Ethical Choices: Educational Sign Language Interpreters as Change Agents

Sign Language Interpreting in Art ClassI have the pleasure and challenge of working with educational sign language interpreters around the country: pleasure because I generally find these interpreters extremely committed to the best interests of students,  challenge because I generally find them frustrated by their work settings. Their experiences resonate with Gina Olivia’s post, Sign Language Interpreters in Mainstream Classrooms: Heartbroken and Gagged, which identifies that interpreters often witness the tragedy of ineffective education for deaf students, yet feel impotent to create change.

While there are plenty of issues in need of fixing related to Deaf education, our challenge as interpreters is to recognize what indeed we do have power over and use that as our classroom leverage to make a difference.

To do this, we need to step out of the shadow of invisibility and realize that, when we are at our best, we bring our full sense of humanity to the work. Part of that humanity is a Deaf heart, as described by Betty Colonomos in Sign Language Interpreters and the Quest for a Deaf Heart. I think of Deaf heart as a commitment to bringing the concerns and values of the larger Deaf community into mainstream settings.

From Machine to Human Being

My introduction to the Deaf community and interpreting came in 1988.  At my summer job, when I was 18, I encountered Deaf people, sign language, and interpreters for the first time. This was after the Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet and the Deaf people I met felt empowered to act to change their world.

The message I heard about interpreters was exactly the opposite.  Interpreters, when they were functioning at their best, were invisible.  The “conduit” model reigned supreme.  I remember seeing a t-shirt that boasted: “Interpreting:  Just talk, it happens,” as if interpreters were some type of automaton.

In hindsight, the prevalence of the conduit model makes sense.  Interpreter education was greatly influenced by the ascendency of empowered bicultural and bilingual Deaf leaders who were not in need of help from hearing interpreters. Instead, these leaders simply wanted communication access.

What we have discovered is that, while an interpreter as a conduit has its usefulness, in many situations the results are negative.  In education, they have often been disastrous.  The silver lining is that some of our problems in the educational system are self-imposed and thus within our ability to rectify.

Anna Witter-Merrithew, in two previous posts, illustrates the negative impacts of interpreters functioning with the faulty notion that we can or should be “invisible.”  Further, Anna argues that we must be as concerned about ethical omissions as we are about commissions.  In other words, as professionals, we must practice due diligence in being aware of when our failure to act has negative consequences – just as much as monitoring the impact of our actions.

My article is a reflection on the ways we as a profession have failed to act in the educational system and the ways that we might re-envision our presence in classrooms and in schools to better serve the purposes of the students, the systems we are hired by, and ourselves as human beings interested in providing a meaningful contribution through our work.

Removing the Gag

In working with educational sign language interpreters around the country, I’ve encountered a recurring theme: that interpreters do not function in the role they think they should and regularly feel guilty about it. Frequently, I hear things like:

  • I “add” things to my interpretation because I know the student just won’t understand without it. I know that’s wrong, but it really seems to help. 
  • I sometimes help the hearing students during work time. The classroom teacher appreciates this support, but I know we shouldn’t.

When I respond not by questioning their actions but by asking whether or not their choices led to successful consequences, the interpreters are incredibly relieved to learn there is a framework for understanding their choices as ethical.  Further, I think they begin to see that no one else is asking them to cling to such a restrictive role.

Finding Role-Space

The profession as a whole is heading in this direction. Robyn Dean and Robert Pollard, through the Demand-Control schema, have moved us away from ethics based on the rightness of an action in itself and toward ethics based on the consequences for those involved.  They have also given us a continuum of ethical decision-making with a range of options from conservative to liberal.

In this context, “conservative” means taking a “wait and see” approach and “liberal” means taking a more active approach to addressing the demand.

Building on this, Witter-Merrithew, Johnson, and Nicodemus have begun a conversation about decision latitude and relational autonomy. As practice professionals, we need to take responsibility for making decisions with an understanding of how the systems we work in actually function. In the past, sign language interpreters often acted with disregard for the system and, as Johnson and Witter-Merrithew found, were perceived by others as being uncooperative and detached.  Interpreters may have acted in this manner thinking our codes of ethics and professional conduct required it, but the consequences were negative perceptions of interpreters.

Doug Bowen-Bailey

Doug Bowen-Bailey

Relational autonomy offers further insight to understand Dean and Pollard’s continuum of ethical behavior. We need to assess the relative autonomy of the people involved in the interaction as a guide for our decision-making. In general, if the participants have a balanced sense of autonomy, more conservative approaches are called for. If the level of autonomy between participants is imbalanced, liberal approaches merit greater consideration.

So, rather than seeking to be invisible, in situations with a power imbalance, interpreters need to seek to be more active and visible. Can you think of a situation where there is a greater power imbalance than when one deaf student is mainstreamed into a school that is totally designed for English-speaking students who cannot sign?

Taking more active approaches fits in with the work of Robert Lee and Peter Llewellyn-Jones, who have offered a new way of understanding our actions as interpreters.  Using three dimensions of interpreting (presentation of self, interaction management, and alignment with participants), they offer a framework for understanding the roles that interpreters inhabit and the way that different situations and different consumers call for different roles.  For interpreters working in schools, we clearly need to find a new role-space to lead to more success.

Interpreters as Change Agents

Part of redefining role-space includes the need to embrace a more active approach. At times, we are many things in the classroom:  interpreter, language model, tutor, aide, and consultant. We also need to be an agent of change within the system as a whole, which is part of what I think it means to have a Deaf heart: recognizing that the system is not designed to serve deaf students and that we cannot simply shrug our shoulders, wave our hands, and collect a paycheck. Instead, we need to take an active role in changing the situation.

Here are some examples of what that can look like:

  • Connect the student to the broader Deaf community.  This can happen by attending community events or, if not possible (as in many rural areas), use video and web resources to let students see there is a Deaf world that they can be a part of.  One interpreter in rural Alaska connected students via video and email with students at the Deaf school in Texas.
  • Enact roles based on the needs of students.  At times, we may need to be tutors or teachers or social guides. One interpreter I know has frequently taken on the task of teaching deaf students how to play games because they weren’t getting those skills any other way. In the shadow of invisibility, we might lament that teachers aren’t doing this and watch the students fail. As an agent of change, we can step forward and support the students in acquiring the requisite skills for success.
  • Facilitate sign language instruction for peers. Deaf kids need the chance to talk directly to their peers. We don’t necessarily have to be the teacher, but we can’t ignore the need. If you’re interested in a resource on this topic, you can check out this free curriculum.
  • Take responsibility for literacy. Educational interpreters need to understand the ways to foster language development in both ASL and English. This means intentionally being a language model through direct communication when appropriate.  It also means understanding the importance of fingerspelling in building English literacy.
  • Advocate for more accessible classrooms.  This includes creating excellent interpretations and making sure videos are captioned, but it goes far beyond that.  Work with teachers to ensure key vocabulary and concepts are visually accessible.  Additionally, support classroom teachers so that having an interpreter in the classroom is a benefit to all the students, rather than an annoyance. Too often, sign language interpreters with their restrictive role have been a thorn in the side of the teacher rather than an added asset in the classroom. Having a teacher who wants the deaf student to be there is a key factor in it being accessible.
  • Be part of a supervision process. Interpreters operate in isolation. As Robyn Dean argues in Ethical Development: A Sign of the Times for Sign Language Interpreters?, supervision that provides a framework for talking about our work is an important part of a practice profession and long overdue. Having a colleague or team to discuss these actions with is critical to ensuring that we maintain our effectiveness. 
  • Be willing to advocate ourselves out of a job.  Some of the best interpreters I know have advocated for students to leave mainstream and go to the Deaf school. While this may seem to be economic suicide for interpreters, I have seen that those professionals who so clearly put the interests of their consumers first end up landing on their feet because an educational system can recognize the value of that type of commitment. They also sleep better at night.

In the end, this approach to educational interpreting is a stretch from what I learned in my schooling. In other ways, it is a return to our roots.  Both Amy Williamson, in The Cost of Invisibility: Codas and the Sign Language Interpreting Profession, and Dennis Cokely, in Vanquished Native Voices – A Sign Language Interpreter Crisis?, write about the historical importance of codas to our field. That came home to me as I was leading a workshop on this topic and a participant with deaf parents said she felt like she had permission to be a coda again. What I perceived in her comment was that she could bring her Deaf heart into the mainstream. If we do likewise, our flexibility and willingness to act for change will lead to improvements for students, parents, teachers, the systems we work for, and even ourselves.

Other suggestions on how interpreters in educational settings can be change agents?

 

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