Interprenomics: A Decoder Ring for Sign Language Interpreters

Wing ButlerAt some point every sign language interpreter is faced with the task of valuing and selling their art. As a craftsperson, the value of a sign language interpreter’s work is not found in the dollars and cents of a transaction, but in the impact their work has on the person receiving it.

Faced with the challenging task of valuing their art when compared to their peers, it is easy to see why sign language interpreters often possess business related skills that are underdeveloped or worse, non-existent.

To successfully decode the conflict–real or perceived–of balancing the art and the business sides of sign language interpreting industry, interpreters need to be familiar with the concepts and exercises that offer context and insight into the value of their work.

Enter, interprenomics.

Big Bang Theory – The Interpreting Economy

In order to understand interprenomics, it is important to consider the zone of primary events that are responsible for the foundations of the sign language interpreting economy—the formation of the sign language interpreting industry.

  • Founding of Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID): The beginning of professional standards, practices, and certification for sign language interpreters.
  • Enacting of Federal Laws: The Education of the Deaf Act (1986), The Rehabilitation Act (1973), Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Reauthorization 1997), Americans with Disabilities Act (1990). These laws embedded the role of the sign language interpreter in mainstream America.
  • Reimbursement of Video Relay Services: In 2002 the U.S. FCC begins the reimbursement of interstate VRS providers via the interstate TRS fund.

Without the resulting reaction and expansion of these events coming together, the economic disposition of the sign language interpreter would be less of an explosion of opportunity and more of a slow creep toward legitimacy.

Interprenomics

There is power in using timely and relevant information to act. Interprenomics is the examination of the availability, compensation and purchasing of sign language interpreting services.  Like decoding sudoku, understanding interprenomics assists sign language interpreters in decoding the challenges of placing value on their art and making sound business decisions.

Components of Interprenomics:

  • Availability: the number of sign language interpreters, the availability of the various types of credentialed interpreters, how and why certain interpreters are selected for the work.
  • Compensation: how the income and the opportunity (short and long-term) to earn it is distributed among sign language interpreters and/or the agencies that hire them.
  • Purchasing: the transaction between individuals and/or organizations to buy sign language interpreting services.

             * More detail on the components/application of interprenomics can be found below.

Simply, interprenomics is the examination of the buying and selling of sign language interpreting services.

Availability

The Big Bang that created the sign language interpreting economy has traditionally afforded interpreters the advantage in the supply vs. demand equation–known as availability.

Availability, as defined in interprenomics, is the single greatest factor impacting economic opportunities for sign language interpreters. To understand availability positions an interpreter to be more successful in representing themselves and their rate of pay within their local interpreting economy.  There are four inescapable drivers of availability and only one can be true at any given moment:

1.  If demand increases and interpreter supply remains unchanged, it leads to higher interpreter wages and more opportunity.

2.  If demand decreases and interpreter supply remains unchanged, it leads to lower interpreter wages and less opportunity.

3.  If interpreter supply increases and demand remains unchanged, it leads to lower interpreter wages and less opportunity.

4.  If interpreter supply decreases and demand remains unchanged, it leads to higher interpreter wages and more opportunity.

As mentioned, in large part sign language interpreters have experienced Availability driver #1.  This scarcity of supply driven by legislation has ensured interpreters a rich wage and abounding opportunity. Consequently, sign language interpreters have, until recently, enjoyed an above the average median wage.

Compensation

Compensations is the flow of greenbacks that support the local sign language interpreting economy. For the purpose of interprenomics, compensation is the total revenues (i.e. monies) generated in a local interpreting economy and its distribution among sign language interpreters and the agencies that hire them.

Understanding how this compensation is divvied up between these local interpreting economy stakeholders can do four things for a sign language interpreter:

  • Determine if the amount of work accessed by an interpreter is appropriate given the total amount of work being performed in a local area.
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  • Determine where work is most readily available and who is receiving it.
  • Identify which opportunities are most financially beneficial given the time investment.
  • Gain insight into the appropriateness of a rate being paid or charged by an interpreter.

There is power in the context provided by understanding the compensation dynamics of a local interpreting economy. Particularly, if what Brandon Arthur stated in his article, Will Sign Language Interpreters Remain Silent of VRS Reform, regarding falling compensation, under valued credentials, and supply exceeding demand holds true.

To apply interprenomics to your work be sure to read the Use Interprenomics section below.

Purchasing

The temperature gauge of any local interpreting economy is Purchasing. The act of customers buying validates the true value of an interpreter’s availability and the compensation that is distributed as a result.  Measuring the trends associated with purchasing provides an interpreter with a general indication of the health of their local interpreting economy.

Purchasing trends give sign language interpreters insight into:

  • The competitiveness of the service offering made by individual interpreters and agencies.
  • The frequency, volume, and costs at which services are bought and sold.
  • What customers find compelling about the service delivery experience.

The value of this type of information to the local sign language interpreter is that it assists them in aligning their service offerings with the core values of their paying customer.

Using Interprenomics

The power of interprenomics is contained in its application. While some sign language interpreters remain content with a “wait and see” approach, others are compelled to seek opportunities to act and in so doing improve their position in their local sign language interpreting economy.

For those sign language interpreters seeking to improve their position, the following two-step process will assist them in leveraging interprenomics to more effectively navigate their local interpreting economy to better ends.

Step One: Gather Information to Create Context

In order for sign language interpreters to align themselves more effectively with their customer’s core values, they must first gain an understanding of their current position in their local marketplace. In order to do this, one must gather sufficient and detailed information to answer the following questions:

In relation to Availability:

  • How many interpreters and agencies am I competing with?
  • How many hours per week am I working?
  • How many hours on average are interpreters in the area working per week?
  • What is the total number of hours worked throughout the local area?
  • What is the range and average rate of pay for interpreters and agencies in the area?

In relation to Compensation:

  • How much money is spent annually on sign language interpreting in your local area?
  • What credentials and skillsets do interpreters/agencies have who get the most of the work?
  • Calculate Compensation using the following formula below:

Total Number of Interpreters x Hours of Interpreter Availability = Local Economy Compensation

Example: 30 interpreters x  32 hrs/wk = 960 hrs/week

In relation to Purchasing:

  • What are the core values of my customers?
  • Do I embody the core values of my customer and meet their skillset expectations?
  • What do customers and interpreting agencies want in a sign language interpreters?
  • Is what I offer competitive? Is my rate of pay competitive?
  • Do I have as much works as my fellow colleagues?

While challenging, the genuine examination of the information gathered will assist a sign language interpreter to use interprenomics and reposition themselves within their local interpreting economy.

Step Two: The Evaluation & Repositioning Process

An examination of the information gathered will identify a baseline of competitive points among local interpreters. This baseline will provide an interpreter with the ability to evaluate their competitive position on the various aspects of their service offering.

If a sign language interpreter determines their service offering is not competitive, it becomes necessary to begin the repositioning process.  In addition to challenging the assumptions on the various points of competition, sign language interpreters also have to confront the assumptions on their skillset, personal brand, rates and practices, and the current value of certification.

This confrontation is essential in order to enhance their competitive edge.

Additional areas worthy of challenging assumption:

  • Hourly rate competitiveness
  • Level of professionalism
  • Likability and soft-skills
  • Strength of reputation
  • Impact on team dynamics
  • Level of flexibility
  • Supporting industry standard practices

The process of evaluating and repositioning is difficult work. It requires a sign language interpreter to step outside their comfort zone, challenge their personal perceptions, and confront the need to change. With that said, it is the most impactful work that an interpreter can do to position themselves for success long-term.

How Are You Positioned?

In most cases, the career path tread by sign language interpreters begins with a journey of discovery, and unfortunately the school of hard knocks when it comes to positioning themselves successfully within the local sign language interpreting economy. For some interpreters a quick study on foundational interprenomics could have helped them to avoid career bankruptcy and provide a basis for successful integration into their local interpreting community.

What changes in your local market have you concerned?
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About the Author

Wing Butler is an entrepreneur and sign language interpreter, passionate about building the sign language/Deaf economy. He uses his social media prowess and unique appreciation for life to build business opportunities that integrates the sign language and general business community. He enjoys spending time with his 4 children and lovely wife.

8 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Jeremy Jack says:

    excellent wing! for both unseasoned AND seasoned interpreters… understanding the economics that drive ANY profession is one of the keys to being successful in it.

    jer

    • Wing says:

      Thanks Jeremy for your comment.

      The article focuses mostly on microeconomics with a hint of the macro picture. One thing that didn’t make the cut was the macroeconomic perspective. Most all of the legislative milestones mentioned in in my article (ADA, educational access acts, relay services) we as interpreters had very little to do with. Meaning that most of our industry was influenced by someone/acts outside of our realm of impact.

      As sign language interpreting has evolved we are stronger as a profession. Are we mature enough to organize in such a way to make an impact on these macro forces? We may be seeing more legislative impacts without our input once again. Fortunately in the past it was in our industry’s favor. Unfortunately, we can’t trust that will continue.

      Thanks for the nod to my article.

      Wing

  2. Lots of good information here. As an agency, we get requests nationwide and internationally as well. The differences in wages varies a great deal depending upon “supply” and the metropolitan area served. Some areas have shifted, creating a greater need than the supply can handle. Palm Springs California has a growing Deaf Seniors community. Few sign language interpreters have served this area in the past as the demand was low. The situation has changed quickly as more Deaf Seniors retire in the desert. Your article clearly covers the concept of supply and demand in this industry.

  3. Wing says:

    Thanks Evelyn,

    I appreciate your comment. It’s interesting to hear about the ebb and flow of local markets like Palm Springs.

    Supply and demand is absolutely critical to understanding the opportunities and rate impacts on our work. For me interprenomics goes farther than supply and demand theories. It’s understanding the positioning of the interpreter in the local market; certification laws or absence of laws, how agencies are building or decaying interpreter standards, how independent interpreters are selling themselves, how many and how powerful and how sophisticated are the “buyers” of interpreting services, just to name a few considerations.

    The interpreter or agencies who study the local interpreter ecosystem (interprenomics) from this level will receive answers that offer a leg up in knowing how to position their rates, brand, and service offerings ahead of their peers. Interpreters with this mindset move from a passive recipient of the interpreting business (hours, a commodities approach) to a proactive voice for quality (professional services firm approach) in the local community.

    Thanks again,

    Wing

  4. Susan Stange says:

    I wonder if in some metropolitan areas if the cost of ASL/English interpreters has become a barrier to social entry/professional entry/academic entry for Deaf people. Would like to see some metric that reports on this phenomenon, then blends the results into the rest of the model.

    Would love to see your thoughts on this.

    Cheers,
    Susan Stange

    • Wing says:

      HI there Susan,

      You bring up a good point about “price/cost” influence on demand. It seems to me that certainly interpreter rates and agency rates have peaked and in many places are slipping backward. While the increase in supply of interpreters takes the pressure off the demand it doesn’t answer what customers are doing to avoid the cost altogether. I saw customers look for alternatives when I owned my own agency that employed 13+ FT interpreters in the Las Vegas and Salt Lake areas, mainly because of cost.

      With enough finesse,education and resource references, we were fortunate to have more successful advocacy outcomes. Certainly this is happening still, but I think what is now a part of the economic climate is the ferocity in which spoken language companies have entered the market, allowing for negotiated concessions we would be appalled at. For example, hiring a non-qualified interpreter/signer to do the job.

      So your point is well taken, whether customers use sub standard services or avoid them altogether, the rate influences their consumption of the service and impede entry to the opportunity. Much like the glass ceiling for women in the workforce, I believe Deaf folks experience the same.

      The question is “How low/high is a consumable rate for interpreting services?”. Certainly depends on the eye of the beholder. It’s safe to say that the customer wants it as low as possible if not free, therefore our responsibility to to maintain high levels of professionalism, advocacy and value to warrant the costs associated with our service.

      Thanks for your comment Susan.

      Wing

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