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

Dennis Cokely

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

Communicative Oppression

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

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

The Consequences

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

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

Our Roots

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

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

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


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About the Author

Dennis Cokely is a nationally certified interpreter and has been interpreting for over four decades. He also served two terms as president of RID. After teaching at Gallaudet for 15 years, he worked full-time at the company he co-founded — Sign Media, Inc. Dennis has published widely on various aspects of interpreting and has directed the IEP at Northeastern since 1996. He almost always thanks Patrick Graybill who was his first guide into the DEAF-WORLD, but there are those days.

93 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Dianrez says:

    Good questions, and I am happy to see the interpreters asking these of themselves.
    Interpreters fall into various categories according to specialty and skill, but also could be classified as to professional orientation. One is the service model, as you describe…another is the interpreter-as-teacher, another is the interpreter-as-advocate, etc.

    I have had questions about the profession myself as a Deaf professional and as a Deaf worker in the hearing world.
    Is the interpreter also an assistant, secretary, or co-professional in the case of the Deaf professional?
    Is the interpreter a pipeline to office politics for the Deaf worker? In workshops, does the interpreter turn his back on the Deaf worker when there are breaks for lunch or for walkabouts?
    A collection of questions like these from today’s Deaf consumers would be good for the profession of interpreters to think about and form some kind of policy. With Deaf input, of course.

    • Dennis says:

      You are right to ask about the multiple roles/responsibilities/requirements that interpreters face. I think that there are additional pressures felt by staff interpreters (staff interpreters have a much more personal connection /involvement with those for whom they interpret than free-lance interpreters).
      I believe that the interpreter is only an “assistant, secretary, or co-professional” if that is the job that they applied for and for which they were selected. Such jobs do make the lines of professional responsibility much more murky, however!
      I think the “office pipeline” and the “interpreter during breaks” issue are quite different. The “pipeline” interpreter is likely to be a staff interpreter which comes with interesting expectations; the “workshop interpreters” are more likely to be freelance interpreters.
      I absolutely think that asking questions of Deaf people is incredibly important and we do not ask enough questions!!!!


      • Graham Turner says:

        Dr Jules Dickinson wrote a well-received doctoral study (available online), at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, on the significance of (formal and informal) workplace interpreting.

    • Emaletk says:

      It seems like interpreters as a whole are a costly and self-centered lot (though maybe that’s unfair, as all I have is the tone of the article to judge by). Would not writing or typing serve as a cheap (if not free) alternative? I recently met a deaf man named Dennis playing pool at a bar in my town who carried a notepad with him, and when we were unable to communicate with gestures or lip-reading, there was always the pad. Even when reading what the other had written, we still got the connotations of the facial expressions and body language to grant a deeper understanding than say, this comment can impart. I had just as full a conversation with him as any hearing person I’ve ever dealt with, the informal setting notwithstanding.

      • Dennis says:

        Emaltek -

        I absolutely do not want you or anyone to paint all interpreters with a self-centered brush. There are many, many wonderfully talented Deaf-centric interpreters that I have met in my lifetime and some of them have posted here.

        For Deaf people writing is an alternative but only in certain situations, mostly social and some employment settings. However, it is not a useful alternative in educational settings, museum tours, public performances, political speeches and rallies. And, when we remember that the average Deaf person leaves school reading at a third/fourth grade reading level then we would question its usefulness in medical and legal settings for some Deaf people.

        It is true that providing access for Deaf people via the provision of interpreters is costly. But isn’t the measure to which we are willing to provide access an indication of the degree to which society believes its own rhetoric about being inclusive? And here I don’t only mean access for Deaf people, but those who are blind, in wheelchairs, have cognitive differences, etc. If we don’t do it because it is the right thing to do, then perhaps we should do it for selfish reasons because each of us is only temporarily “able-bodied”. It’s only a matter of time before we will seek to benefit from the degree of access we have provided for others.

        thanks for your post


  2. Lori Whynot says:

    This is an fine revisit to your keynote talk given at RID Region One conference last year, and I’m glad to see it open to public discourse like this. There needs to be more open dialogue on these issues you raised. For some time now we, as practitioners and those who train interpreting students have needed re-examine aloud our roles within the communities we serve. I have often pondered in some way or another, the questions you prompt in your post here. One question I like to ask my students (and we all should ask ourselves this): Why are we here? What is our rationale for deciding to work on behalf of Deaf people and quality of life of members of this fabulous community? DO we work on behalf of Deaf people? DO we work on behalf of ourselves only? Do we work on behalf of all of us?

    In particular it is important for students and colleagues, in discussing the decisions we make, to consider the impact of our everyday decisions. One question to ask ourselves at each challenging interpreting decision point may be: Is this going to enhance the quality of life of these persons I am now working with and/or others who follow? Or is it going to solely better my quality of life? Can it enhance BOTH? What conflict between these am I feeling in this moment and what are my options? Can I talk with this Deaf ‘customer’ about my dilemma?
    When I ask students and some colleagues if they talk with a Deaf person at an assignment or told them about what they were grappling with, most said NO. To that I say, why not?
    I believe we can’t simultaneously ‘blame’ Deaf people for not understanding the work we do and at the same time not include them in a dialogue that is appropriate and timely in the moment. It may actually prove enlightening for both of us. Most of my best educated moments have come from dialoguing with a Deaf ‘customer’ about how something unfolded in that interpreting assignment.

    Unfortunately the pace of life at times does not encourage dialogue with Deaf people about the work we are doing ‘on their behalf’, particularly engaging them in a dialogue about some of the even minor behavior decisions we make- and I’m not talking about the signs we use (although that does offer a different kind of dialogue).
    It’s notable that in the ongoing flat economy that the US has been riding, the faltering demand for interpreters in some metropolitan areas has led to new lows of self-serving grabbing at work offers too quickly to even consider one’s suitability for many assignments. Time of day seems the primary factor for accepting or not accepting an interpreting offer. I’ve observed that for working freelance interpreters, the modus operandi seems to be to take as many jobs as you can fit together in a day’s pay without allowing time for introspection and dialogue with the people we impact most, let alone our colleagues. There has to be some balance on all of this.

    A complicating challenge is that we are posed with the efforts to promote skilled professional interpreting work, because the stronger and more visible the profession becomes, then the stronger and more visible the voices of Deaf people in society become. Caveat!: We can’t do this successfully without Deaf people’s inclusion.
    I liken it to the US Treasury’s original policy for printing paper money- each bill had its weight in gold to back it. Then somewhere along the way it just became too hard and we needed more of the paper stuff. Hence we simply print more, without solid gold backing. The need for more interpreters in the US has prompted a bit of the same phenomenon- we keep pumping out the interpreters but how many of them have ‘backing’ by a Deaf member in the community? This ‘gold’ is in the community members themselves and the relationships we have with our Deaf friends and loved ones.
    I’m not saying that we might start valuing Deaf people by their weight in gold or assigning a number interpreters “X’ to one given Deaf person, but it’s a sad note that a large percentage of interpreters in programs now have never actually met a Deaf person. I have often asked students on the first day of class-“ Do you have any Deaf friends? When the majority of them say they don’t, I ask “ WHY NOT ? Do you have any hobbies? There are certainly Deaf people out there like you who may have the same hobbies, interests, or sports. “ Social media has brought more challenges to traditional forms of socialization and it likely affects potential relationship building. At the same time, Deaf people have so many more avenues for visibility and access in civic life. There seems to be no excuse for an interpreter, or interpreter- in-training even, to not have some Deaf people significant in their lives outside of work.

    Practitioners and those among us who teach and mentor interpreters might more consistently engage Deaf people in daily dialogue about how we work together to promote THEM and the profession in a more circular, mutually beneficial way. This can’t be done at a biannual or special ‘Town Hall” style meeting, although these forums can help. Perhaps we could do engage in more of this micro-level, 1:1 dialogic behavior with the Deaf people we work with. It is evident that something has to give in this insane trend towards what my friend and colleague Nicole Montagna described as, “the McDonaldization of our profession”… get it fast, get it now, even if it’s not the best thing for you, and get it as cheap as you can. The potential hazard is creating somewhat of an economy of 1 billion poorly served and perhaps further disenfranchised.
    Professional signed language interpreting has taken some interesting twists and turns in the past 4 decades. Your post will hopefully be well-received. The path of our profession cannot continue to carry along on a one-sided self-promoting trajectory.
    -Lori Whynot

  3. DLGBLG says:

    Those of you in this discussion have been interpreters far longer than I have. I am a CODA and grew up “interpreting” for my mom as if it were a normal thing. I was often involved with a lot of Deaf people in my area and that was MY culture too.

    Somewhere along the way after I grew up and realized what I wanted to do with my life, all of that changed. I realized that the social circle I was in was intruding on my profession. Deaf consumers who I did not directly know, but knew my family were quite irritated that I would not discuss personal issues involving my family and how things had been going. I realized this was causing an issue between my personal and professional life. I have since moved out of state and this has been reduced and almost nonexistent now.

    I got into this profession because I wanted to give Deaf people the avenue in which to succeed. To provide the communication that was needed for them to interact in any environment and prove they could do anything they wanted to do. I still hold those ideals near and dear to my heart. The difference is as interpreters, we are told we are not supposed to be close to our clients. I feel like the more I know a client, the better I can support them, advocate for them, and even help them learn how to advocate for themselves. It also creates opportunity for that open dialogue you discussed. We are almost programmed to destroy that part of ourselves, to completely block ourselves off from the Deaf community so we keep that personal and professional separation. I currently work in a school setting. I see my student more than their own family does. I see my student more than I see my own family. Between a school day and after school activities how am I not supposed to feel some kind of emotion for this person? This is not where my paycheck comes from, this is a human being I have spent a lot of time with. A human that I have watched grow, and blossom. A human I want to see graduate and do whatever they would like to in their life. Why is this viewed as such a negative thing now? When did we lose the personal investment in our profession, and in our clients? This is the whole reason we got into this career. Why would I ever want to take something so important to me and throw it out the window in order to feel like a robot?

    I guess it depends on the environment we interpret in, but I try my hardest to do my job and still be a person. I have feelings, as any human would. Things touch my heart and sadden me, things make me happy and excited as anyone would. I don’t know if this is harder on a CODA than it is for someone who came from an ITP with no previous Deaf friends or family?

    • Lynn says:

      I feel the same way! I am an interpreter that graduated from an interpreter prep program. I had no ties to the Deaf community before school, but I made immediate, fast friends with the first client I ever worked with. I actually stopped working with this person because of my attachment to her. I have worked with many people since and I normally make friends just as quickly with most of the clients with whom I work. I am just not the kind of interpreter that can leave my heart out of it. I am also an educational interpreter and I spend a whole lot of time with my student(s). I share successes, failures, friendship, heartbreak, and frustrations with them every day. I will never quit a job again because I like and care about the people for whom I interpret and I take pride in my humanness.

  4. Gay Belliveau Koenemann says:

    Dennis, just this: It’s a pleasure to see you here and to know that you’re still asking the hard questions. I hope they’re taken genuinely to heart.
    Warm greetings from a cold and wet Rhine Valley!

    • Dennis says:

      Gay -

      Thanks for reading and for the kind words. It has been a long time!! I hope you and yours are doing well. Warm greetings back to you from (surprisingly, for December) warm and sunny Boston!

    • Rhonda says:

      Gay Belliveau

      I am not sure if you are the same person I met about 2 decades ago in Charlotte NC. I am not sure how to reach you via this post. How can we connect ?


  5. John Pirone says:

    Great article, Dennis!

    When I worked as a coordinator of interpreting services, I clearly see two different groups of interpreters. One group truly cares about the community, respects Deaf people, and view themselves as an ally and another group views themselves as businesslike professionals, treats Deaf people as clients, and put their business before their heart for the community. What’s strikingly noticeable is that the former is of older generation while the latter is of current generation. So, what you have observed is so right!

    • Mike McMillion says:

      I agree. Also, the gap between the working generations seems to be widening and overlapping in awkward ways. Take for example the world of VRS with is such a new dynamic and populate it with older generation interpreters (myself included) and it creates many conflicts in role and process when a protocol or a new norm just “isn’t the way we used to handle “x” issue” in regards to ally/cultural mediation/conflict resolution issues.

      • Dennis says:

        Mike -

        Thanks for the posting. VRS certainly has altered reality for interpreters and for Deaf people. My colleague, Rico Peterson, argues that what is done in VRS is clearly not what we have come to view as interpreting; VRS work violates our expectations of preparation and discretion, for example. It also seems to be the case that VRS companies can cut costs by hiring less experienced interpreters who are paid less than more seasoned interpreters or by capping the hourly rate they will pay even the most experienced interpreters. In the “business model” you control costs to maximize profits!

  6. Debby Miller says:

    We are facing the same problems in Ontario Canada… the fight for developing a “professional interpreter” has lead to depersonalizing it… We are told to be robots basically a peice of communication equipment… not allowed to be “friends” with the Deaf people regardless of the several levels of “friends” from aquantance from Deaf functions to best friends that you hang out with… it has been all washed with the same brush…leading to the interpreters not being “connected” to the Deaf community. I has been a sad transformation I have witness in the past 20 years. My daughter is Deaf and I went to college to become an interpeter when she was 8 years old so I could fight for accessiblity for her and the rest of the Deaf community…. and now I am being stifled and punished for advocating for them being told “stay in your role .. advocating for the deaf person or helping with provideing information or connections needed is not in the interpreter’s role”. It has been a sad transition but I will continue my fight along side of my Deaf community on my own time.

  7. Robertta Thoryk says:

    Excellent article; I cried when I read it because it is so true. Cannot adequately express how much I agree with this article or how frustrated. I remember when we were working for HB216 here in Ohio (Ohio’s ASL bill) – one of the big worries was that legislation would “open ASL up” and it would be “taken over” by others…and that’s what we saw happen. All that work and what has resulted? NOT better-signing teachers in Deaf classrooms….NOT ease of access to qualified terps for medical care…not a true recognition and appreciation of the study of ASL and Deaf culture as being equitable with that of other language groups and having multiple areas of value for study…. NOT ASL Deaf Studies programs that celebrate the beauty and potential of the language and the culture and are developed with community members in positions of decision-making and leadership. Instead we have ITP programs which are most often run by the same special education departments which had been producing deaf ed teachers who could not actually sign and communicate with their students. We have ITP programs which teach the language and terping skills at the same time, instead of first having the student master the language, immerse in the culture, and be solidly grounded in the community and THEN vetting them and teaching successful candidates terping skills. We have community members essentially assigned to adjunct and client roles, while leadership roles in ITP’s are kept for …graduates of ITP programs, many of whom proudly espouse NOT socializing in the community in order to “protect concerns about confidentiality.” We have educational institutions (high school and post-secondary) who see ASL classes and ITP majors as being good places to collect tuition as they “dump” students who are not succeeding in other majors (becuz ASL is just charades and mime, right?). It is all so disheartening. BUT luckily we also see some quality people shine. Your article is a great example of quality, smile. Thank you for it.

  8. Erica says:

    I agree that it is a tricky line to balance. I have Deaf friends, but tend not to become particularly close to the clients that I see the most frequently, at least outside of the work environment, in large part to prevent conflict. Just as with any other industry, you can have ‘work friends’ and then you have your separate personal life. I can be friendly and chat and be personable, but find that if I do not draw the line somewhere, then it can sometimes become ‘sticky’. It becomes awkward when that line between professionalism and helper gets blurred, for myself, for my Deaf clients and for the hearing clients as well. When I was younger and newer to the profession, I would find it difficult setting that line and would get requests for rides, to borrow money, and so on. I feel that it is important for all involved to NOT view me as a ‘signer’ who arrives at a doctor’s appointment (bringing the client, because don’t all interpreters know and supply rides for their clients??ugh)for a Deaf individual to ‘help’ them out of the kindness of my heart. I AM a professional, and I want to be viewed as such. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want and need the advice, input and perspective of those that I work with and as such, I take advantage of any and every opportunity to get that communication in.

    I do believe that we can viewed and respected as professionals who put time, money and energy into being as well prepared as we can to do our jobs to the best of our ability, while at the same time still be human and act as such. It is finding our way to that balance that we need to continue to work on every day, as individuals and as a profession.

    • Windy says:

      This is exactly what I tell my IPP students. We need to keep the line of professionalism clear for the clients we actually work with, in order to get the job done effectively and not have personal relationships cloud our roles. I have found that even clients who I never socialize with but who I work with frequently start concerning themselves more with what is good for me than what they really want or need; when that happens, I feel that my effectiveness in my role is diminished. I can be totally invested in my clients’ wants and needs without being their friend outside of work, because that is the kind of interpreter I am.

      Probably the reason I am that kind of interpreter is because I am in touch with Deaf people outside of work. In a city as big as mine, there is no reason why we can’t have Deaf friends who we don’t work with and Deaf clients who we don’t socialize with. I attend religious services with Deaf people, I have Deaf friends, and I keep abreast of what is happening in the community. I don’t interpret for my friends, but having those friends helps me keep fresh in mind what matters to the community and how what I do at work affects them.

  9. James Johnson says:

    Interesting read. I wonder if RID Code of Professional Conduct is a plausbile explanation for what you described in the article? Over those years increasing emphasis has been placed upon the professional conduct in this profession through continuing education, articles, blogs, and interpreter training programs is likely the explanation. Can you imagine doctors being close to their patients like interpreters were with the deaf community? I think the profession is in the maturing stage in terms of being recognized as professional.

    The challenge is now how can the interpreters stay in tune with the deaf community without potential ethical conflicts? I think it’s time to invest in educating the deaf community. I have discussed this perspective with an ITP professor and I want to hear your feedback. There are training opportunities for interpreters but none for the deaf community. I have intervened in a few situations where misunderstanding occured between interpreters and deaf clients which were attributed to the clients’ ignorance about interpreters’ professional role. Being a deaf person made it easy to “slap the crap” out of the clients to help them understand the role better.

    Should we start providing workshops to help deaf people better understand interpreters and their role and how both sides can co-exist. Educating both sides probably would bring both sides closer together. This is just a theory I’ve thought of lately but never had an opportunity to test. What are your thoughts?

    • Dennis says:

      James -

      Thanks for the posting. I think there are many reasons for the distance between interpreters and Deaf people. The Code of Conduct (and former Code of Ethics) is certainly one of the reasons. I definitely do agree that we should have opportunities for Deaf people to learn how to work with interpreters in ways that they (Deaf people) feel provide them with the greatest access. But I think that, since 88% of Deaf students are now educated in mainstreamed settings, those opportunities need to start with young Deaf students. They don’t know how best to work with interpreters just because they are Deaf!!!

      I also think that any “how to work with interpreters” educational opportunities should definitely not be presented solely from the perspective of interpreters. We interpreters must also hear from Deaf people about what THEY seek and value in interpreters. Every survey of Deaf people over the past 30 years says that they value “attitude” over technical skills. I fear that in most IEPs and in the “profession” we value exactly the opposite.

      Finally, it is true that we don’t expect doctors to be as close to their patients as interpreters once were with Deaf people. But what is the biggest complaint people have about doctors? Lack of bedside manner! I fear that this is what has happened with interpreters. Our detachment from the Community means we become simply functionaries instead of Community allies.


  10. Aaron Brace says:

    Hi, Dennis,

    Let me add my thanks to everyone else’s for your thoughtful essay. One of the things that saddened me as I read it, though, was my sense that those in our profession who might least grasp the import of the issues you raise are not known for their mastery of nuance. Here are some of the black-and-white “take aways” that I’m sure many of our colleagues would get when/if they read your piece. Not what you meant, I know, but what surely would register:

    1) “…51% of interpreters work full-time and 54% of Deaf people are unemployed…”
    -Interpreters’ rates of employment and rate of pay must never surpass those of any Deaf people.

    2) “How do we justify learning their language and profiting from it without giving back?”
    -Provision of quality service in return for the pay we receive doesn’t in any way count as “giving back”.

    3) “…only 30% of sign language interpreters nationwide work in medical settings more than 30% of the time.”
    -Interpreters must prioritize every one-hour medical appointment they’re offered over earning enough to make a living.

    4) “… the communicative access needs of Deaf people were provided by the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, relatives, teachers, ministers, … etc… ”
    -No matter what I do, as a non-CODA I will always be “complicit” with “the Devil”.

    Please understand that I agree with you and am striving to improve myself in the exact same direction you outline; I’m just concerned about the “here we go again” response that would surely arise from this large segment of our profession, and I can’t believe that all who have that reaction are irredeemably lost. Maybe they just don’t know how to move past the emotions associated with feeling “accused”; maybe they’ve never received compassionate education about how many of the traditional notions of professional success they were raised on perniciously oppress the Deaf community. We haven’t done a good job in our field of identifying and acknowledging just what parts of our sense of self we have to excise and biopsy in order to fully understand the impact our very existence has on the Deaf community- much of it harmful, often when we think we’re doing the most good. I’ve often joked that RID conventions ought to have group therapy instead of business meetings, but honestly, maybe we need to identify something to akin to the stages of grief, to move us from our home-schooled notions of “success”, “professionalism” and “doing good” to the kind of understanding you outline in your essay. It *is* very easy, now, to be trained, to be credentialed, and to move into the profession without having those distinctions ever brought home in a sufficiently profound way. We haven’t found a way to meet people where they are, to acknowledge the rationality (of sorts) behind the way they got there, and then to articulate a path to a different direction.

    Perhaps what I’m suggesting is that pieces like yours play well to “the choir” (of which I am a proud member), but may not effect much change among those who don’t even realize they’re singing from a different hymnal. I’m not entirely satisfied with that last metaphor, but if I over-think it I’ll never reach a stopping point and post this.

    Thanks, again, for putting this out there for the fine professional dialogue it has generated.


    • Dennis says:

      Aaron –

      Thanks for posting. Long time no see for sure!

      I certainly agree that some readers (and many more non-readers) may not have the Community connections to see the “take aways” as anything other than “here we go again” accusations. My intent was not and is not to accuse but to try to shed light on some realities that many may not recognize or have thought about.

      As for the black and white “take aways”, I would say to those colleagues who might not yet have mastered nuance:
      1) It’s not that interpreters should earn rates of pay that are less than Deaf people. We certainly should be able to earn a living wage, but we should always remember the privilege we enjoy and why we enjoy that privilege.
      2) Providing quality service is what I must do because I am paid to render the service. But to me “giving back” is when others benefit from the various talents I have to offer for which I am not paid. This is the notion of reciprocity that Theresa Smith discussed in the early eighties.
      3) I do think we have to find a balance between the “two hour minimum” norm and the needs Deaf people have. Otherwise we run the risk that employers will simply see Deaf people as too expensive and cease providing interpreting services. My hope is that we always remember that Deaf people’s lives/needs and those that employ interpreters don’t always fit in two-hour boxes.
      4) I think that it matters not whether we are CODAs – we are all in some way complicit in the Devil’s bargain. For example, we, as an organization, did not speak up forcefully enough when it was assumed without evidence that an interpreted K-12 education was as good as or better than an “I can communicate directly with the teacher” education.

      I guess for me the bottom line is that interpreting must always be about “others first”. I don’t need to be a CODA or have to have Deaf relatives but I do believe that I absolutely have to have Deaf friends to do this work successfully.

      Also, I quite agree that we need to have something like the “stages of interpreting privilege” to articulate a much more humane and “Deaf-centric” approach to our work.

      As for singing to the choir – believe me when I say you definitely don’t want to hear ME sing!!!

      Thanks again Aaron!!

      • Aaron Brace says:

        Hi again, Dennis,

        This blog is the gift that keeps on giving!

        I completely understand that your intent was not to accuse- my sense of things, though, is that it takes more than a lack of malintent to get through to a large segment of our colleagues. Call it mollycoddling if you will, but I maintain that what has long been missing is a compassionate account of what many will experience as “loss” on their journey to the kind of rewarding personal and professional relationships with the Deaf community that we here advocate. Not only do we ask people to abandon mainstream notions of professional responsibilities, opportunities, rewards and what it means to “do good”, we ask them to pursue a profession in which our understanding of those things remains in flux. The level of resilience, comfort with uncertainty, acute self-assessment and obligation to others that this life requires is not, I believe, sufficiently intuitive to some of those hearing Americans who might ultimately, if met where they are and led with overt compassion, be wonderful additions to the Deaf and interpreting communities.

        Patti’s kind (and blush-inducing!) words below aside, I look back on my own path from some early, very audist tendencies to where I am now (which is not audism-free, but a work in progress) and know that if it weren’t for some specific people who saw my potential and loved me upside the head, I might well be one of the people responding so defensively to your essay. I’m sure there are others that need the same kind of help in connecting the dots…. in a picture that we sometimes forget even has dots.

        Continued thanks for your leadership and insight!


        • Dennis says:

          Aaron -

          I think that we have lost much in the change from a service to business model and from the change to academic footing versus community footing for our field and have written about that (Shifting Positionality: a Critical Examination of the Turning Point in the Relationship of Interpreters and the Deaf Community. In: Marschark, Peterson, and Winston, (eds): Sign language Interpreting and Interpreter Education: Directions for Research and Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). All we have to do is think of the tremendous change from interpreting for those with whom we were close (e.g. my first “formal” experience was interpreting an AA meeting every Monday night for three years with people I saw and worked with everyday at Gallaudet) to a major university proposing a rule that would ban its interpreters from socializing with the Deaf students with whom they work and interpreters using impartiality/neutrality as a reason for not socializing with Deaf people.

          The level of commitment and engagement you describe is precisely what separates a vocation from a job. I fear we have become a field in which the majority of practitioners approach interpreting as a job not as a vocation. The Community can’t see your potential love you upside the head if you aren’t a known entity in the Community. Loving you upside the head is a commitment made by the Community; as you well know the Community can’t/won’t commit unless you are known to the Community.

          And thanks to you for continuing to give!


      • Lindsey Antle says:

        Very well said, Dennis and Aaron. It’s a fine line that we walk as interpreters. Those of us who started working long before there was formal interpreter education and, therefore, HAD to learn directly from the Deaf community, have had different experiences than those of us from interpreting programs. I was involved in interpreter education for many years and, sadly, participated in providing some less-than-stellar experiences for students.

        Dennis, you have always and continue to raise tough questions. Of your many contributions to our field, that is the one that I value the most. I can take tons of workshops to maintain my certification and gain a little knowledge and check off the boxes for RID. Sure wish I could get CEUs for all the thinking that I do after reading something that you’ve written.

        Thanks to you, Dennis, for your post and thanks to you, Aaron, for articulating potential responses to the post.

  11. RaRa says:

    All these points have weighed on me over the years, I agree with it all… It’s the little things that stand out, even down to asking the deaf consumer their sign preference or asking a team interpreter… Thank you for stating it so clearly and for all your works… It has changed in all those ways… that’s all I can say for now…

  12. Anonymous says:

    Dennis, I’m old enough to recall those long ago times when ASL interpreters were mostly volunteers and often CODAs. I too have seen the profession change over the years – mid-70s to the present. When you think back on it, the changes have been astounding. I was present at many meetings and conferences where the question of whether ASL was even a language was debated, and whether Minimal Language Skills (MLS) was the same as ASL, believe it or not.

    Here’s my two cents: I think what we have here is a generation gap. Older deaf adults were accustomed to having interpreters who were also members of their community (mother father deaf) or social or religious circle. It’s that generation who are most likely to feel some resentment at the “new” business model of sign language interpreting. Conversely, it’s mostly the older interpreters who feel conflicted about the fact that they make money from interpreting for deaf people, when they used to do it for free out of the goodness of their hearts. And in these tough economic times, unemployed or underemployed deaf people look at the interpreter earning what appears to be a lot of money for pretty easy work – there’s just something inherently unfair and unbalanced about that. if it were not for deaf people, interpreters would not have work. Ergo, what should deaf people receive in return to balance the scales, even if that was possible?

    I believe that the field of ASL interpreting has evolved into a bona fide profession, just like doctors, lawyers, teachers, and other service providers. It’s a relatively *new* profession. Just because the field originated in volunteerism doesn’t imply a mandate to give back. However, established professions also do pro bono or volunteer work. It’s more recognizable that they are doing work for free that they normally would get paid for. (There’s probably a tax write-off as well.) Whereas in the deaf community and interpreting field, there are still some people who remember how it used to be, and look on those times with misty nostalgia which may or may not be warranted.

    For example, take the typical CODA volunteer of the 60s and 70s. they were signers, but not trained interpreters. they didn’t have to follow a code of ethics. they may or may not discuss what they saw or heard while interpreting. they might not have a solid grounding in the interpreting situation (medical, legal, etc.). they might make inappropriate decisions about what should be interpreted. they were good-hearted people, and might “take over” for the deaf client if they felt it was in their best interests. I could go on, but you get the idea.

    bottom line, the business model is not a bad thing for the profession OR for the deaf community. If sign language interpreting has risen to the level of a profession, then deaf people would also rise to the level of clients, with equivalent rights, considerations, and protections as well.

    • Dennis says:

      Thanks for posting.
      Certainly there have been astounding changes in the field but I don’t believe all of them have been positive. I think that recognizing and acknowledging that not all change is positive is not the same as “pining for the good ol’ days”. The fact is that we can’t (and in many cases shouldn’t) put the toothpaste back in the tube. However, I do believe that we need to acknowledge that sign language interpreters are in a very, very privileged position. I can think of no other occupation whose presence is mandated by three federal laws.

      While the business model of interpreting is certainly here to stay, I’m not sure it is as good for Deaf people as it is for interpreters. I fear that as more and more interpreters have little or no contact with Deaf people the more those interpreters will make decisions strictly from a business perspective. The shallower the roots are within the Deaf Community, the easier it is to ignore the fact that our decisions have real impact on Deaf people’s lives. The more that interpreters, especially novice interpreters, adopt the perspective that they can’t or shouldn’t socialize with Deaf people the harder it is to see things from Deaf people’s perspective. It’s not unlike people who would never steal from a local mom and pop bookstore but think nothing of stealing from a faceless corporation like Barnes and Nobel.
      I’m not sure we have yet attained the status of a profession. Those you name have education as their core and what’s more important education in the discipline. In less than thirty days RID will require a four-year degree to sit for certification, but that degree can be in anything. We are, to be sure, a well paid field perhaps on our way to becoming a profession.

      As for Deaf people and their rights and protections, I wonder what those might be. At the present time Deaf people do have a right to an interpreter if/when one is available, but not an interpreter of their choosing. But beyond that, I wonder what additional rights, considerations and protections are Deaf people afforded?

      • Anonymous says:

        The interpreter and client relationship was a lot more symbiotic back then than it was now, don’t you think? When the field (and I) were young, I used to be close personal friends with all my interpreter friends, and still am today, 30+ years later. I thought nothing of it and took it for granted as the unique boundary-blurring phenomenon it was. I cherish the deep bonds that were possible between deaf people and interpreters during the early years of our professional growth.

        One cannot become a sign language interpreter in the first place without any contact with deaf people whatsoever. No language is learned in isolation from the population that uses it. Interpreters do this work because they like deaf people, love the language, have the skills, have deaf friends and participate in social gatherings for the fun of it, not just because it helps them on the job. Most interpreters I know are not getting rich at it. They make a living, that’s about it. The work is mentally demanding, subject to burn-out, and has a high incidence of overuse injuries.

        When described interpreting as privileged, I had to laugh a little bit. A deaf person may be legally entitled to an interpreter, but that does not necessarily mean the deaf client will be appreciative, grateful, or respectful toward the interpreter. More than once, I’ve heard of deaf clients treating interpreters as servants rather than partners, ignoring them completely, or refusing to extend themselves the least little bit to make the interpreter’s already challenging job a little easier. Underlying that callousness is the attitude that something is wrong about an interpreter “profiting” from deaf people.

        In most cases, the interpreter’s fee is not paid by the deaf client, so what’s the problem exactly? Why is it not okay for a sign language interpreter to make money doing a job, just like a dentist or a teacher? I don’t *expect* to socialize with my lawyer or doctor just because we speak the same language or live in the same community. I don’t know about you, but during my time off, I’d like to not always be defined solely by my profession. Aren’t interpreters entitled to the same?

        • Dennis says:

          Thanks for the post.

          You assert that “One cannot become a sign language interpreter in the first place without any contact with deaf people whatsoever”. Clearly you have not recently worked in an IEP where students routinely enter without Deaf connections. The ideal is as you have stated, but the reality is that novice interpreters (and IEP students) do not necessarily like Deaf people, have Deaf friends or participate in social gatherings with Deaf people.

          Being privileged does not mean that Deaf people have to like us; whether they like us or not we still get paid. We are privileged because those who are not Deaf will be found in violation of one of three federal laws if we are not hired. To assume that Deaf people should like interpreters or be grateful for our very presence is, I would suggest, the very height of audism. Deaf people have long had a love-hate relationship with interpreters – our very presence is a symbol of the fact that society does not accept them. If society did accept Deaf people then everyone would sign and Deaf people could communicate directly with those with whom they wish to communicate.

          It is true that interpreters are not paid by Deaf people. But they are paid BECAUSE of Deaf people. My doctor or lawyer can and does keep abreast of my language/culture because s/he is surrounded by it and can easily access it on television or radio. I am not saying that interpreters should not earn a living. But if interpreters are disconnected from Deaf people how do we keep abreast of changes in the language and Community? How do we justify being continuously connected with one community (radio, television, iPods, etc.) but not with the other with whom we work?

          And as for me, during time off I prefer to be defined by my relations with Deaf people which is not the same thing as being defined by my work.


  13. Tyler says:

    A good read as always Dennis. I found the article interesting and there is definitely a struggle out in the working interpreting world to walk the line of Deaf ally and working professional. In our collective struggle to be taken seriously by the other professionals we often interact with we end up alienating the Deaf people that essentially keep us employed. I think interpreters can easily change how they interact with the community outside the job. On the job behavior will be a different challenge all together. As one previous poster said, the RID code of ethics pushes us so hard towards rigorous professionalism it’s hard to know where the line is.

    Moving back towards Deaf Community involvement would be a welcome step in the right direction.

  14. Dennis says:

    Tyler -

    We need to check in! Let’s do it soon.

    Clearly there is a balancing act that must be performed and sustained by interpreters. I’m not sure that change is ever easy, however. And I would say that if our Code pushes us in ways that don’t feel comfortable then perhaps it is the Code, and not us, that must change; perhaps it is the Code, not us, that is flawed. If we have built rigidity into our Code (or the perception of rigidity into our Code) then it absolutely must change.
    Codes are guides not laws or absolutes; we each must have the freedom and permission to respond in ways that are honest, humane and just. Our Code must promote justice – if it does not then it is flawed!!


  15. Brian says:

    Dear Dennis,

    Thank you for your very thought provoking article. I am a fourth year interpreting student at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, about to graduate and enter the field as a fledgeling interpreter. New interpreters desperately need to hear counsel from seasoned interpreters, so again, thank you. Your article is very timely in that our Community Interpreting class was just discussing the positives and negatives of the professionalization of our field Friday morning.

    From the article, one point in particular that I am struggling with is the statistic that “51% of interpreters work full-time and 54% of Deaf people are unemployed.” You seem to be making an apples-to-apples correlation between the employment rate of interpreters and of Deaf, as if one is directly tied to the other. Perhaps I am naive, but I don’t see how a 1:1 correlation can be made. Aren’t there many factors that need to be considered in the unemployment rate of Deaf (or any group)? Also, the wording of the statistic is leading. The same statistic could be worded to say, “While 46% of Deaf are employed, 49% of interpreters are unemployed or work only part time.”

    I am left with the question, what is the intent of this statistic? Are interpreters supposed to feel guilty because the employment rate is a few percentage points higher than the people they serve? If someone could wave a magic wand so that only 40% of interpreters work full-time, would that somehow improve the employment rate of Deaf? This concept sounds like Crab-Theory. Are we supposed to conclude that because Deaf unemployment rate is 54%, interpreters’ unemployment rate should be at least 54%, preferably higher?

    I understand the point to be that a consequence of the professionalization of our field and the institution of Federal laws mandating access to all people is that interpreters benefit financially for providing interpretive services. This is in contrast to the “helper model” that started the interpreting profession. Is moving away from the helper model a bad thing? Perhaps another question interpreters should be asking is as we continue the professionalization of our field, how do we insure the Deaf perspective is fully represented?

    Again, I truly appreciate your thoughts on this topic. The article ends with the question, “what are we willing to do as individuals to become reconnected with Deaf people?” It has been said, “you don’t know what you don’t know,” and as the final paragraphs of your article point out, so many new interpreters don’t know the relational roots of the profession. So, thank you for bringing this vital piece of history to the fore as we examine the trajectory of our future.


    • Dennis says:

      Brian — thanks for the post.

      And I wish you well as you enter the field!!

      You ask whether interpreters are “supposed to feel guilty because the employment rate is a few percentage points higher than the people they serve?” My response is that the raw numbers matter little. The point of the statistic is not about inflicting guilt, but rather imparting enlightenment. Why are we not fighting for a world in which Deaf people materially benefit as much as we do? How can it be a positive reality when interpreters benefit more than Deaf people do?

      I also want to encourage all of us to pursue the next evolution in the various approaches to our work we have seen over the years. We have witnessed the “helper”, “machine”, “conduit”, and “mediator” models. I want to urge us to enter into an “engagement model”, one in which we cultivate strong roots within the Deaf Community, one in which Deaf people figure first in our thinking, one in which interpreters make decisions always mindful of the privilege that we enjoy.

      We should not in any way feel guilty about the fact hat we enjoy federally mandated employment, but neither should we be arrogant. And arrogance expresses itself in many ways – how I enter a room, how I dress, how I interact with the participants, how I negotiate terms/conditions of my employment, etc.

      As interpreters we must always remember that people who are not Deaf most often form their impressions of Deaf people in large part based on the actions or inactions of interpreters. To me, that is an enormous responsibility that we carry with us in each and every assignment.


      • Brian says:

        Thank you, Dennis, for expanding on your point and for bringing us back to the important realization that we must engage the community we serve, making Deaf people first in our thoughts as we work. I will bring your comments back to my class as fodder for continued learning about this topic.

  16. Bill Moody says:

    Thanks, Dennis. Google, whose theme was “do no evil”, is also a devil’s bargain. It seems inevitable.

    I would just support Theresa Smith’s comments over recent years to the effect that our job is incredibly difficult and delicate; requires untold hours of on-going education and ‘keeping up’ with the languages and communities in which we work; is so mentally and physically demanding that we can’t work properly and well if we have to be working 7 or 8 hours a day without recharging and resting; often requires complex judgements about our clients’ needs, intentions, and desires to enable them to communicate and be satisfied with the results of a verbal exchange; etc…

    That is why we and our clients must consider ourselves professionals. If our clients don’t trust us to facilitate communication in the same way that they trust their doctors, lawyers, social workers, and plumbers to make their lives better, then we are not doing our jobs as professionals.

    As Theresa says, we should be paid a lot more than we are paid currently if we are indeed fulfilling all the requirements of a professional. Professional is a GOOD thing, when done right.

    Dennis’s statistic that really gets my goat is the average of 100% markup charged by that referral agencies. Of course, the best agencies with ties to the Deaf community don’t do that, but the proliferation of internet-based agencies representing interpreters in mutliple languages is allowing some agencies to charge that kind of mark-up with exclusive contracts with large institutions. Where is that statistic from? It seems impossible that it is indeed an average, though I have personally seen 100% mark-ups… very disturbing.

    • Dennis says:

      Bill -

      Thanks for posting.

      I agree that what we do is incredibly, incredibly complex. Philosopher George Steiner, in his 1975 classic After Babel, asserts that interpretation is the most cognitively complex task of which human beings are capable. I also agree that professional is a good thing if done right; but, I suggest, many of our colleagues (especially those with shallow Community roots) are NOT doing it right. I suggest that you can’t be a professional serving a Community if you do not know the Community and if the Community peas not know you. Instead of operating on the Golden Rule ( “Do unto others as you would have done unto you”), I suggest we operate on a Platinum Rule (“Do unto others as they would have done unto them”). The Platinum Rule frames our decisions in terms of others, not us. But we cannot do this unless we know others; unless we have roots in the Community.

      As for the agency stat, it comes from an NIEC survey of referral agencies conducted under the last cycle of grant funding. We’ll be doing further surveys so perhaps things have changed. For what it’s worth there is one referral agency that, for after hours emergency medical appointments, pays interpreters $50 – $75 per hour but bills the medical facility $200 per hour with a two hour minimum. I agree that this is disturbing but not as disturbing as VRS companies – those who can bill the FCC at $6.66 per minute are charging $399.60 per hour but are only paying interpreters $40-$60 per hour. What’s happening with the other $330.00 per hour? This, and other examples of employer price-gouging, is most definitely quite disturbing but is a consequence of the unbridled business model that has become the norm.

      I believe that RID/we should implement a “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for those who employ interpreters. RID/we should develop a set of criteria for employers of interpreters (agencies, VRS companies, post-secondary institutions, etc.) to which “endorsed” employers would adhere. These criteria would include adequate information prior to accepting an assignment, no price gouging, provision of teams when applicable, provision of CDIs when applicable, no non-compete clauses (unless the entity can provide sufficient employment), etc.

      I think you are correct when you say that those for whom we work must trust us to facilitate communication. I would suggest that this is precisely the reason for Community roots. I can’t trust someone whom I don’t know; someone who is not a presence in my Community.

      thanks agin for the post.


      • Bill Moody says:

        Yes, absolutely.

      • Lucy Stone says:

        The fact that you skew your numbers causes me to question the validity of other statistics you use. NO Video Interpreter is connected, and thus billing, for 60 minutes in one hour. The more accurate figure would be 40 minutes in an hour, reducing the $399 by more than $100 per hour. And as to what happens to the rest of the money, I am sure you realize there are other necessary costs required to run VRS services (i.e. buildings, power, internet, insurance, etc.), not to mention the incredibly talented teams that work to improve VRS services and quality. Many of these behind-the-scenes developers are deaf employees. Just the other day I saw a friend place a VRS call on their I-Pad in Starbucks. I would say the money that isn’t given to the interpreter is being put to good use to continually improve access and enhance lives.

        The interpreter agency owners, on the other hand, are using their profits to what? Develop new technology that will enhance lives and support independence? Hire, train, promote, and support deaf employees? No, more often than not they are using their profits to vacation in Tahiti. I think that is much more disturbing.

        • Dennis says:

          Lucy -

          Thanks for the post.

          I am aware of one VRS company that requires its interpreters to process calls within five seconds and only gives them a ten minute break each hour (thus enabling the company to bill for up to $333.00 per hour). And of course there are expenses as you point out. But if we assume that the average call center has 10 stations that means the company can bill in the neighborhood of $3,333.00 per hour for a single center. It is also no secret that VRS companies are also hiring less experienced interpreters who are less expensive thus increasing the profit margin for the company. However, if we assume that the average hourly rate paid to interpreters is $40.00 (10 X $40) the company is receiving approximately $2900 per hour per center. The largest VRS company says it has 100 call centers nationwide (possibly billing up to $290,000 per hour) or just over two million dollars a day for an 8 hour day. I am also aware of a company that has considered monitoring and paying interpreters by the minute connected.
          The point, of course, is not the actual numbers but rather how the business model makes interpreters a “controllable cost” and how significant income over and above the cost of interpreting is being realized.
          You assert that “many” behind the scenes developers are Deaf – perhaps you are right, but the largest segment of any VRS company’s employees are not Deaf, they are interpreters. It would be enlightening to know from each VRS company what percent of its employees is Deaf and what percent of its leadership positions is filled by Deaf people.
          I do agree that there are employers of interpreters that do not give back either to the Deaf Community or to the interpreting community. This is why I have argued that we need some form of “employer endorsement”; some way of openly recognizing those employers of interpreters who treat Deaf people, interpreters and non-Deaf people with respect , create and foster appropriate working conditions for interpreters and who give back. And we should openly acknowledge those hiring entities that do not.

  17. Hi Dennis~
    This issue is more complex than you have presented. I understand the frustration at seeing interpreters who have not been vetted by the Deaf Community working as professional freelancers. I think there are creative ways to improve that situation by expanding the certification and transition to employment thru supervised internships and increased requirements for hours of community involvment. Interpreters are in a challenging position if they are to provide neutral professional confidential interpreting services around the clock and also be on “familial” terms with the Deaf community. It is a balancing act to maintain genuine connection and stay professional and ethical. The Deaf community needs a tremendously increased level of interpreting services compared to 50 years ago due to mainstreaming, the ADA, and VRS/phone services.

    Here are some thoughts to consider.

    1. Interpreters interpret for two parties. The hearing judge, doctor,
    teacher, counselor, employer/employee are equally in need of an interpreter. Take interpreters out of the equation and neither party has access.

    2. Interpreters make it possible for Deaf/Hard of hearing people to have more fulfilling careers because finally there is an opportunity for higher education, advanced degrees, training access, the ability to resolve HR issues etc… so there is an opportunity for a better career. VRS (video phone interpreting) is changing the lives of the Deaf community who can now use the phone in a way commensurate with other hearing job applicants. Access is a right under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

    2. That logic can be applied to many professions. Do you consider a
    devil’s bargain applicable to oncologists who earn a living because others have cancer? What about the grocer who profits from your hunger or eye doctors who profit from your poor vision/cataracts. How about the teachers who profit from your ignorance? Economies function when real needs are met by real services. Interpreters provide a real service and should have a liveable wage.

    3. Interpreters pay self-employed taxes, which is approx 30-40% depending on their tax bracket.

    4. Free lance interpreters have zip in the way of benefits. All health insurance, retirement, professional liability coverage, professional certification/membership dues, continuing education, vacation/sick leave etc… all come out of pocket. There are no bonuses and no “seniority” pay. All prep-time, scheduling/confirming appts, invoicing, drive time are

    5. ASL Interpreters cannot work a full work day physically or mentally
    without a team and breaks. Most interpreters are fortunate to work 25 hrs a week freelancing. The work is not salaried or with any kind of ongoing contract or assurance of work next week.

    6. Interpreters for the most part do not depend on public
    assistance/medical coupons. I know interpreters who have limited the number of kids they have because they cannot afford more kids. I know many people who have many children that are supported by public assistance.

    7. To be commensurate with a public teacher’s salary, an interpreter would need to make over $100/hr. See Theresa B. Smith’s paper “Thinking about money” 2009.

    8. On a personal note, interpreters devote their professional lives to
    providing a service to give people the opportunity to function fully and equally in society. There is no desire to gouge anyone. There is a desire to make enough so that you can support yourself and not feel constant pressure to get out of the field into something with a better wage and benefits since you obviously are smart enough to do something that would make more sense financially.

    Shelly Hansen CI/CT/SC:Legal
    ESN: 1 1 1 1
    RID Certified ASLEnglish Interpreter

    • Bill Moody says:

      Obviously, I agree that for the most part, we are not paid enough. But the fact remains that we aren’t even worth the little we are paid unless we spend a lot of time with Deaf people. Spoken language interpreters spend much of their lives in the company of people who speak their B and C languages in order to keep up and in order to be good. For most of us, ASL is our B or C language. I think Dennis is saying not only that we are responsible to continue our 2nd culture learning so that our work is competent, but that a sense of fairness or justice also demands that we also feel responsible for the survival and flourishing of that 2nd culture. And I agree.

  18. patti says:

    Greetings Dennis et al:

    i want to thank u for writing this editorial and thank the commentors. i havent read them all but got up to Aaron Brace’s and your response and i thought i would share something as a Deaf person – i dont think interpreters and Deaf folks talk much these days – i dont think we all discuss our likes and dislikes and what works and doesnt work and to me that is unfortunate. There is much to learn and gain for actually getting to know each other beyond this tossed together encounter.

    Also when i first read ur editorial it got me thinking to a million years ago when i first moved to Rochester, NY after living in NYC for three years. There was this awesome interpreter who when this wee little non-profit AIDS education group wanted to offer him something for his service replied “no thank you. i consider this a type of pro bono work. i was taught by some of the best like Patrick Graybill and I am committed to always giving back when I can.” Many years later when i was in Seattle, Washington and remarked on how the interpreters seemed a bit “different” – meaning they seemed very connected and involved in the community in an egalitarian way, one person explained that was an expectation of their interpreting training program and of their community – that they be involved and i thought – ahhh like that guy in Rochester who had since moved on.

    And who was that guy? Aaron Brace.

    i always totally appreciated that in him – his appreciation for what he had gained and what he could give and its a treat to see him poise such deep and hard questions here when he truly is one of the good guys.

    Again – biggest thanks for creating a space and food for thought – for the folks for whom interpreting is “just a job” who knows if this will reach them but for the folks who are considering it as a job or for those who are new but trying to figure out where the line is – im sure this will prompt more good thoughts and good questions than bad and for the veterans who maybe have forgotten a bit about how patient and instructive and helpful some of the Deaf community members were when they first started out – maybe they want to re-remember and also think a wee bit more about the COMMUNAL part of community.

    For Deaf folks – we might want to consider how we can be a part of this dialogue also.



  19. I am NOT laughing Anonymous says:


    As a person who works regularly with absolutely fabulous interpreters during my career, I found it repugnant you “laughed a little bit” at the issue of interpreting and privilege. I’ve read your comments four times and I am embarassed for you.

    Interpreting at it’s most awful is about power and at its best about trust. I was lucky enough to be in a position of authority: authority to send an interpreter out of a meeting, to request to not have a particular interpreter back again. Unfortunately this is not the typical experience. I would suggest that while an interpreter may be assigned to one job, it does not preclude the interpreter from treating the Deaf person as a “servant rather than partner, ignoring them completely, or refusing to extend themselves the least little bit to make the Deaf person’s already challenging role a little easier.” I would suggest in situations where power is the big elephant in the room, where Deaf people are not part of the interpreting process, there may be resentment from interpreters profiting off the backs of Deaf people.

    In my experience, the best interpreters (and I have been so lucky to work with many of them), the best interpreters care about “what’s the problem exactly.” The lousy interpreters don’t care about what the problem is or might be. The best interpreters don’t laugh about the idea of privilege and power. They do worry about it, and the fact they do worry about it is a big part of what makes them so fabulous. A brilliant Deaf person told me once, you can tell the best interpreters by counting to 3: First the interpreter asks you before the event starts: how you both can together make sure the event goes well. They care. And they listen. Second, they are “with” you throughout the meeting, checking in, taking suggestions, clarifying, etc. They care. And they listen. And third, they ask after it is over if it went okay. They care. And they listen. Counting 1, 2, 3. I would suggest we could most of the time, probably rate interpreters “good enough”, “fabulous” or “not at all” by counting to three.

    I have also met a few unqualified, arrogant people who call themselves interpreters. (Note: I am not describing something I have “heard.” This is something I have experienced first hand) I have had people who are apparently paid as “interpreters” show up with minimal language skills (sometimes in both English and ASL), expect to be able to work out a schedule with their co-interpreter so they could arrive late or leave early and be upset when I said this was not going to happen. I have seen interpreters tell me or other Deaf people the signing was “too ASL” or “too English.” I was at a meeting filled with brilliant Deaf and hearing people and had the so-called interpreter say they were so surprised the signing was “so ASL when they were told this was a “high functioning group of Deaf people.” I’ve seen a few of these so called interpreters tell me they take jobs with kids because “it was just kids and I’m just a beginning interpreter.” Again, because I was lucky enough to have authority, those so called professionals were told to leave. By me. And a couple of them threw a tantrum and told me I didn’t appreciate what they were doing for us. So yes, I was beyond angry they got paid for that job, a job they had no business taking. Maybe you’ve spoken with one of “these interpreters”? Because I certainly wasn’t grateful, appreciative or respectful. So, when you ask “the interpreter’s fee is not paid by the deaf client, so what’s the problem exactly? When is an interpreter not just like a dentist or a teacher?” I would say, except for maybe the most ultra specialized physicians or in a very rural area, you have a choice. Most of the time, the Deaf person has no input as to which interpreter is assigned to a job. If you don’t click with your doctor, you can choose another one. So, to get an idea of what it might feel like to have a very important medical appointment, when you are going to have a critical conversation with your physician and have no control, no power about who is going to show up to interpret, here is an idea:

    The next time you need a root canal, go out on the street and ask the first person who you see, “are you willing to pay for my root canal?” Keep asking until someone says, “sure, I’ll pay for it as long as you go to the dentist I choose.” No questions asked. Don’t worry that they probably chose the dentist based on who was cheapest.

    On the morning of your root canal, tooth throbbing, when the dentist sits down, pushes the button and throws you back in the seat and you notice he can’t fill the little cup of water by the spit bowl, and then takes five minutes to figure out how to turn the drill on – don’t worry. And definitely don’t complain. After all, you wouldn’t want him to tell all of his dentist friends about how “those toothed people are.” You already know how some dentists feel about you toothed people. You definitely don’t want to make it worse for all the other toothed people. Don’t get upset – the dentist is there for you, to help you. Be grateful. Be sure to ask how you can make his job easier. Tell him how much you respect him. Don’t ask if he is going to fill your mouth with mercury, silver, gold or a white amalgam filling. By all means, don’t insult him by asking if he is certified, where he went to school, or the last time he took a seminar to keep up his skills. Don’t worry if you’ve heard from other toothed people how awful he is or how he is going to gossip about the horrible state of your teeth. After all, you aren’t paying him. It shouldn’t matter he is a dismissive jerk that you wouldn’t want to chat with for five minutes at a cocktail party. After all, someone else is being kind enough to foot the bill. Just be grateful. Be sure to thank him. Thank him over and over again for doing his job – after all, everyone knows how self-less dentists are.

    Don’t worry if he is drilling the wrong tooth. Don’t worry that he might have misunderstood your chart. After all, his first language is Dentist – who are you to question him? And by all means, if his expressive language skills are so poor you can’t understand him, don’t insult him by asking him to repeat anything. He will probably say it again, hopefully you will understand it if he says it a second time. If all else fails maybe he will pantomime how to care for your tooth after he is done. If you do get up the nerve to ask him to explain something again, when he looks down at you, shakes his head in frustration and says, “It’s not my fault your Dentist language is limited” Just smile and thank him for his dedication to your teeth. After all he has spent years learning how to be a dentist, who are you to question him? Don’t make waves. Be respectful when his assistant comes in and they speak in a language you don’t understand, but talk and talk, laugh and look at you shaking their head. They probably aren’t talking about you. You know how you toothed people are so paranoid. Just sit back and relax. Be appreciative. Don’t get upset when halfway through, some other person – maybe a dentist? comes in and takes over. Don’t worry your pretty little head, they probably worked it out so one could arrive early and leave early and vice versa. They have it all worked out. Don’t make a scene, after all you wouldn’t want them to leave upset before the root canal is done – leaving you with a gaping hole, god-awful pain in your tooth.

    And whatever you do, don’t expect him to say hello if you see him tomorrow on the street. After all, he is probably so tired of dealing with you people with teeth – he probably is married to a woman with dentures. After all, he doesn’t want to be “defined by his profession.” He is entitled to some time away from you toothed people. So don’t get your hopes up for anything silly like common courtesy in the office or on the street. Just sit back, relax and be grateful. Let him do his job! And open wide.

    Despite my sarcasm, I am so lucky to work with the most talented person for years. I trusted him to interpret, because I trusted him. We worked well together, because we worked together. I knew every time we sat down, we were in it together. I knew when a meeting was finished, the hearing people in the room, despite having heard a man’s speech, knew it was “my voice.” It is abhorrent that not all Deaf people have this experience.

    But, my dear Anonymous, by all means, talk about things you have “heard.” Don’t worry about the why those “interpreters” have had such lousy experiences. Clearly it is because of those miserable Deaf people picking on such absolutely perfect, beyond reproach, superiorly skilled and highly evolved interpreters deserving of the highest pay despite having learned their skills from volunteer Deaf visitors to college classes – guests of the paid hearing teacher, from learning our language by watching the Deaf people on a museum tours given by a paid hearing interpreter and paid hearing docent, rather than the rare Deaf docent. And by all means, definitely don’t worry about your own linguistic or interpersonal skills. Just continue to focus on the bad treatment of those wonderful selfish, I mean self-less interpreters. Continue to focus on higher pay without worrying about why Deaf people are not appreciative enough. And be sure to tell all your friends how altruistic you are – giving your life (well at least the paid part of your time) to those miserable, unappreciative Deaf people. And when you are laughing about us as you regale your “Deaf anecdotes” to your hearing friends about those Deaf people who refuse “to extend themselves the least little bit to make the interpreter’s already challenging job a little easier” make sure you pause for affect – take a breath so all those hearing friends can applaud you “solely” because of your “profession.” After all, your job is the only profession in the world that is “mentally demanding, subject to burn-out, and has a high incidence of overuse injuries.” Perhaps you can look forward to sainthood? Don’t worry about that complete untruth that participating in a meeting via an interpreter is mentally challenging or Deaf people are under-employed because hearing people are less inclined to hire a Deaf person when a hearing applicant is also available.

    So, my dear Anonymous – The rest of us will be working together, figuring out how we can balance the power dynamic, maybe even breaking bread together. Don’t worry about us affecting your pious group of “professionals interpreting for” Deaf people – you will be able to identify those interpreters and Deaf people who work together to balance the power dynamic. We will be those people chatting during breaks, laughing, telling stories about our families, our friends, our jobs, our children – our lives, while you are professionally doing crossword puzzles or talking on your cell phones. Oh, and we will be figuring out how to make this gloriously complicated world of Deaf people and interpreters work better and better – because there are absolutely fabulous interpreters and Deaf people around. I am thankful every day for my time with these exquisite people. To those of you who do ask, do care and are worried about the quality of your work with us – I know we make our world better every day. Thank you for the quality of your work and you human decency. I have been incredibly lucky. I trust you. Things will get better. I am counting on it.

    Dennis – Thank you for your great article.

    • Dennis says:

      Anonymous (responding to Anonymous):

      What a wonderful post. Thank you for this. Sarcasm aside, the point you make about how we would not put up with limited competence in many professionals/service areas is an excellent one. Why should we have lower expectations of interpreters because they work with “disabled” Deaf people???

      I definitely feel for Deaf professionals/adults and the variable level of interpreter competencies with which they must contend. However, truthfully, what concerns me most is the variable level of competence of interpreters in K-12 settings. Sadly, the national norm is that in K-12 settings the least expensive (read least experienced) interpreters are hired. Even if (and this is, as every Deaf person knows, a BIG if) we accept the fact that an interpreted education could be equivalent to a direct education (and there is no evidence to support this), it is unclear to me how placing the least experienced interpreters in the K-12 setting well-serves Deaf students. (Truth be told, don’t Deaf students deserve the VERY BEST interpreters we have to offer?). The fact that Deaf students, for the past 110 years, leave school reading at an average third to fourth grade reading level and the fact that over the past 40 years interpreted education has not improved the situation should be cause for alarm for all of us.

      Deaf students, failing to pass high-stakes competency tests, do not leave high school with a diploma, but rather with a certificate of attendance. This means they cannot enroll in community colleges, which in turn, means that their employment opportunities are severely limited. This situation simply perpetuates the under-employment and under-education of Deaf people. I believe that we, as interpreters, must begin to speak up about those situations in which interpreted education is clearly not working. Yes it means jeopardizing jobs; but if we cannot put the good of others before our own good, what does this say about us as individuals and as a field?

      Thank you for so clearly framing the love-hate relationship that Deaf people have had and continue to have with interpreters.

      I, too, hope that things will get better. but I believe that they will only get better if interpreters begin to realize what a privilege it is to do the work we do and what awesome responsibility comes along with that privilege.

      Thanks again.


      • I am NOT laughing Anonymous says:


        I do worry about the high stakes tests. First and foremost, I worry about the value of the high stakes tests for every child. We could talk about that for years, but let me just be brief and say those tests are less than valid and more than a huge waste of time. Maybe it is sort of similar to the “testing” of interpreters – to the point that “passing the test” means for some interpreters they are “good enough” and just numbly go along gathering CEUs for re-certification. I would guess that most good teachers can predict how each of their students will do on the tests, but we continue to waste weeks of precious time prepping and taking the damn things. But, until someone wakes up on that front – Deaf kids and the high stakes tests is a huge issue. Some schools administer the tests, some schools don’t. Some schools administer the tests with interpreters (again, that sticky issue of who the “interpreters” are with Deaf kids). Should these tests be given with interpreters? If so, even if you had the best interpreter – testing in itself is its own genre. It would be impossible to find enough qualified interpreters for kids to begin with. Even if we could find the best of the best interpreters, are they training in testing? Testing is tricky and interpreting tests is itself a very specific skill.

        I think we miss the boat by putting this issue in the “Deaf education” list of problems. Many, many groups of kids are doing miserably on the damn tests. I think we would be better to join forces with others who represent kids under-represented in this conversation. Many second language educators are fighting this issue. I worry we are not joining in this action. Twenty years ago, it was unacceptable to consider Deaf education as bilingual – we had the “bi-bi” label because people were afraid to …… fill in the sentence – loose the special ed label, special ed funding, take away the “special-ness” of Deaf education. Now, many people are talking about Bilingual or Second Language education with Deaf kids. It seems crazy we are repeating this mistake again. If we would join forces with other people discussing the issues around high stakes testing we would have a bigger voice. There is some particularly interesting stuff happening with ESL hearing kids with a home language that is spoken and has no written form.

        But – about the failing of the systems that educate our Deaf kids – yes, there is a ton of work to do. It is hard to imagine why a family considers an interpreted education acceptable (even with the best interpreter, which we know is NOT happening). But the fact is – even a well informed family, when they hear from the school and specifically the teacher and the interpreter that “all is going well” or when they hear there is a problem, the problem discussed is never the interpreter quality. I wish I could imagine tons of educational interpreters out there having the integrity and knowledge to stand up and say, “I am not qualified. This is a bad situation for your child. Your child needs direct instruction AND social interactions with other signing kids.” I just can’t imagine it. And if it does happen, I am afraid the people who have the bravery to say that are the ones who are the most aware and probably the better interpreters. So, the most inept interpreter is the one with the least experience / understanding / social ties with Deaf people who will tell them they are hurting the child. So, every year, parent conferences are filled with garbage about the “problems of the child”. Fact is – when a hearing parent sits down with another hearing adult who is a paid interpreter (and has the assumed professionalism / authority) – can we expect that hearing parent to wonder about the hearing interpreter skills? Most hearing parents don’t sign, how do we expect them to really understand how bad things are?

        I wish we could set up a scenario where every hearing family sat in a room listening to another hearing interpreter interpreting what a Deaf adult thought the lousy hearing kid”s interpreter was signing. Maybe then the family could understand everything that is missing. But them, now armed with this information, what can we expect to happen? Better interpreters? Switch to a Deaf school? I doubt this will happen if it is a cost to the schools – but I imagine many Deaf adults would be willing to do this “evaluation” pro-bono. I wonder if the super qualified interpreters would?

        With all this “Baby Signing” for hearing babies with hearing families happening out there – I wish those DVDs had actual Deaf people doing the signing. I do think this is something interpreters could take a stand on now – when hearing interpreters take those jobs – its infuriating. This is a tremendous opportunity to expose parents to real language by a native speaker. It seems to me, if you are the mom of a Deaf baby and your fellow “mommy/daddy and me” parents are used to learning from a Deaf person, it might be less overwhelming to those hearing parents with Deaf babies. It is beyond stupid that pediatricians recommend signing for hearing babies/toddlers but walk the audiologist / ENT doctors’ “NO SIGNING” policy with Deaf kids.

        1) I think we could help parents understand the horrible state of the educational signers/interpreters if it was set up with Deaf adults and good interpreters working pro bono. Maybe there could be a directory set up so parents could sign up for the good interpreter and Deaf people to go pro bono assess the interpreting quality?
        2) There needs to be more discussion at the very beginning ITP/IEP programs about why people have no business taking interpreter jobs. And we need to “out” those inept interpreters when we find out about them. Maybe a directory ? Like the Rate My Teacher website?
        3) We need to join forces with other groups getting screwed over by the high stakes tests. We need to be part of the conversation about the usefulness and outright evil happening because of tests. (I am not opposed to evaluation, but the current star of things is just stupid.
        4) We need to set up some sort of policy about when to interpret a test, what it means to interpret a test. Can you interpret an English reading comprehension test?
        5) Those damn baby signing classes, DVDs businesses need to be outed. There is really no reason you should download an app or a DVD and see a hearing person signing the tape. I know its taking money out of an interpreters pocket, but honestly it is just not right. and it is taking away a huge opportunity for hearing parents with a Deaf child to have a relationship (even if its only via a DVD) with a Deaf adult.

        Jumping off my soap box now. Thanks Dennis.

        • Bill Moody says:

          Not only the baby DVDs, but in many instances when someone calls on us terps to do any kind of video signing, we need to refer them to a Deaf signer. They certainly can understand from a business perspective that the Deaf community will support the product more if we just explain to them the benefits of a native signer. We may have to help out pro bono, yes, but not necessarily: in several instances when I suggest I would be happy to do it with a Deaf signer, and we will work on the translations together, the hearing consumer has said yes and paid us both. This also applies to museum tours: once we start saying, “Yes, but wouldn’t it be better if we were interpreting for a Deaf docent rather than just signing the hearing tours?”

          This, of course, is all part of the fairness of working with the Deaf community rather than for them…

          • Lindsey Antle says:

            Wahoo, Bill. Thank you for bringing up the need to have Deaf interpreters available in VRS. I work full time in VRS. Most of the time, things go smoothly and I am confident that everyone “got it”. The Deaf person got his/her business done, we connected to establish some trust, the hearing person was pleased to have worked via this system, and I felt pleased.

            Often, however, I am simply not qualified to handle the call in an ethical manner. Those are the times that I’d love to push a button and bring a Deaf interpreter on the scene.

    • Bonnie G. says:

      You are absolutely amazing! That may be the best explanation I have ever seen! Your post should be a must read for every single Deaf student/employee out there to prepare for the use of interpreters. Our Deaf clients need to be able to advocate for themselves and to speak up for what they need. As interpreters, maybe it hits the pride button a little, but then as the interpreter you need to be able to sit down and analyze what went wrong? How could you change this situation next time or what can be worked on so this is not an issue in the future?

      I also see interpreters who do not speak up for themselves. I have been teamed with an interpreter who was new and had no idea what in the world they were doing (on more than one occasion). Sometimes they know they are in over their head, but were forced to go by an agency who just wanted a warm body there and didn’t care what their skill level was. This puts overload on the interpreter who was prepared to be there who has to pick up the pieces to make sure the communication happens. Why is it fair for the Deaf client to be there with no idea what is going on because the interpreter “couldn’t say no, even though they tried”? This just speaks to the greed of agencies to supply a body and get paid.

      Many years ago I was the interpreter who was in over her head. Fortunately for the client another agency was booked who actually had the skill set to handle the assignment. I could not have properly interpreted what was being presented. I was given inaccurate information from the agency, and I was new so I accepted it. After being dismissed by the Deaf clients, I got yelled at by my agency for not staying. They didn’t care that I was not qualified, they didn’t care that a better, well-skilled team of interpreters was there providing service. They wanted us back in there so they could get paid. That’s when I quit working for them. We need to be more selective in who we work for and the types of assignments we accept. If an agency cannot understand that, they are not worth working for and the best interest of the client is not being considered.

      I applaud you and I will be sharing your post with my student tomorrow! Bravo!!!!

  20. Harrison Jones says:

    This is an amazing article. It’s definitely given me some food for thought. The questions posed here do present quite the ethical dilemma. Do the laws truly help the Deaf Community as much as everyone seems to do? I think they can, if properly applied and argued for by all of those whom they affect, Deaf and Interpreter alike. It is however, up to us to make sure that we do not take advantage of these laws to benefit ourselves more than the Deaf Community. I would argue that as being quite unethical business practices.

    I am a recent graduate of a four-year ITP. I have just started working professionally this year, in fact. But I was lucky to have attended an ITP where the individuals I learned the language from were in fact Deaf. I also had access to a lab where I worked with Deaf tutors from the surrounding community to continue my education in ASL and various modes of sign language outside of the classroom. I was also encouraged to constantly be involved with Deaf I believe that the best way, and truly the only proper way, to learn sign language, or any language for that matter, is from a natural speaker of the language. I realize that this does pose a problem in many situations where a Deaf teacher cannot be found. The idea of whether it is better to fully support learning from a Deaf individual to the point of refusing to teach a non-Deaf individual sign language actually prevents the Deaf Community from more communicative access than if they were to learn from an interpreter was presented to me by a Deaf mentor of mine, who is very active in the Deaf Community in their area.

    I also believe that one of the most harmful things that Interpreters do to the Deaf Community is allow ourselves to be labelled as “Freelancers”. Much of my opinion on this matter was formed after reading an article by a mentor of mine (article can be found at the following URL: If we don’t continue to strive to have ourselves viewed as professionals, then we will continue to allow others to see us as a burden to their business, and through us, Deaf people as a burden as well. I personally have taken to calling myself a professional, community-based interpreter. This label has led me to actively seek out interaction with the Deaf Community as well as give back to the community in other ways, such as pro bono services in appropriate circumstances.

    I will have to do more introspection on these questions and figure out exactly where I stand and what I can do. I truly appreciate the thoughts.

    Harrison Jones

    • Bill Moody says:

      In Evans’ article, I particularly liked Lightfoot’s use not only of “private practice”, which I have used for years instead of ‘free-lance’, but also indicating our education in situations where that is expected of the participants. Too often we say, “I’m just the interpreter…”

  21. Lori Whynot says:

    Well Kudos, Dennis! This has certainly been a catalyst to the start of a worthwhile and much needed dialogue.
    Thank you again for your article, as it raises so many important issues.I hope it continues to send ripples around the pond.

    I also appreciate your work over the years on pushing to re-assess our professional code of ethics and once again, this becomes a pressing topic.
    In particular we seem to often grapple with how we interpret and apply concepts of “impartiality’, “confidentiality’, and other key tenets behind “The Code” (dramatic music: duhn, duhn, duhn!!). It’s as if these concepts hold some kind of power in a vacuum, outside of the daily lives of interpreters and Deaf people.
    The truth is, skilled, trustworthy (as deemed by Deaf people), professionally-behaving interpreters have significant ties to the Deaf community, and the key factor is about having clear boundaries about our roles in the interpreting moment and in the community moments. Professional doesn’t have to be a swear word.

    Sadly, I think many people want simple black and white answers but as we know ethical decision-making in any setting requires skillfully navigating a grey area. Perhaps we are not teaching and or practicing honestly when we say “do you want me give you the RID or standard reply to this or do you want to know what I really do in practice?”
    Most of these “true-to-life” responses to any decision in our worklife usually are influenced by the fact that we’ve seen first-hand how life is for our Deaf friends and loved ones. Stock answers such as, ” Never interpret for a Deaf friend”, are not helpful unless there is some kind of qualifying discussion around when one would interpret for a Deaf friend and when one would not.

    To the point about “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” for agencies who provide interpreters to community entities: How is it that agencies don’t have to be members of RID nor subject to penalties of community ethical scrutiny yet still get to profit from and provide to their community “legislatively mandated communicative access”??

    Is it even possible to go back and repair the fallout from the way access is mandated for a legally circumscribed, protected, ‘disabled” class of Deaf people, access that has not been described or defined by Deaf people themselves? One way may be for Deaf people and interpreters to work together to hold agencies (and ourselves) accountable to the privilege granted by mandated access laws – oh but wait that requires interpreters to risk biting the hand that feeds them and Deaf people being stuck with even more inadequate quick fix but empty interpreting. It’s depressing that the free economy doesn’t ‘trickle down’ in this case.

    So where do we go from here? This dialogue hopefully might lead to some changes, I suppose first from within, and then beyond that from the collaborative relationships between Deaf people and interpreters.

    • Dennis says:

      Lori –

      Thanks for this and your previous posting. I hope things are going well “down under” and happily we are soon to see you here in Massachusetts.

      For me two essential/central ingredients of a professional are analytic thinking and decision-making. That is why we pay doctors, lawyers or therapists for example. I continue to believe that our deontologial (rule-based) approach to our Code of Conduct (formerly Code of Ethics), does not help foster these defining competencies. I believe that if we had a rights-based (or justice-based) approach to our Code then our discussions would not be about “stock answers” but would necessitate our thinking about situations and issues from the perspective of people’s rights and what action supports justice. Our conversations would be about which actions uphold and honor people’s rights. Our conversations would be much more nuanced than the “black and white” responses to which you allude.

      Can we go back and repair the fallout? Probably unlikely; but we can—
      resolve to acknowledge the privilege we enjoy as interpreters
      resolve to refuse to willingly participate in audist activities even at our own expense
      resolve to place others before ourselves in our decision-making
      resolve to become (or remain) deeply connected to Deaf people
      resolve to be active allies working in support of Deaf people
      resolve to refuse to work for hiring entities that are not connected to Deaf people and who do not treat interpreters with respect.

      I believe it is time for us to become much more resistant to those who know little or nothing of Deaf people who would seek to (or who do) define our work.

      thanks again


      • Peggy Huber says:

        Excellent resolutions, Dennis (Dec 13, 2011 post). May I quote these?

        These are all excellent arguments, and I am silently debating all I am reading. I realize that the longer I work in this profession, the better my perspective on the social and political landscape within which I work.

        I cannot deny my position of previlege as a member of an empowered group, and I cannot ignore the effect of my work in every cicumstance. I consider myself a partner inasmuch as it is possible, while appreciating that each situation brings with it a unique dynamic. It is a constant and conscious analysis of langauge, information and power: who owns it, who has the ability to claim it and my role in how it is played out.

        We benefit from what we’ve learned in the evolution of our profession over the last 30 to 40 years that has resulted in a more sophisticated and inclusive approach to the work and its stakeholders. It is my hope that newcomers to interpreting are allowed time to develop a sense of respect and ethics in a profession which is incredibly complex before they are expected to be on their own. Mentors, both hearing and Deaf, are needed to be available, approachable and nurturing. This is another way to give back to the Deaf community that we love and support.

        Thank you for the discussion, and thank you for allowing my voice to be heard.

        • Dennis says:


          Thanks for the post. You may, indeed, quote those resolutions and hopefully move to encourage your colleges to implement them. I’m glad you are debating these issues.

          For what it’s worth, I think that as a field we have lost the central quality of humility. It is that sense of humility that reminds us that we serve others, that we are privy to the most intimate aspects of Deaf people’s lives, that Deaf people have given us an incredible gift, that others – not us – should be the focal point of our decisions and actions.

          It is my hope that newcomers to interpreting are presented with other-centered models of the work and are presented with models who are not self-serving.

          I fully agree that mentoring by both Deaf and non-Deaf people are essential to becoming a successful interpreter.

          thanks again for the post.


  22. Dawn says:

    This article and additional comments have been very thought provoking. I took the time to think specifically of myself and what I am doing in regard to these issues as well as how I teach the students in my ITP class. I am largely a community interpreter- FL, teach an evening class from time to time, and am the RID affiliate chapter president in my state. I also have a husband and 4 children. I can’t open up my schedule around every need of the Deaf community but I do as much as possible. I have been concerned about the need to ensure I keep a “Deaf heart”. I’m an odd man out because I’m not a CODA- no Deaf family at all that I know of. I also didn’t go through an ITP. I met a Deaf lady in a grocery store over 20 years ago and became friends with her. She introduced me to other Deaf and together they taught me ASL. I have always felt lucky to have learned from native users. So, now I volunteer time to a local agency providing services to Deaf victims of abuse. I am a member of my local chapter of NAD and as an AC president have advocated for all our members to join NAD and local chapters. We stay involved in volunteering for Deaf events as well. These are not things that impede my ability to be a professional in my work as an interpreter. I think this love for the Deaf community and active involvement is what I took from the article rather than thinking I need to give rides to appointments or loan money. Having said that, just recently I heard something appalling that really drives home Dennis’ point (I think). I was talking to another interpreter who schedules interpreters for various assignments. He mentioned a Deaf client had complained about an interpreter and didn’t want her to return. He said he explained to the Deaf client why he was wrong about the interpreter and the Deaf client said nonetheless he still didn’t want her. This interpreter said to me that he was irritated at the client who should be “kissing his *?! because he could send him someone worse.” I could hardly believe my ears. That is a loss of concern and heart for those we serve!

  23. Dennis says:

    Dawn -

    Thanks for the post.

    You say “I can’t open up my schedule around every need of the Deaf community but I do as much as possible”. I certainly do not and can not purport to speak for Deaf people, but I can say that all of the Deaf people I know realize that “life happens” and that there are ebbs and flows in each of our lives. I think it is clearly the “Deaf heart” that matters most. The “I want to but circumstances prevent” attitude. The “I’ll be involved as much as I can” attitude. I also think that we must acknowledge the reality that fewer and fewer of us are CODAs (I plan to post about that in the future), so apologizing for that seems, to me, unnecessary. I also think that those of us who are not CODAs have to work hard to be CODA-like — have deep roots and connections, begin to see things from a more Deaf perspective and continually work on our skills and attitudes.

    Your story ending your piece is appalling, but illustrates how we act when we do not acknowledge our position of privilege and how we have become decidedly less Deaf-centric in our work.

    thanks again


  24. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for sharing such invaluable information about “Sign Language Interpreter Complicit in a Devil’s Bargain ?”.
    I’m Deaf. Taught Interpreting Training Program. Certified Interpreter.
    As I was reading all of the comments, I’m very sad and hurt by the actions of “interpreters”.
    Lot of times, I can understand why these things are happening. But there are days when I just can’t understand….throwing my hands up in the air.
    I taught the courses of interpreting. Watched my hearing students learning to become professional interpreters. Watched them interact with deaf people at the community events. Watched them graduate from the program. As soon as they became nationally certified by RID, they just disappeared. They became very busy working as an interpreter. Interpreters set up their own “interpreting” business. I’ve watched the interpreters getting new cars, new houses, taking vacations, big weddings and shopping like a crazy. I’m so saddened to watch very FEW interpreters have “Deaf Heart”. Too many interpreters are GREED.
    There is one example that I wanted to share….
    At a public forum meeting, my student/RID certified, walked up the stage in front of all deaf people, She asked another interpreter to stand next to her, She said ” I’m here as a business owner of Interpreting Service, I’m here to speak and let other interpreter sign for me “. She said “I will not use sign language as a business owner”. She said “I will sign if it’s not related to my business”.
    I was dumbfounded !!!! Deaf people were so confused and disgusted.
    I wanted to address the issue that divide between Deaf community and Interpreter community.
    “Money” versus “Deaf Heart”.
    Is “Deaf Heart” a cultural thing that should be honored and respected ?
    Is “Money” nowadays are different than in the past due to the economic depression ? Or is it due to VRS (Video Relay Services) companies out there ?

    • Dennis says:

      Thanks for your posting.

      I, too, am saddened to see so few graduates of IEPs who develop a “Deaf Heart”. I think it comes from not being connected to Deaf people deeply enough. Your final story is really distressing – it’s one thing to open a referral business (and there are agencies with integrity) but to reject the language in front of the very people that you and your business purport to serve is unbelievable.

      I think that the decrease in “Deaf Heart” comes from many sources – business decisions, VRS, scheduling decisions, etc. I think we have to identify ways in which to find a better balance between interpreters needs and Deaf people’s needs.

      thanks again


  25. Padraigin says:

    Thank you to Dennis to initiating this fascinating and much needed discussion. I live over the pond in the UK and have been a registered qualified (certified) BSL Interpreter for over 18 years. Much of the experiences described above are prevelent over here although we do not have any legislation that absolutely compels the provision of sign language interpreters. The divergence between the Deaf community and interpreters is an ever widening chasm with no resolution in sight. I would say however that the vast majority of BSL learners are taught by Deaf people and consequently encouraged to engage with the Deaf community wherever possible. I suspect there are many who do engage during their education phase, but once able to obtain work as an interpreter they quickly see Deaf people as ‘clients’ rather than friends or allies and so the schism begins.

    Similarly here there is a move towards distancing the profession from the community and this discussion reminds me very much of a paper given at the Issues in Interpreting II conference held at Durham University, England circa 1995 by Kyra Pollitt who predicted this divergence. I remember in particular how we all howled with laughter when she produced a large drawing of the ‘professional’ interpreter with their mobile phone (quite a brick at the time) and laptop running around in a big car with no time for engagement beyond taking the next booking. How sad that this has perhaps come to pass and it certainly gives me pause for thought as I sit here typing this on my iPad2 with my iPhone next to it checking my emails and text messages as they come in so as not to miss that next vital appointment. Perhaps to qualify, or indeed apologise for, that it may be worth saying as an ex-PODA (partner of a deaf adult), I believe I continue to have a Deaf heart, enjoying the company of my Deaf friends and indeed relatives (ex-partners and their families), interpret pro-bono when I can and am still grateful for and respectful of the selfless support and encouragement I have received throughout my learning and into my career right up to the present day.

    In my time I have been fortunate to be involved with our professional body, the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI) in many capacities and wholeheartly support the notion of revisiting our codes and structures. Indeed we have often discussed how we can improve our profession in many ways, including academic and vocational routes to qualification, support mechanisms such as mentoring, better defined career structures and engagement with the Deaf community, but oftentimes we meet with the same obstacles; unwillingness to train or retrain, fear of changing the status quo, reluctance to get involved and help instigate change and certainly Audism in its most virulent forms. It is a continuing issue in this country that people who are BSL learners with absolutely zero interpreter training can register as a ‘trainee’ and be out there working solo as interpreters; the Deaf people as ‘lab-rats’ syndrome, we really must work together, by that I mean Deaf people and interpreters, to establish better systems that allow interpreters in training to shadow/observe/work in safe and supportive ways to develop that Deaf heart and knowledge/understanding of the enormity of our power and privilege with a conscious competence in how we wield it in a non Audist/interpreter as oppressor manner.

    Having now been signposted to this site, I look forward to enjoying many more debates and articles such as this and shall certainly be recommending it to fellow interpreters and Deaf people of course.


    • Dennis says:


      Thanks for the post.

      I think you are quite correct – interpreting students are often required (though one would hope it were not so) to spend time interacting with Deaf people outside the classroom. This is a good thing. Then they finish their education phase and begin to spend their workdays interpreting. Novice interpreters, often have a steep learning curve finding the correct “community balance” (those that do so). Once they begin interpreting, they often try to live their lives in black and white (ethical decisions are “according to the rules”) and they fall prey to edicts such as “impartiality and neutrality means I can’t spend time with Deaf people”). Certainly there are exceptions, but I fear this is the norm.

      One of the primary complaints about those in the medical field in this country is that when we go to them they see only a symptom not a person. They lack “bedside manner”; sadly this is now often the norm for interpreters. Not wishing to speak for Deaf people here, but I think the definition of Deaf people’s definition of bedside manner for interpreters is “Deaf heart”.

      I think you are right that we must work together to establish better systems that will better serve Deaf people. But this means that interpreters must acknowledge, as many Deaf people have, that the current system is not working for the benefit of Deaf people. I think that one critical step in this is a fuller understanding of interpreter privilege.

      thanks for posting


  26. patti says:

    “loved me upside the head” – is good but requires commitment and dialogue and trust

    to me in general folks dont often speak the truth for fear of hurting, turning off, offending, being misunderstood, being blacklisted, etc etc

    just look outside the window folks – the whole nation should be up in arms about NDAA but most folks dont even know what it is

    so im all for peaceful direct confrontation and i do agree that LOVE is powerful and is the answer so while dennis could have re-worded things “softly gently….” the way he DID has prompted this very dialogue and for the folks who aint talking but have read – it will prompt some reflection

    i do think that it is a hard dance

    Deaf folks want interpreters to be part of our community but they dont want them to be all chitty chatty and crossing the line when on the job

    but by and large with any profession and any interchange of people meeting and greeting and working and living – its the folks who can put down their defenses and say – ill do my best and i hope u will too and if any body has a problem – we commit to a safe space to talk about it

    i know that when i try to give feedback to interpreters after a situation because the situation might repeat itself – i have to do a heft amount of work saying – this aint personal and im not even sure its anything within ur realm of being able to change or improve – i just wanna process what info im getting in bits and pieces and see how we can work this out for the betterment of all

    most often the response is either:
    - defensive
    - excusing
    - self-depreciating
    - pledges of super human powers

    when really all i wanted to do is talk

    to say – this is my philosophy and approach to this experience – its bilingual / bicultural its not deaf person needs help and its not hearing ignorant needs help – its language and culture and when two or more languages or cultures meet up – there is lots of room for faux pas and cross-cultural crisis and that is why many folks prefer to make it be a DISABILITY ACCESS thing because then “hey its better than no interpreter at all”

    and we aim a bit higher and when we do it present for more uncomfortable things to be see and known and dealt with

    its hard but for me its harder to ignore it

    also i think the Deaf community really should be invited to such a dialogue – i know u havent NOT invited them but it would be cool to put this out there in venues that Deaf folks frequent

    u will get the whole gamete – interpreters are our salvation, intepreters rape our language for profit, interpreters suck, interpreters are so so but but but mostly what u will get is… appreciation

    i truly do appreciate the great care, skill, commitment that the majority of interpreters bring to our interactions

    it is an incredibly hard profession and vocation and livelihood and experience

    i also dont think Deaf folks are often in the position of having to interpret and if they were given that opportunity more often they would see just how taxing and challenging things are and they probable would also see there are a million ways to make the experience more effective and positive for everyone

    so for us too it is a fine line – how do we respect and appreciate but also still share the truth when things are less than ideal

    i think in order to “love some one up against the head” (and i totally love this phrase cuz im always telling folks – give me a gently yet firm whack on the head if im steering wrong) but in order to “love someone up against the head” we have to be within arms reach and that requires…
    being close
    and that requires…
    taking risks
    and that requires…
    making the time

    but we are worth it – all of us

    thanks much again



  27. Dale says:

    I think part of the problem is national certification. When i got to the end of your great article about how we’ve become so disconnected from the Deaf community, the FIRST thing i see about the author is “Dennis is a nationally certified interpreter and has been interpreting for over four decades”

    In an article preaching the need to get away from the business aspect of the field and get back in touch with our roots, the first thing the author wants us to know about him is that hes nationally certified and has been interpreting for 40 years. Its only later that we find out his connection to the Deaf community.

    This isn’t an attack on the author, more an attack on the certification system and the value that is placed on it. An interpreter isn’t their certification, and once hiring agencies and other interpreters stop putting so much value into it, then i would imagine lots of interpreters who get certified and then think they are “done” wouldn’t be quite so content with their current abilities.

    I’ve even see Deaf people use certification to measure whether or not an interpreter is sufficient…thats a failure.

    the first step to giving Deaf people back that power…is to stop hoarding it for ourselves.

    • Dennis says:

      Dale –

      Thanks for the post. Certainly the existence of national certification in the early seventies provided some support for national legislation. However, I don’t think that, in and of itself, national certification is the issue.
      I think the fact that a large part of the problem is that we don’t have a widely accepted valid and reliable assessment procedure and so certification results do not match “eyes on the street” judgments more frequently than should be the case.
      I also think that the alphabet soup of certification is of great concern. When there is a national level assessment of interpreting competency that is reliable and valid, the day must come when the certified membership of RID agrees to do away with all former certificates and require that all former certificate holders must be retested. Then we will no longer have a certification alphabet soup. I also do not think that holding national certification is necessarily indicative of one’s connectedness to the Deaf Community anymore than having an MD is indicative of a doctor’s bedside manner.
      I, too, have also seen Deaf people using certification to measure whether or not an interpreter is sufficient. However, none of the federal laws mandate that Deaf people have a right to an interpreter of their choosing. Since interpreters are now almost universally hired by entities that are not Deaf, appeals to certification may be the only recourse available for Deaf people to provide a readily understood indication that not all signers are interpreters.


  28. patti says:

    ohhh o forgot to ask – is there any effort for consumer based direction in the hiring and application of an interpreter. meaning any push for a Deaf person to get X amount of hours for interpreter coverage and then s/he can hire the interpreter of her/his choosing and allocate when and where etc?

    recently Louise Stern and Oliver Pouliot (US born but now reside in England) were explaining that is how the system works in the UK – the Deaf person is given X amount of hours to be covered by the govt and then they are in charge. I thought that is pretty cool.

    but since im not in the field of interpreting or interpreter training dont know if its even talked about in the US



  29. William Harkness says:

    Thank you Dennis for a very interesting article and the follow-up feedback/comments from the readers.

    I suspect that more than anything, the expectation of a sign language interpreter, today, is much higher than ever (in terms language proficiency and culture awareness). You’re being asked to tackle about 3-4 different major languages modes (Oral, SEE, ASL, and PSE)and the infinite variations that comes with each individuals that they have to transliterate/interpret for, and on top of that you’re being asked to step back from the role of an enabler to a facilitator of information.
    Simply put, Sign Language Interpreting field is evolving rapidly and the criteria established 50, 20, or even 10 years are poorly outdated. Interpreting Programs simply have not kept up one whit. It should not be a 2-3 years training program, but a fully fledged B.A. degree (with options for Masters and PhD if needed).

    In fact, I’m constantly shocked on the fact that our sign language interpreters are treated as a ‘secondary support’ system, rather than a professional one. The problem arises in the essence of how our interpreters are trained and perceived as a professional field. It’s time to notch up the academic expectation of those sign language interpreters, and emphasize three major segments

    1. Voicing
    2. Variety of Sign Language Forms
    3. Specialized Knowledge(s)

    In other words, if you want to be seen as a professional, start acting and thinking like one. One might come to the conclusion that perhaps, we should establish a two-tier interpreting program. One that focuses on interpreting at large (generic-types: AA degree equivalent) and one that require highly specialized skills and understanding (Niche-types: BA/BS+ degrees). It should be taught by someone with a doctorate in Sign Language Interpretation, not someone who just happens to know sign language (and happens to be fluent at it) nor happens to have a background in Deaf Culture studies. If you want to be treated like a professional, expect professional education training/upbringing to back you up. Accept no substitution, period.

    The deaf professionals (i.e. moi) are starting to come out in full force and creating what I call a “virtual white/black list” of qualified interpreters in their respective field. I have my own little cute list with interpreters that I am willing to work with. Sadly, out of roughly 200 interpreters that I’ve worked with in the past, only 5 made it to my “white-list”. The quality of the interpreting field as a whole at this point is shameful and disgusting.

    That’s why I’m relying on everybody on this list to up their game and expect nothing but the best for their own profession. You are a direct reflection of the client that you work for, period.

  30. Liana says:

    I am from across the pond like Padraigin back in the UK and I just felt I had to post a response. I agree with what William says, in that similar to the US I feel that UK interpreter training also needs improvement.

    Many Deaf professionals in the London area (this is where I am based and so cannot comment on other areas of the UK) also have their own list of ‘preferred’ interpreters who they like working with/have knowledge of their job and so on. I would be exactly the same if I used interpreters. In the UK we have a system called Access to Work which as you say Patti assesses and then awards the Deaf person x number of interpreting support hours at x pounds per hour and then they choose how to spend this money. This could be compiling their own list of interpreters and contacting them directly, or it could be passing this over to an agency who then manages it for the Deaf person with their imput. The system has it’s flaws and it can be inconsistent, but as a concept it is a great thing and has been fantastic for many Deaf people.

    I’m not sure how interpreters are paid for/provided in the US, but in the UK there has been a lot of changes in contracts which is a major discussion over here at the moment. Contracts have been awarded to some spoken language agencies who lack the more specialist knowledge about sign language interpreting and have been providing people who have only basic qualifications in BSL. The professional association over here, ASLI is currently doing a lot of work in terms of raising awareness of the risks this can put Deaf people under, especially in the medical domain.

    We need to be professional, but we need to be flexible and we also need to be personable just as you would in any other profession. We stand together and even one bad apple reflects upon us all. I hope that the Deaf community know how much we reflect and question ourselves and each other about dilemmas and how we conduct ourselves in our work. I would like to think that most of us are very conscientious. I am always open to learning and know that I have much to learn.

    I have Deaf friends, some of whom are also my clients. I do pro-bono work to give back and I also support Deaf events. A commitment to continuing professional development is essential, not only for bettering ourselves, but also in showing the Deaf people we work with and for that we value ourselves and the relationship we have with them. Peer Supervision groups are also a good way of sharing best practice and discussing dilemmas with others.

    This is such a wide topic, encompassing many underlying issues in the profession right now. I have probably not articulated myself as well as I could have, but I wanted to say how important it is for us to know what is expected of us. Thank you for this very interesting discussion.

    • Dennis says:

      Liana -

      Thanks for the post. The “interpreter allocation system” you describe in the UK is, to my understanding, similar to that used in Italy. The difficuluty I have with such a system is that it perpetuates the notion that Deaf people need interpreters (afterall they are given the allowance to hire them). It seems to me that it is hard to convince those who are not Deaf that THEY need interpreters as much as Deaf people do under such a system. Thus, under such a system it becomes even more difficult to convince the general public that Deaf people are not disabled.

      thanks again


  31. Ken Rust says:

    Dennis: After all these years of working in the field and having you as one of the most important resources as I moved through the last 38 years from establishing programs to retirement you still are providing the field with so much to think about I can only agree with almost all of the postings above. Our profession has profited from your contributions. Thanks for one more concept to think about.

    • Dennis says:


      Thanks for the kind words and thanks for your contributons to the field of interpreting and ASL teaching over the last four decades. I think that we must constantly ask ourselves challenging questions in order to advance the field.


  32. Janay says:

    Can you please share with me the source for the statistic of 49% of nationally credentialed sign language interpreters spend less than 10% of their time socializing with Deaf people?
    Thank you

  33. Gail K Kemp says:

    Very well put! Thank you!

  34. Tamara Moxham says:

    I have to bring this up – but then I have my helmet on. Ready? Deaf people aren’t interpreters unless they are interpreters. What? That’s right. I teach in an interpreter training program (which has been cut – we are dead program walking – thank you economy). Those students who did not have ties to the Deaf, deaf, or in our case here in Seattle – deaf-blind communities before entering our program often don’t realize that not all deaf people know how to use interpreters.

    The days Dennis wrote of are gone. In those days most Deaf people attended ASL and Deaf culturally-rich environments. We didn’t see the culture and language losses we see today. We didn’t see the kids growing up with language models of one – who are often hearing and sometimes know less sign language than hearing kids watching Linda on Sesame Street. Trephining babies wasn’t big business.

    My students are exposed to Deaf people who are either Deaf interpreters, and/or bilingual/bicultural, highly educated self-actualized individuals. They are also their teachers. It often doesn’t occur to them that when deaf people in the community ask them to do something it may be A: unethical, B: physically impossible, C: damaging to the interpreting community (think of the next interpreter) (but the last interpreter explained my homework to me and interpreted the after school program for four hours alone!)and D: downright dangerous that they may not know what they’re talking about professionally.

    Well – the local deaf Microsoft and Boeing workers are great professionals when you ant to know about computers and airplanes, but if you want to know about interpreting, come to my colleagues and I – we’re interpreters, and some of us even have degrees in teaching interpreters.

    Now that interpreters are getting degrees to become interpreters we have to make enough money to pay back the student loans. I say this as someone who is not a CODA, and who does interact with the Deaf (and deaf for that matter) communities. I always cringe when I see a quote by a Deaf professional proudly declaring that s/he only hires CODAs for the culturally rich value they bring to their interpretation they bring. I can only think “THERE’S a law-suit waiting to happen!”. Of the range of interpreters I’ve ever seen in my 20 years the worst are untrained CODAs, and the very best bar-none are trained CODAs. This is an important lesson.

    We need to heed what Dennis is saying and carefully study the patterns of the past and see what the Deaf and deaf stakeholders can tell us about their needs, and let’s don’t throw out the interceding years of research and education that has shown us how important education is. Something tells me that a hybrid approach is best…

  35. Two quick comments:
    Interpreters allies invest daily into the Deaf/HH/DB communities in ways that may not be officially recognized.

    Opportunity cost. It is important to recognize that interpreters have chosen interpreting, are passionate about their work and the communities they serve and have forgone often much more lucrative consistent work with benefits.

    Shelly Hansen SC:L
    WA state

  36. Zanna says:

    Not sure if this discussion is live, but here is the link to Dr. Jules Dikinson’s linked in page, with a list of her publications.

  37. Danny says:

    Thank you for another thought provoking article. As i read the many comments to your article and the thread of issues raised ( Deaf ed,ITP ed, interpreted elementary ed, lack of Interpreters personal connections to the community they work with, vrs, vri, mainstreaming and on and on)its clear to me that much of this would be resolved if true political power was in the hands of the Deaf community. In my dream the deaf community would create and operate; Deaf Education, ITP programs, VRI/VI agencies, Interpreter certification standards, interpreting agencies, CI implant clinics, early asl language aqusition programs and more. Having worked at a Deaf school as an Interpreter now for more than 20 years I have seen it all. Every decision I make, I make in the light of what is right for the Deaf community.

  38. Jodi says:

    Dennis – Thank you for the thought-provoking article. I’m an ITP student and am interested in reading the full survey you referred to in your article: But now according to a national survey 49% of nationally credentialed sign language interpreters spend less than 10% of their time socializing with Deaf people; only 20% of us are members of NAD and only 8% of us are members of their state association of the Deaf.

    Thanks for letting me know where I might find access to it.

  39. Bruce Wheelock says:

    I am a hearing member of an organization in the United States the prizes members’ anonymity. For the last three years I have been serving in a language coordinator position, arranging for sign language interpreters for group settings of anywhere from 20 to 900 persons. To those familiar with this whole arena, it is obvious that professional interpreters must be used. Communication by any other means is impractical. Interpretation in those settings must be concurrent throughout. And what is said cannot be shared with anyone afterward; it is occasionally necessary for someone in my position to assure others that interpreters operate under a code of confidentiality and anonymity that makes our lot look like blabbermouths.

    One thing I have learned is that we need professionals for other reasons. One of these is the positive side of the “devil’s bargain.” A volunteer interpreter has no incentive to show up as promised beyond the willingness to keep one’s word. For the professional interpreter, it is a business commitment, and failing to appear has monetary consequences.

    Beyond this, frequently the speaker in a group setting is not clearly visible to the Deaf members. Other people may be the way, or the speaker might be on the far side of a large auditorium. In those cases, the interpreter is tasked with conveying not only the words spoken, but the emotional content and intent as well, and has to do it on-the-fly. Experience has shown that fluent hearing signers, even CODAs, are frequently unable to do this well.

    Then there is the question of faithful interpretation. Amongst us there are wildly variable viewpoints on a number of things, including religion and non-religion. Also, a not infrequent occurrence of … shall we say … colorful adult language. I’ve yet to meet a professional yet who filters out such things, while Deaf people have told me that non-professionals do that quite a bit.

    One other thing I will say. While I understand that professional sign language interpreters today are not vetted by the Deaf community, we have compensated for that in my area of the country, as have others elsewhere. There is a small subset of interpreters here who’ve worked with us for years, often freelancing for less money than they get with an agency. Although hearing members of the committee make interpreter arrangements, the Deaf community has always been good about letting us know their feelings about individual interpreters. And we always try to book interpreters based upon that feedback. Now, I don’t know how often this occurs in other organizations, but it means that in ours, Deaf members do vet the interpreters we use. Obviously, building up a body of interpreters known to us didn’t happen overnight, it’s been part of our reality for years, and it is tremendously valuable.

  40. Marlene Baron says:

    Excellent article. I’ve only completed ASL 2 and am already being told how, as an intepreter, I’m not to be involved with the Deaf person. I find that hard to understand. I’m involved with a small Deaf community and have friends within it. I love talking with these ladies; they are so funny, joy-filled and fun to be with. They are patient with me and show me signs that I don’t know. I am told, from both Deaf and hearing people (within the interpreter college world) to spend as much time with the Deaf as possible. I’ll learn best there. But it is so much more than learning ASL; it’s all about relationship. Thanks, Dennis for your article.

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