Giving Back: Have Sign Language Interpreters Forgotten Their Roots?

A reflection on the meaning of reciprocity in the sign language interpreting community and a proposal to extend CEU credit through service to reinvigorate “giving back to the Deaf community.”

Giving Back: Have Sign Language Interpreters Forgotten Their Roots

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When thoughts about volunteering personal time to interpret come to my mind, they are often associated with working with DeafBlind people. For me, it began in 1992 while I was serving as President of Deaf Studies Association at California State University at Northridge (CSUN). A vibrant group of 400 strangers changed my life forever. This group of people communicated in a different mode than I had ever experienced before; they communicated tactilely. When the week ended, I was saying goodbye to new friends who made a difference in my life. People I would still be in touch with twenty years later.

The Times They Are Changing

With legislative protections in place and employers recognizing their responsibility to provide communication accessibility for Deaf and DeafBlind individuals, work opportunities are increasing for sign language interpreters. DeafBlind individuals, in particular, are becoming more empowered and visible. They are coming out of their homes where they have lived in isolation and are becoming socially active and joining the workforce. This represents a new market for the sign language interpreting profession. However, there are still life events and activities where the only stakeholder is the Deaf or DeafBlind individual. No agency is offering a service that would mandate hiring a sign language interpreter or Support Service Providers (SSP).

Have you ever stopped to think about how many SSPs it takes for DeafBlind people to attend an event and listen to a presenter? There are always more service providers than consumers in the room. Why is it so hard to find good and plentiful help? The frustrations that Deaf consumers may have in adequately staffing an event with pro bono interpreters is greatly magnified at DeafBlind events where services are usually needed on a one-to-one basis instead of the one-to-many basis seen at many Deaf events.

Unfortunately, many sign language interpreters do not know how to provide effective DeafBlind Interpreting (DBI) or are apprehensive because they haven’t worked with a DeafBlind consumer before. Working with DeafBlind people is more than just a service. We are often an integral link to their world, which many of us cannot begin to imagine.

We need to consider some solutions as a profession. Volunteerism and pro bono service will help develop some new, potentially long-term revenue streams for service providers and, at the same time, provide needed services in the communities we serve.

Our Actions, Our Values

Our profession struggles with defining the parameters for using a volunteer versus a request for pro bono work. If the IRS views volunteering and pro bono work separately, why do sign language interpreters interchange the meanings? Why does it feel as though colleagues are asking, “What’s in it for me?” When did our profession become so entitled?  Why does it seem okay to ask for volunteers for AA meetings, but not job interviews? Are we saying that recovery is less valued than a person’s career? Why am I left with more questions than answers? And why is it so difficult to get people on the same page?

Pro bono vs. Volunteerism

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines pro bono services as “being, involving, or doing professional and especially legal work donated especially for the public good,” whereas a volunteer is defined as “a person who does work without getting paid to do it.”

Significantly, in the field of sign language interpreting, perceptions about the difference between the two categories are boundary-based. Where pro bono services are seen as professional and follow the same guidelines as paid assignments, volunteerism appears to have a more flexible set of boundaries. This can often confuse and/or blur the lines for both the consumer and the interpreter, potentially creating unsustainable expectations. The significant impact on the physical, emotional and mental state of both parties may act as a disincentive for sign language interpreters to provide volunteer services on a sustained basis. A pro bono service model, which seems to provide clearer boundaries for consumers and interpreters, may encourage more participation.

Donating time doesn’t require sacrificing oneself physically, mentally, and emotionally, yet it sometimes feels as if it does. The inability to say no and the tendency to volunteer too much, combined with the high expectations of consumers receiving free service, can be detrimental to good overall health. If we sacrifice too much, we may lose a sense of our self-worth and find ourselves questioning a job that can seem thankless and where we often feel our intentions are misunderstood.

Defining the Issues

The problem is two-fold: a) we do not have a structured industry standard for providing pro bono services, and b) there is a very real need within the community we serve for daily access to communication when there isn’t an entity to fund the provision. The result: an unsustainable imbalance that taxes the few who do volunteer for any significant length of time throughout their career.

As a volunteer, I fully admit that there are times when my ability to contribute proves to be extremely challenging. I may face periods of emotional turmoil or feel unable to meet the needs of consumers who may over-rely on me because they cannot easily find a reasonable pool of volunteers to cover their needs. At times, I might become angry and question why I continue giving back. But ‘giving back’ is the operative phrase, and more often than not, I feel a sense of pride and accomplishment from contributing to a community that has given so much to me in my life and career via many life-affirming experiences.

It takes a special kind of mentality and willingness to engage in a practice of integrated volunteerism throughout one’s career. It is no wonder the pool of much-needed volunteers is significantly smaller than it should be.

Credit for Service Through CEUs

As sign language interpreting students and interns, we are often required to volunteer an exorbitant number of hours in the community to gain the experience and knowledge that will shape us into better interpreters. Why is it that when we graduate or obtain certification many stop volunteering and only attend professional development opportunities to satisfy CEU requirements? Why are so many reluctant to give back to the community and engage in reciprocity? These are some of the core values which build and define the Deaf community.

Mala Poe

Mala Poe

What if sign language interpreters could earn CEUs for our volunteer work? What if we could get credit for learning new subject matter, methods, or for expanding our skill base? Why have motions for mandatory hours of pro bono work per CEU cycle been deferred to committees or failed when brought to the floor of a business meeting? (Motion D, RID business meeting August 2013)

RID Continuing Education Units (CEUs) are mandated to ensure awareness of the continuing evolutionary changes in language, community and service provision. Yet, the hands-on experiences expected from new entrants to the profession are not expected of our existing professionals. Why the disparity? Experience over time does sharpen one’s skills, but volunteering offers experiences that grow us exponentially in communication, increasing the breadth and depth of concept development in uncharted topic domains. Don’t we want to ensure that practicing professionals have those same enriching experiences throughout their careers?

Where Does RID Stand on Pro bono Credits?

How can sign language interpreters demonstrate the experience we gain at actual community events where our volunteerism often goes undocumented? How can we quantify these experiences in a meaningful way?

Attitudes on pro bono service need to start with RID. Isn’t it RID’s responsibility to encourage and foster professional growth, much like they do with professional development and CEUs today?

In the RID Vision Statement, “RID envisions a world where…the interpreting profession is formally recognized and is advanced by robust professional development, standards of conduct, and credentials.” Could requiring mandatory pro bono hours help to make that vision a reality? Why is there resistance to investigating the possibilities?

Will the conversation about voluntary membership in RID make it harder for us to enforce professional development of any kind?

In reality, workshops do not always mimic real-life experiences. However well-intentioned the CEU concept was, many interpreters attend workshops to ensure certification maintenance without ever intending to use the tools/concepts learned.  In effect, the CEU concept has lost its way. Volunteer and pro bono opportunities, to a greater extent, contribute to skills development while workshops broaden knowledge base.

Adding a pro bono crediting system to supplement RID’s CEU tracking system, could ensure the value of the profession as a whole, because community service would provide a structure for sign language interpreters to go out and experience a variety of real-life situations. A structured pro bono service process led by RID would address this issue, remedy the unintended failings of the CEU system, create a standard of protection for over-taxed volunteers by expanding the pool of available interpreters. At the same time, the system would raise awareness about important community evolutions through direct and active participation, enhance professional expertise, and provide an industry-wide demonstration of goodwill and contribution to the communities we serve. When you think of these outcomes, can you deny that pro bono accreditation is an absolute necessity for the sign language interpreting profession? The excuses against creating a pro bono system can no longer be the accepted norm.

Additionally, establishing clear professional boundaries in a pro bono environment should motivate more sign language interpreters to contribute time to community events. This will greatly expand the pool of available interpreters, reducing the stresses placed upon the small pool of volunteers that exist today, and the challenges the community experiences in attempting to provide communication access within their own events. The results would be positive for all parties involved.

Pro bono work and volunteerism have their place. We just need to recognize how to create a more effective system in our profession. After all, isn’t the ideology behind giving back be good? This type of work provides a real hands-on experience for situations that may otherwise not be possible.

Parting Thoughts

Nagging questions remain for me: What are the emotional, physical and mental costs of giving my time? How much of my life have I sacrificed to give back? Am I justified in feeling angry when I think people have taken advantage of me? Are my core values that different from those interpreters who don’t serve on committees, boards, community planning teams? Why do we see the same people giving their time to the community over and over? Why do we open ourselves up as volunteers to be ridiculed? Why are we willing to put ourselves out there? Why do people question our intentions/motivations? Why can’t I just punch in my 9-5 interpreter card and be done when my job is over for the day? Most importantly, why isn’t RID, our professional organization moving forward in a determined way to address the important issues stated in this article? Am I simply asking too much?

While I cannot answer these questions fully, I know that giving back comes from a deep place in my heart, a place that feels like home when I am there and when I am with people who appreciate my time, my skills, and me. In those moments when a DeafBlind person sees something for the first time and experiences something they have never experienced before, it is there. It’s a place of peace, a place where, if I were to die tomorrow, I would know that I made a mark on this place we call Earth and I made a difference in someone’s life. I give back to people who have given me the tools to communicate, the skills to have a full time job doing something I love with people I respect and admire. Not everyone can be happy deep down; not everyone can give the gift of connection. I serve because I want to and I am a better person for it.

And while I join with others who call for a pro bono credit system, I promise you that at the end of the day, the feeling of self-worth and accomplishment from a successful contribution will dwarf the value of the actual credit you’ve earned for that day. You have my word.

Questions to Consider

1. What is your community’s stance on pro bono interpreting and volunteer interpreting? What is your personal perspective and why?

2. Why do you think some people oppose credit for volunteer/pro bono service through CEUs?
Would you support RID if they implemented a Credit for Services program for pro bono and/or volunteer work? Why or why not?

3. What are some ways that interpreters can continue to support the value of reciprocity and still maintain healthy boundaries and good self-care?

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