Leadership in Sign Language Interpreting: Where are We?

Sign Language Interpreter Wondering Where the Field is with LeadershipHistory of Leadership

It is difficult to discuss the history of leadership in the field of sign language interpreting without first selecting a starting point for our history as a “field.”  Some consider this point the juncture at which the shift from volunteer interpreter to paid interpreter began, and the time at which training standards and rules of conduct for the practice of sign language interpreting started to become formalized.

Birth of a Field

The juncture at which this shift from volunteer to paid interpreter is most easily identified as June 17, 1964 – the opening date of the Workshop on Interpreting for the Deaf at Ball State Teachers College in Muncie, Indiana. The purpose of this workshop, and later of RID, was

“…to establish standards for interpreters for the deaf; to suggest training, curricula, and criteria for admission to training courses for interpreters; to develop a manual and/or other guidelines for interpreters for the deaf, both for the hearing and the deaf individuals involved; and to collect and identify the manuals and booklets dealing with dactylogy” (Fant, 1989, p.2).

It was at this workshop that two men, and later a total of 64 workshop participants, discussed the idea of forming an organization of interpreters that could also “assess interpreter competency and maintain a registry of them so consumers could be assured of receiving quality service” (Fant, 1989, p.1-2).  RID was born as a result, and thus marks our official beginning as a “field.”

Relevant Experience

Our early leaders, like sign language interpreters at the time, were deeply embedded in the Deaf community and Culture.  They were individuals who held full-time jobs but who interpreted when they could, for free.  For many, those full-time jobs were held in management or leadership positions in organizations that served the Deaf or were somehow affiliated with Deafness. Our early leaders, then, came to their positions in RID with both first-hand knowledge of Deafness and relevant leadership experience.

A Slow Shift

As time has gone by the relative number of interpreters from within the “inner circle” of community has diminished. Much has been written about this shift lately. For the purposes of this discussion this shift simply means that fewer leaders come from within the heart of the community.  Dennis Cokely refers to this shift and the subsequent impact on leadership in RID in his article “Vanquished Native Voices.” As we further professionalize the field, more and more interpreters (and potential leaders) are entering the field at a younger age, and with less professional work and life experience than their predecessors.

This has led to leaders coming to their positions with neither first-hand knowledge of Deafness and little to no relevant leadership experience. It’s hard to imagine RID having gotten off the ground under these circumstances; it’s harder still to imagine continuing to grow under the same circumstances. Yet this is exactly what we are attempting to do.

The Need for Training

This has created a situation clearly articulated by former RID President Janet Bailey in Chapter 9 of the RID Affiliate Chapter Handbook. She states:

“Affiliate chapters tend to experience cycles with periods of healthy participation and times of relative inactivity. Some local leaders take the responsibility, run with it – often successfully – but then become burned out when they realize they cannot do it all. When a new member steps up to take on a leadership role, everyone gives a long sigh of relief and disappears – leaving the new “leader” to do it all. This vicious cycle is played out again and again and the only solution is for a group to step up to share the responsibilities.

Experts on board service talk about the stages of growth in an organization. Some characterize the stages by comparing the organization to the development of a child. RID has been around for many years and yet because of the volunteer status, the nomad existence of running an organization without walls, and the constant changing of personnel, our affiliate chapters rarely have the luxury of developing beyond adolescence. 

Many joke about the lack of contested elections within RID. Consider the old joke where a volunteer is called for and everyone in line steps back leaving one bewildered person elected. There have been many, myself included, who took on the responsibilities of an office because no one else was willing. The new uninitiated leader is expected to figure out what to do next. Because most affiliate chapters have no physical office, the administrative reins are often turned over (unceremoniously) with the passing of assorted ring binders, file folders and boxes from the home office, basement or car trunk of the previous officer. [More recently the bulk of this transfer has minimized with the advent of computers, discs and CDs.]

With no official training, we roll up our sleeves, take a deep breath and fake it. Usually this means focusing on the uncompleted tasks left over from the previous administration: perhaps planning the upcoming conference, budget concerns, membership renewals, newsletter publication. 

Rarely do we consider the task, analyze staffing needs and create a work plan. But that is exactly what we should do.” (RID, 2006, pg. 90-91).

Could it be then, that one of the greatest needs for our leaders revolves around relevant training or prior leadership experience?

Status of Leadership in Interpreting

Amy Seiberlich

Amy Seiberlich

In 2006 I completed a Master’s thesis on Leadership in the field of interpreting.  As a part of my research I investigated the degree of leadership training those working on a State and local level within the RID structure had undergone.  Forty-two percent of respondents to the survey used indicated that they had received some degree of leadership training prior to serving as an officer in RID.  The highest percentage of responses as to where this training was received fell into the “other” category – meaning that their leadership training was not provided with the interpreting and Deaf communities in mind.

While some may argue that many leadership skills are generalizable to any audience, it can also be argued that one of the strengths of our earlier leaders is that they had knowledge of the community, the interpreting task, and leadership experience in occupations that were tied, in some way, to Deafness.

When we look at the situation through this lens it is a little easier to understand why we are seeing many elections for leadership positions on every level of the organization go uncontested and other positions unfilled. I have had multiple conversations with interpreters and students who are interested in service but who are overwhelmed by a history they have no knowledge of and the interpersonal dynamics that have been created as a result of this history.  In light of this, I offered suggestions for personal preparation for leadership service in an article titled “Sign Language Interpreting, Leadership , and Messy Relationships: What They Have in Common.”  Yet even outside of what individuals can do to prepare for leadership positions, we need to ask ourselves as a broader group the question as to whether or not we are doing a good enough job preparing our leaders for service.

My, How We’ve Changed!

One of the most promising changes I have seen in recent years is coursework developed specifically for leaders in the field.  One example is The University of Northern Colorado’s Distance Opportunities for Interpreter Training Center (DO IT Center) where coursework is offered in both Leadership and Supervision of interpreters. This type of educational approach helps to fill the gap between the knowledge and experience our former leaders brought to the field, and the knowledge and experience potential new leaders are bringing to our organizations.

What We Will Need to Succeed

While we are making strides in preparing leaders for service we are still in dire need of support.  If you are someone interested in leadership but unsure of where to begin here are a few suggestions:

  • Start small. Talk to local leaders about what positions are available in your area.
  • Become self-aware. Assess your current knowledge and skill set, as well as your area of interest, in relation to the positions that are available.
  • Be willing to grow. Assess what knowledge and skills you may be lacking, and seek out resources to help you develop these areas.
  • Seek out additional education. Be willing to get back into the classroom to investigate everything from interpersonal and group dynamics, communication and conflict management to the history of RID and interpreting.
  • Become an active member of your organization. Attend meetings, get to know other members and leadership teams, read your local and national newsletters, journals and blogs.  Familiarize yourself with the current state of affairs.
  • Become an active member of your community. Get out and interact with members of your local Deaf community. Talk to them about their history, their community’s history, and how interpreting has changed over the years.
  • Be open. Be open to hearing and seeing whatever you hear and see, learning what you are being taught, and to using whatever gifts you have to serve others from the most compassionate, caring place in your heart.

While we cannot individually possess all of the experience, knowledge and skills our field and organizations need, we can each commit to developing our individual gifts and innate abilities. Then, together, we can co-create the kind of magical leadership teams our field and our communities need to carry us forward!

What unique gifts do you possess that, if put into action, could benefit our communities and our field? And what’s keeping you from using those gifts?



Fant, L. (1989). Silver Threads: A Personal Look at the First Twenty-five Years of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf. Silver Spring, MD; RID Publications.

RID (2006). Affiliate Chapter Handbook, Third Edition. Silver Spring, MD; RID Affiliate Chapter Relations Committee.

Seiberlich, A. (2006). “Interpreters as Leaders.” Unpublished Master’s Thesis completed at the University of Denver.