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Sign Language Interpreters: Practicing with a Socially Conscious Approach

Joseph Hill presented Sign Language Interpreters: Practicing with a Socially Conscious Approach at StreetLeverage – Live 2015 | Boston. His presentation explores the importance of reflective practice as a means of examining one’s perspective on language ideology, social injustice, and the development of a socially conscious approach to interpreting.

You can find the PPT deck for his presentation here.

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

Sign Language Interpreters: Practicing with a Socially Conscious Approach

This talk can apply to all social issues that we have been dealing with in our lives and we need to keep in mind that these issues are always interconnected. We all have more than just one identity. Our identities tie to the systems that can either benefit or hurt us depending on our social positions in our community during a given period, the circumstances of our birth, and the choices we make. Unfortunately, due to the limited time for this talk, I’ve chosen to focus on a single issue that is relevant to me as a black deaf person so I can give you some specific examples that I have seen, that I have read, and that I have heard. This issue is something that we are all familiar with: racism. Now this makes you wake up this morning so you can pay attention to this topic. Racism is still a sensitive social issue for many people, but for marginalized people, the issue is more than just sensitive. It is a barrier. It is a social poison. It is a life and death issue. Typically, when we think of racism, we think about how it negatively affects people of color, but we rarely think about how it also affects white people and their relationships with people of color.

Journey of Black ASL Research

About eight years ago, I was in a fortunate position to be involved in a sociolinguistic project that focused on the sign language variety of African-American deaf signers that we called “Black ASL.” Dr. Ceil Lucas, who is a leading researcher in sociolinguistics of sign languages in deaf communities,  Dr. Carolyn McCaskill, and Dr. Robert Bayley asked me to be part of the team. I was a doctoral student at the time, so of course I was eager to be part of it. There weren’t many opportunities like this one. Before this, there were a very small number of studies on the language and communication of black deaf signers, so this project could make a great impact.

For the next couple years, we traveled to six Southern states and collected data from black deaf participants. We picked the South because of the history of segregation that was part of the public institutions,  that influenced the social networks, and prevented language contact between white and black deaf children at schools. We could just focus on the interesting linguistic features of Black ASL, but we could not ignore the history of Black ASL because whatever happened in the history still has an effect today on those who have lived through segregation. We also focused on younger black deaf signers who were generations removed from the state-sanctioned segregation and their educational context was different compared to the educational context before the segregation, but still, the distinctive linguistic differences could be found in their signing.

After finishing our data analysis, we traveled to different venues to give the presentations on the findings of Black ASL. Our project was written up in The Washington Post. We published our work so the public could learn more about it. We were involved in a Q & A online chat session on the Washington Post. There were positive comments but there were negative comments as well. For example, one negative comment said that people always see race in everything. Another example of the negative comment was this, “You mean the color of your skin affects how you communicate?” My answer was no, it wasn’t what we meant. It was the situational context that influenced how you communicated based on how you were perceived.

Anyway, we started going to different places and giving our presentation on Black ASL. The black deaf community members appreciated our effort to shine the spotlight on their language variety and had their stories told in our book and on the DVD. This kind of validation was rare for them. The deaf community, in general, enjoyed learning about this as well because it was rarely told to them. The audience of hearing people who knew least about sign language were pleasantly surprised about the fact that there were more than one variety of sign language. And of course, sign language interpreters loved to learn about anything related to sign language. Following the presentations, there were questions that kept coming up:

  1. Where can I take a class on Black ASL?
  2. Where can I buy a dictionary of Black ASL?
  3. Should I use Black English when I interpret for my black deaf clients?
  4. How can I apply it to my work?

I have been getting these questions for about four years now and for some reason, I feel uneasy with these questions. They seem innocuous enough, but in the past year when I started thinking deeply about the underlying social issues, I began to see the significance of these questions. They are based on the assumption that this information is widely available in academic settings which are far removed from the social contexts. They are based on the audience’s lack of relationships with the black deaf community who use the language in the specific social contexts. This is part of the general trend where more people can learn about ASL without being involved in the deaf community.  The operative word is “general” because if something negative happens to the deaf community in general, it is usually the worst for the members with marginalized identities.  

Number Matters

Joseph Hill
Joseph Hill

I want you to visualize how marginalized some social groups are. As you can see from the numbers on the RID member demographics, we have about 95% of RID members who are female, so the interpreter profession is female-dominant. If we look at race, we have 87% of RID members who are white. That leaves 13% who are RID members of color. Almost 5% of them are African American/Black (RID Views, Winter 2014). We have about 320 million people living in United States and 12% of them are African American/Black (38 million); 17% of them are Hispanics (54 million); 5% are Asian (18 million).  You can see the discrepancy with the numbers. Let’s think about the number of African American/Black deaf and hard of hearing consumers. Out of 20 million deaf and hard of hearing people, 1.2 million of them are Black and they see white interpreters more often than they see black interpreters. Let’s think about the number of black deaf people who graduated with Ph.D degrees. The number is 13 and I am one of the recent ones in 2011. Two years ago, two of the thirteen passed away. The number gets smaller. Going back to what I said about prior research studies on Black ASL, which were few, if we wait for someone like me and Dr. Carolyn McCaskill (who might retire someday) to publish more on Black ASL, our research output will not be a lot. That is related to the system that doesn’t allow for people of color to produce necessary work. I am talking about the system in America.

To see how widespread the problem of underrepresentation is for people of color, let’s think about the number of children’s books that contain characters of color. It was based on a report in 2012 that covered 3,600 books. Around 93% of the books were about white characters and 3% were about black characters, and 4% included Latinos, Native Americans, and Asian Pacific Americans. Why do these numbers matter? Let me give you an example to show why they matter.

In “Dark Girls” which is a documentary released in 2011, there was one particular scene that was heartbreaking. It showed a young black girl, around the age of 5, sitting with a psychologist. Between them was a picture of 5 children who looked and dressed the same except for the skin color. From left to right, the shade of the skin color went from light to dark. Each time the psychologist told the girl to point out which child was smart, which child was beautiful, which child was good, the girl always pointed to the one with the lightest skin color. Each time the psychologist told the girl to point out which child was dumb, ugly, and bad, she always pointed to the one with the darkest skin color. This girl, who was raised with a black family, somehow internalized the negative messages about people with dark skin. We could say that the girl was exposed to the explicit messages about black people, but these days, some people are very good with being careful about what to say so the messages are not always explicit. But the girl could pick up on the implicit messages. How many children’s books have black characters? How many magazines feature black models on the covers? How many TV programs have black characters that she could relate to? Did her white friends have other black friends? How did people interact with her and a white child? What did people assume about her before they talked with her? If she noticed the large number of white people anywhere she went and they received positive treatment, she would interpret “whiteness” as the norm and she would assign positive attributes to it. Anything opposite that she would interpret it as negative.

Now let’s think about white children who were exposed to the same implicit messages and they had fewer or no black friends. Imagine that they grew up the same way and became the interpreters as you see on the 2014 RID member demographics. Now these same interpreters work with deaf and hard of hearing people of color. I want to show you the perspective of a black deaf consumer on this issue.

Video: “As a black deaf woman, I feel oppressed by the system. When I was growing up, I noticed how people looked at me, expressed doubts about me, asked me what I was doing here and telling me to get away. I noticed them and felt confused. But I went and lived as I was living. But then when I got older, I realized that it was the system and it was so powerful. The system is too big to challenge. It makes me afraid for myself. My other concern is related to interpreters. For example, when I made my doctor’s appointment, I requested a specific interpreter. I wanted a black interpreter. The office looked for one and found none. So I went ahead and accepted an interpreter who was not a person of color. I felt like I had to erase my language identity, my cultural identity. It was not effective for me with the interpreter. There was a lot of misunderstandings. So we ended up rescheduling the appointment. I did not feel good about that. During that encounter, I felt uncomfortable. I didn’t want to look like I wasn’t smart. I had to work harder so I could appear to have better language. It didn’t feel right to me. Within the deaf community, it is pretty diverse. In the interpreter community, there are more members but the problem is that it is not diverse enough with people of color, people with disabilities, and other identities. If both communities reflect each other in terms of diversity, it will be much better.”

Obviously, we want to do something about that. We want to change the way we work. We want to expand our vocabulary and linguistic knowledge to match our consumers. We want to learn more strategies to be able to interpret better. We want to be culturally competent in order to serve our consumers. But those things are the tip of the iceberg. They are about work. We want to address our views of the world that shape our interactions. I want to tell you a story about a couple who chose to live on the farm so they could grow their own food organically. They wanted to live and eat healthy. So they grew vegetables and handled their animals. Over time, they became sicker and sicker. They were not sure what caused them to get sick. Eventually, they found out that the soil was contaminated with toxic waste left by a company long ago and it was never reported. The toxic waste contaminated everything that was raised on the soil, including the food that the couple grew organically. Metaphorically, the soil is the systems we are in and the toxic waste is racism that was left by a powerful group of people who profited from it.  We have to do something about our soil before we can plant our seeds.

Roots of Social Consciousness

Social consciousness means we need to be aware of the social discrepancies and recognize them. But we don’t always recognize them in the same way. For example, we can have an acquired social consciousness which means that we follow the system as it is. We won’t be involved in a situation that involves a problem. We contribute to oppression. Next, we have an awakened social consciousness which means we recognize the problem and we can’t ignore it. We fight with the system. We focus something outside of ourselves, rather than looking within us. Another one is an expanded social consciousness which requires us to be aware of our roles in the system, the actions we need to take to change, and the strategies to change. We will discuss more about them later in the workshop.

I have one example for you to think about. A black interpreter has a mentor who is white. The interpreter is assigned with a white deaf consumer but the consumer makes racist remarks against the interpreter and it throws the interpreter off. After the assignment, the interpreter shares with the mentor about her experience. What does the mentor do in this situation? The mentor says, “you just have to deal with it. It is part of the job.” My question for you, is that right? Is that appropriate? Why would the mentor say that? This is why we need to talk about this because we don’t have to accept this.

Comfortable being uncomfortable

Clearly, we have to talk about it. If we try to push it down, it will be toxic for us, like the metaphor I shared with you. We have to unpack. We have to be open. When we are willing to become vulnerable, we will recognize our place in the system. We can’t deny it and say that this is not our problem. We are part of the problem. We have to get involved in the discussion, engage in a dialogue. Dialogue is not just a form of talking. We exchange our ideas through communication to help ourselves in understanding each other’s perspective and recognizing the stories. We don’t cast doubt on someone’s story and push it down. We should be open and recognize someone’s lived experience. Conversation will lead to change.                                                

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

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Social Justice: An Obligation for Sign Language Interpreters?

Sign Language Interpreters Committed to Change

The field of sign language interpreting still finds itself at a very serious and critical juncture as interpreters and educators attempt to put Deaf community members back into its center. Without considering the tenets of social justice and the perspectives of those who aim to proliferate it, sign language interpreters face the reality that they may be contributing to the oppression of Deaf people.

 “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
-Desmond Tutu

[Click to view post in ASL]

A Critical Juncture

The aim of social justice is to prohibit privileged majority members from taking control – accordingly, a significant amount of guidance and support by those in the minority is needed. Social justice permeates daily experiences because practices, policies, and laws perpetuate the very existence of majority members. Though there is little space today for the appreciation of individual efforts toward justice, and perhaps less space to celebrate times of creativity, sign language interpreters need to create the capacity to give meaning to the Deaf experience in socially conscious ways.

Embracing social justice and incorporating its tenets at the center of interpreters’ practice moves professionals away from explanations that people’s outcomes in life (more specifically minorities’ lives) are merely results of their good and bad choices toward a position that highlights the strength and conviction required to create opportunities for positive change. Social justice works to include the experiences of others that showcase both social injustices as well as how to move us toward equality—in the case of sign language interpreters, this process is about keeping or changing behaviors that are supported by Deaf people and support their desires and goals to achieve autonomy.

What is Social Justice?

While the United States Government is responsible for ensuring basic quality of life for all citizens, interpreters know too well that people’s reactions to injustice in situations differ depending on their political background, media influences, and affiliations. Often we use the same terms to talk about differing scenes of injustice (political, social, economical, and the like). We find that these terms can be vague, meaningless, and often leave us with our wheels turning, but going nowhere. Although the terms justice, e.g., political and social justice, are often seen as interchangeable and often used synonymously, but they can also be defined as distinct terms concerning various inequalities experienced by minority groups.

But do not allow all of this wordsmithing to stop you—minority groups’ injustices (regardless of the realm they fall within) are about being targeted, discriminated against, and oppressed; often concerning power rooted in the social order of our society.

An important component of any social injustice is that conversations about minority lives are happening.

Maintain Fairness

Discussions guided by the uses of status, meaning the effects of today’s socially constructed hierarchies (i.e., social ordering), are real and important pieces in sign language interpreters’ productions of interpretations. Taking types of social ordering into account within interpretations can show us how status affects people (their views and how they are represented in the eyes of others, both individually and systematically). We are talking about reading between the lines of language use to show prestige, respect, and esteem for individuals.  In addition to this, those working with hearing interpreters are often from very different communities. To articulate accurate messages, we must consider the real challenges of attempts to maintain fairness based on the myriad relationships (which are symbolic of status used within the exchange) possible within situations.  Status can be used to maintain, leverage, and define the types of relationships between people, e.g., best friends, teachers and students, employees and managers.


Social justice is also a concept that deals with people’s actions to craft equitable opportunities for positive change (Rawls, 1971), so it is vital that interpreters work closely with Deaf community members to support equitable experiences.  These practices can include sometimes-controversial behaviors, yet are critical interventions of oppressive acts found within our professional role, e.g., advocating, supporting, educating. The more we shift control of our field to the hands of Deaf leaders, the less controversial our behaviors will become because appropriate actions will carry the Deaf community’s seal of approval.

On the other hand, pausing or avoiding behaviors that intervene oppression may actually prohibit various forms of respect for individual autonomy. The explanation behind such pauses/avoidance may be due to our understanding of ethical relativism, whereby those experiencing the injustice may have the right to determine right and wrong behaviors based on their cultural norms and individual contexts within situations. Perhaps some of us are too worried about doing wrong that we perpetuate current habitual patterns that support the status quo, and thus, inadvertently contributes to injustices.


Similar worries have given rise to growing public controversy surrounding political, social, and economic institutions, which have centered conversations on social justice since the late 19th century. Though these conceptions related to justice have been formulated and reformulated over the years, we realize that political justice generally deals with equality, while social justice addresses freedom (Rawls, 1971). These forms of justice are actually elements of each other and represent unique challenges of those experiencing injustices.

Because inclusion related challenges exist (which many minorities experience) the Deaf community faces similar challenges about involvement in conversations about roles of social structures.  Special attention to the needs of those we serve, as professionals providing a service, is vital.  These needs are a part of an overarching holistic understanding, not solely based on communication exchanges, because majority members (yes, even sign language interpreters) lack full awareness of experiences of Deaf community members.

So, while sign language interpreters work, they permeate participants’ experiences during the communication exchange. Working between two or more people communicating makes the use of status and its social roots (that are often unfamiliar to the parties involved) visible to the interpreter. All injustices are social in nature, even those within political situations, and are based on the relationships among those involved.  This makes interpreter’s positions in the interaction between people useful in working toward social justice (e.g., addressing, supporting, opposing). Again, most injustices experienced by Deaf people are types that interpreters will never fully ‘get’, because as hearing individuals, hearing interpreters may only have secondary experiences to associate with individuals who experience our world differently.

Social justice emphasizes that privileged majority members do not have full understanding of minorities. This makes minority groups’ involvement, guidance, and support with professionals serving them imperative.

Community Involvement

Of course both social and political justice need to occur under the eyes of the law, but we are far from achieving equality; social justice exposes social deficits and injustices that bring Deaf people’s experiences to the center. The social injustices experienced by the Deaf community create a call to action for everyone, reminding us that we are all part of a much larger battle. Liberating actions cannot be successful without true community involvement because no one can liberate themselves by their own efforts or solely by the efforts of others (Freire, 1971). Interpreters’ community involvement should include being a part of a force attacking the social injustices experienced by Deaf community members.

This support is pertinent in the lives of those we serve, and for most interpreters, this is as personal as it gets.

Dave Coyne
Dave Coyne

The Examination of Power

A multitude of personal and institutional concerns surround a fear that the behaviors of sign language interpreters’ will remain static despite the shifting needs of the Deaf community. One example may be the identified need to establish ASL as the language used at interpreting-related conferences as a norm and the historic struggle to achieve it. In the big picture, static and indifferent stances can stymy efforts to overcome systemic injustices (not that they need interpreters, but working both with and beside them supports their efforts tremendously). This makes social justice even more important. A position of indifference creates a critical need to examine the power, inequality, and transformational opportunities central to our work as interpreters in mastering language and culture.

This examination allows for the formation of a bridge between the need of social justice in the lives of minority groups and the practice of sign language interpreting (a significant influence within Deaf people’s lives). This bridge only holds if stakeholders are involved in its design. Grassroots reform movements have historically relied on strong collaborations among members of various groups that come and go from the lives of minority groups. Unfortunately for the Deaf community, interpreters’ involvement in grassroots reform movements are not a given; views of such involvement differ widely from interpreter to interpreter. Even interpreter organizations and educators vary widely in their stance on such involvement.

Both the positive and negative affects relationships have on experiences dictate one’s unique understanding of the world (Fairclough, 2001). Thus, the relationships that sign language interpreters maintain make their positions on issues of social justice even more vital because power struggles are bound to arise among participants who require negotiations through interpreters (this includes relationships between Deaf individuals and interpreters).

Therefore, an interpreter’s understanding of the Deaf community must extend beyond their own experiences, thoughts, and actions (majority-centric) in a way to support their overall wellbeing based on their understanding (minority-centric). The potential to build the bicultural attributes needed to promote the wellbeing of others lies within the social rules, experiences, and signed language of Deaf people, especially in matters highlighting social justice itself. Social justice begins by upholding the belief of minority groups on matters of equality.

A Conscious Choice

Exploring a sign language interpreter’s cultural competencies challenges them to understand their own position within situations as well as the positions of those involved. Critical language study expert Fairclough (2001) indicated that for groups to make real progress toward their liberation, social emancipation of minority cultures is essential. The first step for interpreters to support the progress of the Deaf Community toward equality is to openly evaluate and strengthen their own behaviors. Locations are already being created and discussions are taking place all over the country: Jean Miller’s TerpTalk or as suggested by Damita Boyd in her article, Cooperation Strengthens Sign Language Interpreter Education Programs.

The need to change the collective stance of interpreters has become a moral imperative today more than ever—this change begins individually. Sign language interpreters cannot expect those we serve to believe that change can occur for the Deaf community if we are not sure ourselves that such change is actually possible.  We must ask ourselves what we truly believe and understand that social justice leaves us with a choice. 

We have to choose to do something about how we position ourselves as professionals.

How can Deaf individuals trust that there is a modest level of integrity in interpreters if they do not see us learning and emulating models that aim to eradicate stereotypes, prejudices, and the discrimination of Deaf people? Exploring the dynamics of relationships among all ages, abilities, religions, races, ethnicities, social classes, sexualities, and genders is more crucial than ever to tackle the current injustices these members face; simply put, we should do this because it is the right thing to do.

Social justice moves us toward supporting autonomy and allows people to one day live in a world that provides unique spaces for minority groups to flourish. Understanding how Deaf individuals view social justice issues allows for majority members to begin looking at the unique needs of individuals, rather than viewing the whole community as another alternative group based on memorized knowledge about minorities in general (although important parallels between minority groups do exist).

The Prism of Social Justice

The concept of social justice wills interpreters to address current social challenges posed by policy, growing inequality, and social exclusion. Many sign language interpreters strive for social justice because of our unique position to witness injustices experienced by Deaf individuals. Examples of how unfair and avoidable differences lead to disparities in the lives of those we serve include how insufficient support and education in our country affects those who use sign language. I sometimes feel we fail to truly recognize and account for how Deaf people experience the world.

Delivering actions through a prism of social justice creates opportunities for positive change. When interpreters lack personal understanding—experience with and knowledge of Deaf culture—they tend to perpetuate, normalize, and widen the divide between hearing and Deaf communities. To avoid this, a framework of social justice minimizes disconnects between communities and positively influences the relationships between Deaf Community members and sign language interpreters.

If interpreters work in a dysfunctional manner (i.e., working passively and remaining unconcerned about personal involvement with Deaf individuals), they are likely to block the grassroots collaborations necessary for change to occur. If this happens, it means interpreters can become a social justice issue themselves. This brings the need for individuals in the interpreting field, and its organizations, to advocate for the equal treatment of Deaf Community members, and recognize their impact on the lives of Deaf Community members: civic, academic, and otherwise.

Continue the Discussion

Social justice is a part of on-going discussions about shifts in our work as scholars, practitioners, teachers, and policy makers. These shifts, in turn, will improve the lives of oppressed people—in this case the Deaf Community. Scholar Rabbi Tarfon perhaps best articulates the nature of this call to action, our task to join Deaf people in a wider battle toward equality for all communities, “you are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it”.

Let’s work together to get rid of structures of hearing supremacy (e.g., stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination) by ensuring professionals in our field uphold Deaf Community members’ beliefs and thoughts surrounding their own self-empowerment.

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Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and power. Harlow, Eng: Longman.

Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the oppressed. [New York]: Herder and Herder, 1970.

Rawls, J. A. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Dave Coyne | Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters?

Dave presented, Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters?, at StreetLeverage – Live 2013 | Atlanta. His talk explored how sign language interpreters, acting on the basis of social justice work, can better align themselves with the Deaf Community and their plight for autonomy.

You can find the PPT deck for is presentation here.

Interpreters and Social Justice

Today I will be discussing Social Justice and its connection to interpreters. Many people are not sure about this association. Regardless, we must not let fear prohibit discussions – truly open discussions – because it is those conversations that are at the heart of a social justice lens, which is achieved via leadership.

I would like to start by asking how many of you present would call yourself leaders? Raise your hands. I have asked this question to numerous groups of sign language interpreters and there never seems to be enough answering that they do. For me, I am not satisfied with these numbers and this lack actually increases my own work towards, and my motivation towards urging interpreters because now is the time to step up into leadership roles.

“We must be the change we want to see in the world.” –Mahatma Gandhi

This has been a recurring, inspirational theme, at StreetLeverage – Live. And I’m glad it has been. Indeed, we must be the change, we must think that “I am change”, and that “we are change.”

Lets look at why a social justice lens works. I know that when I first started working as an interpreter, I witnessed oppression of various types, even marginalization. Lets get a show of hands if you too have seen such types of oppression. We feel helpless while we witness these experiences.  We are at a loss for what to do. We feel confined by professional boundaries, we take in each of these experiences, and the impact takes its toll on us.  Answers to what actions interpreters could take and appropriate approach comes from this lens.

Social Justice and LeadershipDave Coyne at StreetLeverage - Live 2013 | Atlanta

A Social Justice Lens can be attained via leadership. It allows us to partner once again with Deaf community members. The bridge between the sign language interpreting community and the Deaf community fell apart long ago. We are aware of this disconnect. We feel its impact and we deal with its consequences while we are on the job. How can we correct this disconnect and start rebuilding this bridge to reconnect with the Deaf community?  Some may say the answer is to have a “Deaf heart.” However, it alone is not enough. Interpreters need to know what behaviors to showcase while we work. A social justice lens offers such specific social justice behaviors that we can implement while we work; interpreters finally can be more involved.

As interpreters we often navigate two truths: hearing perspectives and Deaf perspectives within situations. Social Justice is defined based on groups’ experiences regarding more burdens or fewer privileges than another groups.  Interpreters are indeed working within these unjust situations (e.g., educational systems, legal systems, healthcare). Systematic oppression exists and can further marginalize people. Oppression through ignorance occurs and unfortunately interpreters too have been known to add to oppression and marginalization experienced by Deaf individuals as well. So what do we do? Do we remove ourselves and remain uninvolved in such situations? Not any more, not with knowledge of a tool like leadership to achieve a social justice lens.

Social Justice Theory

Many conceptions related to social justice have been formulated over the years, e.g., criminal justice, retributive justice, and others. David Miller created a theory of social justice that is pluralistic in nature, allowing for multiple truths (i.e., perspectives) within situations – allowing for unique views to co-exist, i.e., multiple worldviews within situations. Sign language interpreters typically work with two worldviews: auditory understandings of the world and visual understandings of the world. Both being right, both very unique, but how are interpreters navigating these world-views? We find ourselves in the middle of situations, navigating – juggling – these overlapping ideologies.


A social justice lens is correlated with relationships. It actually is dependent upon relationships. This fact parallels with interpreting, because the art of interpreting is very much dependent upon relationships. Interpreters’ relationships with hearing participants are navigated in addition to relationships with Deaf participants. Interpreters’ relationships with team interpreters are involved; though it should not take priority. Relationships with Deaf individuals should take precedence. These examples parallel the same level of importance as a social justice lens has between majority and minority members’ relationships.

Social justice theory recognized that people do have experiences that include more burdens and that groups do have more privileges than other groups.  Finally we have something that recognizes these differences. We can begin discussions that offer vocabulary for behaviors, as well as our observations.

Exchanges between individuals need not be monetary with a social justice lens but recognizes people’s values and beliefs; their experiences are valued. These intangible things (values and beliefs) all have a home within a social justice model. Also, cultural capital: As interpreters we navigate two sets of cultural capitals that don’t always hold mutual respect for one another. Do we fully respect these non-monetary items? To answer, we must further investigate ourselves and apply our findings to our role.

Locations of Social Justice

Social justice can be found within three locations. Do you remember the Green Book series? Let’s revisit the three avenues to membership of the Deaf community. Not the fourth avenue to Deaf community membership, and not meaning membership to the core of the Deaf community. I am discussing general membership.  The fourth avenue is living as a Deaf individual or the actual experience of being Deaf in our world. As hearing interpreters we don’t have that fourth avenue, so we can keep focus on the first three. You can see that the first three align well within the three locations of social justice theory.  And it is within these locations where interpreters can begin dialogue about our work, and learn what behaviors are deemed important. Preferred social-related [solidaristic] behaviors can be attained and can mirror what behaviors Deaf people actually want from interpreters. Behaviors at work [instrumental] are those that occur at work, or in places such that lead to our employment, such as our ITP and events such as workshops. Again, the first location is where you find social behaviors, the second is related to our education, and the third is political behaviors [citizenship]. We are quick to think “what are those?” and they are indeed something we need to listen more to and learn how we as interpreters can be involved with political activities like being on a board, what voting can lead to, and what political power we have. As interpreters, we have a kind of privilege that we bring to the table and Deaf individuals want to see interpreters use privilege, i.e., hearing privilege, to benefit their forward movement [towards achieving equality], not to hinder it: this can be done by working together more closely, more so now then ever before.

Social Justice Learning

Dave Coyne
Dave Coyne

A social justice model is not inherently known but is rather learned based on other’s experiences. Interpreters do so by listening/learning during those discussions with those we work with. These conversations can occur one-on-one by simply asking stakeholders questions, or perhaps establishing a meeting at your agency and inviting Deaf community members to come in and share their opinions and experiences. Note these experiences and allow them to guide your role as an interpreter. This can also be done on a national level. A community forum offers those who are invited into conversations, a type of empowerment. Often people are misled, believing leadership cannot be learned and it is for others to do. It is thought that leaders are aiming to change the world today, but this is simply not true. Unfortunately this type of change doesn’t happen the day of. Change is a long process that we contribute to, adding towards a goal. Leaders sleep knowing they contributed to a process in a good way, no longer worried they caused negative effects on others. This is because leaders take a close look at who they are, at their own specific behaviors (within specific areas that we are talking about: social, employment, and political behaviors).


There are various forms of leadership out there. Social justice theory goes with one of them and on the other end of the continuum (far from supporting social justice) there is a type that is seen plenty of within our field.

Transactional leadership in the interpreting field has been borrowed directly from business models. This type of leadership has immediate consequences and impacts those involved.  An example of transactional leadership would be if two partners enter into mutually agreed upon transactions; they seek to simply finish their task and that is the end of their collaboration. Past the completion of the test, there is not any further investment of one’s time; it is not needed because the task coming to an end was what they wanted.

I want to discuss what leads to a social justice lens, how one achieves a social justice lens, and how it serves as an end by means of transformational leadership. The key to this type of leadership is having true collaboration as the main priority, where much empowerment occurs, and everything achieved is done so through discussions. The transformational leader listens to others. Those involved must support the leader’s behavior and if they do not, this type of leadership fails.

Transactional Leadership

First, I would like to further discuss transactional leadership. A significant amount of interpreting situations has this type of leadership. This type holds many positive attributes with business transactions. However, when working with people who have a significant amount of daily struggles, this type of leadership hinders forward movement and furthers misunderstandings. People who go into situations with their own set agendas are found in this model, e.g., interpreters who work simply to get paid and no further thought about others happens after the encounter.

For the individuals who are under a transactional leadership model, perhaps even unaware that their behaviors are more transactional in nature, they don’t necessarily have to share any organizational goals nor do they need to for exchanges to occur under a transactional leadership model. For example, if we look at two similar businesses, perhaps they are a chain within a franchise, each have different owners but may have different priorities within their business and different goals than their sister stores. They have the same type of exchanges, based on money, selling the same products; however, they may serve people very differently. This parallels with the business of providing interpreting services. Interpreters are not obligated to follow organizational goals/values to guide their work; in lieu of, you may find self-interest that guides them.

People working within a transactional leadership model operate by holding control. They provide praises, rewards, and punishments to those working with them (traits of transactional leadership).

There are some transactional leadership traits considered positive. These include having fast results and immediate closure with tasks.  As long as set goals by those involved are achieved within situations, they can consider the task completed. There are people out there who want that set up.

Transactional leaders encourage others involved through controlling methods; setting clear steps for people to follow, deeming an assignment successful if they merely follow A, B, and C (not leaving set parameters). This set up lends for transactional leaders to be very strict. If you do not follow their set protocol, they may retaliate, e.g., may not hire you again, they may withhold pay, they may challenge to the point of furthering any type of resolve regarding concerns you have with them. The transactional model also fosters the mindset of ‘I merely work for compensation.’ Those involved in this model are told to accept set circumstances created by transactional leaders and this process contributes to colonialism (in general) and specifically toward the colonization of those involved.

Transformational Leadership

Now I will be shifting gears to the other end of the spectrum: transformational leadership. Much research has been conducted over the years and has noted that transformational leaders typically display four types of characteristics; known as the four Is of transformational leadership. The first today, [individual considerations], interpreters do quite frequently. Interpreters have been known to already incorporate these components of transformational leadership within their work but are yet to use the vocabulary to employ these concepts to their work.

Trait One – Analysis

First, lets talk about individual considerations. As interpreters we analyze various language modes, attempt to identify educational levels, and match others where they are at regarding language use (both hearing and Deaf participants). Interpreters navigate situations mainly within this trait, and we do it well.

Trait Two – Intellectual Stimulation

The second transformational leadership trait is intellectual stimulation. If we believe that everyone in the world brings value, then we can be open to others to problem solve. Let’s not think that we, as interpreters, have better ideas to problem solve than Deaf community members. What interpreters can do is to collaborate with Deaf members regarding what they think are better approaches to problems and ask Deaf people what they feel should be done in situations. And listen to them; listen more than taking action independently. Deaf people have ideas and answers that interpreters need to value.

Trait three: Inspirational Motivation

The third transformational leadership trait is inspirational motivation. Interpreters must be able to share field goals and visions with others to the point where it draws others in and they incorporate them too. Negative behaviors, e.g. gossip, pessimism, blame, complaining, do not warrant other’s investment in our work. Those negative behaviors do not shine well on the field’s goals and visions. Interpreters must manipulate those negative behaviors to work more optimistically.

Trait four: Idealized Influence

The fourth, and last transformational trait is idealized influence. This is the ability to influence as well as shape our vision and to lead us to actually achieving our vision, our shared vision. Currently, as a field, we do not have the four transformational traits and, to note, they are usually ordered and discussed in a different order. I flipped their usual ordering in todays discuss because the fourth, idealized influence, i.e., shared vision, isn’t something established in our field yet. We have been more focused on individuals, and have mastered skill-sets within the first trait, individualized considerations; however, we haven’t come to attaining a shared idealized influence.


Transformational leadership can promote participants’ goals and wants. It can be a humbling experience. It’s humbling because we have our degrees, we hold the knowledge, and we attained certification. We ‘know what is best in situations’, but now I am to inquire about wants such as where you want the interpreter to sit?  With transformational leadership, we aim to empower and remove control. Lets think of the word control, I really hate that word.  People can control cars; we do so by first turning it on. We control its features. We control all the functions of the car. Now, we cannot control the city though.  But we do navigate through the city.  Interpreters navigate through job assignments; we navigate through the interpreting process. We don’t control anything.  We must surrender any control we think we have. We must surrender control; we never had it anyways nor will we ever have it.

Through discussions, through listening to others – to other’s valuable stories – we can begin to identify defects in the status quo. We do this by truly listening to others. We cannot assume we know. My privilege may not allow me to see much. Many experiences continue to be overlooked. This ignorance may continue until we are truly able to live in other’s shoes. But I know I can’t. I am not Deaf. So what I am able to do is to take time to listen to their experiences, as many as you can.

The Pros

Transformational leadership has positive attributes. A pro for this leadership style is that if an organization needs change, transformational leadership has actions that can offer change. It does this by its grassroots approach and allows the people involved taking back control and it requires us interpreters to step back and empower others. Secondly, transformational leadership is focused on satisfying the needs and wants of stakeholders, this continuous collaborating and navigating ensures their needs and wants are being met. It is about interpreters thinking less about themselves.

The Cons

A con: transformational leadership does not offer fast results. It requires time. Change requires time. I may not see it in my lifetime, but I do hope that my vision will happen. I believe that my vision of equality will happen. It may take a long time; I realize it will not any time soon. Additionally, transformational leadership does not have a roadmap to follow. If the end is for true equality, we will not know how to specifically achieve that goal, but – we move towards our goals by working together, have creative solutions, and work toward true collaboration. I do not know how it will all unfold. Not having a roadmap is unsettling for many; they must have an A, B and C to follow. People like to be told how to get the things that they want.  But I can’t ask for such a thing within this model, we simple can’t ask.


We work within unjust situations that are simply unfair at times. We are within situations that a social justice lens, via transformational leadership, would do well in. The goal of transformational leadership is to empower others. If the goal of like-minded groups of people is working together then it is possible to overcome barriers, such as political agendas. Just as gay and lesbian individuals are together fighting a larger battle with other people, e.g., straight allies, their parents, their children, come together and have the power to change political agendas. This is the same with the Deaf community.  We shouldn’t think the Deaf community should fight battles alone. Where are interpreters in all this? We need to continually listen, to learn how we can be involved, e.g., support.

With this, the bridge between the Deaf community and the interpreting community can begin to be mended. We can re-connect once again, but to do so sign language interpreters must empower others. First, it must begin with conversations. We must inquire from outside of our field.  It can begin now when you all leave today and arrive home. Ask your Deaf friends and ask those you work with (hearing and Deaf). Ask them “what do you think our job should look like?” and “what would you want from an interpreter?.” We are not seeking to please every request of interpreters but the inquiry is a start; start these discussions and brainstorm ideas with stakeholders.

“Transformational leaders don’t start by denying the world around them.  Instead, they describe a future they’d like to create instead.” –Seth Godin

Transformational leaders do not deny what is around them. They take the world as is, and evaluate it, acknowledging, and assessing one’s own involvement. Interpreters must be able to describe what kind of future they want. Can you describe to your neighbors, friends, and Deaf community members your vision? Can you think how behaviors, specific behaviors, may get you to that vision?

Today’s presentation was regarding social justice lens via leadership, this afternoon’s workshop will be more about leadership and specific behaviors based on the 4 Is of transformational leadership. Transformational leadership traits, some that interpreters already show within their work, can surface vocabulary to be applied to our professional role. Again, it starts with having discussions with Deaf individuals. This can be done locally, in your own area, but this involvement also can be done on a national level. RID’s Deaf Caucus will have a national forum this year. We can sit in and learn from the experiences that will be shared and then begin forward momentum, together.


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Dave Coyne
Dave Coyne

Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters?

The presentation covers the roles and values of social justice as key components in the interpreting field. Drawing on a transformational leadership style, sign language interpreters engage participants in new ways.   The presentation will highlight issues which result from transactional leadership exchanges with marginalized individuals.  The first will be the link between interpreters’ ability to reestablish connections with community members and Deaf individuals’ autonomy. The second will be to explore the roots for social justice as a means to build a community where people are no longer kept quiet.

Pre-event Dialogue

Please take opportunity to dialogue with Dave on these topics prior to the event by submitting comments below.

Workshop | Transformational Leadership:  Working Toward a Social Justice Model for Sign Language Interpreters

All sign language interpreters inhabit leadership positions of some kind in their work, regardless of whether these expressions of leadership readily meet traditional definitions.  Interpreters acting on the basis of social justice, actively work on aligning themselves (as part of the interpreting community) with Deaf and hearing participants.  Interpreters in this position can positively impact (e.g., bridge gaps, and enhance lives) individuals who possess two very different understandings of the world.  Interpreters through a lens of social justice can learn how to become growth-oriented practitioners and leaders.  Workshop participants will carry with them new skills.  First, they will learn to identify undesirable practices and how to work toward adopting social justice skill sets that will leave them open to creative and courageous solutions.  Second, they can inspire others to collaborate, and third, work toward dismantling systems of privilege and oppression while sustaining respect and trust of those they serve.  As we move forward by positively impacting lives, let us realign our collective social justice values with Deaf community members and bring back interlocutors’ autonomy.