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Mind your tools: invest in yourself (think and act like an Olympian)

By Dean Barton-Smith AM

As a high user of professional sign language interpreters for various settings, and having observed and spoken to many interpreters  about this concern, I thought I would share a topic that would resonate with you all. I think I can be safe to say (with the backing of many older and wiser interpreters reading this) that the demand and skill sets required of interpreters 20+ years ago is significantly different compared to today. I vividly recall back then how interpreters were once regarded as volunteers, then welfare workers, and how they would at times dread the school holiday breaks - given this means little to no income.

Nowadays, interpreters are seen as highly professional and increasingly well regarded in mainstream society. In years gone by interpreters could get away with wearing casual attire for business meetings, but as more Deaf people have become professionals or are in positions of influence, interpreters have similarly become more conscious of their self-image and professionalism. While increasing demands of interpreters will continue, so too the diverse nature of the task at hand will rise. This in turn requires interpreters to become more acquainted as to the various interpreting settings = diverse skills.

I am very mindful of interpreters who are embarking on work in a new setting. They have to quickly become accustomed to jargon, words that do not have standardised signs and the tempo of the meetings/event being interpreted. In addition to this, demands and pressure is placed on the interpreters to be on the ball and committed to ensuring the Deaf and hearing person/s are receiving quality communication in translation. This goes without saying that a bad day at the office can at times have implications for the interpreters’ credibility/capability which in turn could impact on their ability to gain repeat business.

I have taken the liberty to ask interpreters as to how they prepare and maintain their ability to continually perform at optimal levels- both physically and mentally. I am somewhat surprised that they appear to have not considered how they are looking after their tools as much as they should. Whilst there is a general rule in regards to OHS and taking breaks etc., I do wonder how interpreters are maintaining their tools of trade and ensuring they invest in themselves. I am not talking about investing in further training and development (which is always essential and wise) but investing in their total physical and mental wellbeing.

Think about it. Your main two tools are your arms/ hands and your brain (not neglecting the ears of course). Just as we are always committed to ensuring our car is regularly serviced, do you have the same approach to your main tools? If not, why? If we neglect getting our car serviced regularly, then our car will continue to underperform - leading to more costly outcomes over time. With the ever-dreaded fear for any interpreters to acquire Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), interpreters should consider investing into areas such as recovery massages and the power of mindfulness.

If you think about the amount of action and muscles used to do your role, you are inadvertently mobilising many other minuscule muscles that over time can develop knots and/or tiredness. Investing in undertaking at least half an hour/hour massages – say at least once a fortnight - will not only identify and prevent emerging injuries arising but your body/ arms will thank you. This in turn will allow you to maintain high performance– naturally.

As for your brain, again investing in looking after your mind is also critical. Just as it is important to eat and sleep right, your brain works extensively when interpreting. We should not discount that your role as interpreters can be unpredictable and the nature, tempo and complexity of your assignment can vary suddenly. In addition, you will be exposed to situations that can leave you feeling tired, stressed and/or emotionally taxed.

Again investing in yourself to have a full body massage can not only help your body but evidently helps your mind. Did you know your brain is actively processing around 2,000 bits of information per second on any given day for an average Joe Blow in society? Imagine how much more when you are actually interpreting. Undertaking Mindfulness1 activities is proven to be a very powerful tool to remain in the present moment and stay sharp / focused. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to do mindfulness and the more you do it the more effective it becomes. And it doesn’t cost a lot of money too!

Just as builders, carpenters, painters, mechanics and welders need their tools to be working efficiently and effectively in their job, the same rule should apply for sign language interpreters. This is no different to elite athletes (in my case being an Olympian) as prevention is better than cure and the power of resilience was important. During the prime of my career I was having almost three to four massages a week (three were for recovery from intense training and one was purely a relaxation massage). Given my chosen event the Decathlon, I was susceptible to injuries and mental tiredness and having undertaken such proactive recovery treatment, I had little to no injuries and maintained mental focus during this time.

In addition to this, I invested in ensuring I looked after my mental health and resilience component. Incorporating all this allowed me to maintain and deliver high performance – and when it counted. Costs should not be a barrier in this issue as these could be claimed as a tax deductible expense (check with your accountant) as part of the gap if you can claim under health insurance.

There should be no shame in treating yourself to these treatments regularly. In fact, it is a very smart way to go. Committing yourself to regular maintenance of your tools will ensure that you are treating and respecting your mind and body in a professional way which in turn will enable you to continue to deliver high performing interpreting. There is nothing more frustrating than to be laid off due to injury or feeling mentally exhausted at the expense of losing income.

Given the future will see more demands of interpreting skills across various settings, thanks to the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it is never more important to ensure your tools remain clean and sharp and well maintained. As a Deaf professional myself, having now written this I too am asking myself whether I should be practicing what I preach. I need my tools to effectively do my job in my professional role and I shall be investing in maintaining these tools in the future. Will you?

Dean is an Olympian, two times Commonwealth Games and four times Deaflympian. A National Mental Health Leader, he also holds a Masters in Marketing degree, is a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Management and Associate Fellow for Australian Marketing Institute. Dean is currently CEO of Deaf Children Australia and regularly sought to speak on various matters such as high performance, disability, marketing and communications. This article was originally published in the ASLIA e-update and is reproduced with permission.