Sign language interpreters play a pivotal role in bridging the divide between the Deaf and hearing communities. Their primary duty is to facilitate effective communication, ensuring that we as Deaf individuals have equitable access to information, our voices are heard, and our needs are met. Most interpreters are dedicated professionals who genuinely care about our well-being. However, like any other profession, there are inherent power dynamics present and unfortunate instances have recently occurred where interpreters exploited their position of trust and authority, even with ethical standards in place. 

Current concerns surrounding interpreter misconduct may draw some parallels to the Stanford Prison Experiment, a psycho-social study conducted at Stanford University in California. The experiment illustrated the profound effects of unchecked power dynamics: in a simulated prison environment, the college students who were assigned the role of prison guards showed abusive behavior when given authority over their peers. From another perspective, it could be argued that the bystander effect is also a prominent factor in how or why misconduct persists. 

For context, here’s one such real situation; to protect confidentiality, any identifying information has been removed.

What if the Deaf client is vulnerable and clearly not able to provide informed consent, or to advocate for themselves with the interpreter, and the interpreter proceeded to take advantage of the client anyways? Worse yet, what if there were other interpreters who were aware of the interpreter’s alleged repeated misconduct with the Deaf client and they chose not to report the interpreter because they did not want to “get involved”? 

Some brief research was conducted on the interpreting agency that this interpreter works for. This agency operates in a state where the law says ASL interpreters must be certified to be allowed in legal, medical, behavioral health, and other relevant settings. The agency openly claims that they are certified as an agency with the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID); the interpreter in question, however, is not RID-certified and was sent for behavioral health assignments. It is not clear whether this interpreter has any current certification, or if another certified interpreter accompanied this interpreter on the assignments. 

What if, even after a grievance was filed with the interpreting agency about this particular interpreter, the agency’s administrators allegedly chose not to take any action and the interpreter is still working, without any consequences for their misconduct? 

Meanwhile, another situation emerged in a different state where a Deaf client discovered that local interpreting agencies were not being properly vetted. Furthermore, the client expressed concerns that there was no way for service providers to distinguish the difference between spoken language translation companies and authentic interpreting agencies.

Both scenarios combined raises some serious questions. Who is responsible for vetting interpreters and interpreting agencies? Is regular training and continuing education enough to defer interpreters from misconduct? Is our accountability system with interpreters and interpreting agencies robust enough, on all levels–local, state, and national? Do we do enough to continually maintain comprehensive measures to prevent misconduct and protect vulnerable Deaf community members? 

We can draw from oversight practices in other professions, such as law and medicine. These fields have stringent ethical guidelines, regulatory bodies, and mechanisms for reporting and addressing professional misconduct, which serves as a model we ought to follow. The establishment of state-run regulatory bodies for the sign language interpreting profession–much like how each state has their own state bar and regulatory boards for law and medicine–is imperative to investigate complaints, address ethical violations, and enforce appropriate disciplinary actions when misconduct occurs. 

Implementing a comprehensive system of accountability not only acknowledges the potential for unchecked power dynamics to influence interpreter conduct in assignments, it also plays a fundamental role in preserving the trust and confidence of Deaf community members. Such measures ensure that interpreters continue to serve our community with unwavering integrity and professionalism, while effectively reducing and addressing any instances of misconduct. 

Suspect Misconduct? 

As of October 2023, there are two distinct professional organizations offering interpreter certifications. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) is a prominent professional organization representing sign language interpreters across most U.S. states. The Board for Evaluation of Interpreters (BEI) serves as another certifying entity, specializing in certifying sign language interpreters across Texas and a few other states. It’s essential to determine which certifying agency your interpreter is affiliated with.

It’s also crucial to recognize that interpreters, even when working as freelance professionals, may be guided by the policies and practices set forth by the agencies or organizations they contract with. Interpreters who are not formally certified are still expected to uphold ethical standards and exhibit a strong moral compass in their practice. Ethical conduct and integrity are fundamental in interpreting services–whether interpreters are certified, work through agencies, or function as independent freelancers.