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How to Work with Sign Language Interpreters

Carola has worked for agencies serving the hearing loss community for many years. She is also a freelance writer.

When the right handshape goes up and down against the left handshape, the sign for "interpret" is formed.

When the right handshape goes up and down against the left handshape, the sign for "interpret" is formed.

So you are meeting with a deaf person for the first time. The individual's primary language is American Sign Language (ASL), and you have booked an interpreter.

A hundred questions may be going through your mind. Do I need to talk slowly? Do I talk to the interpreter or the deaf person? Will the interpreter keep the information shared in the meeting confidential?

Fortunately, accredited sign language interpreters are highly trained and skilled professionals that adhere to the strict code of ethics of the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf (RID). Most have graduated from interpreter training programs at a college or university level.

Some are the children of deaf adults (CODA) or have had a deaf person in their family. Interpreters are committed to faithfully interpret all that they hear, facilitate communication between hearing and deaf people, and keep everything said confidential.

Determining if an Interpreter is Needed

Deaf people are a diverse group with a variety of communication styles. The communication style is affected by factors such as when they became deaf and whether they were educated in an oral or signing school. Some deaf people read lips, while others who are late-deafened (became deaf after acquiring language) benefit from real-time captioners – specially trained typists who transcribe everything that is said. Only about 10 percent of deaf people sign.

Some hearing people think that writing notes back and forth with deaf people is an adequate communication method. This process tends to be long and laborious. For some deaf people, English is a second language.

Many deaf people can lipread and may speak English well. While lipreading may be OK for general conversation, it requires intense concentration and can be tiring. Lipreading is difficult. Even the most skilled lipreaders can only get 25% - 30% of what is said and look at the context of the conversation to fill in the blanks.

So, which communication method is best? It depends on the deaf individual. Deaf people will usually specify whether they need a sign language interpreter.

Meeting Interpreters and a Deaf Person for the First Time

Volunteer vs. Professional Interpreting

In an ideal world, only interpreters who are properly trained and certified by RID would be used when needed. In reality, there is an extreme shortage of qualified people. Interpreters must be booked weeks – sometimes months – ahead of time.

As a general rule of thumb, only certified interpreters or interpreters working towards certification should be used whenever possible. Certified interpreters are essential in some areas, such as the courts and legal system, or when dealing with medical professionals.

People who are fluent in sign language should carefully consider the legal implications of volunteering to be an interpreter, even if the request comes from a deaf person who trusts them to interpret accurately.

A humorous interpreting situation

Factors to Consider Using an Interpreter

If you are a hearing person using a sign language interpreter for the first time, here are some tips and suggestions to facilitate the interpreting process.

Provide pertinent information ahead of time

Provide any documentation such as scripts or notes to the interpreter before the meeting or event. The more information the interpreter receives about what is going on, the better prepared the interpreter will be for her role.

Make the venue more accessible, if needed

The deaf people may know and share what they will need, and the interpreter may also make suggestions on the best setup for the assignment. The venue for the interpreting assignment is sometimes set. However, if the hearing person has a choice of room, there are a few things that can help facilitate the interpreting process. The background behind the interpreter should be a solid color, or relatively free of distracting patterns or pictures. If possible, the area should be free of distractions such as ringing phones and people walking back and forth.

Provide adequate lighting

The venue should be a well-lit room. If the lights are turned down or off for a visual presentation, the content should be captioned. If not, the interpreter may need a standing light with a daily narrow head next to her so she can be seen. The head of the standing lamp should be bent down to focus on the interpreter's hands, upper body, and face. The focused beam should not interfere with visual presentations or bother other people present.

Make appropriate seating arrangements

Ideally, a deaf person should be seated directly across from both the interpreter hearing person. The deaf person should be able to see the hearing person speak and view their body language. If the setting is a classroom or a stage in an auditorium, the deaf person should be seated in the front row. The interpreter can sit opposite the deaf person or stand next to the speaker. If the speaker is on a stage, the speaker should be within the deaf person’s range of vision.

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Respect the Interpreter’s Role

An interpreter is at an assignment to facilitate communication between hearing and deaf people. They will not step out of their role to chat during the assignment, be a fountain of information about deafness, or to be a CPR dummy (yes, it happens!).

Communication Tips

Speak at a normal pace

Hearing participants should speak at a normal pace and volume. Interpreters will ask for clarification or tell them to slow down if needed. An interpreted conversation will take a little longer than a verbal conversation. Fingerspelling proper names takes more time than the spoken word.

Look at the deaf person

Hearing people should speak directly to deaf participants in the first person. Though deaf people will be looking at interpreters most of the time, they may glance at hearing participants to assess their body language and mood. Research has found that deaf people have more highly developed peripheral vision than hearing people.


Be aware that interpreters will interpret everything in the surrounding environment

Hearing participants should keep in mind that interpreters are required to share the spoken words they hear and any sounds faithfully. This includes noises such as cell phones ringing and side conversations with spouses about what to have for dinner that night.

I once was doing some volunteer interpreting during a serious lecture when a balloon behind me popped. The loud bang was so startling that many people laughed. The deaf group were puzzled by this – what was so funny? I explained what happened as the crowd settled down.

Respect the Need for Confidentiality

A sign language interpreter is bound by the code of ethics to keep everything about the deaf person and the assignment confidential. The interpreter won’t answer personal questions about their clients or discuss what happened during the assignment.

Determine if a second interpreter is needed

Sign language interpreting is cognitively demanding so breaks are needed at regular intervals. If the assignment is longer than two hours, a second interpreter is needed.

Consider learning basic sign language

Some hearing clients may benefit from learning basic signs if they are in regular contact with deaf people. Some deaf people welcome the opportunity to teach a few signs. Many organizations offer sign language classes. There are several sign language directories online. Books and sign directories are helpful such as The Gallaudet Dictionary of American Sign Language by Clayton Valli, Peggy Swartzel Lott, Daniel Renner, and Rob Hills.

Video Remote Services (VRI) and Video VRS Services

Sometimes interpreters can be accessed from another location. A video camera is mounted on top of the screen at the interpreter's location and the deaf person's location. Both can see each other and the hearing person on the screen, enabling the interpreting process.

Various companies in some areas offer video relay services (VRS), which offer access to sign language interpreters for phone calls via the Internet or a videophone.

For More Information

Most governments have national sign language interpreting services organizations such as the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf in the U.S. An interpreting agency, state agency for the deaf and hard of hearing, or deaf organization can provide more information about nearby interpreting services available.


Working with Interpreters, Laurent Clerc National Deaf Education Center
Code of Professional Conduct, Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, Inc.
Working with a Sign Language Interpreter: The Dos and Don'ts, Huffington Post, Lydia Callis

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Carola Finch


Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on March 19, 2013:

You are right. Sorry about the omission. I actually did an article on VRI months ago and have a picture of a camera used, so I should have mentioned it Here in Canada, we don't have VRS, so I think I confused the two terms. I have corrected it. Thanks so much for your input!

Jessica on March 19, 2013:

Great piece! Just a quick correction, though, when a live interpreter is unavailable, VRI may be used (Video Remote Interpreting), not VRS. VRS (Video Relay Service) is only used for phone calls between hearing and deaf people in different places. :)

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