Wing Butler | Onsite Sign Language Interpreters Face Extinction

Wing presented, Onsite Sign Language Interpreters Face Extinction, at StreetLeverage – Live. His talk examined the legislation and technology developments of the 90’s that defined the values of the sign language interpreters in the “Onsite Era” and how these values are now being replaced by the values of a “Virtual Presence Era.” Wing suggested that the iterative realignment of these values leaves sign language interpreters vulnerable to a number of dangerous pitfalls.

Something HappenedOnsite Sign Language Interpreter Considering the Concept of Extinction

In 1990 I was 15 years old. It was then I realized my parents were truly deaf. Until then, I thought they held a deaf facade to cover up their true “hearing” identity. I began to test the boundaries between my parents and my inner child. After testing their hearing abilities, I settled on the fact they were, indeed, deaf. Immediately, I picked up a collection of pitchforks, grew horns and even a tail! The ultimate moment of rebellion came when I conspired with my hearing friends to meet at a neighbor’s mailbox late at night to cause mischief. When the time came, I successfully, slowly, and quietly, turned the doorknob to escape out of the house. Running towards the flickering flashlights, I was stopped by a low and dull roar, “Wing, come home!” Flashlights scattered into the bushes and I returned to meet the source of interruption. There standing in the doorway was my angry father. I betrayed him, took advantage of him, and he had plenty to say about it. In a split moment of pause in his whirling signs, I asked: “How did you know?” He responded, “I felt the pressure of the house change” (or the “puff”).

You know how when you open the door you see the curtains move ever so slightly, or the windows and pictures on the walls move ever so slightly? My father felt the “puff.”

Through this experience, I’m more aware that most of what we experience in life is a result of moments in time that have occurred far away from us; nonetheless, we can feel the moment of change if we’re sensitive to it.

Whether we were paying attention or not, sign language interpreters experienced their own evolutionary “puff” moment in 2002, which began the slow extinction of the on-site interpreter. Not the physical appearance of an interpreter to an assignment, but more the delicate social ecosystem and the values that drive it. We moved from an on-site interpreting era to virtual presence era.

Standing On the Shoulders of Interpreter and Technology Pioneers

Several years before the interpreting industry’s evolutionary shift, I was walking through the halls of my local college. I spotted a simple sign written with marker, “Sign Language Interpreters Needed.” With only “Coda” as my credential, I was hired on the spot. What I thought was innate talent and unique brilliance, gave way to common sense and even compelled humility, thanks to the pioneers and builders of the interpreting profession who were bold enough to share with me the legacy of our interpreting community. I was the benefactor of a series of events and individual efforts, a “Big Bang” which caused a positive set of career-oriented circumstances. In my article, “Interprenomics: a decoder ring for sign language interpreters” I identify the series of primary events that are responsible for the evolutionary foundations of the sign language interpreting economy—the formation of the sign language interpreting industry. I see them as follows:

  • 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.

Meanwhile another “big bang” was occurring. The roots of technology were moving across America. Most of the web technology we experience today came about from developments from the 90’s.

  • Introduction of the Internet: On the heels of IBM’s PC and Microsoft’s Operating System the internet goes public in 1990. Netscape creates a point and click browser and gives it away.
  • Fortune 500 and Startups Go Virtual: 1995 – 1998 gave birth to Amazon.com, Google.com, and Disney. The amount of users on the network at this time 300 million only to grow to 1.1+ Billion today.
Evolution from Onsite to Virtual Presence Era

The Moment Everything Changed

While the transition from an onsite era to a virtual presence era from a historical perspective is beneficial, some interpreters missed the subtle change in values that drive the work. You see, while we were all enjoying rising pay, unprecedented demand for our services, legislative protection of our profession, technology began to unravel the foundations of our young profession, “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

During the onsite era, the delicate ecosystem/economy of sign language interpreting sought to keep Deaf-centric values at the heart of the work. And as Lynette Taylor mentions in her StreetLeverage Live presentation “Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field,” she suggests that the interpreting industry moved from a Deaf-centric locus of power to an interpreter-centric locus of power during the rise of interpreter related legislation. She also suggests that our work is moving away from Deaf values, and the interpreting industry has made a shift to a market-centric locus of power. Examples include:

  • Telecommunications Access Legislated: 1998 Telecommunications Accessibility Enhancement Act (TAEA)
  • Technology Meets Interpreting: 2002 FCC Sponsors VRS and in 2003 Sorenson develops VP-100 as first to market, in which many companies follow.

The Interpreter’s Evolutionary Traps

2002 marks the erosion of on-site interpreter era values. The collision of interpreter values with technological advances and the increased adoption of production-oriented values has decoupled the relational aspects of an interpreter’s art from the work of interpreting. While the erosion is more readily viewable in the VRS industry, there is no safe-haven as information age efficiencies (Outsourcing, Digitizing, and Automation) seek to change our world. Consider the office receptionist and the phone tree.

  • Outsourcing:  The idea that the quality of work done locally can be transferred to another location (not necessarily offshore) that favors lower labor rates, and equal or better quality.
  • Digitizing: The transference of “flesh and blood” activities/work into bits of data.
  • Automation: Once assets are digitized, the effort to duplicate the data is nearly effortless. 

The Evolution of Values

When considering virtual world traps, we can’t ignore the casualties of onsite era values. While terms like relational, artist, professional services model, and quality are all value descriptors for the onsite interpreter, it is the “Deaf heart” that begins to fade within our work. This loss is only galvanized by the traps spoken of previously.

This evolution is only intensified as the sign language interpreting industry introduces “Millennial” interpreters, generations apart from the foundation building “Boomer” interpreter. Consider a millennial interpreter’s perception of technology and the impact, or not, in their everyday work.

Onsite Era Values

  • Relational
  • Artist
  • Professional Services Model
  • Quality = Certified
  • Specialty Skillsets (Legal, Medical, etc)
  • Success through reciprocity
  • Value Negotiation

Virtual Presence Era Values

  • Transactional
  • Production Model
  • Quality = Qualified
  • 1 Skill Fits All
  • Success through statistical performance
  • Non-negotiable rate & fixed value 

The Next 50 Years – Become Untouchable

Wing Butler

Wing Butler

Certainly, technology isn’t going away, nor will its progression subside. Therefore, information age traps will remain, and technology will exponentially become a powerful vortex aimed at the onsite interpreter. While technology may change how we access the work, our industry doesn’t have to fall victim to digital era traps. In order to avoid extinction interpreters must become untouchable by becoming one of these three; “special” or specialized in the work, “anchored” to a location, and constantly re-skilling your brand. I know many interpreters who experience this protection now. Notwithstanding, this doesn’t answer the industry problem.

How does the sign language interpreting industry preserve onsite era values? Or better, Deaf-centric values? I’d like to recommend 5 essential keys for any interpreter or interpreting organization to evolve successfully in the information age.

1-     Protect Value of Certification.

Without certification we have nothing.

2-     Collaboration with Partners.

Synergy with government, consumer, and employer partners creates value to the industry. Does the interpreter or interpreting organization have direct relationships with State, private sector stakeholders, and Deaf organization heads? Is there enough synergy to negotiate transactions on behalf of the industry?

3-     Synthesize Leadership.

Identify interpreters with leadership talent, infuse them with the interpreting industry’s legacy, and ignite passion in them by empowering them to build relationships that support growth objectives.

4-     Create Learning Culture.

Participate in sharing knowledge, wisdom, and experience between boomer interpreters and millennial interpreters. Leverage Generation X and Y to facilitate understanding. Value experienced mentors and add to the value of their work.

5-     Become a Media Company.

Use technology to amplify the voice of the interpreter. Organizations that represent interpreters will need to embrace web 3.0 realities by seeing themselves as a media and content marketer. Broadcasting not only provides transparency and leverages crowdsourcing towards a meaningful movement, but is a valuable tool to building unity, identity, and relationships. Broadcast cheaply, regularly and often.

Certainly, you have your own ideas? I’d like to hear them.

>> To see slides from Wing’s presentation click here.