Beyond Ethics: Rules Versus Values for Sign Language Interpreters

Beyond Ethics: Rules Versus Values for Sign Language Interpreters

When asked to consider an ethical quandary, most interpreters will give the same answer: “It depends.”  Every situation is unique—a never-before-faced combination of demands and controls situated in a specific setting, among specific consumers and negotiated, possibly, between two or more sign language interpreters. While the NAD-RID Code of Professional Conduct provides guidance, it rarely can give a definitive answer to the question of what actions should be taken in any specific situation.

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No written code meant to guide ethical behavior could encompass every situation. What standard, then, do we use to make decisions in the moment, or to examine our behavior in retrospect, and that of our colleagues?

Consider this situation: During a medical appointment, the hearing nurse says, while examining the patient’s ears, “This is kind of pointless, since he’s deaf.  Wait, don’t interpret that.” What do we do? I, and I’m sure many of my colleagues, do interpret that whole statement, and everything else that we hear during the assignment.

Now consider this situation: During a medical appointment, as the nurse walks into the examination room the Deaf patient says, “Oh, not this nurse. She’s never very nice to me. Wait, don’t voice that.” What do we do here?  I, and I’m sure many of my colleagues, do not voice that statement. Why not? The CPC never distinguishes between Deaf and hearing consumers in its tenets; each directive regarding consumers is assumed to apply to all consumers, Deaf and hearing. And yet, I feel that both actions, though they seem conflicting, are the correct ethical responses to each respective situation. Clearly, the CPC is not enough to evaluate our decisions. Adhering to the CPC is necessary, but not sufficient, to truly conduct ourselves in an ethical manner.

The Values of Our Profession

We must ask ourselves, what values do we hold that undergird our work as sign language interpreters? How does our work as interpreters help create the better world we envision? How we determine our ethical duty in any instance must be filtered through these values. The decisions we make must reflect our higher sense of how we serve the greater good with our work.

The values of our profession are expressed in the philosophy and mission statements put forth by RID, and each individual practitioner has her or his own intuition of what values underlie their decisions. It is a worthwhile exercise to articulate what values you uphold as an interpreter. As I considered this question, I came up with this list:

  • Justice
  • Self-determination
  • Transparency
  • Using hearing privilege to benefit those who are marginalized,
  • Never being silent or immobile in the face of audism.

These are the values I strive to uphold with my work. When ethical issues arise for which the Code of Professional Conduct offers no clear guidance, I filter my possible actions through the values I hold, and make decisions that support justice, that resist audist assumptions and actions, and allow the Deaf consumer to make his or her own choices. While value-based ethical decision making is no guarantee of a practice that always leads to complication-free results, without second guessing in retrospect, it is a good basis for justifiable actions and offers direction where no other directive exists.

Value-based Ethical Decision Making

Let’s reconsider the scenarios I posed earlier. While the CPC sees no difference between a Deaf and a hearing consumer, using a values-based approach to these situations can explain why they feel different to me and many of my colleagues. When a hearing nurse speaks in front of a Deaf patient expecting the interpreter not to relay her statement, she is reflecting an audist society, where Deaf people are barred from accessing information on a daily basis, even information spoken right in front of them. When a Deaf patient signs privately to the sign language interpreter, he is building trust between him and the only other person who speaks his language in the room. Are the two consumers being treated exactly the same? No. But are both being treated justly? I believe so.

Amy Meckler

Amy Meckler

When a Deaf person sits in the room with a hearing nurse and a hearing interpreter, he can either be one Deaf person in the presence of two members of the hearing majority, or he can be one of two ASL users, sitting with a hearing individual who does not sign. I prefer Deaf consumers to feel the latter is true, that they are not alone, that they are not the only people who recognize the power imbalance that inherently exists in a society that arbitrarily grants one group privilege, and disempowers another. The old models of the interpreter as invisible, neutral and uninvolved have been debunked. The antiquated doctrine of decision making based on the standard of “what if I were not there?” is not only outdated, it denies reality. You are there. Your inaction is not a default but a choice. Inaction has an impact and consequences as surely as actions do.

A realistic view of our work, of ethical practice, is sign language interpreters making conscious decisions based on the required ethical standards put forth by NAD and RID in combination with the values that drew us to the Deaf community and the interpreting profession in the first place. As Dave Coyne states in his Street Leverage article, Social Justice: A New Model of Practice for Sign Language Interpreters, “Interpreters must be able to describe what kind of future they want. Can you describe to your neighbors, friends, and Deaf community members your vision? Can you think how behaviors, specific behaviors, may get you to that vision?”

Regularly Re-examine Our Values

Dennis Cokely wrote in his 2000 article, Exploring Ethics: A Case for Revising the Code of Ethics, “As individuals, and certainly as interpreters/transliterators, we face choices that can have profound effects on other people and their lives, choices of how we will or will not act in certain situations. The choices we make, and the actions that follow from those choices, can uphold or deny the dignity of other people, can advocate or violate the rights of other people, and can affirm or disavow the humanity of other people. Given the potential consequences of our choices and resultant actions, it is reasonable to expect that we constantly re-examine those values, principles, and beliefs which underscore and shape the decisions we make and the actions we undertake.”

Fourteen years, and a complete overhaul of the RID Code of Ethics later, Cokely’s words are still true. It’s worth asking yourself: will the action I take uphold or inhibit justice? Will my actions be transparent or shrouded in secrecy inaccessible to my consumers? Will my actions reinforce hearing privilege or help balance the power in the room?

Novice interpreters, experienced interpreters and students of sign language interpreting alike must ask themselves: What is my vision of the world as it should be, and does my work contribute to that vision becoming a reality?


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