Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a widespread concern about sign language interpreters losing work. Sign language interpreters in the United States are mostly independent contractors, which provides freedom but often little economic security. As our local and state governments urge us to practice social distancing, with many mandating stay-at-home orders that are coming to an end soon, many of us wonder what will happen to our livelihoods. Depending on freelance income is stressful and more so scary when we do not have strong social safety nets. While unemployment insurance and small business loans might have helped a few of us so far, many will be lost in the shuffle. In uncertain times for freelance sign language interpreters, as a profession that is already struggling with supply and demand, we wonder about the long term impact of COVID-19 on on our field.
Technology remains one answer for us. Demand for Video Relay Services (VRS) and video remote interpreting (VRI) have increased. Some call centers allowed interpreters to transition from working in call centers to working within their own homes to continue the provision of interpreting services. Some interpreting referral agencies were able to make the transition to video remote interpreting (VRI).
While this offers a respite and some hope for sign language interpreters, Deaf interpreters are left behind.
Unfortunately, VRS companies do not work with Deaf interpreters except for those who are employed in a different role within the call centers. Few agencies work with Deaf interpreters on VRI assignments. It is even reported there is a specific VRI platform that does not allow the use of Deaf interpreters. Overall, video interpreting offers few opportunities for Deaf Interpreters.
In spite of the slowdown in work, Deaf Interpreters have been visible in press conference work during this ordeal. Press conferences alone is not enough work to sustain professional Deaf Interpreters. What implications might this pandemic have on the future of Deaf interpreters?
Despite a great deal of resistance, Deaf interpreters were just beginning to establish a foothold in the sign language interpreting profession.
Will this chaos create a situation that renders Deaf interpreters into a scarce resource or even obsolete? Will we enter a period of even stricter austerity measures where we decide Deaf Interpreters are an unnecessary expense? The landscape for access for deaf people is difficult to predict. We ask you to stay the fight for Deaf interpreters during this time and after we are out of this chaos.
One important pushback is to repair the outdated perception that Deaf interpreters are only for specific individuals with language “issues”. For example, the National Association of the Deaf’s (NAD) position paper on healthcare access indicated that Deaf interpreters are for those with poor communication and linguistic skills. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) released a standard practice paper on CDIs in 1997. This 23-year-old document describes Deaf interpreters as being ideal for specific communication challenges.
Those statements (and attitudes) are among the influencing factors for the resistance against Deaf interpreters. The belief that Deaf interpreters are only for a specific type of deaf person encourages lateral ableism and contributes to linguicism. Suggesting that Deaf interpreters are only for a specific type of deaf person creates an “us” and “Other” mentality. Those attitudes are also deterrents to the growth of Deaf interpreters as a profession as well as harmful to deaf people’s discourses on language access. But that’s a discussion for another blog.
While interpreters are in a panic mode with the significantly lower number of work opportunities, take a pause to remember how Deaf interpreters are getting lost in the shuffle. How will you support Deaf interpreters’ livelihoods through this process?