Is it Time to Certify Sign Language Interpreter Referral Agencies?

Sign Language Interpreter Thinking Really HardAlarmingly, sign language referral agencies are sending increasing numbers of unqualified signers to interpret for Deaf consumers, causing harm to the communities we serve and to the interpreting field. Friends, consumers and colleagues around the US have been sharing their local horror stories for years. As this is a national issue it cannot solely be resolved at the local level. It requires a coordinated national response.

I believe that the RID membership should collaborate with Deaf leaders to establish standards for agencies that refer sign language interpreters in order to ensure that the Deaf community receives the best possible service. If an agency does not measure up to the standard, then there should be some public acknowledgment of this fact, so that when they bid for work it is clear that these agencies provide no guarantee of quality service.

No Standards

Currently, there are no standards for being a member organization of RID. Any agency can join RID, no questions asked. It enhances an agency’s status to have the RID brand on their letterhead and helps them bid for contracts – while it simultaneously compromises RID’s name, as it appears we support substandard sign language interpreting services. Why don’t agency members have the same standards and obligations that interpreters have? Why are agencies that have no connection to the Deaf community allowed to earn a profit by providing “signers” instead of qualified interpreters, and still benefit from the privilege of being affiliated with RID? What steps can we as professionals take?

Responsibility for Quality Services

When I began interpreting in the ‘70s, referral agencies were housed in Deaf service organizations (such as NYSD in NYC, GLAD in LA, DCARA in San Francisco) and in religious organizations (e.g.; Catholic Charities in Brooklyn and St. Benedict’s in San Francisco).  They provided community interpreters for medical, legal and social service needs.

The agencies I worked for had CODAs and/or Deaf referral specialists who had years of experience in the field. From my observations, they made every effort to assign newer interpreters (like me) only to assignments that we were qualified for. That was true for both certified and non-certified interpreters. Agencies understood that certification signified only entry-level skills and that they needed to assess the skill level of novice interpreters. They did not assign us to highly sensitive work, but often teamed us with more seasoned interpreters in lower risk environments, providing us support for our growth as professionals and providing reassurance to Deaf consumers that we would not compromise their lives.

Sign Language – A Profitable Afterthought

Over the last several years, however, we have seen the entrance of “language service” agencies into the arena of sign language interpreting.  Most of them tack on ASL in addition to the other languages they provide.  Most of their spoken language interpreters are born bilinguals, whereas many of the sign language interpreters on their rosters are self-professed “interpreters,” who have passed no screening or certification exams. While some of these language agencies may have a commitment to providing quality services to the Deaf community, most have no idea how to evaluate the skills of sign language interpreters or the needs of Deaf consumers. Their knowledge base is in bidding for and maintaining contracts.

Although ethical referral agencies do exist, there has been a marked increase in contracts being awarded to agencies that have no background knowledge of our field or the Deaf world, and no ability to evaluate the quality of the services of the interpreters they send to work. For all appearances, it seems that profit, rather than service, is the overweening motive.

(Recent Street Leverage posts on the impact of working for agencies with questionable standards are Self-Talk: A Sign Language Interpreter’s Inner Warning System by Anna Mindess and The Duality of the Sign Language Interpreter by Aaron Brace.

The Human Cost

Sending unskilled workers is a common practice in agencies that provide “interpreting as a business” rather than as a service, but that practice has serious repercussions. Recently in NYC, a call went out from a language agency needing interpreters for an “end of life” situation in a hospital.  A few weeks later, I spoke with friends of the family. They said that throughout the entire weekend the Deaf parents thought their child was “sleeping,” even after all the “interpreters” sent by that agency had “interpreted” the words of the doctors. This is not the only incident. Locally, I have seen language agencies with city contracts send basic signers to evaluations of the fitness of Deaf parents and uncertified interpreters to court, threatening the legal status of Deaf claimants, defendants, and the integrity of the court itself.

The decisions these agencies are making have a negative impact on all parties present: Deaf, hearing, and interpreters. Sign language interpreters who are not appropriate misrepresent themselves and the Deaf parties. Deaf people often do not get their message across; neither do the hearing participants. The only ones guaranteed to succeed in attaining their goals are the agencies, which get paid regardless of the caliber of the interpreting work.  This is not just happening in New York City, but also around the country.

Stephanie Feyne

Stephanie Feyne

An Ethical Quandary

Professional interpreters are left with an ethical quandary… Do I stop interpreting for an unethical agency and leave Deaf people with poor interpreters? Do I spend hours educating the agency, only to see them ignore the advice and go with lesser skilled interpreters? Do I develop relationships with these agencies? Do I accept lower fees in order to ensure quality interpretation?

Can sign language interpreters solve this problem alone? Clearly, the Deaf communities have been left out of the decision-making process. Local interpreting chapters or collectives that work in tandem with Deaf individuals and associations may be able to make some headway in certain locations, but I believe we should use the power of our national association to address this issue.

Agency Certification

RID certifies interpreters, why not certify agencies? This would imply an ethical practice mandate for agencies that refer sign language interpreters, and an obligation for RID to monitor complaints and de-certify agencies that are not behaving ethically. This could then be written into local and state contracts. There should be consequences if an agency sends inappropriate “signers” to jobs.

We, the members of RID, need to take the first step by developing stringent requirements for the business practices of referral agencies, with consequences for those agencies that are not following best practices. The requirements should state that agencies must:

  • abide by an ethical business model – that would include sending the most highly qualified interpreter, not just a warm body;
  • utilize a valid evaluation mechanism for non-certified interpreters;
  • provide sign language interpreters with relevant information prior to the assignment;
  • protect confidential information, by not including it in the emailed call for interpreters;
  • respect the communicative norms, rights and personhood of the Deaf individuals  by presenting them with the most appropriate qualified interpreters for their needs (which means seeing the Deaf individuals as their clients, not just the hearing contract holders).

If agencies do not live up to such standards they should lose the privilege of being a member of RID, and that information should be publicly available for any potential clients to view.

Let’s Get Started

Let us begin now to discuss the standards and the consequences. Let us engage both locally and nationally. Let us not allow agencies in their pursuit of profits to harm Deaf people.

What other requirements should be included when considering the certification of referral agencies?

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