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The Role of Deaf Interpreters in the Interpreting Process

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

Deaf interpreters work with hearing sign language interpreters such as the man in the photo

Deaf interpreters work with hearing sign language interpreters such as the man in the photo

Deaf people who are fluent in American Sign Language (ASL) provide valuable services by interpreting the gestures and made-up signs of clients with no or limited knowledge of sign into formal ASL signs. They work with hearing sign language interpreters. These specially trained people are called “deaf interpreters.”

Deaf Interpreters may be used in a number of settings such as medical appointments, legal proceedings, parent-teacher conferences, or general meetings.

The Difference Between Deaf Interpreters and Sign Language Interpreters

Some people confuse the terms “deaf Interpreter” and “sign language interpreter” as meaning the same thing, but they are very different. Sign language interpreters are hearing people who are fluent in both sign language and English. Deaf interpreters are deaf people who are skilled in understanding manual communication, formal sign language, and English. They can also pick up meaning from body language and facial expressions.

The Interpreting Process

  • The deaf interpreter is seated where she can be seen by the non-signing deaf client and the hearing American Sign Language interpreter
  • The hearing client is seated next to the sign language interpreter so that he can make eye contact with the deaf client
  • The deaf client gestures to the deaf interpreter
  • The deaf interpreter converts the gestures or home signs into formal ASL for the hearing interpreter
  • The hearing sign language interpreter interprets the ASL from the deaf interpreter into voiced English for the hearing client
Spoken InformationSigned Information

Hearing Client ↓

Deaf client ↓

Hearing ASL Interpreter ↓

Deaf interpreter ↓

Deaf Interpreter ↓

Hearing ASL Interpreter ↓

Deaf Client

Hearing Client

The Benefits of Deaf Interpreters

Deaf Interpreters May Have Specialized Training

Some countries provide training for deaf interpreters. To become a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI), deaf candidates in the USA must undergo training and pass a comprehensive performance and written exam. The courses are run by the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

Deaf Interpreters Are Fluent in Manual Communication, and Sign Language

As experts in visual communication, deaf interpreters understand how to interpret the home signs, gestures, mime, drawings, and other types of communication methods used by their deaf consumers. They also have extensive knowledge about hearing loss, deaf culture, and the deaf community.

Deaf interpreters are also better able to understand the "home signs" of deaf clients. Home signs are a manual communication system that deaf people without a formal language create for themselves so that they can communicate with their families.

If the consumer's signing or gestures are difficult to understand, the hearing and deaf interpreters work together to understand what the consumer is attempting to say.

Deaf Clients Feel More Comfortable with Deaf Interpreters

Deaf clients generally feel more comfortable when a deaf interpreter is present who understands their unique needs.

A few hearing interpreters are concerned that if they ask for a deaf interpreter, people would perceive them as not being competent. However, many do recognize that a deaf interpreter whose first language is sign can be more skilled at picking up on nuances, body language, and other subtle clues in a deaf person that a hearing interpreter may not. For many hearing sign language interpreters, sign is a second language.

Deaf interpreters Follow a Professional Code of Conduct

The deaf interpreter abides by the same code of professional conduct and ethics as hearing sign language interpreters such as:

  • Only accepting assignments for which they are qualified
  • Faithfully conveying the message as accurately as possible
  • Maintaining confidentiality about all aspects of the assignment
  • Remaining impartial
  • Respecting clients and colleagues
  • Conducting themselves in a professional manner
  • Committing to ongoing training and development of their interpreting skills
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Types of Deaf Consumers

  • Deaf young people
  • Deaf people with intellectual disabilities
  • Someone who does not know a formal sign language and communicates through gestures, drawings, home signs, or mime
  • A traumatized deaf victim of a crime
  • A deaf person who does not know sign language but knows a foreign sign language system
What would life be like navigating without being understood?

What would life be like navigating without being understood?

Why Some Deaf People Lack Formal Sign Language

Many deaf people choose not to sign. Some deaf people do not learn formal sign language systems. I have worked in a life skills program for deaf people and the deaf community for several years and have found several reasons why deaf people do not learn to sign.

They Lack Access to Education

According to the World Health Organization, many deaf children do not have access to education in many parts of the world. There are not enough schools for the deaf to meet the demand, and the existing schools often charge fees that are not affordable to low-income families. Existing school systems may be substandard.

Deaf People Are Immigrants Who Only Know Foreign Signs

Sometimes families of deaf people immigrate to other countries as refugees or to seek better lives. Deaf people may know their native sign language system but are not familiar with ASL.

People became Postlingually Deaf Through Illness or Other Factors

Some people became deaf after an illness or exposure to loud noises such as bomb blasts and do not sign. They have already acquired language skills.

Deaf People Do Not Sign Because of Stigma or Cultural Norms

Some cultures view deafness as a curse or a sign of the displeasure of their gods. Ashamed, the families of children with profound hearing loss hide them at home.

Deaf People are Exploited

Unfortunately, in some countries, some deaf people are exploited in various ways. Young boys may be kept on the family farm as laborers, while girls are babysitters or housekeepers.

Without communication skills, these deaf children are vulnerable to every kind of abuse and exploitation. In the last few years, there have been numerous media reports of gangs who treated deaf people as slaves in places such as China, Russia, and New York City. Deaf people have been forced to sell trinkets, beg on the street, and be pickpockets among other things.

Parents and Family Members Are Overprotective

In other cases, some parents and family members are extremely overprotective of their deaf children. They keep their deaf kids at home or accompany them wherever they go. Many of these children are never exposed to sign language or the deaf community. As they grow into adulthood, they struggle to communicate with their families using home signs. Some also lack the life skills they need to live as independent adults because their families discourage independence and insist on doing most things for them.

More Interpreters Would allow for increased understanding for the Deaf.

More Interpreters Would allow for increased understanding for the Deaf.

Public Education on Deaf Interpreters Is Needed

Over the last few years, people who work with deaf people have recognized the benefits of using deaf interpreters and have provided specialized training in this growing field.

Some deaf advocates are calling on the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf, the regulatory agency for sign language interpreters, to update their current policies on deaf interpreters. They are also pushing for more use of deaf interpreters in general.

Much of the public, however, remain unaware of this service. Occasionally, there are cases where deaf people are left to languish in prison or are released from police custody because law enforcement and courts don t know how to communicate with deaf people with limited or no ASL.

More public education is needed for medical practitioners, school administrators and teachers, parents of deaf children, the legal system, and the general public on the services available through deaf interpreters.


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

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