mere idea of standing and working alongside a Deaf Interpreter. There can be a variety of reasons behind their resistance. Perhaps the interpreter feels threatened or disheartened. They may question their own skills and qualifications or fear judgment from the Deaf Interpreters. There is a whole host of potential issues. It’s important to remember that hearing interpreters do have skills, they do possess valuable knowledge, particularly related to the English language, hearing cultural norms, etc. These skills, this knowledge creates successful interactions with hearing English speakers. Deaf Interpreters have their own experiences, their innate understanding of the Deaf Experience, their intuition, their cognitive frame – the way Deaf people see and understand the world.  All these skills and traits allow Deaf Interpreters to find the linguistic and cultural equivalents that provide for more cohesive interpretations and result in clearer communication for Deaf consumers.

If we, Deaf and hearing interpreters alike, begin to recognize and acknowledge the skills, knowledge and abilities each group contributes to interpreted situations, if we come to the interpreting task as equals, the experiences for the Deaf consumer and the hearing consumer have been powerfully enhanced. After all, who do we serve? Our consumers.

A Demanding Presence of Deaf Perspective and the Emergence of Deaf Interpreters

I’ve already discussed some of the points from the previous slide. Today, Deaf Interpreters are here (at StreetLeverage Live – Austin). I see a number of them scattered around the room. In yesterday’s session, there were 30-35 Deaf Interpreters in attendance. I’m starting to see larger numbers of Deaf Interpreters attending various conferences. In fact, Deaf Interpreters are becoming more active in every aspect of interpreting from conference attendance to linguistic research, Deaf studies, etc. The truth of the matter is that Deaf Interpreters are making regular and rich contributions to the field of sign language interpreting by virtue of their knowledge, skills and experiences.

We also have to recognize the shift in positioning that is taking place. Until recently, hearing interpreters have worked comfortably within the status quo, making decisions and going about the business of interpreting. When Deaf Interpreters enter the picture, many have experienced a moment of discomfort as they confront this shifting reality. This is a normal reaction. We, as Deaf Interpreters, have to create an environment where both Deaf and hearing interpreters can come together as a team. We can work together as allies, as partners. Deaf Interpreters aren’t here to take power away from hearing interpreters. We can share communication, share the power of that. Historically, Deaf people have had communicative power. Now, as Deaf Interpreters enter the scene more frequently, we can share our power with hearing interpreters. We will build meaning together.  We can’t do it separately. Deaf and hearing interpreters will own our interpretations, as will the Deaf and hearing consumers. As a unit, we can work through interpreted events to ensure that all consumers ultimately benefit from this teamwork and gain a clearer understanding of the interpreted message.

“Community Based” Interpreting Model vs. “Mainstream” Interpreting Model

Let’s talk about “community-based” interpreting and how we, as Deaf Interpreters, approach our work, versus the “mainstream” model of interpreting, the more machine-like, simultaneous, fast-paced interpreting. The “mainstream” model of interpreting goes “against the grain” for Deaf Interpreters.  That model of interpreting focuses primarily on speed, on the fast-paced production of information in an unending stream. Speed is really the only goal for this model. “Community-based” interpreting, on the other hand, focuses on more holistic goals: relationship/rapport, message comprehension, maintaining linguistic and cultural identity and community cohesion. As Deaf Interpreters, we have to recognize that “mainstream” interpreting does have its place. At the same time, we need to make some shifts to utilize the “community-based” interpreting model more frequently.

Reclaiming the “Deaf Interpreter Norm”

It is time. It’s time to reclaim the “Deaf Interpreter norm.” The rich contributions Deaf Interpreters make need to be infused and incorporated into the sign language interpreting profession. Along with the influx of Deaf interpreters I’ve described, there are also a host of Deaf researchers who are looking at translation, interpretation, culture and any number of other relevant topics. The expansion of Deaf participation in the field is not intended to exclude hearing interpreters but to embrace them and bring us all together. At times, hearing interpreters may feel we are pushing them away, but that is not the case. We are all working toward the same goals. It is remember that. By the same token, hearing interpreters need to give Deaf Interpreters the power to make decisions about how and when translations and interpretations should happen.

When we reclaim our “Deaf Interpreter norms”, you will see increased collaboration between Deaf and hearing interpreters, elevated conversation and discussion about language and interpreting choices and much more.  Deaf and hearing interpreters will be working as true teams, coming together as a unit in courtrooms, mental health and medical settings, job trainings, education, performing arts – the list of possibilities is endless.

I remember one instance – as you know, I’ve worked extensively as a Deaf Interpreter in the courts, etc. At one point, I was called to be an expert witness in court. The court had a Deaf Interpreter working throughout the proceedings. When I was called to testify, I took the stand and I realized that I felt a sense of freedom by having that Deaf Interpreter there. I knew that I  wasn’t bound by speed in this setting.

The first question came and I began to give my answer, feeling relaxed and confident. The Deaf Interpreter signed to me rapidly appearing to be concerned about hearing cultural norms and the impatience hearing people often feel with confronted by silence. By so doing they were suggesting that interpreter are unable to take the time needed to ensure communication truly occurs. While that may be the status quo as we know it, we need to make time. We must make time for communication to happen. As we do that, we will build more collaboration between Deaf and hearing interpreters.

I’d like to close with a poem. This poem will utilize the “1” and “5” hand shapes. [Note from StreetLeverage: Please access Eileen’s ASL poem at 18:25 of the ASL version of her talk. No English equivalent is available.]

Thank you, everyone.


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Vulnerability: A Collaboration Killer for Sign Language Interpreters

Sign Language Interpreter Concerned About Being VulnerableAs calls for volunteers went out to test a platform that could ultimately provide live ASL interpretation for any TEDx conference—TEDx events are community organized events that bring people together to share ideas—two groups of sign language interpreters emerged, a Deaf and hearing team in New York and a group of hearing interpreters in Baltimore. This opportunity was a chance to interpret portions of a streamed TEDx event live via the Internet to an audience of self-selected individuals volunteering to provide feedback on the technology and approach for these events.

This call for volunteers by Sarge Salman—an innovator leading the Conference ASL (CASL) group to improve accessibility at TEDx events—set off a round of discussions among sign language interpreters about vulnerability and fear of ridicule, especially online. Apparently, this fear kept many highly qualified interpreters from volunteering, a shame since a healthier climate would have brought more hands, more minds, and more opportunities to help get this worthy goal off the ground.

Risk Averse

Sadly, so many of us fear being mocked, criticized, and torn to shreds by fellow practitioners that we avoid taking worthwhile risks. We fear we are never good enough, and by exposing our vulnerabilities, we will be labeled weak or unqualified. We often do not know who to turn to because it seems so unsafe to open up to anyone but our closest friends. Still, we know many of our sign language interpreter colleagues are secretly wishing for the same nurturing professional support. In the absence of such assistance, we ignore our needs and find ourselves stagnating.

An Admission

I must admit that when initially presented with the request to interpret TEDx live online, I caved to the immediate knots that formed in my stomach as I imagined fumbling in front of a live camera. Secretly, I wished I was that interpreter, one of the super-skilled who everyone knows is perfect for this kind of job. As far as I could see, those interpreters were already represented on the list. Who was I to add my name? I didn’t see myself as confident and competent enough to tackle the challenge and do my part in this bold attempt at access. So, I ignored the request as if it was meant for someone else.

Obviously, I wasn’t thinking big enough. I also didn’t realize that by refusing, I was collapsing under a fear of ridicule that is causing aspects our profession to stagnate. Even worse, I was ignoring my own advice. In mentoring student interpreters, I regularly say the first thing to work through is the nerves, to take feeds and support until you reach a point where the process is no longer intensely painful. Once there, we can focus on growth. Yet here I was, running from the hot-seat, unwilling to work through my own nerves because I feared the pain of open criticism.


What is it about this job that invites such fear? Anna Witter-Merithew in addition to her sound advice, describes how our working in isolation can lead to hostility and defensiveness in Anna Witter-Merithew’s, Sign Language Interpreters: Breaking Down Silos Through Reflective Practice. It is widely known that hostility creates more hostility, fear, or both. Indeed, sign language interpreters have witnessed or have been part of hostility and defensiveness as we humans, making mistakes, sometimes fail to communicate responsibly.

We are so used to working alone that we can easily forget to include other perspectives, or we forget that we reach better results by supporting one another in our moments of vulnerability while giving advice. Sometimes we perceive real or imagined hostility from consumers who are often understandably on guard because they face issues with interpreters and access. Other times we are to blame because of serious errors in judgment. Yet all of us so easily forget that hostility and defensiveness are human reactions to something much bigger than whatever happens in a given moment. We need to be mindful that the reactions we sometimes see are quite often responses to a grossly imperfect system more than they are about our actions or abilities. Those of us on the receiving end could use some thicker skin in a profession where attention is by nature focused on our every move.

Laura Wickless
Laura Wickless

Fear Prevents Progress

As it is, our fears, while real and understandable, are preventing progress. We can work to reduce them by reaching out to one another and by being a model of humility. I know this is easier said than done since I almost caved to fear and doubt in my recent experience and will likely face these feelings again. It was only because another interpreter cornered me in person and asked me to volunteer for this TEDx project that I agreed to do it. At that moment, I realized the request had gone out for support because the highly skilled interpreters already on the team wanted it. I must say I do not regret taking this risk. The day of the conference, we acted as a supportive team, which made interpreting live online an amazing experience and helped us perform at our best.

Collaboration is Key

And it is this concept of supporting each other to create a positive sense of team that shapes us as interpreters. We are more than members of a community or communities. We are also very diverse and at present, isolated members of a particular team called “interpreters”. All of us function as members of this team whether we realize it or not. We are a team when we do or do not participate in the Deaf community; when we do or do not provide feedback to others; when we insult, gossip about, or embrace a struggling colleague; when we meet, exceed, or ignore standards; when we accept or deny an assignment, and when we are or are not able to heed calls in the name of humanity, integrity, or duty. These decisions not only affect the even wider community that includes those we work with, but also affect our collective interpreting team.

And we are a team whose only adversary is a failure to perform our duty, meaning we are better suited as collaborators. Each member of our team must be ready to take our positions on the field. This implies that the interpreter “hot-seat” does not belong to the “on interpreter” alone. Nor do the Deaf and hearing interpreter team “seats” belong to the individuals occupying them at a given moment. Each of these interpreting “seats” are equally ours at all times because as sign language interpreters, you and I represent one another. As a team, we are all responsible for creating an environment that encourages the growth of whomever occupies these positions. We can only do this if we disarm ourselves and each other through openhearted and supportive communication.

Reach Higher Together

Our team is what we make it since you and I shape its image together. The question is, what kind of team do we want to be? Let’s embrace a new norm where we reject fear and defensiveness in order to seek and give support when needed, where our team always strives to help one another reach for something better–together.  This is by no means our only hurdle, and healing will take time, but I can imagine a safe community of sign language interpreters where teamwork and access are pushed to the limits of what is possible and where backbiting and deconstructive criticism are rare.

I invite you to continue this conversation and “Embody the Change” that makes this vision real!

Join me?


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Anna Witter-Merithew
Anna Witter-Merithew

Learning to Collaborate: Tools for Sign Language Interpreters to Increase Their Scope of Influence

This insightful session is designed to improve the communication and collaboration skills of interpreters who work as part of collaborative teams. Through the use of assessment tools, games, role-playing and case study analysis. This two and a half-hour session will focus on communication styles, how different styles are manifested during communication and collaboration, and how to adapt to a range of communication style differences in order to be a more effective member of the educational team.

Post Event Dialogue

Take opportunity to keep the dialogue going.  For those interested, please find the PPT deck from Anna’s presentation.