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Sign Language Interpreters Seek Clarity to Defend RID NIC Certification

Sign Language Interpreter Seeking ClarityI want to thank StreetLeverage for creating a forum where issues affecting sign language interpreters and the field of sign language interpreting can be raised and discussed thoughtfully and respectfully. This forum has allowed me the opportunity to share my communications with the RID Board on questions I believe need to be answered regarding the “enhanced” NIC certification test. My last posting on this topic resulted in a rich and stimulating discussion.

The questions raised in my post, Defenders of Certification: Sign Language Interpreters Question “Enhanced” RID NIC Test, and that will be raised here, are not raised out of nostalgic ties; not raised out of a desire to cling to the past; not raised out of a desire to foment dissent. In truth, I raise these questions to provide certified sign language interpreters (and, indeed, all members of RID) with the information and facts necessary for us to serve as defenders, not critics, of the current NIC evaluation. Sadly I believe that, to date, we have not been provided with such information or facts.

What follows is a letter I sent to the RID Board on June 25, 2012 in response to the “comprehensive report” that was released by the Board on June 7, 2012, which was in response to my March 18, 2012 letter questioning aspects of the “enhanced” NIC test.

My Intent

I want to explicitly state my intent in writing these letters and raising these questions is not to spur divisiveness but rather to garner transparency and to seek the underlying rationale for decisions that were made without full involvement of the certified membership. To date I have not received a response from the Board to this letter, although I have received an acknowledgement that my email letter has been received.

I truly hope that a meaningful response to the issues I have raised will be provided in a timely and public manner. If such a response is forthcoming, I would suggest that the approach of “It is because we say it is” is decidedly not a useful strategy in addressing an issue as important to RID certified members as this is; the response must be one that comports well with the more than forty years of experience RID has assessing interpreting competency and that comports with the real world experiences of practitioners.

My hope is that my postings on this issue can, and will, spur discussions that can better inform our decision-making process and, ultimately, improve our assessment of who is qualified to become “one of us”.

My Letter

June 25, 2012

To Presidents Prudhom and Scoggins and members of the RID Board:

Thank you for your letter dated June 7 and for the “comprehensive report” that was attached. Following you will find my response to the report and some additional issues/questions I have that were raised by the report.

You are correct that my letter was made public. But, please know that it was made public only after more than a month had passed after I had sent the letter to all members of the Board during which time its receipt was not even acknowledged by the Board. While I appreciate the demands on a volunteer Board, I would suggest that the serious questions I raised deserved a much more timely response (and at least the courtesy of an acknowledgment of receipt by the Board) and the answers which I requested should not have taken three months to assemble. I also believe that the “community discussion” its release created is definitely a positive discussion and one that should have occurred as the “enhancements” were conceived and most definitely before they were implemented. I hope that continued, open and public discussion will only help to strengthen our decisions and more fully engage the RID membership in these critical decisions and programs. I must tell you that I do intend to post this letter to you in a public forum in a couple of weeks – I firmly believe that providing a forum for members discuss these issues not only allows a fuller airing of issues, but also allows the Board to have a more accurate picture of the pulse of the membership than it appears to have on this issue.

I am sure you can appreciate the fact that the report that was generated in response to my letter is, based on the numerous emails I have received and numerous postings on social media, viewed by many as quite a defensive, reactive and inadequate response. My intent here, and throughout, is not to create an atmosphere of confrontation or to incite divisiveness. Rather, my intent is that, unlike decisions taken in the past, we can all agree that the decisions we make in the certification program are based on empirical data, not the feelings or beliefs of a small group that may not well-represent the membership. In your letter to me you state “NAD and RID fully support the work and direction of the enhanced NIC…”. I humbly and respectfully strongly disagree. At the very least in the case of RID, I think it is much more accurate and truthful to state that the RID Board fully supports the “enhanced” NIC. I say this because there is considerable discontent and unrest among the membership regarding the “enhanced” NIC. I also believe there has been anything but acceptable and appropriate levels of transparency regarding decisions surrounding these “enhancements” which is quite surprising for what the Board claims is a “membership driven” organization. I think that it is fair to say that for many members there is a clear sense that critical decisions that define who we are as interpreters have been made without significant and meaningful involvement of, and engagement with, the members and most definitely without meaningful discussion at our regional and national conferences, again belying the notion of RID as a “membership driven” organization. I certainly urge you to make good on your pledge to “…dedicated communication effort…now and in the future” and hope you do so proactively rather than reactively.

The “comprehensive report” provided many statements that asserted that the “enhanced” NIC was valid and reliable but provided no empirical or psychometric data to support such assertions. Unfortunately I see no proactive involvement of the membership in many of the issues I have raised; I see no checks and balances built into the current “enhanced” NIC that can ensure impartiality and objectivity; I see no independent checks and balances of the design and implement work off the consulting group; I see no concern for the negative reactions and responses of members that this “enhanced” NIC is not based on sound empirical data; and unfortunately I see no evidence in the Board’s actions that can support its claim that RID, in this arena at least, is a “membership-driven” organization.

I fully appreciate the pressures and demands on an all-volunteer Board having been there myself. I trust you will accept my response and the questions I raise below in the spirit of moving toward a stronger and more cohesive RID.  However, as I stated before, the fact is that there is growing discontent among the membership with the manner in which decisions are taken within the organization and a growing feeling of complete disenfranchisement within the organization. There already is a growing number of members and an increasing number of states in the US who believe that RID certification has become meaningless and irrelevant. More importantly, there is an increasing chorus of RID members crying for an alternate organization and that chorus grows as members take the “enhanced” NIC. I, for one, am saddened to see that number grow. But if sound, logical answers to the questions I have previously raised and also raise below cannot be provided then, unfortunately, I would have no option but to join their number and advocate loudly and passionately for creation of an alternate organization. I would be incredibly saddened should that come to pass.

I thank you for your willingness to engage in this discussion and I am willing to continue this very important discussion in any forum you feel will be beneficial (email, VideoPhone, phone, face-to-face meetings, etc.).

I eagerly await your response.

Sincerely,

dennis

Dennis Cokely, Professor
Director, American Sign Language Program
Director, World Languages Center
Chair, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures
Northeastern University
Boston, MA 02115
 

My Response to the June 7, 2012 “Comprehensive Report” on the NIC “enhancements

1) Before raising specific questions generated by the report, I ask that the Board offer an explanation to the membership for why the same consultant firm that was directly responsible for the design and implementation of the “enhanced” NIC was also asked to write the interim report which asserts that the “enhanced” NIC is valid and reliable. While I, in no way, intend to cast aspersions on the Caviart group, I believe it is incumbent upon the Board explain why this is not a clear conflict of interest and why an independent psychometrician was not engaged to review the overall process and write the report? Given the catastrophic recent NIC history and the absolute appearance of a possible conflict of interest, I would urge the Board to address this as quickly as possible. Why should we have faith in the validity of the Caviart report? Why is this not a conflict of interest given that Caviart has a vested interest in convincing the Board and members that its initial test development is valid and reliable?

2) It comes as quite a surprise to me and I am sure to most RID members that, on page #2 of the report, we learn that the profile of a “certified NIC (level 1) interpreter” was developed by 14 members of the NIC Task Force, an NIC Scoring Group (whose composition is unknown) and an unidentified group of “subject-matter experts”. This means that, if one includes the Board (which, I assume, approved the profile), it would appear that fewer than 100 members had a hand in determining this profile. This represents less than .009% of the membership. Why was this profile not circulated to the membership for comment and input? How is not circulating this profile consistent with claims of a “membership driven” organization?

3) It is also troubling is that the profile of a “certified NIC (level 1) interpreter” is offered without any rational, explanation or justification. What empirical basis is there to support this profile? What data is there to suggest that a “…vocabulary at a first year undergraduate level…” is appropriate? What is meant by “…quickly adapt to different situations and communication styles”?

4) But what is even more troubling on page #2 is the incredibly dismissive tone in the report intended for those who might question or challenge (“That is fine.”). While it is certainly true that “…no profile will satisfy everyone”, I believe that the leadership owes it to the members to create an environment in which questions and challenges are welcomed because, presumably, the leadership has data to support its choices and decisions and thus can appropriately respond to such questions and challenges. The tone here smacks of “it is because we say it is”. If this tone emanates from the consultant group then perhaps we have retained the wrong group. If the tone emanates from the leadership, then the situation is even worse that I thought and we definitely have a crisis of leadership. How is such a tone consistent with a “membership driven” organization? Does the membership not, at least, deserve the courtesy of opportunities to discuss the definition of the threshold that marks who is “one of us”?

5) Also, on page #2, it appears that a decision has been made that there will be “levels” to the NIC (“currently called Level 1”). If this is indeed the case, this represents a significant departure from past practice (the recently aborted iteration of the NIC notwithstanding) in which we have had a “generalist then specialist” approach to certification. I ask that the Board release the overall comprehensive master plan mentioned on page #3 for the certification program as well as the specific criteria for determining “…higher and specialized levels”. What is the overall master plan for the certification program?

6) Again on page #2, I believe it is totally inaccurate to make the claim that “…this statement summarizes what both organizations believe…”. At the present time I believe that it is accurate to say, in the case of RID at least, that this statement summarizes what the Board, the NIC Task Force and an NIC Scoring Group whose composition is unknown believes. The membership were not at all engaged in this discussion nor invited to provide feedback on this issue.  Can the RID Board explain how it purports to represent the membership on this issue when it has not fully engaged the membership?

7) On page #3, it is extremely troublesome to read that the claim “…more interpreter/consumer interactions occurred remotely…” is based on the feelings of the NIC Task Force rather than on empirical data. In fact, according to a recently completed survey of RID Certified and Associate members conducted by the National Interpreter Education Center, 70% of interpreters who responded report they do absolutely no work in VRS and 92% do no work in VRI. These data make it clear that it is still the case that from interpreters’ experience, the overwhelming majority of the work that interpreters do is conducted in face-to-face interactions.  While it may be that Deaf people are using more VRS/VRI, at this point in our history the fact is that the vast majority of interpreters do not work in those settings. This begs the question of why we developed an assessment approach that appears predicated on beliefs, settings, assumptions in which only 30% and 8% of us work?

8 ) Given the fact that some members of the NIC Task force have VRS/VRI ties, one also has to wonder again about the wisdom of relying on feelings rather than empirical data. Why are feelings used over empirical data? Again I do not intend to cast aspersions, but when segments on the “enhanced” NIC have durations of three to five minutes (which resemble durations found in VRS calls), one wonders what response the Board might have to the fact that there is the appearance of a conflict of interest for members of the NIC Task force who do have VRS/VRI ties?

9) On page 5 the process by which the “content and format” of the “enhanced” NIC is described. The logic of this process seems, to me, to be somewhat circular and rather flawed. If I understand the process correctly, raters used the previous NIC exam, material with which they were intimately familiar having viewed the material dozens and dozens of times. They were then asked to identify portions of that material that they believed “…most effectively discriminated the skills of interpreters at the level described”. From a linguistic and sociolinguistic perspective, what is critical is that they selected these portions from within a larger context and those portions were taken from within a larger sample of a candidate’s work. Thus raters had significant background information influencing the choice of segments that they believed “…most effectively discriminated the skills of interpreters at the level described”.  Scoring criteria were then identified using a “proven algorithm”. While the algorithm may be “proven”, the elements (and the empirical support for those elements) to which the algorithm was applied need to be known. This is especially true since the previous iteration of the NIC listed rating elements that conflated language elements (e.g. articulation, use of space) with interpretation elements. What are the elements to which raters will apply the scoring algorithm and what is the empirical basis for those elements?

10) Having demonstrated that portions from within a larger context and taken from within a larger sample of a candidate’s work could be reliably rated, how then is it reasonable to conclude that portions generated with no larger context and from no larger work sample could or would suffice as a valid indicant of a candidate’s competence?

11) Having the Scoring Group finalize the profile, develop the scoring criteria, rate previously rated samples and then discuss their holistic ratings, places enormous and unchecked power in the hands of a small group. Why was there no independent confirmation of the Scoring Group’s work? Why were not different groups engaged in segments of this undertaking? How large was the Scoring Group? Who were its members?

12) On page 6 we are told that the final vignettes were “…believed, by the Scoring Group, to have the most appropriate content, vocabulary and stimulus material”. The Scoring Group then developed new scoring criteria – again enormous and unchecked power in the hands of a small group. Is there a rationale for this? Are we to believe that there is a different set of criteria for each vignette? If so, what is the full set of criteria used to rate a candidate and what is the empirical basis for each criterion? Why should we believe the Scoring Group is qualified to make such determinations?

13) I submit that the assertion that “While content validity is critical, face validity is not” critical completely ignores the recent past with regard to the NIC and reflects a complete lack of understanding of our assessment and institutional history. Certainly face validity is unquestionably important for market acceptance. And most certainly one incredibly important segment of that market is the RID Certified and Associate membership and students in Interpreter Education Programs. If certification is to have any value, these stakeholders simply must feel and believe that the high-stakes assessment that is the NIC, at least looks like what interpreters do regularly. While it may be true that an assessment of interpretation skills does not have to look like what interpreters do regularly, one would think that, given the last significantly flawed iteration of the NIC, the Board would most definitely want the assessment to look like what interpreters do regularly. Given the incredibly negative issues surrounding the last iteration of the NIC, why would the Board, the NIC Task Force and the NIC Scoring Group endorse an assessment approach that most clearly lacks face validity and seems not to be widely supported?

14) On page 8 the dismissive tone of this report continues with the assertion that there is “…absolutely no merit to this suggestion.” In the present climate, I assert precisely the opposite – if the members of RID do not believe that the assessment is valid and looks valid, if we cannot defend it, if we cannot/will not encourage those who are not yet certified to seek certification, then the assessment process is seriouslyflawed. I believe that there is incredible merit to the need for face validity of the NIC. The report asserts that the “enhanced” NIC “…has significant face validity…”, but this is just another example of “it is because we say it is”. No empirical data is offered here. However, candidates who have taken the “enhanced” NIC and who have contacted me almost unanimously say that they think that the “enhanced” NIC did not fairly sample their interpreting skills, did not look like what they do on a regular basis and did not allow them to demonstrate what they do when they interpret. Can the Board, the NIC Task Force or the NIC Scoring Group provide empirical data that candidates do indeed feel the “enhanced” NIC fairly samples and assesses their work? What percent of those who have taken the “enhanced” NIC report that it “fairly sampled” their interpreting competence? I doubt such data even exists or is collected.

Dennis Cokely
Dennis Cokely

15) On page 8 the report states that panels were asked to “…identify the amount of time that it takes to accurately assess a candidate’s skill.” Again I ask whether there is any empirical data to support this approach; what we have is self-report data, drawn from an individual’s various experiences that are based on samples that are highly contextualized. If I state that in a given real-world context I can determine in two or three minutes whether I can accurately assess skill for this particular situation, I cannot validly apply that determination to other contexts. Why have we have taken timing information based on contextualized self-reports and applied that timing information to de-contextualized vignettes? Is there any empirical support for doing so? Are we asking raters trained to assess the former NIC to make this determination? If so, by what justification? Or is this another instance in which the ubiquitous Scoring Group

16) The unidentified subject matter “experts” (number and qualifications unknown) believe that “niceties” can be excluded because they “…provide little information about a candidate’s skill”. It certainly is true that, from an interpreter’s perspective, the beginnings of interactions are often not challenging and thus may not be fully representative of a candidate’s skill set. However, there is clear linguistic empirical data to show that these “niceties” are often essential to an interpreter’s overall ease, comfort and comprehension of a speaker/signer and thus important to rendering successful interpretations. Indeed, one cannot “…go right to the heart of the communication encounter.” Linguists and Sociolinguists have shown clearly that successful communication is an evolved and negotiated interaction; one cannot properly and fully understand “the heart” of an interaction while ignoring or not having access to the “skeleton” and the “flesh” that surround the “heart”. We return again to the face validity question. How is it that we can warrant that those who pass the NIC can “…relay the essence of a message…” when our assessment strips away all of the context, linguistic background and interactional unfolding that leads up to “…the essence of a message…”? What is the empirical data to support this decision? Certainly the “comprehensive report” does not address this question.

17) The use of “tower crane operators” is an insulting and ignorant analogy at best (no offense intended to tower crane operators). Granted there is considerable pressure in being a crane operator. However, there is also a clear “right and wrong” result, the ball is manipulated correctly or it is not; the result is black or white. The results on a crane operator test are plain for all to see – the wall comes down or it does not (true some might be more efficient than others; but ultimately if the wall does not come down the operator has not been successful). However, as any interpreter knows, interpreting is anything but a “black or white” cognitive task. There are a finite number of moves that are possible with a tower crane. However, as any interpreter knows there are myriad possibilities for rendering successful interpretations in any interaction because we are dealing with people not machines. And while the obstacles through which crane operators must move to demonstrate their skill are finite, interpreters clearly know that because communication involves a range of human beings, a range of situations, and a range of communicative goals, the obstacles through which we must maneuver are virtually infinite. It does not follow logically that because tower crane operators can be assessed by an examination that lacks face validity that interpreters should accept, much less endorse, any examination that lacks face validity. Why should we accept a lack of face validity?

18) The use of “police officers” is also not an appropriate analogy for our purposes. Police officers spend months and months training at the police academy; they do not get to take their performance exam until/unless they have performed well in their training routines during which they have fired their guns countless times. The police officer test itself is valid because it presumes months and months of training that is specific to being a police officer. However, in our case, the claim that NIC “…standards include requirements for education…”(pg. 6), make using police officer testing a false analogy. Our forthcoming “requirement for education” is, at this point, only a BA/BS degree but not a degree in interpreting. So, even though the police officer test may not be indicative of what they do on a daily basis, police cadets have had months of training and practice to demonstrate what they will do on a daily basis. RID has no such warrantied, specific interpreter educational background requirement for NIC candidates. Lacking the focused, specific training/education that is required of police officers (and tower crane operators) and that forms the foundation on which their tests can rest, why would we adopt an assessment approach that presumes such focused, specified training/education when we do not yet have such focused, specified training/education?

19) On page 9 the report asserts that a testing program is fair if “…every candidate has the same opportunity to demonstrate his or her competence.” Again, based on the numerous comments I have received from those who have taken the “enhanced” NIC, the majority feel they did not have an opportunity to demonstrate their competence. All candidates may be presented with the same logistically structured opportunity with the NIC, but if that opportunity is believed by a majority of candidates not to afford them an “…opportunity to demonstrate his or her competence” or is believed by them to be a flawed opportunity, how can such a program be judged as fair? How does the Board respond to candidates who feel they did not have an opportunity to demonstrate their competence?

20) Page 9 states that there is “…no evidence…that suggests that physical endurance is required for the job.” This patently ignores significant research in signed and spoken language interpreting research on this matter.  It patently fails to realize that physical endurance is not the critical issue in interpretation — cognitive endurance definitely is!!!! This is extremely well documented in the literature. With the “enhanced” NIC vignettes ranging from only three minutes to five minutes in length (although one LTA emailed me saying that they carefully timed each scenario and the actual range was between 1:20 and 3:20!!), it is virtually impossible to see how we assess cognitive endurance. This is, after all, one of the most important reasons why we advocate for the use of teams in many situations. If there is no evidence in the “Role Delineation Study” that speaks to cognitive fatigue, then I suggest that that study is seriously flawed. If there is such evidence in the Study and the “enhanced NIC” ignores this, then the program is seriously flawed. Why do we think that cognitive fatigue is not a critical factor to assess? And why was the “Role Delineation Study” not more widely vetted and shared?

21) Page 10 states that “…RID has carefully specified the testing conditions…”. Based on information I have received from candidates who have taken the “enhanced” RID, this means that candidates must be seated and must remain so for the duration of the test. As any interpreter knows, when an interpreter is seated, his/her range of motion is severely restricted and thus his/her use of space for semantic/linguistic purposes is also restricted. Given that we have never restricted candidates in this manner, what empirical evidence is there that placing interpreters in such restricted conditions will produce samples of their work that are indicative of their overall competence? Why would we want to restrict/constrain the use of semantic/linguistic space?

22) Page 11 proclaims the hope that the “enhanced” NIC will “…earn the value and respect from consumers that it deserves”. I submit that the “enhanced” NIC cannot earn respect from consumers until and unless it is accepted, embraced and valued by practitioners. This status report references a number of reports and studies that, to my knowledge, have not been made available to the RID membership. When can members expect release of all reports that are referenced in the Status Report?

My Previous Questions

In my initial letter to the Board, I asked nine questions. I was told that a “comprehensive report” would be issued that would address these questions. Unfortunately, I do not believe that any of the questions has been answered satisfactorily.

1) RID members need a more thorough explanation of why time and a simple mathematical formula should be the primary drivers behind the format of the certification test; if this is not true, then a clear explanation should be provided for how the current 4-minute per vignette test segmentation was determined.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

2) An explanation for the process/principles used in the selection of and/or development of the vignettes be made known to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

3) A full explanation of the empirical justification for this 4-minute approach must be provided to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

4) A clear explanation of the rationale and justification for placing candidates at such an interpreting disadvantage must be provided to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

5) A detailed explanation of the rational for, and empirical support for this decision and this deviation from forty years of experience is also needed by the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

6) If there is evidence that supports the claim that a 4-miute sample can validly and reliably assess a candidate’s ability to assess sustained quality over time, then it must be made known to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

7) What are the various English and ASL grammatical and semantic features in vignettes that raters will be assessing and do these five 4-minute vignettes provide sufficient linguistic and discourse variation to elicit an appropriate range of English and ASL grammatical and semantic features?

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

8 ) Since using discretion in selecting assignments is one of the core operating principles of our long-standing Code, the rationale for adopting an “all or nothing” approach must be made clear to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

9) A clear, empirically supported explanation of why the current NIC assessment is valid and can be reliably assessed by raters must be provided to the membership.

Answer provided in the “comprehensive report” is inadequate

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Defenders of Certification: Sign Language Interpreters Question “Enhanced” RID NIC Test

Sign Language Interpreters - Defenders of CertificationAt this point in our history, the NIC assessment is the foundation for determining who is “one of us” and, as such, certified members of RID should be the defenders of the certification process. However, the fact that certified RID members are unsure of the validity of the current NIC assessment is unacceptable. I believe that the NIC Task Force and the Board of Directors have implemented changes to the RID assessment process the validity of which has not all been transparent to the certified membership. And so, instead of being defenders of the process, we find ourselves in the position of questioning, challenging and/or belittling the recent RID assessments procedures.

My Letter

On March 18,2012, I sent an email letter to each member of the RID Board of Directors in which I raised a number of questions regarding the new “enhancements” to the NIC test. That letter is reprinted below.

Before reading the letter, it is important to me that you understand the spirit in which that letter was sent.

My intent in sending the letter was neither to create or enflame divisiveness within RID nor was it to attack the current leadership of the RID. Rather it was a request that the Board provide the information necessary so that the RID membership, especially the certified membership, could feel confident and secure in the knowledge that the “enhanced NIC” was indeed valid and reliable; information that was not made available for the previous iteration of the NIC.

Until the day when RID (and we are RID) has a transparently valid and reliable certification process that determines who will be “one of us”, we will always have division and animus (parenthetically, I believe this can only be avoided if we, RID, decide to divest ourselves of the assessment process). My letter was sent to the Board requesting that all the information and documentation that provided the psychometric basis for the “enhanced NIC” be made available to all of the members. The Board has committed to releasing a report that would address the questions I raised.

RID Response

On April 22 I received an email from the RID President that stated, in part: “…the board of directors and national office staff agree the comprehensive report would be shared with the entire membership.  Therefore, this will take some time and resources to complete and request your patience and continued support to allow us the time to complete this comprehensive report. In fact, the work has been underway since the receipt of your letter.”

To be sure, it is unclear to me why the answers to the questions I raised should “…take some time and resources to complete.” After all the questions I raise are the essential questions one must ask and the evidence one must have in advance of implementing such a radically new assessment approach. The information should be readily available; if it has to be created in response to the questions I raise, there are even more serious questions about the process by which this iteration of the NIC was developed and implemented. Nevertheless, I applaud the fact that the RID Board will share full information regarding the new NIC with the membership. Hopefully that report will be issued in a timely manner and, in my opinion, it certainly must happen in advance of the regional conferences.

Reactions — Keep Them in Check

Given all of this, I trust you will read the following letter in the spirit in which it was intended. I sincerely hope that any reaction you may have will be held in check until we all receive the “comprehensive report” from the Board. I believe that any action prior to receipt of the “comprehensive report” would be premature and uniformed.

Letter Reprint

Members of the Board of Directors
Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf

333 Commerce Street
Alexandria, VA 22314 
 

March 18, 2012

To Members of the Board,

I am writing this letter to the Board, one of the very few I have written since 1972, as a concerned and dedicated member of RID for over forty years and as a Past President of RID. Specifically, I am extremely concerned about the new “enhancements” to the NIC test. I think it goes without saying that the last iteration of the NIC was significantly flawed. Claiming, as we did, (lacking both the sophistication and the empirical data) that a three-tiered certification based on a single evaluation test was valid and defensible, was clearly shown to be a serious mistake (one which we made earlier in our first effort at testing – CI/CT/CSC). With this latest unsubstantiated testing attempt, not only did we damage the credibility of the NIC and the RID itself in the minds of many RID members but perhaps more importantly in the minds of many Deaf people. Both interpreters and Deaf people saw that the test results and tiered certifications awarded often did not match the reality experienced by the “eyes on the street”.

I believe that the lesson that must be learned here is clear — we should definitely not advance an approach to testing that is not directly supported by empirical data on sign language interpretation and that we must make that empirical data clearly and widely known to interpreters and Deaf people.

Make no mistake, I applaud some of the changes to the NIC, specifically uploading a candidate’s video data to a secure server and having those video data available to be viewed by multiple raters. Unfortunately I believe we have made the same fatal mistake – lack of empirical data – with the newest iteration of the NIC as we made with the last iteration and as we made in 1972. Unless there is evidence that has not been made publically available, I believe that the current NIC testing approach lacks face validity — it does not look like what interpreters regularly do. Perhaps better stated, I believe the current test cannot claim to validly certify a candidate’s ability to interpret in a way that reflects real world practice. Certainly there is nothing in the research literature relevant to sign language interpreters of which I am aware that would support the current testing approach. I make the following statements and raise the following questions and concerns based on the new Candidate Handbook 2011 and on conversations with several candidates who have taken the current NIC.

1. It appears that someone predetermined that the test should last only an hour and then the resultant math determined that each of the two ethical and five performance scenarios would last only 4 minutes. If true, RID members need a more thorough explanation of why time and a simple mathematical formula should be the primary drivers behind the format of the certification test; if this is not true, then a clear explanation should be provided for how the current 4-minute per vignette test segmentation was determined.

2. I agree that that it may be possible to make a marginally valid, albeit shallow, determination of one’s approach to ethical decision-making and one’s knowledge of the Code of Professional Conduct from two 4-minute vignettes. However, one would hope that the vignettes are sufficiently complex that they will elicit higher levels of ethical thinking than mere regurgitation of the Code of Professional Conduct. A description of the guiding principles used to develop and/or select the ethical vignettes must be provided to the RID membership. Note I am not asking for the rating rubrics (I agree that teaching to the rubrics was a significant issue in the last iteration), I am simply asking that an explanation for the process/principles used in the selection of and/or development of the vignettes be made known to the membership.

3. I am aware of no research that provides evidence that a 4-minute sample of a piece of interpretation is sufficient to make a determination of overall interpretation competence. What the research does show is that during the first five minutes of a twenty minute monologue an interpreter’s work is often “less challenging” because it is the most predictable – introductions, niceties, setting an overall tone for a talk or meeting, etc. This is also true of the last five minutes of an interpreter’s work – summaries, next steps, closings, etc. Consequently, if all of the five performance vignettes were from the first five minutes of interactions, we would only be sampling and rating the “less challenging” parts of interactions and thus would not be presented with a true and valid representative sample of a candidate’s overall interpreting proficiency. I might agree that if we had five 20-minute samples of an interpreter’s work and we wished to select 4-minute samples from each 20-minute sample (some from the beginning, some from the middle and some from the end) then perhaps we might have a more thorough and more time efficient way of rating an interpreter’s work. But what we have here with the current NIC is clearly not 4-minute samples from longer samples of work. A full explanation of the empirical justification for this 4-minute sampling approach must be provided to the membership.

4. According to the Candidate Handbook, however, some of the vignettes will require that the candidate begin interpreting in the middle portions of interactions after providing the candidate with only a written synopsis of what has transpired up to that point in the interaction. Here again, I contend there is no empirical data that can justify this as a valid approach to obtaining a true and valid sample of a candidate’s overall interpreting competence. As any experienced interpreter knows, by the mid-point of any interpreted interaction the interpreter has developed some content background information (which I presume the NIC proposes to present in printed form). But more importantly the interpreter has a sense of communicative preferences, interactional rhythm, signing style, accents, spoken/signing speeds, prosodic features, etc. None of this can be presented in printed form in any manner that assists the candidate nor can it be presented in a manner that validly replicates what happens in real life.

On this basis alone, I would contend that this 4-minute assessment approach does not provide the essential cognitive, discourse or linguistic tools/knowledge that are available and that unfold in “real life” situations. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, by the halfway point in any interaction the interpreter has acquired an “interactional schema”. As any experienced interpreter knows, this relates directly to critical areas such as over-arching goals, what counts as success and the overall interactional rhythm and flow. Absolutely none of this is accessible to a candidate suddenly instructed to begin in the middle of an interaction for which only written background content information has been provided. Of necessity, the written background will be about content, but none of this is what is most important to interpreters. A clear explanation of the rationale and justification for placing candidates at such an interpreting disadvantage must be provided to the membership.

5) Given that each performance vignette provides only 4 minutes of a candidate’s work, it would appear that we, as an organization, are no longer concerned about the ability to sustain quality of work during an interpreted interaction. For the past forty years the RID evaluations have contained interactions (monologues and/or dialogues) that have lasted 15-20 minutes in length. This was essentially due to the fact that this most closely reflected the real world work and experience of interpreters and then raters could sample within interactions, not across what are essentially 4-minute, flawed interactions. A detailed explanation of the rational for, and empirical support for this decision and this deviation from forty years experience is also needed by the membership.

6. Given that each performance vignette provides only 4 minutes of a candidate’s work, it would appear that we, as an organization, are no longer interested in the ability to produce work of sustained quality over time. Clearly, a 4-minute text simply does not allow time for the candidate to demonstrate or time for the rater to assess meaning sustained over time. The rater has no opportunity to assess features such as consistent use of grammatical features (manual and non-manual), consistent use of space, consistent use of deitic markers, etc. Simply put, a 4-minute sample simply does not provide sufficient opportunity to demonstrate a candidate’s ability to sustain quality work over time. If there is evidence that supports the claim that a 4-miute sample can validly and reliably assess a candidate’s ability to assess sustained quality over time, then it must be made known to the membership.

7. With a 4-miute segment to assess, the question must be asked “What are the raters looking for?”. It is clear that there is a new rating paradigm (pass/marginal pass, fail/marginal fail) and one could make a solid case for this. Certainly raters for the signed portions should be looking for grammatical features such as agreement, consistent use of “nonce signs” (signs established for this situation only), the use of coordinated and reflexive space, etc. But it is unclear what raters would be asked to assess in a 4-minute sample of work. Certainly raters are unable to assess the full range of linguistic competencies that interpreters must posses in order to able to interpret (if there evidence to support this it must be made public).  What are the various English and ASL grammatical and semantic features in vignettes that raters will be assessing and do these five 4-minute vignettes provide sufficient linguistics and discourse variation to elicit an appropriate range of English and ASL grammatical and semantic features?

8. As was true with the last iteration of the NIC we offer the candidate no opportunity to demonstrate the exercise of discretion. This clearly begs the question of whether there is any research that demonstrates that the five performance vignettes somehow represent “seminal” vignettes, i.e. vignettes for which no candidate would ever deem that he or she was an unsuitable fit. Clearly the message sent to candidates taking the NIC and to interpreters in general that one “must interpret everything presented to them” stands in stark contrast to our long held organizational belief that discretion in accepting assignments is critical. Since using discretion in selecting assignments is one of the core operating principles of our long-standing Code, the rationale for adopting an “all or nothing” approach must be made clear to the membership.

9. Virtually all of the candidate’s with whom I have spoken have the same reaction and response to the 4-minute performance vignettes. They state “They [the vignettes] were too short”; “I was just getting warmed up”; “I didn’t have the right information to start in the middle [of a vignette]”; “I don’t think it was a fair sample of my work”; “I needed more time to get over my nerves”; “This isn’t what I do everyday”. These comments are, to me as I hope they are to you, extremely troubling. Even if we assume there is a valid and reliable empirical basis for the “4-minute vignette” approach, the experience of the candidates is quite at odds with that basis. The danger here is that the candidates will, rightly or wrongly, begin to spread these perceptions to certified and not-yet certified interpreters. The end result will be that we return to the set of circumstances that resulted in abandoning the former iteration of the NIC – acting in the absence of empirical data to guide our decision-making. A clear, empirically supported explanation of why the current NIC assessment is valid and can be reliably assessed by raters must be provided to the membership.

The issue of how and the process by which we determine who will be viewed “as one of us” (i.e. who is certified) is of grave concern to many in the membership. As you should well know, it has clearly created some very, very deep rifts within the organization. So deep are the rifts that there is on-going discussion of creating an alternate organization. Yet, we in RID continue to move forward without the necessary empirical support we need to offer a credible approach to the testing process. The “alphabet soup” of certification that we have produced sadly moves us closer and closer to being quite laughable in the eyes of those who view professional organizations as knowing clearly how to determine who will be viewed as “one of us”.

In an ideal world, we would out-source the testing process so that RID could be the “assessment watch-dog” and thus RID could avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. Lacking that possibility at the present time, I believe that the Board should muster the political and moral will to insist on a truly valid and reliable certification test, accepted by the certified members. Then the Board should declare a phased in process by which ALL former certificates (save SC:L and CDI) would be declared invalid and no longer recognized. A staggered timeline would be put in place by which ALL those holding any certificate prior to the valid and reliable test would have to be retested and the “alphabet soup” would eventually no longer exist.

But we are where we are and that is that we have the current iteration of the NIC.

On behalf of the membership and all those who have served in positions of leadership, I am asking for a much greater level of transparency regarding the crafting of the current iteration of the NIC. If there is research data to support the decisions underlying the format of this iteration of the NIC those data must be made very public. I, for one, need to see the consultant’s report on why they believe this approach/format is valid and reliable before I can support this approach. I know that many of my colleagues, who are both members and organizational leaders, feel the same way.

Please know that I raise these questions and ask for this unprecedented level of public transparency in the best interests of RID the organization, of RID members and of Deaf people. I am happy to discuss any of these questions and concerns with the Board, individual or collectively, and/or the psychometric consultants hired to oversee the new NIC test.

Please let me know if you have any questions or need further clarification on any of the issues/questions raised. I eagerly await and expect your response to the questions and issues I have raised in this letter in a timely manner.

Sincerely
 
 
Dennis Cokely
Director, American Sign Language Program
Director, World Languages Center
Chair, Department of Languages, Literatures & Cultures

 

Overall Frame

We should definitely not advance an approach to testing that is not directly supported by empirical data on sign language interpretation and that we must make those empirical data clearly and widely known to interpreters and Deaf people

The Questions that Need Answers

1. RID members need a more thorough explanation of why time and a simple mathematical formula should be the primary drivers behind the format of the certification test; if this is not true, then a clear explanation should be provided for how the current 4-minute per vignette test segmentation was determined.

2. An explanation for the process/principles used in the selection of and/or development of the vignettes be made known to the membership.

3. A full explanation of the empirical justification for this 4-minute approach must be provided to the membership.

4. A clear explanation of the rationale and justification for placing candidates at such an interpreting disadvantage must be provided to the membership.

5. A detailed explanation of the rational for, and empirical support for this decision and this deviation from forty years experience is also needed by the membership.

6. If there is evidence that supports the claim that a 4-miute sample can validly and reliably assess a candidate’s ability to assess sustained quality over time, then it must be made known to the membership.

7. What are the various English and ASL grammatical and semantic features in vignettes that raters will be assessing and do these five 4-minute vignettes provide sufficient linguistic and discourse variation to elicit an appropriate range of English and ASL grammatical and semantic features?

8. Since using discretion in selecting assignments is one of the core operating principles of our long-standing Code, the rationale for adopting an “all or nothing” approach must be made clear to the membership.

9. A clear, empirically supported explanation of why the current NIC assessment is valid and can be reliably assessed by raters must be provided to the membership.

 

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Outwitting the Devil: NAD Calls on Sign Language Interpreters to Partner

NAD CEO - Howard Rosenblum

Sign language interpreters and deaf people have a long standing symbiotic relationship notwithstanding any actual or perceived “Devil’s Bargain” as described by Dennis Cokely in his December 8, 2011 article.  In that article, Mr. Cokely points out that the relationship between interpreters and deaf people has changed in the last forty years as a result of legislative acts that have shifted the sign language interpreting profession from a “service model” to a “business model.” He also questions whether the change in laws and models has been as beneficial to deaf people as it has been for the interpreters.

Mr. Cokely is correct, deaf people continue to struggle with significant unemployment rates and have great difficulty gaining communication access in their medical care. Without a doubt, the United States is not yet a haven of true equality and full access for deaf and hard of hearing people. However, while much work remains to achieve this elusive ideal, the onus of this work is on changing how sign language interpreters are hired in the context of existing legislation.

Legislation: the Devil is in the Details

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Rehab Act”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”) are federal laws that have been both praised as a breakthrough and blamed for many of the woes for deaf people. These laws have failed to recognize the cultural and linguistic identities of deaf people, and instead only provide rights to them on the basis of disability. While the nature of the legal protection is frustrating for many in the deaf community, these laws nevertheless have opened many doors.

For example, in the 1960’s to the best of our knowledge there was one deaf lawyer in the United States by the name of Lowell Myers. He graduated from law school without using any form of communication access as defined by today’s standards including interpreting, and did not have any legal rights at that time to secure such access. This all changed in 1973, with the passage of the Rehab Act. This law required all colleges and universities receiving federal funding to provide communication access, including interpreting services, to deaf and hard of hearing students. This requirement also included law schools that received federal funding. The ADA opened the door even further by requiring every law school in the country, regardless of federal funding, to provide access to any deaf student who qualified for admission.

At the present time, there are more than 300 self-identified deaf and hard of hearing lawyers in the country. Such a dramatic increase in this number since Mr. Myers’ graduation in the 1960’s is indicative that these laws’ mandates of communication access have enabled deaf people to achieve their potential. There are now many deaf doctors, accountants, professors, writers, and scientists, as well as other professions. Just as there are advantages and benefits to every law, there are also disadvantages and loopholes.

How Communication Access is Achieved

The most vexing issue for deaf people under both of these civil rights laws has been that service providers are given the authority to determine how communication access will be achieved. Putting this kind of decision making authority in the hands of service providers (such as doctors and lawyers) often does not make sense when these service providers are generally uneducated about the most appropriate type of communication access required to achieve effective communication for a specific consumer. In fact, these service providers usually have an economic incentive to provide the absolute minimum of communication rather than determining and rendering what is truly necessary to achieve equally effective communication.

While the current status of the laws and their regulations created this undesirable effect, there are ways to work with the existing system to promote better results. Changing federal law is difficult under the best of circumstances, and the entrenched partisanship on Capitol Hill makes it highly unlikely any change will happen soon. Therefore, alternative means of effectuating systemic change is needed at this time.

Systemic Change: Paying the Devil his Due

It has been nearly 40 years since the Rehab Act was passed and the ADA is 22 years old. In all those years, there have been numerous lawsuits and administrative complaints for failure to provide communication access filed against hospitals, as well as the offices of doctors and lawyers. Yet, communication access to medical and legal services continues to be a frustrating imaginary oasis that never seems to materialize for deaf and hard of hearing individuals. Despite educational achievements, deaf and hard of hearing people continue to struggle to get jobs. In many cases, the employer representative balks at the cost of the sign language interpreter(s) at the job interview when considering whether or not to hire deaf job applicants.

What can be done to change this broken system? How can we ensure that all deaf people can go to their doctor or lawyer without worrying about whether an interpreter will be provided? How can we transform employment practices in the USA to ensure deaf people get jobs? In essence, how do we renegotiate the Faustian Bargain?

Communication Access Fund

The National Association of the Deaf is pursuing several ideas to effectuate such change. One idea is to establish a “Communication Access Fund” (CAF). This fund would function like a telecommunications relay pooled fund but designated to pay for interpreters and other forms of communication access for deaf and hard of hearing people who need to see a professional.  Doctors and lawyers pay a fee every year to renew their professional license. Such fees typically cover the cost of administrating the license and monitoring for ethical lapses. If we were to increase the fees for the professional license by a small amount, we could set aside this additional in the CAF.

With such a fund, a deaf person would no longer need to negotiate with each professional to provide a sign language interpreter but would simply request that an interpreter be provided by the CAF. In essence, the deaf and hard of hearing consumer regains the power to obtain an interpreter or another form of communication access. This novel system would comport with federal laws because the professionals remain responsible for the cost of communication access, just not at the time of service but rather in the form of annual fees. More importantly, deaf and hard of hearing consumers would be able to go to any doctor or lawyer without worrying about the provision of communication access. For more information on this concept, go to: http://nad.org/issues/justice/lawyers-and-legal-services/communication-access-funds and http://scholar.valpo.edu/vulr/vol45/iss3/6/.

In the employment area, an adaption of the Communication Access Fund is necessary. Unlike with doctors and lawyers, employers typically have no licensing requirement and consequently there is no fee or tax collection system that would allow for the creation of a CAF. Yet, when employers impose upon departments or divisions within the corporate structure to be responsible for the costs of sign language interpreters, this creates a perceived economic disincentive within the departments or divisions with respect to the hiring of deaf job applicants. Consequently, there needs to be a policy shift within the employment setting to centralize funds for communication access accommodations.

Partners in the Renegotiation: Busy Hands, Not Idle Hands

The situation for deaf people in the United States is not ideal, but it is possible to work together to achieve the mutual goals of deaf and hard of hearing people and sign language interpreters. In addition to advocating alongside the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf on issues that impact both sign language interpreters and deaf and hard of hearing people, the NAD endeavors to promote a more balanced system that brings about a win-win result for everyone.

How can sign language interpreters assist in this effort and be partners in the renegotiation of the Devil’s Bargain? It will take a great deal of work to establish CAFs throughout the country as it must be done on a state-by-state basis. Each state has its own licensing entity for each profession. Each such licensing authority handles the licensing fee for their respective profession. Depending on state law or regulation, the authority to increase or add to the fee may belong to the licensing authority, the state legislature, the state supreme court (for lawyers’ fees), or a state agency. Consequently, deaf people and sign language interpreters will need to work together in their respective states to strategize and then approach the appropriate authority to create and implement the CAF.

Specifically, sign language interpreters could volunteer their services alongside deaf individuals who volunteer their time to advocate for this important systemic change. State Associations of the Deaf and local Chapters of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf could coordinate such efforts. Through such symbiotic partnerships, we can outwit the Devil.

The partnership does not stop there. Sign language interpreters are welcome at the NAD as members, allies, volunteers, and advocates. Join the NAD and be part of the solution. More information about the NAD and how you can become a member is found at: www.nad.org and attend the NAD 2012 Conference in Louisville, Kentucky on July 3-7, 2012! Information about the conference is found at: www.nad.org/louisville

Will you join with us?

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Vanquished Native Voices — A Sign Language Interpreting Crisis?

Woman Questioning Why Native Voices Have Been Vanquished

As sign language interpreters we have the difficult and challenging task of straddling two languages/cultures (Michal Agar coined the term “languaculture” to highlight the fact that language and culture cannot really be separated.) But I suggest, as others have (see Bill Moody’s 12/11/11 comment), that the vast majority of us approach this daunting task only partially prepared. To fully understand and appreciate this reality I believe we must constantly examine our roots and acknowledge the valuable resource we have around us.

Our Roots

When the RID was established in 1964 Codas played a prominent role in rendering sign language interpreting services for Deaf people and in the establishment of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). Indeed for the first two decades of RID’s existence the president was a Coda. For the first decade or so the majority of interpreters were related by blood to Deaf people. (“All-in-all, to know a sign language interpreter is to know someone who cares deeply about humanity in its many forms” — this from an earlier post on this site by Brandon Arthur in “The Goo at the Center of a Sign Language Interpreter”). In the last twenty-five years, however, Codas have not been as well represented in the elected leadership of RID as I believe they should be and as I believe we need them to be.

Native World-View

As the ranks of RID members who were not-Codas swelled inexorably (in large part because of federal laws as I have suggested in “Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain”), it has become less and less a given that we will have the insights of Codas on the RID Board of Directors. This would prove to be a significant loss for our organization and for the future direction of our field.

For those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — the DEAF-WORLD and ASL are neither our first culture nor our first language; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — our initial societally reinforced perceptions of Deaf people are that they are “disabled” and are therefore inferior to those of us who can hear; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know the feeling of experiencing firsthand the communicative oppression of our family members; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know the pressures of family members depending on us to facilitate communication; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know what it is like to grow up in a Deaf household; for those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — we will never know what it is like to grow up in a visually-oriented world-view.

I suggest that the experience and world-view gap between Codas and non-Codas may best be encapsulated by Egg Drop Soup who posted on the CODA-international.org website: “Sometimes it’s the worry that gets to me; that one day, I won’t know where they are and won’t have any way of getting in contact with them. Sometimes, it’s the clash of cultures – my adopted American individualism colliding unpleasantly with their traditional Eastern values. Other times, it’s the frustration of constantly being their ears and mouths, translating for them for friends, doctors, teachers, car salesmen, and even the occasional police officer.” This is unquestionably an experience and world-view that those of us who are not Codas can only experience vicariously in our wildest imaginings. Codas also represent a rich cultural reservoir from which I believe those of us who are not Codas must draw because Codas are connected to Deaf people in an intense and intimate way.

It is precisely this intense level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant presence as a guide to our work; it is precisely this level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant presence in the regular and secured leadership of RID; it is precisely this level of connectivity to Deaf people that those of us who are not Codas — the vast majority of us — need to have as a constant reminder of the roots of our profession.

Don’t Feel Inadequate

All of this is, of course, is in no way intended to make those of us who are not Codas feel inadequate as interpreters. Our experiences – Codas and non-Codas — are simply quite different. Our experiences are neither better nor worse, they are just different. And, no, I am not suggesting that all Codas are effective and successful interpreters and neither do I believe that that one must be a Coda to be an effective and successful sign language interpreter. However, I do believe that to be effective and successful as an interpreter one must absolutely have deep and sustained connections to the Deaf Community. And since 54% of us spend less than 10% of our time socializing with Deaf people (see my 1/5/12 comment on “Complicit With a Devils’ Bargains” post), this is a serious problem for us as a field! I absolutely am suggesting that listening to and ensuring a presence for the native voice of the Coda-experience is one incredibly vital way that we as individual practitioners and as a field can begin to re-connect with Deaf people and can connect with the experience of the communicative oppression that Deaf people experience on a daily basis. Perhaps more importantly we can develop a fuller and enriched understanding of and appreciation for what it is we do as interpreters.

A Coda on the RID Board

This past July at the RID Conference a motion was passed by a significant majority that would create a dedicated position on the RID Board of Directors for a certified member who was raised by one or two Deaf parents. I absolutely and unequivocally believe that we must ensure that RID, our organization, does not lose the vital Coda link to our past. I can think of no compelling reason why we, as an organization, would not want to ensure this irreplaceable link to our past and its presence on our Board of Directors. Some would argue that RID (us) would incur additional expenses by adding an additional seat on the Board. I would argue that the price of doing so definitely does not outweigh the cost of not doing so.

Further, I would encourage the leadership of any association serving sign language interpreters to work to ensure that the Coda link to our past is represented as they move their respective organizations forward.

In Sum

I urge every member of RID to honor our past, cherish our present and enrich our future by voting in the affirmative to create a dedicated Coda seat on the RID Board of Directors. When the vote is called for next fall I urge us all to vote to ensure that we always have a Native Voice on our Board of Directors!

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Sign Language Interpreters – Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain?

Dennis Cokely

Five decades ago those of us who functioned as sign language interpreters were allies of Deaf people, united with them in fighting for communicative access to the various services and opportunities offered to society at large. Working to overcome the daily attitudinal and communicative oppression that confronted Deaf people was a force that served to unite interpreters and Deaf people. Then the communicative access needs of Deaf people were provided by the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, relatives, teachers, ministers, VR counselors and friends of Deaf people. Indeed, the interpreting scene for Deaf people then was in many ways like it is today for individuals needing spoken language access to society’s services and opportunities.

Communicative Oppression

The communicative oppression Deaf people experienced enabled them to define the work of sign language interpreters in many ways – they vetted interpreters (there were no Interpreter Training Programs or credentialing procedures), they arranged for interpreters (there were no laws requiring provision of interpreters), and they shared their language (there were no formal sign language classes except perhaps in churches) and their “Deaf grapevine” made known to the Community who could be trusted as an interpreter and who could not (there were no referral agencies). For interpreters, supporting the struggle for communicative access was an “other-centered” activity that focused on issues of justice for Deaf people and their rights.

Fifty years later, while audism still persists, the right to communicative access for Deaf people has been ensured by three federal laws (PL 93-112, PL 94-142 and PL 101-336). However, the cost to Deaf people and to sign language interpreters has been quite significant. For Deaf people who, beginning in the seventies and eighties, sought to be viewed as a linguistic and cultural minority, the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that they were to be labeled as “disabled”; the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that they would quickly lose the ability to define the work of interpreters; the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that they would soon no longer be the primary source from which non-Deaf people would learn their language; the price of legislatively mandated communicative access was that reputation within the Community mattered less and less. To be sure, this was a true devil’s bargain, one whose terms may not have been fully made clear to, understood nor foreseen by Deaf people. Nevertheless, the cost to interpreters and to our standing as allies of Deaf people may have been even more severe.

The Consequences

Certainly one consequence of the three federal laws was to create an “interpreter for hire” environment in which the overwhelming majority of hiring entities (school principals, interpreter coordinators, conference coordinators, etc.) would not be Deaf. Thus while we, as sign language interpreters, might hold certification from RID, a non-Deaf dominated certifying or credentialing entity, that fact alone does not mean that we have been vetted by Deaf people or had our skills honed in the crucible of the Community. Additionally these federal laws created the “business model” of interpreting which was a decided shift from the “service model” of interpreting according to which we operated fifty years ago. Among other things, the “business model” has lead to interpreters earning a national average of $38.00 per hour (with a two hour minimum) and referral agencies billing on average twice that amount – a 100% surcharge. And when we consider that 51% of interpreters work full-time and 54% of Deaf people are unemployed, one wonders whether interpreters have materially benefited more from this legislated “Devil’s bargain” than have Deaf people.

Another consequence is that an enormous interpreter supply demand gap was legislatively created. While Deaf people used to arrange for and negotiate for the provision of sign language interpreting services according to their schedules, Deaf people are now forced to live their lives according to interpreters’ schedules and work availability. For example, it is worth noting that, according to national surveys, 78% of Deaf people report that medical settings are the most important situations in which they need interpreting services and yet those are the very settings for which they report it is most difficult to be provided with interpreting services. Little wonder since only 30% of sign language interpreters nationwide work in medical settings more than 30% of the time. Our work choices now dictate the rhythm of Deaf people’s lives. Our work choices constrain the life decisions of Deaf people. Our work choices either uphold or deny human rights and avow or disavow human dignity.

Our Roots

Deaf people used to be the primary source of helping us learn their language and they did so by teaching it to us from birth, or because we had familial ties or because they extended opportunities for us to socialize with them. But now according to a national survey 49% of nationally credentialed sign language interpreters spend less than 10% of their time socializing with Deaf people; only 20% of us are members of NAD and only 8% of us are members of their state association of the Deaf. How then do we keep abreast of changes in the language or changes in the attitudes/perspectives of Deaf people? How do we justify learning their language and profiting from it without giving back? In becoming a “profession” have we simply become parasites?

If, as a group, we interpreters are no longer as tightly bound to Deaf people as we were before, if there is no common uniting cause that binds us to Deaf people, if we have begun to view interpreting as a business rather than a response to personal connections, if we have materially benefited from laws mandating the presence of interpreters more than Deaf people, then the questions must be asked – what are we willing to do as individuals to become reconnected with Deaf people? Are we willing to adjust our work choices to accommodate the rhythm of Deaf people’s lives?

What should we be doing as a field/profession to give back to the Community?