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Seriously!? Do Sign Language Interpreters Still Need to Talk About Diversity?

Angela Roth presented Seriously!? Do Sign Language Interpreters Still Need to Talk About Diversity? at StreetLeverage – Live 2014 | Austin. Her presentation addressed the depth of the challenges our profession still faces addressing individual and collective cross-cultural reality, respect and responsibility.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

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

Seriously!? Do Sign Language Interpreters Still Need to Talk About Diversity?

Good morning. First, I have to admit that when Brandon called me to invite me to present at Street Leverage, my reaction when I hung up the phone was panicked: Why did I say yes?! What am I thinking? But I’m thrilled to be here and see so many beautiful people gathered here today.

A common expression in American English is “good job” or “good work.” When I interpret into Spanish, the expression we use might be signed BEAUTIFUL [speaker mouths Spanish word]. In our community, the concept of “pretty” is not ocular, rather it means beauty exuding from the soul. Since I’m aware of the implications of your presence here today, I can describe you all as beautiful souls.

Slide: Seriously!? Do Sign Language Interpreters Still Need to Talk About Diversity?

The question I ask in the title of this presentation may have many possible answers. I’d like to ask you to think back to workshops and presentations you’ve attended in the past. How often were you asked to take action? Many people’s response to a call to action is “but how?” The response is usually that action requires self-analysis and reflection. Often the answer is “Create relationships or partnerships.” If that’s the case, do some self-analysis and reflection, create relationships and work with your partners. OK? Great, that’s it for my presentation!

My point is that that’s truly where the work begins. Someone once said “be careful of your thoughts, because your thoughts become your words. Be careful of your words, because your words become your actions.” There is much emphasis on taking action, but the words and thoughts behind the actions deserve a deeper look.

When you leave today you may find yourself with more questions than answers. For now, I want to share some views on what may hinder our ability to look critically at our thought to action process and reasons behind those barriers. Despite our best efforts, that analysis remains a difficult task. I’d like to highlight three such barriers and the causes behind each.

External Bias

First, I’d like to look externally. If I were to ask you to tell the person sitting beside you about something in the news that held bias, perhaps a negative view of a particular group or event, you could do it easily. That’s an example of bias coming from an outside source. But biases and judgments originate within communities of which we’re a part. No community is immune to that dynamic. We carry and internalize the larger world’s paradigms within us, and they, in turn, affect our relationships.

This phenomenon is not unique to sign language interpreters, although it happens to be our focus today. We must remember that there is diversity in every interaction we have throughout our day, in every person with whom we have contact. For every relationship that we have, don’t have, or desire, appearances may be misleading. A seemingly pleasant relationship, even with those we love, could conceal issues below the surface. In that vein, I’d like to return to addressing the three barriers.

Slide: “The DEPTH of the unconscious effect on each of us from our communities is the proverbial iceberg”

We need to understand our unconscious selves at the deepest level, and that depth of analysis requires a lot of work. Despite it being a sensitive topic, we must proceed regardless.


The first of the three unconscious barriers we face comes from a book called “The Righteous Mind.”1 Even the best of individuals still may heartily disagree on issues such as religion and politics. The reasons behind this are numerous; however, one, in particular, can be referred to as “groupishness.” [Slide at 6:50 on video.] This refers to the fact that people tend to gather and align themselves with one another. This is not in and of itself a negative thing, but we should be cautious of that behavior then leading to the gradual widening of the gap between affiliated versus non-affiliated groups. Studies have shown that the tighter-knit a group becomes, the more likely members are to dismiss and discount views that differed from their own. [Slide at 7:48 on video.] I’ll pause a moment; it seems the audience wanted more time to read the previous slide. All set? The wall projection takes longer to load than my teleprompter.

The Dangers of “Only”

So, the slide says that groups become so entrenched that members are unable to even understand opposing views. This is significant. Often it leads such groups to the next point, which is “only.”[ Slide at 8:50 on video] This is a dangerous place to be. As an example, my mother and I once were walking to the mall, chatting as we went. All of a sudden, a man passing by stopped in front of us and forcefully ordered us to “speak English!” I was in disbelief. What would lead him to do that? He was obviously speaking from an entrenched group perspective where only one view existed.

This manifests in ideas like “only the wealthy allowed here,” “only people from this certain family,” “only Whites,” “only oral-educated,” and “only English.” Such homogeneity can be a comfort to some, but be careful: allowing the practice of “only” creates walls dividing groups even further. Those who wish to connect across the divide must work even harder to bridge the gap, and once dismantling one wall and connecting to a new group may find they have alienated themselves from their original affiliation. In aligning to one group, one loses ties to others. This is one example of a barrier.

Emotions vs. Reason

Emotions overpower rational thought. Despite our best intentions to be thoughtful in emotional situations, studies have shown that this is the case. When in a confrontational situation, we may automatically make assumptions about the person based on our emotional reaction. Past events are triggered when we become emotional, and we unconsciously and mistakenly can tie memories to our current experience to form a judgment on what’s happening.

Angela Roth - Sign Language Interpreter
Angela Roth

Picture entering a room where you must speak with a receptionist. She is currently on the phone and gestures for you to wait a moment. One person in that situation may be nonplussed while another might take great offense at being ignored. An explanation for the difference between the two reactions could be that the offended person had had a negative formative experience with a classmate with red hair, made a snap judgment based on emotion, and was now projecting that experience of humiliation onto the current situation. Whether you agree or not, there’s more evidence of this happening than you may think.

Another example of premature judgment occurred in a room where I sat with another White interpreter. A man came in briefly and asked the White interpreter about a word he wasn’t familiar with. The interpreter shrugged, and the man left without asking me if I knew. He had assumed by looking at me that I would not have known–that I had a deficiency in some way. Remember that as much as we may stand by our initial reactions, our emotional memory is sloppy. Therefore, our reactions may be inaccurate. 

The Case for Further Conversation about Diversity and Inclusion

The third kind of barrier to self-awareness relates to conversation. As much as lip service is paid to the desire to foster open dialogue on critical issues, this cannot occur without the potential for barriers. The compulsion to be seen as correct for reasons of personal security can be strong, as can be the narrow, limited or “local” lens some take on issues being discussed. Still others might attempt to dismiss the need to discuss issues at all and silence debates with what they may view as high-minded logic. The consequences of the conversational barrier results in either one-sided doctrinal rhetoric or a shutting out of minority views completely.

This kind of barrier is of course not unique to me or my experience. It can occur anywhere in our lives and work, on any level from interpersonal interactions to our agencies, organizations and in wider society. It is a common thread woven among all with minority status.

Reality, Respect and Responsibility

I want to talk now about three people who exhibit the following qualities: Reality, Respect, and Responsibility. One individual expressed that when they started learning American Sign Language, they experienced judgment from a CODA for not being a native user. When that person chose not to attend an interpreter training program they were judged as unprofessional. But the Deaf community beckoned to that person regardless.

I remember when I was a new, awkward signer and still wet behind the ears as an interpreter. An old Deaf woman asked me if I was a CODA, and I ducked my head and shook it, “no.” She looked at her daughter and  said that I signed like family. I will remember that incredibly touching comment until the day I die, because you see, in my culture we equate the concept of family with a deep cultural understanding, much as Deaf culture defines it.

I remember a situation at a past RID conference where, long story short, there was a strong effort made to at last have more diversity represented among interpreters- because of course, sign language interpreter demographics are notoriously and unceasingly White. One of the  coordinators was MJ Bienvenu. There were unending announcements and comments emphasizing the efforts toward diversity. I decided to approach two of the coordinators and expressed that if the only reason that I was present at the conference was because of the color of my skin and not due to my skill as an interpreter, then I didn’t want to be there. I saw in MJ’s eyes her solidarity with and deep understanding of my words, and in that moment we connected completely. I can understand how if the response to my comment was instead deflecting to my feelings of discomfort, life for me might have looked totally different. But because of the intense emotional connection I experienced, I’m still here today. Thank you, dear MJ.

The third person in our field I want to mention is Bonnie Kraft. I remember that I was offered an opportunity to interpret at what I saw was a very important conference, and I was incredibly excited to have merited an invitation. During one session, I was interpreting for a very fast speaker and was, therefore, signing very quickly. Upon seeing my team’s strategy, I realized I was using the wrong approach. My team eliminated some affect in favor of signing clearly. Seeing the “game” for what it was, I decided to follow suit. You must understand, however, that in my culture, we value a person’s style and affect highly, so I naturally prioritize incorporation of a speaker’s personality into the interpretation. But most of the White Deaf audience did not prefer that and instead favored an approach that prioritized the content. I was very receptive to that feedback and understood that perspective entirely. Unfortunately, before I had a chance to modify my work, it was arranged that another interpreter replace me for the next segment. I was unhappy and tearful, but then my team, Bonnie, responded with “Oh, you’re replacing us? That’s just fine.” As we prepared to leave, the coordinator tried to explain that only I was being replaced, to which Bonnie said “We’re a team. If you replace her, you replace me too.” For her to say that took astounding courage and responsibility.

Why don’t we have the courage to look around and ask ourselves who is not present, and if they were, if they would truly be a part of the group?

In Conclusion

Now, I love sign language for many reasons. I find it very compelling. I speak Spanish, English and a little French and German, but when I discovered ASL I found that I loved the visual medium. I think we can learn a lot from signs themselves if we let them teach us. For example, the sign for DIVERSITY. What do you see in the production of that sign? (Please reference ASL video at 19:37.) There are many equal yet different moving elements in the sign. Now consider the sign for HARMONY. (Please reference ASL video at 19:54.) It also represents many of something, beginning in one place then moving to another, all the while becoming stronger. I’d like to turn to your neighbor now and try to produce the sign HARMONY, each contributing one hand to this two-handed sign. It’s not easy, is it? That means that to have harmony, it takes work- as the last poet- I think it was the poet, right?- mentioned this morning. Next slide.

“Give me the courage to accept the ones I cannot change, the courage to change the one I can, and the wisdom to know it’s me.”

Thank you.

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

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Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

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Groupishness: What Sign Language Interpreters Think and Express, They do

Groupishness: What Sign Language Interpreters Think and Express, They do

From its root, language represents the essence of who we are–it embodies the very foundation of our culture. Our language, unique in expression, syntax, style of discourse and conceptualizations reflects our most unique personal and cultural differences. Our use of language illustrates how we view ourselves, and how we perceive every aspect of the world around us.

[Click to view post in ASL]

For that reason, it has been said that we should be careful what we think, because what we think, we express. We should be careful what we express, because what we express, we do.

Professor Dalton Kehoe of York University states,

“We should be careful in our use of words, but we aren’t. Thinking about our thinking is hard work, so instead we use abstract judgment words as part of our thinking process. Humans really like using abstract and judgmental language: It rewards our sense of competent self. We sound clear, definite, and sure of ourselves—and we get other people’s attention with these kinds of assertions. But when we talk like this, things can go very wrong, very quickly. Poor word choices, spoken in inappropriate contexts, can get us into trouble because we can’t know for sure how others will understand our judgments.”[1]

The Term “Only”

Is this perspective one that we can utilize when analyzing our use of the word “only” in terms of the language provision policies for our organizational conferences? Based on my personal experience the word “only,” in the context of language and culture, has rarely reflected positive use. In fact, the term “only,” by definition and historical use, is strongly rooted in the concept of exclusion. In this case, “only” has always seemed tied to a form of oligarchy—a system where only a few are enabled and empowered over the whole.

This brings to mind a series of historical uses for the term “only.” For example:

– Only the rich

– Only those of a specific birthright

– Only those of a specific race

– Only men

– Only whites

– Only English

So, why did it come to me as a painful shock when, while walking through a mall, engaged in a private conversation with my mother that a perfect stranger, tall and white, should walk past, and looking down at me and exclaim sharply, “Speak English!”? Shouldn’t I have known? Hasn’t “English only” long been the cry of those powerful few?

I’ve witnessed many adults in tears as they express how as children, they were forbidden by their parents to speak anything but English, all so they might “fit in.” Their language and cultural expression restricted in such a way that they were denied of any sense of communication, heritage and community with their now deceased family members, such as grandparent, even when living in the same household! Family members who were immigrants from culturally rich and diverse places such as Italy, Germany, Poland or Russia, who would now find themselves unable to master this new complex and intricate language mix, of Greek and Latin roots, called “English.” A part of their fabric torn from them by the power of one simple word: only.

I should not have been surprised at the judgment related to my native use of Spanish, when historically, Navajo Indian children were beaten and punished by their teachers in schoolrooms in an effort to whip out of them their native Navajo tongue.[2] Even so, I try to remember how history beautifully illustrates how the Navajo would yet hold onto their native language, as it became a historical factor in the cryptology that effectively confused the German Army during WII. This new Navajo “code” was found unbreakable, which subsequently aided in some of the most critical battles that served as a catalyst for the end of the second world war. [3]

A Crossroads

And as my life took some unexpected turns, I found myself enveloped in a further love for language and culture. I came to learn that the same “only” mono-linguistic ethnocentric monster has reared its ugly head in the history of the Deaf community as well.  Unfortunately, the Deaf community was also pushed to stop using their native American Sign Language.  Young fingers of Deaf children were even smacked with rulers, all in the name of “only.”

– Only Oralism

– Only Signed English

We all know better about the use of “only.”

Or do we?

We now find ourselves at the crossroads where two very important issues meet, both rooted in love of language and culture. So we now arrive at a point where the “official” language of our conferences is ASL. At our professional conferences, where participants with varying skill-levels all come together: hearing and deaf, expert and novice, teacher and student, to learn and grow together, must it be exclusively in ASL?

Here is the crux of the problem: We all learn best in our first language.

Deaf people should never have been forced to learn English, or any other topic, in English.

So what now of hearing people? Should suddenly what is true for Deaf people, not be true of conference participants for whom ASL is not their first language?

This becomes particularly critical when we see an increased number of Deaf schools closing.[4] As a result, an increasing number of Deaf students are being subjugated to having their only language model be a hearing interpreter. As noted by Debra Russell, currently WASLI president, “…the social, linguistic and academic development of Deaf children has been impeded by myths, assumptions, and general lack of knowledge of the multifaceted, complex nature of learning through an interpreter.”[5]

I do not believe sign language interpreters in the classroom are the ONLY answer per se. Far from it. But they are there. And the need to provide as many opportunities for sign language interpreters to learn and gain mastery, cultural awareness, and depth of the language use is vital.

But if training is ONLY in ASL, then who will have the fullest access to learn?

Will it be only the select few, those who have reached the level of language that they can learn anything in their second language? Or will it be just for those where ASL is already their first language? Even sign language interpreters who have had an ASL competency skills assessment are still learning new skills as well. Many have said, “I still need to hear it”. Others have stated, “if I see it in ASL and hear it, then I gain a fuller understanding of the application”.


So do we deny hearing people whose first language is not ASL, the access and opportunity to learn in their first language, and mirror the mistakes of those who insisted that Deaf people must know English, forcing them to be taught in English, believing that was the way Deaf people would gain mastery of English.


Angela Roth
Angela Roth

…what about our Deaf community which deals with a hearing world, day in and day out, with too many days of struggle and fighting to be connected in their own language? How could they not naturally feel isolated, and feel all the more painful, when surrounded by a group of professionals proclaiming to be allies, and yet, creating exclusion by not being accessible linguistically when they speak their own language rather than sign?

All people feel out of place, isolated, when they don’t hear/see those of “their own”.  We are creatures that tend toward “groupishness.” Additionally, that grouping can be a source of protection as noted by R. Edmonds:

“Humans are social animals, and most psychologically healthy individuals have an innate desire to be a part of something greater. Nationalism, religion, sports teams, corporations, social clubs, and political organizations are all manifestations of this innate behavior. For our ancient ancestors, being a part of close knit groups helped them to survive and pass on their genetic legacy. Groups offer greater protection against predators; cooperation leads to efficiency and synergy; division of labor allows for economies of scale and better quality work; and the sharing of resources ensures the survival of the group even when some of its members have a run of bad luck.”[6]

As a profession, we must find a balance. Certainly, value can be found as we strive to be more inclusive at professional conferences through the use of ASL. However, we must also seek to provide linguistic access in a modality most suited for each participant.

I do not profess to have “the answer.” However, I can share what feels right to me.

The Price of Privilege

To be more accessible, all RID sanctioned learning opportunities should be offered in multiple languages and modalities: ASL, Spanish, spoken English, Tactile, low vision, and oral transliteration. As a profession, we must either be honest about diversity and what the price is for the privilege of being a diverse organization, or we don’t.

To be more accessible, we must accept the rich diversity and valued skills of our own profession! How can we say we cherish the profession and value professional sign language interpreters, yet deny using interpreters ourselves?

In my opinion, we should make learning sessions at our conferences linguistically accessible to all. At the same time, while at conferences, when we are not engaged in formal meetings or workshops, we should make every effort to use the most common language we share; ASL. However, this must be done with kindness, respect, and understanding. Given each participant’s various command of ASL, flexibility is needed if we are all truly going to connect.

We all tend to gravitate towards groups with which we find comfort. So though I may sign away, subconsciously, I know I will likely never have the level of skill, grace, and creativity I have witnessed in amazing members of the Deaf community.

And as group dynamics go, I understand very well, when native users of ASL are alone together, they may default to using ASL, in much the same way I may do when I am with my Spanish speaking with “mis compadres”. Consequently, there may be those that simply are not at linguistic level yet to keep up and consequently cannot join in, be it in ASL, Spanish, or any other language. This does not mean we love or respect each other less. We all have those times where we chill out with what is comfortable to us.

If a training opportunity is being set up and taught in exclusively in one language, then one must acknowledge there will be some individuals who will be excluded linguistically.

Communicate. Contact. Connect.

For the longest time the theory was that Deaf people would switch to English just to keep hearing people out of ASL and Deaf folk’s business. Clayton Valli debunked that. His studies on “contact signing” showed it was just the opposite. There was no “only”.  He showed the linguistic adjustments were rooted in wanting to CONNECT, CONTACT. Deaf folks adjusted their signing, whether it be to a hearing person or another Deaf /HH person, in order to establish communication, make CONTACT[7],[8] , CONNECT. It was about finding a way to bond. And from that point, grow.

In The End

Regardless of the path each participant at a conference has taken to get there, we each can find commonality in our passion for language, culture and creativity. We should accept the commonality of our human needs, and celebrate the fact that we have all arrived at this common place, which is rooted in deep respect for the language and culture of the Deaf community. For those of us who are not native users of ASL, our desire to learn is testament to the value we find in the Deaf community.

Let’s not allow any extreme “groupishness” to divide us from that common bond. May it be that it is truly the one situation, namely that “ONLY” is about ONLY mutual linguistic and cultural acceptance, and that expression of respect is the only option we allow when we come together.


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[1] Kehoe, D. (2011) The Great Courses: Effective Communication – Course Guidebook.  Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company.

[2] For more information about the Navajo Code Talkers:

 [3] The Naval History & Heritage Command website provides information about the Navy’s role in various wars throughout U.S. history.

[4] NAD Action Alert 2011. [BA6]

[5] WASLI proceedings 2007.  Edited by Cynthia Roy

[6] 2013. Evolution of the Religious Mind: Groupishness – Humanists.

[7] 2002. Sociolinguistic Variation in American Sign Language.

[8] 2010. Interpreting Research.