In the old days, sign-language interpreting was a favor rendered to deaf people by neighbors, relatives, children, parents, or the occasional volunteer. It was not at all unusual for deaf adults in a medical emergency to enlist their children to interpret—something that could be traumatic for the child.
The picture began to change for the better with the founding of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf in 1964. Interpreting became recognized as a profession, with training programs (ITPs), certification, and specializations.
The growth of interpreting as a profession has been a positive development. Many interpreters are CODAs (children of Deaf parents), who have native proficiency. Others have begun learning ASL in high school or college. And a new specialization, Certified Deaf Interpreter, is for Deaf signers who render ASL into a vernacular form that’s easily understood by grassroots-Deaf clients.
Virtually all Deaf people have had experience with interpreters, and our experiences range from the gratifying to the horrific. Being assigned uncertified interpreters, those who exercise control over the scenario (even in details as small as telling the Deaf client, “I’ll sit here and you sit there”), misunderstandings, and miscommunications—we live in dread of these.
A well-trained interpreter will ask the client, “Where would you like me to sit/stand? What’s best for you?” S/he will also ask what mode the client prefers—ASL, PSE, etc. These are the interpreters who have made our experience a pleasure instead of an ordeal. We would like to see some guarantee that all interpreters display a basic level of competence and professionalism, but unless the Deaf client arranges for a known and trusted interpreter, it’s still a matter of luck. We may get a good one; we may get one who’s not so good.
Speaking of ordeals, a colleague of ours arranged for an interpreter to cover a meeting with a state legislator. She canceled her assignment at the eleventh hour to take on a more lucrative assignment, informing her clients that she had canceled due to a “family emergency,” and leaving them in the lurch. She also took the initiative of canceling the clients’ meeting! The clients made frantic arrangements to find another interpreter, and insisted on having the meeting.
Interpreters advance in their careers through theirs sign-language skills. Thus, they make money off ASL. This does not present any ethical problem as long as the interpreter maintains a proper level of professionalism and respect for their Deaf clients and the Deaf community.
One of our goals is to create a standardized system of licensure for interpreters in all states. No such system currently exists, and we believe that it’s needed. Each state would have a central office fielding complaints (and positive feedback). We want the Deaf community, since Deaf people are the consumers, to have a say in the matter of licensure. When the boards overseeing these state-licensure bureaus are being set up, we intend to have ample Deaf representation, and a fair share of jurisdiction.
We want to emphasize that, as consumers, Deaf people have the right to the highest-quality services available. Interpreters should not exercise control over Deaf clients; Deaf clients have the right to control their transactions. Interpreter agencies should have Deaf people on their boards.