Sign Language Interpreting: The Danger of the Idea That Transformed the Profession

Decades have seen the sign language interpreting profession quietly transformed by a single, powerful idea—sign language interpreters are professionals.  This single idea has created the momentum necessary to move the field from a hand written list of volunteers to a vast web of public and private entities, interest groups and regulation—an industry.

Is it possible that the power of this ideal has left us, the sign language interpreter, with a dangerous blind spot when engaging with the broader industry? Meaning, has the dogged determination to qualify as a profession prevented us from seeing what is necessary to effectively govern one?

What follows are a few things that gave me pause as I considered this possibility.


It occurs to me that the opportunities and threats faced by our profession is no longer the result of industry stakeholders (consumers, sign language interpreters, associations, businesses, service providers, educational institutions) being divided, but rather as a result of them being connected.  One might consider the sweeping impact FCC VRS reform has had, and will yet have, on the sign language industry as an example.  If this interconnectivity is real, and I believe we have examples to demonstrate that it is, we could logically conclude that the industry has evolved into an integrated system of stakeholders; where each is directly or indirectly impacted by the action of another.

If the industry is in fact integrated, wouldn’t the very basis of our engagement with other stakeholders need to change? Might this suggest that we are attempting to address current issues with an antiquated approach.

If yes, have we, the profession, stumbled over our own feet?

Weak Engagement

In seeking the specialized knowledge and skills to qualify as a profession and as professionals, it occurs to me that we appear to be failing to prioritize an important aspect of our long-term viability—expert knowledge of the broader industry.  One might consider state licensure laws passing in the face of outraged interpreters as an example of why this is gives me pause.

Is late or weak engagement by sign language interpreters on broader industry issues because we are indifferent to what occurs around us or is it that we are simply unaware that the issues even exist?  Or, is it because we don’t have the know-how to obtain the information needed to form an opinion? Worse yet is it our view that, “there is no industry without the interpreter” and it will work itself out?

If we are unable to effectively form an opinion and engage on industry related issues ourselves, is it possible to collaborate with industry stakeholders on broader issues?

In my view, for the profession to be effective long-term, ignorance can’t possibly be bliss in this instance.

Sparse Information

In an environment where the stakes are high and the pace of change quick, it seems important that sign language interpreters are able to quickly equip themselves with information.  Do we have the channels necessary to effectively deliver information across the profession and industry?  Can these channels effectively mobilize interpreters if necessary?  If no, does that suggest our infrastructure is insufficient to effectively administer the profession?

If we don’t have an infrastructure of size, does it mean we have information siloes and expensive duplications of effort brewing?

What I do know is that if people don’t have sufficient information to form an opinion regarding the system they are part of, they will feel overwhelmed by it, homogenized by it, and/or unwilling to invest in it.

I don’t believe interpreters are any different.

A Refocus

As a profession, we have made great strides over the past 40+ years.  Again, the early momentum of the sign language interpreting profession was possible because of our dogged determination to be recognized as a profession.

In my view, we need to refocus this determination on a few things.

How to:

-Leverage our interconnectivity to other industry stakeholders

-Remain aware of industry threats and opportunities in real-time

-Effectively distribute information across the profession and industry

-Extend our passion for skill development to the acquisition of broader knowledge

A focus on these items will assist us in effectively navigating the challenges of administering the profession long-term, which I believe is necessary if we are to maintain our position and success within the industry.

Is there other action we should consider?


Tags: , , , , , ,

About the Author

Brandon is a nationally certified sign language interpreter and passionate industry entrepreneur. He has worked on both the practicing and business sides of the industry for the past 15 years. His father is deaf and his mother is a sign language interpreter. He is a devoted father and husband and enjoys the sport of triathlon.

16 Enlightened Replies

Trackback  •  Comments RSS

Sites That Link to this Post

  1. 4 Obsessions of a Qualified Sign Language Interpreter | Street Leverage | October 18, 2012
  1. Bill Moody says:

    Do you really think that the SL interpreting industry has evolved into an integrated system of stakeholders? Are you giving us too much credit as an interconnected body of professionals/stakeholders with similar goals? Do we sign language interpreters, consumers, associations, businesses, service providers, and educational institutions really agree on our goals? Do we even agree on the definition of “professional” (neutral, engaged, or ‘it depends on the situation’)?

    Seems to me we are still pretty divided: Is money/career-as-an-interpreter AS important, MORE important, or LESS important than supporting the Deaf community? What, in fact, is the Deaf community? Do we really agree on even that?

    Or are you simply suggesting that we communicate more effectively with each other to face quickly-changing realities in the industry?

    • Bill,

      Thanks for your comments. As always, they are thought provoking and deepen the discussion.

      Let me start by sharing the concept of interconnectivity that I was using when I drafted the piece. I believe it will help frame my comments here.

      Interconnectivity, according to Wikipedia, is defined as a concept that all parts of a system interact with and rely on one another simply by the fact that they occupy the same system, and that a system is difficult or sometimes impossible to analyze through its individual parts considered alone.

      With that shared, I do actually think industry stakeholders are part of a larger system that interconnects them. In my mind, it is the various roles sign language interpreters, consumers, associations, businesses, service providers, and educational institutions play as part of this broader system that defines if and when their goals align. Further, to me, interconnectivity doesn’t suggest that stakeholders have come to any type of consensus relative to the definition of these roles or agreement to any particular goal.

      It is my view that each stakeholder has a concept of what the other’s role is generally, but their true interest ends at the point at which it no longer impacts their section of the system.

      Again, I do believe that there are points, depending on who is connected to whom, when interests align and it is to the benefit of those stakeholders to collaborate and represent a particular position. An example might be when consumer groups and sign language interpreters join forces to prevail upon legislators to block and/or highlight the impact of pending legislation.

      To your question regarding communicating more effectively among stakeholders to address quickly changing realities, this is definitely needed. I do believe that before effective collaboration can occur, stakeholders, particularly sign language interpreters, need to truly understand the position and role of other stakeholders. This will better position us when seeking to support our positions in the broader industry.

      Gone are the days where we can approach stakeholders and demand our needs and interests be recognized.

      Thanks for the joining the discussion, Bill.


      • Stephanie Feyne says:


        I’d like to know who you think is interconnected – and who the stakeholders are – as that would help frame my response.

        What I’m seeing is that as our career became less connected to the Deaf community, and more “professionalized”, that we lost our interconnectivity.

        Concomitantly, we saw the growth of language agencies taking the referral responsibility from the Deaf and coda gatekeepers and into the hands of people who do not know the Deaf community and cannot evaluate the skills of interpreters in any of the areas they send them: legal, educational, medical, social services, etc.

        Ironically, it seems the more “professionalized” and distant from the community, the less interconnected we are, and with the onset of profit (rather than service) as a motive for agencies, the more divided we have become.

        Unfortunately, I don’t know how to connect the stakeholders – how do we empower the Deaf consumers of interpreting services to be equal stakeholders to the hearing business owners? And more importantly, to the organizations that hire the agencies? There are so many layers between the Deaf consumers and the agencies that provide interpreters.

        Ought interpreters refuse to work for unethical agencies until they come to the table with Deaf people? Who would those Deaf people be? Only the college grads? How do grass roots consumers even get connected with the institutions that hire the agencies that hire the interpreters to provide service?

        If it is a profit motive that drives agencies, how do they even see the end consumer as a stakeholder?

        I would love for us to be more community based again – but I wonder how stakeholders actually figure in the business model?

        Please help me understand where we can go with interconnectivity.


        • Stephanie,

          Thanks for your comment and contributing to the discussion. My apologies for the delay in responding here.

          In response to your question to identify industry stakeholders and how they are interconnected, let me offer an over simplified example (note, I am only identifying a portion of the stakeholders that dot the landscape of the industry).

          Stakeholders: Deaf community, sign language interpreters, VRS providers, and the FCC.

          Interconnection: The D/deaf community is dependent on sign language interpreters, VRS providers and the FCC in order to obtain access to the nation’s telecommunications system. Sign language interpreters are dependent on D/deaf community, VRS providers, and the FCC in order to secure a desired employment opportunity. VRS providers are dependent on the D/deaf community, sign language interpreters, and the FCC in order to achieve their business aims. The FCC is dependent on the D/deaf community, sign language interpreters, and VRS providers in order to achieve its goal of delivering access to the nation’s telecommunication infrastructure.

          In my mind, regardless of the goal alignment or relationships these stakeholders currently have, or have shared in the past, if one is removed from the system that portion of the system fails and each party to the broader system is now unable to serve their interests.

          Regarding your comment that we have lost our interconnectivity as a result of being less connected to the Deaf community and more professionalized, I would agree with you to a point.

          It is my view that it is because the industry has evolved into a system of interconnected stakeholders that it is even possible for sign language interpreters and the D/deaf community to be less “connected”, yet still serve each others’ interests. While some may interpret that as a progression to a more professional position (as a coda, it pains me to say that), there is clearly a depth of meaning and intent behind the individual and collective delivery of service that is lost, which is what I believe you were pointing at.

          It highly unfortunate, but the intimate relationship the D/deaf community and sign language interpreters previously shared appears to be one of the casualties of moving from being partners in advocating to form and legitimize a system to now being fellow stakeholders in that system.

          Is there anything we can do to resuscitate this relationship?

          Unfortunately, the question is a difficult one. It is my feeling that this loss of intimacy is the key reason that stakeholders need to make it a priority to be aware of each others’ goals and interests in order to understand how their actions, in the name of servicing their interests, impacts other stakeholders and the system as a whole. In my mind, we can learn a lot from the plight of human beings to understand their carbon footprint.

          If as a profession, we become more sensitive to our “practicing footprint” (i.e. sensitive to the impacts our activities advocating for advances in the profession and managing and delivering services have on the broader industry and its stakeholders) and work to ensure we are not inadvertently treading upon the community we serve and the stakeholders that play a necessary role in our ability to serve our interests long-term, we will likely find ourselves forming and reinforcing the relationships of respect needed to be successful.

          I believe with some significant introspection as a field, we will discover that our position within this interconnected system has the greatest potential to unite industry stakeholders and suspend chaos. We simply need to consciously choose to use our position to the benefit of the system, which will in turn secure our position and the position of those we serve long-term.

          Thanks for your thoughts, Stephanie.


  2. Kendra says:

    I believe we do need to communicate more effectively with each other, as you say, and to several ends. All that you have stated, Brandon – Leverage our interconnectivity to other industry stakeholders, remain aware of industry threats and opportunities in real-time, effectively distribute information across the profession and industry, extend our passion for skill development to the acquisition of broader knowledge – and to continue to assess our impact on and relationship with the profession and each other. It calls to mind Ella Lentz’ poem “The Dogs” – divided and remembering we are, if not chained, are definitely relationally ‘tethered’, consciously or not…and thus impact each other. I’ve gotten caught up in the survival of the moment and hardly been able to focus on the long term, much less others or the profession at large. Thanks for the great questions for thought.

    • Kendra,

      Thanks for your comments and contributions to StreetLeverage.

      You mentioned that you’ve, “gotten caught up in the survival of the moment and hardly been able to focus on the long term, much less others or the profession at large.”

      How would you suggest we penetrate the madness of “survival” to slow things down enough to put into perspective that the desperate measures we go to now to survive have a cost that will come due in the future?


      • Kendra says:

        I think as Anna Witter Merithew has stated in the most recent article here, to have a reflective practice of some sort. The structured, regular time in practice of examining my work can help with looking at the costs in the long run and how to create change. I also think forums such as this for keeping informed of industry trends and the distribution of information are an important resource, as well as for keeping us in discussion with each other. I appreciate that you are willing to ask challenging questions and encourage others to do the same. As an interpreter educator, I am speaking to these issues in the classroom and asking students to encourage conversations with their mentors and intern supervisors as well. It feels like a very small drop in a very large bucket. I keep working on looking at the effect of my decisions on others and the profession at large and try to engage in this type of discussion when the opportunity arises, especially about the repercussions of working from fear and a scarcity mentality.

  3. sandra bartiromo says:

    There are many issues to consider in response to the deficits mentioned in this article. I’m glad to see that we are finally looking at the bigger picture than just interpreting and the isolation of this mind set. We need to look at one issue at a time and that will probably lead to other sub issues within. But I want to say that we may implode if we don’t do it soon. Let’s look at the ethos that interpreters believe are true, when in fact they may not be true at all.

  4. Milie Stansfield says:

    Brandon…could you give specific example , ESP as relates to threats/ opportunities.

    Are you suggesting this kind of broader exposure be included in training programs?. Or post certification CEUs?
    Thanks for your contribution.

    • Milie,

      Thanks for your contribution.

      The most impactful threat, in my mind, currently confronting the field is the VRS reform occurring at the FCC (I authored a post on this issue that I linked to in the piece above). In my mind, this reform threatens to shake the foundation of the profession. You might be asking how that is possible.

      The introduction of large sums of VRS investor monies has served to stimulate the growth of every aspect of our industry. Associations and educational institutions have received significant donations, which funds programs and events. Interpreters have seen rates and opportunities abound, which has increased their quality of life. Company’s delivering services in and to the market have seen significant growth in their revenues.

      Unfortunately, all of this expansion has come with a price tag, dependence.

      As a profession, we have become entirely dependent on these donations in order to assemble and sustain this expansion.

      Imagine what is going to occur as donations dwindle and even evaporate? Parts of the system will begin to fail. You will see, as is being seen now, the depression of rates for interpreters (both in community and VRS), company’s going bankrupt and a regression in policies and practices as a field (interpreters willing to work under unhealthy terms in order to survive, entities discontinuing important programs, etc).

      The challenge here is that as the system begins to fail, people are and will begin to panic. They will begin doing bold, even desperate, things to maintain their interests.

      As a profession, we have to share the responsibility for the current state of affairs. While we can’t prevent the failure of certain components of the profession, the question is can we elbow a place to the table and prevent the erosion of our standard practices and policies.

      To your question about where this exposure should occur. I believe that as a profession we should require that interpreters have instruction regarding the broader industry trends and the role stakeholders play in the sign language interpreter economy. I believe this instruction can and should occur in both training programs and as a CEU requirement. Perhaps, the professional studies portion of the CMP should require .8 CEU’s of this type broader industry of instruction.

      How would you suggest we require this type of instruction?

      Thanks for joining the discussion.


  5. Kati Lakner says:

    Hello Brandon,

    this is just a quick note to let you know that I’m reading both your article and this conversation with huge interest although on the other side of the Atlantic…

    The service system(s) we have in Finland are naturally quite different from yours (not to mention the society in general!), as is the size of sign language using population as well as the interpreter population. The history of the profession is a few decades shorter, too, but we seem to be going through very similar stages here and I must say the disconnection with the community is very very worrying. The 18 years I’ve worked as a sign language interpreter have shown clear turning points leading to the very disconnectedness you describe.

    You’ve all given me plenty of food for my thought. Have to chew a little more to see where I stand in the picture. But I want to thank you all for the introduction to this and all the other interesting topics!

    Best regards,

    Kati Lakner

    • Kati,

      You are very welcome. Thanks for joining the discussion.

      I believe it is in the discussion of these topics that the greatest benefit is found.

      If I could have a 10 minute chat with our young profession 12 years ago, I would sit down beside her and say, it is important that you get and remain organized because every step of progress has a cost and you want to be sure each step is worth the spend. I would end with, don’t lose sight of the community that endowed you with the language of your craft and the meaning of the important work you will do.

      If you were to have the same opportunity, what would you say?

      Again, thanks for joining the discussion.


  6. Cheryl says:

    Hello Brandon:

    I very much enjoyed reading this piece. I must say it is refreshing to read something that addresses the “big picture”. All too often we become quickly absorbed in only what we perceive as affecting us personally at the moment. After reading this article I began to think about something that I had tabled for many years.

    Where there is a “ying” there is a “yang”. What one person perceives as a “good thing” for the profession another might perceive as a “yang”. An example of this is from an above post reiterated by others.

    “Ironically, it seems the more “professionalized” and distant from the community, the less interconnected we are, and with the onset of profit (rather than service) as a motive for agencies, the more divided we have become.”

    I believe (I hope) that the “distant” referred to above, is not from society in general but rather the “profession” of interpreting from the Deaf community.

    The Deaf community has rightfully pushed society and by extension the interpreting field to set standards and regulation on this field of “service”. The need for qualified and professional interpreters who are both ethical and knowledgeable was and still is dire. Out of the necessity to address this need came the explosion of the profession. One above post addressed the move from the CODAS and those who have a personal intimate association with the deaf to the “professionalism” system that we now have as being something that is a contributing factor to the disconnectivity and lack of cohesive “vision” to the movement toward “professionalism”. I feel his thinking is definitely correct. However, that is part of the “yang” thing I’m referring to. From a diverse society, with each looking out for their personal best interests we will never have a total 100% consensus on what is the best approach to take for the benefit of all.

    Example: If we maintain that only those who have a personal intimate vested interest in the deaf community be the number one factor for determining the evolution of the “profession” of interpreting what would quickly happen? Others who do not share that view would leave the profession and the deaf community would be clamoring for more equal access services like VRS. (just an example) I’m not picking on the gentlemens views. I happen to feel that they are a genuine observation. It’s just an example of the “ying” and “yang”.

    I have been interpreting for over 22 years and have watched the very things described in this article unfold before my very eyes.

    The encouragement put forth in the article, I believe, was to stimulate interpreters and the deaf community to look at our connection with society as a whole, not just within the deaf/interpreter community as being crucial to the survival of the deaf/interpreter community period. The example put forth in the article is proof that this has and is already happening. Are we ready to deal with the rest of the world who has already been doing this sort of thing for some time? I believe this is a very, very valid question. If we the deaf/interpreter community do not refocus our vision beyond our own group we could be shooting ourselves in the foot. We will not be prepared or have a structure capable of dealing with the fact of life that we are becoming more and more dependent on not only each other within our own group but also others outside our group.

    One huge factor to remember is “he who controls the money has the power”. As long as the deaf/interpreter groups are dependent upon federal or government money to furnish our own demands for equal access and “professional” recognition we will be at the mercy of people outside of our personal experience regulating what we receive and how it is used. i.e. vrs etc. No where in history will you find that money is handed out “card blanche”.
    So, do we need to be careful what we ask for or do we acknowledge and accept that we give up control when we are dependent on government money to meet our demands?

    I believe that this big wheel is and has been in motion for sometime and doubtful that we will ever be able to steer it toward our deaf/interpreter “best interest” 100%. But I do like the question put forth through this article as to whether we the deaf/interpreting community are even “aware” of that connectivity and dependence or are we stuck with “tunnel vision”?

    Cudos to you for taking on a subject like this. Please continue to write and contribute. Although, I confess that my thinking is jaded from years of watching “human nature”. It’s the first time in years that I’ve paused to think about things like this again.

  7. Will White says:

    Hello Brandon,

    I am quite pleased to read your article. Your explanation of the cost of growth really hit home with me. More specifically your allegory about sitting down with the profession. When my wife and I started mentoring fellow interpreters we thought long and hard about why we were doing it. We both felt that it was important to give back to the community what the community was so willing to give to us. At our very first presentation about mentoring we emphasized that we wanted all future interpreters to not be as good as we are, we want them to be so much better than we could hope to be.

    We want interpreters to have an appreciation for the honor that comes from being allowed to interpret between people, the level of trust that comes when people entrust us with their personal information, and most importantly to remember that we depend upon the community as much as they depend upon us.

    I wonder though what you would identify as the nexus of this interconnectivity. Is it the interpter, the D/deaf person, or the hearing person? Could it be that you cannot establish the nexus on any one of these individuals but instead must have, at a minimum, all three to create the central point of connection? I can see potential cases being made for all, however those cases seem to fall apart in the absence of the other two. What do you think is the smallest point of interconnectivity that we should focus on?

Post a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *