Posted on Leave a comment

What Are We Really Saying? Perceptions of Sign Language Interpreting

Kelly Decker examines common ways sign language interpreters frame the task of interpreting and peels back some of the implications and impact on the field and the larger communities served.

Sign Language Interpreter Framing Their Work

Sign language interpreters are taught that meaning is conveyed through accurate word choice. Do we give the same considerations to word choice when we label and describe interpreting itself? How do our words and actions frame our work?

As a professional sign language interpreter, I would like to address some of the language used when conversing with colleagues, training new interpreters, and depicting the profession to the mainstream media. The frames we use, as a profession, have the power to devalue the work we do, and by extension, the communities we serve. Continued reinforcement of these frames impacts public perception of sign language interpreting.

[Click to view post in ASL.]

It takes years of intentional practice, reflection, and dedication to develop competence as a sign language interpreter. Platforms such as Street Leverage allow us to continually highlight and examine the ways we have yet to grow. MJ Bienvenu’s Bilingualism: Are Sign Language Interpreters Bilingual and Carol Padden’s Do Sign Language Interpreter Accents Compromise Comprehension? illustrate two fundamental problems we face in the field.

While we have begun to address the language we use to talk about our work, there is more work to do. I have selected four examples which demonstrate various ways interpreters contribute to current understandings of our work. There are many other examples that could be analyzed. I encourage you to contribute to this conversation online and with your colleagues to further examine how our use of language can contribute to a misperception of our profession and the disenfranchisement of the Deaf community. These types of conversations lead to greater awareness, which can be a catalyst for change.

The Labels We Use: “Terp”

It is not clear to me where this abbreviation came from. A cursory search on the internet found that it is cited as slang for “interpreter” and paired with the word ‘deaf’. We work with marginalized communities who are continuously disenfranchised regardless of the abundance of evidence and research regarding language, intelligence, and Deaf Gain [1]. We deflate our profession and the work we do for the sake of a few saved keystrokes.

This word “terp” (and I call it a word since it has become commonplace nomenclature and somewhat of a phenomenon within our field [i.e. TERPexpo],) is used primarily in written English when interpreters communicate with and refer to each other, and when interpreting agencies make requests for “terps”. The use of the term “Terp” does not stop within sign language interpreting circles. Since it has become somewhat the norm internally, it has spilled out into the larger community as the preferred label for what many interpreters want to be called. I feel this does a disservice to the field. I am an interpreter.

Misleading Terminology


As I understand it, in most instances, this phrase refers to actual interpreting. I come across it when dialoguing with ASL/English interpreting students. This term is used in practicum to indicate a requirement that is different from observation hours – the need for “hands-up” hours.

When sign language interpreters in the field and educators in interpreter education programs use this term to talk about the work we do, it implies that interpreters only interpret in one direction, into American Sign Language. It implies that Deaf people have nothing to say nor contribute. In reality, our work is working between – at least – two languages. This misguided idea is further bolstered by how our national organization frames the act of interpreting. The interpreter certification exam tests interpreting capabilities and decision-making. Yet ASL vlogs, created by RID, refer to the performance portion of the interpreting exam using a gloss that gives the literal impression that the exam is a “signing test”[2].

As explained above, “hands-up” addresses only half of the work we do. Or does it? When colleagues say “I prefer to work into ASL, it’s easier” or “I don’t do any ASL to spoken English work,” is it because interpreters, too, believe that interpreting is only done in one direction?

Additionally, the term “hands-up” perpetuates the erroneous notion that sign language interpreters, most of whom are second language learners of ASL, prefer to work into ASL because they are “comfortable”, “have more experience working into ASL,” or “feel they are clear”.  Substantial evidence is to the contrary [3].

Interpreting, and more broadly, signed languages, have little to do with the hands. While sign language is expressed in a visual modality, the hands are but one element of that mode. Language is rich and complex. It conveys thoughts, emotions, and abstract ideas and it results in human connections. Language is influenced by and interwoven with culture. It is impacted by generational, intersectional and regional influences. Reducing an entire language to its modality is a prime example of how the dominant language and culture exerts power over and diminishes a linguistic and cultural minority.


This term “voicing” has become commonplace within our field as a descriptor for the spoken language work we do as interpreters. It is a descriptor that oversimplifies the nature of the work, as if it requires no cognitive decision-making by the interpreter, nor cultural brokering between the two languages, and that the interpreter functions simply as a sign-by-sign voice over.  In Jessica Bentley-Sassaman’s article, Taking Ownership: Defining Our Work As Sign Language Interpreters, she states “voicing” does not appropriately state what we do, what does is naming what we are actually doing when interpreting.

As the profession continues to use the term “voicing”, I believe that we perpetuate a medical perspective on deafness. It bolsters the idea, that when deaf people use sign language they need to be fixed somehow, given a voice, and that’s what interpreters are doing.

This portrayal of the work reinforces a view held by the majority culture that  the language used by the Deaf community is somehow deficient. This misconception is propagated by the Alexander Graham Bell Association, whose position was made public [4] after the televised accomplishments of Nyle DiMarco, that desirable language development and outcomes for deaf children are only possible when focusing on listening and speaking, both of which are deeply rooted in the deficit-based medical model of what it means to be deaf.

As sign language interpreters, I believe we ought to unpack the implications and impacts of how we frame our work.

Perceptions of Professional Interpreters: Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] [5]

This video was so popular on social media after its release in December 2014, that the video’s participants were a part of the entertainment during RID’s 2015 national conference in New Orleans, LA. I have cited this piece not based on its participants but as an example of how we portray who we are, what our work entails, and how we approach the task of interpreting.

From what I gather, this video was made as a parody, a day-in-the-life of a sign language interpreter. All joking aside, what I cannot shake off while watching this video without audio input, is that it clearly represents misconceptions about the work we do:

(1) we only work into sign language, as the tired arms, hands and fingers portray;

(2) we only do this work for the money, as the interpreter runs off screen following the dollar bills;

(3) we self-medicate, as the abundance of pills clearly shows; and

(4) we can brush off the significance of the task of interpreting, as the title of the song conveys.

This day-in-the-life video makes no mention of the substantial cognitive work we do, which is the foundation of the product we produce. The sole focus is the self-aggrandizement of the interpreter. We must consider how this can contribute to the  mainstream media’s abundance of misleading and demeaning pieces about sign language interpreters while #DeafTalent continues to go unnoticed.

Holding Ourselves Accountable

These examples are both subtle and not so subtle. As these flawed representations proliferate, we, as practitioners, as educators, and as a professional organization, become complacent and immune to the deleterious effect they have on our profession. We may dismiss it, saying, “This is the way we’ve always talked about the work,” “This how my interpreter training program said it,” or “I never really thought about it.”

We need to think about it. We need to talk about it. We need to question and remind each other when we use language that trivializes our work.

Mastery of interpreting is no easy feat. It is a labor of love, a demanding cognitive endeavor, and a dedication to craft. Above all, we are collectively accountable to representing our work with the utmost respect for the Deaf community.

How will you model talking about the work we do?

* Interested in receiving StreetLeverage posts in your inbox?

Simply enter your name and email in the field above the green “Sign Me Up!” button (upper right-hand side of this page) and click “Sign Me Up!”

Questions for Consideration:

  1. The ways in which we, as a profession, talk about the work we do is anchored upon our understanding of what interpreting means. Are the ways we portray the work, the profession, and the communities we serve accurate?
  2. How do you think the ways that we talk about the work impact the profession?
  3. Do you have examples of times when dialoguing with colleagues where how they were talking about the work just did not sit right?
  4. With those examples in mind, how can you further explore what it is that did not sit right?


[1] Bauman, H-Dirksen and Murray, Joseph. Editors. Deaf Gain Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. University of Minnesota Press. October 2014.

[2] Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc. RID Announces Moratorium on Credentialing You Tube Posted 9 Aug 2015.

[3] Nicodemus, Brenda and Emmorey, Karen. Directionality in ASL-English interpreting Accuracy and articulation quality in L1 and L2. Interpreting. Vol 17:2. 2015. p. 145-166.

[4] Sugar, Meredith. Dispelling myths about deafness. Online: Posted 1 April 2016

[5] Ott, Stephanie. Shake It Off [Interpreter Version] You Tube watch?v=DS2UdoXS3xA Posted 13 Dec 2014.


Posted on 3 Comments

Should Sign Language Interpreters Unionize?

Antonio Goodwin

In today’s economic downturns and upswings, representation in the labor market is paramount to the success of any profession.  The profession of sign language interpreting is no different.  Without understanding the influence unity bears, sign language interpreters all over the country, dare I say the world, will not realize the import of their services as a group of professionals.  Individually, we who are in private practice or in some type of hybrid practice thereof, will always be on the weaker end of the negotiating table.

From negotiating with mega agencies to any type of employment negotiations, the individual sign language interpreter often lacks the leverage of any good negotiations:  information.  We keep quiet about our rates. We are afraid that someone will undercut our bids. We undercut other interpreters just to get the contract for that one day job.  Often, we are unaware and unconcerned about the greater repercussions of such actions:  how will our acceptance of lower rates and non-support during extensive interpreting assignments affect the industry, affect our colleagues, and even ourselves for the next assignment?

Time For a Union?

As I have traveled around the country, I’ve had the chance to work with a variety of sign language interpreters in a myriad of settings. Conversations about having a union that represents sign language interpreters in the labor market inevitably crop up.  I have yet to meet an interpreter who disagrees with the idea.  Does that mean we should rush out and establish a union? No.  But it does mean we should be having serious conversations about what it looks like to be represented in the labor market of sign language interpreters.

There are both pros and cons to forming a union.  On the surface it seems like a great idea, but what are the hidden pitfalls?  First, the cons.

The Cons

Unions often can become beasts in and of themselves.  Like any corporation, they intend to survive. Those who run the organizations seek to preserve their positions and jobs.  Self-preservation can very easily and inconspicuously become the driving factor.  If this happens, and it will, then professional concerns will take a back seat although any activity will be couched in terms of benefitting the constituency.

Second, unions can often demand salaries or rates that the market will not bear.  If that happens, then corporations that higher a significant number of sign language interpreters and doctors’ offices and other smaller venues may seek ways to avoid hiring interpreters.  Moreover, the deaf community may suffer adverse affects of such consequences.

Third, unions can have a polarizing affect within companies and workplaces.  They support an “us” versus “them” environment and often work best in adversarial environments.  For example, union members versus non-union members, or union members versus employers or management can be an adversarial environment.  Because unions work solely for their constituents, such an environment can create salary and pay discrepancies among other sign language interpreters in the same work place.  This dynamic can have negative affects on the working environment within the profession as well.

Fourth, there may be an argument for redundancy.  The work that our professional organizations such as the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID), the National Alliance of Black Interpreters, Inc. (NAOBI, Inc.), and Mano a Mano are doing can be viewed as empowering sign language interpreters such that they feel that they are already represented in the labor market.

The Pros

Unions can provide representation in the labor market for sign language interpreters.  It allows professionals to be united in terms of fees, qualifications, labor standards for the sign language interpreting industry, and so on.  RID, NAOBI, Inc. and Mano a Mano already work toward influencing and establishing industry practices.  These organizations, however, are not labor market representatives.  All three organizations support industry standards related to certification and testing.  All three organizations weigh in on licensing as it relates to particular states where chapters of these respective organizations are established.  A union, however, takes up as its sole cause the proactive work of the protection of its constituency from unfair business practices, disadvantageous working environments and inequitable wages, fee schedules, and benefits. In fact, unions can be quite beneficial in establishing, maintaining and ensuring fair market value for services rendered.

Second, unions can be an additional source of pension security for sign language interpreters.  Currently, private practitioners (freelance) sign language interpreters can set up self-directed retirement accounts.  Those who also work in some capacity for corporations or for any type of government agency may have access to a 501K plan.

Last, unions have the potential for maximizing leverage within the sign language interpreting profession.  As sign language interpreters, we tend to be lone rangers.  Divided we fall.  A possible benefit of a union is that of agreement.  Sign language interpreters as a group have the unique ability to be able to provide direct work as well as the ability to sub-contract and/or to be employed.  This is a form of empowerment. Awareness and understanding of this fact means we are a strong professional group able to ensure the quality of our industry and the fairness of the market value for our services.

Conclusion of the Matter

Some thoughts to consider: how can dialoguing about unionizing increase awareness and understanding of our industry and of the service we provide? What types of workshops along these lines can initiate a dialogue about sign language interpreters understanding the power of their service?    What are the gaps in our profession that impede this type of dialogue?

Maybe we should consider the example of other organizations:  the Writers Guild of America; the Directors Guild of America; the Screen Actors Guild.  What about the history and functions of these organizations can we benefit from in the sign language interpreter profession?

My hope is that we can begin a national dialogue about how to foster agreement, unity, and empowerment within our profession so that we continue to ensure quality service and fair market value for services rendered.