Volunteer Interpreting: When Is It OK to Ask?

  • November 30, 2016

Hi! I’m Rae, and I’m the owner of Rose Sign Language Interpreting Company here in Colorado. First of all, I’m not a lawyer, I’m the owner of an interpreting agency so I’ve got a pretty good idea of how the ADA, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, how that applies to a variety of settings and situations. If you have specific legal questions I strongly encourage you to get in touch with your organizations legal counsel. Ok?

Today’s video covers the big question: Is it OK to ask for a volunteer interpreter? Like many of our other videos this is based on a frequent request that is… burdened with misunderstanding. So hopefully by the end of this video you will be a much more savvy, confident consumer of interpreting services and you’ll be able to answer the question for yourself: Should I be asking for a volunteer? Or: Should I be assuming that this service does need to be paid for?

So, first of all we’re glad you’re asking for an interpreter; it means that you already understand the ADA and how it applies to what you are doing, whether it is a medical appointment, uh-a fun run, a community meeting, what-have-you. You already get it, so I and the other interpreters of the United States of America are really excited about that! It also means that on a basic human level you understand access. (puts hands in the air for emphasis) Again, we’re with you. We love this about you, OK? (smiles) Where we start to diverge is, or at least where we start asking questions is, why do you want a volunteer.

(looks down and points to paper) I’m basing this on my experience with the calls that I take and the emails that I answer when people are asking for a volunteer interpreter. Often it is just a surprise. (pauses) An office manager has never thought about interpreting services, but something has come up, an interpreter has been requested, a D/deaf person has appeared in the horizon and they know they need to do something, and then they jump to the conclusion or the assumption that we are independently wealthy do-gooders who do not need to be paid for what we do. That would be great. I personally fantasize about a Bruce Wayne situation where I have trained and trained and trained, as I have, to undertake a very difficult profession, which I have, and that money is no issue-that I can just go do the right thing without worrying about making any of my bills on time. (laughs) Again it’s a fantasy. It’s mine, you have yours. This is not the case though, please don’t assume that interpreters are volunteers. By and large we all work for our income. We, most of us, are equal if not primary bread winners in our families. We need our income just like you need yours. Sometimes people ask just because they are over budget, um, or organizations ask simply because they are over budget and they are hoping that we will donate services. Um, we probably won’t, I’m going to be honest. If you are not asking the Port-a-Potty vendor to donate Port-a-Potties, if you’re not asking Kinkos to donate their print services, don’t ask us; it’s not appropriate and the people that you are hurting in the long run, I’ll explain this in a moment, are the D/deaf people who you are trying to serve. (Clears throat) So these are, these are some of the basic misunderstandings that come up with this question.

When you do call and ask-which is fine (puts hands up) they can’t say yes if you don’t ask, right? I’m going to ask you some questions. I’m going to ask what kind of event this is, is this a doctors appointment, a fun run, yada yada yada, is this a volunteer run event? If you’re coming from a medical office and you are being paid for your time, your anesthetist is being paid for their time, your dental hygienist is being paid for their time, your interpreter needs to be paid for their time. (nods) OK? Um, that’s a good test. To just kind of look around at your organization, or-we do donate volunteer services, if you’re looking around at your family reunion event staff which is you and your cousins and your aunties and uncles and you look around and say nobody is being paid (puts hands up for emphasis) go ahead and ask! We will do everything we can to help you find a volunteer interpreter. But If you’re looking around your office, or your volunteer meeting or your, um, your-your conference committee planning-or conference planning committee meeting and you guys are being paid, you need to be ready for the hard questions that come from the interpreting agency, OK? Another question that comes up-and, hey again, I like, I like the creative thinking people; can’t say yes if you don’t ask. But when people ask me if I know a student who can interpret for free I’m gonna tell you no. Students can’t interpret. They are not interpreters yet. Um, if you wouldn’t ask a dental student to perform a root canal outside of an educational environment where they have resources and support and back up where there is an actual dentist standing by to step in should they hurt you or almost hurt you, don’t ask for a student volunteer to do the same thing. If you wouldn’t ask a cosmetology student to come and do a cut and color outside of their educational environment where they have a licensed professional stylist there, standing by to fix mistakes, prevent catastrophe and keep you from getting hurt, don’t ask the interpreter to do it… Students-or don’t ask a student interpreter to do it. Students of interpreting are just that. They are students. They are still developing ASL fluency, they are still learning the art and science of interpreting. They should not be interpreting out in the world without a lot of support. For me students are great at manning tables where conversational ASL is necessary. They are great at usher duties at events where a conversational ASL is necessary. They are great at manning registration tables. They are not great at interpreting, that’s why they are called students and not (raises hands for emphasis) interpreters. Really, just don’t ask students. They are still developing the discretion necessary to accept and decline jobs based on skills, certification, preference yada yada yada yada. Don’t ask. In the end, even if you do get a student to agree to do this you are hurting the d/Deaf people who you are trying to serve. OK? Just, don’t ask. They’re really not there yet. They won’t be there, in most cases until a couple years after graduation. Interpreting is a pretty tough gig.

My last point to share with you is that interpreters do donate services. We, all of us, have our own rubric for deciding how much time to donate either weekly, monthly, yearly. Everyone does their own math. But we do work pro bono. We work for organizations that literally have no budget. We are extremely careful to ensure that when we do work pro bono it’s not going to hurt somebody in the future. We have to take a very long view of this kind of decision. We have to think about, “Well, gosh this is a doctor’s appointment, they should be paying for services but they really need an interpreter today and they just don’t seem to get it, OK I’ll go.” What happens if I go? That doctor’s office is now going to depend on volunteer services. Maybe this appointment gets covered. What about the next appointment when the interpreter who has already (sighs) begrudgingly donated her services or his services, when they actually need to make their mortgage, make their car payment and get paid for what they do by a company that can, and should legally be paying for services… when they can’t afford to donate what happens to the next appointment? What happens to the follow up appointment? When no interpreter is willing to donate because they shouldn’t be donating. That d/Deaf person is left without an interpreter. This all could have been cleared up that first appointment. I personally donate 10-15 hours a month to various organizations. Some people save it all up and they do a big blow out, or a mom and pop organization that does a summer camp, maybe they do one community volunteer based meeting every month. These are the kinds of things we happily donate our services to. When I-(clears throat) when I first started donating my services, once it was appropriate for me when I was a new interpreter, was donate my services to a very small, very niche religious organization. They didn’t even have a building. They were borrowing space in coffee shops and church basements to which they did not belong. (meows in the background) This was a very low budget organization they had D/deaf congregants and I donated my services there. Pardon the office cat, he’s always got a lot to say, sorry. Um, these are the kinds of things we donate our services to completely appropriately.

So hopefully you know a little bit more about what really constitutes an appropriate volunteer interpreting request. You’ll know better next time you have a surprise or your budget has been blown, when to ask. And by the way when your budget is blown, when you’re out of, when you’re out of money it doesn’t mean you just don’t ask for an interpreter that means you treat this like your printer breaking. Well, what are you gonna do? You’re going to dig into that cash reserve at the bank, you’re going to um, maybe not get the deluxe spread from Chipotle for lunch, you’re maybe going to get a little more simple catering situation. Think of us like printing services. Think of us like cable and internet. We’ve got to be paid for our services.

So again, if you have any questions you can always get in touch with us at www.rosesignlanguage.com and as I always recommend, go to ADA.gov and look at the actual language of the law for yourself. You can learn a lot there, they have great technical manuals; they’re very read-able. This isn’t, uh, burdensome legalese. This is very readable and it’s very digestible and you’ll feel smarter in about two minutes. So, thank you so much, have a great day. (signs the I-love-you sign)

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