Interpreting for…Uh, Anybody Out There? Hello?

This article originally appeared at i711.

I’ve become intrigued lately by the concept of ‘phantom interpreting’- where an interpreter works an event without knowing if deaf people are in attendance or not, signing into space for all to see and few to understand.

There’s a local organization that promotes equality and accessibility for all people, so they have interpreters at its events. The catch? Deaf people usually don’t attend the events. In fact, when I asked one of the interpreters if s/he had ever seen Deaf people at these events, the answer was no, not any that were known of, and that the interpreters usually sign without knowing if anyone deaf is in the audience.

This got me wondering. Is it really a good idea to provide interpreters at events even if nobody has requested such services? On one hand, there’s accessibility and the convenience of having interpreters readily available. It’s also a way to bring visibility and awareness about ASL, regardless of how well or poorly it is signed.

On the other hand, hiring interpreters with no deaf consumers in attendance may be a waste of money and resources. Plus, interpreters who work these events are able to ‘claim’ interpreting experience on their resumes, even if no deaf consumers were in attendance. To make things worse, some of those interpreters are terribly unqualified or “volunteer signers.”

Intrigued by this question and trying to decide my position, I polled about 50 people – deaf, hearing, and interpreters – both online and in person. Although this group is hardly an accurate representation of the diverse deaf and interpreting communities, the division in opinion didn’t surprise me.

Many respondents felt that it would be better to not have those interpreters working on stage unless they knew that a deaf person was in the audience or if services had been requested in advance. Respondents also said it would be more acceptable to have phantom interpreters if it was a large event such as a state fair or political gathering where deaf people are almost guaranteed to attend. But for smaller, lesser-attended events, it would be better for the deaf person to take some responsibility in requesting interpreters with reasonable advance notice (3-7 days in advance).

Other respondents strongly favored having interpreters available at all events, no ifs, ands or buts. The reasons: accessibility and visibility. “If a wheelchair ramp is provided, why shouldn’t an interpreter be provided?” I’ve included selected responses at the end of this column so that you can formulate your own views on this issue. But as many of us know, this attempt at ‘accessibility’ can backfire, and I don’t think visibility will solve anything. I had an experience that seems, unfortunately, to be a common occurrence.

I once went to an accounting appointment about four years ago only to be surprised by the presence of an interpreter. I was initially pleased, but as soon as the uncertified interpreter began signing, I realized she was grossly unqualified.

I had the painful task of telling the CPA that I greatly appreciated the provision, but that the “interpreter” wasn’t really one. I had to also tactfully mention that it was illegal for that uncertified interpreter to be working (in Illinois, freelance interpreters are not allowed to work without certification). It turns out my CPA knew this signer from church. I also later found out that the interpreter consistently worked jobs like this, even though she had never gone through formal training and had learned sign language at church.

I was put in a very uncomfortable position: I truly appreciated the CPA’s notion and willingness to do whatever was necessary to facilitate communication, especially given that it was a one-person company with little money to spare, but I couldn’t allow my finances to be jeopardized by an unqualified interpreter. The CPA, of course, was mortified. I don’t think if she had seen an interpreter at church or a state fair, she would have been any more knowledgeable about qualified and certified interpreters.

So, I’m not quite sure the visibility of ASL/interpreting is a justifiable reason for phantom interpreting. However, I do think it’s important for organizations and events to offer interpreters – and to always budget for that. If nobody requests interpreters, then this money can be used in other areas (if permissible), or put aside for the following year; the budget planning phase is where organizers need to remember to include interpreter costs. More important, though, is for them to publicize this availability. The sad truth is that if we don’t know that interpreters are offered, we usually won’t ask.

I’m still torn on this issue, because there’s no way this is a black and white issue. I do think I have the responsibility of requesting interpreters, regardless of the hassle of doing so. I also think organizations and events have the responsibility of genuinely reaching out to the Deaf community and informing us of the availability and accessibility of such services or events. Yet, I’m realistic about logistics and how things actually work. The simple truth is that we gotta work together. Accessibility is never a one-way street.

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[As mentioned in the article, Ms. Suggs polled 50 people on the topic of Phantom Interpreters. Here are some selected responses – edited for length – from many of the respondents.]

Late-deafened person: Money should not be an issue is this because in my way of thinking: we need to refocus just on the issue of access… I think we always need to keep the eye on the future and encourage those who are trying to do the right thing. If we attend something and see it is a bit off, then we have to do the next step: take it to the proper authorities who can make the changes, not just gripe among ourselves. We must be willing to show others where they are missing it instead of just painting all attempts as bad and of no use to the community. Sitting in the audience could be a hearing parent struggling with the idea of raising a deaf child. Seeing that access could make a positive impact that their child will be able to take full advantage of situations.
I see it the same way as an access ramp. They are put in and the people who paid the money have no way of knowing if it will ever be used, BUT the access is there and maybe it is not taken advantage of that time but it is certainly logged in their brains for future use, so just knowing that interpreters are there is a good thing. I don’t see the harm – it is getting hearing people use to seeing access, which in turn could spell favorably in their own lives… Maybe a doctor attends and sees that interpreter. The message is access – I don’t think we need to shoot those who try and do the right thing. The more it is seen in a positive light – the more others will acknowledge and model it in their own areas of accessibility.

Interpreter (uncertified, recent graduate of an interpreter preparation program): Guess it comes down to ethics really. Is using ASL when there are no consumers…unethical, or selfish even? My take as an organizer (not necessarily an interpreter) has been that it’s important to always advertise your accessibility…That advertisement happens mostly because so many things are not readily accessible in our culture, for many different groups of people. Knowing that language holds a different light than say, a wheelchair accessible ramp or gender-neutral bathrooms, I have been thinking a lot about this.

I tend to believe that the main goal is…to have a readily accessible space and to advertise that. What better way than to have an interpreter there, using the language to advertise to the audience that they can bring deaf folks…decide at last minute to come (no need to call ahead to set up interpreter) or not come, walk in late and still have access to the information without distraction? And I wonder too if it’s just not a good educational tool to make the general audience aware that accessibility is an issue in our culture and we can be an accessible society…here is what it looks like in one small way.

As an organizer (pre-interpreter days) I would often forget about accessibility issues in regards to where to have a meeting or conference, interpreters, etc. Then I would be at another event, see an interpreter and (ping) oh yeah, need to book an interpreter too. Were there deaf people at that event watching that interpreter? I have no idea, but it certainly benefited me, and those who may have been now able to access my upcoming event because I saw that interpreter and remembered to book one. So I wonder how many times that happens, what kind of social pressure is involved between organizations (normalizing it) to have accessible events and I wonder how that could possibly be bad.

Interpreter (certified): Tough question on the “phantom” interpreting assignments – I tend to turn down those jobs because I prefer to preserve my energy/resources for jobs that make for real accessibility, rather than a statement.

An example came this spring when someone who was involved in organizing a [summit] asked me about interpreting the keynote speaker. I asked if there was any Deaf person who had made the request…answer was no, but they wanted to show that they were committed to providing access. I suggested that next year, they put out in their advertising that will provide interpreters upon request…but that it didn’t make sense for them on their limited budget to do it if it wasn’t requested because it frankly is too limited a resource to use just for show. I think it means that it is really incumbent on Deaf people to be assertive in making requests for events that they want to go to, and that means that they might not have the luxury of deciding on the day of something to just go…which is not fair. And yet, neither is having interpreters just up their waving their arms for the sake of appearances….

Deaf person: I do have mixed feelings about those “phantom” interpreters. _* I like [the] idea of having an interpreter “stand-by” and be called upon if a request is made. It would really depend on the nature of the event. If a concert, then that interpreter must be prepared for the material. If a play, then they must be prepared, period. Of course, some theaters would rather know in advance. And some grants require the performances to be accessible and often ask how many minorities or disabled people see the plays._* What’s ironic is that deafness itself is INVISIBLE! The hearing audience would wonder how many deaf people are in the audience, unless someone signs or wears a conspicuous hearing aid or cochlear implant. In the case of the state legislature, which has two regular interpreters, normally level 3 or 4, think of the constant reminder that there might be lotsa deaf people out there.

If there is an issue about deaf schools or deaf programs, then the constant presence of the interpreters is like having a passive lobbyist! For years and years, legislatures would give lotsa money to the blind school and little for the deaf school. But lately it is going the other way around! Because of the constant presence of phantom interpreters? We’ll never know for sure, but it could be.

*My opinion is that leave them there for political reasons…We cannot afford to lose all the things we got via years of advocating, especially from the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Deaf person: I think you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Sure, we can be on the bandwagon preaching total access anytime anywhere for anyone. But life ain’t pretty. We have to be practical sometimes. There’s only so much money and interpreters to go around… So, my suggestions include:

*Advance (not too far in advance) notification of interpreting needs by Deaf people or attendees
*Projection of deaf participation (from prior experience or checking with community agencies/services for input)…

Deaf person: The idea of having an interpreter regardless is great because this is like free publicity for us who do attend events not popular in the deaf community. But… the danger here is the level of skills the interpreter has. I attended a political rally some years ago and happened to be the only deaf person there…the interpreter they had was horrendous! I mean, to the point I think some of her signs were made up. My friend who was with me thought it was wonderful…her response was, “Don’t you ever show any gratitude? They are trying!”… So in my honest opinion…there should be a request for interpreters. It’s a fact of life for us since we are a smaller minority and don’t attend each and every event. If other deaf people say why should [we] do all the work [in requesting interpreters]…my response is the same as my friend…”Don’t you ever show any gratitude? At least they are willing to PAY for it!”

Deaf Person: [Many non-certified interpreters] use these situations to get paid for practicing signing in front of an audience. Something that magicians are always advised not to do…practicing new magic in front of an audience. I’ve gone to some events where the interpreter is sitting there for all hearing people and when the interpreter realizes that the only deaf person just walked in the room. Their expression is not always surprise, but sometimes it’s “Oh, [expletive]. A deaf person is here. I have to do real work this time.”

Deaf person/Interpreter Coordinator: I’ve worked for a good number of years as an interpreter coordinator so I’ve gotten a bit of a glimpse into the process of how organizations make arrangements for interpreters. So, from that point of view, I’m strongly in favor of always planning for an interpreter whether or not deaf people show up. Here’s why:

1) Budget : Many organizations work from a predetermined budget. “Iffy” expenses can be very difficult to plan for. Oftentimes when they create a new budget for the upcoming year, they look at the previous year’s budget and if there’s a large amount of unspent money in one area, there’s a very strong temptation to cut it and move it elsewhere. The person planning the budget is not likely to know or remember whether any deaf people showed up. All they’re seeing at the moment is the numbers. Spending money on interpreters, somewhat paradoxically, helps guarantee that the organization will continue to budget for interpreters.

2) Establishing a workable process : One of the biggest barriers in getting interpreters set up is that most people have no idea how to do it, and setting up a new process can be quite overwhelming. A lot of logistics are involved, more than most realize…It’s a lot to tackle, and establishing a request-based system on top of that just adds even more layers of complication. Considering that most people don’t plan their personal schedules even one month in advance, it’s unreasonable to expect that the process of getting deaf people to put in requests will be all neat and tidy…From the organizational process perspective, it’s much more effective to include the interpreting arrangements as a routine part of every event.

3) Managing expectations : if an event isn’t interpreted, deaf people generally won’t expect it to be. Even if the organization advertises that “interpreters are available upon request”…I just don’t want to deal with the hassle, and if I see that interpreters are already set for an event, that goes a long way in putting me at ease.

4) The “hidden” consumers : At my church, where I coordinate interpreters, at least two people use the interpreters who wouldn’t ask for interpreters otherwise. One is a woman who is gradually losing her hearing, and she’s been learning sign language. She sits in a location that is kinda-sorta close to the front…Sometimes she doesn’t have a clear view of the interpreter, but for whatever reason, her mindset is such that she is not yet at the point to make a fully public “display” of her need for an interpreter…even though she freely admits her hearing loss and how helpful the interpreter is…[That is an] example of people who benefit from interpreters but who would never put in requests…I think having ASL interpreting at more events would help more people become comfortable with using it as a communication tool…

5) Increased training opportunities for ITP students : …Now, I know this would not be a good thing if, as you speculated, an unqualified interpreter was there. But I would think those ITP programs do try to screen out the bad locations…

Also one more comment regarding inexperienced interpreters who get undeserved pay and attention… I think those are in the minority, and as organizations become more familiar with using interpreters, they will naturally find better ways to get qualified interpreters (especially if deaf consumers do show up and complain)…

I can see how it would be easy for many to reach the conclusion that abolishing phantom interpreting is the solution. Why not get at the real root of the problem – the fact that there’s no check on quality? Inexperienced interpreters are passing themselves off as qualified, and organizations either don’t know how or don’t bother to check into an interpreter’s credentials. I bet not many even check to see if the interpreter is certified. This is silly considering that RID certification info for any interpreter is easily accessible via the RID website. Why aren’t we putting more emphasis on asking for certified interpreters?

What if, for example, [an online events directory] started requesting that any interpreted events submitted also include the name of the interpreter(s) and their certification status? That would send a message to the coordinators…that certification is important to our community. And create more of an “embarrassment factor” for uncertified interpreters who take on jobs they’re not qualified for.

Now, I realize that certification is not a guarantee of quality. But it does raise the bar overall. Any profession that requires certification (doctors, nurses, lawyers, accountants, etc.) still has its bad apples, but certification helps ensure that overall quality is good. That is, if people expect and ask for it. To me, that’s the real root of the problem. Not the fact that some organizations are trying to provide interpreters. That’s a step in the right direction. They just need a bit of help to keep going in the right direction.

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