Betty Colonomos | Sign Language Interpreters Fostering Integrity

Betty presented “Sign Language Interpreters Fostering Integrity” at StreetLeverage – Live 2013 | Atlanta. Her talk explored how sign language interpreters operate with integrity and the professional measures needed to ensure the highest standards are, in fact, upheld.

You can find the PPT deck for is presentation here.

The Power of Integrity

First, let me thank Dave Coyne for my opening. His talk about Transactional Leadership presented several traits (e.g. inspiration, idealization, intellectualism) that are present in leaders. My talk adds another to the list: “Integrity.”

My talk this morning looks at the concept of Integrity as it applies to our society in general. I hope you will join this afternoon’s workshop, where we will be taking a deeper look at integrity as it applies to our field and our relationships with the Deaf community.

The Meaning of Integrity

“Integrity is when what you say, think and do are in harmony.”
– Mahatma Gandhi

This quote from Gandhi captures the essence of the meaning of integrity. Perhaps an example from my experience will illustrate this further. As a woman born during World War II, I clearly remember the prevalent racist beliefs of that time. Although we haven’t yet eradicated racism from our country, we have made progress. Many of us value equality among all people regardless of differences. Yet we have been in social environments where racist comments were made and we kept quiet. This behavior contradicts our values. Many of us now openly express disapproval at overt racist speech because we want to maintain our integrity.

Here is another way to capture the concept of Integrity using slightly different language. It relates to Shane Feldman’s talk about RID’s mission and the beliefs it communicates: welcoming membership involvement, creating policies through interaction, and making sure that our By-Laws are actions that express these beliefs. He pointed out that there is a disconnect between actions and beliefs. This state of affairs impacts perceptions about RID’s integrity.

I am so grateful to my mother who, despite suffering great hardships, fostered my love of truth. As a child I was often reminded: “when in doubt, tell the truth.” Of course my truths then (which were, no doubt, always the “right” truths) were based solely on feelings and opinions. Now, the benefit of education, observable data collection, observation, and my wealth of experience contribute to what I consider to be more credible truths. This also means that there may be other truths that are accepted by others as norms. Living one’s life with integrity is difficult and complicated. We see behaviors and opinions that do not fit with our professed beliefs every day.

Integrity Requires SacrificeBetty Colonomos

We know that mainstream Americans value success, and that is demonstrated by the accumulation of materialistic symbols such as a big(ger) house, a fancy car, a degree from a prestigious university, and a highly paid job. The actions, language, and beliefs about being successful do show certain congruence; however, the question we may want to consider here is how this may or may not fit our definition of integrity.

There is inherent conflict in a culture of privilege that purports to cherish freedom, equality, morality, and the Golden Rule. The pressures and stresses that confront us in our daily lives mean that “doing the right thing” often competes with meeting our needs. There are sacrifices that must be made.

There are challenging decisions we must make to live with integrity.

The Faces of Integrity

With regard to people and how integrity interfaces with their lives, there are three distinct groups: Individuals with Integrity (Congruous Integrity), Individuals who believe they have Integrity (Fractional Integrity), and Individuals for whom Integrity is not a priority (Absent Integrity).

Congruous Integrity

The first group, people who have integrity, feel good about themselves. They have a sense of purpose and are optimistic about life. There are many such people and I could point out the actions, behaviors, and beliefs that make them our heroes, but my time is limited here and I will only mention two such people. Rosa Parks took the bold action of sitting in the front of the segregated bus despite the hostile climate. Her brave actions had a profound impact on the Civil Rights movement that has led us to our continuing dialogue today in America and elsewhere.

Abraham Lincoln, who was a man who believed that no one should live as a slave, paid a high price to uphold his integrity. The country endured a Civil War that took thousands of lives to uphold the right of people who were enslaved to be free; he continued acting out his beliefs through his actions and speeches despite great suffering, both personal and political.

Fractional Integrity

The second group consists of people whose expressed beliefs are not consistently congruent with their actions. These are people who advocate good deeds and kindness to others, but use words and display actions that are viewed as “hateful” by others. Similarly, in our community, we advocate for equality and access for Deaf people, yet we say and do things that are hypocritical and oppressive.

Anna Witter-Merithew, in her presentation, illustrated this point very well.  The interpreter who makes an error in her interpretation and hides it from consumers is concerned with embarrassment or negative judgments, and allows those concerns to take precedence over disclosure. When interpreters are accountable for their interpretations by being honest and resolving the issue with consumers, they are much more likely to be trusted and respected.  In other words, they demonstrate their integrity.

Absent Integrity

The third group of people we readily identify: they do not care about integrity. This is evident with those who would bilk people out of their life savings with no remorse. They are the con artists, those who prey on uninformed and powerless people.

Let us briefly examine how other professions strive to maintain agreed-upon standards and maintain their integrity. This list is not comprehensive, as time does not permit a thorough review.

Integrity Requires Accountability

If we look at the medical profession, we see that there is a mechanism of peer review that addresses questionable or poor practices. There are serious consequences for those who repeatedly violate standards, including suspension of hospital privileges and revocation of one’s license to practice. These review procedures are conducted by other doctors (colleagues), rather than patients (consumers). Patients seek recourse in the legal system. This is in sharp contrast to our field, where we expect consumers to initiate grievances and do not encourage colleagues to protect the profession.

Many interpreters have recounted their experiences with colleagues committing serious violations of the CPC. Upon questioning their reluctance to file a complaint, they may justify their inaction by expressions of fear (of reprisal, of being blacklisted, etc.), discomfort, and the amount of effort needed.  How does this speak to our perceptions of integrity in our field?

Another form of professional monitoring is seen in the system of licensure.

Licenses are often awarded on the basis of other credentials, such as a medical degree and completion of residency requirements.  For us, a license is often a rubber stamp given to someone who has received certification.  Enforcement by the licensing entity is difficult, so the legal system is used. We can sue for malpractice and other offenses; however, we don’t hear much about this in the interpreting arena.

We do employ a form of supervision, using the term “mentorship” to identify a range of mechanisms for giving feedback and support to novice interpreters. The mentorship protocols offered to mentees vary within and across communities.  Mentoring can mean assessing vocabulary production and selection, in-depth dialogue focusing on internal processes, and everything in between.  It might serve us well to identify the most beneficial forms of mentoring for our profession and ourselves.

Just a few words here about the afternoon session:

The workshop will analyze numerous scenarios where decisions are made; we will talk about how interpreters with integrity might handle these challenges.

We will not look at poor decisions or failures — we have enough of those recounted every day. Let’s move beyond the “horror stories” and share viable options. We want to learn from each other what actions, beliefs, and words reflect our integrity.  We want to fill ourselves with possibilities and things we can do.

Operating With Integrity

Really, the concept of integrity is woven throughout the entire weekend in presentations, workshops, conversations, and the environment.  In a way, I see “integrity” as the umbrella that embraces the beliefs we hold, the decisions we make, and the processes that bring them to life.

We cannot police everyone. We can work together to make this a reality.

Contrary to popular belief, leaders and people with integrity are not perfect. They make mistakes because they are human.

We need to think about our integrity now more than ever: our field is in dire need of change.  We know that it will take a long time to get there, but we can get through these growing pains if we are honest and operate with integrity.

Not everyone will become the best interpreter around; not everyone will sign like a native. But we all can strive to be the best interpreters we can be.

With a common goal and effort we uphold our integrity, and with that we can succeed together.

Thank you.


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