Is There Disruption in the Sign Language Interpreting Profession?

April 12, 2019

Jemina Napier presented Is There Disruption in the Sign Language Interpreting Profession? at StreetLeverage – Live 2018 | Cherry Hill. In her presentation, Jemina highlights and explores various factors that potentially cause positive and negative disruption in the worldwide sign language interpreting profession.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is a write-up of Jemina’s StreetLeverage – Live 2018 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Jemina’s original presentation directly.]

Interested in attending StreetLeverage – Live 2019 being held in Round Rock/Austin, TX May 3-5, 2019?

Is There Disruption in the Sign Language Interpreting Profession?

Thank you for the invitation to present at this StreetLeverage – Live conference, it is a privilege. As you will have seen from my video introduction, the sign language that I grew up using is British Sign Language (BSL). My second sign language is Auslan (Australian Sign Language), and American Sign Language is my third sign language! So I am afraid that you will have to put up with my ASL and you may see some odd signs showing up!

Before I begin I would like to acknowledge my heritage – I grew up in a multigenerational deaf family (4 generations), so I grew up with sign language as my home (first) language. It is important to me to recognize my heritage because if it wasn’t for my family I would not be here now.

I have learned a lot through my heritage and my experiences growing up. I was fortunate to I grow up in London using BSL, then I moved to live in Australia where I worked teaching interpreters, and I have frequently attended conferences in the United States – and in fact I know many of you at this conference from having met you at other conferences! So by attending conferences in the US, I acquired ASL. I have trained interpreters in many countries; I have had discussions with deaf people about interpreting throughout the world; I have conducted research and produced many publications about interpreting. My presentation is an opportunity for me to share with you my observations, to bring a ‘world view’ of our field. My presentation is not based on my research, but draws on my instincts, observations, and experience as a working interpreter: I am an accredited International Sign interpreter, and I am also certified as an interpreter in 3 different countries, so I think I have a lot to offer in terms of giving an opinion about our field!

Examining Current Context

So, to give you some context for my presentation. The World Federation of the Deaf estimates that there are 70 million deaf sign language users in the world. But once you take into account the number of hearing sign language users as well, then obviously the number of signers is much bigger. With the increasing recognition of signed languages throughout the world, the status of signed languages is increasing (as evidenced by the number of movies featuring sign language these days), and the status of deaf and hearing signers alike.

As a consequence, this increasing recognition is having an impact on the worldwide sign language interpreting profession, which is growing significantly. When we consider the possible numbers of interpreters, we know that there are approximately 7,500 certified sign language interpreters across nearly 40 European countries (De Wit, 2012), in the UK there are 1,135 (NRCPD & SASLI, 2018), in Australia 1,359 (NAATI, 2018), and in the US there are 15,709 RID members (RID, 2016). So if you extrapolate these figures to calculate how many certified SLIs there are worldwide, I would estimate that there could be upwards of 30,000 certified interpreters. And this figure doesn’t take into account the numbers of working interpreters who are not certified, and we know that there are many of them. So we can see that our field is growing and changing, and we need to consider that as a context. Although we have established standards and systems, and we have seen significant developments, this process of change is not yet complete.

Another important part of the context to consider is the development of sign language recognition. We know, for example, that there are 33 sign languages in countries where the government has formally recognized the sign language of that country either in the constitution, in policy or in some form of legislation (De Meulder, 2015). But 138 sign languages are listed on Ethnologue. So the ongoing development of the recognition of sign languages means that our field has developed in parallel.

With regards to the professionalisation of sign language interpreting, the logos on this slide represent different sign language interpreting associations. The World Association of Sign Language Interpreters was established in 2005, which is relatively recent compared to the very first association that was established in 1964 – RID (Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, USA). We have seen our field develop dramatically over the last 50 years with the establishment of various professional associations and standards, and many previous StreetLeverage conference presenters have discussed these developments and their own experiences, the history of our field, and the changes they have witnessed.

The emergence and development of sign language interpreting as a profession has closely followed recognition of sign languages as real languages in their own right. Our field has developed hand in hand with the efforts of Deaf communities to lobby for the recognition of their signed languages; and we cannot separate these two processes. It is important that we acknowledge the changes in the Deaf world that impact our profession, as well as the changes in the wider world. So the history and development of sign language interpreting needs to be placed within the context of broad socio-political, socio-cultural and socio-linguistic changes for deaf people in each country; we need to recognize the intersections between our profession and what is going on in the world. Changes in the world mean changes in Deaf communities, which means changes in our profession.

When we look at the US, it is amazing to think that RID was established over 50 years ago. There are over 150 interpreter education programmes throughout the country; there are established mentoring and supervision systems; there are clear structures in the profession. This is enviable when we compare this situation to other countries, such as Croatia, where the profession is in its infancy as the professional association was only established in 2017. Countries are at different stages of developing their sign language interpreting profession and when I see the range of developments in our field throughout the world, I believe that we do not place enough value in what we have.

What is “Disruption”?

Now that I have set the scene, let us consider the title of my presentation: Is there disruption in the sign language interpreting profession?

There are three definitions to the term ‘disruption’: (1) to throw into confusion or disorder; (2) to interrupt or impede the progress of; and (3) to alter so as to prevent normal or expected functioning.  My goal in this presentation is to explore how these definitions of disruption can be applied to our profession? Is it being disrupted? And what kind of disruption is it?

This is the first time I have been to a StreetLeverage conference, but I have read many of the articles on the StreetLeverage website and followed previous conferences. And as an ‘outsider’ looking in on the situation in the US, it is clear there are many key issues being debated. My instinctive response to some of the debates I see, coming from an outsider’s perspective, is that there is a lot of negativity concerning: lack of deaf heart, lack of trust, lack of sign language fluency and language shaming, deaf-hearing tensions, disempowered Deaf community members, etc. I teach in the European Masters of Sign Language Interpreting program (EUMASLI), and we have groups of students from many different countries, including American students. In this program we have discussions with the students about the issues discussed at the StreetLeverage conferences, or in the website articles, and whether the same issues apply in their own countries. One common theme is that of oppression, and my concern is that we have focussed our attention so much on oppression and negative disruption that we now have a situation where hearing interpreters are fearful of saying anything in case they are accused of being oppressive, or of being ‘audist’. On the other hand, we have deaf interpreters asking why they are not being let into the interpreting profession when they have the deaf lived experience to bring to the work. These polarized views are leading to these deaf-hearing tensions. Furthermore, as has been discussed previously by Dennis Cokely and others, Deaf communities feel they have lost their gatekeeping role in nurturing and welcoming new interpreters into the community; anyone now can apply to a college or university interpreter education program without ever having met a deaf person. So who gets to decide who can become an interpreter? Who is responsible for laying out the welcome mat? It is these frictions that underlie these debates.

I am not saying by any means that the situation in countries like the UK or Australia is perfect. From my experience, it certainly isn’t. But I think that if the sign language interpreting profession in the US took a look at other parts of the world you would realize how good you have got it, how lucky you are. Many other countries are struggling to get their professions off the ground, and there are many positives in opening up discussion, but there seems to be an underlying negativity that could be more disruptive to the profession. We should value what we have too. A friend and colleague of mine in the UK, Kyra Pollitt, wrote an article back in 1997, where she suggested that we should not ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’, meaning that we should not reject everything we have previously done and start new things from scratch, or take on new ideas without considering the value of what we already have. So we should not abandon progress, we should cherish it, hold on to it, and use it.

Shifting Values, Shifting Perspectives

We have seen a pendulum swing; a shift from recognising deaf community values to promoting professional values as the field has developed. And now we are somewhere in between – but this can lead to tensions as we struggle to figure out how to pay due respect to both sets of values. We need both, so how do we find a happy medium?

There is lots of talk of ‘hearing privilege’, but we also need to consider ‘deaf privilege’. As Stephanie Clark mentioned in her presentation at this StreetLeverage conference, the deaf interpreter does not always automatically have to take the lead in interpreting assignments – this can be negotiated in the deaf-hearing interpreting teams as we all bring different life experiences; we all bring different privileges, and we need to value that.

We can think of ‘disruption’ in another way. What you saw on the slide was the BSL sign for ‘complicated’ or ‘complexity’. I like using this concept to give us a different perspective on disruption, by recognizing that our field is complex. Our worlds are complex! The wider world, the Deaf world, and the interpreting world. There are so many developments that we can report in our field: deaf people are more involved in interpreting research, there are more deaf interpreters and interpreter educators; we know more about what we do as interpreters, we have greater understanding of interpreting ethics, processes, and products. Research has enabled us to develop this greater understanding, which is nothing but positive.

But it’s still a complex profession. It’s still not perfect. We have reached a stage where we need to carefully consider the complexity in order to inform the future developments of our profession; to consider our goals and where we want to be as a profession.

Stepping Back to Step Forward

So I would like us to take a step back and consider the bigger picture…. What is causing disruption? I suggest that the following ‘external forces’ are worldwide issues that are having an influence on our profession:

  • Sign language acquisition
  • Sign language recognition
  • Deaf identities (intersectionality)
  • Deaf education
  • Deaf community boundaries (transnationalism)
  • Migration patterns (translanguaging)
  • Technologies

We don’t have control over these forces, so we have to accept them – not blindly, but reflectively. Accept what is happening and take the opportunity to take stock and review our profession: where we are going and what we are doing.

Disruption Happens

I think that it is important for us to recognize that disruption happens. We can’t stop it. And maybe we need it. Maybe we need a little disruption (disrupt-disorder) to force us to stop (disrupt-interrupt), and reflect and talk to one another. To consider whether it is disruption or complexity that we are faced with: when we experience disruption, stop, review, reflect, recognize the complexity, and discuss how we can best work together and take the opportunity to turn potentially negative disruption into positive disruption. We can work together to effect change. Disruption (disorder) can become a different type of disruption (interruption), which leads to a better disruption (alteration).

I think it is important that the sign language interpreting profession in the US, and worldwide, should also look to the wider translation and interpreting profession as they are experiencing many of the same issues. We tend to focus on Deaf communities, and of course, that is essential for our work, but we can also learn from others; from other minority language communities to identify similarities and differences in our work.

It has been interesting to see in the three other presentations that came before mine (Stephanie Clark, Kellie Stewart, and Jonathan Webb) that there is a definite ‘zeitgeist’ in the presentations at this conference. You may think that we had agreed in advance that we would all say complimentary things, but that is not the case! Brandon Arthur is just a very smart man and planned this schedule well! I was struck by how we are all saying effectively the same thing: discussing similar concepts but looking at them through different lenses. These concepts are (a) talk, (b) ‘with’, (c) and think/ reflect.

We know that there will continue to be disruptions to our profession as society is always changing, and we need to accept that this will happen. But if we work together we can overcome the disruptions; resisting change does not help. We may not be able to remove all disruptions, but perhaps alleviate, and improve our situation by pausing to review and consider what change is needed so we can continue to move on.

Partnering with Deaf Communities is Key

What is paramount is that the sign language interpreting profession works in partnership with Deaf communities. In the UK we have a Memorandum of Understanding between ASLI UK and the British Deaf Association, which mirrors the same agreement between WASLI and the WFD, to enshrine the value that the Deaf community should work together with interpreters for progress. I believe that the RID and NAD here in the US also had a similar MOU. But I am also aware that there have been recent tensions between the RID and NAD over the interpreter certification system. Howard Rosenblum, at a StreetLeverage conference back in 2012, specifically called for sign language interpreters to partner with NAD. But is that happening?

On the very day of this StreetLeverage presentation, the university where I work – Heriot-Watt University – and the British Deaf Association have literally signed an agreement as I present to collaborate on research related to Deaf communities, signed languages and sign language interpreting, so that research will have direct benefit and impact on the UK Deaf community. The agreement is an important way to evidence the need for partnership and collaboration and to work together on collecting evidence to support Deaf communities, as talk is not always enough.

Leveraging Disruption for Positive Change

The key point I would like to make is that we all need to consider our role in how we manage negative disruption and work together to leverage disruption to effect positive change. We need to consider the external influences: What is happening in the world? Who is learning sign language? How do interpreters become certified? How are deaf identities portrayed? What is the hearing world’s view of the deaf world? What are the parallels with other minority language groups? Look outside at the world, then look within, and review not only the profession but also ourselves. We are involved. We can influence change.

We need to manage negative disruption and foster positive disruption for change.

What I suggest we need to do is:

  1. Acknowledge disruption
  2. Pause (interrupt) – review and reflect
  3. Consider complications/ complexity
  4. Then administer change in a positive way

Do not fear change – embrace it.

So I would like to end by drawing your attention to Gandhi’s quote: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”

Thank you.