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UpCycling the CPC: Role Space and the Reasonable Interpreter Standard

In search of the “Reasonable Interpreter Standard”… Re-thinking the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct with a fresh look at current best practices, recognition of role-space, advocacy and social media ethics.

UpCycle the CPCHurray! The RID Code of Professional Conduct Review Committee report came out on 6/23/2015! Many of us are eagerly awaiting a revised CPC. After reading through it, I felt inspired to sit down and draft a document which constitutes my approach to the intricacies of ethical practice, both philosophically and pragmatically, in my daily community sign language interpreting work.

[Click to view post in ASL]

This proposed draft is the fruit of fantastic input from a variety of sources (listed below) and also from the sometimes painful juxtaposition of the perceived proper role of a professional interpreter and an outdated CPC. As an interpreter who works for a variety of agencies and entities over a large geographic area, this proposed CPC is more compatible with my collective experiences over the past 26 years as an ASL interpreting practitioner and attempts to address many of the concerns raised in the recent CPC Review Committee report.

Your input and perspectives are invaluable! Share your thoughts on this important topic that has far reaching implications for individual interpreters and the community at large.

Thank you!

Code of Professional Conduct for ASL Interpreters (DRAFT)


Interpreting is an art and service profession. Interpreters work to provide access for individuals who do not share a common language or language mode. To demonstrate their commitment to the technical as well as relational components of the work to remove language barriers, respect cultural norms and promote shared communication, RID Certified American Sign Language Interpreters shall adhere to the following professional standards that both guide interpreter conduct and protect the public trust in certified interpreters.


All RID Certified Interpreters are bound to comply with this Code of Ethics. Interpreting students and interns are encouraged to adhere to this Code as pre-professionals, in conjunction with supervision by RID Certified interpreters, mentors and instructors.


1.  Accurate and Complete Interpretation

Each participant’s source language should be faithfully rendered in a manner that conserves and conveys all meaningful elements of the speaker’s message and intent into the target language. A natural prosody that reflects the tone, style and register of the speaker should be employed. The interpreter shall strive for the highest standards of accuracy to enable the parties to clearly communicate with one another and avoid misunderstandings. The interpreter shall make repairs promptly and discreetly. If at any point an interpreter is unable to fulfill this tenet, the interpreter has a duty to either decline or remove her/himself from the assignment. Sight translation of forms and documents is within the scope of practice. Consecutive, simultaneous, team or relay interpreting with an intermediary interpreter are all valid approaches to this task, and the interpreter shall use professional discernment to request a team interpreter to effectuate communication.

2.  Commitment to Autonomy

The interpreter shall constantly strive to support full autonomy of the participants. While some situations may require the interpreter to make adjustments such as improved positioning, lighting or other logistical considerations, the primary focus will be to facilitate  participant autonomy. The interpreter shall avoid interjecting actively into the conversation or message. Exceptions include utterances which constitute social pleasantries, responding to direct questions, management of the interpreted interaction such as checking in with the parties to ensure the interpretation is clearly conveyed and accessible, clarification of content and professional courtesies.   Interpretation is a group activity creating a shared experience, and the interpreter has a duty to interact in ways that are socially responsive, culturally and linguistically inclusive and also maintain an overarching commitment to participant autonomy.

3.  Confidentiality

Privileged or confidential information acquired in the course of interpreting or preparing for an assignment shall not be disclosed by the interpreter without authorization. Data and records shall be handled using current industry standards including password protected computer files, locked cabinets and shredding of obsolete documents. HIPAA laws or any other federal, state or local laws governing information management shall be adhered to strictly. Interpreters work in a variety of settings for a variety of entities. Case studies, which are representative of repeated occurrences within interpreted interactions over time, can be shared with peers for the purpose of analysis and professional development in the same manner that other professionals conduct continuing education with the goal of improved service outcomes. Interpreters may make public comment on public information.

4.  Professional Demeanor

Interpreters shall conduct themselves in a professional manner that engenders respect for all parties. This applies to standards of dress which are conducive to a visually accessible interpretation. For most interactions business casual is appropriate. Identification such as a badge is recommended to assist the parties in readily identifying the working interpreter.  Examples of professional conduct include prompt confirmation of availability, fulfillment of confirmed assignments and punctuality. The interpreter shall maintain appropriate professional boundaries and separate personal from work interactions out of respect for all parties. Social media shall be used judiciously with consideration for all parties with particular attention to maintenance of standards of confidentiality. Obtain permission from all parties before posting shared experiences on social media or online.

5. Collegiality

Interpreters shall strive to work effectively, professionally and in good faith with all colleagues, mentoring partners, interpreting interns and students. Team interpreters shall caucus as needed before, during and post-assignment to ensure an optimal interpretation. Colleagues shall be approached directly, privately, one-on-one, to address any concerns or breaches of ethical conduct. Filing of grievances shall be made only after all other standard conflict resolution methods have been unsuccessful. Every effort shall be made to maintain open, accountable and positive relationships with peers that support full communication access for all parties.

6.  Preparation

Interpreters shall make all necessary efforts to prepare adequately for assignments. This includes obtaining preparation materials such as speeches, meeting agendas, documents, textbooks, police reports, etc., that will promote the most complete and accurate interpretation.

7.  Conflicts of Interest and Role-Space

Interpreters shall avoid conflicts of interest and dual roles which result in diminished capacity to devote full attention to the task of interpreting. The concept of a conflict of interest is well established, and interpreters shall adhere to norms of conflict of interest avoidance, both perceived and actual. Unanticipated conflicts of interest shall be disclosed to the parties promptly. Complete neutrality, or the absence of vested interest is not achievable.  Interpreters are dedicated to effective communication for all parties. However, interpreters can commit to fully participate in the role-space of interpreter to facilitate communication in order to support the parties in reaching their mutual goals of shared exchange.

8.  Professional Development

Interpreters shall maintain RID certification, completing required CEUs within each cycle, and also engage in supplemental continuing education, mentoring, pro-bono work, etc., to promote the furtherance of knowledge and skills within a framework of social justice. Membership and participation in professional organizations is strongly encouraged.

9.  Advocacy and Resource Referral

Interpreters are in a unique position as functional bi-cultural bilinguals. Interpreters shall provide referrals to available and appropriate community resources to support equal access. Interpreters may engage in advocacy services in settings that are separate from the interpreting function and that fall within standards of acceptable professional conduct and do not constitute a conflict of interest.

10.  Functional Maintenance

Interpreting is physically, emotionally and mentally demanding. Interpreters shall make reasonable efforts to ensure that all members of the interpreting team have adequate supports, including breaks, to promote health and longevity in the interpreting field. Interpreters shall decline or discontinue assignments if working conditions are not safe, healthy or conducive to interpreting.

11.  Business Practices

Shelly Hansen
Shelly Hansen

Interpreters shall adhere to the highest standards of ethical business practices which include but are not limited to accurate invoicing, charging reasonable fees for services rendered which constitute a livable wage, payment of taxes, maintenance of licenses and professional liability insurance, etc. Interpreters shall engage in pro-bono interpreting. Interpreters shall refrain from using confidential interpreted information for personal, monetary or professional gain or for the benefit or gain of personal or professional affiliations or entities. Interpreters shall avoid interpreting in settings which involve payment terms that are inconsistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act or any other federal or state law or local statute prohibiting discrimination.

12.  RID ED: K-12

RID Certified ED: K-12 interpreters shall adhere to the most current version of the EIPA Guidelines of Professional Conduct for Educational Interpreters when working in K-12 educational settings.

13.  Court Certified Interpreters

Legal interpreters have an additional level of ethical accountability to the courts and judicial system. Interpreters qualified to work in legal settings by either federal or state regulations or by virtue of RID legal credentialing shall prioritize the applicable court interpreter oath and timely access to due process. Legal interpreters shall strive to comply with current best practices and make statements on the record, requests, disclosures and recommendations that represent current best practices for legal interpreters.

14.  Adherence to Federal, State and Local Law

Interpreters shall abide by all federal, state and local laws which supersede this Code of Professional Conduct.   Interpreters shall fulfill all mandatory reporting duties and respond to subpoenas.

Reasonable Interpreter Standard

No illustrative behaviors are included. All tenets shall be considered using the reasonable professional interpreter standard. If an action, engaged in repeatedly, would promote:

  1. increased autonomy of the parties
  2. effective communication exchanges
  3. encourage public trust in the interpreter’s services

by actions taken in good faith effort adherence to these core tenets, the behavior should characterize that of a reasonable professional interpreter. For further assistance, please contact the RID Ethics Committee.

Questions for Consideration:

  1. Forget about dream vacations…What is your dream CPC?
  2. How do you want to see social media addressed collectively?
  3. Why is a succinct CPC preferable to a 5 page test-prep document?


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Llewellyn-Jones, P. & R.G. Lee (2014) Redefining the Role of the Community interpreter: The concept of role-space. Carlton-le-Moorland, UK: SLI Press.

National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators.

Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc.

EIPA: Guidelines for Professional Conduct

Dean, R. K., & Pollard, R. Q (2011). Context-based ethical reasoning in interpreting: A demand control schema perspective. Interpreter and Translator Trainer, 5(1), 155-182.


Collegial Assistance:

Thank you to Xenia Woods, along with the Street Leverage staff, for their willingness to review and provide feedback and edits on this submission! Thank you also to Mr. Ed Alletto for his insightful legal trainings and gentle but direct prompting.


Q:  Why aren’t there any definitions?
A: Unnecessary as this applies to the RID Certified Interpreters.

Q: Why not include the section about “representing qualifications accurately”?
A: Because it is already illegal to misrepresent yourself and this CPC only applies to RID Certified Interpreters

Q:  Why not address VRI/VRS?
A: Unnecessary as this applies to RID Certified interpreters regardless of venue.  Employment requirements are separate from a Code of Professional Conduct, which applies to members of a professional group.

Q:  Why not more illustrative behaviors?
A:  A CPC should be succinct.  This covers the core tenets and should be interpreted using the reasonable interpreter standard, which this version makes more explicit and should strengthen the application of this CPC.   It is not possible to list all applicable illustrative behaviors. It is possible to provide ethical principles with guidelines for making determinations that will result in ethical conduct.  See Model Code of Professional Responsibility for Interpreters in the Judiciary for an example of this format.

Q: Why not discuss the Demand Control Schema?
A: In my opinion, DCS is a is a tool used to manage the interpreting interactions, but is not appropriate in a CPC. Individuals can engage in behaviors that do not match up with the CPC, and then state a need to use certain controls because of demands that are the result of earlier poor choices that could have been avoided. The CPC should stand above the DCS, which then can be used to comply with the CPC. [Edit 8/6/15.]

Q: Why not include a separate tenet for medical interpreters?
A: This may be necessary at a future date if a separate medical certification is added by RID.  At the moment this CPC along with HIPAA laws and contracting terms provide sufficient ethical guidance. (For example: no unsupervised access to clients, and stepping out of exam rooms when patients need additional privacy.)

Q: Why not make this binding for students/interns?
A:  The CPC can only be binding for certified members, who can participate in grievance procedures, be sanctioned and have their professional certifications suspended or revoked. Students may, for example, have a course requirement to adhere to the CPC in order to participate in an internship placement, but do not have a professional duty to adhere to the CPC until achieving certified status.  The number of non-RID certified interpreters working in the field continues to decline, as states adopt requirements for licensure that are predicated upon RID certification. The onus is on the RID Certified interpreter to guide the student/intern to adhere to the CPC.  See the ABA Model Rules for Professional Conduct Rule 5.3 for an example of this supervisory relationship.


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Critical Path: A Reboot of Sign Language Interpreter Education

It’s time for a reboot of sign language interpreter education.  Two year interpreting programs should become pre-professional programs that lead to a bachelor’s degree in interpreting.

Critical Path: A Reboot of Sign Language Interpreter EducationAs professional sign language interpreters and sign language interpreter educators, we all understand the difficult work we are tasked with and we recognize when it’s working and when it’s not. Recently, four such professionals met over a three-day period to think about the current state of interpreter education and how sign language interpreter preparation needs to change. Each of us in that group of four brought differing experiences to the table and more professional hats than we care to count. We believe that many in the field have known this conversation is desperately needed, but more than that, it is time to act.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Our group includes interpreter educators, a Deaf professional, an interpreter educator with Deaf parents, a parent of Deaf children, and a leader in a post-secondary interpreter education program. We worry about the skills of the interpreter who arrives to interpret for our Deaf mother and father, about whether our Deaf children will understand the interpreter who comes to basketball practice, and if we will be able to find an interpreter who is adequately prepared for the highly academic and intellectual meeting we attend. We each choose to believe we can make a difference. It was Margaret Mead who stated, to “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. In fact, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

It is time to radically examine how we prepare sign language interpreters nationwide. For far too long we have recognized that the preparation of an interpreter is nearly impossible to do in a two-year time period – whether those two years are part of a two-year associate degree program or the last two years of a baccalaureate degree program. We believe it is now time for community action. Collectively, we need to rethink how we prepare sign language interpreters and recognize that it takes a village to fully prepare interpreters. We are answering the call to action asked for by Cindy Volk in her Street Leverage article Sign Language Interpreter Education: Time for a National Call to Action.

The proposed reformation is a three-legged stool; that is, the seat is a new way of preparing sign language interpreters who are linguistically and culturally empowered to making a lasting difference, and the three legs are what we need to do to support this change, namely empowering educators, enhancing the curriculum and establishing a strong foundation in language and culture.

Empowering Educators

More often than not, we teach how we were taught. This is a widely accepted notion and one that rings true in many fields of study. Consequently, there is a need to provide training on how to effectively teach, assess our students on their progress towards mastering course outcomes and develop the curriculum. If we are to reform how we educate sign language interpreters, we have to first give educators the tools they need to not only rethink interpreter education but to change it. We need to prepare educators of today to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Enhancing the Curriculum

It has often been stated that the challenge of preparing a student to be a sign language interpreter in a two-year program is simply insurmountable. The four of us have heard repeatedly from faculty in associate level programs that they just can’t get it all in the allotted number of courses. We’ve heard from faculty at baccalaureate level programs that all too often they receive students from associate programs who do not possess the necessary language skills to proceed. We all need to be held accountable and take action to correct this.

Four-year programs need to be able to depend on two-year programs to fully prepare students for entry into the major of sign language interpreting. Two-year programs need to depend upon four-year programs to close the circle and complete the preparation so that students leaving are well-prepared for the field. Both two-year and four-year programs need to be involved with preparing interpreters in a complementary way rather than a competing or exclusive manner.

We suggest a reconsideration of the purpose of two-year programs. They should be pre-professional programs, with a focus on the foundations of interpreting. Courses should include ASL, translation, social justice, Deaf culture, pre-interpreting skills, and a stronger emphasis on the English language. In addition, interpreting programs should capitalize on the general education curriculum by creating a two year initial sequence that enhances the outcomes of students who are fully prepared to enter into interpreting programs with all the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to succeed.

 Ensuring Strong Foundations in Language and Culture 

As Lou Fant stated in 1974, “Prime prerequisite for an interpreter of any language is mastery of the languages he wishes to interpret. It seems so obvious that one feels embarrassed, almost, to mention it, yet I fear it is too often not given sufficient attention.”1 We would all agree that one of the most critical aspects of preparing future sign language interpreters is the development of a strong foundation in the languages they will use as interpreters. It is impossible to learn skills in interpreting, while also learning a second language. As a field, it is time we acknowledge this and require a strong foundation in ASL and English before entry into a sign language interpreting program. Rather than use two-year college programs to try and prepare students for the interpreting profession, why not use such programs to give students the linguistic and cultural foundations needed to then enter an interpreter education program?


  • Establish a taskforce to examine a Deaf/hearing co-teaching model to develop foundational fluency in ASL for students entering interpreter training programs.

  • Establish a track at the CIT biennial conference to address the need for reformation.

  • Begin discussions about the possibility of adding specialty areas of preparation (education, legal, medical, etc.) to interpreter education programs.

  • Examine the proliferation of interpreter education programs to determine if the need truly exists for so many programs.

  • Begin a discussion between program directors from both two-year and four-year programs on how to develop a national interpreter education curriculum and outcomes.

  • Research how competency-based education may be a model for our field.

  • Research how theories, models and frameworks of spoken language apply to the preparation of signed language interpreters.

Back: Cindy Volk, Len Roberson. Front: Carolyn Ball, Taralynn Petrites
Back: Cindy Volk, Len Roberson. Front: Carolyn Ball, Taralynn Petrites

An Example

An example of how two groups (e.g., two-year and four-year programs) can work together is the recent efforts of University of Arizona (UA) and Pima Community College (PCC).  Currently, these two institutions are collaborating on the development of a framework that will  address many of the issues raised in this article. The goal is to create a 2+2 program whereby students will begin at PCC with a focus on ASL skills and pre-interpreting skills. Students would then transfer to UA where they will study the interpreting process and further refine their skills as sign language interpreters. The language and culture foundations developed at PCC will be critical to the success of the students at UA. Both PCC and UA encourage other such programs in the United States to engage in similar collaborative efforts and, thus, reform how interpreters are prepared.


This type of reformation needs leadership and direction. We recommend that the three key organizations in sign language interpreter education – the Conference of Interpreter Trainers (CIT), the American Sign Language Teachers’ Association (ASLTA), and the Commission on Collegiate Interpreter Education (CCIE) come together and move forward in realizing this vision. It is our recommendation that the Presidents of these three organizations meet to examine how they can individually contribute to, collaborate on, and lead this reformation.

Reforming sign language interpreter education to graduate skilled, well-prepared interpreters should not be the concern of only a few people, but rather an urgent priority for all stakeholders, including sign language interpreting agencies, VRS companies, parents of Deaf children, children of Deaf parents, ITPs, and Deaf people. The time is indeed now – we must reform sign language interpreter education.

We want to acknowledge the ideas and contributions of several people who helped frame the ideas we’ve presented here. Thank you to Leslie Greer, Jimmy Beldon, and Amy June Rowley.

Questions for Consideration:

  1. How can your program make significant reformations in interpreter education?
  2. Do you think the time is now for such reformation in sign language interpreter education? Why or why not?
  3. Are the ideas presented in this article feasible/possible in your community, state, and in the nation?  If not, why not?

Dr. Carolyn Ball has been an interpreter educator for over 25 years, teaching at Brigham Young University, Salt Lake Community College, William Woods University and the University of North Florida. Currently, she is the Executive Director of the VRS Interpreting Institute (VRSII) in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Taralynn Petrites, M.Ed., is the lead faculty of Sign Language and Interpreter Training as well as Department Chair of Behavioral Sciences at Pima Community College (PCC) in Tucson, Arizona. Taralynn has been teaching American Sign Language and Interpreting courses since 2002. She is currently working on her dissertation toward a Ph.D. in Higher Education Leadership.

Len Roberson, Ph.D., SC:L, CI, CT, has been involved in the fields of deaf education and interpreting for over 28 years. He is an active researcher, interpreter, and interpreter educator. Dr. Roberson is currently Associate Vice-President of Academic Technology and Innovation at the University of North Florida (UNF) and a tenured professor. His current research interests include the study of interpreting in legal settings, distance learning effectiveness, and service-learning in interpreter education.


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1Fant, L. (1974) JADARA (Journal of Rehabilitation of the Deaf) Volume 7, Issue 3, 1974 (pp. 47 – 69).

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Certified Deaf Interpreters: Moving From Celebration to Action

By providing concise definitions, sharing success stories and through consistent advocacy, Hearing interpreters can support and increase the hiring of Certified Deaf Interpreters to ensure effective communication.

Certified Deaf Interpreters - Celebration to ActionLeveraging Celebration

On October 24, 2014, a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) interpreted a live news press conference for the Office of Emergency Management about the Ebola outbreak in NYC. This may have been the first time ever, in the United States, that the use of a Deaf interpreter in this capacity garnered national attention. It was a significant accomplishment for ASL access and for the sign language interpreting profession. In light of this recent breakthrough, there is a buzz of excitement in the air. While there are sign language interpreting agencies, interpreting organizations, and Deaf organizations who have long utilized CDIs in a variety of domains, still many other entities are late to the game. Often the decision to use or, more often, not to use a CDI, lies with the interpreting agency or the entity paying for services and not with the Deaf consumer or the experienced hearing interpreter. This chasm deepens when agencies use hearing interpreters who lack experience or are resistant to working with a CDI, citing competition as their rationale. When to hire a CDI, why to use a CDI, and what a CDI does are questions not always asked and can, unfortunately, be difficult to answer.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Importance of Education and Explanation

Now that the world has been introduced to the concept of a CDI, where do sign language interpreters go from here? Seasoned professionals may know why a Deaf interpreter was used for that particular press conference, but does everyone in the field truly understand? What about the layperson? The best tactic for educating the public at large is to be prepared with a concise definition that clearly explains the benefits of using a CDI, a definition that makes sense not only to those who work in the signing community, but also to the average person who requests sign language interpreting services. These individuals usually have very little knowledge of ASL or the diversity within the Deaf community. Some interpreters may already utilize a definition. Still, there remains the challenge of ensuring that CDIs are hired for all situations that would benefit from them. The NCIEC addresses the role of the Deaf interpreter, stating,

“NCIEC studies indicate that in many situations, use of a Deaf interpreter enables a level of linguistic and cultural bridging that is often not possible when hearing ASL-English interpreters work alone.”1

While this makes sense to those who work in the field, I believe this definition alone, without real-world examples, may still leave a layperson at a loss. Currently, there is little in the way of normative data that could give us meaningful statistics and provide a balance to our narrative, which would help validate our definitions.

Concern for the Community

Increased exposure to ASL is not necessarily the answer. Sadly, the hearing majority still sees ASL interpreters on stage and online as performers, as evidenced by the many comments made on the heels of the aforementioned press conference. This misunderstanding has detrimental effects on those providing and using sign language interpreting services. After re-reading the powerful article, A Role for Sign Language Interpreters: Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People, by Lynette Taylor, I am reminded that as the public gains exposure to ASL, the language is in danger of being monetized as a product, and the fact that it belongs to the Deaf community is forgotten. “With the heart of the language no longer at the center of the community, it puts at risk not only the life of the language but the life of the community.”2

Power of Narrative

Now is the right time for action from both the interpreting and Deaf communities. We can all start by sharing stories of when a CDI made communication access happen. Narrative is an important tool. Sharing our human experiences, feelings and needs serves to connect us. By telling our stories to the general public and to those with decision-making power, we can have a great impact on increasing general awareness and effecting change. The impact of narrative may even surpass that of impersonal, academic knowledge about the Deaf community.

Eliciting Change

One way we can look at making changes in our profession is through the lens of Systems theory, which examines how nations maintain their relationships. Systems theory states that there are two ways to elicit change.3 A delicate or indirect way of eliciting change is used for minor infractions and when saving face is paramount. Extreme action is taken when a country has committed human rights violations. In this case, sanctions are imposed in order to threaten that country’s economy and to draw world attention. If other countries also place sanctions, the offending country has to decide if it can afford to lose business.

How can interpreters and Deaf consumers use these ways to elicit change in our community? In applying the delicate way, start by thanking those interpreting agencies who are providing CDIs. Thank them for hiring only certified interpreters and educating the hiring entity about the value of a CDI. Ask those agencies to share your personal narratives in meaningful ways. Change occurs not only through threat or complaint. A person complimented is a person who is listening, and one who will be more likely to share positive and informed feedback about the benefits of CDIs.

For agencies and entities that are not providing satisfactory services, more extreme action can be taken. First, don’t give up without multiple attempts to contact them. Organize with the community to make clear demands for certified Deaf interpreters, certified hearing interpreters, and interpreters preferred by Deaf consumers. It’s not enough to sit back and hope that bad agencies will fold up or only commit to working for better agencies. Organized action is key in order to send a message to offending agencies.

While everyone is celebrating the use of the CDI for the Ebola press conference in NYC, we should not forget that behind that decision was a hiring agent (OEM), an interpreting agency, and professional interpreters speaking up. This surely did not happen overnight, either. Do these parties realize that having a CDI interpret had a significant impact? Paraphrased from the interview on Deaf Hearing News (DHN), Jon Lamberton, CDI, says, “A few Deaf people thanked me, saying, ‘Wow, I finally know what Ebola means. I never knew what it meant before.’”4  Indeed, everything that happened behind the scenes, from education to action, yielded a positive result for the Deaf community.

Andria Alefhi
Andria Alefhi

Call to Action

By the time this article is printed, the first ever Deaf Interpreter Conference will have taken place in June, 2015 in St. Paul, MN. It’s an exciting time to remind the general public that Deaf people are interpreters, too. Let’s go from celebration to action through education and clear demands stated in a way that non-signers can understand. Share success stories by calling the good guys Friends of the Deaf Community, and be specific about what they are doing right. Push those lagging behind with tact. Assume they need information and insight. Persistence coupled with strong explanations grounded in both data and narrative can go a long way. RID-NAD recently posed the question,

“Can we settle with that fact that there are citizens of our country, our neighbors, friends, family or colleagues, who may be held powerless due to lack of adequate information – information we can clearly provide to them if we just embrace and utilize interpreting services in the way that they are meant to be effective?”5

The CDI profession is relatively new to everyone. Let’s work together to spread a unified message of best practices to ensure effective communication access for the American Deaf community.

Questions for Consideration:

  1. How can the interpreting profession assist Deaf consumers in asserting their right to CDI-CHI teams?
  2. How can hearing and Deaf interpreters best answer the question, “Why do we need a Deaf interpreter?”
  3. How can we conduct more research to analyze the communication experiences of Deaf consumers using CDIs


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2 A Role for Sign Language Interpreters: Preserving the Linguistic Human Rights of Deaf People by Lynette Taylor (Street Leverage, 2012)

3 Systems Theory //


5 RID-NAD Editorial from RID-NAD on Interpreting Services and the Media, October 28, 2014.

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Deaf-Parented Interpreters: A Challenge to the Status Quo in Sign Language Interpreter Education?

Amy Williamson presented Deaf-parented Interpreters: A Challenge to the Status Quo in Sign Language Interpreter Education? at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston/Newton. Amy will examine the experience of deaf-parented interpreters as child language brokers, heritage learners of sign language, and practitioners working among the community who raised them.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

“Do You Remember the First Time You Interpreted?”

For those of you without deaf family members, you remember. Clearly. This question probably evokes a visceral emotional reaction and a vivid mind’s eye image. For me, a white middle class hearing female who grew up with deaf parents and extended family members, I might as well be asked if I remember the first time I ate toast. Toast has always been a part of my world. So has interpreting. Well, at least the concept of interpreting.

What I grew up doing was what is commonly referred to as child language brokering. I don’t remember the FIRST time I interpreted but I do have memories of culturally brokering between my parents and non-signing people. When I was in middle school, I was assigned a submission to the dreaded science fair. Any of you with children may have some empathy for my mother as she had to deal with a daughter (me) that was, is, and shall always be the Queen of Procrastination. As per usual, just before the stores were closing the night before the project was due, I needed a run to the drug store to get some long forgotten but very important item to complete the project. Just as the store was closing, my mother was at the cash register purchasing the key item that would make or break my project. While I was not actually standing with my mother, I was close enough to witness the following:

Clerk: Hello, how are you?

My mother: looking down to retrieve money from her wallet does not see that the clerk has said something to her

Clerk: Well, you don’t have to be rude.

My mother: still looking down does not see that the clerk has said something else

In that moment, my 13-year-old self knew that I could do one of a few things in reaction. I was not ‘interpreting’ for my family members as I do now that I am a professional interpreter, but I had over time, trial, and error learned how to determine the goals of each of the people communicating and navigate between them. Each interaction, constellation of players, and context would result in a different decision on how to broker between them.

Some Days I Made Good Decisions. Other Days I Did Not.

On that late night I made a decision. I walked up to my mother and started signing to her. The act of signing made immediately clear to the clerk, who probably was exhausted after a long day of waiting on ungrateful customers and may not have intended for the comment to be said out loud, that my mother was deaf. Not rude. And more than anything, wanted to get in and out of the store with the must have for the science fair project item. Anyone that knows my mother can vouch for me when I say that ‘rude’ is the last adjective you would ever hear in a description of her.

To Broker or Not to Broker, Not a Choice.

This experience wasn’t a first. It wasn’t the last. This type of thing will always happen for children of deaf parents. No amount of Video Relay Service, Closed Captioning on TV, laws protecting the rights of Deaf people, or interpreters on every street corner will prevent children from witnessing and brokering in situations like this. Even if a parent chooses not to have their child broker, it is almost impossible to stand by and watch miscommunication happen. Children want to help their parents. How the situation is handled is unique to the relationship between child and parent and those decisions are highly personal. The dynamics around these interactions need to be understood and respected by the larger interpreting community.

What Defines a Native Signer? Is Auditory Status Part of the Criteria?

Signed language researchers have no consensus on a definition of who is a native sign language user. Such a small percentage of deaf people are born to signing deaf parents. By defining a native user as someone that uses the language from birth, the number of native users for their research purposes would be limited. Researchers manipulate the criteria to suit their research questions.

Among spoken language colleagues the criteria for native users of a language is straightforward. Anyone that uses a language from birth is considered a native user. For some reason, modality and auditory status become part of the criteria when we talk about native users of signed language. People seem loathe to admit that a majority of native signed language users are hearing because most deaf people have hearing children and those children acquire a signed language from birth.

What Makes a Heritage Language User? Fluency Will Vary.

If a person uses a minority language at home with their parents and is not educated in that same language, they are called a heritage language user. As a student of their home language, they are called a heritage language learner. Deaf-parented individuals are heritage language signers and potentially heritage language learners if they take a signed language class.

Heritage language fluency will vary wildly among users and may vary within the same family. Fluency in the heritage language will depend on several factors such as how often the child interacts in the heritage language or how diverse the language users are that they interact with. Family language policies and dynamics are unique and evolve for each family differently.

The Role of Family, Community & School.

For any language acquisition, whether it is a first or subsequent language, there are three areas of immersion that will ensure full and rich language acquisition. They are family, community, and school.  If we apply this model of language acquisition to each of four groups, we can develop a better understanding of the opportunities for signed language acquisition and fluency development for the communities we work with.

If you are deaf with deaf parents, you will have signed language immersion in all three areas. If you are deaf with hearing parents, there are no guarantees of immersion in all three areas. If you are hearing with hearing parents, the opportunities for immersion in any one of the three areas are difficult to experience. If you are, like me, hearing with deaf parents, you will experience immersion at home, possibly in the community but not in school. I conducted a survey of 751 deaf-parented interpreters and found that 74% of the respondents reported that they had interactions with signing deaf people that were not their own parents at least weekly. deaf-parented interpreters do have community opportunities for signed language acquisition.

In thinking about these three areas of language immersion, how does your experience shape up? How much signed language immersion have you had in your home life, community, or schooling?

Child Language Broker to Professional Interpreter

When I was 18, I needed a job. I was a poor college student that needed money for shoes. And beer (shhhh…don’t tell my mother).  I thought I had no marketable skills but then I found out that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) had just passed and the world was in desperate need of exactly what I had to offer.

I was a heritage language user of ASL and I had experience as a child language broker. These two experiences were valued and needed. Without setting out any intention of becoming an interpreter, doors opened that started me on a professional career path. A path that I am grateful for.

My own entry to interpreting is not unique. Almost 80% of the respondents to my survey fell into the ASL/English interpreting industry without intentionally pursuing it. Most of the interpreters that responded to my survey started interpreting before the age of 25. Just like me and some of you.

What does all of this have to do with interpreter education and why am I…someone with no formal interpreter education program background…even talking about it? Let me show you.

Only 28% of the deaf-parented interpreter survey respondents attended and completed a formal interpreter education program.

Deaf-parented interpreters want to get training. They are committed to getting structured training. Enough so that one survey respondent, a mother of young children, drove an hour and a half one-way to attend a structured interpreter training program. That same program required students to attend specific evening and weekend events in the deaf community to get more exposure and understanding of ASL and the community that uses it. The respondent’s deaf family members lived near her and she saw and interacted with them and the deaf community regularly. Her instructor insisted that she adhere to the requirement to attend the same events that her classmates were required to attend.

The hoops she was required to jump to get exposure to sign language and the deaf community were unnecessary for her but the system failed her by sticking to their rigid requirements.

Amy Williamson

She is one of the 28%.

25 Years of Progress?

In the 25 years since I entered the field, the bar has been raised on entry-level requirements for interpreters. In the grand scheme of things, this is a good thing but I challenge our industry to look at what we may be losing as we raise the bar.

If I were to graduate from high school today and need money for shoes and beer, I’d probably have to get a job at McDonald’s.  The community would not have access to my skillset. I would not be able to work in many states without licensure. Licensure would require certification. Certification would require sitting for RID’s NIC or CDI exam. To sit for that exam, I would need to have completed a BA or AA degree or demonstrated equivalent competency through the alternate pathways process.

Alternate pathway is a nice option for anyone that has not completed a degree but it still requires documentation of interpreting and education.

How would you propose I document all of the situations like the one in the drug store the night before my science fair project was due?

I would likely not become an interpreter in 2015. Maybe I’d be a police detective or a bookstore manager. All of those respondents that said they ‘fell into’ interpreting would be teachers or lawyers or waiters or accountants or stay at home moms.

Maybe I don’t know what I am talking about. Maybe interpreter education is working for most people. What do I know?

Together We Can Ensure Adequate Training.

It recently dawned on me that I had never met an interpreter/student interpreter before they started to learn sign. I don’t know what it is like to decide to take an ASL class or to become an interpreter. I don’t know what it is like to see a person signing for the first time. I don’t know what it is like to interpret for the first time (let alone in a classroom from a video). I don’t know what it is like to sign in front of other people for the first time. I don’t know what it is like to go though a decision making tree that you learned in a class before making a decision while interpreting.

I do know that expecting deaf-parented interpreters, child language brokers who are native and heritage users of signed language, to fit into the current model of interpreter education does not work for most of us. We need professional education. We need acknowledgement that we bring a different skill set to our industry than interpreters who do not have deaf parents.

Let’s ensure that little girls with deaf parents, and their classmates, have options for interpreter education that take into account their native and heritage language use. Training opportunities that are designed to enhance and refine their child language brokering experiences. We need deaf-parented interpreters to have an integral part of shaping our industry as we provide services to our signing communities.

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Angelelli, C. (2010). A professional ideology in the making: Bilingual youngsters interpreting for the communities and the notion of (no) choice. Translation and Interpreting Studies, 5(1), 94-108.

Compton, S. (2014). American Sign Language as a Heritage Language. In T. G. Wiley, J. K. Peyton, D. Christian, S. C. Moore, & N. Liu (Eds.), Handbook of Heritage, Community, and Native American Languages in the United States: Research, Policy, and Educational Practice. New York: Routledge and Center for Applied Linguistics.

Napier, J. (in press). Not just child’s play: Exploring bilingualism and language brokering as a precursor to the development of expertise as a professional signed language interpreter. In R. Antonini (Ed.), Non-professional Interpreting and Translation: State of the Art and Future of an Emerging Field of Research. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Reynolds, W. & Palmer, J. (2014, June). Codas as heritage learners →signers. Presented at CODA International, Codazona, Tempe, AZ.

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Tom Humphries – Constructs of Self and Other

Tom Humphries presented Constructs of Self and Other at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. His talk established that meaning making is typified by cultural and social processes that construct “worlds of meaning”, which when they interact, require careful negotiation and translation. Meaning is made within culture and across cultures.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

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

This will be a very brief summary of a course condensed into 20 minutes. I normally teach a lengthy course about the problem of self-expression and the problem of culture. Culture as a world of meaning. Culture as a world of meaning created by people in that particular culture. Another culture creates a different world of meaning.

Culture as a World of Meaning

To understand the concept of culture as a world of meaning, you have to accept certain ideas. In any culture, you have processes. These processes are busy doing work – doing the work of culture. The work of culture is creating meaning. Those meanings are what we adhere to, what we base our understandings and interpretations of the world upon. Our understanding follows that meaning so that things mean something to us. Things that don’t have that meaning are hard to relate to.

So, meaning is important. In other words, that’s what people do. Humans do that in all cultures. We are all engaged in the construction of meaning. In a way, we “create ourselves”. We create ideas of who we are, what we are, who is in our world of meaning, what that looks like, what “we” means. In that process of constructing our world, we are also creating “other” – what “we” are NOT.  “We” are not “other” or “them”. “We” are that which we have given meaning, not that “other”, whose meaning we have also created. So, in creating ourselves, in the end, we are also creating the “other”. That’s a process that all people engage in.

The Evidence of Languages

In the creation of one world of meaning and the “other” world of meaning…where is the evidence that these two worlds are different? Where is the evidence that a meaning in one world is different in the other world? As an example, I’d like to use the evidence of language, using American Sign Language (ASL) and English as examples, as you saw in the previous slide. The slide showed four different representations – think of them as constructs. It’s hard to translate that English word “construct” but think of it as something we produce.

So, we have those four constructs. [Speaker indicates the four constructs from the power point slide.] There are two pairs. The pair on the right represents constructs in ASL, in Deaf culture. The other pair, on the left, is different – they are rooted in English and created by different people. The first construct – each of the four are labeled – the first on the right is DEAF. The sign DEAF in ASL is not an English word. [See ASL video at 4:34.]  I’m using the gloss DEAF to represent the ASL sign. Deaf people use the sign DEAF for that construct – the construct of the Deaf cultural self. That is our label; how we identify with the group we refer to as DEAF in ASL. English is not relevant to this construct. So, we have the DEAF construct. While we create the construct of our self, we also create the “other”. That “other” is called HEARING in ASL. [Presenter presents ASL sign for HEARING.] It represents what DEAF is not. If someone is not DEAF, they are identified as HEARING – the second construct in ASL.

Now, if we look at the far left construct – on the slide it was a symbol. [Presenter refers back to the slide.] The fourth construct on the left is the symbol Ø. They are symbolized in that manner because there is no name for that group – that construct has no name. Those people have no label for themselves. They are people who can hear.

The DEAF label their “other” construct HEARING which represents the Ø. But the construct that DEAF labels HEARING – people who are in the Ø construct do not label themselves HEARING. They have no name. You all know this – it’s old news for you. This is nothing new. The Ø construct creates itself without a label and it creates the “other” labeled “deaf”. The English word “deaf” – I will spell it because it is an English word – “deaf” is the label for the third construct.

So, those are the four constructs. Two are ASL constructs and two are English constructs. We have two different languages. Their meanings are different. So, the first construct in ASL was DEAF and we have the English word “deaf” (the third construct) and those constructs/concepts are not the same. They are often translated as if they are the same thing. The Ø group often uses the term “deaf” as if it meant DEAF. DEAF people often protest that the English word “deaf” is not what DEAF means – it doesn’t represent the full meaning of the construct that is glossed DEAF. The ASL sign we use for DEAF does not mean “deaf” as that word does in English. That translation is inaccurate.

That’s an example showing language from two different worlds of meaning. The constructs of self and “other” in these two groups are vastly different in the different languages. Languages don’t match meanings. If you take words from the English meaning system – deaf, culturally deaf, hearing or many other things from that system and compare, the concepts, the meanings are different than the meanings in ASL.  Basically, individuals from each thought world can look at a concept and wonder how they will know what someone from the “other” construct means.

The Constructs are Models

Tom Humphries
Tom Humphries

It helps to understand something about the process. First, we have to look at those four original constructs as models, meaning they are all constructed within a cultural process. In a way, it means those constructs are not real. They are all abstractions. So, a DEAF person creates a construct of self based on imagining who they are, what they want, their experiences, etc. All that is synthesized and that is what is meant when they use the sign DEAF. A DEAF person can say that is who they are, who their friends are, their tribe. All that is represented in that ASL construct DEAF. It’s a model. It’s not a real thing.

Let me go back a minute. I want to clarify. That model [presenter indicates DEAF construct], that meaning system is very real in interactions. Because not only is DEAF a model, so is the Ø construct. When Ø people meet DEAF people to interact, the question is, are those constructs really interacting? Not really.

[Presenter indicates the two center constructs, HEARING from the ASL constructs and “deaf” from the English constructs. Then presenter stops himself.]

Wait. You have to be careful. This is a complex issue.

So, when a DEAF person meets a Ø person, they see the HEARING construct and interact with that construct, not with the English construct Ø. By the same token, when a Ø person meets a DEAF person, they interact with the English “deaf” construct instead of the DEAF person. So, it is complicated.

We are in the business of making meaning, making thought worlds. Then world meets world and we have to determine who is talking to whom and where each party is coming from. It’s an important concept in culture. The whole idea of meaning translation and understanding across cultures is problematic. You do face the possibility of not knowing, of not understanding “who” is there.

This is an important concept because what we do is create meaning – constructs, but that restricts us. It restricts our understanding and it restricts our ability to truly know the “other”. Are you following my logic? We are focused on creating meaning, as in those four constructs. We construct HEARING based on what we know about people who can hear. But do we really know the Ø people? No. The same situation exists for the Ø group and their construct, “deaf”. Do the Ø people really know DEAF people? No.

That is not unusual or different. That’s a normal process within cultures. Cultures have mechanisms that produce meaning. That is important for us. We have to have that. It allows us to progress, to grow, to develop, learn, and become. Without that, who knows? But at the same time, this process filters and limits and defines things. Those definitions…maybe those definitions are not how we want to be defined by others. Maybe we don’t define others they way they want to be defined. That can happen. It’s a fact.

It’s important that you know this process, as interpreters. Whether you are an interpreter or a teacher or anyone who interacts across those four ASL and English constructs, you have to understand and know what’s going on, the process and the mechanisms involved. It will make your life easier if you understand that.There are a lot of reasons for that.

Meaning Must Be Negotiated

It will make your life easier if you understand that as you interact between and with those four constructs, there are negotiations involved. There are always negotiations – even with minor things and big, complex issues. They require negotiation. For example, two summers ago, I was involved with a real type of negotiation that really struck me as a good example of this.

[Presenter addresses AV staff: Can you show what was proposed to the American Heritage Dictionary as the definition of audism? Presenter references power point slide with definition printed.]

Two years ago, the American Heritage Dictionary decided they wanted to include a definition of audism in their dictionary. They used the definition we just saw, “Discrimination against deaf people.” Immediately, vlogs came out and there was an outcry from community members protesting what they felt was an inaccurate definition. I was contacted by the senior editor of the American Heritage Dictionary and engaged in conversation with him and one other Deaf person. The three of us had an enjoyable exchange of ideas as we discussed and debated and tried to explain what was wrong with the chosen definition. To his credit, the editor did accept that the definition was the wrong one and wanted to repair the error. I applaud him for that. As we went round and round, we struggled to define the concept in English. It is, after all, an English dictionary. It is based in that world, that meaning system. The other Deaf participant and I discussed how to tell a hearing editor, in English, what was meant. It was tough.

Normative Bias

The basic problem is that the chosen definition was only half the story. Discrimination is a part of the definition, but it doesn’t explain the full concept. Audism isn’t about discrimination; it is about ideology, a belief system which is the basis for discrimination. Discrimination only represents the surface of this issue. Audism is what lies beneath that surface. So, we told the editor that he wasn’t defining audism, he was defining the symptoms of audism – what happens, what you can see. In that conversation, we quickly realized that his definition was created from that Ø construct, that meaning system. That sign for Ø is awkward – I just adopted it because I needed a symbol and I didn’t have any other ideas.

At any rate, the editor- again, kudos to him.. The editor knew immediately what the problem was. He realized his mistake. The American Heritage Dictionary company had already initiated the process for checking all entries in the dictionary for what they called “normative bias”. They were considering every entry and making changes to every word where the definition displayed normative bias. Normative bias means the starting point, the basis for the definition. For example, the editor gave me a great example – the word “tan”. The English word “tan”. We sign “TAN” [See ASL sign at 17:20.] For a long time, the dictionary definition said, “Skin made brown by the sun.” They realized this was an error because “Skin made brown by the sun” meant that the skin was not brown in the first place. Many people in the world are already brown. What they had done was make an assumption that white was the normal state. So, they changed the definition to “skin made darker by the sun.” Now, the definition works for all skin tones. The new definition doesn’t assume a starting point.

We realized that he was right. We have to start with the assumption that Deaf people are not hearing people who went bad; Deaf people are not broken hearing people. He got it completely. So, the definition selected? This is what we ended up with:

American Heritage Dictionary: New definition as of December 2012

  1. The belief that people with hearing are superior to those who are deaf or hard of hearing.
  2. Discrimination or prejudice against people who are deaf or hard of hearing.]

I learned something from my dictionary work. That’s what they call a “two sense definition”. I thought he meant “two cents” but he clarified that it was “two sense” – having two meanings. So, a definition that has two different meanings listed is “two sense”. I knew that many words do have two or more definitions. The editor indicated that two were required, so we kept the definition which included discrimination. Many people use that meaning and understand audism based on that definition. That is the secondary meaning. The first meaning listed currently is about the belief system. So, we successfully negotiated across meaning systems. It’s complicated. We didn’t think it would require much effort to explain to him so that he would see our point, but it required a great deal of discussion and explanation to come to a mutual understanding. Negotiation takes work.

Context is Everything

Negotiation takes work because our world is complex. What goes on, contextually, is complex. Interactions are complicated.

[Timekeeper indicated approaching end time from off camera. Presenter responded.]

I understand. They just gave me the time.

Interactions are complicated. Context is everything. You have to look to the meaning systems that are interacting. Remember one thing – when you negotiate meaning, remember that meaning is made within each culture. When two cultures come together to interact, that space where they meet – meaning is made there too, but that meaning also goes back to each culture, as well. So, meaning is made in each culture and their meanings may be different. When those cultures come together, they create new meaning which they bring back to their own meaning systems. Those shared meanings then transfer and become part of both individual meaning systems. Meanings that are made apply to the cultures where they were made. There will always be these two different meaning worlds and they will always require understanding and negotiation when they come together. Okay? It is a simple idea.

Thank you.


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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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Does the Past Hold the Answer to the Future of Sign Language Interpreting?

Carolyn Ball presented Does the Past Hold the Answer to the Future of Sign Language Interpreting? at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her talk will examine how the profession of sign language interpreting might be very different if 50 years of recommendations had not gone ignored.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

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

Lighting the Way

As I look around the room today, I am in awe. There are many of you who have been involved with this wonderful profession of interpreting since its inception.  Because of your background in this field, you have become a light, much like a match and an influence for those around you. Your light is like the one match that can be lit, and then spreads to all of the other matches and can influence change.

You would not be here unless you wanted to change this profession.  We all want to be better, we want to teach better, we want to interpret better, and we want to ensure that the Deaf Community has the skilled interpreters they deserve.  That’s why we are here and that is why we try so hard to make this profession better. You literally have the power to change this profession. Each of you has something inside of you that has and will change this profession.

I will show you three examples of lights (people) that have influenced our profession. Those people who have come before us in our profession have taught us many lessons.

Dr. Lottie Reikehof

It has become my personal goal to interview as many pioneers in our field as I can, to capture their impact on our field before they pass away and before we miss what they provided us with their beautiful candle.

Recently, I flew to Virginia to interview and film Dr. Lottie Riekehof.  I will expand on three people that I have interviewed so that we can remember their contributions to our field and how their light has influenced us. While interviewing Lottie, I learned many things about her and why her heart understands what it means to need an interpreter for complete communication.

Did you know that Lottie Riekehof and her family were immigrants from Germany when she was three and came to America?  Lottie did not speak a word of English and when she was in kindergarten, at the age of five, she did not speak English, so she did not understand what was going on in the classroom nor was she able to speak to her classmates.  Luckily, she had a little friend who would sit by her and, ultimately, became her personal interpreter.  She learned what it truly meant to rely on an interpreter, which, in turn, helped her to become a much better interpreter herself.  She knew what it felt like to rely on the interpreter and this impacted her future interpreting for Deaf people and helped her to have a Deaf Heart. We will come back to Lottie.

Sharon Neumann Solow

The next pioneer that has had a huge impact in our field is Sharon Neumann Solow. Many of you may not be aware that Sharon was not an advocate of the Vietnam War. While Sharon was attending college and also working as an interpreter, she was involved in many causes to show the dislike that many college students’ felt towards the Vietnam War.

During this time in the 1960’s, many of the students who were involved with the protests would run from classroom to classroom and open the door to the class where a teacher was lecturing, and the protester would yell, “Shut it Down!” This meant that the classes should not continue and that all should be involved in stopping the war.  This protest was how the students were showing their united feelings about not wanting the war to continue. Sharon Neumann Solow, being a wonderful activist for peace, was, of course, involved with these efforts to run to each classroom and open the door to scream, “Shut it down”, and close the school. They were boycotting the system. Each of the people in the group Sharon was involved with would take turns running into the classrooms and telling them to shut it down. The group would divide the classrooms on the campus and continue this revolt, as they did not want the war to continue.

During this same time that the protestors were running around the campus trying to get it shut down, Sharon was an interpreter for many classes that Deaf people were taking at the college. Even though Sharon felt strongly about the war, she knew it was her job to interpret.  So, when it was time, Sharon would go to the classroom and interpret for Deaf people who were taking classes at the college, even though this was against the uprising that she believed in so firmly against the war.  Sharon felt that her duty and responsibility as an interpreter was not to take away Deaf people’s choices to choose whether or not they wanted to be involved.

One time, when Sharon was interpreting, one of the people from the protest, opened the door to the classroom that Sharon was interpreting in and yelled, “Shut it Down, Close the College”.  He was so shocked to see Sharon sitting there interpreting that he paused, and looked at Sharon, asking her, “What are you doing here?”  He just stared at her and couldn’t believe his eyes. Sharon responded to her friend, with no shame, that it was her job to interpret and she was doing her job.  Sharon felt strongly that it was not her right to tell Deaf people what they should or shouldn’t do when it came to being involved in the protest against the war. Sharon teaches us a great lesson with her example- no matter what our own opinions are, we do not have the right to impose those same emotions and expectations on those we interpret for.

JoAnn Dobecki Shopbell

The next person (pioneer) that we will learn about is JoAnn Dobecki Shopbell. JoAnn Dobecki Shopbell, where is Carla Mathers? Oh, she is out… of course she is out when I want to make a wonderful point about her. Hahaha!  JoAnn was Carla’s teacher when she was learning to be an interpreter at the College of Southern Idaho (CSI).

Because JoAnn has been an important pioneer in our field, I flew to Idaho to interview her.  It was a wonderful experience for me to be able to learn so much from JoAnn. JoAnn is a Child of Deaf Parents (CODA). Oh, there is Carla… please put the picture back up of JoAnn for Carla to see.

While I interviewed JoAnn, I wanted to know why she became an interpreter and an interpreter educator and why she was involved with this field. It was during this interview that JoAnn explained how she became an interpreter at a very early age.

JoAnn had Deaf Parents and during WWII, JoAnn became a very important part of the neighborhood where she grew up.  JoAnn was five years old and remembers a particular event that impacted her life forever. JoAnn had a baby sister and her father made an amazing light system so that when the baby cried, the lights in the house would flash on and off. This would alert the family that the baby was crying. The baby would cry and the lights would go off and the whole house would light up.

One day a man walked sternly to the house and pounded on the door.  He was not happy. JoAnn’s parents allowed the man into their home and the warden began to try and explain to JoAnn’s parents that they could not use the lighting system any more at night. Remember that JoAnn was five years old and she was trying to interpret what the warden was saying for her parents. The warden told the family that they could not use the light system that they had rigged up any more. The reason for this was that the enemy would see the flashing lights and think it was a signal, then send their enemy planes and drop a bomb on the house. This was very dangerous.

In my interview with JoAnn, she tells this story about the warden and that at the very young age of five, she didn’t know how to sign that the lights might be sending a message to the enemy.  She didn’t know the words, or how to sign that the enemy could drop a bomb on the house because they thought the flashing lights were a code.

So, rather than not understand what the words meant, JoAnn was determined to learn about language and how to interpret so that her parents and other members of the Deaf Community would be able to know what was going on.  JoAnn explains that because of this situation she felt that she needed to learn all that she could so that she could understand what was being said.  Then she could interpret it more clearly.

This led to the Deaf Community thinking that JoAnn was a very clever girl. When her family would go to the Deaf Club, the adults would bring their documents and papers waiting for her.  The very important lesson that JoAnn learned from these experiences was that she was not there to make decisions for Deaf people, but to interpret the information and then they would make their own decisions.

So, from these three pioneers, we learn wonderful lessons. Lottie, Sharon and JoAnn are perfect examples of what we need to remember about our profession today.

We Have a Problem

Even though we have so many examples for the past, we have a problem in our field today. We don’t have enough interpreters, we don’t have enough skilled interpreters, we don’t have enough sign language interpreters that have Deaf hearts and we don’t have enough skilled interpreter educators. We want to know how to make have good interpreters and this consumes our energy. We need to have more interpreters that have the same characteristics and values as Lottie, Sharon and JoAnn.

What would the world look like if we had so many sign language interpreters that were fluent in ASL who had Deaf hearts, who knew how to be involved in the Deaf Community and we had interpreter educators who were fluent in ASL? Imagine if we had this world?

The Importance of Capturing History

It is vital that we look to the past, look at our history, in order to help us imagine this future world. But, history is powerless unless we can capture it.  If we don’t take the time to interview people and learn from our pioneers like Lottie, Sharon and JoAnn, then we do not know how to have the “perfect world” for interpreters. By learning about our past, we can make a perfect world again.

My goal has been to interview as many people as I can, to learn from them and to document the lessons that we can learn from the pioneers in our field.  Just by learning about Lottie, Sharon and JoAnn, we can learn great lessons. Additionally, learning about other people who have been in our field and helped build and mold it will help us understand where our profession came from, and where it needs to go. We can capture the stories of these wonderful pioneers and help the new generation of interpreters understand the dedication, the love, and the work that has helped our field become what it is today.

Carolyn Ball
Carolyn Ball

We can capture our past; we can influence the field. For example: When I was a little girl, my parents would read to me. I was always connected to the people that were from the past. I would love to learn about the stories of those who had lived before me. I remember a story about a person named Peter Pan. Peter Pan could fly, so at age five, I decided that I wanted to try and fly.  So, I jumped off a picnic table and thought I could fly.  But, it didn’t turn out so well, and I broke my arm. The important point was that I felt connected with Peter Pan; I didn’t care about my broken arm.

In this next photo, you can see that I really wanted to be a cowboy. I read everything that I could about Buffalo Bill.  As I read these stories, I wanted to go back in time to interview them and learn from them. Even though they were not alive, I could not stop thinking about how much I wanted to interview them and so I wanted to read and also to dress up just like them, as you can see from the photo.  This is how I began my love of learning from the past.

This is where my love for the past came about and why I have been driven to learn from the past and try to document how we can pass this knowledge onto the current generation of interpreters and interpreter educators.

Applying Lessons to the Present and Future

How do we learn the past and apply it to the present or future? If we don’t become like the little girl or boy who wants to learn so much about the past, and begin to interview our pioneers, if we don’t document what has happened in the past, what will happen to our field?  As a profession, we will not be able to look forward and plan without looking back and learning from those who came before us.  So, as we look for the perfect world that I talked about earlier, the world that had skilled teachers and skilled interpreters, we must learn from those who came before us. Whether the events were deemed as good or bad doesn’t matter; we need to document the events and learn from them in order to improve the future of our field.

Why would anyone want to know this?

Many people, younger students today that I have a chance to meet and teach, will learn about the historical events that I have learned about our profession.  I will also describe the people who we need to love and respect and even tell the stories that I have learned from interviewing our pioneers.  Many of the students today don’t understand why this is important, why should they need to learn about the past? This is very unfortunate. Perhaps we need more people to write about history, to document their memories, to interview more people who have been in this field for a long time, people that we can learn from. Just like I showed in the beginning, the candles that are still lit, still here, we can take advantage of our time and learn from these great lit candles (people). We need to do this before those candles are gone.

For example, do you remember the wonderful interpreter named Gary Sanderson? I was teaching a workshop about history a while ago at RID Region V. Gary was sitting in the front row and he would add so much information to what I was explaining about in my presentation. Unfortunately, I did not write down the information that Gary was telling me and when Gary passed away all of that information was lost.  That made a huge impact on me as a person and made me realize that I did not have time to waste. So, I rolled up my sleeves and was determined to find out as much as I could and interview as many people as I could about our history. I knew that it was time that I began to ask questions, to ask important questions. The courage was what I needed. This reminded me of my own mother and a story she used to tell us.

(Presentation shows picture of Mom when she was 16.)

That picture is of my mother when she was 16. My mom tells us this story about when she was in high school and her best friend moved away. Her friend told her to come and visit her on the train and my mom wanted to go so badly. But, she never did because she was afraid to ask her mom because she knew she would say no.  Years later, Mom asked her mother if she would have let her go on that train and her mother told her absolutely. She told her she could have taken that train. This story, about my mom being afraid to ask if she could ride the train to visit her friend, teaches us a great lesson about not being afraid to ask for something that we need or want.

 Be Brave Enough to Ask

It’s not easy to look back or to call people and ask them if we can talk with them about their history. It’s not easy to call and ask if we can call and interview them to capture the past. But, if we don’t do this and be brave enough to ask, we will not have the opportunity to take advantage of the time we have, or the time that that person has as a lit candle in our community. We need to capture them and their memories before their candle goes out.

If we do this then we can remember that perfect world that we talked about earlier, with qualified and skilled sign language interpreters and educators. If we are brave and we ask the questions of why and how we can change the things that seem to never improve, then we can change them. Just like the lessons that we learned by asking Lottie, Sharon and JoAnn about their lives. We can learn from them and help the profession to be the wonderful place that it can be. We need to capture all of your stories and your histories.

The most important thing is to remember the lesson from my mom. Don’t be afraid of the train; don’t be afraid to ask if we can ride the train. As a profession, let’s hop on the train and look back when we need, and keep the train moving. Let’s be brave and learn from the past, ask those who came before and study all that we can about the building of this wonderful field

Thank you.


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